Reporting on Politics and Policy.

July 31 2014 2:21 PM

Surprising No One, House GOP Fails to Pass Border Bill

This morning, defeated Rep. Eric Cantor finally gave up his majority leader title, handing the job to Rep. Kevin McCarthy. Before picking up his lame duck lapel pin,* Cantor paid tribute to the messiness of the body, and how great things could come from disagreement. "This House was not designed to be a rubber stamp," he said.

Hours later, Cantor's successor whiffed on the border bill. Readers of this blog should have seen it coming, and so should anyone who has observed Boehner and McCarthy during the many times when an intra-conservative compromise was failed or been pulled before the House could kill it. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, as usual, proved more adept at whipping Democrats against a bill than Republicans were at keeping 218 members on the team. (Pelosi probably prevented a few Democrats, like Rep. Henry Cuellar, from giving Boehner cover.)

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And Democrats got plenty of yuks out of the House GOP's response to the failure. In a joint statement, the party's four House leaders attempts to move blame and the buck back over to Barack Obama. "There are numerous steps the president can and should be taking right now, without the next for congressional action," they wrote, "to secure our borders and ensure these children are returned swiftly and safely to their countries." Faiz Shakir, an adviser for Harry Reid, immediately tweeted the punchline: "The same people who are suing the president for taking exec action are calling on him to take exec action."

A little cute, maybe, but for the umpteenth time -- the first day of a new leadership team! -- the House GOP leadership has stepped on a rake. Ted Cruz can (and will) take credit for rallying conservatives against a compromise bill. The only positive news of the day, really, comes from Brian Wingfield and Laura Litvan's story about a McCarthy ally maybe producing an Ex-Im back rescue plan.

Republicans led by Representative Stephen Fincher of Tennessee, who voted against reauthorizing the bank in 2012, plan to introduce a bill that would renew it, while mandating changes in its business practices. In the Senate, a new bipartisan measure would require the bank to report more about its operations to Congress.
Without congressional action, the bank’s charter will expire at the end of September. Congress, which begins a five-week recess at the end of this week, will have 11 working days to act.
“It’s unreasonable to think that the bank is just going to end Sept. 30,” said Fincher, a member of the House Financial Services Committee that is debating the 80-year-old bank’s renewal, in an interview.

Fincher was one of McCarthy's first and most famous recruits in 2010 -- the "gospel-singing farmer from Frog Jump, Tennessee," who raised enough money to scare a Democrat into retirement and easily win his seat.

*Figuratively speaking. There is no such pin.

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July 31 2014 11:45 AM

Neel Kashkari and the Ghost of Tom Joad

First there was Sen. Tim Scott, the fast-rising black Republican who started going undercover to find out what his less visible, poor constituents were interested in. Then there was Rep. Paul Ryan, whose "secret poverty tour" shed its mysteriousness in advance of Ryan's own -- well-reviewed -- poverty agenda.

And now there's Neel Kashkari, the one-time TARP czar who's now running for governor of California. Kashkari's promise is that he's not a dumb old white guy; according to George Will, he may represent the GOP future. Kashkari's problem is that he's running against Gov. Jerry Brown, who's presided over rising employment, closed a budget deficit, and leads by around 20 points in polls. But "guy who got millions of votes in a race for governor" is a better resume-topper than "TARP czar," and the cost of Kashkari defeat is pretty low. He can afford to try out stuff, like living on the streets of Fresno for a week and releasing a documentary about the results.

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Like a lot of Kashkari's moves, it's compelling until you try to find the substance. The video lets average people make arguments about how California has recovered for the wealthiest, but not the rest. But California's recovery has reached Fresno. The county (the city of Fresno makes up more than half the population of the county) was suffering from a 17.3 percent unemployment rate when Brown won in November 2010. The unemployment rate now is 10.4 percent. This is doubtlessly why Kashkari focuses on the poverty rate, which if adjusted for cost of living is the highest in the country.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, released with the video, Kashkari says he was ready to "do anything: wash dishes, sweep floors, pack boxes, cook meals, anything. I went to dozens of businesses in search of work but wasn’t able to get any." In the video, we see him sleeping on streets and sitting glumly after blowing his money on banana. What's the point? At the end, Kashkari locks eyes with the camera and describes what he learned. 

"The solution is not more welfare," he says. "It's not more food stamps. It's jobs. And we know how to do this. These problems are of our own making... we know how to rein in regulations so our businesses can grow and thrive and hire. We know how to invest in water so that our farms have enough water and can hire workers."

Well, okay. But are we talking about poverty or unemployment? People with jobs receive food stamps; people with jobs fall below the poverty line. Millions of them. Kashkari's site promotes the poverty video by linking to his jobs plan, which repeatedly criticizes Brown for the companies that have moved manufacturing from California to Texas -- which, well, has a higher poverty rate than California. Kashkari wants legal fracking in California, which would create jobs, but he wants (as he frequently says on the trail) to kill a planned high speed rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles. How many jobs would the rail line create? How could people in Fresno make use of it? Forget about it -- it's a "crazy train," according to Kashkari.

The Slate reader probably isn't the main target of this video. Kashkari did go undercover for a poverty tour, and not many Republicans do such things, so he's going to spark even more discussion about what a bold campaign he's running. He's going to get more donations, thanks to this video. If he accidentally reveals that he has no new ideas about poverty, nobody needs to notice.

July 31 2014 10:05 AM

Rand Paul Wants MSNBC “Hacks and Cranks” to Apologize to Him on TV “for 24 Hours”

Sen. Rand Paul's team-up with Sen. Cory Booker has drawn some of the most positive coverage of either man's short Washington career. (Booker had plenty of positive coverage in Newark, including but not limited to several documentaries.) The Republican and the Democrat have found basically no critics of their REDEEM Act, which would unwind some war-on-crime laws that make it difficult for minor offenders to get past their records and build new lives. Yesterday, Booker and Paul joined Ari Melber on MSNBC, for an interview that was largely about bipartisanship and the promise of the bill.

Largely, but not entirely. At one point Melber asked Paul whether he'd evolved on his thinking about whether government could and should compel businesses not to discriminate.

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"People need to get over themselves, writing all this stuff that I've changed my mind on the Civil Rights Act," said Paul. "Have I ever had a philosophical discussion about all aspects of it? Yeah, and I've learned my lesson, if you come on MSNBC, have a philosophical discussion, the liberals will come out of the woodwork, and they will go crazy and say you're against the Civil Rights Act, and you're some terrible racist."

A few hours later, Paul crossed the Potomac for the annual Young Americans for Liberty conference, talking to young people (mostly college students) who've signed up with the organization set up after Ron Paul's first Republican presidential bid. Paul's general theme—the success and promise of a "leave us the hell alone" coalition that could break the partisan divide. He went into some detail about the wins he'd already had, and the popularity of libertarianism.

"I was having a great day today," he said. "Then I went to MSNBC."

Paul's audience laughed ruefully.

"They want to pounce, and get me into a discussion, you know, about civil liberties, private property, and all the intersections in between," said Paul. "I said, look, I'll come back, and we'll have a great philosophical discussion after I see you go on the air for 24 hours and apologize for all the lousy lies you've been saying about me for four years."

The students burst into applause.

"I'm thinking I won't be on soon," said Paul. "But if they come through with it, and want to apologize for 24 hours for making up stuff about my positions, I'll consider it. But really, there is an intersection for honest progressives. I don't include MSNBC, because I don't think they have many. They have a couple. They have partisan hacks and cranks, and what happens is you have people who make everything into a partisan argument."

The senator started to talk again about the actual merits of the bill, but he had to take another swing at the network that he felt had ambushed him.

"We're trying to make this not a partisan issue," said Paul, "but you go on a network that wants to make everything about partisanship."

July 31 2014 8:36 AM

Why Even the Shrunk-Down Republican Border Bill Is Turning Into a Debacle

On Tuesday, after talking to some House Republicans, I surmised that most were ready to pass a scaled-down "emergency" border control bill—less than $700 million, when the White House wanted $3.7 billion—because it looked good. Conservatives and reform-minded moderates seemed to agree that it was better to return to their districts having "done something." 

Democratic aides started asking me if the GOP was actually ready to do this, if it had the votes. Via Sam Stein and Elise Foley, I see why they were asking: They were whipping their members to vote no. Makes sense, given that Nancy Pelosi had already denounced the "unjust and inhumane proposal" of the Republicans, which actually reduces foreign aid for the troubled Central American states that the child migrants are fleeing and uses it for border control. 

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Not for the first time, House Republicans were being asked to vote for something-or-other because it would reduce their vulnerabilities. Not for the first time, Bill Kristol has swooped in to advise Republicans that this is not necessary. (You may remember Bill Kristol from such op-eds as "kill the Senate immigration bill" and "kill the Affordable Care Act.")

If the GOP does nothing, and if Republicans explain that there's no point acting due to the recalcitrance of the president to deal with the policies that are causing the crisis, the focus will be on the president. Republican incumbents won't have problematic legislation to defend or questions to answer about what further compromises they'll make. Republican challengers won't have to defend or attack GOP legislation. Instead, the focus can be on the president—on his refusal to enforce the immigration law, on the effect of his unwise and arbitrary executive actions in 2012, on his pending rash and illegal further executive acts in 2014, and on his refusal to deal with the real legal and policy problems causing the border crisis.

For a couple of weeks now, we've seen polling that suggests Kristol is right. Voters are aware of a border crisis, they are aware that Barack Obama is president—they blame him for nothing getting done. This makes it hard for John Boehner, Kevin McCarthy, et al. to convince their flock that they'll be blamed for any of it.

And what happens when the GOP leadership starts bleeding support on the right? Take it, Jake Sherman and Seung Min Kim:

On Wednesday evening, House GOP leadership was setting up a process that would schedule a Thursday vote on the Republican funding package. If it passes, the House would be required to vote on legislation targeting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has shielded from deportation hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants who have grown up in the United States.

Hey, wasn't it just last week that Ted Cruz was asking for this? It was—and it was just this week that Cruz talked to and met with House conservatives, urging them to defund DACA in the House. Now, instead of just passing something-or-other with the word "border" in it, House Republicans are looking at one bill that Democrats are inclined to vote against and one that Democrats are 100 percent dead-set against.

If you cast your mind back to Tuesday afternoon, you may remember Harry Reid teasing Republicans by saying the House's more radical bill would be fixed in the House-Senate conference. Boehner accused Reid of trying to sabotage the delicate process in his House. He probably was—how can you not, when the other guys are making it so easy and behaving so predictably?

July 30 2014 5:37 PM

A Dark Theory About the Sudden Impeachmania Outbreak

Yesterday I filed this piece about the amusing and predictable politics of "impeachment talk." Many conservatives, including some members of Congress, have chin-stroked about impeaching Barack Obama for this-or-that high crime, such-or-so misdemeanor. Democrats, who have been somewhat disappointed in the lack of foot-in-mouthery from this year's Republican candidates (there are reasons for that), have started needling the GOP about this sentiment. On Tuesday morning John Boehner called the impeachment jabber a "Democratic scam," and coverage has basically flowed from there.

Not all of the coverage. In my piece, it may appear that National Journal's scold-in-residence Ron Fournier started criticizing the Democrats after Boehner spoke. That's not what I meant. Fournier filed his piece before Boehner launched the counterattack, and (as I write) Fournier mostly argues that this fight is beneath the parties.

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But the worm really turned last night and this morning. Jonathan Topaz captured the scene on Morning Joe, where MSNBC's least liberal hosts often scoff at the travails of the White House, and where Chuck Todd went brutal.

This is the most cynical — Boehner’s up there with this ridiculous lawsuit, Josh Earnest sitting at the podium trying to tick off names of, "Look at Republicans who want impeachment" — it’s not serious. The lawsuit’s not serious. The impeachment talk’s not serious. This is playground stuff. This is embarrassing.

Definitely not serious, but sometimes being "unserious" is no impediment for an issue that breaks into the mainstream. I learned this the hard (well, mostly fun) way from 2008 to 2011, when I enjoyed a side gig in chronicling the adventures of the "birther" movement. My very first article for Slate, before I joined the staff, was a bemused look at the birthers and their crazy but real quest to prove that Obama was illegitimate, and could not be president. Nobody could have conceived that, by 2011, this theory would be so widespread that Donald Trump could browbeat the president into releasing his long-form birth certificate. And once Obama had done so, the re-elect started selling mugs with grainy photos of the document and the slogan "Made in the USA." 

Did that mean that Obama urged on the birthers in order to make his opponents look crazy? Well, yeah—after they'd already established themselves. The White House is doing the same thing now. National Review's Charles C. Cooke has even speculated that Obama is kook-baiting the right, and churning the conversation in Washington, for a reason.

Still, is the White House acting as grown-up and serious as the adults of the press corps might want it to? No. The scolds get to keep on scolding; the White House gets to keep on kook-baiting. 

July 30 2014 3:53 PM

The Great Obamacare Gaslighting of 2014

The case against Obamacare subsidies has no shortage of libertarian advocates or heroes, but the most powerful person on its side is probably Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. In 2012 he became the first AG to sue the DHS on the same grounds as the plaintiffs in Halbig—that the ACA referred several times to subsidies going to states that set up their own exchanges, so states that failed to do so were being illegally brought into the system by the IRS. "Should the courts decide the IRS is exceeding its authority and isn't allowed to assess the employer penalties in states that have not established their own exchanges," wrote Pruitt, "the structure of the ACA will crumble." So he wasn't going for subtlety.

Last week a commenter at the Volokh Conspiracy discovered a speech by health care economist Jonathan Gruber, an architect of Romneycare and Obamacare, in which he appeared to endorse the "no exchange no subsidy" argument. That set off a search, by conservatives, to find Gruber saying the same in other places, and a counterattack by progressives (who cannot believe they have to prove this) pointing out that Gruber's other writing and cost-scoring assumed the subsidies for everyone. This week Pruitt filed a motion to add Gruber's newly uncovered quotes to the record.

Plainly, this newly-discovered evidence squarely controverts Defendants’evidence on this point, and establishes that it is far from “implausible” that the drafters or Section 36B intended to withhold tax credits and subsidies from states who declined to set up exchanges in order to place pressure on those states to set up exchanges. To the contrary, it is not only plausible, it now appears to be demonstrably true.
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Demonstrably. This is the apex, so far, of the Great Obamacare Gaslighting of 2014. To the delight of conservatives, progressive reporters like Greg Sargent and Ezra Klein keep producing evidence and interviews bolstering what seemed obvious just eight days ago. Sargent, who is a frequent target of conservative ire, came up with a tick-tock of the process that merged a HELP Committee bill (a federal exchange, subsidies!) and a Finance Committee bill (state exchanges) and left in excess verbiage.

But this has settled nothing. Phil Kerpen, the smart strategist who runs American Committment (and used to be a strategist at Americans for Prosperity), has used his Twitter account to tell a history of how conservatives throw their bodies against the gears, making sure states would refuse to set up exchanges, with the expectation that this could stop the law. On Monday, Kerpen tweeted a unifying theory of how liberals came to argue that the "exchange set up by the states" language was in error.

It's brilliant because, well, how can it be be debunked? Conservatives know that liberal policy reporters and columnists, like the people mentioned in this post, have been beckoned in to White House chat sessions. What did they know? When did they know it? Just asking the question, just assuming that they will not answer it honestly.

Meanwhile, the search is on for more isolated examples of liberals arguing for the importance of state exchanges. Each one feeds the theory—which was enough for two judges in D.C.—that Obamacare was always supposed to work like this, the subsidies were always conditional, and it's the liberals who are gaslighting by pretending otherwise.

July 30 2014 1:42 PM

Burning Man Shrugged

Grover Norquist is not shy about media availibility, but yesterday was spectacularly busy. On Monday, Norquist had tweeted that he and his wife were "off to Burning Man" this year, after ages of wishing and hoping. According to Norquist's office, he got "eight or 10" calls from the press; the running joke was that reporters were never this curious about his capital gains tax stances. One of the reporters on the line was former Slate-ster Emma Roller:

Norquist insists that the drug-filled utopia in the desert shares some common values with his own group, Americans for Tax Reform.
"Burning Man was founded in '86, the same year as the Pledge, and the first Burning Man had 20 people at it, and our first Center-Right Meeting—the Wednesday Meeting—also had 20 people. So I think there's a real kinship there," Norquist says. "These are very similar operations, except we tend to wear more clothes perhaps at the Wednesday Meetings.
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But the most learned take on the news came from Brian Doherty, my friend and former colleague at Reason, whose book about Burning Man should have been a clue that anti-state radicals were fond of the festival. Doherty had reported, in 2012, on how festival founder Larry Harvey made the rounds in D.C.; it was under those circumstances that Norquist met him.

What does he make of the shock about this eventful news, Grover goes to Burning Man? "The right has a good idea of what guys on the left are like. We live in a world and a culture they dominate, we know what they think. They tend not to have a clue what conservatives do and think, all they have is a caricature." Norquist notes that it's pure ignorant prejudice to assume someone who wants to lower taxes can't possible appreciate, understand, or enjoy a culture filled with those who don't, or might not. 

Honestly, had someone like Bill Bennett or Rick Santorum decided to check out Burning Man, the proverbial man would have bitten the proverbial dog. But Norquist, perennial bard of the "Leave Us Alone Coalition," is a Burning Man natural. Modern libertarians have always overlapped with, and grown out of, the counterculture.

A more intriguing aspect of that is how wealthy businessmen, who come to politics less out of a desire to build desert sculptures and more to prevent regulation of their businesses. That's the story suggested by Lee Fang, who covered the annual Las Vegas FreedomFest—a studiously cool conference that stands apart from the dry klatsches you see in D.C.—and ran into Don Blankenship. Yes, Don Blankenship, he of Massey Energy, he of many pro-coal rallies in West Virginia. "I’m basically looking for information and fresh ideas,” Blankenship told Fang, from the meeting, which he attended right after the Heartland Institute's annual climate change skepticism conference. “We’re in a reg-cecession." The hipness of libertarianism was a much more attractive storm port than the messy, villifiable activism he'd paid for before. This, it's pretty clear, is a reason why Pando is publishing so many pieces about the unsung past of Reason and the (increasingly well-known) background of the Koch family and Rand Paul. There's an effort to close off an escape hatch, before these people can rebrand themselves as relatable, radical, and cool.

July 30 2014 11:41 AM

New IRS Bombshell: Lois Lerner Bemoaned Right-Wing Crazies  

No, it is not over. This morning, a smaller-than-usual group of House Oversight Committee members waged a friendly IRS scandal interrogation of four conservative witnesses, from Cleta Mitchell (who's representing some Tea Party groups in a lawsuit) to David Keating (formerly at the Club for Growth, now at the Center for Competitive Politics, which is filing complaints against senators who asked for the IRS to look into 501 funding), to two Heritage Foundation scholars. Mitchell, unsurprisingly, was the most compelling witness, relaying tales of the "mom and pop" organizations that hesitated to work on politics because the IRS asked for information like "will you host candidate debates" or "where will you be speaking for the next two years."

While that was happening, the Ways and Means Committee—which has been waging its own battle for Lois Lerner's emails—released what looked to be a conversation between Lerner and an unnamed, conservative-hating employee. The conversation, as Ways and Means had it, started with Lerner appearing to respond to something about "crazies" after the 2012 election.

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An unnamed email partner tells Lerner "you should hear the whacko wing of the GOP," and all they're saying about American decline.

Her companion says "the hosts," not the callers, are the crazy ones.

And that's basically how it ends. For Republicans, it is more proof that the attitude at the IRS was poisoned, and enabled rough treatment of Tea Party groups—why wouldn't it, given how little esteem the groups were held in? 

July 30 2014 10:11 AM

Voters, Cynicism, and Immigration Reform

The current immigration debate in Congress is a very small, shrunk-down version of the one that occupied much of 2013. The White House wants $3.7 billion for emergency border funds; the House GOP is ready to supply $3 billion less than that. Part of the Republican calculus: that voters increasingly blame the president's management of the border, not the inaction of Congress, for the problems in Texas and California and Arizona (and, fine, New Mexico).

Fox News' new poll seems to back them up. By a 5-point margin (45–40), voters say the child migrants from Central America are not "refugees" deserving humanitarian aid. It's a tie, 42–42, when people are asked whether they blame Obama or the conditions in Honduras, etc., for the crisis. This result, though, might be the best for the GOP:

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How do the numbers look when you limit the question to Hispanics? Well ... they still largely think that Democrats want reform in order to lock in more reliable votes.

True, by a larger margin, they also think Republicans believe they'll lose votes in the long run.

But some level of cynicism has taken hold, which is nice if you're a Republican congressman who wants to wait out the year and win some Senate seats in states where Hispanic voters won't be terrifically relevant.

July 30 2014 8:57 AM

Virginia’s Former Governor Has the Saddest Legal Defense

The trial of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell began yesterday, more than a year after The Washington Post broke the news that a rich grifter named Jonnie Williams had plied the governor's family with $165,000 in gifts and loans. As a scandal, it prevented Virginia's Republican Party from building any momentum in the election to replace McDonnell, and then faded for a while. It has returned because the trial is supplying world-class levels of pathos. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports on the argument debuted by attorney John Brownlee, of how Williams could worm his way into the McDonnell family:

Brownlee said the marriage’s disintegration, which accelerated in fall 2011, was further evidence that the couple had not conspired to help Williams or hide what they took from him.
Brownlee told jurors that McDonnell had spent virtually half his term away from home, and that his hard work and dedication took its toll on his relationship with his wife.
“She said she hated him,” Brownlee told the jury.
“He did everything he could to help Maureen and give her confidence and self-esteem,” Brownlee said, but there wasn’t enough time spent at home, or enough money.
The result, said Brownlee, was “a rift so wide” that “an outsider could invade and poison the marriage.”
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Fox News reports on what happened when McDonnell's daughter Cailin took the stand.*

While asking her about the $15,000 catering bill for her wedding reception, which Williams paid, the prosecution also admitted photos of the wedding into evidence.
At that point Cailin broke down and began sobbing. The judge called for a 10-minute break and in subsequent questioning, she explained that it is "extremely painful" to look back on her wedding. "It's like there's a black cloud over it. I wish we could have just danced in the back yard with our family and friends," she said.

Every story from the trial is a little bit sadder. We're calling it the "crush defense," the argument that McDonnell's wife was so bored and distant that she cuddled up to Williams. It was during much of this period that McDonnell was floated as a possible vice president for Mitt Romney, which shows you how much logic applies to the quadrennial "veepstakes."

*Correction, July 30, 2014: This post originally misspelled Cailin McDonnell Young's first name.

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