Monday, December 21, 2009

liberal leave

Federal offices in the Washington, DC area are closed today in response to the still-lingering effects of a record-breaking snowstorm. (The picnic table on our deck has white icing at least 20 inches deep.) Public transportation is crawling back into service.

Some federal workers are still expected to show up -- the "essential workers" who provide security, heat and power, and snow removal for federal buildings. While many people consider themselves "essential," only a few really are. I certainly recall, during my days as a Senate staffer, trudging through snow or staying overnight at my desk to be sure I was available and helpful to my boss. That spirit continues: the U.S. Senate will be in session today to continue speeches and votes on the health care reform bill.

The decision on closing or delaying the opening of federal offices is the responsibility of the director of the Office of Personnel Management [OPM]. Full closings are quite rare; more common are one- or two-hour delays or what is called "unscheduled leave." That finding means that workers can stay home, where they normally would be required to get a supervisor's advance approval to miss work.

Until sometime during the Clinton Administration, the term used was "liberal leave." I always felt better about that phrasing, since I could argue: only liberals can take leave; conservatives have to show up and work.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

parochial lawmakers

Commentators on Congress frequently bemoan the power of local or special interests compared to what they see as the national interest. And, yes, lawmakers frequently act and vote to protect local jobs and programs and to mirror strong policy views among their constituents.

The Framers of the U.S. Constitution built parochialism into our political system by creating a legislature of people representing geographic areas, not classes or professions or proportional votes for parties. And even though they hoped that these delegates would adopt a national perspective, they knew that they were likely to be locally oriented.

Recently, while chasing a footnote (as academics are wont to do), I came across two quotations from notable Americans acknowledging this parochialism. Ezra Stiles, president of Yale, said in 1783: "Let a bill, or law, be read, in the one branch or the other, every one instantly thinks how it will affect his constituents." And James Madison, a few months after the Philadelphia convention that drafted the Constitution, cautioned against choosing state legislators by districts: "A spirit of locality is inseparable from that mode. The evil is fully displayed in the County representations, the members of which are everywhere observed to lose sight of the aggregate interests of the Community, and even to sacrifice them to the interests or prejudices of their respective constituents."

So if you have a gripe about parochialism, blame the Framers.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

good books

One of the nice things about being a professor is that I have a reason, even an obligation, to read a lot of books -- to "keep up in my field," to find newer and better readings to assign to students, and to keep stretching my mind.

I wanted to share my enthusiasm for two recent titles that I found particularly engaging and well-written. Kati Marton has written an exciting tale of discovery, "Enemies of the People," the story of her family in Hungary. She recounts her own childhood memories of the arrest of her journalist parents for political crimes, her father's prize-winning reporting of the 1956 uprising, and their subsequent move to the United States. Only much later, when she gains access to the secret police files on her parents, does she learn family secrets long hidden from her -- their Jewish ancestry, her father's activities in the resistance, and her parents' love affairs. The book is a chilling description of what it is like to live in a police state.

The other book is Nicholas Thompson's "Hawk and Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War." Drawing on abundant archival research as well as personal knowledge of his grandfather, Nitze, Thompson weaves the parallel lives of two of the most influential sub-presidential officials who shaped U.S. foreign policy in the early decades of the cold war. His family ties do not prevent him from criticizing Nitze, so the end result is a balanced, human story. With so much history focused on the White House, it is useful to see how lesser ranking officials can still be key players.

Friday, December 11, 2009

financing wars

When I learned of Congressman David Obey's [D-Wisc] proposal to levy a surtax to finance the war in Afghanistan, I was intrigued. He's doing it because he is critical of the war and wants to force Republicans to prove their commitment to fiscal integrity, but it still makes good public policy sense. Obey's proposal has several clever features: it doesn't kick in until 2011 and it doesn't apply to people who served in war zones after the 9/11 attacks.

The proposal also gave me an opportunity to remind people how Congress used to be fairly responsible by increasing revenues to offset the costs of U.S. wars. That was generally the case until Vietnam, and hasn't been since.

Anyway, I wrote a piece in the Los Angeles Times and appeared on CSPAN to discuss the idea.

With opposition from other Democrats as well as Republicans, the bill is going nowhere. But I think it's a reasonable idea.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

inside baseball

When legislators talk about using arcane rules or little-known precedents to win victories, or when political consultants talk about advertising buys and messages in campaigns, it's called "inside baseball."

Today we have two journalists analyzing the "tick-tock" stories of other journalists. Mainly they talk about the revelations on Afghanistan as part of an Obama administration media strategy. But they are also interesting as inside baseball on how White House correspondents do their job.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


As expected, the first tick-tock reports on President Obama's decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan are now appearing. The Sunday December 6 New York Times and Washington Post contain narratives detailing the week-by-week meetings and discussions over policy. More can be anticipated -- and will be noted here when I come across them.

These first reports describe a questioning president, a skeptical vice president, but a consensus among most other advisers in favor of a robust response to the deteriorating situation. The end result was a compromise -- on troop numbers, on a narrower mission, and on a faster deployment.

Read both reports in full -- and file and save.

public wariness

Since it's probably already in my FBI file, I confess to being a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. They have interesting speakers and decent food, so I keep paying my dues.

This week the Council released another study of public opinion on foreign affairs. This one finds hints of growing isolationist sentiment among the U.S. public -- not surprising, in view of disenchantment over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and concerns over the economy. The trends will probably reinforce caution among policymakers.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Military support for Afghanistan policy

As a longtime observer of U.S. civil-military relations, I noted with interest the ways Defense Secretary Gates and especially Admiral Mike Mullen defended administration Afghanistan policy in Wednesday's hearings. Without raising his voice, Gates calmly answered Republican charges that timelines for U.S. troop reductions would lead to failure as the Taliban just awaited withdrawal. He stressed the conditional nature of the projected transition to Afghan control.

Admiral Mullen gave even stronger support to the President's policy in the face of congressional criticism. As I noted to Jim Fallows, Mullen concluded that the revised approach was "more balanced, more flexible, and more achievable." He also praised the thoroughness of the policy review and the president's willingness to give full voice to military leaders as well as other officials. These comments were helpful in preventing critics from trying to drive a wedge between Obama and the military.

Case study: Afghanistan

I'm eagerly awaiting a comprehensive tick-tock on the Afghanistan decision -- a journalist's narrative based on insider comments of the thrust and parry leading up to the President's West Point speech. Until we get declassified documents and memoirs, or at least until Bob Woodward's next book, that will be our chief source on what happened. These are helpful to scholars and even more valuable to teachers, who can assign them in class.

So far it looks as if the President's decision was the typical compromise. The military commander wanted more resources; the ambassador wanted to use the occasion to exert leverage over the local government; the Pentagon wanted to support the commander while still keeping costs and other risks in line; the State Department wanted more resources for its efforts and wanted a decision that enhanced its other foreign policy initiatives; political advisers wanted to reassure nervous congressional and public supporters that we weren't entering a quagmire. And so the final decision was to give the commander much of what he sought, but subject to a narrowed mission and a public pledge to begin some kind of drawdown by mid-2010.

Most presidential decisions are compromises, balancing the policy and bureaucratic interests at stake. Now let's see what other juicy details emerge to explain how we got to this point.