Monday, November 29, 2010

House-ification of the Senate

Many observers have noted the increased polarization and partisanship in the Senate in recent years. In 1995, then Republican Whip Alan Simpson of Wyoming said that "the galley slaves have taken over the ship." What he meant, and what is still evident, is that many newly elected Senators who previously served in the House of Representatives, bring their majoritarian instincts to the other chamber. In fact, there are more former House members in the Senate today than ever in US history.

As I looked for a way to explain to my class the cultural difference between the Senate and House, I offered  this metaphor: in the House, they play tackle football -- rough, physical, only winning counts; in the Senate, they were used to touch football -- where playing may be more important than winning all the time, and nobody wants to inflict or suffer a major injury. When the tackle players move onto the touch field, they play by their old rules and everything gets nastier.

Leaks and peeks

I'm as much a foreign policy voyeur as the next person, but the latest Wikileaks dumps are out of bounds. As a citizen, I welcome unauthorized disclosures of government lies to its own people or of morally questionable activities. But these State Department cables don't reveal Big Secrets, only the routine exchanges between headquarters and the field -- exchanges that are properly classified as one of those diplomatic niceties.

I agree with Peter Beinart's assessment that the document reveal little of importance but can cause serious problems for American diplomacy.

And I'm underwhelmed by the comments from various Arab leaders that they'd happily watch America launch a war against Iran while they stood by and cheered. If they fear the consequences for their own regimes of an Iranian nuclear capacity, they should be twisting the arms of every other nation not to go to war, but to enforce even tighter sanctions.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

deficit delusions

As Congress and the President try to make less of a mess of the economy, they face a rock wall of public opinion that constrain their options. For example, from one recent poll for the group Third Way:
Which of the following statements do you agree with more?
If we're serious about reducing the deficit, we have to raise taxes. 17%

We can balance the budget without raising taxes. We just need to cut government spending and get rid of government waste. 76%

Don't know 7%

Which of the following statements do you agree with more?
If we're serious about reducing the deficit, we have to reform Social Security and Medicare. 21%

We can balance the budget without touching Social Security and Medicare. We just need to cut other government spending and get rid of government waste. 75%

Don't know 5%
It's a shame the budget doesn't come with a line item for "government waste."

Friday, November 12, 2010

the sour politics of trade

The media are depicting the failure to reach agreement on revisions to a US-Korea free trade agreement as a sign of President Obama's political weakness in the wake of the midterm elections. A better explanation is that trade is a divisive domestic issue, with many Democrats and now Tea-Party Republicans dubious of the benefits of these agreements. A new Pew survey documents these attitudes, showing that over half the people believe that trade deals lead to job losses at home and nearly half believe that they lead to lower wages for Americans. It will take more than a chorus of economists singing a different tune to make trade agreements politically popular.

I remain concerned that the Administration's "National Export Initiative" is a hope-based strategy rather than a set of actions that can really boost US exports. So far, there isn't even a legislative package that could smooth the way.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Becoming House-broken

The Washington Post has an article suggesting that most of the newly elected Republican members of Congress will catch Potomac fever within a short time. As one conservative public relations person says, "They run against Washington calling it a cesspool and discover that it's really a hot tub." There's no news in the article, but it does raise the question of whether living and working in the capital leads to corruptive cooptation.

I think the real problem is the opposite: members spend so much time raising money and going back home that they never get to know their colleagues as human beings and never develop the institutional loyalty that allows Congress to see the national interest regardless of their local and political interests. In other words, a small case of Potomac fever protects against much worse diseases.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

New House rules and budget ploys

The likely majority leader in the incoming House, Eric Cantor of Virginia, has set forth some interesting ideas about how he hopes to run that chamber.It adds to ideas included in the leadership's Pledge to America.

Cantor complains of the "3-day work week and the overlapping schedule it creates" but doesn't say precisely how we wants to change it. He does say that vote-free times will be established for committee meetings.

He wants to eliminate most measures now handled by suspending the rules -- congratulatory resolutions and naming of post offices.

He wants to highlight one major oversight hearing each week and even suggests having the House debate and adopt committee reports that are investigatory rather than legislative. He laments the decline in congressional oversight of the executive but fails to note the irony in his chart, ending in 2006, which shows a steep drop in oversight during the recent GOP-controlled congresses.

On budgetary matters, he announces plans for weekly votes on rescission bills -- measures to cancel previously approved spending authority -- outside of the regular appropriations process.

He also says that bills that propose new spending have to say "explicitly" how they will be paid for. Tax cuts, of course, are not included in this requirement.

While he doesn't mention a balanced budget constitutional amendment, I expect that to be added to the Republican budget package.

What we can expect, therefore, is a publicity-sensitive series of spending reduction measures and oversight hearings that, even if enacted, will have little real impact on fiscal policy or management efficiency.