Saturday, January 29, 2011

Missed opportunity in the Senate

After three weeks of backroom discussions, the Senate retreated from significant changes to its rules. It failed even to get a majority in support of some rather mild but important changes pushed by a group of younger members. Instead, it abolished secret holds and banned the tactic of demanding a full reading of legislation that has been available for 72 hours. It's a shame, because the reform package stopped way short of eliminating the filibuster [something I think is unattainable, but I do favor disincentives against its abuse]. I wish at least that Senators had made the motion to proceed to debate on measures nondebatable.

My sense is that the leadership preferred a handshake deal to formal changes in the rules. And their deal was not to use filibusters or amendment-blocking tactics as much in the coming Congress. In fact, the same approach was taken the last time members were on the verge of setting a big precedent in favor of rules changes by majority vote. I guess Democrats were too worried about what might happen in 2013 if the Republicans gain a majority, and they were willing to accept assurances from the Republican leader. Too bad. No doubt we'll see the consequences of these agreements when Congress ties itself in knots over the debt limit increase.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Foreign aid dilemmas

I've been a knee-jerk supporter of foreign aid ever since I first began studying U.S. foreign policy. It certainly made sense to me to send money instead of U.S. troops to solve problems. I've also seen the positive results of many of our programs, both in development and security. And -- full disclosure -- I once had a Fulbright grant paid for in local currencies received in repayment of loans from an earlier American aid program.  But I'm having second thoughts now that I read about some of our problems in Afghanistan or today's WSJ piece on problems with our aid program in Pakistan. It's important for us to get these right, and to pick the right side of the various dilemmas any program faces, even when we can't be sure which is the wise course. We want to strengthen those governments but not the corruption that pervades them. We want them to improve their governance but not lose the war in the process. We want them to increase their own capacities, yet we also want things to happen and people to be helped now. So while I think it's dangerously short-sighted to cut our overall levels of aid, I wish we could be better about the actual programs we run.

So what is national security?

I got depressed this morning when I read of the House Republican group, with 165 members, that released a budget plan that completely de-funds the Agency for International Development [AID], our primary instrument for nonmilitary foreign aid.  The problem is not just that this is a penny-wise and pound foolish way to reduce government spending. The broader problem is that the House GOP leadership has defined the untouchable areas of the budget as only Defense, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security.  We all know that some money can be trimmed from defense; even Secretary Gates has admitted that. And I assume the same is true of VA. But to say that TSA -- those shoe-fetish screeners at our airports -- should be exempt from any cuts is ludicrous. And the failure to recognize that foreign policy programs that don't shoot and kill should be eliminated is foolish beyond belief. I wish these lawmakers would look behind the labels like "Homeland Security" and scrutinize what actually is being done with the money. Andrew Exum makes this point very well.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Reading the Constitution

The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives plans to stage a reading of the Constitution on Thursday, January 6. Good for them. As someone who has spent a lot of time reading and writing about the Constitution and the early years of the Republic, I'd like to offer some suggestions.

- I hope they let one of the African-American members read, with appropriate scorn and derision, Article I, section 2, where "other Persons" -- meaning slaves, a word the Framers were reluctant to use -- count as only 3/5 of a free person. (The real tragedy of the compromise on slavery was not that slaves were deemed only 3/5 human but that they were counted at all, for their numbers strengthened the political power of the slave states and delayed the moral reckoning that came with the Civil War.)

- I hope the reader very carefully enunciates the last clause of article I, section 8, which gives Congress the power "To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper" to execute its other powers.

- I hope that after reading, they realize that two of the most important political powers to radical conservatives are not even mentioned specifically in the Constitution -- judicial review of laws and congressional powers of oversight. Now I happen to believe that both of those powers are implicit in the other provisions of the document, but strict constructionists need to be aware when they invoke powers that are not explicit.

- I also hope that lawmakers will reflect on the compromise nature of the Constitution. There  were compromises not only on slavery but on the disproportionate representation in the Senate -- the only part of the Constitution which now cannot be changed.  Ratification was not even left to the state legislatures, but to special conventions. And the framers banned dissenters from ever holding office even in state government by requiring that all officials -- and they were thinking of Constitution opponents like George Mason and Patrick Henry -- be required to take an oath to support the new government framework.

The Republic has endured and prospered, but only because of a political process that allowed compromise and change.