Tuesday, January 31, 2012

the process isn't the problem

Budget guru Stan Collender has a good column in Roll Call criticizing the House Budget Committee's recent batch of proposed changes to the congressional budget process. He especially knocks the value of two-year budgeting as reducing accountability and leading to budgets by supplementals,. which receive less scrutiny.

He also reminds us of received wisdom from earlier congressional budget officials, including Republican Rudolph Penner:

Although it’s repeated often, it’s been more than a quarter-century since Congressional Budget Office Director Rudolph Penner provided one of the most famous quotes in federal budget history when he said that the budget process is not the problem; the problem is the problem. Penner also told a House Rules subcommittee reviewing the budget process in 1984: “A process, no matter how well designed, cannot make difficult problems easy.”
That's the real problem today -- willpower and political leadership to reasonable compromises, not process.

Thursday, January 26, 2012


The New Yorker isn't just for cartoons, as I used to think when I encountered it only in the barber shop and had no time for long articles. For me now, it's a must-read, must-turn-the-pages experience.

I was excited to read an article by Jonah Lehrer on intellectual creativity. He shows how brainstorming has been repeatedly shown to be ineffective at promoting creativity, but also how other activities that throw people together can be very effective -- notably architecture that forces people into frequent interactions and discussions that force people to defend and maybe re-think their ideas.  Take a look.

domestic preoccupations

Many analysts noted that President Obama spent little time -- only six minutes -- on foreign policy in his State of the Union address. That's not surprising, given the heavy focus on domestic issues among the American electorate. A new Pew poll shows a drop in the number of people listing terrorism as a "top priority" for U.S. leaders.

The poll does show heightened concern over Iran.
The percentage naming Iran as the country posing the greatest danger to the U.S. has more than doubled to 28% from 12% a year ago, and it now ranks slightly higher than China. Of those following the Iran situation, 54% say the U.S. should take a firm stand against Iran’s actions, while 39% say it is more important to avoid a military conflict with Iran.
None of this is surprising, but it is worth noting.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

two different countries

The Kennedy Library in Boston has released the last batch of tape recordings secretly made by the President. Among them are meetings on Vietnam in September, 1963, including one where he heard a report from a senior military officer and a State Department official who had just returned from the war-torn country. The general was optimistic about the situation; the diplomat was pessimistic. The President asked, "You both went to the same country?"

They did, physically, but not mentally. In Vietnam then, as more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has a narrow focus on contending military units, and it can see progress. The diplomats, however, have to deal with the central government which, then and now, is often faction-ridden, corrupt, and ineffective. The military can buy time for the politicians to make peace, but that happens only occasionally.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

why not go to war with Iran now

Notice, please, there is no question mark at the end of the title. This is not a suggestion; it's an argument against a dangerously unwise policy.

In the current issue of Foreign Affairs a think-tank scholar named Matthew Kroenig argues that the United States"should conduct a surgical strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, absorb an inevitable round of retaliation, and then seek to quickly de-escalate the crisis."  He seems to feel that it's better to have an inevitable war now, with Iran still a nonnuclear power than later. 

He argues that Iran's retaliation would be manageable, and that the United States wouldn't even have to seek regime change in Tehran. Dubious! Going to war would require a large ground force and a lengthy war to defeat both the Iranian military and its enraged populace. Even if the worst consequences of retaliation could be mitigated, we would have created a permanent enemy which likely would gain many friends to work against us.

But the greatest flaw in Kroenig's article is that chimera that got or almost got American into numerous conflicts in the past -- the idea of a "surgical strike."  Civilians want to believe, and some Air Force officers do believe, that limited attacks can achieve massive changes in an adversary's enmity. More likely, history shows, you need a major war and regime change -- and then you might get lucky.

There's at least one (retired) Air Force officer who disagrees with the notion. General Michael Hayden, CIA director in George W. Bush's second term, told a group last week, "When we talked about this in the government, the consensus was that [attacking Iran] would guarantee that which we are trying to prevent -- an Iran that will spare nothing to build a nuclear weapon and that would build it in secret." Regrettably, Hayden's honesty on the issue caused a problem for the Romney campaign, to which he is a special adviser.

For another analysis of why Kroenig is wrong, read this piece by Colin Kahl.

Friday, January 13, 2012

recess appointments

I normally defend the Senate's prerogatives, but I've been persuaded by the legal brief on recess appointments released yesterday by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. The OLC memo bases a key part of its analysis on the fact that the Senate's unanimous consent agreements for pro forma sessions since 2007 have almost always included the phrase "no business will be conducted."  That allows the lawyers to conclude that the Senate wasn't really open to receive nominations. I'm also persuaded that when nominations are blocked in a way to make execution of the laws impossible -- as in the cases that prompted the recent appointments -- the President's Constitutional  interests have to be balanced against the Senate's. This is a narrow case. The Senate could still play games to block recess appointments, but it can't be a easy as previously. I also agree with Kevin Drum's assessment of this issue.

bad approach on a questionable policy

I suppose I should wait until we have the president's official explanation of what reporters say he will propose today, but I won't.  The White House has already indicated that the president will ask Congress for legal authority to reorganize several federal agencies dealing with foreign trade, subject to a legislative veto.

Ain't gonna happen. Congress is generally reluctant to grant broad reorganization authority because presidents tend to disregard congressional equities and interests in the process. Especially in an election year, this is a gimmick, not serious public policy.

There's a deeper reason in this case: Congress doesn't want a consolidated trade organization. It created the job of U.S. Trade Representative in 1974 in order to have someone in the White House, reporting directly to the president, who was ultimately beholden to Congress for his job and his negotiating authority. It has resisted calls for a Department of Trade because different committees each want to keep under their control the entities they created. The USTR is overseen by the Senate Finance and House Ways & Means Committees; the Commerce Department by the commerce committees; the export agencies by the foreign policy committees; the Small Business Administration by the small business committees.

Consolidation is always the first refuge of government planners. They think that putting everybody under one umbrella will make everybody friendlier and more cooperative. Sure. Look at the Department of Homeland Security. Sure. Look at the magnificently coordinated policies of the Energy Department. Consolidation can make some sense, but it is no silver bullet for solving challenges of policy coordination or integration.

If the president really wanted to promote U.S. export expansion -- a worthy goal -- he should avoid the election year ploy of reorganization authority and propose instead a law that would accomplish that, and let the Congress sort out what might make more and less sense.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

left hand, right hand

The Los Angeles Times reports that a new National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan is pretty discouraging. The war is said to be in a stalemate and the Kabul government is said to be corrupt and ineffective. The New York Times reports that the United States has been quietly pursuing talks with the Taliban that might lead to an end to the conflict. Connect the dots. Maybe the left hand and right hand are actually coordinated.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Eisenhower reconsidered

I've long had ambivalent views of President Eisenhower. My Republican family was enthusiastically for his election, not least because they viewed him as a "Denver boy" since he married a woman who had gone to high school with my maternal grandmother. I got excited about the Kennedy campaign and presidency and largely adopted the Democratic critique of Ike's presidency.

Some scholars have published revisionist views in recent years that I find persuasive. Over the holidays, I read a recent book dealing with a single year of his presidency that increased my admiration for the guy. David A. Nichols, Eisenhower 1956 (Simon & Schuster, 2011) describes Eisenhower's illnesses and their impacts on policymaking [mainly because of his unavailability at the doctors' orders]. It also shows that the US cancelled Aswan dam funding because of clear congressional opposition. As Dulles wrote to Ike: "If I had not announced our withdrawal when I did, the Congress would certainly have imposed it on us, almost unanimously."

I also found it significant that Ike repeatedly said Congress would have to approve any military action, even with UK & France. At a September 11 news conference, he said: "This country will not go to war ever while I am occupying my present post unless the Congress is called into session, and Congress declares such a war."  He also insisted on regular briefings/consultations with congressional leadership on possible military moves. He was a man of my own heart regarding Constitutional war powers.

government done right

I'm reluctant to call the U.S. government dysfunctional because I've seen it work well on tough issues -- like the 1990 budget deal and several issues of foreign policy. Last summer's fight over the debt limit increase was a powerful counter example, but even there the eventual agreement was reasonable.

I was heartened this week by a local development in my little town of University Park, MD. Here  is some of the background.  A developer wants rezoning in order to develop a large, forested site that has been abandoned since a World War II aircraft factory closed.  It has the advantage of being in-fill -- within the beltway and accessible to Metro --rather than suburban sprawl. It has high-level political support because the developer promises to bring a Whole Foods store, as well as a hotel and other commercial establishments as well as residential units.

My town has no legal say since the property is part of a neighboring town, Riverdale Park, but it would be greatly impacted, especially under the original proposal that placed the single point of entry and exit for the development on an already crowded road directly across from our own street. Many of us were greatly alarmed at the prospects of traffic gridlock, destroyed green space, and more crowded schools.

Instead of adopting a simple NIMBY attitude, several of the town's officials worked with surrounding communities and got the developer to agree to very stringent conditions, including building another exit road over some railroad tracks. The deal has some uncertainties and the project will still be disruptive to us, but it shows that when people share their concerns and work to find reasonable accommodations, government can solve problems.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

security strategy process

Last week, the President went to the Pentagon to unveil a revised defense strategy that involves budget cuts, a pivot to Asia, and an end to the "two-war" requirement for force sizing. Much of the reporting has been on the politics of the decision, but I think there's also an interesting aspect tot he policy process used to fashion the new strategy.  As Scott Wilson and Greg Jaffe report, President Obama held a series of meetings over four months with military commanders as well as the regular national security team. Some participants said the President was, as during his Afghanistan policy review in 2009, "professor-in-chief," asking questions and demanding logic and evidence in the answers.  That is the way to run the railroad.

sanctions on Iran

There's encouraging news on the growing impact of economic sanctions on Iran, as the Los Angeles Times reports today. The slow and steady ratcheting up of restrictions, begun under President Bush and continued under President Obama, has exceeded expectations. The United States was wise to push the Europeans and Asians, letting them learn for themselves that Iran was deceptive and uncooperative. Other nations still do not want to go quite as far as the U.S. Government, but they are inching in the right direction.

This broad coalition makes it harder for the Iranian government to convince its people that its policies are worth the costs. That still may not prevent Iran's leaders from trying to achieve a nuclear weapons capability, but it makes it easier to achieve agreement on further action if needed.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

reporting and news-writing

Journalists have a tough job. They sit through an hour-long speech or news conference by the President or some other public figure and then have to pick out, for us readers, 750 words that are news-worthy. It's refreshing when a reporter tells what the event was like -- the "color" or background information that puts us readers in the audience. Journalistic professionalism shuns such reporting, leaving it to opinion writers.

Today Dana Milbank has a marvelous column describing Mitt Romney's actual forum in New Hampshire, including weak jokes, grimaces, and audience reactions. I wish more reporters would write these kinds of stories.