Tag Archives: Congress Watch

Obama’s Idealists

American Power in Theory and Practice
By Peter Beinart – In different ways, each book traces a narrative arc that begins with a vow, made in young adulthood, to use the United States’ might for good and ends with a sober realization about how hard fulfilling that vow actually is. For Rice, the arc begins with her failure, as a young NSC aide, to rouse the Clinton administration to halt the 1994 Rwandan genocide, after which she pledged “to go down fighting, if ever I saw another instance where I believed U.S. military intervention could . . . make a critical difference in saving large numbers of human lives.” For Power, it starts during her time as a war correspondent in Bosnia, where the besieged residents of Sarajevo asked her to “tell Clinton” about the horrors she had seen. For Rhodes, it begins with 9/11 and the Iraq war, which left him yearning to harness the idealism he felt the Bush administration had squandered.

In each book, three moments during the Obama administration play outsize roles in chastening this youthful idealism: the decision to bomb Libya in 2011, the decision not to bomb Syria in 2013, and the 2016 election.

The problem isn’t that Rice, Power, and Rhodes shade the truth to make themselves look good. To the contrary, all three are, at various points, admirably frank about their mistakes. The problem is that by refusing to reveal what happened behind closed doors, they fail to help readers understand what lessons to draw from the Libya debacle. Is the lesson that presidents who lack the stomach for nation building shouldn’t topple regimes? Is it that the United States needs greater diplomatic capacity? Is it that brutal dictatorships are better than failed states? By not explaining Libya’s lessons, liberal internationalists like Rice, Power, and Rhodes make it easier for nativist bigots like Trump to proffer a lesson of their own: that Washington should care less about people overseas, especially if they are not Christian or white.

In each, the saga of disillusionment reaches its nadir in 2016, with Russia’s electoral interference and Trump’s election. After witnessing the limits of the United States’ ability to defend democracy and human rights abroad, Rice, Power, and Rhodes realize to their horror the limits of its ability to defend those principles at home. When Obama asks Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, to issue a joint statement condemning Russian interference in the election, McConnell refuses, a move that Rhodes calls “staggeringly partisan and unpatriotic.”

Although none of the authors puts it this way, it’s possible to read their books not only as tales of tempered idealism but also as chronicles of America’s declining exceptionalism. In retrospect, the belief in democracy promotion and humanitarian intervention that Rice, Power, and Rhodes embraced early in their careers rested on a faith that democracy was stable at home. With that faith now eroded—and the United States battling its own rising tribalism, authoritarianism, and brutality—it is hard to imagine a book like Power’sA Problem From Hell,” a critique of the country’s repeated failure to stop genocide, becoming the sensation it did in 2002.

As Americans have grown more preoccupied with, and more pessimistic about, their own country’s moral condition, they have turned inward. As a young woman, Power helped expose concentration camps in Bosnia. Today’s young activists are exposing them in Texas. As of September, foreign policy has barely figured in the Democratic presidential debates. more>

Anatomy of an oversight investigation: White House security clearances

By Isabella Gelfand and Jackson Gode – Since regaining the majority in January, House Democrats have been conducting oversight of the Trump administration on issues ranging from family separation at the border to the rollback of environmental regulations. While the policy areas addressed by these investigations are diverse, House committees often apply the same tools to perform oversight. As Congress attempts to exert influence on the White House in hopes of obtaining information, Trump administration officials continue to utilize several tactics of their own to stall the process.

As part of its mandate to conduct oversight of “the operation of Government activities at all levels,” the House Oversight and Reform Committee is frequently engaged in conflicts with the executive branch over information access. One such clash during the 116th Congress has involved the White House security clearance process, which came under fire when media reports indicated that the administration allowed individuals to operate under interim security clearances for extended periods and ignored concerns raised by intelligence officials. Here, we outline the ongoing security clearance investigation and use it to highlight a set of common steps in the oversight process.

When conducting oversight, members of Congress have several tools at their disposal. Most notably, they can request documents, call witnesses to testify, issue subpoenas, and hold individuals in contempt of Congress for noncompliance. Oversight investigations are often initiated by an official request for information, usually in the form of a letter written by a committee chair to an executive branch official. The chair uses this correspondence to ask for documents and/or to invite a witness to give testimony before the committee. more>

A radical legal ideology nurtured our era of economic inequality

By Sanjukta Paul – Where does economic power come from? Does it exist independently of the law?

It seems obvious, even undeniable, that the answer is no. Law creates, defines and enforces property rights. Law enforces private contracts. It charters corporations and shields investors from liability. Law declares illegal certain contracts of economic cooperation between separate individuals – which it calls ‘price-fixing’ – but declares economically equivalent activity legal when it takes place within a business firm or is controlled by one.

Each one of these is a choice made by the law, on behalf of the public as a whole. Each of them creates or maintains someone’s economic power, and often undermines someone else’s. Each also plays a role in maintaining a particular distribution of economic power across society.

Yet generations of lawyers and judges educated at law schools in the United States have been taught to ignore this essential role of law in creating and sustaining economic power.

Instead, we are taught that the social process of economic competition results in certain outcomes that are ‘efficient’ – and that anything the law does to alter those outcomes is its only intervention.

These peculiar presumptions flow from the enormously powerful and influential ‘law and economics’ movement that dominates thinking in most areas of US law considered to be within the ‘economic’ sphere.

Bruce Ackerman, professor of law and political science at Yale University, recently called law and economics the most influential thing in legal education since the founding of Harvard Law School.

The Economics Institute for Federal Judges, founded by the legal scholar Henry Manne, has been a hugely influential training program in the law and economics approach. more>

Why the US bears the most responsibility for climate change, in one chart

By Umair Irfan – Humans are pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at an accelerating rate. But climate change is a cumulative problem, a function of the total amount of greenhouse gases that have accumulated in the sky. Some of the heat-trapping gases in the air right now date back to the Industrial Revolution. And since that time, some countries have pumped out vastly more carbon dioxide than others.

The wonderful folks at Carbon Brief have put together a great visual of how different countries have contributed to climate change since 1750. The animation shows the cumulative carbon dioxide emissions of the top emitters and how they’ve changed over time.

What’s abundantly clear is that the United States of America is the all-time biggest, baddest greenhouse gas emitter on the planet.

That’s true, despite recent gains in energy efficiency and cuts in emissions. These relatively small steps now cannot offset more than a century of reckless emissions that have built up in the atmosphere. Much more drastic steps are now needed to slow climate change. And as the top cumulative emitter, the US bears a greater imperative for curbing its carbon dioxide output and a greater moral responsibility for the impacts of global warming.

Yet the United States is now the only country aiming to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. more>

Kavanaugh Ethics Complaints Once Again Dodge Ruling In The 10th Circuit

By Steve Denning – The judicial review of multiple ethics complaints against Justice Kavanaugh continued on its Gilbert-And-Sullivan trajectory with a 6-1 decision by the 10th Circuit last Friday that that court does not have jurisdiction to consider the complaints, even though Chief Justice Roberts explicitly requested the 10th  Circuit to assess them.

Some 83 ethics complaints had been filed against Judge Kavanaugh alleging not only false statements under oath during hearings on his nominations to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 2004 and 2006, but also, more flagrantly, misconduct at the nomination hearing for the U.S. Supreme Court itself in 2018, including making inappropriate partisan statements and treating senators with disrespect.

The complaints were not made without legal basis. More than 2,400 law professors concluded that during the Senate confirmation hearings, Kavanaugh has “displayed a lack of judicial temperament that would be disqualifying for any court.” Unlike the allegations of lying about events that happened many years ago, there was no question of fact as to whether Kavanaugh’s conduct at the Senate hearings actually took place: it was visible for the whole country to see on national television.

Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens also stated that Judge Kavanaugh has demonstrated bias and is “not fit for the Supreme Court.” Former Justice Stevens, in remarks to retirees in Boca Raton, Fla, declared that Kavanaugh’s statements on September 27 revealed prejudices that would make it impossible for him to do the court’s work. “They suggest that he has demonstrated a potential bias involving enough potential litigants before the court that he would not be able to perform his full responsibilities.” more>

How Trump’s Economic Chickens Are Finally Coming Home To Roost

By Steve Denning – Assisted by the least qualified White House staff in history, Trump has continued to breach conventional wisdom and practice. Yet Liberal analysts have watched with dismay as polls have showed stable support from Trump’s base, no matter how outrageous the behavior. Surely, they said, the economic reality of what Trump is up to must eventually kick in.

Now a trifecta of bad economic news for his base raises the question whether that time has finally arrived:

The comfort offered by Trump’s fictions is too seductive to be undermined by facts. To Trump’s base, the beautiful myth of “the Wall” is, and remains, more attractive than the real world.

In this way, “the Wall” has become a code-name for the racist, anti-immigrant isolationist policies of Trump’s presidency and a symbol of multiple toxic policies,

There’s a catch with the use of fictions in politics. “The chief disability of propaganda,” wrote Hannah Arendt in her classic book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, “is that it cannot fulfill the longing of the masses for a completely consistent, comprehensible, and predictable world without seriously conflicting with common sense.”

For a time, common sense can be held at bay and prevented from intruding into the cocoon of reassuring fiction. Yet the deliberate distortion of reality is also the cause of propaganda’s inevitable downfall. It is the inexorable collision with reality that eventually ruins the cocoon. It’s not a matter of whether. It’s only a question of when. more>

Democracy splutters—good governance under pressure

Amid political polarization and declining democratic standards, can OECD and EU countries sustain the good governance challenges such as globalization, social inequality and climate breakdown demand?
By Christof Schiller – Eroding standards of democracy and growing political polarization are severely hampering the implementation of sustainable reforms. This is one of the main findings in the Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) 2018 study by the Bertelsmann Foundation.

SGI is an international monitoring tool, which sheds light on the future viability of all 41 countries in the OECD and the European Union. On the basis of 140 indicators, we assess democratic standards, the quality of governance and reforms in the areas of economics, social affairs and the environment. More than 100 international experts are involved in our cross-national survey.

The most recent study highlights how waning standards of democracy and growing political polarisation hamper sustainable reform. Governments in countries including the United States, Hungary and Turkey are deliberately stoking social tensions rather than seeking consensus.

The report shows that the quality of democracy in many western industrial nations is waning, with democratic standards declining in 26 of the countries surveyed, compared with similar data from four years earlier. ‘Even within the OECD and the EU, the model of liberal democracy is subject to growing pressure—in some countries this means that even central democratic and constitutional standards such as media freedoms are already severely damaged or undermined,’ it finds.

Compounding this worrying trend, the study’s authors identify a simultaneous decline in the adequacy of governance, with many countries losing ground on key measures of good governance. more>

Updates from Chicago Booth

No, America is not more divided than ever before
By Howard R. Gold – It may seem sometimes like the United States is coming apart. “While rural America watches Duck Dynasty and goes fishing and hunting, urban America watches Modern Family and does yoga in the park,” write Chicago Booth’s Marianne Bertrand and Emir Kamenica.

“The economically better-off travel the world and seek out ethnic restaurants in their neighborhoods, while the less well-off don’t own a passport and eat at McDonald’s.” Conservatives, they write, favor masculine names for boys while liberals prefer more-feminine names, and men play video games while women browse Pinterest.

These kinds of cultural splits can have economic, social, and political consequences in that they may ultimately reduce social cohesion within a country. But according to Bertrand and Kamenica, who measured cultural divisions over time, the cultural gap in the US is largely stable—not widening.

The data reveal that divisions definitely exist. Watching certain movies or television shows, reading certain magazines, or buying particular consumer products are predictable markers of traits such as how much money people make or how far they got in school. more>

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The World Order Is Starting to Crack

By Stewart Patrick – When Donald Trump was first elected U.S. president, foreign observers hoped that he would moderate his more outrageous campaign positions as the practicalities of governing socialized him to adopt more conventional stances. Failing that, they hoped to contain the damage until the U.S. electorate returned to its senses. Trump’s scythe has sliced through these thin reeds.

For a onetime chaos candidate, Trump has been remarkably methodical in his efforts to destroy the liberal international order.

Stunned U.S. allies are now adapting to their new normal by taking steps previously unimaginable. They are hedging their bets in dawning recognition that the America of old may never return, regardless of who succeeds Trump. They are pursuing strategic autonomy, seeking to decouple from an unpredictable United States. And they are considering how to restore some semblance of international cooperation in a world left rudderless in the wake of the U.S. abdication of global leadership.

Collectively, Trump’s actions have sent U.S. allies reeling, shaking their long-standing faith in the West as a community of shared values, interests, and institutions. In response, they are working with China to safeguard globalization, expanding their own strategic autonomy vis-à-vis Washington, and grasping to defend what remains of the open world from the depredations of its erstwhile creator.

Trump’s trade protectionism has done the seemingly unimaginable. It has allowed mercantilist China—which flagrantly steals intellectual property, restricts foreign investment, and protects entire sectors from foreign competition—to portray itself as a bastion of multilateral trade. more>

The Wounds Won’t Heal

By David French – We usually place outsized emphasis on elections that define our politics and too little emphasis on the values that define our culture.

But it was the nomination of Kavanaugh and the wrenching debate about core cultural and constitutional values that dominated American discourse these past few weeks. It’s a debate that illustrated the fundamentally different ways in which conservatives and progressives view the world, and it unlocked not just an intellectual response but an emotional response that has radicalized otherwise reasonable and temperamentally moderate individuals into believing that the other side hates even the good people in their own tribe.

And so when Ford came forward, it’s as if her allegations landed in two different countries. The good-faith residents of Redworld were skeptical and said, “Prove it.” The good-faith residents of Blueworld believed Ford and said, “Finally, she has a chance for justice.” The presumptions were diametrically opposite, and everything that followed turned on those different presumptions. more>