Monday, February 25, 2013

Hagel Nomination Process Hides Truth

People often complain that politicians don’t tell them the truth.

They are probably right.  The truth is often painful, and politicians usually want to sound positive.

The nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense, now being filibustered by Senate Republicans, is a prime example.

The senators refusing, for the time being, to let the nomination come to a vote, are trying to use their leverage to get President Obama to admit that he failed to take the necessary steps to prevent the killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi, Libya.

The GOP tried without success to force that admission during the presidential campaign and later from then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. 

Whatever Obama may have done, nobody wants to state the obvious.  Stevens, a person extremely knowledgeable about Libya, put himself in harm’s way.

He should not have been in Benghazi without more protection, but the State Department went along with his decision.  Nobody says that the victim had significant responsibility for his fate.

While that’s understandable, it puts Obama in an impossible position, which is right where his opponents want him.

Appointments to the Cabinet almost always are free from the filibuster, and that will ultimately be true for Hagel.  If the GOP were to block him, a later Republican president could face the same tactic.

Yet some senators obviously see the opportunity to try to embarrass Obama, even knowing they will eventually let Hagel be confirmed.  Of course, they won’t say that.

Some Republican senators, apparently including Maine’s Susan Collins, seem to have it right.  They will not support a filibuster no matter what they think of Hagel.

But Collins and others will not support him.  Some will say it’s because of his views on Iraq or Israel.  But Collins has at least hinted at the truth.

Hagel’s confirmation hearing went badly.  He did not generate a sense of confidence about his ability to be a vigorous leader of a large and complex government department. 

Even if his personal policy positions don’t really matter and he must follow Obama’s direction, he did not come across as competent.  Nobody wants to speak that truth directly, because he will finally be confirmed and serve in the job.

The Hagel confirmation has also produce the reverse of the truth – an outright lie.

Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican newly arrived in Congress, has accused Hagel of taking money from North Korea.  The senator has no evidence to support his claim.

Cruz wants more financial disclosure by Hagel than has normally been demanded of cabinet nominees of either party.  He does not care that his approach could hamstring GOP appointees in the future.

He says that he has made the charge as a way of forcing Hagel to reveal more of his finances.  In other words, Cruz wants Hagel to be forced to disclose more about his income in order to refute his lie.  It does not matter that Hagel is innocent of the charge.

This tactic was used in the 1950s by the infamous GOP Sen. Joe McCarthy, who repeatedly lied when he claimed to have a list of Communists in the State Department. 

Cruz’s position has come in for strong criticism from members of his own party, including some who oppose Hagel.  Many Republican senators are unhappy to see the specter of McCarthy emerge.

In defending Hagel, the Obama administration says he would be ideal for the position because he would be the first Defense Secretary with military experience as an enlisted person.

But Hagel would not be the first enlisted person to head the Defense Department.  Four others served as enlisted men, though three were made officers while on active duty and the fourth later became an officer in the Army Reserve.  Because they became officers, the White House defended its claim by splitting hairs.

Besides, there is no proof that having served in the enlisted ranks rather than as an officer or not at all makes a person better suited to be Secretary of Defense.  Implicit in that claim is the belief that an enlisted person knows better than anybody that “war is hell.” 

In the 2012 presidential election, neither Obama nor Mitt Romney had served in the military, much less been an enlisted person.  Yet no serious claim was made that either was unsuitable to be commander in chief of the Armed Forces for that reason.

The Hagel affair has more than its share of hidden truths, unfounded assertions, and outright lies, which hardly increases public trust in government.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Split Develops Among House Republicans

Something unusual has begun to happen in Congress.

The House of Representatives has started to look like an American legislative institution instead like the British House of Commons, where strict party discipline is the norm.

After the 1994 elections, the Republican Party, riding to control of the House, imposed party discipline on its members to an almost unprecedented extent.

Historically both parties had hardly been highly disciplined.  Dissenters in each group would readily join with the majority in the other party to pass legislation.

In the 1930s and 40s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had to try to peel off Southern Democrats from their informal alliance with Republicans to get them to support him and his Democratic policies.

And over the years moderate Republicans would occasionally line up with the Democrats.

That was the normal rule and how a lot of bipartisan bills were passed.

But House Speaker Newt Gingrich convinced all GOP members of the House to vote as a majority of the Republicans members directed.

In true parliamentary fashion, Gingrich even resigned office after his party lost a few seats in the 1998 elections.  Dennis Hastert, his successor as Speaker, said that it was his job to allow only bills favored by the GOP to pass.

This new discipline hit its peak when House Republicans voted to impeach Democratic President Bill Clinton.

Under the parliamentary system, the legislature can dump the government by subjecting it to defeat on a so-called “vote of confidence.”

While Congress has no such power, the Clinton impeachment could easily be seen as a vote of no confidence.   The Senate, lacking such total discipline, failed to go along with the House.

In 2010, the Republicans surged nationally, capitalizing on voter discontent with the slow pace of economy recovery.

The GOP gains were largely made by so-called “Tea Party” Republicans, who were committed to reducing the size of government and public spending.

The Tea Party wave was so strong that its adherents toppled some senior GOP officeholders in party primaries.

Following the 2010 elections, the Republican-controlled House passed Tea Party bills that had no hope of gaining Senate approval.  But they staked out a clear party position.

It seemed like Tea Party Republicans could take over the party in many states and in Congress after the 2012 elections. They believed that with economic recovery progressing slowly, Democrat Barack Obama and his supporters in Congress would suffer defeat.

Mitt Romney, the party’s presidential candidate, was forced to transform himself from a moderate into a conservative.

Instead of winning a sweeping victory, Republicans saw Obama re-elected and the Democrats stronger in both the House and Senate.

Although election post-mortems tend to be unduly alarmist about the future of the losers, Republicans were quick to draw lessons from the results.

They had lost the rapidly growing Latino vote and a majority of women voters.  If the trend continued, the party could spend a long time as a minority.

When Congress reconvened last month, parliamentary style discipline was clearly waning.   

Many Republicans, reading the party’s low poll standings, seemed to recognize that voters wanted results more than ideological purity.

The New York Times selected three recent votes to show the increased influence of House Democrats.  But they also showed a remarkable change: the split among House Republicans.

Speaker John Boehner has led his troops into compromises that the Tea Party would not make.

In the vote to avoid the fiscal cliff, about a third of the GOP went along the vast majority of Democrats.  (The Democrats are incapable of complete discipline, so they had some defectors.)

And the GOP itself proposed a three-month extension in the debt ceiling battle, though Republicans could not have passed it without some Democratic votes.

These votes represented the Republicans’ recognition that they would get the blame and possibly pay a price at election time, if they threw the country into a financial crisis undermining economic recovery.

On aid for Hurricane Sandy victims, a few Republicans supplied votes needed for a majority.
A relative but essential handful recognized that it was unfair to assist disaster victims in Republican areas but block it for the Northeast.

And in the wake of the strong Latino support of the Democrats, some Republicans were ready to join their opponents to pass new legislation to deal with illegal or undocumented immigrants.

Such unusual cooperation may mark the end of the GOP experiment with parliamentary style government.

This year should show if strict party discipline has finally given way to the demands of practical politics.

Tax reform could help solve fiscal crisis

This could be the year for some real tax reform.

The federal government needs to complete its reduction of the federal debt by a targeted $4 trillion over ten years.  Many state governments, which must have balanced budgets, face stubborn deficits.

Tax reform should be part of the solution.

Pure tax reform is meant to be “revenue neutral,” not changing the amount of money government takes in, but making the tax system fairer for taxpayers.

We are not talking about pure tax reform this year.  President Obama wants the wealthy to pay their “fair share” and that means they should pay more.  Meanwhile, there will likely be no more tax cuts for anybody else.

In dealing with the federal debt, the President and Congress have already saved about $2.5 trillion in spending cuts and tax rate increases on high income people, especially those with taxable revenues above $450,000.

More is needed, probably in both spending cuts and tax increases.

The added federal tax money probably won’t come from further rate increases or even by lowering the definition of who is rich.  It will come from closing tax loopholes.

A loophole excludes certain income from being subject to tax.

All loopholes have been created by law with the specific intent of favoring some activity like giving to charity, buying a home or making certain investments.

Of course, loopholes also favor the people, often the most wealthy, who can take advantage of them. 

Some tax breaks come right off the top, even the tax return reveals if a taxpayer passes the $450,000 level.  For example, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s taxes showed that he received almost $2 million a year that simply did not count as part of his taxable income.

In the new Washington struggles to cut the debt, the Republicans want no more rate increases. If Obama agrees, as it looks like he might, the focus will be on loopholes, yielding a relatively small amount of revenue.

While closing loopholes in addition to spending cuts can help make it look like the $4 trillion goal has been reached, that will be something of an illusion.  Accountants for the rich and famous are already at work relabeling some investment income so it can slip through one loophole just as another is closed.

All that goes to show is that the battle against loopholes is endless and less likely to produce a real debt reduction than would an increase in rates.

It’s likely that everybody in Washington knows that, but is willing to give a somewhat false impression about their success in cutting the national debt.

Many states base their income tax at least partly on the federal system, so whatever happens in Congress will filter through to their state taxes.

But states will probably have to do more, because they cannot hide their debt behind more borrowing as easily as the federal government.  Many need voter approval for taking on more debt.

In a recent statewide referendum, California voters boldly decided to support a tax increase.  That stunned pundits who thought people would never agree to higher taxes.

As a result, Gov. Jerry Brown announced that the state’s budget shortfalls would end, restoring the state to fiscal health.  That’s only possible if the state stays on the straight and narrow.

In Maine, Gov. Paul LePage has reasonably advocated reducing the top income tax rate, among the highest in the country.  Democrats oppose any such rate cut for the rich.

The state’s financial problems cannot be solved by slight decreases or increases in the top tax rate, though such changes might promote greater tax fairness.

If the only fiscal policy is to cut state spending, as LePage advocates, most of the burden will shift to the property tax.   That’s decidedly unpopular.

And there is evidence that property taxes affect real estate sales, important as Maine develops as a retirement and vacation home haven.

The state needs more tax revenues and the obvious sources are increases in the sales tax and the meals and lodging tax.  And, as in other states, fewer items should be exempt from the sales tax.

Lower income people would be sheltered from a sales tax increase by the current exemptions established with them in mind.

Opponents say that such increases would cause sales to fall, and tourists to go elsewhere.  But there is no evidence that’s true. 

During a state budget crisis in the 1990s, Maine temporarily increased the sales tax.  Now might be the time to try it again.