Friday, January 27, 2023

Parties fight over more muscle for IRS


Gordon L. Weil

Maine taxpayers won the lottery.

When the Maine Megabucks winner receives the $1.35 billion payout, Maine could receive as much as $96.4 million in taxes. Unlike other billionaires, the winner will have to pay most state and federal taxes before they get their money.

The wealthiest taxpayers do everything they can to evade paying taxes. Some of them cheat. Mostly, that’s never known. But a recent New Yorker magazine disclosed one classic story.

To try to get all households to pay their fair share as set by law, the IRS and Maine Revenue Services conduct audits and investigations. That’s the prime reason for their existence.

If they succeed, they could collect billions in legitimate revenue. That would reduce the tax burden on smaller taxpayers. And it should reduce the need for government to borrow money to cover approved costs. Borrowing means paying interest and taxpaying households foot that bill.

The money the Megabucks winner has brought to Maine was raised from players in other states and that cash will reduce the state’s need to borrow and its related costs. That saving will flow through into the calculation of just how much money is needed from taxes.

Maine taxpayers benefit when the tax bill is paid with OPM – other people’s money. It starts with everybody supposedly paying their fair share as required by law, and a lottery bonanza is a plus.

Not everybody is affected. The world of taxpayers is only a fraction of the total number of households. Right now, about 60 percent of households pay no federal income tax. Under so-called progressive taxation, each household is expected to pay more as its income increases, but many average people are exempt.

Ways of making money have become more complex as have ways of dodging tax payments. The wealthiest also have the most complicated incomes and they can afford to hire experts to help them thread their way around payments to the IRS.

Over time, the IRS’s ability to ensure that those with larger incomes pay their fair share has eroded. The number of taxpayers and the complexity of tax returns have increased, but the number of IRS agents available to review returns and conduct audits has decreased. Taxation is getting ahead of the tax collectors. The IRS’s computers are ancient and use outmoded systems.

If the tax collection agency lacks the tools to collect taxes from the wealthiest, they can avoid paying everything the law intended. If Congress understands that, then its failure to support the IRS amounts to taking it easy on the rich. It’s possible that such people could express their gratitude for benefitting from lax enforcement by contributing to the campaigns of those in Congress who made it possible.

The renewed effort to step up the collection of taxes is embodied in the Inflation Reduction Act passed last year by Congress with only Democratic votes. Opposition has come exclusively from Republicans.

After the GOP took control of the House this month, it passed a bill along strict party lines, repealing funding over the next ten years for new agents and for upgrading equipment. The GOP view was that the new law would add 87,000 employees who would go after middle class taxpayers. They ignored the exemption for most households or decided to see “middle class” income at new, high levels.

Some expressed the view that the rich always find ways to avoid taxes, so the IRS would end up targeting middle income families and small businesses. In short, there was no point in going after the rich, because the IRS was doomed to fail, and it would end up only getting middle income people to pay what they owe. That might seem unfair. Apparently, tax evasion for all would be preferable.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, overseer of the IRS, stated that households with incomes below $400,000 would not be audited by the new personnel. Her promise was greeted with partisan disbelief. Opposition to improved IRS audits on the wealthy depends on convincing average people that they are really the targets of tougher enforcement rather than its beneficiaries.

At the policy level, the GOP opposition to improved tax collection from the rich is consistent with Republican policies aimed at cutting government spending by starving it for revenue and reducing taxes on the wealthiest households. Among programs targeted for cost cutting are Social Security and Medicare.

The Senate, under narrow Democratic control, and President Joe Biden will not go along with the House GOP. But Republicans seem to believe that their anti-IRS vote will create a winning issue in 2024. While IRS improvement is expected to take 10 years, the Democrats face the challenge of producing some positive results quickly.

Friday, January 20, 2023

House swing district members could control dollar’s fate


Gordon L. Weil

Five people hold in their hands the fate of the dollar as the world’s standard currency.  If they can do that, they could go a long way to boosting China in its competition with the U.S.

They may also force the federal government into a partial shutdown.  It won’t be able to keep its commitments or pay its bills.  That would lend support to China’s claim that its authoritarian style of government works better than  American democracy.

The situation arises because Congress faces a war over raising the limit on the federal debt. It’s crunch time, according to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.  Without the increase in the debt ceiling, the dollar, the economy and the U.S. standing in the world can soon suffer badly.

The five people who could settle the issue are Republican members of the House of Representatives, now controlled by the GOP by nine votes.  If any five Republicans break ranks, the ceiling could be raised.  Because the votes of both the House and Democratic Senate are required to lift the ceiling, the GOP House majority becomes critical. 

How did the Republicans gain their narrow majority, replacing a similar scant Democratic lead?  It was the payoff for efforts in state legislatures in redrawing congressional districts designed to produce more GOP winners.  This political gerrymandering, sometimes a way of preventing the election of African Americans, is left largely untouched by the federal courts.

In New York, however, it was a court with Democratic nominees who rejected the Democratic effort at gerrymandering, handing the design to the Republicans.  The Democrats lost four seats, three to the GOP possibly due to redistricting and one after the census cost the state a seat.

One of these seats went to George Santos, now the most celebrated liar in the House. His bio, ignored by both parties, made him a dream candidate in a somewhat newly designed district.  Only after he won could voters learn that his bio was pure fiction.  Santos is now so precious to the slim Republican majority that they ignore his creative writing.

With votes of both Democrats and Republicans, Congress voted major spending bills for Covid help and infrastructure, both consistent with policies of former GOP President Donald Trump and Democratic President Joe Biden.  An enthusiastic Congress gave Biden, supposedly a big spender, more money for defense spending than he had requested.

Now, the House Republicans want to pare back some federal spending, hoping that the debt limit would not have to be increased.  It’s really a backdoor way to repeal what has already been approved and partially spent.

On a broader level, the issue reflects the policy differences between the two parties.  The Republicans believe that the federal government has grown too large and the most effective way to reduce its size and scope is to reduce overall spending.  That might be easier than going after specific budget items.

One GOP House member has shown concern about the strategy.  Texas Rep. Tony Gonzalez was the only Republican to vote against the new House Rules that could lead to a refusal to raise the debt ceiling. He worried that reducing spending could mean cuts to the military budget.

The Democrats support expanded government programs that they see as meeting public needs. As people come to rely on agriculture payments or defense-related jobs or bridge repair, they do not want spending cuts.  Overall federal outlays grow.  With no political appetite for tax increases, borrowing must increase.

This domestic political war, conducted with an eye on the 2024 elections, could have consequences going far beyond the budget.   American economic power and world leadership depend heavily on the reliability of the dollar.  That in turn is based on the certainty that the country always pays its bills, including making debt payments.

The Republicans may simply want to force Biden to agree to limited cuts, before they accept any debt ceiling increase.  But reductions in already approved spending could harm GOP constituents.  Maybe that’s what the Democrats are counting on plus the GOP’s need to avoid political responsibility for a shutdown.

A few Republicans might accept symbolic cuts and approve the increase.  That could help several of them, including the three new faces in New York, who won narrow races in districts that could flip back to the Democrats.

Or Biden could try to ignore the issue.  The Constitution says: “The validity of the public debt, authorized by law, ... shall not be questioned.”   Spending has been formally approved without funding from taxes, so Congress understood it must come from debt.  The federal debt is now $31.4 trillion. Doesn’t refusing to raise the debt limit question already authorized debt?

Failure to raise the debt limit could cause major damage or just be part of a political game.  Or both.

Friday, January 13, 2023

House of Representatives in chaos, but not collapse


Gordon L. Weil

Ever heard of Henny-Penny?   She’s back!

The children’s tale character was hit on the head by an acorn, concluded “the sky is falling” and set out to warn the king.  Along the way she panicked her friends, who followed her, only to be tricked and killed by Foxy-Woxy.  Just in time, Henny-Penny heard Coxy-Loxy crow, stopped to lay her morning egg and promptly forgot the sky issue.

After House Speaker Kevin McCarthy made concessions to his hard-right GOP members last week, you might have thought the sky was falling.  “To save himself, McCarthy just destroyed the House,” a Washington Post columnist cried. 

I’ll play Coxy-Loxy.  The sky is not falling.  The House was not destroyed.

To be sure, McCarthy met demands of the right-wing so they would step aside and let him squeak into the speakership.  By conceding, he made at least three things happen.

First, he agreed to help them win some legislative battles.  The most significant is giving in to their demand to block an increase in the debt limit by paring down existing spending.  After Congress authorizes spending and appropriates the funds, the Treasury must be allowed to borrow what’s needed, along with taxes, to cover the appropriations.

McCarthy is allowing other jabs at Democratic policies, like their efforts at reviving the IRS, though their votes will end up as posturing not policy.  And he has added an investigating committee to harass and embarrass the Biden administration.

The Republican House will face a Democratic president and Senate that would hardly go along.  An impasse on the debt limit could lead to a shutdown of the federal government or at least severe cutbacks.  It is impossible now to know the outcome, and it’s not helpful to assume the worst on the strength of McCarthy’s deal.  It may have been an acorn.

Second, McCarthy agreed to some procedural changes that weaken the Speaker’s power.  The House Rules, giving the Speaker full operational control of the House, produce what is called “regular order.”  Changing “regular order” matters, but it’s not the end of the House.

Under the new system, a single member will be able to propose a motion to remove the Speaker.  In debates on spending bills, members will be able freely to offer amendments.  Appropriations for individual departments will be handled independently, not rolled into a single “omnibus” package.  All of these procedures have existed at some time in the recent past.

The problem with democracy is that it is intentionally inefficient. Giving all the power to the Speaker fixes that, but at the cost of the independent power of each representative.

Omnibus bills result from adding enough pet projects of representatives and senators to a spending package until majority support is obtained.  That’s called “logrolling” and the logs roll over those left out of the deal.  The right-wingers believe that smaller bills give them a bigger chance.

Pundits worry that the right will abuse the process and either block any action or force others to accept their extreme positions on pending bills.  While they may be able to prevent bills from being enacted, they cannot control Congress.  Stalemate might encourage President Biden to take as much unilateral action as he can, just what they don’t want.

The third change is historic.  In 1994, GOP Rep. Newt Gingrich, who would become Speaker, led House Republicans to adopt strict party discipline.  He promised that if they pledged total party loyalty, their power would grow.  It worked.  It was the same kind of party control as exists in the British Parliament but is not usual in the American Congress.  

The GOP right-wing grew increasingly restive in bending to the will of the party leadership and with the McCarthy election balloting, strict party discipline ended.  While the anointed leader was elected Speaker, he gave away enough control to ensure that no single person could control the House GOP.

The concern raised by these changes is that the GOP extreme right wing, only a minority of all Republicans, will be able to set the House agenda by threatening the Speaker.  Even worse, they could wreak havoc, causing what would amount to a new version of the January 6 insurrection.

If the Speaker’s election turned procedures back to an earlier time with greater power for individual members making chaos possible, the solution might be readily available to most other House Republicans.  They could shake off their dependence on Donald Trump and oppose the right wing’s ambitions.

They need not drop the party’s traditional conservatism, but take on the challenge of defining it for themselves.  Instead of making concessions to Trump for fear of facing primary challengers he favors, they have the chance to exercise leadership to renew their party.  We’ll see.

The American parliament just died.  Up next: the 2024 elections. 

Friday, January 6, 2023

Justices charge Supreme Court acts as legislature; uses 'shadow docket'


Gordon L. Weil

The Supreme Court is acting as a legislature – again. 

Two justices on the Court, a conservative and a liberal, just made that charge in a major case.

Here’s the story of how two presidents set policy and the Supreme Court overruled them.

When he was president, Donald Trump sought to protect the American public from excessive exposure to the Covid-19 pandemic that was sweeping the world.  His administration adopted a policy under Title 42 of the federal laws that would ban almost all immigration into the U.S., keeping out people carrying the virus.

This policy, based on the obvious need to protect public health from contagious disease, aligned with his well-known desire to prevent unauthorized immigrants from entering the country.   It had the desired effect and was favored by the governors of states supporting Trump’s effort to bar the illegal immigrants.

When he took office, President Joe Biden retained Trump’s policy because of continuing concern about Covid-19.  Ultimately, he concluded that, while the virus still existed, it was no longer the same threat to public health.  He ordered the end of the Title 42 immigration ban.

Governors of states receiving illegal immigrants opposed his administration’s move, fearing a massive immigrant influx.  Many refugees and asylum seekers were assembled at the Mexican border awaiting Biden’s action.  The states went to federal court to halt his move.

A district court faced the immediate decision about whether the governors of the complaining states had the right, called “standing,” to bring the case.  The Supreme Court has determined parties to a case must be directly affected.  Would the states be harmed by an action under a law dealing with public health rather than immigration?

Before the case could proceed further, the Supreme Court was asked to decide if the states could raise the issue.  The ban was due to be lifted on December 21, 2022, but just two days before, the Court halted it while it decided that question alone, though not the full case.

The Court ruled it would hear testimony in February but could make its decision as late as June. If it rules in favor of the states, a lower court would then decide on the merits of the case itself.   If it decides against the states, Biden can proceed.  All that could take months.  Meanwhile, the ban, probably no longer needed for health reasons, would remain in place.

In short, the Court overruled the president’s legal determination of the health situation.  And the effect of its decision could set national immigration policy for many months, if not years.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, a Trump appointee to the Court, objected, believing the matter was a policy dispute.   Joined by Justice Katanji Brown Jackson, Biden’s only appointee, he acknowledged concerns about immigration.

“But the current border crisis is not a COVID crisis. And courts should not be in the business of perpetuating administrative edicts designed for one emergency only because elected officials have failed to address a different emergency,” he wrote.  “We are a court of law, not policymakers of last resort.”

The Court had other options.  It could have quickly decided on standing.  Or it could have allowed the president’s decision to be applied, while moving to a prompt ruling. 

Gorsuch and Jackson believed the majority was influenced by immigration policy concerns.  But they could not know why the majority had made such an important decision, because five justices had said nothing.  Instead they simply ordered that Biden could not end the ban.

Two other justices – Elena Kagan and Sonya Sotomajor – also opposed the majority.  They gave no reasons, possibly because they had already expressed themselves strongly about the kind of ruling used by the majority.  It’s called the “shadow docket” – rulings made to look simply procedural, but which really decide major cases.

In an earlier case, Justice Kagan had written that the Court “barely bothers to explain its conclusion.” She continued, “The majority’s decision is emblematic of too much of this Court’s shadow-docket decision-making – which every day becomes more unreasoned, inconsistent, and impossible to defend.” 

In that case, Justice Sotomayor simply said, “The Court’s order is stunning.”  The Court did not suspend a state law, while it considered whether the law was constitutional, but allowed it to go into effect.   The immigration case used the reverse approach, though neither time did the Court provide legal justification.

Chief Justice John Roberts speaks of preserving respect for the Supreme Court and asserts that it does not play politics.  Yet he was in the majority in both cases, going along with “shadow” opinions in pending cases that allowed an anti-abortion law passed in a Republican state, but blocked the decision of a Democratic president.

“Equal Justice Under Law” is carved on the Supreme Court building.  Is this justice “equal?”  Where’s the “law?”

Friday, December 30, 2022

Trump and Russia decline, economy transforms: That Was the Year That Was

Gordon L. Weil

Some years are sure to end up in historical memory. 2022 is one of them.

Russia launched a land war in Europe long after people thought that the Second World War had ended such conflicts.

The economy underwent basic changes as people began to deal with the true costs of what they need and want.

And the dominance of one of America’s most disruptive political figures began to disintegrate.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine came as a big surprise. With the end of the Soviet Union, Russia ceased to be seen as a threat to the rest of Europe. It was invited to join the club of the world’s major economies. But participation did not align with its desire to remain one of the world’s two superpowers, and it could not remain in the club.

Russia, whose main assets are nuclear weapons and a large population, sought to recover lost Soviet territory, capped by its Ukraine invasion. It apparently expected that its formidable army and lack of interest in the West would make a takeover easy.

Heroically defending their land, the Ukrainians were taught both Russia and the world a lesson. They revealed Russia’s military as a sham. Whatever the outcome of the war, Russia has little chance of recovering its superpower role. As Russia’s weakness became obvious, China emerged as the leading authoritarian power and the chief challenger to the U.S. and its allies.

American consumers are bargain hunters, and China enhanced its power by selling goods at low prices, collecting dollars to finance its world expansion. But the spread of Covid interrupted trade flows from China, and U.S. leaders became increasingly aware that American customers were financing the quest for power of their country’s chief rival.

Parallel to this development, the unmanaged influx of immigrants had become a major concern in the U.S. and Europe. Though millions sought unauthorized entry, the lost contribution of immigrants as workers and consumers became more obvious. Workers demanded higher pay, shortages developed and prices climbed.

Some may still believe that the world economy is merely passing through a difficult and stressful period, but that it will soon return to normal. Inflation will slow, but prices won’t retreat and business will not pick up where it left off. Such thinking misses some clear reasons that a new economy has been emerging in 2022.

Pay increases will not be rolled back. Many people have been seriously underpaid and they have implicitly joined an invisible national labor union. They withhold their labor unless they get better pay and working conditions.

Countries are getting more serious about climate change. Turning environmental damage around will make goods and services more expensive. U.S. production costs will initially be higher than were charges on imports from China, which despoils the environment while exploiting its workers.

Paying increased labor costs, less dependence on cheap Chinese imports, and environmental improvement action will keep prices from dropping back. People may have enough money to meet their needs but not to satisfy all of their wishes. This new economy could last for decades.

Donald Trump probably changed the U.S. and America’s world standing in a brief period more than all but a few previous presidents. (He would say more than any of them.) He has his MAGA supporters. Like a stopped clock that is right twice a day, he has some accomplishments. But they are byproducts of a destructive ego, and he has proved dangerous to his country.

His greatest faults have been giving comfort to bigotry and placing his own ambition and interests above the values and norms of the country he was elected to lead. He chillingly proposed the “termination” of the Constitution so he could seize the presidency he knew he had not won. He encouraged irresponsible officials to dismantle essential constitutional practices.

His combination of ignorance and arrogance came up short. In Maine, former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, an ardent ally of Trump, chose to challenge Janet Mills, the Democratic incumbent. His record, irresponsibly flaunting the will of the people, would be pitted against her record as a rightward-leaning, moderate.

Her victory was the hard evidence of Trump’s decline. Mills had a mainly positive, though not flawless, record to run on, but LePage was stuck with his Trump-like legacy. If he tried to distance himself from his previous positions, it only looked like opportunism, which did not help.

This year, Trump was losing in the judicial system and key Trumpers like LePage were losing at the ballot box. Mills showed that voters would support steady progress over chaos and controversy. In Maine and elsewhere, a brief political era was ending.

Valiant Ukraine and failing Russia, the emergence of a new economy and the descent of Trump combined to make 2022 an historic year.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Popular vote for president remains at risk

Gordon L. Weil

What was Mike Pence supposed to do?

Attention is again focused on the January 6, 2001, insurrection at the Capitol when the Vice President didn’t do what then President Trump wanted and stop counting the electoral votes that would make Joe Biden president.

Just specific action he should take was never clear.   At least one Trump advisor suggested the Constitution gave the Vice President the power simply to declare the winner, if he found enough defective votes, thus denying Biden the election.  That was a bit of a reach, even for the person who proposed it.

If that went too far, some Republicans said that Pence should kick the matter back to the contested states, particularly to state legislatures. That theory rested on a constitutional provision that gives state legislatures the power to direct how presidential electors are chosen.  That could mean the legislature would pick electors favorable to Trump despite a state’s popular vote for Biden.

Pence followed none of this dubious advice.  But the belief that the Constitution gave state legislatures total, independent power to determine the outcome of federal elections has survived.  It is now squarely before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The question survives, because it is part of the GOP playbook of voter suppression measures aimed at Democrats.  The favored plays include making it difficult to register and vote, limiting voting periods and easily accessible polling places, restricting mail-in ballots and segregating Democrats into as few districts as possible.

Drawing district lines to segregate voters by race is illegal.  But the Supreme Court will not rule against possible racial gerrymandering unless it can be shown that no other significant factor could have been the basis for the district outline.  That’s a tough case to prove.  Some southern states have managed to create a single congressional district to sweep in the state’s Black and presumably Democratic voters.

The Court will not rule at all on political gerrymandering, when a state draws congressional or state legislative district lines to pack as many members of one party into as few districts as possible.  The Court will leave that issue to the individual states as allowed by the Constitution.  That raises the question of who within a state has the power to decide.

The Constitution states that the “Manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof....”   Can the state legislature gerrymander as it wishes, unchecked by any other part of the government?

If so, a legislature could ignore the popular vote as well as the governor and the state supreme court.  Because its powers are mentioned in the Constitution, the legislature would consider itself a federal agency, lifted out of state government when it creates congressional districts.  That’s what North Carolina Republicans claim in a case now before the Supreme Court.

State legislatures cannot normally act outside of the limits of state constitutions.  But a state supreme court decision in line with a state ban on political gerrymandering might raise a conflict with the federal Constitution. In that situation, the U.S. Supreme Court could overrule the state court.

Article I of the Constitution makes the president part of the legislative process, because Congress can make decisions only with the president’s consent or by overriding a president’s veto.  State governors have a similar role. Despite the claims of the North Carolina Republicans, the Supreme Court long ago decided that governors could veto legislative districting.

The Court has already ruled that the people of Arizona, who mandated by referendum that a neutral districting commission should replace the legislature, exercised a legislative function allowed by the Framers. 

For state legislatures to gain absolute power, the Court would have to reverse two previous rulings and strip state courts of their own constitutional jurisdiction over elections to federal office.

The Court’s decision might reveal how partisan it has become.  If it rules for the Republicans, as some justices seem inclined to do, a state legislature under one party’s control at the moment the Court decides could always draw districts to keep that party dominant and in power. It would take a massive change in the electorate itself to redraw the lines.

If state legislatures are given total control over the design of congressional and legislative districts, they could similarly have unchecked power over who may cast electoral votes for president.  The popular vote could be ignored, especially if the losing candidate claimed there had been voter fraud.

Such a Court ruling might easily lead to the warped legal view that state legislators, not the people, can decide who wins federal elections.  It could also harm the Court’s already suffering reputation.

A Supreme Court decision for the North Carolina Republicans could end up requiring a Pence successor someday to do exactly what he refused to do. 

Friday, December 16, 2022

Ukraine becoming partisan issue

Gordon L. Weil

Opposition to Russia has been a core value of American policy for decades.  Under the Soviet Union and now as the Russian Federation, it has threatened world peace as it pursues its quest for domination.  The U.S. favors a system governed by agreed rules; Russia favors chaos.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is the latest example of its attempt to gain domination through force.  But the surprising ability of Ukraine to resist Vladimir Putin’s version of Russian expansion has given the U.S. and its NATO allies the chance to win their long struggle with a fading world power.

President Biden has led a successful response to Russian aggression without the loss of a single American life on the battlefield.  NATO was formed to block Russian expansion in Europe, and it has had to revive its mission as Russia’s attempt to take over its neighbor threatens other nearby nations, including Poland and the Baltic countries.

Ukraine stood up to Russian aggression on behalf of what was often called “the Free World” and the U.S. and its NATO allies backed its willingness to put Ukrainian lives at risk with some of the alliance’s latest weapons.

NATO has grown stronger as its member countries have been shaken from their mistaken belief that Russia, on which they had become dependent for oil and natural gas, would be a good citizen of Europe.  Finland, which shares a long border with Russia, and Sweden have moved off the sidelines to seek NATO membership.  The alliance has moved its forces closer to Russia.

The NATO countries also imposed possibly the toughest economic sanctions ever levied short of outright blockade.  Americans paid the price at the pump, but the cost to Russia will be higher and longer lasting.  Putin’s folly may have transformed the world economy for good.

Biden has had bipartisan support in Congress for his Ukraine policies of sending arms, training troops and easing the hardships of war.  Traditional GOP opposition to Russia coupled with Biden’s ability to lead a united Democratic contingent have been paying off in successful resistance to Russia, now revealed as a paper tiger, though still one with nuclear weapons.

But some Republicans oppose Biden’s policy.  Their numbers may be growing as the war wears on.  With GOP control of the House next year, they could try to undercut what has been a successful policy.  Ukraine aid is becoming an increasingly partisan issue.

There may be three reasons for the growing Republican opposition.  First, they don’t want Biden to succeed.  Second, they would revive traditional American isolationism based on ignoring much of what takes place in the world and focusing on our own concerns.  Third, some like Putin, because they see him as an efficient authoritarian.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky and his people may be fighting an unwinnable war, because Ukraine is restrained by NATO from launching a counterattack into Russia.  And the weak Russian military is propped up by Iran and must fight to hold its ground, but no longer advances.

Each side seeks the best possible positions before the negotiations that will inevitably end the fighting.  Russia wants to demoralize Ukrainians by attacks on homes, hospitals and energy facilities, so they will be ready to cede territory.  Ukraine wants to recover as much territory as possible before talks begin and relies on continued U.S. arms supplies.

The minute the war halts, it will be fair to say that Ukraine has won and Russia has lost. Russia, which could not take over Ukraine and turn it into a buffer against NATO, has not only failed to annex its neighbor but has seen NATO strengthened.  Ukraine has shown it can field a strong army.

The first step toward a negotiated settlement is a cease fire.  Ukraine must force Putin to conclude that he must stop fighting and start talking.  Zelensky needs strong NATO backing, which depends on the U.S.  It’s an illusion to believe that Europe can go it alone without American leadership.  Wishing for that won’t make it happen.

The risk is that partisan congressional opposition could reduce or eliminate critical American support and hand Russia an unearned victory instead of ending its great power myth.  If the U.S. maintains its support for Ukraine, the result will reduce or eliminate its Russian rival.  And it could send a message to China, possibly discouraging an invasion of Taiwan.

The American president is responsible for foreign policy, but Congress has the power of the purse.   A bipartisan agreement on foreign policy is a worthy goal.  Such an accord does not mean that other goals cannot also be pursued.

Ukraine policy should not come down to opposing a Democratic president with a Republican “America First” view.  Ukraine is both too important and winnable.