You may recall Paul Glatris and Haley Sweetland Edwards’ cover article, “The Big Lobotomy,” from the June/July/August 2014 issue of the Washington Monthly. It documented how congressional Republicans had worked for decades to reduce Congress’ capacity for intelligent decision-making–while making it vastly more dependent on lobbyists and special interests–via reductions in appropriations for staff and committees and research initiatives.
The article clearly made an impression on Harry Stein and Ethan Gurwitz of the Center for American Progress, who cited it in reporting the latest self-lobotimizing effort in Congress in the FY 2016 appropriations process:
As Congress writes spending bills that attempt to implement the first year of its budget resolution, it is clear that the legislative branch intends to continue operating with one hand tied behind its back.
On June 12, 2015, the Senate Appropriations Committee advanced the fiscal year 2016 legislative branch appropriations bill, which would cut funding for the legislative branch by 17 percent from inflation-adjusted FY 2010 levels. The House of Representatives has already passed its version of the FY 2016 legislative branch appropriations bill, which makes roughly the same overall funding cuts as the Senate bill. These cuts may seem like a good way to score cheap political points at a time when Congress is deeply unpopular, but in the long run, they only increase congressional dysfunction and make the federal government less efficient and responsive to the American people.
The fact remains that the legislative branch includes much more than just members of Congress. When members vote to slash legislative spending, they undermine the professional staff and independent agencies that make it possible for Congress to oversee federal programs and understand complex policy questions. As funding and staffing levels for these legislative branch institutions have declined, Congress has become increasingly dependent on privately funded lobbyists and outside policy experts.
As the CAP article notes, the cuts include those unique legislative branch entities the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office–both essential for understanding and reforming government spending.
The House’s FY 2016 legislative branch appropriations bill cuts the GAO budget by 15.4 percent from its FY 2010 inflation-adjusted level, while the Senate bill cuts GAO funding by 14.9 percent. If every $1 cut from the GAO equates to $15.20 of unexposed waste, fraud, and abuse, cuts of this magnitude could result in about $1.4 billion in missed opportunities for government savings, or between $7 billion and $8 billion based on the larger return-on-investment ratio of 80 to 1.
Even for conservatives who want a smaller federal government, Glastris and Edwards note that “making Congress dumber has not, in fact, made government smaller.” It just makes government less effective.
If you don’t really believe in any legitimate mission for the federal government beyond national defense, of course, this this is a distinction without a difference. But the rest of us are saddled with big, dumb government.
By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, June 16, 2015
“Benghazi Committee Sinks Deeper Into Absurdity”: Can’t Pretend Any Longer That They’re Trying To Figure Out What Happened
Sidney Blumenthal has now been deposed by the select committee investigating the deaths of four Americans at the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya in September of 2012. While Blumenthal is an interesting Washington character and one who is particularly despised by Republicans, the fact that he was there at all shows just what a joke the Republicans’ Benghazi enterprise has become (if it was ever anything else).
When Rep. Trey Gowdy was first appointed to lead this committee a year ago, Republicans fell all over themselves to extol him as the perfect choice to lead the committee, because he’s such a serious, sober investigator who would stick to the facts and get to the truth. We’d finally learn why those Americans died, and who was to blame! But by now, Gowdy has become nothing more than a glorified RNC researcher, casting about desperately for something, anything that will reflect poorly on Hillary Clinton and damage her presidential campaign.
To explain briefly what this deposition was about: Sid Blumenthal is a longtime friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton who worked in the White House while Bill was president (if you want to remind yourself about who Blumenthal is and the details of his relationship to the Clintons, read this exhaustive article by Dylan Matthews). While Clinton was secretary of state, he was in communication with her, often sending her emails with his perspective on various issues. He sent her some memos on Libya that were actually written by Tyler Drumheller, a former CIA official then pursuing business interests there. Some of Drumheller’s analysis was accurate, some of it wasn’t. Clinton forwarded some of these emails to other people within the State Department.
If you’re an aficionado of the internal workings of government agencies and how information circulates within them, you might find this fascinating. But it’s hard to see what exactly is the scandal or crime here, or what it has to do with the events in Benghazi. Let’s look at what Trey Gowdy had to say:
“You can determine for yourself whether someone who has a pecuniary interest in a country, how that might impact the accuracy of the information that was passed on,” Gowdy said…
Gowdy framed Clinton as irresponsible for welcoming and forwarding the Blumenthal memos since the government never vetted their author or the sources behind his information.
“You have an intelligence apparatus at your disposal. We have a CIA. Why would you not rely on your own vetted, sourced intelligence agency?” he said.
First of all, the fact that Clinton read Drumheller’s memos doesn’t mean she or anybody else was ignoring what the CIA and officials within the State Department were saying — that’s just silly. Maybe secretaries of state should refuse to listen to outside sources like Drumheller, or maybe they shouldn’t; you could make a case either way. But more to the point, who cares? What does this have to do with the events in Benghazi?
I suppose if Drumheller had written, “Benghazi is quiescent and will remain so; our government shouldn’t worry about security there,” and then Clinton had forwarded the memo along with an order to remove all the guards from the consulate, Gowdy might really have something. But that’s not what happened, and he knew it before he ever got Blumenthal before his committee.
So what, precisely, is Trey Gowdy now doing? He doesn’t seem to be investigating the deaths of those four Americans anymore, that’s for sure.
Let’s be clear: Congress has every right to look into Benghazi as much as they like. They’re supposed to engage in oversight of the executive branch, and if they want to explore American policy toward Libya then they should go right ahead. But they can’t pretend any longer that they’re trying to figure out what happened on that night in 2012. They set up this special committee for that purpose, but it seems clear they figured out pretty quickly that they wouldn’t be uncovering anything new about that topic. Which isn’t surprising, since the matter had already been investigated by multiple committees controlled by Republicans, all of which were unable to find the wrongdoing they hoped for.
So now, instead of a committee to investigate the Benghazi deaths, they’re running a Select Committee to Make the Case That Hillary Clinton Was a Bad Secretary of State. It’s another reminder that the Clintons have always been blessed by the incompetence of their adversaries.
By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributing Writer, The Plum Line Blog, June 17, 2015
With the hunger for war again rising in Republican political circles, I guess this report from the Wall Street Journal‘s Patrick O’Connor was inevitable. Yes, Dick Cheney is back:
The former vice president is looking to make a splash on the national stage with a new book to be published in September and a group he and his daughter Liz launched to advance their views.
The effort is sure to play directly into the 2016 presidential debate, in which national-security policy is already a point of difference between the Republican candidates, many of whom are looking to turn the page on George W. Bush’s administration.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal at the Central Wyoming Fairgrounds, Mr. Cheney previewed some of his likely positions:
* He characterized one leading GOP contender, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, as an isolationist. “He knows I think of him as an isolationist, and it offends him deeply,” Mr. Cheney said. “But it’s true.”
* An early critic of nuclear talks with Iran, he thinks the U.S. should be prepared to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. He also favors additional arms shipments to U.S. allies in Eastern Europe and further military exercises in Poland to send a signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
* And he scoffed at the debate that tripped up Mr. Bush’s brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, over whether or not he would have invaded Iraq with the virtue of hindsight. (Mr. Bush, after some back and forth, eventually said he wouldn’t). Mr. Cheney instead said Republicans should scrutinize the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq under President Barack Obama.
Since most of the Republican candidates for president are already embracing most of these positions, why, one might ask, do they need Dick Cheney, one of the most unpopular public figures of the twenty-first century, to articulate them? Well, there’s one small but influential subsection of public opinion where Cheney has never lost his cache:
Mr. Cheney already exerts quiet influence over his party, making semiregular trips to the Capitol to address House Republicans and advising some GOP White House hopefuls. He wouldn’t discuss those conversations. Two of his top foreign-policy aides have signed on with Jeb Bush. And he is headlining donor events all over the country for the Republican National Committee.
“The party is very fortunate to have an active and engaged Dick Cheney for this upcoming political cycle,” said Reince Priebus, the party’s chairman, noting the number of candidates and elected officials who turn to the former vice president for advice. “He’s a top fundraising draw, in high demand.”
I suppose this is an example of what the church calls the “glamor of evil” in the Easter baptismal renewal vows.
At times, Mr. Cheney seems to relish his villainous public persona. Outside the rodeo arena, he took a moment to show off the latest feature on his truck, a Darth Vader trailer-hitch cover, a nod to his alter-ego from the Bush days. “I’m rather proud of that,” he said, flashing his signature uneven grin.
It’s reasonably clear Cheney wants to encourage Republicans to complete their devolution on the Middle East and come to defend Bush administration policies–including torture, black sites, the nightmare of the Iraq occupation and the original decision to invade that country–in their entirety. I guess Lindsey Graham’s presidential candidacy isn’t viable enough to ensure that happens.
Speaking of which, maybe the Republican presidential field could consummate its isolation of Rand Paul and its determination to make 2016 a “national security election” via an agreement that whoever wins the nomination would put Cheney on the ticket, to seek a return to his old job of running U.S. foreign policy from the shadows. I’m sure a lot of Democrats would love to promote the idea.
By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, June 1, 2015
“Boehner Still Can’t Get His Act Together On ISIS”: A House Speaker Who Keeps Expecting Everyone Else To Work Except Him
It’s been nine months since President Obama launched a military offensive against ISIS targets in the Middle East. It’s been five months since the president publicly called on Congress to authorize the mission. It’s been four months since Obama used his State of the Union address to urge lawmakers to act. It’s been three months since the White House, at Congress’ insistence, provided draft legislative language to lawmakers.
But as The Hill reported this afternoon, House Republicans – who support the administration’s military offensive – still aren’t prepared to do any actual work.
President Obama should scrap his war powers request to fight Islamic terrorists and go back to the drawing board, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Tuesday.
“The president’s request for Authorization of Use of Military Force calls for less authority than he has today. Given the fight that we’re in, it’s irresponsible,” Boehner told reporters after huddling with his rank-and-file members. Boehner said the president should withdraw the AUMF and “start over.”
It’s important to understand the nuances of Boehner’s whining on this issue. For quite a while, the Speaker said the legislative branch wouldn’t even try to authorize the war unless the executive branch did lawmakers’ work for them – Congress simply would not write its own bill, Boehner said, so it was up to the president to do the legislative work for the legislators.
Obama eventually agreed to write a bill for those whose job it is to write bills, only to discover that Congress doesn’t like his bill. The sensible, mature next move seems fairly obvious: if lawmakers don’t like the resolution the White House wrote, Congress can try writing its own version, agreed upon by lawmakers, and then voted on by lawmakers.
As of this morning, however, Boehner says he doesn’t want to. He wants the president to imagine what might make Republicans happy, then write another draft, at which point GOP leaders will let the West Wing know whether or not Congress is satisfied. If Boehner disapproves, presumably it’d be up to Obama to come up with a third.
This is quickly becoming a national embarrassment.
Not to put too fine a point on this, but the war, in effect, started nine months ago. Congress has a constitutional obligation to authorize the mission, but instead we have a House Speaker who keeps expecting everyone else to work except him.
I can appreciate the fact that this is not simply a matter of laziness. There are, as we’ve discussed before, significant policy disagreements – between Democrats and Republicans, between the House and the Senate – that are tough to resolve. Some lawmakers believe the draft resolution sent to Congress by President Obama goes too far, while some believe it doesn’t go far enough. Working out a resolution would be hard.
But here’s the fact that Boehner and his cohorts don’t seem to understand: it’s supposed to be hard. When lawmakers authorize the nation to launch a military offensive abroad, it’s difficult by design.
The Speaker, however, hopes to pass the buck, suggesting somehow it’s the White House’s job to write bills for Congress, and if Congress doesn’t like the president’s version, then Capitol Hill will just ignore the issue altogether. In effect, Boehner’s argument is that an ongoing war can just continue – indefinitely – no matter the cost or scope of the mission, and federal lawmakers are prepared to do literally no work whatsoever.
Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said today, “We may go down in history as the Congress that largely gave up its role in the war-making process.”
The irony, of course, is extraordinary. For years, Boehner and other GOP leaders have complained that Obama is an out-of-control tyrant, hell-bent on ignoring the Constitution and amassing excessive power in the executive. And yet, here we are, with the president pushing Congress to authorize a war that’s already started, and a Speaker content to sit on his hands.
Making matters worse, the more Obama tries to find a peaceful solution with Iran, the more Congress tries to intervene to derail the administration’s efforts. The more Obama wages war against ISIS, the less work Congress is inclined to do.
“It matters a great deal to the institution of the Congress what we do because future presidents are going to look back at this and they’re going to say ‘We can make war without a congressional vote,’” Schiff added. “It will have deep impact on our institutional role and our ability to serve as a meaningful check and balance on presidents’ ability to make war.”
Finally, evidence of Boehner’s legacy comes into focus.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 19, 2015
“A Reminder About Netanyahu, Iraq, And Iran”: George W. Bush Listened To Netanyahu And The Neocons. The Rest Is History
Just a few weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looked like a figure with huge influence in American politics. There he was addressing Congress, with Republicans practically carrying him into the House chamber on their shoulders. He was on every American television show he wanted, delivering his dark warnings of the second Holocaust to come if an agreement was signed with Iran. And now? Even after winning re-election, as Dan Drezner argues, Netanyahu has become irrelevant to the Iranian nuclear debate. There’s no one left for him to persuade.
And even though his argument always verged on the nonsensical—that any agreement to restrain Iran’s nuclear program “paves Iran’s way to the bomb,” whereas if we just walked away then Iran would abandon such ambitions and everything would turn out great—it is now becoming almost comical. He’s now demanding that Iran recognize Israel as a condition of any agreement, which as Josh Marshall notes would certainly be nice, but is completely irrelevant to the question of whether Iran has nuclear bombs or not. The agreement will succeed or fail, no matter what Benjamin Netanyahu thinks of it.
At the risk of piling on, I want to draw your attention to this piece by J.J. Goldberg of the Forward, which reminds us of just how spectacularly wrong Netanyahu has been on questions like this in the past:
In early January 2002, four months after the September 11 attacks, Israeli national security council director Uzi Dayan met in Washington with his American counterpart Condoleezza Rice. She told him—to his surprise, he later told me—that President Bush had decided to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein. A month later Dayan’s boss, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, met with Bush in the White House and offered some advice, based on decades of Israeli intelligence.
Removing Saddam, Sharon said, according to three sources with direct knowledge, will have three main results, all negative. Iraq will implode into warring tribes of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. You’ll be stuck in an Iraqi quagmire for a decade. And Iran, a far more dangerous player, will be rid of its principal enemy and free to pursue its ambitions of regional hegemony. Bush didn’t agree.
Israeli leaders continued pooh-poohing Iraq all spring. Dismissal turned to alarm in August, when Iranian dissidents released evidence that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons. In September Sharon told his cabinet to stop discussing Iraq. It was annoying the White House.
On September 12, however, a different Israeli voice visited Washington: ex-prime minister-turned-private citizen Benjamin Netanyahu. A longtime Sharon rival, closely allied with Washington’s neoconservatives, he’d been invited to address the Republican-led House as an expert on Iraq. Baghdad, he said, was hiding mobile centrifuges “the size of washing machines.” Moreover, “if you take out Saddam, Saddam’s regime, I guarantee that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region.” Throughout the Middle East, including Iran, populations will be inspired to topple their own dictators.
Bush, of course, listened to Netanyahu and the neocons, not Sharon and his generals. Alas, Sharon was right. Iraq imploded. Iran surged. The invasion had reverberations, but hardly positive. The rest is history.
I sometimes feel like as a country we’re already beginning to forget what a spectacular catastrophe the Iraq War was. It was probably the single biggest mistake in the history of American foreign policy, and part of what made it so maddening was the insistence of its boosters that it was going to be not just easy but the source of unending joy and happiness for the United States, the Middle East, and the world. They mixed their frenzied fear-mongering with the assurance that anyone who raised any doubts was a Saddam-coddler who didn’t really want our Arab friends to receive the blessings of democracy, prosperity, and peace that were sure to result from our invasion. They didn’t say, “This is going to be difficult and unpleasant, but we have to do it”; instead, they said, “This is going to be great!”
And today, the conservative narrative is that, sure, a couple of things went slightly wrong along the way, but if Barack Obama hadn’t come along and screwed everything up, today Iraq would be thriving and peaceful and it all would have turned out just as they predicted in 2002. That belief forgives them for their part in the calamity, of course.
Bibi Netanyahu wasn’t an “expert” on Iraq, and he isn’t an expert on Iran. Perhaps after the last couple of months, we can finally put to rest the idea that we should take his opinion on anything into account as we’re considering what we should do.
By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect, April 7, 2015