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“They Just Can’t Make Up Their Minds”: Let The Inevitable GOP Overreach Commence

There’s a not-so-subtle theme in much of the day’s political coverage, which is tough to miss.

The Hill:

House Republicans say they will not overreach on probing the Obama administration, having learned lessons from investigating the Monica Lewinsky scandal during the Clinton administration.

The New York Times:

The most pressing question for Congressional Republicans is no longer how to finesse changes to immigration law or gun control, but how far they can push their cases against President Obama without inciting a backlash of the sort that has left them staggering in the past.

Politico:

Republicans are worried one thing could screw up the political gift of three Obama administration controversies at once: fellow Republicans. Top GOP leaders are privately warning members to put a sock in it when it comes to silly calls for impeachment or over-the-top comparisons to Watergate. They want members to focus on months of fact-finding investigations — not rhetorical fury.

As a strategic matter, this certainly makes sense. Congressional Republicans don’t have any real incentive to overreach — much of the media is already eagerly running with the “White House in crisis!” narrative; the GOP base is already riled up; the stories can be dragged out for months with investigations and hearings; and all of this happening despite no evidence of wrongdoing from anyone at the White House.

Indeed, Republican leaders have every reason not to overreach. It’s easy to imagine the Democratic base rallying in response to a perceived effort to tear down President Obama, without cause, thanks to dubious scandals embraced by the GOP and the Beltway media. It is, after all, what happened in 1998, so there’s recent precedent to be aware of.

What’s more, don’t underestimate the potential for a backlash from mainstream voters outside either party’s base, who may also have a limited appetite for endless investigations. Incumbent Republicans running in the 2014 midterms should probably be cautious about telling voters, “I ignored job creation, but vote for me anyway because I participated in 11 Benghazi hearings.”

And yet, despite all of this, many congressional Republicans are already overreaching and the advice about caution is already being ignored.

I can appreciate the image GOP leaders are eager to convey: congressional Republicans are being serious and deliberate, seeking answers to legitimate questions without flying off the handle and making wild, baseless accusations. The more Americans see a reasonable and methodical process, the less likely they are to perceive an unhinged partisan vendetta.

But aren’t we well past that point? Can anyone seriously characterize congressional Republicans as “serious and deliberate” when it comes to alleging Obama administration wrongdoing?

TPM ran a list the other day of GOP lawmakers who are already speaking publicly about possibly impeaching President Obama. Has the president committed any high crimes? Well, no. In fact, none of the current controversies seem to relate to the White House at all. But the list of Republicans throwing around the “I” word is already pretty long. Indeed, Republicans can’t seem to make up their minds as to why they should impeach the president, but they seem to enjoy talking about it anyway.

It’s against the backdrop that Boehner & Co. are urging caution and hoping to avoid overreach? I think it’s a little late for that.

Update: GOP lawmakers have spent the last couple of days trying to argue that the IRS mess is a good reason to undermine the Affordable Care Act. That’s foolish, but more importantly, it’s also a good example of overreach.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 17, 2013

May 18, 2013 Posted by | GOP, Politics | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Not Half As Clever As They Think They Are”: Does Anybody In Washington Know How To Run A Conspiracy?

In case you’ve forgotten, what took Benghazi from “a thing Republicans keep whining about” to “Scandal!!!” was when some emails bouncing around between the White House, the CIA, and the State Department were passed to Jonathan Karl of ABC last Friday. The strange thing about it was that the emails didn’t contain anything particularly shocking—no crimes admitted, no malfeasance revealed. It showed 12 different versions of talking points as everybody edited them, but why this made it a “scandal” no one bothered to say. My best explanation is that just the fact of obtaining previously hidden information, regardless of its content, is so exciting to reporters that they just ran with it. They’re forever trying to get a glimpse behind the curtain, and when they do, they almost inevitably shout “Aha!” no matter what.

But then the problem comes. The White House decided to release a whole batch of emails related to the subject, and when they were examined, it turns out that what was given to Karl had been altered. Altered by whom, you ask? Altered by Karl’s source: Republican staffers on the House Oversight Committee, which had been given the emails by the White House (CBS’s Major Garrett confirmed this yesterday).

Let me just explain quickly in case you haven’t been following this, and then we’ll discuss what it means. Two changes to the emails were made, one in an email from Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, and one from State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. Rhodes actually wrote, “We need to resolve this in a way that respects all the relevant equities, particularly the investigation.” That was changed to, “We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department, and we don’t want to undermine the FBI investigation.” In the Nuland email, she actually wrote, “the penultimate point could be abused by Members to beat the State Department for not paying attention to Agency [CIA] warnings so why do we want to feed that either?,” which was changed to, “The penultimate point is a paragraph talking about all the previous warnings provided by the Agency about al-Qaeda’s presence and activities of al-Qaeda.”

So the changes have the effect of making it look like 1) the CIA was tying the attack to al Qaeda, but the State Department wanted to play that down publicly, and 2) the White House was taking special pains to protect the State Department. Neither of these things appear to be true, but there’s a logic to the Republican staffers wanting to paint that picture. Their argument, after all, is that the wrongdoing here consists of the White House (Obama!) and State Department (Clinton!) trying to fool everyone in America into thinking Benghazi wasn’t a terrorist attack, because Obama’s re-election hinged on the false belief that he had defeated al Qaeda forever, and if there’s any al Qaeda left then Mitt Romney would have won. And yes, that’s ridiculous, but it’s what many conservatives seem to believe.

Kevin Drum offers a good explanation for how this probably happened:

Republicans in Congress saw copies of these emails two months ago and did nothing with them. It was obvious that they showed little more than routine interagency haggling. Then, riding high after last week’s Benghazi hearings, someone got the bright idea of leaking two isolated tidbits and mischaracterizing them in an effort to make the State Department look bad. Apparently they figured it was a twofer: they could stick a shiv into the belly of the White House and they could then badger them to release the entire email chain, knowing they never would.

And then the White House called their bluff, because why not? It isn’t like there was anything incriminating in the real emails. But in their zeal to expose an imaginary White House/State Department conspiracy to mislead the public, the Republicans made their own little conspiracy to mislead the public. Or maybe it wasn’t a conspiracy, but just one person. We don’t know yet, because Karl hasn’t said who his source is. That’s his call to make; I’d argue that while in ordinary circumstances, the confidential relationship between reporter and source is sacrosanct, the reporter has every right to expose the source  if the source lies to the reporter and makes him a party to a deception.

This is one of those times when you have to ask, “What the hell were they thinking?” Did the Republican staffers think they could get away with this? That once the White House noticed the alterations, they wouldn’t release the originals and use it to discredit their whole investigation? It’s another reminder that as a general rule, in politics nobody is half as clever as they think they are. Every once in a while you get a real honest-to-goodness conspiratorial scheme like Iran-Contra, but most of the time people are just bumbling about, making one poorly thought-out decision after another. The reason there aren’t more conspiracies is that people aren’t smart enough to put them together.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, May 17, 2013

May 18, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Uniquely American And Uniquely Stupid”: The Makings Of The Next Debt Ceiling Debacle

I hate to interrupt fulminations about President Obama’s three incredible shrinking scandals with something as prosaic as concern about the GOP’s threatening to sabotage the economy, but a couple of bits of real news emerged yesterday regarding the debt ceiling (yes that, again).

It’s actually a perfect juxtaposition: On the same day that an interview with Standard & Poor’s top U.S. credit rating analyst warned of tinkering with the debt ceiling, House Republicans huddled up to brainstorm about what their price should be for not deliberately tanking the economy.

On the one hand you’ve got an interview National Journal did with Nikola Swann, “Standard & Poor’s top analyst for the U.S. credit rating.” You will recall that Standard & Poor’s downgraded its rating of U.S. debt in 2011 after the last debt ceiling showdown. And you will recall that that showdown was engineered by the GOP as a political hostage-taking situation: Virtually everyone (or virtually everyone who is responsible) acknowledges that raising the debt ceiling is necessary to avoid the U.S. government defaulting on its obligations, which would be financially cataclysmic, but the Republicans threatened to force that exact scenario if they didn’t get spending cuts.

Now the debt-ceiling-fight countdown clock is ticking once again (the Treasury started its “extraordinary measures” to avoid default at noon today), with the moment of crisis expected to hit some time between August and year’s end. Does the prognosis look any better? “We have not seen any strong evidence that the political system as a whole is more effective, more stable, or more predictable than we thought it was in 2011,” Swann told National Journal’s Stacy Kaper. “There does seem to be, especially in recent years, an overall trend in the U.S. to effectively make major policy decisions at the last moment in a crisis setting. We don’t see that as credit-positive.”

That’s delightful understatement. He goes on to say that in order to avoid another credit downgrade, the U.S. should extend the debt ceiling for five years and bring the debt-to-GDP ratio under control with a plan that is actually credible. House Republicans passed a bill (which stands zero chance of becoming law) which would allow the Treasury to prioritize government payments (which would still leave the government in a position of not paying its bills … it would just be not paying for goods and services while making sure that its debt holders are taken care of). “This does not sound like a very comfortable scenario,” he says in another bit of understatement.

The final point in the interview is the most instructive:

S&P rates over 120 sovereign governments, including all of the wealthy developed ones. Of those, there are very few that have anything similar to the U.S. debt ceiling. Of those countries that do have some kind of legislated limit on the amount of debt, that limit is set as part of the budget-setting process. It almost never is divided the way it is in the U.S. We don’t think it is helpful to credit quality.

The very idea of a debt ceiling that doesn’t rise with authorized spending is, in other words, both uniquely American and uniquely stupid. Why? Because it lends itself to the kind of irresponsible hostage taking the Republicans are gearing up to engage in yet again.

And it’s a political terrorism scheme that is increasingly disengaged from reality (to which its connection was tenuous at best anyway). To wit: The last time around the GOP objection to the debt ceiling was grounded in rising deficits; this didn’t make their threats less irresponsible but at least established a plausible-sounding connection between their threat and their demand. But the budget deficit is, as my bloleague Pat Garofalo wrote earlier this week, the incredible shrinking issue. As a percentage of the economy, it is now roughly half of what it was when President Obama took office.

But Republicans know they’ve got a hostage so they’re bound and determined to extract a ransom. Hence the brainstorming session they held yesterday where 39 different members of the House GOP conference arose to offer their idea of what policy they should demand in return for not intentionally tanking the global economy. The ideas, according to various reports, ranged from approval of the Keystone XL pipeline to doing something about partial-birth abortion.

My personal favorite item comes from Jonathan Strong’s account at National Review Online:

The Ryan budget passed by the House assumes repeal of Obamacare. So if House Republicans were to press for enactment of the Ryan budget in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, that would entail repealing Obamacare – which is why there are pangs of doubt within the GOP leadership about whether that strategy is realistic.

So GOP leadership thinks demanding that the president sign onto the radical Ryan budget is unrealistic because it would necessarily involve repealing Obamacare? As if the Ryan budget’s dramatic cuts to discretionary spending and gutting of Medicare and Medicaid would be evenly remotely acceptable were Obamacare not involved? The whole scenario yesterday has the air of fantasy – like my wife and I arguing over what we’ll do when we win the Powerball tomorrow night (she looks oddly askance at my plan to commute via jet pack).

 

By: Robert Schlesinger, U. S. News and World Report, May 17, 2013

May 18, 2013 Posted by | Debt Ceiling | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Scandalous vs. Scandal Lust”: Chasing Smoke And Finding Little Fire

I have watched in recent days as a parade of conservatives have used specific and real governmental missteps to justify their wide-ranging paranoia and irrational hostilities. “Aha!”

You have to take their glee in sorrow with a grain of salt. For them this is more about their scandal lust than what’s scandalous. These people have been searching for a scandal — Kenyan birth certificates and a Michelle Obama “whitey” tape — for years. The fact that they now have something solid and not made of sand is going to make sad souls happy. That’s to be expected.

What’s not to be expected — but has become depressingly predictable — is to watch liberals rending their garments and gnashing their teeth in woe-is-us doom chanting. The overreaction is exhausting and embarrassing.

Let’s say what this confluence of missteps is and what it is not — at least as the evidence now suggests.

First, the three issues — Benghazi, the targeting of conservative groups by the I.R.S. and the Department of Justice’s monitoring of Associated Press journalists — appear to be completely unrelated, try as politicians and pundits may to connect them. Second, the president does not appear to have had any direct involvement in any of the episodes. Third, their weight and resonances differ greatly, although all could be diminished by their emerging concurrently.

At this point, this is about flaws of procedures — some possibly illegal, all very disturbing — and problems of perception. But they are neither fatal nor unfixable.

Now, let’s separate the well-worn Benghazi witch hunt from the other two. From all appearances that is just a callous use of a tragic event to take a political slap at President Obama and a stab at the likely Democratic presidential heavyweight Hillary Clinton. It is being conducted by hyperpartisan politicians and aggravated by Fox News, both with a stake in justifying their unjustifiable contempt for this Democratic administration, and foiling the next one.

But Americans appear to be tiring of all that chasing of smoke and little finding of fire.

According to a Pew Research Center poll issued this week, the percentage of Americans closely following the Benghazi news has continued to fall. Less than half of the respondents believe that the Obama administration has been dishonest, while almost as many say that the Republicans have gone too far in the hearings. At least one in five don’t know either way.

According to the Pew Poll:

“About half (56 percent) of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they regularly watch the Fox News channel, and this group is particularly frustrated over the Benghazi situation. Fully 79 percent of Republicans who regularly watch Fox News say the Obama administration has been dishonest, compared with 60 percent of Republicans who don’t watch Fox regularly. Nearly half (46 percent) of Republicans who regularly watch Fox News say they are following the story very closely — compared with 23 percent among other Republicans. Those who regularly watch Fox News are also far more critical of the news media: 59 percent say the hearings have not received sufficient coverage by the news media.”

On the I.R.S. scandal, however, it certainly appears that the agency behaved stupidly. Not because they sought to scrutinize the mockery that is these 501(c)4 “social welfare” groups, but because they did so unevenly. But what will be left after all the hue and cry? As the Notre Dame law professor Lloyd Mayer told the Christian Science Monitor this week:

“What has been missed in the outrage is the recognition that this problem arose from much deeper sources than the poor judgment or possible partisan bias of a handful of I.R.S. employees.”

He continued:

“Congress has given the I.R.S. the difficult task of applying an incredibly vague definition of political activity and an uncertain standard for how much political activity tax-exempt social welfare organizations may engage in.”

That, in the end, is the real scandal.

And now to the Associated Press scandal. The Justice Department was just wrong in the employ of its dragnet, and the administration — as represented by a spokesman, Jay Carney — was disingenuous in its insistence that the administration supports “unfettered” journalism. It just doesn’t. But we’ve always known that, at least we in the media have. The scandal here is that an atmosphere of intolerance for leaks — which Republicans ironically accused the Obama administration of encouraging — seems to have overtaken the Justice Department.

On Wednesday the White House took steps to mitigate the damage, releasing more than 100 pages of Benghazi talking point e-mails, seeking to revive a shield law for reporters who refused to disclose confidential sources, and having the president himself deliver a statement on the I.R.S. In it he announced the resignation of the acting commissioner of the agency, the implementation of new safeguards and a pledge to work with Congress in investigating the matter. As the president said, “The good news is that it’s fixable.”  And, it is.

That’s it — the gist of all three as far as we know at this point. These are not administration-enders. People can be punished, or fired or even jailed, if Speaker John Boehner has his way, but at this early stage signs are not pointing to any of those people being in the White House.

Even if I had hair, I wouldn’t be setting it on fire, not yet anyway.

By: Charles M. Blow, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, May 15, 2013

May 18, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Real IRS Problem”: The Post Citizens United Explosion Of Undisclosed Political Campaign Spending

Americans of all political stripes should be outraged at the recent revelation that the Tea Party was unfairly targeted by the IRS before last year’s election. The IRS should never base its decisions on political preferences or ideological code words, regardless of what bureaucratic challenges it may face. But the lesson that the right is drawing from the IRS’s misdeeds — the lesson that threatens to dominate the public conversation about the news — is wrong.

We’re seeing a knee-jerk reaction, particularly from the Tea Party and their allies in Congress, that is threatening to turn the IRS’s mistakes into an indictment of “big government” writ large. Some are already trying to tie the scandal to the Right’s favorite target, Obamacare, and to the Benghazi conspiracy theory.

The danger of this frame is that it will discourage the IRS from fully investigating all nonprofit groups spending money to influence elections. And it will distract from the core problem behind the IRS’s mess: the post-Citizens United explosion of undisclosed electoral spending.

Before the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, only a limited number of nonprofit 501c(4) groups could spend money to influence elections — those who did not take contributions from corporations or unions. But Citizens United lifted restrictions on corporate spending in elections, setting the stage for individuals and companies to funnel unlimited money through all corporations, including c(4)s and super PACs in an effort to help elect the candidates of their choice. Spending by c(4)s has exploded since Citizens United, since the decision allowed any c(4) nonprofit corporation that didn’t spend the majority of its money on electoral work to run ads and campaign for and against candidates. And c(4)s, as long as they follow this rule, don’t have to disclose their donors under the laws currently in place.

The IRS, then, was forced to play a new and critical role in policing this onslaught of electoral spending. IRS officials clearly made poor choices in how to confront this sudden sea change and those mistakes should be investigated and properly addressed. But strong oversight of this new wave of spending remains critically important and clearlywithin the IRS’s purview.

If we let understandable concerns about bad decisions by the IRS lead to weakening of campaign finance oversight, our democracy will be the worse off for it. Instead, we should insist that the government strengthen its oversight of electoral spending — equally across the political spectrum. We should pass strong disclosure laws that cover all political spenders, including c(4)s. And we should redouble our efforts to overturn Citizens United by constitutional amendment and reel back the flood of corporate money that led the IRS to be in this business in the first place.

 

By: Michael B. Keegan, The Blog, The Huffington Post, May 15, 2013

May 18, 2013 Posted by | Citizens United, Internal Revenue Service | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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