Democrats and Republicans

Today, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, gave the longest speech in the history of the House, which goes back to 1789. After it was discovered that the House rules allow party leaders to speak as long as they want, Pelosi stood and spoke for a little over eight hours.

The longest speech in the history of the U.S. Senate lasted 24 hours. It was given in 1957 by a racist Southerner in opposition to that year’s Civil Rights Act. At the time, he was a Democrat (because most Southerners were), but he became a Republican after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights act (as most Southerners did). He remained a Republican for the next thirty-nine years.

That basically sums up our two political parties. A woman wants people illegally brought here as children to be protected against deportation and to have a chance to become American citizens. A man wanted to stop everyone from having equal rights, especially black people.

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Things Are Not Getting Better

The news has not been good, leading various journalists to summarize the past few days the way Jamelle Bouie did for Slate:

After months of sustained public criticism from Trump, Andrew McCabe stepped down as deputy director of the FBI. The rationale behind McCabe’s decision is still not entirely known, but there’s little doubt it involves the Russia investigation. In addition to being a verbal target of Trump’s, McCabe had become a bête noire of conservative media, the subject of baroque conspiracies about a “deep state” that is allegedly conspiring against the president….

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee voted to release a … memo [that] accuses the FBI of abusing its surveillance powers, using partisan opposition research in order to attack Donald Trump’s campaign and undermine his presidency, and singling out officials like McCabe, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and former FBI Director James Comey, all targets of Trump and his allies in the GOP and conservative media… Democrats on the committee have called the document a “misleading set of talking points”, and federal law enforcement officials had warned that releasing the memo would be “extraordinarily reckless”….

In the wake of this vote, Republicans on the Intelligence Committee also opened an inquiry into the FBI and the Justice Department… On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan announced his support for both moves, calling for a “cleanse” of the FBI….

What began as Trump venting on Twitter has now become official administration policy, carried out with the blessing of White House aides who were at one time seen as bulwarks against such behavior. Bloomberg reported on a phone call between White House chief of staff John Kelly and senior officials in the Justice Department, where the former conveyed the president’s “displeasure” and reminded them of his expectations, albeit adding that the White House doesn’t expect them “to do anything illegal or unethical”.

To all of this, add the fact that—during this same period of time—President Trump declined to sanction Russia for its interference in the 2016 presidential election [after Congress voted almost unanimously for new sanctions to be imposed].

Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said this about the president’s decision:

Congress voted 517-5 to impose sanctions on Russia. The President decides to ignore that law. Folks, that is a constitutional crisis. There should be outrage in every corner of this country.

There should be, but there hasn’t been. Most of us are suffering from outrage overload.

Earlier in the week, Mr. Bouie wrote about “ICE Unbound”:

[The president has unleashed] the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, giving it broad authority to act at its own discretion. The result? An empowered and authoritarian agency that operates with impunity, whose chief attribute is unapologetic cruelty.

…. The most striking aspect of ICE under this administration has been its refusal to distinguish between law-abiding immigrants, whose undocumented status obscures their integration into American life, and those with active criminal records—the “bad hombres” of the president’s rhetoric.

Erasing that distinction is how we get the arrest and detention of Lukasz Niec, a Polish immigrant and green card holder who was brought to the United States as a young child. Last week, ICE agents arrested Niec …, citing two misdemeanor convictions for offenses committed when he was a teenager… A practicing physician, Niec now sits in a county jail, awaiting possible deportation….

Bouie didn’t mention Amer Othman Adi, a 57-year-old Palestinian who had been in the U.S. since he was 19. A married man with four daughters, he helped revitalize the city of Youngstown by opening several businesses. He was deported to Jordan on Monday night.

It all makes these Twitter thoughts from author G. Willow Wilson worth thinking about:

It may be time to start thinking about how we can effectively push back against authoritarianism once the last of the checks and balances have fallen.

It’s a mistake to think a dictatorship feels intrinsically different on a day-to-day basis than a democracy does. I’ve lived in one dictatorship and visited several others–there are still movies and work and school and shopping and memes and holidays.

The difference is the steady disappearance of dissent from the public sphere. Anti-regime bloggers disappear. Dissident political parties are declared “illegal”. Certain books vanish from the libraries.

The press picks a side. The military picks a side. The judiciary picks a side. This part should already feel familiar.

The genius of a true, functioning dictatorship is the way it carefully titrates justice. Once in awhile it will allow a sound judicial decision or critical op-ed to bubble up. Rational discourse is never entirely absent. There is plausible deniability.

People still have rights, in theory. The right to vote, to serve on a jury, etc. The difference is that they begin to fear exercising those rights. Voting in an election will get your name put on “a list”.

So if you’re waiting for the grand moment when the scales tip and we are no longer a functioning democracy, you needn’t bother. It’ll be much more subtle than that. It’ll be more of the president ignoring laws passed by congress. It’ll be more demonizing of the press.

Until one day we wake up and discover the regime has decided to postpone the 2020 elections until its lawyers are finished investigating something or other. Or until it can ‘ensure’ that the voting process is ‘fair’.

A sizable proportion of the citizenry will support the postponement. Yes, absolutely, we must postpone elections. The opposition is corrupt! Our leader is just trying to protect us! A dictator is never without supporters.

And hey, if we pull ourselves back from the brink and the midterms go ahead and the 2020 election is free and transparent and on time, you are cordially invited to point at me and laugh. Honestly. No one will be happier to be wrong than me.

 

Secretary Nielsen Bullshits. Senator Booker Speaks.

Before today, very few people could identify Kirstjen Nielsen. She has been the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security for less than six weeks. But that means she is a senior official in the Trump administration, responsible for enforcing our immigration laws and making sure nobody travels to America with a bomb in their underwear. The Department of Homeland Security was created in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack.

Now Secretary Nielsen will be well-known. She testified (under oath) before the Senate Judiciary Committee today. Here’s the brief exchange that will make her famous:

Senator Leahy: “Norway is a predominantly white country, isn’t it?”

Secretary Nielsen: “I actually don’t know that, sir. But I imagine that is the case.”

It’s certainly peculiar that she wasn’t sure, or wasn’t willing to admit, that most Norwegians are white, especially since her position involves protecting America’s international borders; she attended the meeting at which the president made his infamous comment about Norwegian immigrants being preferable to those from Africa and Haiti; she has the ultra-Scandinavian name of “Kirstjen Nielsen”; and she isn’t seven years old.

I’ve recounted this vignette (one more moment in that ongoing story “America, How Could You Possibly Have Done This?”) to provide some context for something else that happened at today’s Judiciary Committee hearing. Senator Cory Booker was there. He used to be the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, an old industrial city that our president must think is a shithole. Now he represents New Jersey in the U.S. Senate. He could have asked Secretary Nielsen questions, but chose instead to make an eight-minute speech. The whole thing is worth listening to. He speaks with such intensity that it goes by quickly.

Senator Booker may be our president one day. What an upgrade that would be!

The President Speaks

It has been widely reported that the president privately told some members of Congress that the U.S. should limit immigration from countries he referred to as “shitholes”.

A few facts:

He really did say it. The only Democrat in the room reported what the president said and at least one Republican senator (Lindsey Graham) confirmed the story. Shortly after the meeting, White House staff defended the president’s statement, and even suggested that his “base” would approve of what he said.

It’s unlikely that we would have heard about this if there hadn’t been a Democrat in the room, which should make us wonder what other opinions the president is privately expressing.

What he said is consistent with other stupid, racist remarks he’s made (for example, all Haitians have AIDS and Nigerians mainly live in huts) and actions he’s taken as president (such as ending protections for immigrants and their children and trying to prohibit Muslims from traveling here).

The president’s defenders are trying to make this a story about mere “locker room” or “kitchen table” talk, just like they did when the “grab ’em by the pussy” tape was made public.

They’re also trying to make it a story about the quality of life in these countries (“The president was just being honest. Would you liberals be willing to live in Haiti or Somalia? Why do people want to leave those countries?”).

The fact that the president used vulgar language has resulted in this story getting more attention than it otherwise would have received.

But the most important part of this story isn’t that he swore at a meeting in the White House. It’s that he vehemently believes that people from some countries would make better Americans than people from other countries. That’s been a popular view in some quarters since the 19th century. But it should be anathema to anyone who understands what it means to be an American and what the promise of America has meant to struggling people around the world.

Our first president wrote this in a letter in 1788:

I had always hoped that this land might become a safe & agreeable Asylum to the virtuous & persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong…

Our current president is beneath contempt and needs to go.

The Truth Still Matters

Will be going to North Dakota today to discuss tax reform and tax cuts. We are the highest taxed nation in the world – that will change.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 6, 2017

But the truth still matters:

oecd tax burdens

The chart includes individual and corporate taxes, as well as local taxes, as reported by the 35-nation Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

For some historical perspective, consider “When the Rich Said No to Getting Richer” by from David Leonhardt of The New York Times:

A half-century ago, a top automobile executive named George Romney — yes, Mitt’s father — turned down several big annual bonuses. He did so, he told his company’s board, because he believed that no executive should make more than $225,000 a year (which translates into almost $2 million today).

He worried that “the temptations of success” could distract people from more important matters, as he said to a biographer, T. George Harris. This belief seems to have stemmed from both Romney’s Mormon faith and a culture of financial restraint that was once commonplace in this country.

Romney didn’t try to make every dollar he could, or anywhere close to it. The same was true among many of his corporate peers. In the early 1960s, the typical chief executive at a large American company made only 20 times as much as the average worker, rather than the current 271-to-1 ratio. Today, some C.E.O.s make $2 million in a single month.

The old culture of restraint had multiple causes, but one of them was the tax code. When Romney was saying no to bonuses, the top marginal tax rate was 91 percent. Even if he had accepted the bonuses, he would have kept only a sliver of them.

The high tax rates, in other words, didn’t affect only the post-tax incomes of the wealthy. The tax code also affected pretax incomes. As the economist Gabriel Zucman says, “It’s not worth it to try to earn $50 million in income when 90 cents out of an extra dollar goes to the I.R.S.”

The tax rates helped create a culture in which Americans found gargantuan incomes to be bizarre.

A few years after Romney turned down his bonuses from the American Motors Corporation, Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation that lowered the top marginal tax rate to 70 percent. Under Ronald Reagan, it dropped to 50 percent and kept falling. Since 1987, the top rate has hovered between 30 percent and 40 percent.

For more than 30 years now, the United States has lived with a top tax rate less than half as high as in George Romney’s day. And during those same three-plus decades, the pay of affluent Americans has soared. That’s not a coincidence. Corporate executives and others now have much more reason to fight for every last dollar.

And fight they do (it’s called “class warfare”).

Meanwhile, the president* is unnecessarily threatening hundreds of thousands of young people brought to this country by their parents and another extremely dangerous hurricane is on its way. This is further evidence that Republicans are evil and global temperatures are rising, but you already knew that.

Update:  John McCain, the Republican senator who talks a good game but can’t be relied on, has changed his mind about repealing the Affordable Care Act. He now says he’d vote Yes on what is “in may ways … the most radical” repeal bill yet. Further evidence for [see above]. 

2nd Update: McCain now says he would only vote for repeal if the legislation survived committee hearings and was subject to amendments proposed by both sides. That’s not what the 81-year old senator implied earlier today. This latest announcement is good news, because the repeal legislation is extremely unlikely to pass if it’s subject to “normal order” in the Senate instead of being rushed through. 

One Week and Floundering

Eight days ago, before the inauguration, we already knew a couple of things (roughly quoting Richard Yeselson of Dissent):

  1. Our new President is an authoritarian, mentally-ill ignoramus, uniquely unfit and dangerous.
  2. The Republican Party is morally and intellectually bankrupt.

Given (1) and (2), I can’t think of anything since the inauguration that’s been more than a mild surprise. Given who he is and who his fellow Republicans are, what did we expect?

I’ll mention a few things anyway:

He gave an interview to a TV network other than Fox. Many observers thought he came across like a crazy person. One said it was the scariest thing he’d ever seen. Although many of his supporters probably enjoyed it. There’s a transcript of the interview here.

He’s still using Twitter and his outdated, easy-to-hack phone. He still spends a lot of time watching television and occasionally tweets in response to what he just heard, sometimes repeating exact phrases. One reporter said the tsunami of leaks from the White House make the President sound like a “clueless child”. I think he sounds more like an angry old fool with a severely damaged ego.

He has signed some executive orders, as new Presidents always do. For the most part, these have been aimed at impressing his supporters and may never amount to anything (he can’t get billions of dollars to build a wall by issuing an executive order). An exception is the one that will limit funding for overseas healthcare providers (the abortion “gag-rule”). It’s even worse than similar orders issued by other Republican Presidents. (Vice President Pence, who is an extreme foe of abortion rights, probably had a lot to do with it.)

Of course, that terrific replacement for the Affordable Care Act that he promised to announce in a day or two hasn’t been announced yet. But someone in the administration did take a concrete step regarding the ACA: they canceled an advertisement intended to get people to sign up for health insurance by the January 31st deadline. 

Meanwhile, The Washington Post obtained a secret recording of Congressional Republicans talking about the Affordable Care Act. It demonstrates what we already knew: they don’t know what parts of the ACA to repeal or what to replace those parts with. It’s great to hear them speak honestly for a change, so I’ve attached some choice excerpts at the bottom of this post. 

On the impeachment front, the President isn’t bothering to hide his eagerness to cash in on his new position. He doubled the membership fee at his Florida resort from $100,000 to $200,000; announced plans to build several more hotels in the US; and only plans to stop immigration from Middle Eastern countries where he doesn’t do business or doesn’t plan to (Iran bad; Saudi Arabia – where the 9/11 hijackers came from – good). A lawsuit has already been filed against the President regarding his foreign business dealings. You can read an explanation by one of the lawyers involved here and can see the formal complaint here.

Finally, the President’s spokesman announced that Mexico would reimburse us for the Wall sometime in the future, but in the meantime, companies that import stuff from Mexico (like fruits and vegetables, beer and cars) would pay for the wall through a new 20% import tariff. After it was pointed out that the tariff would be passed along to American consumers in the form of higher prices, the proposal was discounted as merely one of several ways we, not Mexico, could pay for the Wall, which, by the way, Republican politicians in Texas aren’t crazy about anyway.

As a result, and maybe in recognition of the fact that the Executive Branch of our government is now in the hands of knavish fools and foolish knaves, the President of Mexico canceled his visit to Washington.

Oh, and the President wants an investigation of the 3 million people, all of whom he knows voted for his opponent, because that’s how many more people voted for Hillary. Buenas noches, amigos.

As promised, excerpts from the Washington Post article based on that secret recording:

[A Representative] worried that one idea floated by Republicans — a refundable tax credit — would not work for middle-class families that cannot afford to prepay their premiums and wait for a tax refund…

[Another said] “It sounds like we are going to be raising taxes on the middle class in order to pay for these new credits.”

 … A freshman congressman … warned strongly against using the repeal of the ACA to also defund Planned Parenthood…

Of particular concern to some Republican lawmakers was the plan to use the budget reconciliation process — which requires only a simple majority vote — to repeal the existing law, while still needing a filibuster-proof vote of 60 in the Senate to enact a replacement….

… They did not have a clear plan on how to keep markets viable while also requiring insurers to cover everyone who seeks insurance.

[A Senator asked:] Will states have the ability to maintain the expanded Medicaid rolls provided for under the ACA, which now provide coverage for more than 10 million Americans, and can other states do similar expansions?

[A Representative] worried that the plans under GOP consideration could eviscerate coverage for the roughly 20 million Americans now covered through state and federal marketplaces and the law’s Medicaid expansion: “We’re telling those people that we’re not going to pull the rug out from under them, and if we do this too fast, we are in fact going to pull the rug out from under them.”

They are also still wrestling with whether Obamacare’s taxes can be immediately repealed, a priority for many conservatives, or whether that revenue will be needed to fund a transition period.

And there seems to be little consensus on whether to pursue a major overhaul of Medicaid — converting it from an open-ended entitlement that costs federal and state governments $500 billion a year to a fixed block grant…. doing so would mean that some low-income Americans would not be automatically covered by a program that currently covers 70 million Americans.