Monday, September 26, 2011

The Tea Party Shutdown Movie

Since January 5, 2011, for John Boehner (R-OH), his position as Speaker of the House has been just a title in words not in deed. The words are those of the 1789 US Constitution. The Speaker presides over the proceedings of the House and is the highest position in the House leadership. However, the deed is that Boehner does not demonstrate leadership of the majority party. The Tea Party wing that enabled the GOP to achieve its majority status has also rendered it factious. Once again it has compromised Boehner’s speakership by its handling of a Continuing Resolution to fund the government. Once again, oblivious to public opinion, House action threatens us with a government shutdown.

Tea Party Republicans defied their leaders and brought down a bill to keep the government running after September 30 because it did not meet their demands to make deeper spending cuts. In the past, disaster relief rushed out of Congress with strong backing from both parties. Not this time. Instead, the House Republicans made it the focus of a political issue: offsetting the cost of funding the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with cuts elsewhere.

The bill failed. Boehner and his operatives cobbled together support for a slightly different but essentially similar bill. They brought some recalcitrant freshmen on board in video and photo opportunities with the old pros to recite sound bites, and then narrowly passed a stopgap bill two days later.

“We are now watching the Tea Party shutdown movie for the third time this year,” said Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) of the House not passing the CR. “The ending isn’t surprising,” Durbin said on MSNBC. “It isn’t even interesting anymore. They can’t get together the basic Republican votes on the House side to even pass the continuing resolution they agreed to just a few weeks ago, let alone some disaster aid for a country that’s been hard-hit by a lot of disasters.”

A Continuing Resolution is a temporary measure designed to buy time for negotiations to continue when the fiscal year ends. In the past, as with raising the debt ceiling, passing a stopgap was routine business. It becomes necessary when the House and Senate fail to agree on appropriations bills to fund government for a whole fiscal year, as is the case. Tea Party Republicans said they believed their party should push for deeper cuts at every turn. 50 of them signed a letter to Boehner calling for those deeper budget cuts and when those demands were not met, 48 of them voted against their own party’s bill.

So did Democrats, but for different reasons. Former Speaker of the House and now House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) told reporters that Democrats believed disaster funds were for emergencies and no offset spending cuts would be acceptable to her members. Asked whether there might be any offset that House Democrats would back, Pelosi said, “I think I answered that question: there has never been an offset for disaster assistance.”

Boehner and other House leaders had to rewrite the measure to appease Democrats and to appeal to the Tea Party wing of their own party. Democrats saw the amount of disaster assistance as inadequate and objected to the Republicans’ insistence on offsetting some of the cost with cuts elsewhere. They remained nearly united against the measure. So, Boehner cracked the proverbial whip with his members and the revised bill passed by seven votes to go to the Senate in time for the House to go on recess.

"The House bill is not an honest effort at compromise," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). "It fails to provide the relief that our fellow Americans need as they struggle to rebuild their lives in the wake of floods, wildfires and hurricanes, and it will be rejected by the Senate." Saying that he had hoped House Republicans would move toward the middle Reid said, "Instead, they moved even further toward the Tea Party." 

The Senate voted 59 to 36 to table the House bill, which effectively killed it.

The funding for the federal government got wrapped up into the debate about FEMA funding and they became tied together. Speaker Boehner had assumed and hoped that the stopgap bill to keep government operating until November 18 would be a routine matter, as such resolutions usually are. Instead, the matter blew up and illustrated that his control of the House majority only exists on paper.

The government’s funding will run out Friday evening, September 30, if something is not passed by then. Of course both Democrats and Republicans have repeatedly said that they do not want a government shutdown and they do not want to have FEMA run out of funds. However, just how they are going to achieve that is anything but clear.

So House Republicans decided to blame the Senate and its Majority Leader Harry Reid for the impasse. Led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), they contend that the Senate is responsible for blocking desperately needed disaster dollars from flowing to FEMA.

“Harry Reid is now talking about perhaps bringing up a clean CR without disaster relief funding,” Cantor said, and that the House acted to provide the disaster relief. “If that happens, FEMA will run out of money, and it will be on Harry Reid’s shoulders because he won’t act,” Cantor said.

For the record, in October 2004, Cantor voted against an amendment to an emergency supplemental bill for disaster aid that would have "fully offset" the cost of that supplemental with "a proportional reduction of FY05 discretionary funding" elsewhere. The 2004 emergency supplemental was proposed after five hurricanes hit the United States, including Tropical Storm Gaston, which did damage to Cantor's home district of Richmond.

Meanwhile, Speaker Boehner shrugged off the defeat as the price of trying to get legislation through the democratic process. "I have no fear in allowing the House to work its will," he said. "Does it make my life a little more difficult? Yes it does." Boehner added, "There is no threat of a government shutdown. Let's just get this out there."

Are there philosophical differences within the Republican Party, as has been suggested in our media, particularly in the House of Representatives? If there are, that would require intelligence and thought such that would lend it to making compromises in the best interests of House member constituencies. As the polls suggest, however, that does not appear to be the case. Instead, the differences are not philosophical but ideological. That relies on slogans and sound bites, scripts that are rehearsed and recited that require neither thought nor care. Unfortunately, such last minute play acting is making the audience weary of disagreement and threats.

The threat of a government shutdown proved to be just a threat back in April. Likewise, the threat of government default proved to be just a threat in August, but with collateral credit rating fallout. With this threat of a government shutdown, it should be of little wonder that Gallup’s Congressional Approval poll finds 15% of Americans approve of Congress and 82% do not. It is also clear that despite his efforts, the current Speaker of the House is only the leader of the majority of the majority which has compromised his leadership. Boehner maybe acting as a leader, but he is just part of the audience.

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Article originally published as The Tea Party Shutdown Movie on Blogcritics

Monday, September 19, 2011

Hating Obama and Raising Money

There are two messages being sent to us by the House of Representatives. "Hate Obama. Vote Republican." The other message is, "Save the Rich. GOP Now." But, the question the American people want answered is, "How are you going to guide the country?" Pending focus groups, we’ll have to wait for an answer. Meanwhile, House Republicans showed the country that they do not think that trust is an issue. They did two things last week to prove that. First, they voted for the country to default, which would increase the deficit they oppose. Second, they voted to help send jobs overseas, which they excoriate. They also seek reelection at the time when their approval rating is less than 13% and expect the country to reward such delusional behavior.

That will work if the country is delusional, too.

On September 13 the House passed a resolution of disapproval of the debt ceiling deal that they passed in August. They had also granted themselves the right to pass a resolution saying they disapproved of it. They passed such a resolution. I did not make that up. Never mind that the Senate has already rejected their attempt to put the country into default and that House Republicans do not have enough votes to overcome a presidential veto. They passed it anyway.

HJR 77 says, “Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That Congress disapproves of the President’s exercise of authority to increase the debt limit, as exercised pursuant to the certification under section 3101A(a) of title 31, United States Code.”

To put this in context, the Republican House also passed the "Protecting Jobs From Government Interference Act" just two days later. According to the GOP, HR 2587 essentially prevents the National Labor Relations Board from doing its job, which is what “government interference" means to them. They do not say that, naturally, but that is what the bill does. The other thing it does is to pander to the corporations that fund the Republican Party.

“This bill dismantles key functions of the National Labor Relations Board and guts more than 70 years of established labor law in our country,” said Congressman Pete Stark (D-CA) in opposition. “If this legislation becomes law, it would eliminate nearly all worker protections when companies illegally fire workers and close or move plants in retaliation for union activities.”

Remember the GOP “Pledge to America?” It promised a “government more transparent in its actions” and “honest in its dealings.” They lied or forgot about it.

Today’s consumer confidence rating is the fourth lowest since 1952, according to GOP pollster Bill McInturff. “The collapse of confidence in government has substantially eroded already weak consumer confidence.” The debt ceiling negotiation profoundly reshaped our view of the economy and the federal government that has yet to be realized in full measure. “It has led to a scary erosion in confidence . . . at a time when this steep drop in confidence can be least afforded.”

When the GOP’s McInturff says, “We are entering a new phase of the American political dialogue that has been irrevocably shifted in a way that will prove difficult to predict,” he is not kidding. Why would he? By its actions however, the GOP does not seem to care about such cause and effect. It seems to think that default is an option. It seems to care more about the party itself and raising money than it cares about the best interests of American people and real governance.

Hating Obama is a posture, not a policy. The resuscitation of Republican party that brought enough new members to the 112th Congress to create a majority succeeded by rallying contempt for the new Democratic administration, personified by the president. HJR 77 and HR 2587 are more posturing. Neither bill advances a course of action to address chronic U.S. unemployment or to improve our anemic economy. Neither bill demonstrates smart opposition. Instead they lend credence to the cynical observation that the GOP agenda is to maintain the recession in order to win a national election.

Hating Obama and raising enough money to mount a successful campaign may not be as mutually sustainable as the GOP seems to believe.

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Article first published as Hating Obama and Raising Money on Blogcritics.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Presidential Approval: So What?

Presidential popularity begs a lot of questions. The most important question at election time is what candidate gets the most Electoral College votes, making the popular vote only interesting. Presidential approval begins with inauguration day and can be less than 50% to start, as with the administrations of Kennedy, Carter and “W” Bush. Between 1961 and 2001, voters changed their opinions widely about the eight presidents who occupied the White House. They disapproved of all of the presidents and demonstrated that economics drives public opinion more than current events.

Gallup has been tracking presidential job approval since Harry Truman took office in 1945. The Gallup Presidential Job Approval Center shows President Obama with an all-time high of 69%, when he took office in January 2009, and a to-date low of 40% recorded at the end of July. He is about two-months shy of being in office 1000 days and his average approval is 50%. Regardless of how one interprets the data, one thing abundantly clear: an awful lot of people disapprove of a President most of the time. Who is in office does not really matter.

Imagine becoming President with barely half of the vote by any measure. In 1960 Democrat Senator John Kennedy became president by defeating Vice President Richard Nixon with a 0.1% margin of the popular vote, 49.7% to 49.6%. Since JFK’s overall approval is 70.1%, he is assumed to have been well approved by Americans. That was not the case at the time. People who did not like him personally despised him. In the South for example, I remember seeing Ku Klux Klan bonfires burning to celebrate his assassination because Kennedy was a Catholic and a pro-civil rights president.

JFK also sent the first US troops to a country few people had ever heard of – Vietnam. During his 1036 days in office, JFK’s budgets ran deficits to finance his New Frontier programs. His approval ratings scored a high of 83% and a low of 56%. They had been trending down when he was murdered.

JFK’s Vice President Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency and then won the 1964 election in a landslide, defeating Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. LBJ also won the popular vote by a margin of 61.1% to 38.5 %. Johnson’s overall 55.1% approval rating ranged from a high of 79% to a low of 35%. He used his popularity when he had it, too. His Administration submitted 87 bills to the 89th Congress and LBJ signed 84 of them into law.

''This country,'' LBJ said, ''is rich enough to do anything it has the guts to do and the vision to do and the will to do.'' His Great Society is still with us ''in Medicare and Medicaid, in the air we breathe and the water we drink, in the rivers and lakes we swim in; in the colleges our students attend; in the medical miracles from the National Institutes of Health; in mass transportation and equal opportunity,'' as former Johnson advisor Joseph A. Califano has stated. LBJ also expanded costly US involvement in the Vietnam War. With his approval ratings in decline, Johnson did not run for reelection.

As a private citizen, former Republican Vice President Richard Nixon won his second campaign for president in 1968 defeating two other candidates: LBJ’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Alabama Governor George Wallace, who ran as an Independent. Wallace captured 13.5% of the popular vote, leaving a 0.7% margin between Nixon and Humphrey, 43.4% to 42.7%. Although Nixon won reelection in a 1972 landslide victory and 60.7% of the popular vote, he resigned the presidency under the threat of impeachment and saw his approval numbers fall from a high of 67% to a low of 24%. Nixon had an overall term and a half approval rating of 49%.

Nixon inherited a weak economy from the Johnson administration but delivered a balanced budget in 1969. However, inflation, rising energy costs and high unemployment troubled Nixon’s administration. Despite wage and price controls and other measures that did not work, Nixon’s budget plans included using large deficits to marginally improve the economy. Although Nixon called upon “the great silent majority” for support, continued expansion of the Vietnam War, including bombing Cambodia, and the costs of war in addition to the Watergate scandal further degraded his approval numbers.

After Nixon’s resignation, Vice President Gerald Ford assumed the presidency and served its remaining 845 days only to lose his subsequent election bid in 1976. During his time in the White House, Ford gave Nixon a presidential pardon and concluded US involvement in the Vietnam War. His overall approval rating scored 47.2% for the time of American discouragement with politics that followed the highly publicized Watergate hearings that contributed to Ford’s becoming president. Ford’s approval ranged from a high of 71% to a low of 37%. Despite the Ford “Whip Inflation Now" program, 7% inflation and growing unemployment continued to weaken the economy that had slipped into recession and further eroded his approval numbers.

The next presidential race was so close, many voters stayed up until the early morning hours to see Georgia’s Democrat Governor Jimmy Carter win the 1976 election. A US Naval Academy graduate and peanut farmer, Carter won the election with a less than a 2% popular vote margin, 50.1% to 48%. Elected by just half of the voters like Jack Kennedy, Jimmy Carter only earned an overall approval rating of 45.5% that ranged from a high of 75% to a low of 28%. The federal government was in deficit every year of the Carter presidency. Slow recovery from the ’73-‘75 recession, fuel shortages, double-digit inflation and 9% unemployment plagued the Carter administration which lasted one term only. The American hostage situation in Iran exacerbated disapproval of Carter.

The country turned to a former Hollywood actor and spokesperson in the 1980 election of California Republican Governor Ronald Reagan, who won with 50.7% of the popular vote to Carter’s 41% and Independent Congressman John Anderson’s 6.6% protest vote. Reagan got his landslide reelection four years later, defeating former Vice President Walter Mondale by 58.8% to 40.6%. While Reagan’s overall approval rating is 52.8%, it ranged from a high of 68% to a low of 38%.

Reagan survived an assassination attempt and took credit for the end of Communism with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although he railed against the debt ceiling, it raised 17 times during his eight-year administration. His supply side “Reaganomics,” which his critics called “voodoo

economics,” created more new debt than the combined deficits of all previous presidents. While Reagan said he was committed to reducing government spending, it rose by $321 billion during his presidency, to more than a trillion dollars. He also raised taxes seven times. Only his age and the 22nd Amendment prevented Reagan from running for a third term.

Instead, with a revenue improved economy, the enormous popularity of Ronald Reagan and relative world peace, Vice President George H. W. Bush won the presidency by defeating Massachusetts Democrat Governor Michael Dukakis by a popular vote margin of 53.4% to 45.7%. Best known for his famous pledge, "Read my lips: no new taxes," a recession began. Rising deficits, a declining economy plus a growth in mandatory spending began to further increase the federal deficit. Bush’s approval ratings ranged from a high of 89% to a low of 29%.

By 1990 the deficit had grown to three times its size in 1980. The federal government shut down for three days and the Democratic majority in Congress eventually forced Bush to raise tax revenues. But events of the Gulf War pushed economic issues out of the news and Bush ended up with an overall approval rating of 60.9% for his term in office, second only to Kennedy.

After three Republican presidential terms and the economy again in recession, two candidates ran against President Bush in the 1992 election: Arkansas Democrat Governor Bill Clinton and Independent businessman Ross Perot. Bush's 89% approval ratings following the Persian Gulf War made him look like a certain winner, but the economy trumped his approval ratings at the ballot box. Clinton prevailed with 43% of the popular vote to Bush’s 37.5% and Perot’s 18.9%. Ross Perot capitalized on the economic woe in his 1992 campaign and ran again in 1996. He siphoned an 8.4% popular vote as incumbent President Clinton defeated Kansas Republican Senator Bob Dole 49.2% to 40.7%.

The Congressional Budget Office reported a budget surplus between the years 1998 and 2000, the longest economic expansion period in US history. Only the second president to be impeached by the House, the Senate failed to muster the Constitutional two-thirds majority requirement to convict and remove an officeholder. Despite the impeachment and another government shutdown, Clinton left office with the highest end-of-office approval rating of any US president since World War II at 60.6%. His highest approval rating scored 73% and his lowest recorded 37%.

Economy tends to trump political events no matter how much of a splash those events create. Kennedy’s high rating occurred because he died in office before his first term ended. Reagan’s approval rating of 52.8% falls behind the 55.1% approval rating of LBJ and Bill Clinton, who tie for 3rd place. George H.W. Bush comes in second to JFK at 60.9%. Those are the numbers.

Here are some more. Take a look at the disapproval ratings for the eight presidents and keep them in mind the next time approval ratings is brought up as some kind of data being foisted as something significant.

John Kennedy: 56

Lyndon Johnson: 35

Richard Nixon: 26

Gerald Ford: 37

Jimmy Carter: 29

Ronald Reagan: 37

George H.W. Bush: 38

Bill Clinton: 37

The public changes its mind with regularity and presidents are just not that popular. Why anyone would want such a job is another question.

Article first published as Presidential Approval: So What? on Blogcritics.