Sunday, July 21, 2013

Nothing Done; Nothing Doing

I'm reluctant to post such a downer, but it needs to be said:  the domestic agenda is a shambles, and there is only the prospect of it getting worse.

There were a couple of uncharacteristic moments of bipartisan agreement in the Senate this week, on student loan governance and on some pending political nominees, but they don't amount to all that much.  With regard to student loans, it was an easy political agreement to keep interest rates low--the program makes money for the government now, and allowing rates to double now, while market rates are so low, would have been ruinously, broadly unpopular.  The real problem may come in a couple of years when rates rise, as the loan program's rates will now be tied to the marketplace, and there may be tough days ahead for students and their families.

As for the nominees, Republicans were in a losing position and made an agreement along the lines that I recently predicted (see the section titled "Nuke 'em. Harry?!"  They didn't give in on judicial nominations--a numerically more sizable issue--and Democrats backed off their threats to throw the filibuster rules overboard (at least some of them did so).  It just means that Republicans in the Senate will continue to be able to frustrate Obama Administration initiatives with a minority.

As for the Republican House, they seem to have firmed up their principles of obstruction; it as though they are determined to prove the Federal government's inefficacy by sabotaging it.  John Boehner, on Face the Nation this morning, made it pretty clear that the Senate's immigration bill will not reach the House floor in a recognizable shape.  We can also look forward to more House obstruction on the budget (after all the wailing about how the Administration has produced no budgets, the Republicans from both houses of Congress seem intent to block one being produced), madness on the debt ceiling coming up this fall (the House is talking about non-starters to prevent full funding of the Administration's prime legislative accomplishment, the healthcare insurance reform referred to as "Obamacare")--what really burns them is that the "crisis" of deficits seems to be curing itself much faster than expected--and don't even talk about doing something to rein in the insanity of our gun laws.
On immigration, I found that we are almost exactly in the same position as in my 2006 post on the subject, the last time there was a serious attempt made at comprehensive reform (with the support of President Bush):  a Senate bill that is barely adequate (basically a humiliating slap at the undocumented, and a boondoggle of wasteful spending on the border), and a House that won't consider anything that would allow the undocumented to become legal, under any circumstances.  A majority of the Republicans in the House are in districts where their greatest threat is from their own party, if they allowed the immigrants to stay, while the additional voters who would gain citizenship are not going to be forthcoming to their party anyway.  The main question is whether the Republican House can muster a majority within its caucus to support an expansion of the H-1B visas (which go to highly-skilled foreigners, under the condition that the jobs they take can't be filled domestically), something that business supports but doesn't sit well with the anti-immigrant nativists, and whether the Senate and the President will agree to such a limited reform when it becomes clear that is the best that can be achieved.  My advice would be to accept it if, and only if, they drop all that nonsense about adding $X billion more for unnecessary border agents and more wall-building.

It's clear that President Obama will be forced to make the 2014 midterm elections into a referendum on the do-nothing Congress.  It will be a wasteful, hugely expensive and counter-productive exercise;  there are too many Republicans in safe House districts, and, to make it worse, plenty of danger that they could even take over control of the Senate (early prediction is that it will be within 1-2 votes either way, and independent Angus King will fulfill my prediction, two years later, to become the most important Senate vote).*  Then, after the depressing, low-turnout debacle, the new Congress will feel vindicated in their inert ways and President Obama will have to find other ways to complete his Presidential legacy than domestic legislative achievement.

There are such agenda items, and Obama had one of his finest moments this week when he spoke from the heart about racial profiling and the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case.  It wasn't part of either his campaign agenda or mine, but one of his greatest accomplishments could be advancing the national conversation on race, with a renewed push for changes that can make this multi-racial society more just. Another possibility arose, somewhat unexpectedly, when Secretary of State Kerry announced that there was agreement from Israel and the Palestinians to resume final status negotiations.  After 2014, Obama could begin to get some perverse enjoyment from vetoing bills passed by a Congress with both houses controlled by Republicans.

Finally, to end the post on a most optimistic note: my fondest hope is that one of the hardcore three Supreme Court justices--Alito, Thomas, or Scalia--kicks the bucket before the 2014 elections, and we have the knock-down drag-out battle over replacing him with a more moderate or liberal justice, potentially upsetting the right-wing slant of the Roberts Court.  It may be a low probability event, but the thought of it lightens my heart.

* I still think it is too early to give more than nominal contributions to the various candidates and party organizations for the 2014 elections:  it only encourages them, and their opponents, to ask for more. 

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