On Wednesday, Rep. Peter King lost it. Infuriated by a last-minute decision by House speaker John Boehner to kill a disaster relief package for victims of Hurricane Sandy, the New York Republican spent the last day of the 112th Congress mulling the moral decline of the GOP. "I can't imagine that type of indifference, that type of disregard, that cavalier attitude being shown to any other part of the country," he said in a floor speech. In King's telling, Boehner's decision was a "a cruel knife in the back." Later in the day, New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie also wondered what had come of his party, calling the decision "callous" and "disgusting," and adding: "This used to be something that was not political."
But King and Christie shouldn't be surprised. Boehner's stonewalling on disaster relief, far from a clean break with tradition, has become characteristic of how the currently deficit-obsessed GOP does business. Here's a refresher:
Over the last four years, a die-hard cadre of activists and their allies in Congress have dragged the Republican party into a fever swamp of Islamophobia and barely-concealed anti-Muslim bigotry. In their paranoid scenario, Islamic Shariah law is creeping into American courts; the Department of Justice has come under the sway of the Muslim Brotherhood; and the president’s engagement ring includes secret writing that indicates Muslim loyalties.
But after a November election that saw three of the party's loudest voices on "creeping Shariah" defeated—and the GOP presidential nominee ignore the issue entirely—the anti-Islam movement within the Republican party may have peaked. Wary of further alienating a once-promising conservative constituency, mainstream Republican leaders have sought, publicly and behind closed doors, to distance themselves from the loudest of the Muslim-bashers in their midst.
It was an easy target. With Washington at its most dysfunctional (well, almost), Congress took a break this week from doing nothing about the fiscal cliff to hold a critical vote on a bill to...regulate drywall. Drywall! "Tomorrow the house will vote on the drywall safety act of 2012," Buzzfeed's John Stanton tweeted on Saturday. "THANK GOD OUR LONG NATIONAL DRYWALL NIGHTMARE IS OVER." "Things more urgent than #Sandy relief: Drywall Safety, Frank Buckles WWI monument & "Conveyance of certain property in Kotzebue, AK," tweeted the Daily Beast's John Avlon on Wednesday.
Congress, or at least certain factions within, deserves a lot of the flack it catches. But as it happens, drywall safety is actually pretty serious business—and was the subject of a massive investigation by our friends at Pro Publica:
ProPublica and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune began examining in May 2010 what was—or wasn't—being done to help people whose homes had been built with contaminated drywall. The problematic drywall, much of it imported from China, emitted foul odors and frequently caused mysterious failures of new appliances and electronics. Worse yet, some residents complained of serious respiratory problems, bloody noses, and migraines.
What ProPublica's Joaquin Sapien and the Herald-Tribune's Aaron Kessler discovered: that despite an investigation by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), most of the primary issues remained unresolved; that some builders and suppliers knew early-on that some Chinese-made drywall was problematic but continued using it anyway; that health and structural complaints from people who lived in homes built by Habitat for Humanity in the post-Katrina "Musicians' Village" were virtually ignored; that a family-owned German company was closely involved in the operations of a Chinese subsidiary that produced some of the tainted drywall; that a proposed settlement for customers who bought bad drywall from Lowe's offered small payouts to victims and big fees to attorneys; and that bad drywall might be related to 12 infant deaths at an Army base in North Carolina.
In addition to taking steps to make Chinese companies abide by American court decisions, the new law requiring drywall manufacturers to label their products and to limit the amount of sulfur (which can corrode homes).
That's not to excuse House Republicans for not passing the Sandy relief bill or for basically just setting up a sequel to the fiscal cliff in two months—it's just that not everything that comes out of Washington is awful.
President Barack Obama's message to Congress on Friday was straightforward. "Pour some egg nog, have some Christmas cookies, sing some Christmas carols, enjoy the company of loved ones," he said at a press conference at the White House—and don't mess up the economic recovery. In his first public statements on the ongoing fiscal cliff negotiations since the collapse of the Republican alternative "Plan B," Obama hinted at a more piecemeal package than had initially been discussed, with Congress working on a compromise plan on the Bush tax cuts next week.
On Thursday night, shortly before Congress adjourned for Christmas, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) canceled a scheduled vote on "Plan B" (which among other things extended the Bush tax cuts for everyone making less than $1 million a year while raising the top tax rate to Clinton-era levels) because he didn't have the votes for it within his own caucus. The demise of Plan B, which Boehner had personally lobbied for on the House floor, was a victory for the party's most conservative members, and almost immediately sparked speculation about whether Boehner's days as Speaker are numbered. (National Review's Robert Costa has the best play-by-play of the chaos at the Capitol I've seen.)
So what's next? Congress has until Dec. 31 to take some sort of action. Or it could just go off "the cliff"—in which case all the Bush tax cuts will expire and massive spending cuts scheduled as part of 2011's debt ceiling deal would go into effect.
In the meantime, enjoy your egg nog, I guess.
You can watch the president's statement right here:
Sen. John Kerry got his wish. On Friday, one week after United Nations ambassador Susan Rice withdrew from consideration, President Barack Obama nominated the Massachusetts Democrat for secretary of state. If confirmed, he'll replace the retiring Hillary Clinton in January.
Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran and former presidential nominee whose name has been floated as a candidate for the top Foggy Bottom job for years, has been a loyal soldier for the administration's international priorities as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He whipped Republican colleagues to support the New START Treaty during the 2010 lame duck session, and most recently led the fight—albeit unsuccessfully—for the ratification of the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons With Disabilities. In a 2011 New York Times Magazine profile, James Traub described Kerry as "a kind of ex-officio member of Obama’s national security team, which has dispatched him to face one crisis after another in danger zones like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan."
In brief remarks at the White House, Obama cited Kerry's work with Sen John McCain to restore relations with Vietnam in the 1990s—a notable shout-out given the Arizona Republican's role in squashing Rice's candidacy for secretary of state. "John has earned the respect and confidence of leaders around the world," Obama said. "He is not going to need a lot of on the job training."
But Kerry's nomination comes with a potential consequence for Democrats. Although Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick will choose an interim replacement, Kerry's seat will be filled by special election—and the most likely candidate to replace him is Republican Sen. Scott Brown, who was defeated at the polls in November. As Nate Silver points out at the New York Times, Brown, a moderate, leads his prospective Democratic challengers in head-to-head matchups. Brown, who has not ruled out another bid, has played his hand carefully since November, most recently coming out in support of an assault weapons ban post-Sandy Hook.