Kevin Drum - 2013

No, Republicans Never Intended to Cut Back on Filibusters. Why Do You Ask?

| Wed Mar. 6, 2013 5:46 PM EST

Here is Sen. Jeff Merkley (D–OR), describing the mood of the Senate right now:

Many of my colleagues are absolutely beside themselves with frustration, and that frustration is rapidly turning to fury.

So what's the reason for this growing fury? Well, Merkley tried to convince his fellow Democrats to pass real filibuster reform earlier this year, but it got watered down to almost nothing in negotiations with Mitch McConnell. Democrats apparently thought that McConnell had tacitly agreed to ease up on filibustering everything that moves in return for their agreement to weaken Merkley's reforms, but today Republicans filibustered Caitlin Halligan, an Obama nominee to fill a vacancy on the DC Circuit Court. And that's not all:

Senate Republicans have unleashed a string of filibusters since the bipartisan rules change deal, which did not change the 60-vote threshold, was enacted in January. They include the first-ever filibuster of a secretary of defense nominee (Chuck Hagel), a letter by 43 senators vowing to filibuster any nominee to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the filibuster of a bill to avoid sequestration, and the filibuster of judicial nominee Caitlin Halligan. It was the Halligan filibuster Wednesday morning that set off Durbin and Merkley.

We'll see what happens. My guess is that McConnell agreed to nothing, tacit or otherwise, and any Democrats who thought otherwise were just fooling themselves. Republicans, for their part, have convinced themselves (as usual) that this is a special case: Halligan, they say, is a dangerous radical because of a single gun-related case she pursued years ago that earned the ire of the NRA. They've filibustered her before over this, and they'll do it again. Ditto for other nominees. They've given every indication that they just flatly won't confirm anyone for the prestigious DC Court.

But are Democrats really working themselved into a fury over this? I'll believe it when I see it.

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The Future of Special Forces in Afghanistan

| Wed Mar. 6, 2013 4:08 PM EST

Last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced that he was barring U.S. troops from Wardak province after reports that U.S. Special Forces had tortured and murdered innocent people. Among other things Karzai said that nine villagers had been abducted from their homes and a young man was found decapitated and with his fingers sliced off. Today, the LA Times reports that Karzai was probably mistaken:

The account of the young man's death was wrong, U.S. and local Afghan officials say.

He was snared by armed men, not U.S. forces or their Afghan allies, according to Afghan law enforcement officials. In police photos of the body, he has one finger chopped off and a gash on one side of his neck, but he wasn't beheaded.

Crucially, say Afghan officials who investigated the slaying, the bearded veterinary student known as Nasratullah was a Taliban facilitator whose brother is serving time for planting so-called sticky bombs — explosives that attach with magnets. They believe that Nasratullah was killed in a power struggle between the Taliban and another Islamist faction in insurgent-ridden Wardak province, and that tribal elders here, perhaps coerced by militants, blamed Americans to fuel an outcry against U.S. troops.

A couple of days after Karzai's announcement, Yochi Dreazen suggested that it was really just a bit of shadow boxing. What Karzai is really doing is reacting to President Obama's plan to keep Special Forces troops in Afghanistan even after most other troops have been withdrawn:

The White House has made clear that sizable numbers of Special Operations forces will remain in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future....Here at home, bearded commandos from units like the Navy SEALs and the Army's Delta Force are celebrated in best-selling books like "American Sniper" and the popular, if controversial, movie "Zero Dark Thirty." Video games featuring the elite troops have collectively grossed billions of dollars. Americans love heroes, and the men (they are always men) who swoop into fortified compounds at night to kill or capture wanted terrorists seem to fit the bill perfectly.

That is not, to put it very mildly, how those troops are seen in Afghanistan, where the commandos are routinely accused of killing or arresting the wrong targets and calling in air strikes which result in significant numbers of civilian deaths.

The night raids the elite units use to catch wanted Afghans while they're asleep are particularly hated. Afghans complain that it's a grave cultural insult for male troops to search women or enter a home uninvited. A night raid earlier this month which killed a pregnant woman has made the missions even more unpopular.

I don't have any independent assessment of all this. But we should probably expect a lot more fireworks over the next 24 months as we draw down troops in Afghanistan. It's likely to get pretty ugly.

The Strange Connection Between Budget Reporting and IQ Drops in the 202 Area Code

| Wed Mar. 6, 2013 1:11 PM EST

Is there something about budget showdowns that gradually but relentlessly lowers the collective IQ of Beltway pundits? Examples abound. For example, we've recently seen a whole spate of folks pretending that all our problems could be solved if only President Obama somehow just unleashed his presidential superpowers and made Congress pass a reasonable long-term deficit plan. Jessica Yellin gave us the nutshell version of this last week when she asked Obama, "Couldn't you just have them down here and refuse to let them leave the room until you have a deal?"

Then there was Ezra Klein, who surely knows better, suggesting on Friday that perhaps Republicans have stuck to their hardline position so long because they were simply unaware that Obama had offered them much of what they wanted. This was quickly followed up the next day in the face of epic evidence that this rather obviously hasn't been the roadblock.

Today, we have Doyle McManus of the LA Times, suggesting that the entire crisis is silly because both sides have already agreed on what needs to be done:

If you listen closely to Obama and leading members of both parties in the Senate, you'll find that they've already reached a rough consensus about how to shrink the federal deficit in a smarter way. They'll cut the same amount, but they'll spread it around differently and perhaps delay some of the cuts. Then they will make changes in "entitlements" (Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security) to reduce their future cost. And they will enact tax reform to raise federal revenues, not by raising tax rates but by making more income taxable at existing rates.

There will be plenty of wrangling over the details, of course. But a bipartisan majority already agrees on these basic elements.

This is insanity. Republicans have very decidedly not agreed to any kind of tax reform that raises federal revenues. This is the whole crux of the debate. They have never agreed to anything other than revenue-neutral tax reform.

Might they change their minds someday? Sure. But the history here is plain. A small handful of Republican senators have suggested we might need to raise taxes eventually as part of a grand bargain. That's it. There's no consensus about this in the GOP Senate caucus, and there's certainly noconsensus on this in the GOP House caucus. Quite the contrary. McManus even kinda sorta admits this toward the end of his column.

Obama wants a long-term budget deal that combines spending cuts with tax increases. Republicans, with only a few scattered exceptions, are united on demanding a budget deal that cuts spending but doesn't include even a dime in higher revenues. That's it. That's been their position for at least the past two decades and there's no evidence at all that it's going to change anytime soon.  Remember, back in July 2011, John Boehner walking away from a proposal for huge spending cuts when his caucus revolted over accepting modest, but real, tax increases as part of the deal, not just fake "dynamic scoring" revenue increases? Remember, during a Republican presidential debate a few days later, the instant and unanimous show of hands opposed to a deal that was 10:1 spending cuts to tax increases? More recently, remember the mantra among Republican leaders that "taxes are done"?

Republicans have refused to accept tax increases as part of a deficit deal since 1990. They continue to refuse. They agreed to the fiscal cliff deal not because they accept the need for higher taxes, but because the Bush tax cuts were expiring automatically and they flatly had no choice in the matter. Why do so many smart people keep trying to make this more complicated than it is?

Why is the Environment So Boring?

| Wed Mar. 6, 2013 11:54 AM EST

Via Andrew Sullivan, I see that the New York Times, having already shuttered its environment desk, killed its Green blog last Friday. Andrew Revkin, who writes the Times' Dot Earth blog, isn't happy:

The news side of The Times has nine sports blogs; nine spanning fashion, lifestyles, health, dining and the like; four business blogs; four technology blogs (five if you include automobiles as a technology); and a potpourri of other great efforts, with four of my favorites being the Learning Network blog, Scientist at Work, the IHT Rendezvous blog on global news and Lens, run by the paper’s photo staff.

....I would like to have thought there was space for the environment in that mix, even though these issues are still often seen by journalists weaned on politics as a sidenote (remember Candy Crowley’s post-debate comment about “all you climate change people”?).

Obviously the Times editors are going to come in for plenty of criticism over this, and that's fine. They deserve it. But let's face it: the reason they did this is almost certainly that the blog wasn't getting much traffic (and, therefore, not generating much advertising revenue). So a more constructive question is: Why do readers—even the well-educated, left-leaning readers of the Times—find environmental news so boring? Is it because we all write about it badly? Is it something inherent in the subject itself? Is it because most people think we don't really have any big environmental problems anymore aside from climate change? Or is it because it's just such a damn bummer to read endlessly about all the stuff we should stop doing because, somehow, it will end up destroying a rain forest somewhere?

When political parties lose, we all advise them not to shoot the messenger. If people don't vote for you, there's a reason. The same is probably true in this case. The Times editors are basically just the messengers here. We need to figure out why most people don't seem to care about this stuff, and whether there's anything we can do about it.

In the meantime, there are other places to go. May I recommend Blue Marble, MoJo's environmental blog?

Today in Misleading Polls

| Wed Mar. 6, 2013 11:25 AM EST

The day is young, but I think we already have a winner in the least useful poll category. The latest from the ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that most people are in favor of the sequester but opposed to its specific cuts in the military.

Well, of course they are. But phrasing it this way is deeply misleading. People are always in favor of "budget cuts," and they're always opposed to cuts in actual programs when they're mentioned by name. This poll is deliberately phrased to make it seem as if the public supports domestic cuts but not military cuts, and that simply isn't true. The second question could have been about Social Security or road building or the FBI or education or anything else, and it would have gotten about 60 percent opposed. This has been true for approximately as long as polls have been conducted.

The ABC News report that passes along these poll results makes a teensy little nod to this well-known fact at the tail end of the story, noting that "support for budget cuts in general may be easier to express than support for cuts in particular programs." This is about as opaque a reference as you could imagine. What's the point of all this? It's so deliberately deceptive that it's hard to make sense of.

Negotiating With....Republicans

| Tue Mar. 5, 2013 9:21 PM EST

Republicans have been demanding action on the deficit practically from the minute Barack Obama was inaugurated. Over the past couple of years they've finally gotten it. Spending has been slashed, the federal deficit is declining steeply, and the 10-year deficit projection has been reduced by $4 trillion. So now, having gotten so much of what they wanted, does this mean Republicans are ready to soften up a bit on their deficit mania? You jest, of course. Jon Cohn rounds up the latest news:

Paul Ryan is about to unveil a new proposal for how the government should spend its money. According to multiple media accounts, it will look a lot like the budget plans he's produced before, the ones that famously called for radically downsizing the government. The main difference? The cuts in this proposal will be even bigger.

....With this new budget, Ryan doesn't appear to be offering new concessions. On the contrary, it looks like he's making new demands. And plenty of Republicans seem to think this is the right thing to do. That's perfectly within their rights: They believe it's best for the country. But it's a reminder that Republicans aren't sincerely interested in compromise for its own sake—or in taking more moderate positions on the issues. Yes, the voters delivered a pretty devastating verdict about this agenda just a few months ago. But if the number two guy on the ticket doesn't seem to care, why should the rest of them?

This comes as no surprise. When Ruth Marcus asked Ryan a few days ago if Republicans were planning to give us all a breather and avoid a showdown over the upcoming debt ceiling cliffhanger in April, he was unmoved: "Not this time," he said, "We're not leaving this session of Congress until we have a down payment on the problem."

So apparently conservatives are right: appeasing fanatics doesn't work. It just makes them determined to demand even more. Perhaps it's time to listen to them and adopt a new strategy.

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Killing American Citizens on American Soil, Take 2

| Tue Mar. 5, 2013 6:16 PM EST

Does the president have authority to order drone strikes against American citizens on American soil? As Adam Serwer says, the reason Obama has dodged this question in the past is that the answer is probably yes. He just doesn't want to say so publicly. Today, however, in a letter to Sen. Rand Paul, Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed that the answer is indeed yes:

On February 20, 2013, you wrote to John Brennan requesting additional information concerning the Administration's views about whether "the President has the power to authorize lethal force, such as drone strike, against a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil, and without trial."

[Throat clearing about how unlikely and hypothetical the question is....]

It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the President to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States. For example, the president could conceivably have no choice but to authorize the military to use such force if necessary to protect the homeland in the circumstances like a catastrophic attack like the ones suffered on December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001.

Unfortunately, this is still a bit of a non-answer. The president plainly has the authority to authorize lethal military force on American soil if the country is attacked. I don't think anybody has ever questioned that. He also has the authority to authorize lethal police force on American soil under much wider circumstances. Waco and Ruby Ridge are examples. In both of these cases, there's no reason to think that drones would be specifically barred from use even though F-15s and SWAT teams are OK.

But that still leaves open the question most of us really want answered. The problem is that it's hard to phrase it precisely. What we want to know is whether the president can specifically target a particular American citizen (or group of citizens) for assassination on American soil even when there's not some kind of hot, real-time incitement (such as an invasion or a standoff). The issue of drones is immaterial here. What we're interested in is a situation where, say, the president gets information that some sort of bad guy is holed up in a cave in Idaho. Can he order up lethal force? Or is he required to go after him in a way that at least theoretically allows the possibility of surrender?

We still don't know the answer to that question, and even if I haven't phrased it quite correctly, I'm pretty sure it's the question most of us want answered.

Finally, Some Common Sense from TSA

| Tue Mar. 5, 2013 4:01 PM EST

The Transportation Workers Union may be unhappy about this, but I'm afraid this time I'm not on their side. I say hallelujah to this:

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration will let people carry small pocketknives onto passenger planes for the first time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, along with golf clubs, hockey sticks and plastic Wiffle Ball-style bats.

The agency will permit knives with retractable blades shorter than 6 centimeters (2.36 inches) and narrower than 1/2 inch, TSA Administrator John Pistole said today at an aviation security conference in Brooklyn. The change, to conform with international rules, takes effect April 25.

Does this mean I can soon bring my beloved Swiss Army Knife with me when I travel? Sadly, no. Depending on how you measure, the blade on mine is either six or seven centimeters long, and I'll bet that TSA will choose the method that makes it seven centimeters. So I'll have to get a new one that conforms.

I can live with that. I just want to have a little pocketknife with me when I travel. It's one of those things that's really astonishingly convenient, and I've cursed not having one more times than I can remember since 9/11. So hooray for common sense.

Corporate America's Tough Choices

| Tue Mar. 5, 2013 3:06 PM EST

Last year, a company called Telvent, which monitors pipelines, discovered that Chinese hackers had broken into its computer systems. Today, Stuart Staniford alerts me to this remarkable paragraph in a New York Times story about the incident:

At a moment when corporate America is caught between what it sees as two different nightmares — preventing a crippling attack that brings down America’s most critical systems, and preventing Congress from mandating that the private sector spend billions of dollars protecting against that risk — the Telvent experience resonates as a study in ambiguity.

I guess that's the kind of thing that really keeps American CEOs up at night. Which is more apocalyptic: the prospect of Chinese hackers destroying their infrastructure, or the prospect of a government regulation that tries to stop Chinese hackers from destroying their infrastructure? Decisions, decisions.....

Sorry, I Guess There Was Actual Substance in the Krugman vs. Scarborough Debate Too

| Tue Mar. 5, 2013 2:54 PM EST

I'm moderately pissed off at Bob Somerby right now—not really an uncommon occurrence—but he does make a good point about the Krugman vs. Scarborough debate:

If you end up watching the tape, please look for the part, early on, where Scarborough concedes the discussion. He says he too would like to see several hundred billion more dollars in federal spending this year, money which could be used to fund infrastructure projects and to rehire teachers.

If this had been a boxing match, a referee would have stopped the fight, declaring a technical knock-out. At that moment, Scarborough said he agrees with Krugman’s heretical views—the views which get Krugman ridiculed by the Washington Insider Class. A referee should have stopped the fight. He could have awarded this part of the fight to Krugman, then moved to some other topic.

Greg Sargent agrees:

On the substance, [] what the debate really showed is that the sensible middle ground in the debate over our fiscal and economic problems is not hard to locate. It’s the position held — with variations on the margins — by Obama, Krugman, and Scarborough alike....Asked directly by Krugman if he would support an additional $200 billion per year in spending on infrastructure and education, Scarborough said: “Oh, yeah.” Any difference here is overshadowed by agreement: Both think we should invest in the economy in the short term, while simultaneously believing that long term debt is a problem (in their exchange, Scarborough misleadingly implied that Krugman doesn’t believe this).

More infrastructure spending now, tighter controls on healthcare spending in the future. That's about 90 percent of the argument right there, and most everyone outside of the fever swamps agrees about this. Unfortunately, the fever swamps control our political discourse these days, so instead we get austerity now and nothing much (beyond Obamacare) to rein in healthcare costs in the future.

Plus, of course, lots of sound and fury over the remaining 10 percent. What a waste, in a rich country that still has bridges that need to be built and sinkholes that need to be fixed.