No Panaceas

Thursday, April 24, 2003
 
How about a big mud-wrestling match. The last person left, uh, standing gets to dictate committee policy: CQ Weekly reports that the Senate Judiciary committee is in serious disarray. (CQ is a subscription service, if you're near a good library the article is "Judiciary Committee Agenda Disrupted by Partisan Acrimony" by Jennifer Dloughy and Keith Perine in the April 19th issue or online it's here.)

It's a fascinating article. As it notes, the Judiciary committees in both houses have long been a site for major conflict. They deal with the most polarizing of issues such as abortion and civil rights, and attract ideologues from both sides. Plus they are all lawyers. But at least with the Senate, committee relationships between the top Democrats and Republicans were pretty good over the years. Kennedy and Hatch were even friends. That's now gone. Here are some choice quotes:

When Hatch forced a vote on one of President Bush's judicial nominees during a Feb. 27 markup, Kennedy angrily snapped, "You may bully some, but you're not going to bully me."

The pair has sparred often since then. At an April 10 committee meeting on class action legislation (S 274), Kennedy hijacked the agenda by launching a discourse against an unrelated conference report on child protection legislation (S 151) that Hatch helped shepherd. The two engaged in a shouting match, repeatedly interrupting and speaking over each other, until Hatch angrily gaveled the meeting to a close.


--

The courtly, straight-laced Hatch is aggravated by the Democrats, who he says are deliberately obstructing his powers as chairman. Democrats, already an embattled minority on Capitol Hill, bristle at what they see as a brazen trampling of their rights to deliberate, debate and offer amendments to legislation.

"We never would have treated them this way," said a Senate Democratic aide, referring to the period during the 107th Congress when Republicans were in the Senate minority. "If we had, they would have burned the place down."


--

Even routine procedural matters are not immune to the tensions. Leahy has insisted on more than one occasion that a quorum — 10 members of the 19-member committee — be present before he will begin delivering lengthy opening remarks.

The move almost always forces committee Republicans to remain in their seats for hours during extended business meetings — particularly when few Democrats are on hand.


The article is full of similar examples. This last quote is telling. It means the Democrats are starting to use procedural devices to shut down the committee. For an alienated minority it's a seductive and effective short-run strategy. But it's terribly polarizing and it's the type of stragey that can come back to haunt you in the future. I can't recall a previous time when it went on to this degree at the committee -- rather than chamber -- level.

I don't want to even think about what will happen if Bush nominates a hardcore conservative to the Supreme Court.

One last quote:

Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., viewed by some as an important swing vote on some judiciary issues, said the committee has to come to some kind of agreement on the handling of nominees.

"If we don't, I think this thing is going to grow and fester, and I don't think anybody's going to like the result," she said. "The only way we break the cycle is to sit down and discuss it like mature adults.



Tuesday, April 22, 2003
 
Sharks and Jets: Washington is witnessing a good old fashion powerplay between civilian elements in the Pentagon, i.e., the so-called neo-cons, and the State Department, namely Colin Powell. I can't help but wonder at the irony of this. The anti-Powell forces are mostly civilians and are pushing for Defense preeminence. But the whole chickenhawk angle is boring. What's more interesting, to me at least, is Powell. Here we have a guy who spent his whole career mastering Defense department politics. There is probably no one who knows his way around the Pentagon better than Powell. And yet here he finds himself in the political fight of his life having to defend the STATE department, of all bureaucracies, against his old institution. Of course, most of this isn't really about neo-con concerns about the State department, though that's part of it, but it's really about neo-con concerns with Colin Powell. They wouldn't want him at the Pentagon, either. He is a roadblock they want gone.

Meanwhile, back at the Pentagon, I don't doubt there are more than a few guys with birds and stars on their collars who hope that State wins this particular knife fight.

Monday, April 21, 2003
 
Nina Simone died today. Damn.

 
Hitting the road: The other day I talked about Bush's need to push his agenda now. Specifically I noted that Bush could use his popularity to target the states of moderate senators. It turns out the White House is going to do exactly that. Note this Post selection:

The administration is calling the travel program "Flood the Zone," a football analogy, and top officials will be featured at 80 events in 30 states this week and next, from the Omaha Chamber of Commerce to the City Club of Cleveland. Some of the appearances are to reward lawmakers who have stuck with Bush, others are to encourage those who might switch, and some are to punish those who appear determined to cut the size of his tax cut.

The events and advertising are targeted at the two GOP senators who insisted on cutting Bush's package in half -- George V. Voinovich (Ohio) and Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) -- and at several moderate Democrats who might be persuaded to support Bush's plan: Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), Mary Landrieu (La.) and Evan Bayh (Ind.).


Now, this sort of enterprise always has a bit of a carrot-and-stick element to it, and this is no different. But what really surprises me is the tone of scorn directed towards Frist. Let's not forget that just a few weeks ago Frist was Bush's man in the Senate. Now we have:

The White House is also planning hardball tactics. The senior official said Republican emissaries plan to visit Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who was a party to the deal for a ceiling of $350 billion, and say, "You've let the president and the party down. What're you going to do about it?"

I for one am getting a lot of deja vu, of the 1970s Carter White House variety. That president had unified government too, and at times -- remember Camp David? -- even had a bit of popularity. But Carter, and especially Carter's staff, managed to pretty much competely alienate Democrats in Congress.

 
Paying your way: Sunday's NYT magazine has an interesting article on London's experiment with charging people who drive their cars in central London. As the article shows, it is not just a commuter fee, "Almost anyone who drove across the [dividing] line during business hours -- in fact, almost anyone who moved or even parked a car on the street within it after Feb. 17 -- instantly owed the city of London ...about $8... a day for every day it happened."

There are several elements to the story worth commenting on. First, in principle I think such user fees are a good idea. Driving a car in the U.K., and the U.S., is a heavily subsidized activity that greatly contributes to a commons problem. Second, the politics and practical problems are far uglier than this article really relates. For example, the article does not address the impact of the new fees on the London Underground, busses, and the large network of suburban trains. They are already badly overloaded. Think too about how this affects things like property values. If I own a home in Queens, I would be worried not just about paying such commuter fees, but also about the impact of such fees on housing values. In contrast, if I own a home or condo in Manhattan I'm thinking: 1) less traffic; & 2) my equity is going up fast. Third, note how the system completely relies on Big Brother: "If a driver failed to pay [voluntarily], one of more than 700 vulturelike video cameras perched throughout the zone would capture his license plate number and relay it to a computer, leading to a huge fine." I realize we are inching towards this type of thing in the U.S., but would New Yorkers or other residents of American cities tolerate such monitoring for purposes other than fighting terrorism? (Of course, it was antiterrorism efforts that led to the cameras being installed in London in the first place.)