Friday, December 21, 2012

December 21, 2012

Inside the Meltdown
by Robert Costa
December 21, 2012

At a quarter to 8 p.m. on Thursday night, House Republicans gathered in the Capitol basement for an urgent, closed-door conference meeting. The scene was hushed and confused. Instead of huddling in a windowless room, members thought they’d spend the evening on the House floor, voting on “Plan B,” Speaker John Boehner’s fiscal-cliff proposal. But as they took their seats and looked at Boehner’s face, the reason for the gathering became clear: The speaker didn’t have the votes. The whipping was over. “Plan B” was dead.

Boehner’s speech to the group was short and curt: He said his plan didn’t have enough support, and that the House would adjourn until after Christmas, perhaps even later. But it was Boehner’s tone and body language that caught most Republicans off guard. The speaker looked defeated, unhappy, and exhausted after hours of wrangling. He didn’t want to fight. There was no name-calling. As a devout Roman Catholic, Boehner wanted to pray. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” he told the crowd, according to attendees.

There were audible gasps of surprise, especially from freshman lawmakers who didn’t see the meltdown coming. Boehner’s friends were shocked, and voiced their disappointment so the speaker’s foes could hear. “My buddies and I said the same thing to each other,” a Boehner ally told me later. “We looked at each other, rolled our eyes, and just groaned. This is a disaster.”

Representative Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania, a burly former car dealer, stood up and urged the conference to get behind the speaker. “How the hell can you do this?” Kelly asked, according to several people inside the room. A few of Boehner’s critics told Kelly to stop lecturing, but most were silent. They had been battling against “Plan B” all week, and quite suddenly, they had crippled the leadership. Boehner sensed the tension, requested calm, and then exited the room.

Since the meeting lasted only a few minutes, several members, such as Representative Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, missed the session. As Huelskamp, a leading “Plan B” adversary, rushed to get there, he saw a stream of his colleagues exiting. They were on their phones with aides and family members, sharing the news. They’d be coming home for the holidays since the House was in a state of chaos. Some of them, however, seemed bewildered by the turn of events. They walked slowly down the basement hallway, whispering with other members. One freshman asked a senior member, “Are we really not coming back?” The senior member simply nodded. Almost everyone avoided the press. Feelings were raw. Representative Steve King of Iowa, a frequent Boehner critic, looked at me, shook his head, and said, “I have nothing to say.”

Boehner and his leadership team soon departed. Kevin McCarthy, the GOP whip, who hours earlier was meeting with on-the-fence members over Chick-fil-A sandwiches in his office, left the Capitol looking distressed. So did Eric Cantor, the majority leader, who had spent the past two days wooing backbenchers. Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the Budget Committee chairman and recent Republican vice-presidential candidate, strolled out of the Capitol with Representative Tom Price of Georgia, a popular conservative who has expressed his unhappiness with Boehner’s cliff strategy. The pair declined to discuss the drama, but they both looked tired and frustrated.

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Behind the Smears
by Walter Olson
December 20, 2012

Here’s something you may not know about the 1987 battle that kept Robert Bork off the Supreme Court: Opponents pursued a whispering campaign against him on the grounds that he wasn’t enough of a religious believer.

Back then, many Democrats still held seats in the rural South, and the religion angle gave them an easier way to explain their stance to constituents than, We’ve been asked to oppose him as a party-line matter.

Thus Rep. John Bryant (D-Texas) warned that Bork was “an agnostic who is not a member of any church.”

And Sen. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), while disclaiming any “religious test for judges,” advised “fundamental religious people” back home to “look, in addition to what he has written, at [Bork’s] statements on morals or lack thereof — and I don’t mean to suggest he is immoral — but his lack of occupation with morals and with religion.”

“Never in memory had a judicial nomination
been fought in such language. Why?”

Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.) told constituents he was “disturbed by [Bork’s] refusal to discuss his belief in God — or the lack thereof.” Heflin also alluded darkly to the nominee’s beard and “strange lifestyle” as a Yale law professor.

Judge Robert Bork died yesterday at 85, and as one of the smartest persons ever nominated to the high court — George Will called him ‘the most intellectually distinguished nominee since Felix Frankfurter’ — he was well situated to appreciate the many historical ironies.

One was that opponents like Heflin could exploit prejudice against him as a former Yale law professor and presumed Northeastern elitist. In fact his views were so far from his former colleagues’ that in later years he was to joke of seeing a bumper sticker that read, Save America. Close Yale Law School.

The religious angle adds another irony. Particularly after his defeat and retirement from the bench, Bork’s views drifted steadily rightward; in the wake of his best-selling 1997 book Slouching Toward Gomorrah, he became a favorite of “secularism is destroying America” culture warriors.

Of course the confirmation critique that makes it into every Bork obituary isn’t Heflin’s or Johnston’s. It’s Ted Kennedy’s blowhard caricature, intended for northern liberal consumption, of “Robert Bork’s America” as “a land in which women would be forced into back alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, school children could not be taught about evolution,” and so on.

Never in memory had a judicial nomination been fought in such language. Why?

As a constitutional law scholar, Bork had distinguished himself even among conservatives for his scathing critique of the Warren Court, which he accused essentially of having made up constitutional law as it went along.

To organized liberal groups, on whose behalf Kennedy was acting, this was the next thing to a declaration of war. Yet they couldn’t exactly come out and defend making up constitutional law as you went along as their own vision for the high court.

Instead, they served up a steady diet of vitriol and wild oversimplification, especially in TV ads and other messages delivered outside the confirmation hearings.

The Washington Post itself opposed Bork’s confirmation, yet nonetheless editorialized against the “intellectual vulgarization and personal savagery” to which some of his opponents had descended, “profoundly distorting the record and the nature of the man.”

Once “Borking” had been coined as a word and as a practice, it didn’t take long for nominees of both sides to pay the price. Some didn’t care to put themselves or their families through months of mudslinging.

Within a few years, presidents of both parties were taking care to pick nominees with schmoozy as opposed to prickly personalities — and willing to submit to coaching on how to give off that oh-so-important empathetic vibe without actually committing to anything.

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How to Downsize the Federal Government
by Bill Weckesser
December 21, 2012

Maybe Republicans need go back to the Gipper's playbook on the deficit. Reagan once said, "I'm not worried the deficit. It's big enough to take care of itself." He certainly had a point. Reagan was charged with massively increasing spending and borrowing on defense so that liberals would be sort of handcuffed from any big new spending programs for a while. And, arguably, for a while it may have worked.

Now the New York Times laments-in an article I found at CNBC-that instead of defense, entitlements are swallowing all the money.
Consider the president's budget, which by law must include projections of taxing and spending over the next decade. Loath to raise taxes on the middle class yet unwilling to cut deeply into the budgets for Social Security or Medicare, the president and his advisers proposed cutting the discretionary part of the budget devoted to everything except defense and other security agencies to 1.7 percent of economic output by 2022, down from 3.1 percent last year. 
This is not irrelevant spending. It accounts for every government expenditure except entitlements, security and interest. It pays subsidies for higher education and housing assistance for the poor. It finances the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration. It pays for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and training programs for unemployed workers. Without such spending, the government becomes little more than a heavily armed pension plan with a health insurer on the side.
House Republicans are equally if not more frugal. The House budget resolution, the Republicans' last detailed proposal about taxes and spending, refers to discretionary spending except national defense, a broader category than that considered in the president's budget. They too cut it to the bone: to about 2.1 percent of economic output in 2022, from 4.3 percent last year. 
To put it in perspective, this would cut the government's civilian discretionary budget to the smallest it has been as a share of the economy at least since the Eisenhower administration -- when a quarter of the population lived under the poverty line, thousands of children still contracted polio each year and fewer than one in 12 Americans older than 25 had a college degree. According to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office, even going over the so-called fiscal cliff would not cut it as deeply.
Hey, the Eisenhower years weren't so bad. This could be a road back.

Conservatives need to turn the table on the debate. Instead of arguing that entitlements will soon swallow everything else, so let's cut them, let's work on cutting all the rest. House republicans should consider making every cut a tradeoff versus cutting Social Security/Medicare. For instance, either downsize the EPA...or cut Social Security/Medicare. Reduce the Energy department...or reduce Social Security/Medicare. Scale back the Department of Education...or trim Social Security/Medicare. The list is endless. A lot of Americans have more affection for Social Security/Medicare than any government agency. This could be a stealth way to pursue some healthy de-regulation. Would this meaningfully reduce the deficit? Of course not.

But, to paraphrase Reagan, "entitlements are a big enough problem to take care of themselves." In the meantime, maybe conservatives can win some other battles

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