Opinion

The Great Debate

Seeking a smarter approach to the budget

Capitol Building in Washington, February 27, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Sequestration grew out of a political impasse: Republicans refused to raise the government’s borrowing limit in 2011 without starting to bring spending under control, but Democrats refused to make choices about where to cut spending.

So the president devised sequestration, on the theory that cutting spending in such a painful and dumb way would force Republicans to raise taxes. Spending on entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare was mostly spared, but other programs, particularly defense, got across-the-board cuts.

As a result, thousands of federal workers, including border security and FBI agents, are being told to expect unpaid furloughs in the coming weeks and months. And that is only the beginning. If there is one thing Democrats and Republicans in Washington can now agree on, it is this: The sequester must be replaced.

Congress has taken bipartisan action to fix small pieces of it. To avert flight delays, we transferred Federal Aviation Administration funds to keep air-traffic controllers working and flight towers open. When the Food Safety and Inspection Service announced it was planning to furlough essential employees required to be on-site for meatpacking and other food production businesses to operate, I led the effort on the Senate floor to keep those critical personnel working.

These examples highlight the sequester’s arbitrary and destructive effects, but they also demonstrate Congress’s ability to come up with common-sense solutions. The question is whether Congress will show the same resolve to legislate a smarter approach to budgeting in general.

Party opinion usurps public opinion

We are witnessing the slow death of public opinion in this country.  It’s being displaced by party opinion.

These days, more and more Americans are inclined to judge issues from a partisan viewpoint.  In March, according to a Pew Research Center survey, twice as many Republicans (53 percent) as Democrats (27 percent) said the economy was poor.  Yet, from everything we know, Republicans are not suffering more economic deprivation than Democrats.

Elections today are less and less about persuasion and more and more about mobilization: You rally your supporters in order to beat back your opponents.  Republicans did that in 2004, when President George W. Bush got re-elected with 51 percent of the vote. Democrats did that in 2012, when President Barack Obama got re-elected with 51 percent of the vote.

What the IRS should be scrutinizing

President Barack Obama, making a statement at the White House, announced that the Internal Revenue Service acting commissioner had been ousted, May 15, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The tempest about the Tea Parties and the Internal Revenue Service is a gift for the Republican Party — and one that obscures the real issues.

Why, for example, has the IRS been so indulgent of far bigger, flagrantly partisan tax-exempt groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and Charles and David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity?  Such groups spent hundreds of millions of tax-exempt dollars to influence the last two elections, in clear violation of IRS rules.

Watergate: Are we there yet?

President Barack Obama at a news conference in the White House press briefing room in Washington, March 6, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed

O.K., you know the one about the old guys sitting in the diner:

“When I was a boy, I had to walk five miles to school in the snow.”

“Snow?  I had to walk five miles in the snow with just newspapers on my feet.”

“Feet?  You had feet?”

That’s what it feels like when you lived through Watergate and the scandal decades that followed it. I was in Washington — sentient, glued to the tube, writing about it all. And Leonard Garment, my husband and the special counsel to President Richard M. Nixon, was often the one in the center of the press mob, looking as if he wasn’t going to escape with his life. Then you read last weekend’s news reports about scandal politics “sweeping Washington.” Come on, people. Get a grip.

Terrorism, Putin and the Cold War legacy

Russian President Vladimir Putin, April 11, 2013 REUTERS/Aleksey Nikolskyi/RIA Novosti/Pool

Terrorism always complicates diplomatic relations.

Since the Boston Marathon bombing, the suspected handiwork of two brothers of Chechen background, Russian and American security officials have focused on a blame game.

Could better cooperation between the FBI and the FSB (successor to the KGB) have averted this bombing? Which country is responsible for the carnage? The United States, which Russia warned in 2011 about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older brother who was killed in the police shootout a few days after the bombing? Or Moscow, which gave Washington scant evidence to pursue in that query?

Grassley aims for GOP political spin on federal judiciary

Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 14, 2009. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit’s stunning decision this week to strike down a National Labor Relations Board rule requiring employers to post signs reminding workers of their right to organize, is a clear indication of why this D.C. court has become an ideological battleground.

Senate Republicans, in particular, are going to great lengths to preserve their partisan advantage on a court widely regarded as second to the Supreme Court in importance.

Fighting the gun world

Customers view display at a gun shop in Los Angeles, California December 19, 2012. REUTERS/Gene Blevins

In the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Washington Post began a series of editorials calling for an end to unregulated guns. Those editorials continued every day for months.  After a while, the editor gave up, and gun control eventually was forgotten – as it has been over and over again.

Now, almost five months after the killing of 20 first-graders in Newtown, Connecticut, riveted the nation, Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is talking about trying to resurrect his bill on gun background checks that was defeated in the Senate last month.

A ‘Game of Thrones’ in Damascus

In last Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones, Lord Baelish and Lord Varys, perhaps the show’s most Machiavellian characters, discuss their political philosophies. While admiring the <a “href=”http://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Iron_Throne”>Iron Throne, the show’s iconic symbol of absolute power, they debate the true nature of the realm: What power, they ask, holds the seven kingdoms of Westeros together?

Lord Baelish: “Do you know what the realm is? A story we agree to tell each other over and over until we forget that it’s a lie. But what do we have left once we abandon the lie?”

Lord Varys: “Chaos. A gaping pit waiting to swallow us all.”

It might be bleak and melodramatic, but this resembles today’s global order. In the wake of the financial crisis, the first Group of 20 summit helped save the financial system, but it was fear for survival rather than fealty to a common worldview that drove progress. Since then, it’s become all too clear that the G-20 is more of an aspiration than an institution: There are simply too many member countries with too many conflicting interests.

from Nicholas Wapshott:

Obama versus Congress on Guantanamo

A young girl holds a picture of Bobby Sands in a republican march to mark the 20th anniversary of the IRA hunger strike at the Maze prison in Northern Ireland May 27. REUTERS/Archive

Barely a week after Margaret Thatcher’s funeral in London, her ghost is stalking the corridors of power. At his press conference on Tuesday in Washington, President Barack Obama was asked about Guantánamo Bay prisoners refusing to eat. In doing so, the veteran CBS reporter Bill Plante, who asked the question, exposed a running sore in the Obama administration. He also invited direct comparison between Obama and Lady Thatcher – who faced a similar dilemma in 1981.

As a candidate in 2008, Obama, a distinguished Harvard-educated legal scholar known in the Senate for his common sense and humanity, promised to quickly close the prison for 166 terrorist suspects in the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The existence of a U.S. detention center that ignores the basic legal right of habeas corpus and the failure to bring prisoners to trial after so many years “erode our moral claims that we are acting on behalf of broader universal principles,” he said. He went on to repeat his pledge, yet five years on, Gitmo is still open for business.

Which Mexico for Obama?

When President Barack Obama meets this week with President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico, he will be visiting a country that was much maligned throughout his first term.

Washington has viewed Mexico largely as a source of problems for the United States in the past six years. Many Mexicans, in a mirror image, consider the United States the origin of their troubles. They blame Mexico’s epidemic of violent crime on an insatiable appetite for drugs and loose control over gun and ammunition sales in the United States. In addition, the U.S. financial crisis left the Mexican economy reeling in 2009.

But in the past year, particularly since Peña Nieto’s election in July 2012, Mexico’s standing in the United States and internationally has increased dramatically — along with its national self-esteem.

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