Tag Archives: boehner

Trump boosts Nehlen in August 9 primary vs Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan, speaker of the House of Representatives, faces a unique primary challenge on August 9. (Facebook)
Paul Ryan, speaker of the House of Representatives, faces a unique primary challenge on August 9. (Facebook)

Don’t look now, but House speaker Paul Ryan may have just one week to salvage his career.USflag

OK, that might be hyperbole, but the longtime Wisconsin representative is facing perhaps the stiffest challenge of his nearly two-decade career in elective office.

For the better part of a decade, Ryan has been the face of movement conservatism in the United States. From the beginning of the Obama administration, Ryan quickly filled a role as something of the dean of conservative policymaking on Capitol Hill, earning for himself a reputation as a radical intellectual of the American right, who would routinely propose budgets that would so drastically reshape taxes and spending in the United States, even his predecessor as House speaker, Newt Gingrich — no shrinking violet on the American right — dismissed some of his ideas as ‘right-wing social engineering.’

Nevertheless, Ryan’s ascent in American politics is stunning. He served as Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012; had the Romney-Ryan ticket won that election, Ryan would have played an important role in formulating economic policy for the Romney administration. Reluctantly — very reluctantly — Ryan agreed to run for House speaker last year after John Boehner stepped down and the frontrunner, House majority leader Kevin McCarthy, suddenly dropped out.

In many ways, Ryan’s has been a fairy-tale rise in American politics and, even today, he is a plausible future president in 2020 or beyond.

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RELATED: A brief history of Republican speakercide

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That may be changing, however, in the age of Trump.

By all appearances, Ryan was already facing an uncomfortably tough primary challenge from local businessman Paul Nehlen. But that challenge became a bit tougher on Sunday evening, when Republican presidential nominee nudged supporters toward Nehlen via Twitter:

On Monday, Trump refused to endorse Ryan in his primary, openly mocking the House speaker with the same kind of equivocating language that Ryan used in May when he refused to endorse Trump for the presidency:

Trump praised the House speaker’s underdog opponent, Paul Nehlen, for running “a very good campaign.” Trump said that Ryan has sought his endorsement, but that as of now he is only “giving it very serious consideration.”

“I like Paul, but these are horrible times for our country,” Trump said. “We need very strong leadership. We need very, very strong leadership. And I’m just not quite there yet. I’m not quite there yet.” Trump’s refusal to back Ryan represents an extraordinary breach of political decorum and signals that the Republican Party remains divided two weeks after a national convention in Cleveland staged to showcase party unity.
Continue reading Trump boosts Nehlen in August 9 primary vs Paul Ryan

Can Hillary Clinton become America’s Mutti?

Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton might find in German chancellor Angela Merkel a role model in the era of Trump (State Department)
Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton might find in German chancellor Angela Merkel a role model in the era of Trump (State Department)

In 2008, US president Barack Obama won the largest Democratic mandate in a generation, in part, by pledging to change the tone in Washington.USflag

But in 2016, after eight years of increasingly bitter and partisan posturing, it’s Obama’s one-time rival, Hillary Clinton, who now has the opportunity to transcend the hyper-partisanship that began with the divided government under her husband’s administration in the 1990s.

Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party laid bare the long-growing schism among various Republican constituencies. Currently, the two living former Republican presidents (George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush), the party’s most recent presidential nominee (former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney), its one-time 2016 frontrunners (former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, Texas senator Ted Cruz and Florida senator Marco Rubio) and the Republican in the highest-ranking elected official — speaker of the House (Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan) — have all refused to endorse Trump.

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RELATED: That transcending ideology thing from 2008?
Merkel did it. Obama hasn’t.

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Despite the promise that the coming general election will be nasty, even by the recent standards of American politics, Clinton, if she’s nimble enough, can become a unifying and moderate figure who can work with both Republicans and Democrats. If Trump loses as badly as polls suggest he might, the Republican Party will be a shambles on November 8. The fight for Senate control was always a toss-up, and a Trump debacle could endanger even Republican control of the House of Representatives.

Increasingly, the debate in world politics is tilting away from traditional left-right discourses, replaced by a much darker fight, for the first time since the 1930s, between populist nationalism and globalist internationalism — and not just in the United States, but everywhere from the Philippines to the United Kingdom. In that fight, Ryan (and Bush and moderate Republicans) have much more in common with Clinton and the officials who will lead a Clinton administration than with Trump.

Make no mistake, if Clinton wins the presidency in November, she’s not going to form a German-style ‘grand coalition’ with Ryan and leading Republicans. Postwar German politics operates largely on consensus to a degree unknown in American (or even much of European) politics. Still, German chancellor Angela Merkel has already paved the way for how a successful Clinton presidency might unfold, and Clinton advisers would be smart to figure out, as the campaign unfolds, how to position Clinton as a kind of American ‘Mutti.’ Clinton is already reaching out to moderate Republican donors, but the challenge goes much deeper — to become a kind of acceptable figure to both blue-state and red-state America.

It’s not clear that Clinton has the same political skill to pull off in the United States what Merkel has done in Germany.

But it’s a rare opportunity, nonetheless, if she can.  Continue reading Can Hillary Clinton become America’s Mutti?

A brief history of Republican speakercide

John Boehner, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives will step down and resign from Congress at the end of October. (Facebook)
John Boehner, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives will step down and resign from Congress at the end of October. (Facebook)

Since the end of the decades-long Democratic dominance on Capitol Hill, the House of Representatives has had four Republican speakers (or near-speakers). All four  — all — were forced out by internal coups or otherwise disgraced by scandal.USflag

John Boehner, the affable, business-friendly Ohio congressman who announced his resignation last Friday, is just the latest Republican speaker to meet a difficult end — facing a revolt of tea-party and hard-line conservatives within his caucus threatening a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood funding.

By stepping down at the end of next month, Boehner will be able to keep the government running with the support of Democrats, if necessary. As the Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza writes, Boehner sacrificed his career for the long-term good of the Republican Party.

A week ago, Boehner grumbled about the difficulties of leading his caucus, comparing himself to a garbageman who has gotten used to ‘the smell of bad garbage.’ Over the weekend, he unloaded to Politico on his party’s most conservative and uncompromising legislators:

“The Bible says, beware of false prophets. And there are people out there spreading, you know, noise about how much can get done,” Boehner said. “We got groups here in town, members of the House and Senate here in town, who whip people into a frenzy believing they can accomplish things they know — they know! — are never going to happen,” he added.

Boehner will join a small club of Republican speakers, all of whose legacies are somewhat tarnished. That’s not even counting the legal troubles faced by former majority leader Tom DeLay or former Senate majority leader Trent Lott, who resigned from the leadership in 2002 after making controversial remarks praising the late Strom Thurmond, a longtime South Carolina senator who mounted a segregationist ‘Dixiecrat’ presidential campaign in 1948.

Newt Gingrich, the Georgia congressman who engineered the ‘Republican revolution’ that brought the party control of both houses of Congress after the 1994 midterm elections, lasted for exactly two cycles. When the party sustained midterm losses in 1998 to president Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party, partially as a result of Republican congressional inquiry into Clinton’s perjury relating to an alleged sexual affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, Gingrich resigned rather than face full insurrection from rebels within his own caucus (that, at the time, including a younger Boehner). Continue reading A brief history of Republican speakercide

The real reason Netanyahu is coming to Washington

netanyahucongressPhoto credit to AFP.

Washington, it’s not always about you. USflagISrel Flag Icon

For a week, US House speaker John Boehner’s decision to invite Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of the US Congress has stirred controversy in the capitals of both countries, but especially in Washington, where commentators of all political stripes are attacking the veteran Israeli leader for the breathtaking breach of protocol in bypassing the administration of US president Barack Obama and dealing exclusively with Obama’s political opponents in the legislative branch. The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, perhaps the leading US commentator on Israeli affairs and the bilateral relationship, slammed the move in a piece on Tuesday headlined, ‘The Netanyahu disaster.’

Yes, Netanyahu wants to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power, and he’s made it clear that he will stop at nothing to thwart Tehran from enriching even the tiniest bit of uranium in its quest to develop its nuclear energy industry — to say nothing of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Yes, Netanyahu is a political foe of the Obama administration and, time after time, he’s gone out of his way to indicate his disapproval of its approach to Iran and other issues central to Israeli regional security. Netanyahu has increasingly developed common cause with the US right, and he has a fervent supporter in Sheldon Adelson, one of the wealthiest Republican donors in the United States (he almost single-handedly bankrolled former speaker Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential bid) and a top Netanyahu financier in his own right.

But neither of those are the real reason that Netanyahu is so eager to speak before the US Congress, now entirely controlled by the Republican Party. Nor will Netanyahu be dissuaded by arguments that it’s a fantastic breach of protocol that will make an already tense relationship with the Obama administration worse. After all, Netanyahu practically endorsed Mitt Romney, Obama’s Republican challenger for the presidency in 2012, and he easily won his own battle for a new term as Israeli prime minister two months after the American presidential election. The potential of alienating a sitting US president certainly didn’t harm Netanyahu’s own domestic political prospects two years ago. The fact that Netanyahu is one of the few US allies who so often publicly contradicts the US president might even boost his standing among Israeli voters.

The real impetus for Netanyahu?

His scheduled appearance comes just two weeks before he faces what will be his toughest election battle since 1999, when he lost an election to Ehud Barak, then the leader of the Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית).  Continue reading The real reason Netanyahu is coming to Washington

What a Republican Senate means for world politics


On Tuesday, when tens of millions of US voters go to the polls, they are very likely to deliver a US Senate majority to the Republican Party.USflag

Six years into the administration of Democratic president Barack Obama and four years after the midterm elections that delivered control of the US House of Representatives to the Republicans and conservative speaker John Boehner, most polls and poll aggregate forecasts give the Republicans anywhere from a strong (70%) to moderate (74%) to an overwhelming (96%) chance to retake the Senate.

It’s not uncommon for the ‘six-year itch’ to reward the non-presidential party with gains in midterm elections. Throughout the post-war era, in every midterm election during the second term of a reelection president, the opposition party has made gains each time — with the exception of 1998, when the Democrats benefited from a strong economy and Republican overreach in pursuing  what would eventually become impeachment hearings against US president Bill Clinton over alleged perjury in the Monica Lewinsky affair.

It’s also not unheard of that foreign policy can drive larger narratives about presidencies.

Most recently, in 2006, Democrats recaptured both houses in midterm elections, forcing then-president George W. Bush to accept the resignation of his defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in light of the war in Iraq’s unpopularity and the unfolding sectarian civil war taking place there despite US military occupation. As it turns out, the 2006 midterms paved the way for a much more moderate tone to the final two years of the Bush administration and a change in strategy under Robert Gates, Rumsfeld’s successor, who ultimately stayed on as defense secretary until 2011, lending a sense of continuity to the Obama administration’s approach to defense policy.

So what exactly would a Republican Senate mean for US foreign policy in the final two years of the Obama administration? Continue reading What a Republican Senate means for world politics

What Eric Cantor’s stunning primary defeat means for world politics

Israel's PM Netanyahu walks next to House Majority Leader Cantor before pre-bipartisan meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington

The eyes of the entire political elite were on the 7th congressional district Thursday night, as the majority leader of the US House of Representatives, Eric Cantor, lost a primary election to challenger Dave Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College by margin of 55.5% to 45.5% among mostly Republican voters in a sprawling exurban district that includes Richmond’s northern hinterland and the faintest southwestern hinterland of the DC metro area.USflag

The most immediate response from pundits is that Cantor’s loss all but dooms the chances for immigration reform between now and 2016:

Coming off President Barack Obama’s re-election, immigration reform was seen as an issue both parties could deal with quickly. Democrats wanted to deliver on promises made to their Latino backers and Republicans wanted to get the issue off the table to avoid reliving the electoral demographic nightmare of 2012.

But House GOP leaders have long said they wouldn’t bring up the Gang of Eight bill the Senate passed last year, and Cantor’s embrace of even piecemeal proposals was derided by opponent Dave Brat and tea party activists as “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants.

That’s probably right.

While there were almost certainly several reasons for Cantor’s loss to Brat, a conservative insurgent supported by Tea Party enthusiasts and several top conservative radio talk show hosts, the perception that Cantor’s muddled position on supporting at least a tepid version of immigration reform will almost certainly scare House Republicans from supporting any version of reform between now and the 2016 election. Political writers were already calling Cantor’s shocking loss  a harbinger of difficulty for the presidential hopes of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who’s weighing a run, and who has called illegal immigration to the United States an ‘act of love.’ 

That, of course, has obvious implications for US foreign policy in Latin America, where immigration reform is one of the top regional issues, alongside enhancing trade, drug policy and promoting economic and political development.

It’s the first time since 1899 that a House majority leader, second in rank only to the speaker of the US House, currently John Boehner of Ohio, has lost an election, and it’s a political earthquake reminiscent of Democratic speaker Tom Foley’s 1994 loss in his own House district in Washington state or of the Democratic US Senate minority leader Tom Daschle’s loss in 2004. 

But both of those upsets were not entirely unexpected, and they came at the hands of surging Republican candidates in November general elections, not to underfunded Tea Party renegades in a primary election. 

There will, no doubt,  be plenty of commentary on Cantor’s loss in the hours and days ahead. Most immediately, Cantor’s defeat creates a looming hole in the House Republican leadership — Cantor’s position as House majority leader was so secure that he was thought to be the favorite to succeed Boehner as House speaker. 

But what, if anything, will Cantor’s loss mean for foreign affairs?

It’s worth noting that Cantor was not merely the only Jewish Republican in the House caucus (one among 233 lawmakers), he was the highest ranking Jewish member of the US Congress in American history. Though there’s no shortage of support on Capitol Hill for Israel, especially among Republicans, Cantor (pictured above with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu) held a special role for Jewish conservatives in the United States. When Netanyahu visited the United States four years ago, he met privately with Cantor before an official visit with Hillary Clinton, then the US secretary of state at the time, and he told Netanyahu that House Republicans would act as a ‘check’ on the administration of US president Barack Obama. 

Although there’s no love lost for Cantor among Jewish Democrats, who largely noted they wouldn’t be sorry to see his exit from Congress and from the House leadership, his loss is a blow to big-tent Republicans who desire as broad and diverse a leadership as possible. 

Nonetheless, Cantor was a top Netanyahu ally among the House Republican leadership ranks. Just earlier this week, as US diplomats softened their opposition to the new unity Palestinian government between the competing Fatah and Hamas factions, Cantor reiterated his call to suspend US aid to the Palestinian Authority.

But Cantor’s loss isn’t just a defeat for Netanyahu.

As Timothy B. Lee at Vox also notes, Cantor’s loss is also bad news for the National Security Agency: Continue reading What Eric Cantor’s stunning primary defeat means for world politics

The cynical politics behind the Benghazi ‘scandal’


I’m always super-hesitant to jump into commentary on American politics, mostly because there’s so much to learn about politics and policy elsewhere in the world. USflag

But the decision by the US House of Representatives and House speaker John Boehner on Thursday to form a select committee to ‘investigate’ the Benghazi attacks is one of the reasons I find US politics so utterly discouraging.

A select committee is a ‘special’ committee created for a specific, targeted purpose. The House typically creates a select committee when one or more of the existing House committees don’t have enough authority or capacity to carry out that purpose. For example, between 2007 and 2011, the House, under Democratic control, authorized a select committee on energy independence and global warming.

Of all the mistakes that US president Barack Obama has made in six years in foreign policy, the Republican leadership has generally focused on the Benghazi sideshow — at the expense of more fundamental and, constitutionally controversial matters.

Why ‘Benghazi’ has become such a spectacle

It’s easy to understand why ‘Benghazi’ makes for such a sensational affair. The attack left four US personnel, including Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya, dead. It left the Obama administration, just weeks before a presidential election, slack-jawed to explain why US security failed so spectacularly.

Add to that the post-Watergate alchemy, whereby shouting ‘cover-up’ can spin routine politics into scandal, a White House that’s been reluctant, perhaps understandably, to work enthusiastically with its Congressional interlocutors, and a zero-sum political environment where House Republicans show, time after time, that they are willing to take extraordinary measures to achieve certain objectives (e.g., last autumn’s government shutdown, routine debt ceiling crises).

It’s easy to see the political advantage for Republicans in opening a select committee to investigate the matter. Trey Gowdy (pictured above), the two-term congressman from South Carolina, who will head the committee, is already talking about the investigation in terms of a ‘trial,’ with Gowdy and his committee as the prosecution and the Obama administration as the defense. Continue reading The cynical politics behind the Benghazi ‘scandal’

Don’t blame the constitution for the shutdown — blame single-member plurality districts!


Dylan Matthews at The Washington Post wrote impressively yesterday about the perils of presidentialism and blames the current federal government shutdown not on the individual actors in the US Congress, but on the US constitution itself.  Citing the late Juan Linz, who died Tuesday (coincidentally), Matthews points to a body of comparative politics research that shows presidential systems are more likely to fall into dictatorship and chaos than parliamentary systems:USflag

But it’s not just that [James] Madison’s system is unnecessary. It’s potentially dangerous. Scholars of comparative politics have shown that presidential systems with a separation of executive and legislative functions, like America’s, are considerably more likely to collapse into dictatorship than are parliamentary systems where the executive and legislative branches are merged. That’s because there are competing branches of government able to claim democratic legitimacy and steer the ship of state at the same time — and when they disagree profoundly, there’s no real mechanism for resolving the dispute.

But parliamentary systems come with their own challenges.  Italian prime minister Enrico Letta, who won a no-confidence vote yesterday after a four-day political crisis spurred by the whimsy of a single, highly volatile opposition leader, may disagree that parliamentary systems are necessarily more stable.

Matthews is right to poke holes in the sanctity with which the US political system holds 18th century governance documents, including the US constitution and the writings of Madison and others (after all, it’s important to remember that the original constitution plunged the United States into civil war — it’s the post-1865 version that includes the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments that we use today).

We live in a 21st century world that doesn’t always fall into sync with 18th century political economy.  The US constitution, whether Americans like it or not, is no longer state-of-the-art technology for constitutions and hasn’t been for decades, and the US presidential system isn’t one that many countries choose to follow these days.  When the United States helped craft new political systems in Germany and Japan after World War II, they built parliamentary governments with mechanisms alien to the American system.

But in a world where a minority of one house of the legislative branch of government can shut down the US government, it’s a tall order to ask that American political elites contemplate a major constitutional adjustment — a constitutional amendment to transform the United States into a parliamentary system would require the support of two-thirds of the US House of Representatives and the US Senate and the support of three-fourths of the 50 US states.

While we’re working through thought experiments, can we can lay some of the blame on the nature of the American electoral system?  Maybe the United States should elect members of Congress through some form of proportional representation (or ‘PR’) instead of a ‘first-past-the-post’ system — more technically, single-member district plurality.

Although it’s typical to think about PR as a voting system used more often in parliamentary systems, both Canada and the United Kingdom (which have parliamentary systems) use a pure ‘first-past-the-post’ system to elect members to each of their respective House of Commons, while México (which has a presidential system) uses a mixed system that relies heavily on PR to determine members of both houses of its Congress.

How first-past-the-post skews US congressional elections: the 2012 conundrum

In the United States, House members are elected in single-member districts on the basis of ‘first-past-the-post’ voting.  That means that the candidate who wins the most votes in the district wins the House seat.  Typically in the United States, at least, that means the winning candidate will win over 50% of the vote (or close to it) because of the cultural dominance of the two-party system.  That kind of two-party dominance, by the way, is much more likely to develop under the American electoral system (first-past-the-post in single-member districts) than under PR systems.  That phenomenon even has a name — Duverger’s Law — and we could spend a whole post pondering the mechanisms and effects of it.

So in the most recent November 2012 US congressional election, Democrats won 48.3% of the national vote and Republicans won 46.9% for the national vote.  But Democrats won just 201 seats to 234 for Republicans — the party that won 1.7 million fewer votes nonetheless holds a fairly strong majority of seats in the House (by historical standards).

The skew is even more intense on a state-by-state basis.  Here’s a chart that shows five swing states that US president Barack Obama won in his November 2012 reelection bid where Republicans simultaneously won a majority of the state’s congressional delegation — the first column is Obama’s reelection percentage and the second column is the percentage of that state’s House seats held by Republicans:


It works both ways — here’s another chart that shows five solidly Democratic states where Democrats hold an outsized advantage in the House.  Again, the first column is Obama’s reelection percentage and the second column in the percentage of House seats held by Democrats:


What would proportional representation mean for the US House? 

Contrast this to a PR system where seats are awarded on the basis of the party’s overall level of support.  There are nearly as many varieties of PR electoral systems as there are countries on the map, but the general idea is that if a party wins 25% of the vote, it should hold 25% of the seats in the legislative body.  Often, there’s an electoral hurdle — so a party would have to win 4% of the total vote in order to win any seats in the legislative body. Continue reading Don’t blame the constitution for the shutdown — blame single-member plurality districts!

Toward a pink-blue coalition: how House Democrats can rescue Boehner’s speakership


Last week, I noted that German chancellor Angela Merkel succeeded in achieving the post-partisanship in Germany that US president Barack Obama had hoped to achieve when he ran for president in 2008.USflag

While that’s somewhat of an unfair comparison given the collegiality and consensus that’s developed in Germany’s postwar politics, there’s perhaps a lesson for US politicians to learn from the example of German politics in resolving the current standoff that has shut down the federal government of the United States and threatens to precipitate a sovereign debt crisis later this month over the US debt ceiling.

Even after Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats won a once-in-a-generation landslide victory, she remains five seats of an absolute majority in Germany’s Bundestag (the lower house of the German parliament) and well short of a majority in the Bundesrat (the upper house), so she’s locked in negotiations — likely for the rest of the year — to form a viable governing coalition with either her rival center-left Social Democrats or the slightly more leftist Green Party.

Contrast that to the United States, where a minority of a party that controls one-half of one branch of the American government has now succeeding in effecting a shutdown of the US government.

In the US House of Representatives today, speaker John Boehner (generally) operates on the ‘Hastert rule.’  He’ll only bring bills to the floor of the House that are supported by a ‘majority of the majority’ — a majority of the 232-member Republican caucus.  So even if 115 Republicans and all 200 Democrats in the House support a bill, such as a clean ‘continuing resolution’ to end the current shutdown, they won’t be able to do so if 117 Republicans prefer to condition a continuing resolution upon a one-year delay of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, popularly known as ‘Obamacare.’

It’s not uncommon in parliamentary systems for the ‘loyal opposition’ to sometimes lend their support for an important piece of legislation.  Earlier this year in the United Kingdom, British prime minister David Cameron passed a marriage equality law only with the support of the opposition Labour Party in the House of Commons in light of antipathy within a certain segment of the center-right Conservative Party to same-sex marriage.

In country after country in Europe, including Greece, Ireland and Latvia, traditional rivals on the left and right have sucked up the political costs of austerity and voted to accept difficult reforms, tax increases and tough budget cuts in the face of rising unemployment and depression-level economies in order to avoid the further tumult of being pushed out of the eurozone’s single currency.  If Italy’s left and right could support former prime minister Mario Monti’s technocratic government for 15 months, it’s not outside the realm of democratic tradition to believe that Boehner could form a working coalition in the US House to resolve a crisis that threatens not only American political credibility in the world and the American economy, but the entire global economy.

But as Alex Pareene at Salon wrote earlier today, the United States doesn’t have a parliamentary system, it has a presidential system where an opposition party that controls one house of Congress can cause a crisis if it wants to do so:

An American parliamentary system with proportional representation wouldn’t immediately or inexorably lead to a flourishing social democracy, but it would at least correct the overrepresentation of an ideological minority, and cut down on intentional tactical economic sabotage. The reason we’re in permanent crisis mode isn’t “extremism,” but a system of government that guarantees political brinkmanship.

There’s a bit of ‘grass is always greener’ mentality to that counterfactual.  Parliamentary systems come with their own set of difficulties, and governments in parliamentary systems can wind up just as paralyzed as the current American government seems to be — former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is causing a political crisis this very week in Italy that will culminate in a vote of no confidence on Wednesday against the fragile coalition headed by center-left prime minister Enrico Letta.  Though the government’s been in power for just five months, Italy could face its second set of elections in 12 months if Letta’s government falls.  Belgium famously went without a government for 535 days between 2009 and 2011 because no majority coalition could form a government.  Moreover, minority governments in parliamentary systems often lurch from crisis to crisis, with individual lawmakers willing and able to ‘hold up’ the government’s legislation.

But the United States need not change its entire system of government to take away a few lessons from Merkel and from Germany.

Juliet Eilperin and Zachary A. Goldfarb at The Washington Post suggested earlier Tuesday that Boehner make a push to become the first truly bipartisan speaker:

[T]he press tends to trumpet two unflattering themes: that Boehner can neither manage his own conference nor make a credible deal with the White House. As a result, the narrative runs, Americans are left careening from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis, and Congress can’t even tackle popular initiatives such as immigration reform. A host of other potential changes supported by huge swaths of both parties — from tax and entitlement reform to infrastructure spending — are also left on the table just because of the fallout Boehner faces from a few dozen, ultra-conservative Republicans.

At least that’s the rap against Boehner, whose speakership so far has been defined by blocking Obama’s priorities rather than producing significant laws. But that could all change if he were just to decide to say to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.): “Let’s enter a grand coalition. Democrats will vote for me for speaker as long as Republicans hold a majority. And we’ll do a budget deal that raises a little bit of tax revenue and reforms entitlements. We’ll overhaul the tax code for individuals and businesses. We’ll pass immigration reform and support the infrastructure spending that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and labor unions want.”

Call it a pink-blue coalition — the moderate Republicans and the Democrats.  (Or maybe the donkey-rhino‡ coalition). Continue reading Toward a pink-blue coalition: how House Democrats can rescue Boehner’s speakership

How the US government shutdown looks to the rest of the world


The People’s Republic of China doesn’t do government shutdowns. USflag

Neither does India, the world’s largest democracy.  Neither does Russia nor Japan nor the European Union.

The crisis that the United States faces over the next month — the nearly certain federal government shutdown set to begin on Tuesday and the US government’s potential sovereign default if the US Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling — is almost completely foreign to the rest of the world.

The vocabulary of the government budget crises that have sprung from divided government during the presidential administration of Barack Obama — from ‘sequester’ to ‘fiscal cliff’ to ‘supercommittee’ — is not only new to American politics, it’s a vocabulary that exists solely to describe phenomena exclusive to American politics.  As the Republican Party seems ready to force a budgetary crisis over the landmark health care reform law that was passed by Congress in 2010 and arguably endorsed by the American electorate when they reelected Obama last November over Republican candidate Mitt Romney, the rest of world has been left scrambling to understand the crisis, mostly because the concept of a government shutdown (or a debt ceiling — more on that below) is such an alien affair.

If, for example, British prime minister David Cameron loses a vote on the United Kingdom’s budget, it’s considered the defeat of a ‘supply bill’ (i.e., one that involves government spending), and a loss of supply would precipitate his government’s resignation.  If Italian prime minister Enrico Letta loses a vote of no confidence in the Italian parliament later this week, his government would also most likely resign.  In some cases, if cooler heads prevail, their governments might form anew (such as the Portuguese government’s reformation earlier this summer following its own crisis over budget austerity).  Otherwise, the country would hold new elections, as will happen later this month in Luxembourg after the government of longtime prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker fell over a secret service scandal.

So to the extent that a government falls, in most parliamentary systems, the voters then elect a government, or a group of parties that then must form a government, and that government must pass a budget and, well, govern.  Often, in European and other parliamentary systems, the typically ceremonial head of state plays a real role in pushing parties together to stable government.  Think of the role that Italian president Giorgio Napolitano played in bringing together both Letta’s government and the prior technocratic government headed by Mario Monti.  Or perhaps the role that the Dutch monarch played in appointing an informateur and a formateur in the Dutch cabinet formation process until the Dutch parliament stripped the monarchy of that role a few years ago.

But wait! Belgium went 535 days without a government a few years ago, you say!

That’s right — but even in the middle of that standoff, when leaders of the relatively more leftist, poorer Walloon north and the relatively conservative, richer Flemish south couldn’t pull together a governing coalition, Flemish Christian Democrat Yves Leterme stayed on as prime minister to lead a caretaker government.  The Leterme government had ministers and policies and budgets, though Leterme ultimately pushed through budgets that reduced Belgium’s budget deficit.  No government workers were furloughed, as will happen starting Tuesday if congressional members don’t pass a continuing resolution to fund the US government.

To the north of the United States, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper caused a bit of a constitutional brouhaha when he prorogued the Canadian parliament in both 2008 and 2009 on the basis of potentially political considerations.  In Canadian parliamentary procedure, prorogation is something between a temporary recess and the dissolution of parliament — it’s the end of a parliamentary session, and the prime minister can prorogue parliament with the consent of Canada’s governor-general.  Harper raised eyebrows among constitutional scholars when he hastily prorogued the parliament in December 2008 after the center-left Liberal Party and the progressive New Democratic Party formed a coalition with the separatist Bloc Québécois in what turned out to be a failed attempt to enact a vote of no confidence against Harper’s then-minority government.

The governor-general at the time, Michaëlle Jean, took two hours to grant the prorogation — in part to send a message that the governor-general need not rubber-stamp any prime ministerial requests for proroguing parliament in the future.

Harper again advised to prorogue the parliament from the end of December 2009 through February 2010, ostensibly to keep parliament in recess through the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, though critics argued he did so to avoid investigation into his government’s knowledge of abusive treatment of detainees in Afghanistan.  Again, however, proroguing parliament didn’t shutter Canadian government offices like the US government shutdown threatens to do.

Moreover, in parliamentary systems, it’s not uncommon for a government to survive a difficult vote with the support of the loyal opposition.  But in the United States, House speaker John Boehner has typically (though not always) applied the ‘majority of the majority’ rule — or the ‘Hastert’ rule, named after the Bush-era House speaker Denny Hastert.  In essence, the rule provides that Boehner will bring for a vote only legislation that’s supported by a majority of the 233 Republicans in the 435-member House of Representatives, the lower congressional house (Democrats hold just 200 seats).  So while there may be a majority within the House willing to avoid a shutdown, it can’t materialize without the support of a majority of the Republican caucus.  That means that 117 Republicans may be able to hold the House hostage, even if 116 Republicans and all 200 Democrats want to avoid a shutdown.

Realistically, that means that anything that Boehner can pass in the House is dead on arrival in the US Senate, the upper congressional house, where Democrats hold a 54-46 advantage.

There’s simply no real analog in the world of comparative politics.  Even the concept of a debt ceiling is a bit head-scratching to foreign observers — US treasury officials say that the government will face difficulties borrowing enough money to achieve the government’s obligations if it fails to lift the debt ceiling of $16.7 trillion on or before October 17.

Denmark stands virtually alone alongside the United States in having a statutory debt ceiling that requires parliamentary assent to raise the total cumulative amount of borrowing, but it hasn’t played a significant role in Danish budget politics since its enactment in 1993:

The Danish fixed nominal debt limit—legislatively outside the annual budget process—was created solely in response to an administrative reorganization among the institutions of government in Denmark and the requirements of the Danish Constitution. It was never intended to play any role in day-to-day politics.

So far, at least, raising Denmark’s debt ceiling has always been a parliamentary formality, and it was lifted from 950 billion Danish kroner to 2 trillion Danish kroner in 2010 with support from all of Denmark’s major political parties.

Contrast that to the United States, where a fight over raising the debt ceiling in summer 2011 caused a major political crisis and major economic turmoil, leading Standard & Poor’s to downgrade the US credit rating from ‘AAA’ to ‘AA+.’  The Budget Control Act, passed in early August 2011, provided that the United States would raise its debt ceiling, but institute a congressional ‘supercommittee’ to search out budget cuts.  When the supercommittee failed to identify budget savings before January 2013, it triggered $1.2 trillion in ‘sequestration’ — harsh across-the-board budget cuts to both Democratic and Republican priorities that took effect earlier this year, though they were originally designed to be so severe so that they would serve as an incentive for more targeted budget adjustments.

Despite the fact of the dual crises facing the US government in October, the yield on the 10-year Treasury note has actually declined in recent weeks, indicating that while US political turmoil may spook global investors, they still (ironically) invest in Treasury notes as a safe haven:

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Continue reading How the US government shutdown looks to the rest of the world

How to distinguish Obama’s congressional vote on Syria from Libya example


With a surprise twist on a holiday weekend in the United States, president Barack Obama announced that he would seek a vote in the U.S. Congress prior to launching a missile strike on Syria in retribution for last Wednesday’s chemical attack on the outskirts of Damascus.USflagSyria Flag Icon freesyriaLibya_Flag_Icon

Coming in the wake British prime minister David Cameron’s humiliating defeat over a resolution in the House of Commons authorizing the possibility of British force late last week, Obama argued that, while he has already made a decision to punish Syrian president Bashar al-Assad for the chemical attacks in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the U.S. armed forces, he has also decided to seek authorization for use of force from Congress:

Having made my decision as Commander-in-Chief based on what I am convinced is our national security interests, I’m also mindful that I’m the President of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy.  I’ve long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Obama’s surprise announcement postpones any US action until at least the week of September 9 — well after chemical weapons inspectors from the United Nations will report back next week about the nature of the attack and well after next week’s G20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, where president Vladimir Putin, an Assad ally, has repeatedly blocked action against Assad (a Russian ally) by the UN Security Council and earlier today, called the possibility of US and Western punitive strikes ‘utter nonsense.’

While Obama’s decision will hearten critics on both the American left and right who have called for a greater legislative role on the Syria question, it’s unlikely to satisfy hawkish critics like U.S. senator John McCain of Arizona who has pushed Obama toward supporting regime change in Syria, and it’s also unlikely to satisfy dovish critics who believe there’s no U.S. national interest in launching military strikes on the Assad regime.  It will also leave multilateralist critics dissatisfied, given that Obama stated clearly that he was willing to act without the backing of what he called a ‘paralyzed’ Security Council.

But it’s also an unexpected position for an administration that pushed the boundaries of the 1973 War Powers Resolution just two years ago when it ordered military action in Libya.  At first glance, Obama’s 2011 decision to support the UN-authorized, NATO-enforced effort to establish a no-fly zone and to arm rebels fighting against Libya’s late strongman Muammar Gaddafi without congressional authorization arguably violated his constitutional obligation to Congress, while a limited military strike on Syria lasting just a few days to a few weeks would not require congressional approval under any view of the War Powers Resolution.

So what gives?  How can the Obama administration reconcile its position on Libya with its newfound enthusiasm for Congress on the Syrian question?  The answer could transform the nature of U.S. foreign policy and the ability of the U.S. president to act decisively in the future. Continue reading How to distinguish Obama’s congressional vote on Syria from Libya example