Loyalty vs. Loyal Opposition

When an official in the White House says, “It’s “stunning that he would ignore the wishes not just of his president, but of his constituents and the country,” you know someone has fundamentally confused the distinction between loyalty and loyal opposition.

Glenn Greenwald states the obvious while discussing this somewhat perverse and anti-democratic quote from an anonymous administration official regarding Lloyd Doggett’s views on the Waxman-Markey energy bill: “The duty of Congress is not to obey the wishes of the President.”

Congress has their own priorities as a co-equal branch of government. Individual members have a constitutionally-mandated responsibility to stand up for those priorities. How a Congressman chooses to do so may vary based on what they think their constituents want or what is best for the country, but there is zero obligation that a legislator do something  because of the wishes of the President. It just doesn’t work that way.

Of course, both Greenwald and Jane Hamsher point out that this sort of loyalty oath is only being applied to progressives in the House, not Blue Dogs. Likewise it is only being applied to progressives when the White House is trying to push through more moderate legislation. The tactic doesn’t seem to be applicable when the opposition to the President is regarding progressive legislation and coming from conservative Democrats.

The fundamental problem with the protestations of this anonymous White House official isn’t so much that this person seems to think that we are living in some sort of autocracy, with an egotistical but hypersensitive dictator running things – someone who is so fundamentally demanding of loyalty that even publicly debating taking a position other than his own causes him fits. What’s more troubling is that this attitude is being specifically targeted at the progressive wing of the Democratic party that first created the situation that enabled strong majorities of Democratic and now represents the place where the majority of Americans stand on most policy issues. It’s an attitude that is used to marginalize the real voices for change and replacing them with more of the same. The civics are wrong. The politics are wrong. And it has to stop.

Your Crack Is Showing

Oh boy, prepare yourselves for the latest edition from Peter Schiff’s Not Ready For Prime Time File. In a blog post on TakiMag.com, Schiff lays out some of his key policy views that we’d likely see if he runs for Senate, namely opposing regulating greenhouse emissions to curb global warming and providing healthcare for all Americans. On healthcare he writes:

On the other hand, no one carries home maintenance insurance to pay for a clogged drain or broken garage door. If insurance paid for the plumber visit every time a toilet overflowed, we would now have a plumbing crisis, and Congress would be looking to reign in runaway plumbing bills with “national plumbing insurance.”

That’s right, Schiff just compared national healthcare reform to plumbing. Or to be more specific, the ability to receive treatment for life threatening illnesses to a backed up septic system. Because, you know, they’re about the same on the Grand Scale of Glibertarian Importance.

Seriously, I’m reaching a point where I hope Schiff runs for Senate in Connecticut just for the comic relief he’ll bring to an otherwise tense race.

New & Improvement Chinese Internet Censorship

Keith Bradsher of the New York Times reports on the growth of censorship of the internet by the Chinese government and the close connection between efforts to monitor and censor pornography and political thought online. This comes at a time when the Chinese government has already received much international attention for its Green Dam-Youth Escort censorship and monitoring program required to be preinstalled on all new computers in China.

Liu Xiaobo, one of China’s best-known dissidents, was formally arrested Tuesday on suspicion of subversion, six months after he was detained for joining other intellectuals in signing a document calling for democracy. This month, the authorities refused to renew the licenses of more than a dozen lawyers after they agreed to represent clients in human rights cases.

The same public security agencies charged with fighting pornography are responsible for suppressing illegal political activity, said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher in Hong Kong for Human Rights Watch. The government’s statistics for seizures of illegal publications tend to include both pornographic and political documents, he noted.

“The two are closely associated,” Mr. Bequelin said. “These campaigns work hand in hand.”

It’s not shocking that tools used to censor one type of information would be well-suited to censor another type of information. It’s just rare that a government would engage in such brazen efforts to limit what information their citizenry would have about key historic events, territories occupied by the Chinese military, and religious groups.

Additionally, the Bradsher piece includes this bit of information about China’s surveillance state infrastructure that I was unaware of:

For example, Chinese law requires that karaoke bars, nightclubs and Internet cafes be monitored 24 hours a day by closed-circuit television cameras on the grounds that prostitutes may try to find clients at such locations. But according to security industry executives, China’s anti-prostitution surveillance regulations are stricter on the Internet cafes.

While nightclubs and karaoke bars are required to store their video records on their premises, Internet cafes must be wired to the nearest police station and provide a continuous, instantaneous record of who is using which computer. If an e-mail message from a cafe’s computer later catches the attention of investigators, the police can review the video records to see who was using the computer.

Good to know that if I’m ever in China, I probably shouldn’t use a public internet cafe.

This information about the Chinese government’s censorship of the internet and intense efforts to monitor everything that their citizenry searches for online is deeply disturbing. It’s yet another instantiation of the Chinese government using high tech tools and software – many of them made by American technology companies – to maintain their control of political power. These are not the actions of a government that finds its authority in the support of the people. And it certainly isn’t how a respected member of the global community behaves. Most importantly, the systemic distrust of the government of its people can only, on a long enough time line, lead to its downfall.


Congesswoman Lynn Woolsey and liberals in the House seem to get it on healthcare reform. Roll Call reports:

House liberals are warning the Senate, Democratic leaders and President Barack Obama that a government-run insurance option must be included in any health reform bill, or else the powerful bloc will vote it down.

“Usually, we work behind the scenes to strengthen legislation,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), co-chairwoman of the 80-member Congressional Progressive Caucus. “We’re careful not to take on our party’s leadership, or President Obama.

“This time, however, is different.”

Woolsey made it clear that she and many of her colleagues will vote to kill a health care plan if it leaves patients at the mercy of private health insurance companies.

“No one in this building wants health care reform as much as we do. However, if reform legislation comes to the floor, and it does not include a real and robust public option that lives up to our criteria, then we will fight it with everything that we have,” she said.

Woolsey was speaking at an event with the Progressive Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. This bloc could ensure that either we get a public health insurance option or we don’t get anything until there’s the political will in the White House and the Senate to fight for it. This strikes me as the right course of action.

What Constitutes Success in Healthcare Reform?

As the healthcare debate continues unfold and legislative resolutions continue to take longer to produce, I can’t help but wonder what the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats are going to view as constituting success. The Senate HELP Committee has extended markup on their legislation and they now won’t be considering the coverage parts of legislation, which include the public health insurance option, until after the July 4th recess. The Finance Committee seems to have moved completely beyond the public option and is now fiddling with various ideas of regional insurance co-ops, which are in no way a substitute for a national public health insurance option. The House, on the other hand, has aggressively pushed meaningful reform that includes strong employer responsibility provisions and a robust public option.

In my eyes, the House efforts are both leading towards the sort of legislation that I think would constitute meaningful reform and being done in a way that will likely maximize the positive impact through strong, principled engagement of the legislative process.  Somewhere along the line, the House and Senate will have to get together to figure out what this legislation will really look like. Either on body will have to accept the others’ work, or it will have to be hammered out (read: rewritten from scratch) in conference committee. There are, as I see it, five possible procedural outcomes:

  • The Senate considers and passes/modifies the House bill
  • The Senate considers the HELP Committee bill and sends it on to the House
  • The Senate considers the Finance Committee bill and sends it on to the House
  •  A conference committee reports a merger of the House legislation and whatever comes out of the Senate
  • Nothing passes

Only the first option, where the Senate makes the House legislation their underlying bill and then Democrats try to fight off damaging amendments from Republicans to water it down, is really likely to produce successful reform. I hope the second option, where the Senate makes a strong HELP Committee bill underlying and passes it without being watered down, is also possible, but we don’t yet know how good the HELP legislation will be. I have no faith in the Finance Committee or the outcome of a conference committee at this point in time.

It all comes down to how is the White House and Democratic leaders in Congress thinking about what constitutes success. If they really want to cover a larger majority of uninsured Americans and get the economy back on track, I don’t see how they can look at anything that fails to include a public health insurance option as a success. If passing anything and calling it “landmark healthcare reform” regardless of what it actually does is enough of a success, then I worry that there will not be pressure by leadership to ensure that what I think of as a high quality bill passes. We’re reaching the point where President Obama, Senator Baucus, Reid, Dodd, Speaker Pelosi, and Rep. Hoyer (to name a few) need to decide what is more important: creating compelling ad scripts for the 2010 and 2012 elections or really helping working Americans have affordable, high quality healthcare. That’s the choice – politics or policy. Judging by the quality of the bill that eventually gets pushed forward to a final vote, we will see which won out.

Hindsight & Political Physics

The New York Times profile of Senator Max Baucus and his role leading the Finance Committee towards a healthcare reform bill contains an infuriating nugget of strategic hindsight.

He conceded that it was a mistake to rule out a fully government-run health system, or a “single-payer plan,” not because he supports it but because doing so alienated a large, vocal constituency and left Mr. Obama’s proposal of a public health plan to compete with private insurers as the most liberal position.

God God, man!  It’s like Baucus had never heard of physics before he fell down.

Seriously, the lack of strategic understanding by Democratic elected officials is mind-boggling. That Baucus is only now realizing the strategic value of keeping a single-payer system on the table from Day One, even only as a means to provide political space for something like a political option, is simply stunning. Of course Baucus, and likely the whole country, willpay for his strategic error as the public health insurance option doesn’t survive the Finance Committee’s draft process. After all, while Baucus may be making noises about not being able to keep the Obama-backed public health insurance option on the table because of this error in strategy, he is also conceding it as a means of winning the support of at least one Republican on his committee. Not because he needs the vote to pass legislation out of the Finance Committee, but because he thinks bipartisanship is more important than providing working Americans with universal health care.

Baucus’s statement about the strategic error he made (though in fairness this is a mistake that every Democrat in the Senate save Bernie Sanders has made, as well as most members of the House caucus and Presidnet Obama) is a rare admission by a senior Democrat that there is political value in the party maintaining strong liberal positions. The simple fact is that if the Democrats want to achieve their moderate goals for quasi-liberal, pro-business policy, they can’t have quasi-liberal policies as the left flank. This leaves them coming to the table with only one direction to move: away from their goals and towards the Republican position. This amounts to making concessions before you even start negotiating, by the simple fact that you have no margin for concession short of not getting what you want.

A strong liberal flank of the Democratic Party enables more moderate, but still Democratic, policies to be enacted. Even if the left exists to provide political space for compromises towards the more moderate, it would still enable more Democratic legislation to pass with fewer concessions to Republican positions. That, in itself, would amount to moving the country to the left, even without seeing hardline progressive legislation coming through.

Everything we know about Democratic elected officials is that they are ready to concede their values if its politically and legislatively expedient. There needs to be space for this behavior to take place without hurting actual Democratic policy efforts. The best way to create this space is by fostering the Democratic left and treating it as a serious policy option, worthy of consideration. In this case, having a vibrant discussion of a single-payer healthcare system in the Finance and HELP committees of the Senate could have facilitated moving conservative Democrats and even some moderate Republicans to support a public health insurance option. Single-payer would have created the space for the public option. It would have given Obama, Kennedy, and Dodd a left flank to lean into and eventually give up, while making the public option appear what it truly is: a moderate position that is widely appealing to the American public.

The one question that merits consideration in the discussion of how single-payer could have been used to facilitate the public option becoming law is why would progressive activists allow themselves to work tirelessly for a policy that will only, in the end, be conceded? I say for the same reason we work tirelessly to support Democratic candidates, largely regardless of their specific policy positions. It’s the only best way to get anything close to progressive policies enacted into law.

Creating space on the left for Democrats to work could have enabled something great on healthcare reform. It’s nice to see Baucus recognize the error of his ways (after it’s likely cost us the public health insurance option), but how will this mistake inform his future legislative strategies? Will he embrace the role of strong liberal policy pushes in the future, in recognition of how they enable other Democratic legislation to pass? Or will he just move along and keep looking for that bipartisan sweet spot that makes him sleep comfortably at night, regardless of how policy concessions made before he even begins negotiation hurt working Americans?