It was "roll out the agenda" week in Washington, which means we've got a lot to cover, so let's get on with it, shall we?
Republicans in the House have announced they are now ready to do something on immigration. I only mention this in passing here, because the entire talking points section is going to be devoted to a warning for Democrats: there will be traps laid by the Republicans, so Democrats have to be vigilant about defusing each one as it pops up.
There was big news from the White House this week, of course -- Big Block Of Cheese Day! Just kidding. The real news was made by President Obama's State of the Union address, where he laid out his fairly-realistic agenda for the upcoming year. This didn't please everyone, as evidenced by the wish lists of some in his own party (which amusingly included "announce the resumption of manned space flight, starting with a trip to Mars by Arne Duncan and Bill Gates, where they will try out their education experiments on any inhabitants they find there"). Oh, well, you can't please everyone.
Of course, any momentous week in politics now regularly brings out some real doozies on the national stage. One Republican congressman, immediately after Obama's speech, threatened to throw a reporter over a balcony, or perhaps break him in half "like a boy." On camera. Way to stay classy, GOP! Not to be outdone, another Republican has apparently taken to referring to Hillary Clinton as the "Anti-Christ." Nothin' but class from the GOP, this week, it seems.
In other Republican news, the War On Women continues apace in Louisiana, Alaska, and in the House of Representatives. Republicans have apparently settled on the talking point "War on women? What war on women?" which I'd personally like to encourage, because it shows better than anything else just how truly clueless the Republican Party has become on the issue. Senator Barbara Boxer pointed this out rather well in a fantastic open letter to Republicans in which she asks them bluntly: "What century are you living in?"
This is all getting to be too much for some, including former Lieutenant Governor of Nevada Sue Wagner, who just announced she's leaving the Republican Party. Or, as she put it, "the Republican Party left me" with their insistence on lunacy instead of debating public policy. Fellow ex-Republican Chad Brown was even more eloquent (emphasis in original): "My opinion is the "Duck Dynasty Wing" of the Republican Party has taken over the GOP, and they're not about to retreat in their war on science and common sense."
Continuing our coverage of what is shaping up to be the Year Of Marijuana Reform in politics, New Jersey introduced legalization legislation this week, joining a growing number of states where the possibility is being seriously discussed in state government.
Some politicians have woken up and realized the new day we're living in, such as Heather Mizeur, who is running for governor in Maryland and who welcomed the endorsement of the state's NORML organization. Her statement said, in part: "Maryland's marijuana laws have ruined lives, been enforced with racial bias and keep law enforcement from focusing their time and resources on more violent crime. We're proud to have NORML's support in the effort to make Maryland the next state to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana." Marijuana is also going to be a big issue in the Florida governor's race, now that a medical marijuana ballot initiative has been approved for the voters to consider.
One person definitely not on board with this new reality is the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency, Michele Leonhart, who definitely doesn't agree with President Obama's characterization of marijuana being "less dangerous than alcohol." She ripped into Obama's remarks in public, which has led to calls for her to resign (or be fired) from both marijuana activists and at least one member of Congress (Representative Steve Cohen), who said resigning would be the "honorable thing" for her to do.
Meanwhile, the recent farm bill seems to have legalized at least trial cultivation of hemp in 10 states.
The discussion of marijuana was inevitable in this year's Super Bowl, seeing as how both teams are from states where recreational use is now legal, and now the debate has moved to billboards outside the arena. Both pro-pot and anti-pot billboards will greet the fans on Super Sunday.
What else? The American economy grew at a rate of 3.2 percent in the final quarter of 2013, which was good news indeed but kind of got lost in everything else that was going on. Other news that the mainstream media ignored: Edward Snowden was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this week. Henry Waxman announced he will not be running for another term, and immediately afterwards Sandra Fluke expressed an interest in running for his seat, so this could be a fun race to watch in the midterms.
Pete Seeger died, and will be missed by millions. Most obituaries I saw just flat-out ignored his history of being blacklisted from television and standing up to the un-American activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee, so here"s one that did point it out, in case you missed any mention of this important part of Seeger's life this week.
And, finally, the Macintosh computer celebrated its 30th birthday, which is indeed a milestone worth noting.
President Obama deserves an Honorable Mention for his speech this week, and for following through on it by taking his act on the road. It'll be interesting to see what executive orders emanate from the White House this year, that's for sure.
Also deserving of an Honorable Mention was Representative Earl Blumenauer, who sent a letter to President Obama this week asking him to reschedule marijuana so the federal government doesn't treat it as more dangerous than crystal meth. As he points out, to Obama:
You said that you don't believe marijuana is any more dangerous than alcohol: a fully legalized substance, and believe it to be less dangerous "in terms of its impact on the individual consumer." This is true. Marijuana, however, remains listed in the federal Controlled Substances Act at Schedule I, the strictest classification, along with heroin and LSD. This is a higher listing than cocaine and methamphetamine, Schedule II substances that you gave as examples of harder drugs. This makes no sense.
He ends up calling for marijuana to be taken down to Schedule III. Bravo, Congressman!
But our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award goes to none other than (are you sitting down?) Attorney General Eric Holder. This week, Holder made some concrete moves towards ratcheting down the War On Weed in significant ways. Late last week, Holder signaled that the Justice Department would be revising its rules so that marijuana businesses (in states where such are legal) can use banks just like any other business (rather than be barred from banking because they are "drug traffickers"). This week, the Justice Department launched an effort to free from jail and provide clemency for people locked up for nonviolent drug offenses under severe "mandatory maximum sentence" laws that have since been revised. This is a tangible effort that will positively affect thousands of prisoners, and Holder deserves applause for his leadership.
Holder has previously been rather ambivalent on the subject, but it appears he's had a real change in attitude lately. He also publicly praised a Senate bill which just made it out of committee this week, stating:
I applaud the Senate Judiciary Committee for passing the Smarter Sentencing Act with broad, bipartisan support. This important, common-sense legislation would provide judges with more discretion in determining appropriate sentences for people convicted of certain low-level federal drug crimes. By ensuring that the most severe penalties are reserved for serious drug traffickers, we can reduce unfair disparities in our criminal justice system and reduce the burden on our overcrowded prison system. It is my hope that the Senate will adopt this measure without delay.
That's a lot of commonsense reform in one single week from Attorney General Holder, and it may signify a lot more welcome changes in the months ahead. Holder could have taken a very hard line on the legalization experiment in Washington and Colorado, but since the law changed Holder seems to be steering the Justice Department toward a much saner and more-reasonable policy.
For doing so, he wins our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award.
[Since he doesn't provide direct contact information, you'll have to congratulate Attorney General Eric Holder via the White House contact page, to let his boss know you appreciate his efforts.]
You know what? We just couldn't come up with any Democrat who was disappointing enough to merit the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award this week. The only one even close was ex-mayor of New Orleans Ray Nagin, whose corruption trial just began. But that's really pretty old news, so until he's convicted the most we could do was hand him another (Dis-)Honorable Mention.
Of course, we could have missed somebody -- it was an eventful week, after all. If you've got a candidate for MDDOTW let us know about it in the comments.
Volume 289 (1/31/14)
OK, we're changing the format this week, as we are occasionally wont to do.
This started out as a talking point, grew exponentially, and wound up being nothing more than a free-form rant. Hey, it is what it is, folks.
This week Republicans rolled out their new-and-improved agenda on immigration reform. This is going to be an enormous fight within the Republican Party, as the hardliners ("Send them all home tomorrow!") battle with Republicans smart enough to read demographic and Electoral College numbers ("Guys, our party is disappearing before our very eyes!"). One Republican even admitted (anonymously, but still...) that the real problem within his party is nothing short of racism.
Even with these headwinds, though, the chances of the House passing immigration reform have got to be seen as much better this week than last week. John Boehner released a two-page statement after a party confab, which laid out the priorities for the House on immigration. But what got me wasn't the fact that Boehner is moving forward on what will be a very contentious issue within his own party, but the things he obviously tossed into the mix to sabotage the entire effort before it even begins (this is assumably in order to convince House Republicans that it'd be OK to vote for the concept). Which led to the following rant. Perhaps it's too alarmist in nature, but then these are House Republicans we're talking about, keep in mind.
Avoiding The Immigration Traps Republicans Are About To Set
While I certainly welcome John Boehner's newfound support for doing something to fix immigration, I remain skeptical that the entire effort isn't just an attempt by Republicans at improving their brand without any intention of passing a viable fix to the problems. In short, I see several traps being laid, in how Republicans are presenting their new ideas.
The first trap is the insistence that the House pass several small bills rather than one comprehensive bill. This isn't being done because Republicans are afraid of a large bill, as they claim to be. It is being done so that Republicans can pass all of their priorities first, leaving what is important to Democrats for later -- perhaps much later. Perhaps even "never." This is the whole point of having a comprehensive bill in the first place -- because each side gets a few things in such a bill, but neither side gets everything they want. House Republicans are going to pass what they want -- bigger, higher fences, more Border Patrol, things like that -- and then are going to stall the rest of the reforms into oblivion.
Even if Republicans do allow all the pieces of immigration reform to be debated and passed, there are still plenty of other traps they are planning, as evidenced by the very careful language they're now using to describe the scope of immigration reform they'd be willing to accept. The first of these is setting unreachable "triggers" before life changes for any immigrants. Watch for the bar to be set very high in these triggers, when bills actually appear. In fact, watch for Brobdingnagian-sized hurdles to be proposed before any trigger is reached. It wouldn't surprise me a bit if Republicans demanded that before any immigrants see any relief, we would have to have a wall which reaches up to the troposphere and down to the Earth's core on our southern border -- such a daunting barricade that the Border Patrol would know when even a tiny ant crossed the border. Republicans think they can get away with impossible triggers, because then they can never be met, and the rest of immigration reform will just automatically not happen.
Watch for the next trap when such triggers are introduced, because Republicans will demand that Congress certifies that the triggers have been met -- before anything else happens. This means a future Congress can just never agree that any trigger has been met, once again automatically stopping the rest of the reforms. If Democrats agree to any trigger mechanism at all, it must be certified by either an independent agency or by the president. Because otherwise, immigration reform will only happen at the whim of future congressional votes, which we find unacceptable.
The next trap is a framing issue. Republicans have decided that the only acceptable term for what the Senate voted for (in a huge bipartisan vote) is a "special path" to citizenship. They are rewording this path to citizenship for a reason. "Special" is a rather ugly word in American politics, as evidenced by the term "special interests." Putting the language aside, though, the Republicans are saying in essence that anyone here without papers has to, as they put it, "go to the back of the line" to become a citizen. There are two things wrong with this approach.
The first is that Republicans haven't said whether "gaining legal work status" is the same thing as "getting a green card." This is a trap. Watch for Republicans to propose a "third-class" status -- lower than citizen and lower than green-card-holder. This "legal status" would mean not having to fear being deported, but it would also create an endless limbo status if there was no way for such people to ever achieve citizenship. Watch, in other words, for Republicans to offer no path to citizenship at all. By calling any path to citizenship for these people a "special path," they will effectively deny any path at all. This is unacceptable for Democrats.
If Republicans relent and let people have green cards (and get in line for citizenship), then there is an already-existing trap -- the huge backlog of cases waiting their turn. This has to be addressed in any bill. If there is money to double the amount of Border Patrol -- which is already in the Senate version -- then there is money to double the number of federal agents processing immigration applications. Double one, double the other -- nothing short of this is acceptable. There are people who have been waiting for over two decades to have their paperwork processed. This is flat-out unacceptable. This backlog must be erased, completely.
Republicans have realized (or most of them seem to have, at any rate) that children brought here by their parents should be treated more leniently than others. The "DREAM Act kids" or "dreamers" should be allowed to become citizens, almost everyone now agrees. The trap here is that Republicans will point to the dreamers as evidence of their compassion, while ignoring the need for their parents to also have a path to the same status as their children.
There will be many of these traps laid when House Republicans finally put their ideas to paper and introduce legislation. Democrats need to be wary of all of them, to avoid getting suckered in to nothing more than a political exercise which is meaningless for the people it is supposed to be helping. But the biggest trap of all isn't even in the legislative language, but rather in the legislative process.
Republicans have been whining for about a year or two now about how they want Congress to return to what they call "regular order." Except, of course, when regular order means even the possibility that they might not get everything they desire. To put this in less-wonky terms, the Republicans have blatantly announced -- at the very beginning of the process, no less -- that they are most interested not in passing a law that President Obama will sign, but in being able to say to voters "Republicans passed immigration reform, but Democrats killed it." That may sound cynical, but only because it is an awfully cynical approach the Republicans have decided to take.
Most Republicans don't actually want immigration reform to pass. But the smarter Republicans realize that they need to defuse the issue if they're ever going to have any hope of winning a national election again. Not changing their politics on immigration means a future with Democratic presidents as far as the eye can see, to be blunt. Which they don't want, obviously. But they are cynically figuring that passing immigration reform in the House -- and then never agreeing with the Senate on a compromise -- will be just as good for them politically as actually putting a bill on Obama's desk.
Don't believe this trap exists? It's right there in what John Boehner had to say about the issue: "[The immigration problem] cannot be solved with a single, massive piece of legislation that few have read and even fewer understand, and therefore, we will not go to a conference with the Senate's immigration bill."
Got that? The Senate can just pass whatever the House passes, or nothing is going to happen. The House won't even go to conference committee with the Senate over the issue, because they are terrified of any compromise that might be reached. House Republicans' bills will be the final word on the subject, with no Senate input whatsoever.
This is an attempt at a massive power grab, and it is downright laughable. The Senate is not a rubber stamp, no matter what John Boehner thinks. They will indeed be able to have their say, as they well should in (to borrow a favorite Republican phrase) the regular order of things. The Senate bill, remember, had overwhelming bipartisan support -- 68 senators voted for it. That is the starting point in this conversation, whether John Boehner likes it or not. The House can pass whatever the House wants to pass, but after they do the Senate and the House will sit down and work out something that can pass both houses. Just as they are supposed to do.
By signaling that doing so is unacceptable, John Boehner is all but admitting that he really doesn't want immigration reform to become law. He knows he's got to get the House to do something on the issue, because Republicans are getting beaten up so badly on the campaign trail over it. But he wants to have his cake and eat it, too. He wants all Republicans to be able to say "we passed immigration reform" -- which is not at all the same thing as "our immigration reform became law." He would be very happy to pass something out of the House and then just have the whole issue die between the House and the Senate. He is signaling this cynical posture quite loudly, in fact. All Democrats have to do is point it out to the public.
Loudly and repeatedly. Because if Boehner doesn't back down on this key point, then he is guilty of doing nothing more than attempting to lay a gigantic trap for Democrats. Nancy Pelosi should tell Boehner that she will be instructing her caucus not to vote on any proposed Republican bill if he does not agree to a conference committee with the Senate afterwards. This is a big lever, because my guess is that none of the bills Republicans come up with will pass with only Republican votes. So, right from the start, Democrats should demand the "regular order" be followed, and avoid the biggest trap of them all.
One might indeed ask why "few have read and fewer understand" a bill which the Senate passed last summer. You've had plenty of time to read the thing, Speaker Boehner. You'll have even more time to read it in the upcoming months (because the House is not going to move immediately on immigration reform). I'd advise that you have someone on your side of the aisle read the Senate bill, because whether you like it or not, it's going to be an important part of this debate.
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