The business of politics often takes place among people who are not the usual headliners. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look at the political state of play in America right now, as well as the names of some politicians one will definitely need to know. Reading this might be a great distraction from the chaos of South African politics right now too.
The embarrassing personal and political defeat for President Donald Trump in the House of Representatives when his own party’s leadership did not have sufficient strength within their own caucus to bring to a vote their proposed “repeal and replace” healthcare bill (the American Healthcare Act) has made it clear for all to see the weaknesses in Trump’s claim that he can the make things happen simply because he is, by his own self-awarded accolades, a dealmaker and closer without rival. Instead, he and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan have been exposed as the leaders of a party that only partially agrees with where those two men presume to wish to lead them.
Instead, the president is now seen as a man who simply didn’t understand how little loyalty he commanded among the rank-and-file Republican members of the House of Representatives. (His sinking public popularity hasn’t helped matters, of course.) Meanwhile, Paul Ryan has been unmasked as a man who had precious little stick he could really use against not just one but two wings of his own party. And both are now learning the lessons of just how fractured the supposedly super-predator of a majority they have in the House really is, and how little it can be counted on to do its duty, lockstep and issue a crisp salute whenever the president so ordains.
In fact, many of the 30 or so members of the right-wing, starkly social conservative “Freedom Caucus” simply don’t see their political fortunes inextricably tied tightly to the president, especially since their winning majorities in the 2016 election were generally significantly higher than the president’s margin in their respective districts. As a result, they see their task, going into the 2018 election, to be at one with the voter base that sent them to Washington in the first place. If that means refusing to vote for measures deemed insufficiently conservative, such as the AHCA, regardless of what Paul Ryan pleads for, so be it. And, since this is politics, they also see a strong imperative to be true to those ideologically driven financial donors who have helped bankroll their electoral campaigns. Just like Jesse Unruh, the speaker of the California legislature said so many years ago, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.”
As a result, in the run-up to that abortive vote on the AHCA, both “centrist” and “moderate” Republicans began to see the increasing concessions given to the Freedom Caucus as evidence the GOP leadership didn’t really have a deep-seated, comprehensive belief in their own proposals (and that Donald Trump really didn’t know his stuff all that well on the bill he had embraced with both arms). Not surprisingly, then, other GOP members began to drift away from supporting the AHCA until it became clear it would go down to defeat by the party that ostensibly was responsible for it.
Going forward, Paul Ryan’s challenge, now, is to figure out some way to bring together a solid majority of an intra-party coalition of these disparate, feuding members for all those future battles that remain ahead (and that he must figure out how to bring some Democrats on board, somehow). These measures will include all those complex, comprehensive tax reform proposals, trade agreement renegotiations, new debt ceiling authorisations, and the whole complicated, messy process of passing the government’s actual annual budget measures.
And in the Senate, beyond these kinds of measures, if that weren’t enough, the Republicans must still figure out how to shepherd the nomination of Federal Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch forward to become a member of the Supreme Court in their chamber. This may well be challenged this week by the threat of a Democratic filibuster. This is a venerable rule in the Senate permitting indefinite speaking by members, thereby preventing further action, and one that now requires 60 of 100 member votes to end it. This could conceivably prevent consideration of his nomination. And if a couple of Republican senators also waver and defect from the president’s nomination, this might even doom Gorsuch’s chances, even if the filibuster is broken.
After the AHCA debacle, GOP coalition building needs to take place even as President Trump has effectively declared war on the Freedom Caucus for not being with him on healthcare. In anger, he has promised to find more malleable candidates to confront these traitorous members in their primary races in less than two years time for the 2018 election. This is clearly not the way to bring along congressmen who already have their doubts about Donald Trump’s ideological purity on financial, economic or social conservative grounds. And it won’t do much for engendering loyalty in the future on the part of other members, if they think Donald Trump is always lurking in the background with the threat of supporting someone to slug it out with them in their primaries if they budge on loyalty. Congressmen and women can be surprisingly independent sometimes.
Looking ahead to the battles to come, meanwhile, Democrats have suddenly looked in the mirror and, instead of seeing a cringing, snivelling, battered, wounded, beaten character probably best played by Andy Serkis in a film version of this year’s political events, they are now starting to see themselves as crusaders for truth, justice, freedom, democracy and righteousness. Yes, they know they have been roughed up in 2016. They are rather battered around the edges, and their shield has lost its polish and their sword has nicks and dings in it from their electoral drubbing last November, but, to their surprise, they sense they are back in the game.
As The Washington Post reported over the weekend,
“Democrats in Congress have a new and surprising tool at their disposal in the era of one-party Republican rule in President Trump’s Washington: power. It turns out that Republicans need the minority party to help them avoid a government shutdown at the end of April, when the current spending deal to fund the government expires. And Democrats have decided, for now at least, that they will use their leverage to reassert themselves and ensure the continued funding of their top priorities — by negotiating with Republicans.
“ ‘I think we have a lot of leverage here,’ said Sen. Chris van Hollen (D-Md.). Republicans ‘are going to need our help putting together the budget, and that help means we can avoid some of the outrageous Trump proposals and advance some of our own proposals.’ The fact that Republicans need Democrats to vote for a temporary spending measure to avoid a shutdown gives Democrats leverage to force the GOP to abandon plans to attack funding for environmental programmes and Planned Parenthood. And it also allows Democrats to block Trump’s top priority – the wall along the US-Mexico border – which the president seeks to factor in to this latest round of budget negotiations.”
Given the Republicans’ apparent inability to pull together a stable majority to pass politically divisive measures, they now believe they will have to find a way to reach out to at least some of the more moderate Democrats, especially if those Freedom Caucus Congressmen and women will not be supportive of those bills. This means a serious shift in tactics – and maybe even strategy – especially on the part of Paul Ryan in shepherding measures through Congress, and even trying to get the president to temper his white hot rhetoric, all in the service of trying to govern, rather than just winning on his favourite battlefield, the Twitterscape.
Out there, too, of course, is the fact that there are three separate investigations of Russian surreptitious interventions into the 2016 election and charges of Russian connections to, co-operation with, or even conscious collusion with the Trump presidential campaign. While one of those investigations is the FBI’s ongoing but locked-down effort, now running since July 2016, the other two are by the respective Senate and House Intelligence Oversight committees in the Congress. For readers more familiar with the generally rather tame affairs in South Africa’s national Parliament, the American versions of legislative investigative panels may seem rather untidy, angry affairs, especially when broadcast.
On the Senate side, so far at least, Virginia Democratic Senator Mark Warner and North Carolina Republican Richard Burr appear to be co-operating rather well, even to the extent of holding a very civil, joint press conference. Warner came to the Senate in 2009 after one term as the Virginia governor that had followed his making a veritable fortune of around a quarter of a billion dollars in the telecommunications world. Burr is more of a career politico, after some time in low-level white-collar work. He previously was a congressman for several terms before gaining his Senate seat in 2005. Surprising fact: Burr has claimed as a distant relative, Aaron Burr, the vice president who infamously shot fellow politician Alexander Hamilton in a duel more than 200 years ago.
As the investigation proceeds – and especially if testimonial immunity is granted to people like Michael Flynn and if information really awkward to the president and his followers comes out – readers should expect to see the names Warner and Burr often as snippets of their committee activities will be in news broadcasts almost nightly. For both men, the hearings and the investigation will represent a serious public test of their probity, civility and integrity – as well as their grit in getting to the bottom of this messy business. So far at least, this committee has seen none of the grandstanding that has already taken place in the House version.
Over in the House, observers have already seen a much more combative committee. In the initial public hearing, Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff from the Los Angeles area behaved towards the two men testifying – FBI director James Comey and NSA head Mike Rogers – as if he were engaged in a relentless, albeit polite, grand jury inquest. His Republican counterpart, committee chairman Devin Nunes from Fresno, California, the operator of a family agribusiness before running for Congress, and Trey Gowdy of South Carolina (like Schiff a former prosecutor), tried to side-track the hearing with a line of inquiry that tried to make leaks of sensitive information the real issue, not the Russian connection.
Nunes has already been severely criticised for rushing surreptitiously to the White House to view documentation proffered to him by White House aides that seemed to indicate the names of some in the Trump campaign had been mentioned in transcripts of eavesdropping on Russians in the US. Of course he did this without informing his fellow committee members and, instead, had called a press conference to talk about this material, presumably in aid of Trump’s assertion he had been actively wiretapped by the previous administration. As this House hearing proceeds, watch for Schiff to tangle repeatedly with Gowdy and Nunes – especially if the latter two try to derail the hunt again.
But the intelligence hearings are not the only game in town. The appropriations committee in the House – and its various subcommittees divided thematically along government departmental and functional lines – will be the cockpit for enormously complicated battles over the proposed Trump budget. Most Democrats, and many Republicans, had already pronounced the Trump dead on arrival, given its cuts in spending that did rather more than cutting some fat out of the federal budget.
As a result, it will be up to Republican Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen from New Jersey and ranking Democratic member, Nita Lowey, from New York to find a way forward to avoid a government shutdown for lack of a budget (after the current continuing resolution draws to an end at the end of April), and then to somehow shepherd an actual budget for the remainder of the year. Someone bearing the Freylinghuysen name has continuously been in Congress since 1793, and his heritage also includes one of the founders of the Procter and Gamble household products empire. Lowey meanwhile represents the district that just happens to have a former presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, as a constituent.
At least on paper, the two would seem to come from their respective parties’ mainstreams, albeit politically divergent between themselves. And so, it is possible some actual co-operation may evolve – especially as it becomes increasingly clear to the Trumpians that they actually need the Democrats to pass things in Congress, whenever their Freedom Caucus GOP members would rather be right than on the winning side of actual governance.
The respective House and Senate leadership positions presumably also have occupants who would rather find ways of co-operating than constantly fighting. In the Senate and the House both, Democrats Charles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi would seem favourably disposed towards support of the president’s prized infrastructure building initiative (once he gets around to explaining what he actually means), even more than many Republicans. But they will only come on board at some cost, such as protecting certain cabinet and independent agency budgets and missions from the slashing and burning initially proposed by Trump. But, hey, that’s politics.
And so, our lesson today is? Get to know the names of Schiff, Gowdy, Nunes, Lowey, Frelinghuysen, Burr and Warner – they’re going to be in the news quite a bit in the future, right along with the slightly more familiar ones of Democratic Senator from New York Charles Schumer (Senate minority leader) and Democratic Congresswoman from California Nancy Pelosi (House minority leader) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan – or that whole pack of squabbling ideologues in the playpen now masquerading as the West Wing of the White House. DM
Photo: (TOP) Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Republican Richard Burr (R) and ranking member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Democrat Mark Warner (L) attend the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing entitled ‘Disinformation – A Primer in Russian Active Measures and Influence Campaigns’, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, USA, 30 March 2017. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS. (BOTTOM) House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R), along with co-chair from California Adam Schiff (L), speak about the committee’s Russia investigation in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, USA, 15 March 2017. FBI director James Comey is expected to say today if the FBI is investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. EPA/JIM LO SCALZO
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