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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

odds and ends

Looks like Financial Regulation is set to pass tomorrow, which is good news. My impression is that it won't prevent future crises, but it will make them somewhat less likely, and, more importantly, make us much better at dealing with them when they happen. Here's Ezra Klein's take.

On the other hand, here's Matt Davies' impression:

Reid wants to press forward on environmental legislation next, which is also good news, although it will require some wizardry to pass something substantive given Republican obstruction, which is unlikely (to put it mildly) to abate in an election year. He has smartly decided to include offshore drilling reform in the larger bill, though, so Republicans will have to decide if they really want to vote against that. Marc Ambinder has more.

Speaking of offshore drilling, here's a good op-ed on Congress's role in allowing the spill to happen.

Ezra Klein comments on recent deficit talk:

The unexpected outbreak of fiscal honesty on the Republican side of the aisle is changing the terms of the deficit conversation, and quick. First, Sen. Jon Kyl told Fox News Sunday that "you should never have to offset cost of a deliberate decision to reduce tax rates on Americans." Then, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell doubled down: "There's no evidence whatsoever that the Bush tax cuts actually diminished revenue," he told Brian Beutler of TPMDC. "They increased revenue because of the vibrancy of these tax cuts in the economy. So I think what Senator Kyl was expressing was the view of virtually every Republican on that subject."

In recent weeks, Republicans have gained a lot of traction -- and hung a lot of tough votes -- on their concerns for deficits. Now they're stuck between two untenable positions: That tax cuts needn't be offset as a matter of principle, or that they needn't be offset as a matter of policy. The first suggests they don't really care about deficits. The second suggests they don't understand deficits. Meanwhile, they're filibustering an extension in unemployment insurance based on concerns about deficits. Democrats are ecstatic: Tax cuts for the wealthy versus insurance for the unemployed is, for them, the first hint of solid ground in some time.

This isn't a slam dunk for Democrats. Tax cuts remain popular, and not paying for them has been, in the past, a popular position. But where Democrats were on the defensive on deficits last week, Republicans are going to spend the next week trying to sync positions that will radically increase the deficit with a political message that emphasizes the need for deficit reduction. It'll be quite a trick.

Matthew Yglesias points out that Conservatives do not actually care about the deficit. At all.

Here's a helpful graph:

The most egregious example of Republican ridiculousness on this issue is their blocking extension of unemployment benefits, even though there are clearly no jobs out there, in the overall budget it's not a lot of money, and it's probably the most effective form of stimulus in terms of bang for your buck (the money will be spent immediately). It's heartless, but more importantly it's just stupid not to extend unemployment. You're just going to further depress the economy by reducing consumer spending, which will result in more unemployment. Here's another helpful graph:

There are no jobs.

Matt Davies again:

This glimpse into the State Department's Operations Center is very interesting. It's an intense work environment, to say the least.

Finally, I wanted to highlight a couple threads in this profile of Nancy Pelosi by the CS Monitor that I found interesting.

The first is that her success is tied to her experiences in, and talent for, fundraising. That's how she got her start in politics and her talent for networking and for collecting and doling out favors in many ways defines her leadership style:

In a town that typically sorts people as insiders or outsiders, Pelosi is an unusual mixture of both. Most speakers historically excelled at the insider game: building up favors and relationships with colleagues, while plotting ways to move up the party ranks. Once established as speaker, they had a base to expand national contacts and outreach. By contrast, Pelosi – a lifelong Democratic fundraiser – began her freshman year in the House with her own network of national donors. Over time, she tapped these contacts to move votes on the floor.

The key to Pelosi's success is her drive and mastery of detail – the working knowledge she has of who her members are, what their districts need, and who on the outside can be mobilized to affect their votes. In short, she knows the critical "back door" to members.

It's a skill set that no previous speaker had to the same extent, because none spent the time that she has working contacts on the outside. Since entering leadership in 2002, Pelosi has raised $162 million for Democratic candidates. It's an unthinkable sum for previous speakers and shows the increasing importance of vast war chests to win and hold majorities in bitterly partisan times. With a few calls or a well-timed fundraiser, she can sweeten a tough vote or pressure a member considering an unhelpful one.

Call it the art of political cover. In an era of pure partisan gridlock, no one is doing it better.

PELOSI LEARNED THE FINE ART of sustaining political support from her earliest years in a leading political family in Baltimore. Her father, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., was serving in the US House of Representatives when she was born. He was the mayor of Baltimore from when she entered first grade until she went away to Trinity College in Washington, D.C. Her brother, Thomas D'Alesandro III, was mayor of Baltimore from 1967 to 1971.

"The arts of politics are bred in her bones: the ability to get people to like you, to build coalitions, to reach agreements," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "It's what she grew up with, with her father and her brother. And those are the things that don't come easily to a lot of people."

In the D'Alesandro household, Democratic Party politics and family were inseparable. Pelosi and her five older brothers took turns manning the table near the front door, where constituents came for help or something to eat. "It was an unusual situation, as I look back on it, but it was the life we led," she says. "People would come and they would ask how they could get a bed in the city hospital, a place to live in housing projects, food, a job, and our family was always there to help."

Her mother, Annunciata or Nancy, kept records of all the favors asked and granted on slips of paper to use as a contact list for others needing help.

The favor trading she learned as a child was something she continued as an adult:

From the start, Pelosi built her own political career on finding resources to support others. With all five children in school, Pelosi began volunteering for Mr. McCarthy and raising funds for local candidates out of her San Francisco home near the Presidio. She told the kids: "Proper preparation prevents poor performance," a motto that covered her approach to fundraising and political organizing.

In 1976, Pelosi wrote a memo to California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), a former classmate of her husband's, urging him to get into the Maryland presidential primary. She volunteered her help and family connections. He accepted. In a surprise move, Mr. Brown won Maryland and in return backed Pelosi to chair the Northern California Democratic Party and, later, the state party.

What impressed the Democratic political establishment was her energy, organizational and fundraising skills, and network of personal connections. She set up the first permanent party headquarters and moved a paper-and-pencil operation into the computer era. In 1984, she helped bring the Democratic National Convention to San Francisco. Perhaps most important, she developed a reputation for delivering what she promised.

"When I first met Nancy Pelosi, she was just a worker bee in the Democratic Party, doing fundraising, but she always supported the farmworkers and you could trust her," says Dolores Huerta, a cofounder with César Chávez of the United Farm Workers of America.

In an era of hard-talking party bosses, it was easy to dismiss the charming Pacific Heights mother of five as a lightweight. "Everyone underestimates her from Day 1," says Roz Wyman, a close friend who chaired the 1984 Convention. "Nancy is quite remarkable, and it's only now, since the health-care vote came up, that people realize what she does."

For Pelosi, fundraising wasn't just a process, loathed by most politicians, of getting cash to candidates. It was also a path to vital political information: what donors care about, what motivates them, and how to convert those motivations into a check for Democrats. Over time her California contacts helped fund campaigns across the nation.

But when Pelosi attempted a run for chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1984-85, she was dismissed by some in the East Coast old guard as "an airhead" – a rich San Francisco liberal who could give parties, but what else? After setting up an office in Washington to campaign for the job, Pelosi dropped out a day before the vote, convinced that she couldn't win. But the experience marked her. "I always said that if I hadn't run for chair of the DNC I might not have realized how rough the intramural game can be on the Democratic side," she says.

Undaunted, she helped Democrats take back the Senate in 1986, as chair of the Finance Committee of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The effort earned her not just favors but an encyclopedic grasp of key outside players in politics and what their needs were, which would become an essential resource as speaker. "People talk about her enormous fundraising prowess, but it's because she understood the value of relationships," says Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood and a former Pelosi deputy chief of staff. "She has built loyal relationships across this country, and people would walk across hot coals for her."

At the age of 47, Pelosi had raised five children, moved in the top echelons of party politics, and turned receptions in her San Francisco home into an ATM for Democrats. What she had not done was be elected to public office. That was about to change.

She moved her talents for influencing politics from the outside to the inside, winning her seat in Congress in 1987. She moved up the ranks quickly:

In a body of 435 members, most House freshmen take years to be heard. But with her network of favors both to the California delegation and Democrats nationwide, Pelosi was not the average apprentice. She used her network to begin to conquer the House Democratic caucus, one relationship at a time.

She landed a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. In Washington, she began to host a weekly dinner group for liberal Democrats. At home in San Francisco, she expanded fundraisers to help both Democratic incumbents and challengers. The loss of control of the House in the 1994 elections stunned Democrats, none of whom had experienced life in the minority, and gave Pelosi a shot at leadership.

"I only decided to run when we lost the House. We lost it and then we lost again, and then we lost it again," she says. "Around 2000 I said: 'You know what? I know how to win. I can do this.' "

It helped that Pelosi had two growing power bases on which to build her ascent to power. One was the California delegation, the largest in the House; the other, women. When Pelosi first came to the House, 23 women served in the chamber. When she defeated Mr. Hoyer for whip in October 2001, there were 62. Today, there are 76.

Rep. Rush Holt (D) of New Jersey recalls giving Pelosi an early commitment to vote for her in the whip race against Hoyer. Soon after, he got calls from key constituents making sure he was going to keep his pledge. "She knew just who to have call me from back home – people I would listen to," he says.

This was an aspect of her I had never considered before, but it does seem to be central to her life's work.

The other thing was stuck out for me was that her relationship with Catholic organizations played a crucial role in passing health care reform. She identifies strongly as a Catholic:

Her mother wanted her to become a nun. "[T]hat was not going to happen," she wrote in her 2008 autobiography, "Know Your Power: A Message to America's Daughters." Pelosi typically still attends mass at least once a week and maintains strong ties with Catholic communities. She describes church teachings as central to her life and the inspiration for "our responsibility to each other," but she also sees a role for public policy to make such promises practical.

"How many times can we answer the door or the phone and send somebody here or there?" she says. "There has to be a different way. We have to have different public policy to meet the needs of people."

Pelosi came of age in a prefeminist era. Her politics did not grow out of anger or struggle but culture and conviction. As a student at Trinity College (now Trinity Washington University), she was inspired by President Kennedy's call for service. "Because we were in Washington, daughters of Catholic politicians came here in large numbers," says Pat McGuire, president of Trinity. "The Kennedy era was a time of great political fervor and change, a point not lost on students at the nation's leading Catholic college for women."

And her Catholic ties proved valuable:

Even before she took over as Speaker, Pelosi had maintained close relations with Catholic women's religious organizations. They shared not only the same faith but often also the same politics. Catholic activists would meet at least weekly with members of her office. They worked together on issues such as support for the uninsured, child nutrition, immigration, and expanding health coverage for poor children. Those ties were about to become pivotal.

After a year of intense White House negotiations and legislative wrangling, health-care reform was foundering. House and Senate versions of the bill were far apart, and an upset by Republican Scott Brown in the Jan. 19 Massachusetts special election dropped Democrats below the 60 votes they needed to block a GOP filibuster in the Senate.

At the White House, the mood had turned to scaling back expectations. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel urged an incremental approach to break up the health-care bill and pass only those elements that could clear the Senate. But Pelosi, alone among top congressional leaders, balked. She would not accept health-care lite, she told the White House. "It's like the teensy-weensy spider," she said.

The plan subsequently worked out with the White House and Democratic leaders was this: Pass the Senate version of health-care reform in the House, along with a package of "fixes" that the Senate would commit to passing, under procedures requiring only a majority vote. With most of her caucus opposed to the Senate bill in its current form, Pelosi insisted on getting a commitment from the Senate on passing the fixes in writing. But first, Pelosi had to win a tough vote in her chamber.

She settled in for weeks of earlier mornings and later nights spent meeting with elements of her caucus: New Democrats, Blue Dogs, progressives, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus, vulnerable freshman and sophomores, as well as regional interests. She didn't expect GOP votes and invested no time looking for them. Step by step, she fielded the leading concerns members had with the Senate bill and what "fixes" could resolve them.

A week before the vote, it had all come down to a fierce, intraparty dispute over language limiting federal funding of abortion. Rep. Bart Stupak, an anti-abortion Democrat from Michigan, publicly backed by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he and at least 40 of his supporters would vote down a Senate bill that did not contain the stronger House language blocking public abortion funding.

In response, 40 abortion-rights Democrats, led by Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado, signed a letter pledging to vote down any legislation that further restricted a woman's right to choose. For the speaker, it appeared to be a cul-de-sac.

Enter the nuns. In a decisive move, Sister Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, and Sister Simone Campbell, representing NETWORK, a social-justice lobby for Catholic churchwomen, said publicly that the Senate language did not, in fact, expand federal funding for abortion and announced their support of the Senate bill – a rare public break with the bishops. "Our contacts there [in Pelosi's office] helped us know the rhythm and concerns of the speaker's office," Sister Campbell says. "We knew where the votes were or weren't. It's not rocket science. Key Catholic votes were needed – and [these members] needed assurance that this new abortion mechanism would work."

Mr. Stupak was stunned. "We had never heard of these nuns before," he says.

At the climactic hour, Pelosi offered Stupak and other holdouts a sweetener: The White House would issue an executive order clarifying that public funds would not be used to fund abortion. This agreement, as well as the public backing of the Catholic churchwomen, gave anti-abortion Democrats cover for backing the Senate bill – and gave Pelosi her last critical votes for passing the Senate health-care bill. "Three or four in the Stupak coalition went over to the other side explicitly saying they [were] moved by the nuns...," says Deal Hudson, president of the Catholic Advocate, an anti-abortion advocacy group. "So it was a very powerful move at that moment in time."

On the other side, abortion-rights groups swallowed an executive order they found repellent because they trusted her assurances that this course was the only way to get a bill. "Without Pelosi, this bill would not have passed," says Congresswoman DeGette.

Also something I had never considered. I certainly didn't know Pelosi was behind those nuns speaking out.

It's also worth noting that, as you can see that last paragraph I quoted, Pelosi has become to the House what Ted Kennedy was to the Senate: someone progressives can trust to get the best deal possible. If she says "we've got to bite the bullet" on some issue, her liberal allies believe her. That's crucial to actually getting things done, because if there's a feeling that "we could do better" then it makes sense to demand more, but if the votes just aren't there, that can result in getting nothing at all. So it's important for the success of the coalition to have someone like that.

One recurrent theme in the article I did not find particularly interesting is that Pelosi is very partisan and very polarizing. She considers outreach to Republicans to be a waste of time, and I think she's right. It's fair to put it in the article, but anyone who thinks the current hyper-partisanship is Pelosi's fault clearly hasn't been paying attention.

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