Category Archives: Electoral Politics

The “Power of the Purse” Myth


As Republicans in Congress scramble today to piece together a bill funding the Department of Homeland Security, it’s worth reviewing how we got here.

Shortly after the 2014 mid-term elections, President Obama issued executive orders providing residency and work permits to millions of illegal immigrants.  Republicans and even a few Democrats objected to the actions as an unconstitutional application of executive authority.  Republicans wanted to fight back without stealing the thunder of their recent electoral triumph.  So they passed an omnibus “continuing resolution,” funding at current levels the entire federal bureaucracy — except for the DHS, which they funded through today’s date only.  The thinking was that, in the new year, with majorities in both houses of Congress, Republicans would be able to pressure the president into backing down from his “executive amnesty.”

We give the power brokers in Washington too much credit for their political calculations.  Why would anyone believe that President Obama, who had just led his party to a crushing defeat, could be cowered into backing down on a signature issue?  If anything, the President now has even less of an incentive to compromise.  He has no more elections of his own.  His party has taken as many lumps as it can.  Even fewer moderates survive in the Democratic caucus.  Politically speaking, there is nothing restricting the president from putting a foot on the accelerator of his agenda.

The Constitution does vest in the Congress power to appropriate funds from the treasury.  Technically, Congress can “defund” the administrative resources which the administration needs to “execute” objectionable executive orders.  Of course, “defund” in this context means to pass an appropriations bill with restrictions.  Even if such a measure were to garner enough bipartisan support to overcome a Senate filibuster, the president would have no compulsion to sign it.   Congress would not have enough votes to override a veto.  In short, we would find ourselves where we stand today — a looming “shutdown” of the department at issue.

Even if both sides are mechanically responsible for the impasse, public opinion lays the blame squarely on the party throwing up the initial roadblock — in this case, the GOP.  One can argue for principle above politics, but purity only gets you so far.  It’s easy for Rep. Steve King (R-IA) or Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to hold the line because neither faces any credible political fallout from his actions.  Bucking compromise only burnishes their credentials with their constituencies.  For the conservative movement as a whole, however, it’s a losing proposition.  As Homeland Security staff are furloughed or forced to work without pay, it’s obvious where the pressure will begin to mount.  The party which prides itself on law and order issues will have no choice but to cave.  Notwithstanding claims to the contrary, the GOP was lucky to avoid punishment for the 2013 government shutdown.  If not for the disastrous roll-out of and other blunders by the administration, mid-term election results would have looked very different.

This is not to say that conservatives have no cards to play in the battle over spending levels and priorities.  Options are simply more limited when we appropriate with omnibus bills that face little scrutiny or discussion.  There is a reason for “regular order” whereby the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Committee on Appropriations divide their work into twelve subcommittees, each tasked with developing an appropriations bill for its own section of the government.  These subcommittees can hold hearings and publish proposals and dig into the details which other legislators lack the time or interest to investigate.  It’s in the deep and dirty work of these subcommittees where Republicans can parlay the privileges of their majority.  It’s there that fiscal conservatives can shine a light on waste or muscle through resolutions which advance priorities without the distraction of emotionally charged national debates largely unrelated to the subcommittee’s core business.

It’s not capitulating or shirking responsibility to forsake tactics which turn the tables on contentious issues.  Critics have good cause to resent the president’s overreach.  To be effective in opposition, however, they need to read the political tea leaves.  No good will come from a DHS shutdown.  Better to fight for restraint by the courts and, ultimately, for control of the White House.

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Filed under Domestic Policy, Electoral Politics, Immigration

Hyphenation Nation

In 2000 I was enamored with the “insurgent” candidacy of John McCain for President.  Although his image took a beating in later years, back then his maverick reputation had earned him accolades in the press and in popular culture.  So I went online and made a donation.  The campaign also sold me what it must have thought would secure my commitment:  a bumper sticker reading “Jewish Americans for McCain” and featuring a martial five-point star in tribute to Sen. McCain’s distinguished military service.

Upon closer inspection, the sticker felt a bit creepy.  While a Star of David would have made more sense, it wasn’t the star that seemed misguided.  Rather, the well-intentioned “swag” rubbed me the wrong way because I had never called myself a “Jewish American.”  The designation awkwardly lined me up with all the other hyphenated ethnic and racial designations bandied about by professional liberal activists.  To be sure, I am a proud Jew and a proud American, and I belong to countless American Jewish organizations.  What drew me to Sen. McCain, however, was his extraordinary biography and commitment to American leadership in the world.  Then as now, his principles stood for shared American values that transcend special interests.  For this reason, I eagerly lined up behind the senator, albeit as a nondescript “McCainiac” rather than a “Jewish American for McCain.”

McCain’s clumsy appeal to ethnicity was a sign of the times and seemed to augur the rise of the so-called Emerging Democratic Majority (EDM).  Originally coined by Ruy Teixeira and John Judis in their 2002 book by the same name, the EDM thesis postulates that the Democratic Party will come to dominate national elections because of the changing demographic landscape.  Specifically, whites are declining as a percentage of the electorate as racial minorities are rising.  This fact, together with the relative strength of Democrats among minorities and other demographic “voting blocs,” apparently spells doom for Republican prospects.  Just last week, however, Judis himself pulled a 180 with a piece in National Journal, where he explains how Republicans are set to dominate elections after all, due especially to their rising hold on middle-class voters.  Politicos of all stripes have been breaking down the arguments, often to suit their own agendas.

Lost in all the beltway chatter is the sad premise that U.S. elections turn on capturing the disconnected hearts and minds of this segment or that one, be it Hispanics, blue-collar workers, senior citizens, millennials, gays, soccer moms, veterans, unmarried women, urban professionals, or — dare I say — Jewish Americans.  True, it was the machinations of Karl Rove which introduced the power of micro-targeting to the campaigns of George W. Bush.  But President Obama’s second Presidential campaign took identity campaign politics to an unprecedented level.  From the beginning Obama for America was really a conflation of building blocks — Obama for blacks, Obama for Hispanics, Obama for gays, Obama for labor unions, Obama for pro-choice activists, Obama for gun-control activists, Obama for trial lawyers.  Stack ’em all up and they totaled more than the would-be coalition for Romney.  Gone was even the lip service to the 2008 rallying cry of “not a collection of red states and blue states… the United States!”

I wasn’t too politically aware when Reagan held the White House, but one thing I remember clearly was his sunny demeanor and his message of bringing freedom and prosperity to Americans from every walk of life.  Likewise Bill Clinton worked hard to weave a thread of shared purpose in “a bridge to the 21st century.”  Appealing to our common American values should be the centerpiece of a Presidential campaign.  The motto of our nation’s Great Seal is e pluribus unum.  That means “one from many” not “many from one.” Instead of littering their speeches with trite anecdotes illustrating one interest group or the other and instead of manufacturing soothing but shallow catch phrases like “middle-class economics,” our leaders should be delving deeply into what makes America truly special and rallying the population around it.  They may be surprised how many [insert label here]-Americans break out of the molds predetermined by cynical political strategists.

As the 2016 campaign begins to take shape, I hope we see a fresh approach from the Republican field and the presumed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.  For her part, Clinton is working hard to articulate a substantive rationale for her prospective candidacy.  A good place to start would be to enunciate principles for boosting the economy and countering our nation’s enemies abroad.  Democrats and Republicans may not agree on policy, but we should be able to agree on the end goals.


Filed under Electoral Politics