U.S. Government & governance August 2021-

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(Politico) In a pair of analyses, WaPo’s Dan Balz and NYT’s Nate Cohn set the table for a painful election year ahead for Biden — whether Build Back Better passes or not. Balz contrasts Biden’s promises coming into office with how they’ve played out; Cohn takes a longer historical view:
Biden’s challenge, gamble and wish set the table for the 2022 elections
“The first [pledge],” Balz writes, “was to tame the coronavirus pandemic and deal with its effects on the economy. The second was to persuade Congress to enact the most sweeping domestic policy initiatives in generations. The third was to unify the country the best he could. … As December approaches, none of these goals has been fully accomplished, and that shapes the political environment heading into next year’s midterm elections, which could dramatically affect his presidency.”
The Disconnect Between Biden’s Popular Policies and His Unpopularity
Voters often punish a president for pushing an unpopular agenda. But President Biden has been learning that they rarely reward a president for enacting legislation.
Cohn examines the gap between Biden’s popular policies and his low approval ratings: “The disconnect,” he writes, “is a little hard to understand. After all, voters do care about the issues…. But if voters often punish a president for pushing unpopular policies, they rarely seem to reward a president for enacting legislation. Instead, voters seem to reward presidents for presiding over peace and prosperity — in a word, normalcy.”

22 November
U.S. listed as a ‘backsliding’ democracy for first time in report by European think tank
(WaPo)…the International IDEA’s Global State of Democracy 2021 report released Monday by the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, said “The United States, the bastion of global democracy, fell victim to authoritarian tendencies itself, and was knocked down a significant number of steps on the democratic scale,”
The study, which analyzed trends from 2020 to 2021, found that more than a quarter of the world’s population now lives in democratically backsliding countries, which International IDEA defines as nations seeing a gradual decline in the quality of their democracy.
The report’s U.S. assessment centered on developments during President Donald Trump’s administration. It called Trump’s factually baseless questioning of the legitimacy of the 2020 election results a “historic turning point” that “undermined fundamental trust in the electoral process” and culminated in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Trump’s tactics had “spillover effects, including in Brazil, Mexico, Myanmar and Peru, among others,” the report concluded.

15 November
Biden signs infrastructure bill, promoting benefits for Americans.
Some of the first bursts of spending will go toward areas that Mr. Biden prioritized in negotiations, like tens of billions of dollars to improve access to broadband internet and to replace hazardous lead drinking pipes nationwide.
(NYT) While the bill stopped short of realizing his full-scale ambitions for overhauling America’s transportation and energy systems, Mr. Biden pointed to it as evidence that lawmakers could work across party lines to solve problems in Washington.
He also said it would better position the United States to compete against China and other nations vying for dominance of 21st century emerging industries.
The Infrastructure Bill May Not Be So Historic After All
(Governing.com) Transportation experts say that much of the funds in Biden’s big bill just go towards highways and a carbon-intensive status quo.
The bill signed into law today includes $550 billion in new spending. The rest of it is made up of routine reauthorizations of energy, water, aviation, and surface transportation programs.
Biden is selling the act as a historic federal infrastructure investment, and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg emphasizes the progressive aspects of the bill. But it is state and local officials like Crowley who will actually determine how it is allocated.

10 November
The Hatch Act report is damning — of more than Trump’s White House
(WaPo editorial) A federal investigation has now confirmed what the whole country saw for itself: President Donald Trump’s tenure was a parade of violations of the Hatch Act, the law that prohibits mixing governing with campaigning. The report is damning, not only of the previous administration but also of today’s toothless enforcement regime.
The problem is, there is only one avenue for punishment of political appointees under the Hatch Act: The president of the United States must impose it. And, in this case, the president of the United States was condoning, and possibly directing, the misconduct.
This week’s report is blistering, yet its material effect on the previous administration will be next to nil. An employee who has already left the job can’t be fired or demoted and, in any case, the OSC can only recommend such discipline.

27 October
Garland vs. Bannon Is Bidenism vs. Trumpism
Whether or not the Attorney General prosecutes the former White House strategist, polls suggest that provocation is proving more politically effective than probity.
By David Rohde

What is wrong with this picture?
Former President Donald Trump will be able to retain the ownership of his newly launched social media venture even if he chooses to make another White House run or is convicted by prosecutors who are looking into his business dealings.

Heather Cox Richardson: October 15, 2021
And so, here we are. Republicans are trying to regain control of the government by making sure their opponents can’t vote, while Democrats are trying to level a badly tilted playing field. If the Democrats do not succeed in passing a voting rights law, we can expect America to become a one-party state that, at best, will look much like the American South did between 1876 and 1964.
Our nation will no longer be a democracy.

Yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told his colleagues that on Monday evening he plans to bring up the Freedom to Vote Act and to try to get it through the Senate.
Republicans are dead set against voting rights laws. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has called voting reform “a solution in search of a problem,” driven by “coordinated lies about commonsense election laws that various states have passed.”
Are the 33 election laws 19 states have passed to restrict the vote really “commonsense election laws”?
… Appalled at the violence playing out on the streets and then again on the evening news, lawmakers in 1965 passed the Voting Rights Act. It required that states with a history of discrimination get preapproval from the Department of Justice to change state election laws. The measure passed on a bipartisan basis.
But the impulse to expand voting rights in America would face a backlash in 1986, when Reagan Republicans realized they were in danger of losing control of the government and thus losing the 1986 tax cuts. Republicans began to talk of cutting down black voting under a “ballot integrity” initiative in 1986, and new voter restrictions in Florida paid off in the 2000 election, when Republican George W. Bush won by a handful of votes there after many more votes had been suppressed.
… the elevation of biracial Democrat Barack Obama to the White House in 2008 prompted a new level of attacks on the electoral system. The Supreme Court in the 2010 Citizens United decision permitted a flood of corporate money to flow into the electoral system, and then, in the 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision, it gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
With Justice Department preclearance out of the way, states promptly began to pass discriminatory election laws. In 2021, in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, the Supreme Court said such laws were not prohibited, thus greenlighting the new election laws passed by Republican-dominated states after voters choose Democrat Joe Biden in 2020.

8 October
The debt drama that masked a brutal power struggle: Schumer vs. McConnell
The GOP leader “knows exactly what he’s doing,” one lieutenant said. And the Democratic leader won’t give in. That’s life in a 50-50 Senate.
(Politico) The majority and minority leader are perpetually angling for advantage in the longest-running 50-50 Senate in U.S. history, and their cage match over how to raise the debt ceiling is just the latest bout since McConnell refused to let the chamber organize after Schumer took over. Their ice-cold relationship lacks the sizzle of McConnell’s tiffs with former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid — but McConnell is using increasingly hardline tactics to make Schumer’s life more difficult, given the chamber’s close margin and the tension among the disparate ideological wings in his rival’s party.

Heather Cox Richardson October 3, 2021
Yesterday, people rallied at more than 600 marches across the country to demonstrate their opposition to Texas’s new restrictions on abortion rights.
Today, the Washington Post broke the story [the Pandora Papers] that the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) obtained more than 11.9 million financial records including emails, spreadsheets, contracts, and so on, that reveal a vast international network of financial schemes to hide money from taxation, investigators, creditors, and citizens.
Those marching yesterday for women’s lives and their constitutional right to abortion were not commenting on the secret web of global finance that lets autocrats hide the enormous wealth they have taken from their people. But they were indeed commenting on governance, in particular whether a majority of the people, or a minority kept in power by passionate extremists, should run our country.

Why Republicans Are Still Recounting Votes
The point of the so-called audits is not so much to delegitimize the past election as it is to normalize unnecessary reviews of future ones—including, perhaps, a 2024 race in which Trump’s name may be on the ballot.
By Jelani Cobb
(The New Yorker 11 October issue) Trump’s defeat, by more than seven million votes, was taken to be a sign that the most anti-democratic forces he represented would also be vanquished. The failed January 6th insurrection, which he encouraged and which sent his own Vice-President scrambling to escape a mob threatening to lynch him, seemed a fitting epitaph for his Presidency, and for the malice and the chaos that it engendered. His own incompetence had proved a great asset to American democracy. Since his loss, however, more efficient actors have stepped up to do his bidding.

Heather Cox Richardson October 1, 2021
I continue to maintain that the issue right now is not Democrats’ negotiations over the infrastructure bills —regardless of how they turn out— but that Republican lawmakers are actively working to undermine our democracy.
Biden urges Democrats to compromise, have patience as he tries to revive economic agenda
the president acknowledged the infrastructure package “ain’t going to happen” until Democrats reached agreement over their second tax-and-spending bill. That measure remains shrouded in uncertainty, as centrists including Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) labor to cut it back dramatically.
(WaPo) President Biden attempted to quell an internal Democratic rebellion on Friday, pleading with lawmakers to compromise and stay patient as he tried to revive a $1.2 trillion infrastructure proposal and salvage his broader economic agenda from imminent collapse.
Biden made the overture during a rare meeting on Capitol Hill in the midst of an intense, acrimonious fight over two pieces of legislation that Democrats were struggling to untangle. The first bill would fix the nation’s roads, bridges, pipes, ports and Internet connections. A second package would authorize roughly $3.5 trillion to expand Medicare, combat climate change and boost a wide array of federal aid programs.
Centrist lawmakers began Friday by reiterating their belief that the House should vote immediately on the infrastructure package, which already passed the Senate on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis. And liberal-leaning Democrats signaled they did not plan to budge in their opposition, continuing to use the public-works spending proposal as leverage in a broader fight over the rest of Biden’s economic vision.
For these left-leaning lawmakers, their chief concern is the fate of their roughly $3.5 trillion package that includes a range of benefits for millions of Americans, including universal prekindergarten and new tax aid for low-income families. Manchin and Sinema have opposed the price tag and policy scope of the still-forming bill, troubling liberals, who feel that the duo would simply walk away from it as soon as they secure new infrastructure spending. To prevent that possibility, liberals have held up the public-works measure while Democrats and the White House pursue a deal.

Fareed Zakaria: The U.S. economy continues to soar while American politics craters
(WaPo)) The unmistakable winner of the past decade has been what Ruchir Sharma termed “the comeback nation” in an insightful Foreign Affairs essay. The United States recovered steadily from the 2008 crisis and never looked back — even accounting for the pandemic-induced recession. Today, amid talk of decline, most Americans would be shocked to hear that their country has about the same share of global GDP as it did 40 years ago — 25 percent. Its companies dominate the world like never before. Seven of the top 10 companies in the world by market capitalization are American. The United States continues to lead in most of the industries of the future, from biotechnology to nanotechnology to artificial intelligence. The dollar is dominant as a global reserve currency like no other in history, being used in almost 90 percent of international transactions. And it has the healthiest demographics of any of the world’s five biggest economies, thanks to immigration.
But that is not what it looks like in Washington. America’s weakness is its politics. Despite our extraordinary structural advantages, our political leaders cannot pay our national credit card bills without high drama. They are struggling with infrastructure spending that the past three presidents have advocated as urgent and that a hefty majority of the public supports. Congress has not passed a regular budget in 25 years. Hundreds of key posts in the administration lie vacant, with dozensheld hostage by senators on unrelated issues. And one of our two major parties — goaded on by its demagogic leader — is busy seeking to disrupt the set of institutions, laws and norms that ensure free and fair elections, setting the country up for a massive political crisis in 2024.

29 September
Democrats Move to Avert Fiscal Crisis, Separating Debt and Spending Bills
The House was set to move on Wednesday on a bill to increase the debt limit, while the Senate prepared a separate spending bill to keep the government funded past a Thursday deadline. (3pm)

Bloomberg Politics: With Democrats in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, U.S. President Joe Biden decided to go big.
The result was an economic agenda that topped $4 trillion and included at least something for both the progressive and centrist wings of his party.
But keeping ideologically disparate Democratic lawmakers on board through the Congressional process was always going to be tough. This week has underscored how tough, and the degree to which success — even on a much smaller package — is far from assured.
Gripped by infighting, Democrats have hit a wall in their high-stakes effort to simultaneously avert a government shutdown at midnight tomorrow, avoid a debt default next month and advance Biden’s agenda. Markets are increasingly rattled

Heather Cox Richardson September 29, 2021
We are coming down to the wire for the Senate to pass the Freedom to Vote Act.
It creates a national standard for voting rules and tries to stop voter suppression, modernizes voter registration, and replaces old, paperless voting machines with new ones that have a voter-verified paper trail. It slows the flood of money into our elections and ends partisan gerrymandering. It establishes strict rules for post-election audits.
This defense of voting is popular. A Data for Progress poll found that 70% of likely voters support the act. That number includes 85% of self-identified Democrats, 67% of Independents, and 54% of Republicans.
…every day that goes by brings us closer to having gerrymandered district lines hardened into place before the 2022 election. Indeed, the stonewalling by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) of Democratic attempts to lift the debt ceiling is wasting time that otherwise would be given to the voting rights bill.

Heather Cox Richardson September 28, 2021
It is hard to escape the conclusion that McConnell is deliberately running out Congress’s clock, and it is hard to ignore that the big item on the Senate’s agenda is the Freedom to Vote Act, which Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Jon Tester (D-MT), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Alex Padilla (D-CA), and Angus King (I-ME) have worked to hammer out in place of the voting rights bills passed by the House.

Heather Cox Richardson September 25, 2021
The profound disagreement between the Republicans and the Democrats over the role of government has led to a profound crisis in our democracy. Democrats’ argument that the government should work for ordinary Americans is popular, so popular that Republicans have apparently given up convincing voters their way is better. Through voter suppression, gerrymandering, the filibuster, and the Electoral College, and now with new election laws in 18 states, they have guaranteed that they will retain control no matter what voters actually want. Their determination to keep Democrats from power has made them abandon democracy.
For their part, Democrats are trying to protect the voting rights at the heart of our democracy, believing that if all eligible Americans can vote, they will back a government that works for the people.

22 September
Democrats Face Uncertain Path To Avoid Fiscal Calamity
(NPR) Democrats in Washington are working against a rapidly approaching deadline to end a standoff with Republicans that could force a partial government shutdown and a panic over the nation’s credit rating.
Leaders chose to tie an extension of the federal borrowing limit to a bill to extend routine government funding that runs out at the end of the September. Republicans have insisted for months they will not support that plan, meaning a shutdown and default could be imminent.
The confrontation comes as Democrats are also struggling to manage serious rifts within their own party over a roughly $3.5 trillion spending plan that contains the bulk of President Biden’s agenda.
Biden called nearly two dozen Democrats to meet Wednesday at the White House as the fate of all three measures remains in doubt.

13 September
Filibuster reform is coming—here’s how
Seven ideas for change
Mel Barnes, Norman Eisen, Jeffrey A. Mandell, and Norman Ornstein
(Brookings) In the America of 2021, a seemingly unstoppable force has met an apparently immovable object. Across the nation, state officials are acting with brazen impunity in curtailing voting rights. At best nakedly partisan, and at worst openly racist, legislators are proposing and passing, and some governors are signing, statutes that will strip the ballot from millions, seize the power to overturn election outcomes those partisans don’t like, and potentially tilt the political playing field for decades to come.[1] No wonder President Biden has declared it the “most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War.”[2 ]
Federal legislation could prevent this by establishing reasonable best practices for voter registration and early voting, and by barring the worst of the provisions.[3] But that is where the immovable object comes in. Despite majorities in both houses of Congress that have expressed support for voting rights legislation, the Senate filibuster stands in the way.9 (See Democrats Unite Behind Voting Rights Bill as It Faces a Senate Roadblock.

2 September
Joe Manchin Has Put Biden’s Presidency in Mortal Danger The mercurial senator calls for a “pause” when Democrats desperately need to move fast.
By Jonathan Chait
The sequence of Manchin’s negotiations is especially likely to provoke distrust. He helped create a demand for a fast infrastructure vote, which necessitates the scramble to speed up the second bill. Indeed, the most reasonable demand House moderates have is not to be forced to vote for a larger bill than Manchin ultimately agrees to. The whole process hinges on Manchin figuring out what level of taxes and spending he can accept, and allowing House Democrats to negotiate on that basis. His insistence on waiting freezes everything in place.
The danger is that this pause sets off a cycle of failure. … Delay creates the impression of dysfunction, making Biden and Congress less popular, in turn reducing the popularity of any bill they pass, in turn making Congress more reluctant to support it. Even if Manchin doesn’t want to destroy Biden’s presidency, he may do so by setting off a vortex of failure he loses the ability to escape.

24 August
Bloomberg CityLab: While states like Georgia and Kansas are enacting laws that justice advocates say will restrict voting rights for marginalized groups, at least 25 states have pushed through legislation to expand voter access – with hundreds more bills pending across 49 states. Virginia, for example, passed its own version of the national Voting Rights Act, and California recently expanded mail-in voting.
The States Making Voting Easier — While Georgia moves to restrict voting rights, Virginia and California offer models for legislation that expands ballot accessibility
In Congress, meanwhile, there is a push to pass the recently introduced and updated John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore protections against voter discrimination under the increasingly hollowed Voting Rights Act of 1965

10-11 August
Senate Passes $3.5 Trillion Budget Plan, Advancing Sweeping Safety Net Expansion
The blueprint, which would expand Medicaid, provide free preschool and community college, and fund climate change programs, passed along party lines and faces an arduous path ahead.
(NYT) The blueprint, which could set in motion the largest expansion of the federal safety net in nearly six decades, faces a difficult road ahead as Democrats seek to flesh it out and turn it into law, one that will require their progressive and moderate wings to hold together with virtually no votes to spare.

Big win for $1T infrastructure bill: Dems, GOP come together
(AP) — With a robust vote after weeks of fits and starts, the Senate approved a $1 trillion infrastructure plan for states coast to coast on Tuesday, as a rare coalition of Democrats and Republicans joined together to overcome skeptics and deliver a cornerstone of President Joe Biden’s agenda.
“Today, we proved that democracy can still work,” Biden declared at the White House, noting that the 69-30 vote included even Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
The overwhelming tally provided fresh momentum for the first phase of Biden’s “Build Back Better” priorities, now heading to the House. A sizable number of lawmakers showed they were willing to set aside partisan pressures, at least for a moment, eager to send billions to their states for rebuilding roads, broadband internet, water pipes and the public works systems that underpin much of American life.

5 August
David Brooks: The Biden Approach Is Working
If all you knew about politics was what goes on in the media circus, you’d have to say the progressives have the better argument. Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, Marjorie Taylor Greene — healthy bipartisan compromise seems completely hopeless with this crew.
But underneath that circus, there has always been another layer of politics — led by people who are not as ratings-driven, but are more governance-driven. So over the past 20 years or so, while the circus has been at full roar, Congress has continued to pass bipartisan legislation: the Every Student Succeeds rewrite of federal K-12 education policy, the Obama budget compromise of 2013, the Trump criminal justice reform law of 2018, the FAST infrastructure act, the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020, the Trump-era ban on surprise billing in health care. In June the Senate passed, 68 to 32, the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, which would devote roughly $250 billion to scientific projects.
Matthew Yglesias and Simon Bazelon call this the “Secret Congress” — the everyday business of governing that works precisely because it isn’t on cable TV.

1 August
Heather Cox Richardson August 1, 2021
Now, in 2021, we seem to be headed back to the one-party society Moses fought. In response to record voter turnout in the 2020 election, 18 states have passed 30 new laws that make it harder to vote. At the same time, Republican-dominated legislatures are gathering into their own hands the power to override the voters. [See Brennan Center: The Great Vote Suppression Campaign of 2021]
… Public schools are also under attack, with Republicans threatening to cut funding to schools that require masks to stop the spread of coronavirus or that teach “divisive concepts” that make students uncomfortable, usually topics that involve race.
Republican lawmakers have proposed attaching funding to students rather than to schools, enabling parents to use tax dollars to enroll their children in private schools.

Opinion: Yet another reason we need fewer political appointees
Jennifer Rubin
How did the United States get so dangerously behind on cybersecurity? From China’s hack of the Office of Personnel Management to the SolarWinds attack to the shutdown of Colonial Pipeline due to ransomware, bad actors have regularly sliced through meager U.S. defenses. Should such an attack breach our power grid, the damage could be devastating.
The Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security and Emergency Response (CESER) might not be well-known, but it is a critical entity within the Energy Department that is in charge of responding to natural and man-made emergencies impacting our power, … Thanks to the previous administration, the head of the office is a political position.
[Energy Secretary] Granholm found someone to run the office: Puesh M. Kumar, who has years of private- and public-sector experience. He is the sort of person one would want running the agency regardless of party — and to continue running it even when administrations change hands. And if he does leave, the position certainly should not remain vacant as the confirmation process drags on for months. … As Granholm explained, “Since CESER was established, about half its existence has been without leadership because it is a political position.” If you really want to elevate the position and the work CESER does, it should look like other emergency response entities where key posts are filled by career experts.

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