Monday, October 31, 2005

Recipe for Failure: Add 1 Helping of Michael Brown

You write a column ahead of deadline, and then get up in the morning and find out that you not only lost your bet, but you have to rewrite really, really quickly. But it's nice to see that former FEMA director Michael Brown found new work, isn't it?

Miers' withdrawal means that we really can't trust Bush when he claimed that she was the Woman Most Deserving (WMD), right?

East Valley Tribune, Oct. 30, 2005

When did it stop being true that every presidential nominee deserves an up-or-down vote?

The one time I depend on Bush sticking to his guns -- I bet one of my law partners a dinner that the Harriet Miers nomination wouldn’t be withdrawn before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings began -- Bush caves. That’s what I get for listening to people like the committee chair, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), as quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“Despite an outcry among some conservatives over the nomination, Specter said yesterday [Oct. 17] that he doubted Miers would withdraw from consideration or that Bush would ask her to. ‘It would be seen as a tremendous sign of weakness to have her withdraw,’ Specter said.”

Weakness! Can’t have that. But then Bush folded like the Astros and went down without taking a single game. (Yes, I was rooting for the White Sox. We couldn’t let Houston win the World Series. Hasn’t Texas made the rest of the country suffer enough already?)

We Democrats had a response to the Miers nomination, what one wag called the “popcorn strategy”: Watch as Republicans argue with each other, and pass the popcorn, please. It was working pretty well, no?

I really enjoyed seeing being given over to a debate over whether a Bush nomination should be withdrawn. Conservatives could sign up with, where you could list yourself as favoring withdrawal, “deeply concerned,” or (for senators only) “have expressed reservations.” That “deeply concerned” group sure looked like the place to be; where else would The New York Times, Rush Limbaugh, and Robert Novak hang out together?

Apparently it’s no longer true that we should, in now-inoperable words uttered by Sen. Jon Kyl in 2003, “take the politics out of the confirmation process, give nominees the up or down vote they deserve, and move the orderly process of justice forward.” That was then; this is now.

Just like how perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges were incredibly important, vital, and impeachable in six years ago (Kyl again, in 1999: “John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States, said ‘there is no crime more extensively pernicious to society’ than perjury, precisely because it ‘discolors and poisons the streams of justice”) but now perjury is just, well, not worth bothering about.

Now, the administration that brought us Michael D. Brown as head of FEMA (and which continues to pay him as a consultant, at $148,000 annually, to “help review the agency’s response to Hurricane Katrina”) is hardly likely to nominate anybody all that good.

At this point, I can hear some readers complaining about the unfairness of linking Harriet Miers to Michael Brown. But it’s a valid connection, because I immediately asked if I could retract my bet when I learned that the day before Miers withdrew, The Washington Times reported that Brown was part of the team working for her confirmation (thanks to The Corner and Josh Marshall for the link).

Describing him as a “conservative activist,” The Times had Brown citing internal GOP polling showing strong support for Miers by “ordinary Republicans beyond the Washington Beltway”: “The administration is ‘disappointed that conservatives inside the Beltway are fighting among ourselves over this nomination, and it fuels the fires for our enemies, for Democrats,’ said Mr. Brown, the former Federal Emergency Management Agency director.”

I guess Brown’s FEMA consulting gig is only part time; he’s able to work on judicial confirmation efforts, too. But why rely on Michael Brown, of all people, to make the case for Miers? What, was Enron's Kenneth Lay too busy?

With friends like Brown, Harriet Miers certainly didn’t need any enemies. And maybe Democrats will catch a case of “Miers remorse” when Bush nominates somebody worse, either more ideological or more of a crony. But just as the doomed Social Security privatization removed the administration’s veneer of self-applied triumphalism, this bell can’t be unrung, either.

The next time we’re all just supposed to trust President Bush’s judgment, which anti-Miers conservative should I quote?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Republicans Denouce Reagan As "Too Moderate"

I didn't like the editor's choice for my headline this week because I think it's not correct. I thought that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts were so much larger than the tax increases in 1991 and 1993 that restoring the 1986 tax code would actually be an increase; the only roll back is only in the number of pages in the Code and in the forms. But it's a useful point to make, that today's Republicans would be opposed to reinstating the 1986 tax code because they've moved so far to the right that they can't support what Reagan actually did because it's too centrist. Thus, my choice for the headline, above.

I bet one of my law partners dinner that Harriet Miers would appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee, that her nomination wouldn't be withdrawn before then. After all, aren't conservatives supposed to believe that every nominee deserves an up-or-down vote? And why would the Bush administration start caring suddenly about doing things with majority support?

Finally, root for the White Sox. We can't let Houston win the World Series; hasn't Texas made the rest of the country suffer enough already?

East Valley Tribune, Oct. 23, 2005

The quasi-release of recommendations from President Bush’s long-awaited tax reform commission prompts me to release my own far simpler and far more surprising tax reform plan.

So far, Bush’s commission proposes to make your health insurance taxable and to limit your home mortgage deduction. They want to do that to pay for full repeal of the alternative minimum tax, so rich people who have lots of loopholes won’t have to pay income taxes.

Even without this bone-headed idea, the commission already seems like a loser. The basic problem is that any laundry list of tax proposals immediately fractures any sort of coalition for reform.

People don’t look at the overall picture, but instead evaluate whether each single proposal benefits or hurts them. Tax reform requires logrolling. Unless you must swallow it whole, a list only lets those of us from Arizona explain why a tax credit for replacing air conditioner filters is essential for American competitiveness, while deductions for public transit is tax pork.

So I have my own seamless, complete tax reform package: Let’s re-adopt the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, exactly the way that Ronald Reagan signed it.

Every change to the tax code since then gets removed. We roll the clock back to 1986, when the Gipper was president and Bob Dole ran the Senate and Republicans hadn’t taken money yet from Jack Abramoff.

There’s something for everybody in my proposal. Politically, Republicans keep pretending that the first President Bush and both Clinton terms never happened -- and, tax-wise, that’s fine with me. Democrats get something equally valuable, a complete do-over of George W. Bush tax policy. (It’s the reverse of the classic The Onion headline from 2001, “Bush: ‘Our Long National Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity Is Finally Over’”.)

Economically, it’s a win for the country. We have fewer brackets, forms, deductions, and credits. The code and the forms required each April become shorter and less complex.

Fiscally, it’s also a winner. The tax hikes in 1991 and 1993 were more than outweighed by the back-loaded and top-weighted cuts in 2001 and 2003. Unlike in 1986, we now tax income from capital and wealth at far lower rates than income from work. We can keep the nominal top rate at 1986 levels, as long as we tax dividends and capital gains like how we tax salaries, just as Reagan did. Given the increase in income inequality and the continued multiplication of CEO salaries over those of the actual workers in most corporations, we wouldn’t run Reagan’s deficits, either.

I’d like to make a couple of tweaks to the 1986 code. We should keep the increases to the earned income tax credit, and “percentage-index” the alternative minimum tax and estate tax so both affect exactly the same percentage of taxpayers as each did in 1986. But if making those changes open the door to any of the lobbyist-driven, fiscally-irresponsible, and wantonly-regressive changes made since 1986, then forget it. Better to take my Reagan pure than to give this corrupt Congress a chance to fish for campaign contributions by rigging the tax code yet again.

There’s no reason put Reagan’s name on airports or his face on Mount Rushmore. He wasn’t the kind of guy who wanted special treatment or personal honors; he was just a regular guy who happened to be president, right? So if Republicans really want to honor him, why not re-enact his version of the Internal Revenue Code? It’s already been written, and Congress could pass it and the president could sign it tomorrow.

So let’s get rid of the past 19 years of mistakes and political favors, and go back and party like it’s 1986. Since then, the Republicans have moved so far to the right that they’d probably dismiss Reagan as a (ugh!) moderate, so it’s up to this die-hard Democrat to promote the actual substance of Reaganism. What’s happened to the tax code since 1986 only makes me nostalgic for Ronnie. What about you?

The Internal Revenue Code of 1986: Let’s do it -- for the Gipper!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

They're Finally Calling for Sacrifices--By the Poor

I had picked a different headline for this column; my choice was, "If It's All About Judeo-Christian Values, What About Us Judeos?" But my editor didn't like that. The newspaper version is here.

I got an angry email from a 'winger about this column, demanding to know exactly how I defined rich, and how much the rich should pay in taxes, and how much the government has spent on the less fortunate since 1969, and a list of more long-and-impossible-to-answer questions. So I wrote the guy back, and said that before I started writing term papers at his command, I just wanted to know something that he'd have to answer anyway to do his taxes next spring: What was his largest charitable contributions this year? I wanted to make sure he was pulling his weight in the community before I spent hours responding to his questions.

Of course, I have had no response. I wonder if he has made any charitable contribution this year larger than throwing a couple of coins in a collection plate or Salvation Army kettle?

But his email made me think about a point Kevin Drum made, that conservatives focus (like laser beams!) on a distorted parody of liberalism (Liberals want to tax everything! They hate the rich!), no matter how extreme or ill-noticed (Ward Churchill, anybody?). I'm not sure if I buy Kevin's idea of focusing on conservative extremism, but the "name your charitable contribution" turned out to be a nice piece of rhetorical judo for this particular crank, and I commend it to you.

East Valley Tribune, Oct. 16, 2005

The High Holidays prayerbook we use at Temple Solel has a series of short meditations that you can read before Yom Kippur services begin. The stories include one of my favorites, about a famous 18th century Chasidic rabbi, the Maggid of Koznitz.

One day, a rich man came to the rabbi for a blessing. But before dealing with his spiritual question, the Maggid first asked, “What are you in the habit of eating?” The man replied, “I am modest in my demands. Bread and salt, a drink of water, I need no more.”

The rabbi is outraged. “What are you thinking? You must have a good goose for dinner, or a steak, and a really good wine. And you must eat a luxurious breakfast each morning.” The rabbi did not let the man leave until he promises to change his ways.

The rabbi’s disciples hear him instructing the man, and they can’t believe their ears. A sinner wants to atone, and the Maggid tells him to eat well instead! So afterward, they ask him why. The rabbi explains, “Not until he eats meat will he realize that the poor need bread. As long as he himself eats only bread, he will think the poor can live on stones.”

The Maggid of Koznitz wouldn’t have much trouble figuring out what’s wrong with today’s U.S. Congress. The majority’s latest plan for dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina would “pay” for recovery by cutting $35 billion in programs like Medicaid health coverage, food stamps, and other services for the less-well-off while giving $70 billion in new tax breaks targeted at the richest Americans. This is an opening bid, apparently; so-called “conservatives” are pushing for deeper cuts to programs that assist people with illnesses and disabilities, or the hungry, or families who can’t afford rent or health insurance, so the legislation can provide even more tax cuts to the wealthiest.

Those of you with adequate math backgrounds may notice that the widely-heralded offsets in the initial plan are merely half of the new tax breaks. So despite all the noise about fiscal responsibility, it’s a plan to increase the deficit -- and it’s likely that the “improved” plan will have a lower spending-cut-to-tax-cut ratio, thereby increasing deficit spending even more.

For the past half-decade, the administration’s and congressional majority’s response to any problem (a slowing economy, two land wars in Asia, projected shortfalls in Social Security) is to give tax cuts to the very richest and wealthiest Americans. But the largest natural disaster in American history has emboldened the ruling party to add a new “improvement” to their governing philosophy. They’re finally calling for sacrifice -- by the poor, the sick, and the vulnerable, whom they expect to pay for new top-down tax cuts by doing without healthcare, food, and shelter.

President Bush and key lawmakers must not know anybody who depends on Medicaid, or food stamps, or housing aid to believe that it’s a good idea to take from the poor to give to the rich. But 27 Arizona organizations which do know better -- which work every day trying to help people in Arizona, including those displaced here by Katrina -- have called on our congressional delegation to oppose this latest reverse-Robin-Hood proposal. (A copy of the letter is available at

These groups, which include Children’s Action Alliance, Southwest Human Development, AARP Arizona, and Arizona Bridge to Independent Living (ABIL), devote themselves to improving the lives of the sick, the infirm, and those in need of food, shelter, and training. (Disclosure: I serve on the board of one signer, Devereux Arizona, and another, Catholic Healthcare West, is a client.) They know what these programs do and how they affect actual lives; to them, these aren’t just numbers on a spreadsheet.

Just like the Maggid of Koznitz, these groups know that the poor and less-fortunate can’t live on stones, or get healthcare from the air. Let’s hope they can help educate our elected officials about their moral responsibilities. After all, it’s the Judeo-Christian thing to do.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

To Get to No, Say Yes

Despite a couple emails I'm getting from partisans on my side, if Democrats want to stop Harriet Miers from getting on the Supreme Court, then we shouldn't oppose her vocally. If a Democrat becomes the focus of opposition, then her appointment becomes a customary R-vs.-D battle. At that point, all the Republicans will fall in line, like they always have before. Remember what John Podesta said about any strategy that depended on moderate Republicans: It means you need a different strategy. Once a Democrat, any Democrat, takes a stand against her, all (or virtually all) the Republicans will abandon their qualms and support her.

Instead, the most effective Democratic opposition available is Harry Reid’s support--unless Hillary Clinton is willing to champion Miers, which would trump Reid and really drive the ‘wingers crazy. Thus, my not-so-contrarian conclusion: The best way to stop Miers is to have Hillary Clinton support her. You read it here first.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Another Outlet

Starting today (10/10/05), posts here also will be cross-posted on; the direct link to my blog is here. Thus, you can read (and link) to my stuff in a much richer graphical environment. Movin' on up, as it were.
Harriet the Cipher: Affirmative Action for Evangelicals

This column was edited strangely by The Tribune, so I'm sending it as I wrote it instead of how it got printed. What got deleted in the newspaper was the third sentence in the fourth paragraph ("We have learned that she belongs to Valley View Christian Church….") and the entire next-to-last paragraph ("People who think the sky is falling…."). I don't understand why my editor decided to cut that stuff, but he did. The headline was good, however, so I've kept it. But you might side with my editor, and can read the as-published version here.

Don't you feel for those better-qualified male atheists who got passed over for this job? Where's their Jesse Helms?

The Miers Nomination

East Valley Tribune, Oct. 9, 2005

Instead of Harriet the Spy, Bush gives us Harriet the Cipher. His choice for the Supreme Court is a lawyer seemingly unknown to anybody but Bush and his inner circle.

But does it bother anyone else that when conservatives questioned Miers’ relative paucity of qualifications and the total lack of her writings on any issue of constitutional interpretation, the initial White House response was to organize national conference calls to discuss her religious beliefs and church membership?

(Please note that it’s conservatives who are questioning her qualifications; Democrats may have questions, too, but right now we’re more focused on holding coats so the other guys can fight among themselves. We’re also waiting for those GOP senators who thought it was, like, totally improper to ask John Roberts questions about judicial philosophy are now demanding that Harriet Miers spell out just exactly what she believes before they can vote to confirm her.)

Faced with conservatives’ questions, the Bush administration arranged for Justice Nathan Hecht, who sits on the Texas Supreme Court and who is described as her “on-again, off-again boyfriend,” to discuss Miers’ religious beliefs. We have been instructed that she is no longer a Catholic and instead is now an evangelical Protestant. We have learned that she belongs to Valley View Christian Church, and have been treated, at some length and with obvious White House involvement, to descriptions of her church as a place where pastors preach abortion is murder, homosexuality is a sin, and the Bible is the literal truth.

It’s also worth noting that the White House presented endorsements not from distinguished lawyers, but rather from the National Right to Life Committee. Can we dispense with talking about Democrats’ "extremism" on a woman’s right to choose, please? Republicans clearly have their own “litmus test” that’s just as strict, if not stricter, than the Democrats. The only difference is that their position has less support among Americans than my side’s.

So we know nothing about how Miers might decide cases before the Court, and when asked about her qualifications for the job, we’re told about her religion, her faith in Jesus, her church membership, her adult baptism, and her service on her church’s missions committee and as a religious class teacher. In other words, the Constitution may prohibit a religious test for public office, but we are instructed by the White House and its friends that Miers’ religion is her qualification for her position.

It’s also odd how conservatives believe in affirmative action, provided they benefit from it. A representative of the American Center for Law and Justice said that evangelicals need “to see someone with our positions put on the court.” Miers may be taking a job away from a better-qualified male atheist, but it’s important that evangelical Protestants — who are so underrepresented in American life that they include only the current President, his predecessor, the Senate and House leadership, and pretty much any Sun Belt politician in office — get additional jobs reserved just for them.

People who think the sky is falling because of affirmative action in higher education are suddenly struck dumb at this White House set-aside for evangelicals. In case you think that’s an exaggeration of what’s happening, imagine if Harriet Miers were Jewish. Would her religion be a qualification for her job?

Conservatives decry group identification, the culture of victimization, and any form of affirmative action. They demand that the best-qualified person get the job, and that blacks and Hispanics or Native Americans should just stop complaining about discrimination already. But now that President Bush has created his very own little set-aside program based on both gender and religion, where are their voices?

Monday, October 03, 2005

On Harriet Miers

I work at an 8-lawyer law firm, and 4 of my partners are both women and more qualified than she is. (Our associate just hasn't been in practice long enough yet.) Just wondering, that's all.
I Don't Write The Headlines, Unfortunately

First, the newspaper stuff. I don't write the headlines--my editor does, and this one is inaccurate. The highway bill had lots of pork for Arizona, too, and Rep. Hayworth is proud of it. Light rail funding! That should make my editor at The Tribune simply delirious with joy (they hate light rail, but never seem to notice that their boy J.D. is on board).

Also, when I file my column, I begin the email with a word count and most times, a quip or an attempt to try to pull my editor's chain. (This style should be very familiar to those reading this blog.) This week, for some reason, the opening quip--that "I await reading the Tribune's position on the new national ID card (sure, it's not called that, but what else is it?) in the forthcoming Hayworth immigration bill"--became the lede of the column. Either this kind of self-referential stuff is now expected in op-ed columns, or else my editor really doesn't bother to read my stuff. So the newspaper version starts off oddly, which you can read here. I've taken out what shouldn't have been included in this version.

Next, here's the background on this column. Last week, I wrote that the desire by Sen. Kyl and Sen. Sessions to locate a victim of Katrina who would have to pay estate taxes was a search for "a myth, a non-existent 'urban legend.' Just like 'compassionate conservatism' -- or Jon Kyl’s heart." So here's the difference between Democrats and Republicans. Some of my readers that language was too extreme, an unwarranted personal attack. Of course, that very week, Hayworth called our governor "no better than the brazen looters who seized on a natural tragedy to plunder downtown New Orleans" for, as noted below, asking the federal government for money to take care of problems on the border. Hayworth, when called to account for that somewhat over-the-top description, proceeded to justify it at 800 words. So hence, this week's column.

Another version of this point is a cartoon in this week's The New Yorker, showing guys in a Capitol Hill office sitting around a desk saying, "We need to find a way to blame the federal government that doesn't implicate the administration." (And no, I saw the cartoon after I had filed my column.)

East Valley Tribune, Oct. 2, 2005
* [See above: Headline isn't accurate. Lucre was lavished here, too.]

Rep. J. D. Hayworth feigned outrage last week that Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano had the effrontery to request that the federal government pay some of Arizona’s costs from the feds’ failure to keep control of the border. Hayworth even called Napolitano a “looter” and screeched that she would be stealing food from hurricane victims -- because any dollar spent here in Arizona would come from hurricane relief.

This is amazing stuff, even for someone with Hayworth’s stubborn aversion to reality. Despite his loudly-stated and oh-so-convenient concern about Katrina’s victims, he somehow never managed to visit the evacuees during their three weeks at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

Hayworth honks that it’s criminal to spend money repairing the problems caused by illegal immigration here in Arizona. But remember that pork-laden transportation bill that Congress passed and President Bush signed this summer, the one with nearly 6,500 “earmarks” worth more than $24 billion? Hayworth voted for them all.

$2.3 million for beautifying California’s Ronald Reagan Freeway? $6 million for graffiti elimination in New York? Hayworth voted yes. $1.2 million for lighting and equipment at the Blue Ridge Music Center? $207 million for the “Prairie Parkway” through GOP House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s district? Hayworth thought those were fine uses of your tax dollars.

Why fix the federal government’s failures here in Arizona, when instead we could get a $3 million hiking trail in Richmond, Indiana, and $10 million in waterfront walkways in Newark and Hoboken, New Jersey? $3 million for Rails to Trails in Modesto, California, and $5 million for an Intermodal Transportation facility in Bridgeport, Connecticut? Hayworth said, “Sure.”

Hayworth’s generosity -- with your money -- stretches across nearly a dozen time zones, including $5 million for an “Auto Tour Route” at the Bombay Hook Wildlife Refuge and $6.5 million to restore the Wilmington Train Station in Delaware, to some $941 million on 119 projects in Alaska, including $223 million for a mile-long bridge to an island with 50 residents, $231 million for a new bridge in Anchorage to be named after the congressman who sponsored the earmark, and $3 million for a movie “about infrastructure that demonstrates advancements in Alaska, the last frontier.” On all these, Hayworth voted “yes!”

Hayworth howled that any federal money spent addressing illegal immigration comes from hurricane relief, but he approved $2.4 million for the Red River National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center in Louisiana. You think folks in Louisiana might want floodwalls repaired rather than a new visitor center? It’s too late; Hayworth already voted yes.

Horse riding facilities in Virginia ($600,000)? A Vermont snowmobile trail ($5.9 million)? Parking at a New York City hospital ($8 million)? A bicycle and pedestrian trail in Tennessee ($532,000)? Each time, Hayworth voted “aye.” A daycare center and park-and-ride facility in Illinois ($1.25 million)? Dust control mitigation for rural Arkansas ($3 million)? The National Packard Museum in Warren, Ohio ($2.75 million)? Hayworth spells each project “Y-E-S.”

If anybody’s a “looter” in this scenario, it’s Hayworth. He’s voted for all these projects -- and now claims that spending money solving Arizona’s problems would be a crime.

But the best example of Hayworth’s hypocrisy was his bleat that “I take a back seat to no one in my criticism of the federal government” when it comes to its failures in dealing with immigration. He claims to be working on a bill (which he plans to introduce, nine months into the session).

Here’s the truly galling part. Hayworth has been in the House for nearly a dozen years, his party has controlled Congress virtually all that time, and it’s a Republican administration, right? Hayworth’s paychecks come from the federal government, which also provides the health insurance he used to pay for his stomach-stapling surgery. (Unable to lose weight on his own, he needed a federal subsidy -- but he won’t support helping Katrina victims get medical care through Medicaid.)

Hey, J. D.: You are the federal government.

Hayworth isn’t in the back seat -- because he’s driving. He may not have noticed, however, because he’s been too busy blaming others for his own failures of responsibility.