Feb. 12

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Let's Make a Deal

On Thursday of last week, a deal to fund the government and to forestall yet another shutdown was supposedly imminent. Then, over the weekend, everything fell apart, and Washington was preparing for the worst. Late Monday, however, news broke that the Congressional committee that is working on the matter had reached agreement on a deal, and that all that remains is to draw up the actual legislation.

The committee is deliberately keeping things under their collective hats, presumably because they want the deal to be complete before the Ann Coulters and Sean Hannitys of the world have a chance to make too much noise (although Hannity is already angry, calling it a "garbage compromise," so that didn't work out so well). Anyhow, various small leaks from congressional staffers suggest the committee has agreed on the following:

Barring unexpected setbacks, it is anticipated the deal will make it through both chambers of Congress. Then it will land on Donald Trump's desk, where it is anyone's guess what he will do. Refusing to sign it would be very impolitic, since the resulting shutdown would belong 100% to him. However, if he gets an earful from Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and other alleged spokespeople for the base, Trump might just do something impolitic.

If Trump does sign, it will presumably be with the intention of finding money elsewhere for his border wall. He could declare a national emergency, and try to come up with money that way. Or, he could forego the emergency, and just try to shift funding that is nominally discretionary away from existing projects and toward the wall. OMB Director and Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney has identified some money that might be rerouted; several billion dollars currently earmarked for flood prevention in California and disaster relief in both California and Puerto Rico. Either of these approaches will almost certainly be met with court challenges. They both could result in politcal blowback. The optics of abusing the national emergency authority, or of taking money out of the pockets of heavily-Democratic states/territories in order to do an end run around Congress are not good.

Shutting the government down, or robbing Peter to pay Paul—with or without an "emergency"—would appear to be very poor options. It could be that Trump's best alternatives are: (1) To veto the compromise bill, have his veto overridden, and spend the next year blaming the Democrats in Congress, or (2) Take the $1.375 billion, declare victory, build some new barriers, have a photo-op or two, and declare victory again. Both of these approaches are counter-factual, of course, but the base doesn't seem to notice or care when that is the case. (Z)

GOP Could Get Burned By Tax Cut

Speaking of robbing Peter to pay Paul, Americans have begun filing this year's tax returns, and thus collecting this year's refunds. And what many of them are discovering is that they did not get back nearly as much as last year. On average, refunds are down 8%. And for some folks, it's far worse than that, as the four- or even five-figure refunds of past years have turned into two- or three- figure refunds (or, on some occasions, tax bills). We've already heard from a handful of readers, in fact, among them one who saw a $5,000 refund in 2018 become an $11 refund in 2019. The linked story has many additional examples like this, as does Twitter (with the hashtag #GOPTaxScam).

For a lot of people, the reason that their tax refund is smaller is that their paychecks have been bigger for the past year. If the GOP leadership had consulted a cognitive scientist, they might have had a warning about the trap they were laying for themselves (not that they had time for that, or much of anything, when they were rewriting the whole U.S. tax code in three days). Anyhow, it has been shown again and again that people do not notice small changes in their paychecks (nor, for that matter, most sorts of small changes). They do, however, notice big differences in their refunds. Due to the former tendency, the Republicans failed to derive any significant political benefit from the money that was returned to voters (see elections, 2018 midterm). Due to the latter tendency, they may well be punished for taking money out of people's pockets (even if that's not strictly true).

And it could get worse. Before the refund checks had started to roll off the presses, consumer confidence was already at its lowest point of Trump's term in office. The correspondent alluded to above writes that, for their part, "I knew it would be this bad but I'm still mad as hell and you can bet we will be spending less this year." If millions of Americans respond similarly, and there's every reason to think they will, then it could drive the economy into recession. That would be quite the ironic outcome for a tax plan that was supposed to drive the economy to greater and greater heights. (Z)

Trump, Senate Republicans Spar Over Khashoggi

The once-close relationship between Donald Trump and the Republicans in Congress appears to be fraying. It will not help if they end up on opposite sides of the funding compromise. Also not helping is a festering dispute over the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The problem, in short, is that Congress—invoking the Magnitsky Act—instructed the administration to reach a conclusion as to who was responsible for Khashoggi's death, and to issue a report. The administration has thus far ignored the directive, including a deadline last Friday, and has offered no indication that it intends to comply. The GOP members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are refraining from public comment, but reportedly they are all seething at the President's defiance.

We may learn, one of these days, why Donald Trump kowtows to the Saudis so fully. Maybe he's doing so because he believes the relationship between the two countries is more important than the life of any one man. Presidents often have to make tough calls like that. Or maybe he appreciates that the Saudi government is one of the few that likes him better than Barack Obama. It's also possible they have dirt on him. Or he could be thinking about post-presidential business opportunities in the Kingdom of Saud. It could be any of these.

In any case, the President has stepped on the toes of Congress more aggressively than anyone since...well, maybe ever. FDR, Woodrow Wilson, and Abraham Lincoln all pushed the boundaries of their authority, but they were fighting wars (and Great Depressions). Anyhow, most Congresses would have starting pushing back against Trump long ago. Now, thanks to the change in majorities, the House has started to do so. The President's foreign policy choices and government shutdown(s), not to mention fears of a bloodbath in 2020, could cause the Senate to start doing the same very soon. (Z)

Klobuchar's Abusive Treatment of Staff Has Been Going on for Years

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) had his "binders full of women." Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN), for her part, apparently has binders thrown at women. She announced her 2020 bid this weekend, and since it became clear that announcement was imminent, former staffers have been coming out of the woodwork to tell tales of abusive behavior. New York Magazine had another such exposé on Monday.

The details contained within the story are fairly alarming. There are accounts of various sorts of physical abuse, including at least one instance of hitting a female staffer with a binder thrown across the room in anger. The contact was reportedly accidental, but one excellent way to make sure that such accidents never happen is to never throw binders across the room. There are also stories of the Senator using her staffers as janitors and maids, forcing underlings to humiliate themselves in various ways (like the one who was forced to report to then-Sen. Al Franken that Klobuchar was late for a meeting "because I am bad at my job."), and impressing upon staff that they are to speak only when spoken to.

Last week, some were wondering if is was merely a few disgruntled ex-employees who were spreading these stories. Clearly, that is not the case. Similarly, some have wondered if there is some latent sexism at play here, and if Klobuchar was male, people would merely be talking about how "demanding" she is, and how she expects "only the best." Not so much. The kind of behavior that has been reported is not acceptable from any boss, regardless of gender, and one cannot help but note that there are other female candidates who have been officially in the race for longer than Klobuchar has, and there are no equivalent stories about them. Indeed, her management style is so far outside the norm that then-Majority Leader Harry Reid took her aside and suggested she needed to make some major changes. It would seem that his advice fell on deaf ears.

The question, of course, is whether voters will hold these reports against Klobuchar. On one hand, people tend to vote for a candidate they could have a beer with, and in a crowded Democratic field, there are a lot of possible drinking partners. On the other hand, Klobuchar's abrasive style hasn't exactly been a secret in her home state, and she wins every election there in a landslide. So, we will have to wait and see. (Z)

A 2020 Preview?

Donald Trump hasn't been holding too many rallies lately, but he did have one in El Paso, TX on Monday, and it was the usual: red meat for the base, vast numbers of MAGA hats, chants of "lock her up!", and braggadocio about how great the wall is gonna be. Also holding a rally on Monday was Beto O'Rourke, for whom El Paso is his hometown. His rally featured a Mariachi band, sizable portions conducted in Spanish, and plenty of talk about how awful a wall would be. In short, it was dueling rallies, kind of like the banjo scene from the movie "Deliverance."

So, are we looking at a preview of 2020? It's very possible. O'Rourke hasn't announced a run yet, of course, but holding a rally like this one is about as far away from the Full Sherman as it gets. Meanwhile, Team Trump has clearly decided that some of the Democrats' potential 2020 candidates are more plausible/worrisome than others. The Donald has spent much time slamming Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), for example, including an incredibly tasteless "Trail of Tears" slur this weekend:

Today Elizabeth Warren, sometimes referred to by me as Pocahontas, joined the race for President. Will she run as our first Native American presidential candidate, or has she decided that after 32 years, this is not playing so well anymore? See you on the campaign TRAIL, Liz!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 9, 2019

On the other hand, he's had little to say about, say, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) or Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). And it's not a mistake that the President is rallying in O'Rourke's hometown, nor that he made a (not truthful) point in the SOTU about how dangerous El Paso is. Clearly, the Republican pooh-bahs think that even if he has not declared, O'Rourke is still a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. (Z)

Cohen Postpones Again

Former Trump fixer Michael Cohen was supposed to testify before Congress, but then he postponed. And then, after rescheduling, he postponed again. On Monday, he made it a trifecta, postponing for a third time. The reason this time, as relayed through his attorney, is that he's still recovering from surgery.

Members of the three committees that are waiting to talk to Cohen do not appear to be irritated, so maybe his excuses are all legitimate. At this rate, it's going to be pretty hard for him to take care of business before he reports for his three-year prison sentence on March 6. On the other hand, it's not like he will have any pressing commitments once he moves into the crowbar hotel, and the members can always have a U.S. Marshal escort him to Washington. So, Cohen's spilling his guts is presumably still coming, just a little later than expected. (Z)

John Dingell Bids Farewell

Former representative John Dingell, whose 59 years in the House are a record, knew that the end was near as his fatal cancer took its course. And so, with just hours left in his long life, he dictated his final thoughts to his wife, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI). They were published on Monday in the Washington Post.

As with John McCain, Dingell had a few thoughts about the current occupant of the White House that he wanted to share from beyond the grave:

In our modern political age, the presidential bully pulpit seems dedicated to sowing division and denigrating, often in the most irrelevant and infantile personal terms, the political opposition.

And much as I have found Twitter to be a useful means of expression, some occasions merit more than 280 characters.

With that out of the way, however, Dingell's final words were mostly hopeful, as he observed how much progress America made over the course of his career, while arguing that Congress is the most powerful engine of that change. He also reminded his former colleagues that, "In democratic government, elected officials do not have power. They hold power—in trust for the people who elected them. If they misuse or abuse that public trust, it is quite properly revoked (the quicker the better)." Actually, that part might also have been directed (in part) at Trump. In any case, it's a pretty elegant closing statement for any politician, much less one who was in the final throes of an aggressive case of cancer. (Z)

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