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      •  Saturday Q&A

Saturday Q&A

We kept it a little shorter than usual, today, since we imagine people are pretty busy with the holiday.

Q: What happens if a bill already passed by both chambers of Congress reaches the President's desk and he neither signs nor formally vetoes it? Is there a deadline for his decision? Or is not signing equivalent to vetoing? W.M.T., Vienna, Austria

A: The answer to your question appears in Art. I, Sec. 7 of the Constitution:

If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the same shall be a Law, in like manner as if he had signed it, unless the Congress by their Adjournment prevent its return, in which case it shall not be a Law.

In other words, when Congress is in session, the president has 10 days (not including Sundays) to return to them a bill he is unhappy with. If he fails to do so, it becomes law, whether he signed it or not.

When Congress is not in session, then the president can't return a bill to them. In that case, if a bill goes unsigned for 10 days (not including Sundays), then it is considered to be vetoed. This situation is known as a "pocket veto" and, in contrast to a regular veto, cannot be overturned by Congress. Instead, they would have to vote anew on the legislation.

Pocket vetoes are quite rare these days (the last one happened in 2000), in large part because Congress usually makes a point of holding pro forma sessions every few days, even when most members are away from Washington, to keep the president from executing pocket vetoes and/or recess appointments. However, in the case of the COVID-19 relief bill (and the spending bill that accompanied it), Congress managed to shoot themselves in the foot and to pass the legislation with fewer than 10 days left in the current session. That means that Donald Trump can just sit on the bill, and it will expire when the current Congress does. If he does this, it will be called a "pocket veto" by most outlets, but it's probably more correct to call it "waiting out the clock."

Q: Is the desire of Donald Trump to repeal Section 230 a potentially double-edged sword? Wouldn't that limit the ability of Right-Wing/Conservative/Libertarian social media to exist, something that was certainly key to Trump's own rise to the presidency? C.M., Vancouver, BC, Canada

A: It is indeed a double-edged sword. If social media outlets can be held liable for the things published on their platforms, an enormous percentage of the material posted to those platforms by right wingers—Trump, Alex Jones, Dennis Prager, Sean Hannity, etc.—would be gone. Is Trump's kvetching over this issue just for show, so that he can continue to portray himself as a victim? Or is he honestly so uninformed/deluded that he doesn't realize what the implications of killing Section 230 would be? We don't know which one it is.

Q: Isn't Donald Trump just shooting himself in the foot by pardoning the people involved in the Russian collusion? Now they can be subpoenaed and will have to tell the truth or get convicted for lying, perjury, or obstruction. B.B., Panama City Beach, FL

A: Probably not. It's true that these people can now be compelled to testify in federal cases, and cannot invoke the Fifth Amendment. However, Trump surely plans to self-pardon for any and all federal crimes he may have committed, which means that it won't matter to him that these folks can be compelled to testify. And if he doesn't self-pardon, then he presumably reached an understanding with Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, etc. that the price of a pardon is that they can never implicate him in testimony, even at risk of perjury/contempt of court.

Q: You wrote that there is no timeline for the issuance of pardons, and they could be whipped out when the need arose. My question is: What prevents a president from then post-term pardoning someone and claiming it was issued while he was the officeholder? D.M., Massapequa, NY

A: To clarify, what we said is that there is no timeline for publicly announcing pardons. They do have to be issued, and entered into the record, before the expiration of a president's term.

Q: Can, and would, the Secret Service agents surrounding Donald Trump prevent subpoena servers from getting to him? D.S., Elk Grove, CA

A: They can, and already have. E. Jean Carroll has been trying to serve Trump for months, and has been unable to do it. Her process servers can't get close to the White House, of course, and when they try to serve papers at Trump Tower, the USSS agents there say they are under orders not to accept paperwork from anyone.

That said, a court can grant special dispensation in unusual circumstances. And so, Carroll has asked for permission to "serve" Trump by mailing copies of the papers to the White House and Trump Tower, and by e-mailing copies to all of the attorneys known to represent him. The odds are good the court will grant this (perhaps with minor modifications).

Q: By all accounts Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) and a yet-to-be-named Senator (Tommy Tuberville?) plan to challenge the electors in multiple states. While there is little chance they will succeed, it does raise a frightening possibility. The current law effectively allows Congress to veto the Electoral College should both houses of Congress happen to be controlled by the opposite party of the president-elect. Given this possibility, have there been any elections since the current rules went into effect where the president-elect's party did not control at least one house of Congress? M.M., Clemmons, NC

A: We'll start with the latter part of your question. Since the current guidelines for EV counting took effect, there have been five occasions when a president was certified by a Congress entirely controlled by the other party: Dwight D. Eisenhower (2nd term), Richard Nixon (both terms), George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton (second term).

Even if we assume that the current Republican Party is much less ethical than the Democratic/Republican parties of past eras, there are still two very large barriers to the Congress overturning an election by fiat. The first is that the party that was cheated out of the presidency would head straight to court, and would petition for relief. The courts, in turn, would ask the party that stole the election what their basis for rejecting EVs was. And if the answer was "just 'cause," then a judge would surely step in and declare the maneuver an unconstitutional exercise of power.

The second problem—and we cannot emphasize this strongly enough—is that the entire system rests on the promise that if voters are unhappy with the results in this election, they'll have a fair opportunity to fix it in the next election. The moment that an election is stolen, that promise is forever voided, and the whole system collapses. It's true that a few elections in the past (1876, 2000, etc.) have been "resolved" under questionable circumstances. However, the winning party in those cases had an argument for their position, and the result had at least some veneer of legitimacy. A stolen election would have no argument, and no veneer of legitimacy.

Q: You've covered a number of demographic groups and how they voted, including whites with college degrees, whites without, the wide range of Latino voters, by age, etc. But how did the military/ex-military vote? In 2016, they flocked to Donald Trump. How much so this time? S.Y., Skokie, IL

A: According to an exit poll conducted by Edison Research, and reported by The Military Times, the military/ex-military vote broke 52% to 45% for Donald Trump. That's very poor for an incumbent Republican president, and further underscores our point that a military coup is simply not viable.

Q: It is widely predicted that Donald Trump will not follow the usual transition traditions. It is doubtful he will host the Bidens before the transition or on inauguration morning, share the ride to or attend the ceremony. What of the "Resolute Letter"? While he no doubt will decline to do that, as well, it made me curious regarding the tradition—how far does it go back? D.G., Studio City, CA

A: It actually doesn't go back that far. On leaving office, Ronald Reagan wrote a brief letter to George H.W. Bush that opened with: "DON'T LET THE TURKEYS GET YOU DOWN" (read the whole letter here). Bush appreciated the gesture, and followed suit when he left office, as did Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. So, Donald Trump will be breaking a five-president streak. Presumably, Joe Biden will resume the custom when he departs the White House.

Q: I just read this New York Times op-ed, in which the writer calls for the sane wing of the GOP to break off and form a third party. It got me thinking: Why not? Certainly so-called "principled" Republicans with clout, like Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), would still be able to win reelection based on name recognition. And he and his third-party coalition could make a deal with the Democrats: "From now on, the real negotiations happen between your party and our party, and we'll vote together to stop the lunatics from doing anything toxic." But that hasn't happened, so...what are the downsides? A.F., Seattle, WA

A: The downside is that, except in special circumstances (very conservative state/congressional district, celebrity candidate), the Trump Republicans and the Romney Republicans would split the right-leaning vote, and Democrats would win elections they have no business winning.

We would caution against assuming that the "principled" Republican wing is all that large, or is all that much in disagreement with the "Trump" Republican wing. When the President was ramming through conservative judges and giant tax cuts, no Republicans said "boo." And even when he was caught leveraging U.S. foreign aid in service of his own personal goals (i.e., Ukraineyola), only Romney voted for conviction (and that was on just one of the two articles). The U.S. system simply doesn't leave room for third parties, and the Romney wing of the Republican Party isn't going to change that.

Q: We can expect with a high degree of certainty that Trump won't shut up after the inauguration (or probably during it), and that he'll regularly throw bombs at Biden and the system. Will Biden be able to rise above Trump's abusive cacophony and keep his messaging focused on his program and actions? Or will he be forced to counter Trump's incessant browbeating, name calling and similar intrusions? D.H., Boulder, CO

A: To start, Trump's bomb-throwing is not going to reach all that much of an audience. Twitter is going to clip his wings, the mainstream media will stop giving him coverage once he's no longer president, and even the right-wing media might have to be judicious, at risk of being sued for defamation.

To the extent that Trump is able to continue producing poison, however, Biden won't engage him. First of all, that's not really Biden's style. Second, there's no upside. Engaging just gives oxygen to whatever Trump is blathering about, and won't change anyone's minds, since the Donald is preaching to the choir anyhow.

Q: With Democrats barely holding a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, and control of the Senate being potentially in question, how likely is it that, if the Republicans gain control of the House in 2022, they will vote to impeach Joe Biden (for any ambiguous reason)? The Senate would not vote to convict, but if the GOP retains control of that body, they could have a long procedure with "witnesses." I.M.O., Norman, OK

A: Assuming that Biden doesn't do anything impeachment worthy (a pretty good assumption), then the Republicans won't bother with a sham impeachment. The Clinton impeachment looks to have rebounded on the GOP, and the Trump impeachment was a draw (at best) for the Democrats, and may actually have done some damage to them. A nationally televised dog and pony show, based on nonsense charges, is simply too risky for the Republicans.

What they will do if they retake the House is the same thing they've been doing for at least two decades, and use the investigative/subpoena power of House committees to the hilt. House Republicans conducted nearly a dozen "investigations" of Benghazi, and about the same number for Hillary Clinton's e-mails. Expect a similar number of investigations into Hunter Biden, or whatever other opportunity presents itself. This is a far lower risk means of generating some negative PR for Team Biden, and some talking points for Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, etc.

Q: What happens if a state decides to simply ignore federal law and even the federal courts? Is this possible? And how much of it do you think the GOP will do in order to block the Biden administration? J.E., Boone, NC

A: This happens all the time. The Civil Rights movement is, quite substantially, the story of brave activists compelling Southern states to adhere to federal law/court decisions (think the Little Rock Nine, Ruby Bridges, the University of Alabama, the Freedom Riders, etc.) If you would like modern examples, well, abortion-limiting laws in red states and marijuana-permitting laws in blue states are both examples of open defiance of the federal government, since federal law says that abortions are legal and pot isn't.

Undoubtedly, red states will push back against Biden when and where they can. There are two rather serious constraints, however. The first is that there are lots of things the red states can't do much about. What are they gonna do if Biden rejoins the Paris Accord, or resumes the Iran Nuclear Agreement, or changes federal fuel standards for cars, or overturns Trump-era discrimination against trans soldiers, or tears up the Muslim travel bans? The second is that Biden will have patronage and other resources to distribute (particularly if he is able to get an infrastructure bill passed). Federal law has provisions that allow the president to withhold certain kinds of funding from states that defy the federal government (this power was used during the Civil Rights era by both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations). So, the President-elect will have some ability to discipline naughty states.

Q: You described Biden OMB Director-designate Neera Tanden as "an outspoken progressive." Yet, as you point out, she is an opponent of single-payer healthcare and a $15/hour minimum wage. In addition, a quick Google search brought up numerous statements from Tanden in support of a variety of military interventions viewed with skepticism by many on the left. That leaves me, a life-long lefty (I campaigned for Eugene McCarthy in '68 when I was 15), wondering: how do you folks, as a fairly centrist site, define the term "progressive," and who is or is not a "progressive"? S.P., Foster, RI

A: "Progressive" is often used as a synonym for "far left" or else for "someone who agrees with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)," but that's not actually what it means. Its actual meaning is "reminiscent of the Progressive Movement of the early 20th century." And the Progressive Movement of the early 20th century was, first and foremost, in favor of vigorous use of government power to correct social ills. That included social ills in other countries, and for many early 20th century Progressives (e.g., Theodore Roosevelt), Progressivism and imperialism were natural complements to each other. In addition, the Progressive Movement tended to be pragmatic, favoring achievable goals over "ideal" goals.

In short, even if Tanden does not agree with Sanders on his core issues, that doesn't mean she's not a progressive. Indeed, you could argue that she's actually more of a progressive than he is. Not because she's further left (she clearly isn't), but because her political program is actually more similar to that of the original Progressive Movement than his is. His program has significant elements of populism and wealth redistribution that would find little audience among the Progressives of 100 years ago.

Q: What do you make of the inconsistency between polls that show different results for the Georgia regular versus special Senate races? I get that there's a margin of error, but presumably pollsters are using the same model for both of the races. Does this mean that some percentage of voters will vote for Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) and not Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA)? Who might those people be, and what would their motivation be for doing that? E.W., Skaneateles, NY

A: The difference is relatively small, but it's not hard to imagine some of the dynamics that might explain the apparent incongruity. There could be voters who plan to split their ballots (one R, one D), or who plan to vote in one race but not the other. As to specific candidates, Perdue could be drawing a bit more support because he's an incumbent with an actual track record. Loeffler could be losing a bit of support because she wasn't elected and doesn't really have a track record, or because she's more exposed in terms of insider trading/corruption, or because she's a woman. Anyone who thinks sexism doesn't play a role in American politics would do well to review the election of 2016.

Similarly, Warnock might be picking up some voters that Ossoff isn't, very possibly socially conservative Black folks who prefer a moderate Black Democrat over a conservative white Republican, but who also prefer a conservative white Republican over a moderate white Democrat. It is similarly possible that Ossoff is bleeding a bit of support due to anti-Semitism, which is also very clearly still a part of American politics.

Q: As each chamber of congress certifies its own members, and there is precedent for rejection based upon "tainted elections" following the Civil War, what is the possibility that both Georgia special Senate elections go to the Democratic candidate, and Senate Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) and the other senate Republicans claim that the elections were "obviously fraudulent," and refuse to seat the new senators for the next 2 years so as to preserve their majority? S.D., Newark, NJ

A: The possibility is zero. It is true that many Southern members of Congress were rejected in the late 1860s because their would-be Northern colleagues did not like the cut of the former rebels' jib. However, since that time, the Supreme Court has weighed in on this question, in 1969's Powell v. McCormack. And what SCOTUS said is that, when presented with valid credentials issued by the senator's/representative's home state, Congress can reject that person only if they fail to meet the constitutional requirements for their office (e.g., age, citizenship, etc.).

Q: You wrote: "historians are clear that Polk was far better [than Millard Fillmore]."

Is starting a predatory war against one's neighbor in order to gain from massive territorial theft really that much better than helpless inaction that allows a nation to drift into civil war?
D.A., Brooklyn, NY

A: One thing that you learn in the first week of history grad school (if you didn't know it already) is that you have to judge people by the standards of their day and not ours. It is fair enough to hold historical figures accountable for immoral acts that ran contrary to the values of their time, but holding them accountable for acts that run contrary to the values of our time opens many cans of worms, and is a form of bias called presentism.

The fact is that Polk ran on a platform of expansionism and empire, and won a majority of votes based on that promise. Armed with that mandate, he followed through on his promises. And he did so in an era where foreign affairs was very much a "survival of the fittest" sort of thing, and land grabs—while not admirable, perhaps—were certainly tolerable to most nations. Indeed, if the U.S. had not grabbed California, the Brits or the Russians almost certainly would have done so instead.

Q: OK, I have to ask. Who issued "An Imperial Christmas" in a democratic republic? L.S., Greensboro, NC

A: That was issued during the Bill Clinton years, though presidents don't appear to have much input (if any) into the official ornament these days. That ornament was actually meant as a tribute to the aforementioned James K. Polk, and the occasion when he was serenaded by the U.S. Marine Corps band after presiding over the groundbreaking ceremony for the Washington Monument. In so doing, however, the ornament's designer moved to Christmas something that actually happened on the Fourth of July. As to the "imperial" in the title, it's certainly accurate, since Polk was about the most imperialist president of the 19th century. One would not expect the title of a Christmas ornament to be quite so honest about portions of the American past that are now rather embarrassing, but there it is.

Q: Can you explain how we came to have state birds in every U.S. state? I found online that the trend kicked off in 1927, when six states declared theirs. By 1973, every state had an official bird. But I can't find any explanation of why. A.N., Memphis, TN

A: Most "state" things come about in one of three ways. Sometimes, the state is looking to promote itself or some aspect of its economy/culture among outsiders. A bunch of "state" symbols were adopted in 1893, for example, so that the various states would have something to build their booths around at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.

A second possibility is that one or more members of the legislature decide they would like to draw a little commerce to their portion of the state. For example, one has to imagine that the member of the Texas assembly who represented the town of Burton was responsible for getting the Burton Cotton Gin Museum named as Texas' official cotton gin museum (since it's also the state's only cotton gin museum, there surely wasn't much resistance). Similarly, the member of the New York assembly who managed to get yogurt anointed as the official state snack must surely have represented a lot of dairy farmers.

The third way, and the most common one, is that some interest group decides it would be nice to have an official state "X," and lobbies for it. Since few voters are going to be offended by the naming of the Great Dane as Pennsylvania's official state dog, or blueberry pie as Maine's official state dessert, or "aloha spirit" as Hawaii's official state aloha spirit (really), and some voters will be very pleased, then it's not usually too hard to find a bunch of assembly members willing to go along. In the case of state birds, the General Federation of Women's Clubs decided in the mid-1920s that it would be swell if every single state had an official state bird. They got to work on the project in 1927, scored seven victories that year alone, and another 15 by 1933. They hit slow going during the Depression and World War II, but eventually finished the job by 1973 (with Arizona the final holdout, before the state finally settled on the Cactus wren).

Q: So now you have given us your thoughts on which books and songs have had the most influence on American culture, politics, etc. I would love to know your thoughts on films that have had the most influence on American culture, politics, etc. Or did I miss this in some previous post? There are certainly films that had a lot of impact when they were initially released, and then those that had much more impact years later. J.S., Durham, NC

As always, we still start by defining our terms. First, the question is about historical impact, which means impact on American culture, politics, behavior, economy, technology, etc. For this list, artistic impact is not paramount, which means films like "Citizen Kane," "Pulp Fiction," and "The Godfather"—magnificent artistic achievements all—are not under consideration.

Second, we are going to define films as discrete units that, at their time of creation, were meant as standalone works. In other words, we will consider things like commercials, news clips, movies (even if they had sequels), and music videos for the list. However, we will regard anything that was created as part of episodic television to be a different kettle of fish. So, no Beatles on Ed Sullivan, or Bill Clinton on Arsenio, or "All in the Family" rape episode (properly entitled "Edith's 50th Birthday").

Third, we will try to distinguish between films that were themselves influential as opposed to films that are merely associated with an influential event or those associated with an influential image. For example, hundreds of millions of people were profoundly influenced by watching coverage of the 9/11 attacks on TV, but that coverage was a melange of footage of many different incidents from many different TV networks. It is hard to identify any one, distinct piece of film or video that stood out over all the rest. Similarly, there is film footage of the attack on Mt. Suribachi (a.k.a. Iwo Jima), but the reason that moment is famous and influential is because of the still image of U.S. Marines raising the American flag, and not because of the film footage.

And with that said:

  1. "Duck and Cover" (1951): Maybe this film really was meant to help students prepare for a possible nuclear strike. Or maybe it's one of the most effective propaganda films of all time. Either way, it "taught" millions of young Americans why it was necessary to resist the U.S.S.R. by any means necessary. Many of those young folks would grow up to fight in (and some of them to die in) the Vietnam War.

  2. "Steamboat Willie" (1928): Mickey Mouse's first appearance helped usher in the era of "talkies" (it was the first animated film with sound), helped establish the viability of animated film, and also fueled the rise of one of the nation's mightiest media and tourism empires.

  3. "Kidnapping by Indians" (1899): The first Western launched a genre that would dominate American film production (and later television programming) for generations. And speaking of propaganda, this film (and a sizable chunk of Western films and TV shows made before 1960 or so) was essentially an argument for why the U.S. was justified in forcing the natives off their land.

  4. First Nixon/Kennedy debate (1960): The election of 1960 was very close, and John F. Kennedy's stronger performance in this, the first ever televised presidential debate, may have sealed his victory. What it definitely did was create a new expectation for presidential campaigns, one that haunts those of us who had to watch endless Republican candidates' debates in 2016, or endless Democratic candidates' debates in 2020, or any debate at all involving Donald Trump.

  5. "Star Wars" (1977): The first modern blockbuster, and the film that demonstrated the potential for computers to reinvent the medium. Like "Steamboat Willie," it also launched a commercial empire, this one based on merchandising, special effects production, and (to date) 10 film sequels and several TV spinoffs (with more coming). In fact, the Disney empire and the Lucasfilm empire are now the same empire, ever since the former acquired the latter in 2012. And finally, along with "Star Trek," "Star Wars" inspired tens of thousands of future scientists, doctors, mathematicians, and engineers to look to the stars.

  6. Moon Landing (1969): In contrast to 9/11, this was a single, solitary film feed that Americans gathered together to watch as they shared in the single greatest triumph of the Cold War, and very possibly the greatest scientific triumph in human history.

  7. "The Birth of a Nation" (1915)/"Gone with the Wind" (1939): Generations of Americans learned the "history" of the Civil War and Reconstruction from these two films, both of which justified and sanctioned ongoing anti-Black racism. Most ominously, the former helped bring the KKK back to life in the 1910s and 1920s, the latter did it again in the 1940s and 1950s. History is not always written by the victors, folks.

  8. "Hearts and Minds" (1974): One of the most brutal documentaries ever made, and the first film to critically examine the Vietnam War after the war's conclusion,"Hearts and Minds" set the template for nearly all Vietnam films that came after, both documentary ("The Fog of War," "Through Their Eyes," "The Vietnam War") and fictional ("Full Metal Jacket," "Apocalypse Now," "The Deer Hunter," etc.). Not only did the genre crystallize (admittedly already pretty firm) attitudes about the war, it also helped to permanently sour Americans on large-scale military conflict, military drafts, and prosecution of the Cold War through armed conflict.

  9. "1984" (1984): It aired only one time, during Super Bowl XVIII. And Apple doesn't like people to know this, but the only way they could round up enough young, bald men for their homage to George Orwell was to recruit a bunch of skinheads. Still, if there is a turning point when computers went from being the province of scientists and nerds to being a tool for the masses, this is it.

  10. The Zapruder Film (1963): The film that launched a thousand conspiracy theories is the most important piece of news footage ever captured. The emotional and psychic damage that was inflicted on millions of Americans who saw their beloved young president murdered is incalculable. Certainly, if the turbulence of the 1960s can be said to have begun on a specific day, November 22, 1963 is that day.

Near misses (in chronological order): "Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song!" (1971), "Deep Throat" (1972), "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" (1975), Gerald Ford falls while exiting Air Force one (1975), "Video Killed the Radio Star" (1979), The Miracle on Ice (1980), "Willie Horton" (1988), the Rodney King beating (1991), "Grab 'em by the Pu**y" (2016), the George Floyd killing (2020).

As always, we are happy to hear suggestions for films we may have overlooked.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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