Wannabe Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) yesterday said that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not "savvy" and not a "genius," putting himself on a collision course with Donald Trump. This was a surprisingly gutsy thing for the normally spineless McCarthy to say, since he will certainly need Trump's support to become speaker if the Republicans capture the House in November. McCarthy said: "I think Putin is evil. I think he's a dictator. I think he's murdering people right now." Wow! Them's fightin' words to Trump, for whom Putin is his second-favorite person in the world, just after Ivanka.
This also puts McCarthy at odds with Tucker Carlson and other leading figures on the right who used to hate godless communists, but who now see them as friends. The switch from 70 years of hating Russia and its leader to suddenly cozying up to them is breathtaking, especially since the Russians haven't gotten any better recently. And McCarthy's sudden switch the other way is equally breathtaking. What is going on here?
McCarthy has only one goal in life now and that is becoming speaker of the House. Everything he does should be viewed in the light of "Does it help him become speaker or hurt him?" He obviously saw being on Team Trump as a plus until yesterday. After all, if the Republicans win the House and Trump orders all Republicans to vote for McCarthy as speaker, he's in like Flynn.
But now that there are polls showing overwhelming majorities of voters support Ukraine and don't especially like Putin, McCarthy might be worried about the first part of the equation. If public opinion in November is strongly against Russia, and the Democrats can tar the Republicans as the pro-Russia party, that House majority might just not happen, in which case there goes that speakership. That could explain why McCarthy is suddenly anti-Putin: He is more afraid of the voters than of Trump. (V)
The war in Ukraine and Joe Biden's decision to ban imports of Russian oil are causing gas prices to go up. Here is a chart from Gas Buddy, which tracks gas prices in real time.
Clearly it is going up compared to recent years. As of this morning, the national average was $4.32/gallon, with the highest prices in the West, next highest in the Northeast, and lowest in the Midwest and Great Plains.
Republicans are already blaming Joe Biden and the Democrats for inflation, especially higher gas prices, and Democrats are looking for cover. The Democrats are holding a retreat today and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) said: "I think we're going to be having a long talk ... about gas prices." The problem is that there is not much the Democrats can do right now. They can try to shift the blame to Vladimir Putin, but although the voters may understand that, they may also be angry with the Democrats and blame them for it. People can sometimes hold two contradictory opinions at the same time.
The one thing the Democrats could conceivably do is cut the federal gas tax. But doing so would run head on into their big pitch on infrastructure, where the gas tax plays a big role. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) said: "I'm always reluctant about temporary pauses." Also, those Democrats for whom the environment is important (secretly) like the idea of making fossil fuels more expensive because when the price goes up, people are pretty clever about using less of them.
In the longer term, the U.S. could ramp up oil production, but that would not affect prices before November. Also, many Democrats are trying to reduce oil production, not increase it. One possibility the administration could look at is getting other countries to ramp up production. That wouldn't make the environmentally oriented Democrats any happier, but it is less visible. The countries that could increase production are Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, neither of which is a stellar example of democracy, but if the administration doesn't do something, the Republicans are going to try to beat them over the head with the gas prices. (V)
While many countries joined in the sanctions against Russia and its oligarchs, one notable exception is the U.A.E.
(United Arab Emirates),
with its glitzy city of Dubai. The most striking part of Dubai (other than the 2,717 foot-high Burj Khalifa, the tallest
building in the world, and many other skyscrapers), is off the coast: Two artificial "palms" made up of islands in the
Persian gulf. Here is one of them:
The palms are playgrounds for the very rich. They are lined with luxury apartments, luxury hotels, and villas. Many of the properties are owned by Russian oligarchs and are valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. Since the U.A.E. is not taking part in the sanctions, oligarchs who can't visit their properties in London, New York, or Miami, can at least vacation somewhere: Dubai.
At least six of the oligarchs who own property in Dubai are under sanction, but since the U.A.E. is not playing ball, they are in no danger (yet) of having their property seized. One of the reasons Dubai has become popular with the oligarchs, besides the glitz and nightlife, is the U.A.E.'s reputation for not asking too many questions about where somebody got tens of millions of dollars to go on a buying spree.
Generally, the U.A.E. is an ally of the U.S. on most issues, but like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, it also values its relationship with Russia, so it is trying to have it both ways. The U.S. does not want to pressure the U.A.E. too much because it needs Arab allies in the Middle East, and the Emirati authorities are generally with the U.S. on most issues. For example, the U.A.E. has full diplomatic relations with Israel.
Russians in Dubai appreciate the hospitality. One Russian who wished to remain anonymous said: "Having a Russian passport or Russian money now is very toxic—no one wants to accept you, except places like Dubai." One study showed that Vladimir Putin's close allies own at least 76 properties in Dubai and there are probably many others who have properties there in the name of a relative. Russians who are worried about the situation in Russia now and who don't mind forking over $15,000 per month for an apartment in Dubai are definitely welcome. Russian megayachts and private jets are also welcome there and are not in danger of being seized.
Another reason the U.A.E. doesn't want to cut relations with Russia is that it buys weapons from Russia. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the de facto ruler of the U.A.E., visited Moscow at least six times between 2013 and 2018. When Putin visited the country's capital, Abu Dhabi, the city lit up all the landmarks in the colors of the Russian flag and repainted its police cars with Russian banners.
Dubai's interest in Russians isn't new. It has long been in the money-laundering business. Corrupt politicians and miscellaneous kleptocrats have always been welcome, no matter where they are from. Making Dubai a major financial center (even if it is based on stolen money) diversifies the economy and makes it less dependent on oil. It is only recently that Russians have been streaming in. There are an estimated 100,000 Russians in the U.A.E. as well as 3,000 Russian-owned businesses.
So far, Joe Biden hasn't turned the screws on the U.A.E., but as things develop, he could yet do that. With all that money flowing into Dubai, access to SWIFT is crucial. If the U.A.E. were cut off from SWIFT, it would be a disaster. But Biden hasn't done that yet because he values the cooperation from the country's leaders in other areas. He has to walk a tightrope. (V)
When Vladimir Putin showed up at the Winter Olympics and had some fun with his new buddy, Chinese President Xi Jinping, they made a deal to work together to keep the U.S. from bossing the world around. Xi might well be having some second thoughts about that now.
The Chinese intelligence services have no doubt given Xi satellite photos of kilometer after kilometer of Russian tanks bogged down or destroyed outside of Kyiv. He's probably wondering if the Russian military machine is all it's cracked up to be and how useful it would be in a war against the U.S.
More to the point, if Ukraine has become a graveyard for Russian tanks, what might happen to amphibious Chinese troops landing on Taiwan in an attempt to take it? And that's assuming the Chinese troops get there. He surely knows that the English Channel, which American troops crossed on D-Day, is 20 miles wide at its narrowest point. The Strait of Taiwan is 81 miles wide at its narrowest. And the troops on D-Day didn't have to worry about satellite images showing the exact location of every ship while taking several hours to get to a country with an excellent air force that would be determined to make sure none of them arrived.
Another factor Xi is probably considering is the unified response of the West to the invasion of Ukraine. In the past, he might have assumed that nobody would care much about an invasion of Taiwan and the West would be fragmented over it. He really can't make that assumption now.
Also, Xi would have to assume that China would be hit with very heavy sanctions if it invaded Taiwan. With the exception of energy, foreign trade doesn't matter much to Russia, but it is China's lifeblood. If there were a complete ban on all imports from China and exports to China, half the factories in the country would be shut down in no time, resulting in massive unemployment. Things have been going pretty well for China for the past 30 years. Would Xi want to risk it all to get back one small island, even if he believes it rightfully belongs to China?
In short, Russia's bungled invasion of Ukraine might well lead Xi to realize that conquering another country, especially one that has no land border with China where tanks could just drive over, might not be as easy as pie, especially since the Taiwanese resistance would be as ferocious as the Ukrainian one. Also, any thoughts that the West wouldn't respond in a unified way are probably gone. And finally, if he was expecting any military help from his new friend, Vlad, he probably now realizes it is not worth having. (V)
The Democrats released a massive 2,741-page, $1.5-trillion omnibus spending bill yesterday. It covers a lot of things and not everyone is happy about it, as the leadership cooked it up without a lot of input from the members. Among other items, it contains money for cyber security, refugees, NASA, aid to Ukraine, and much more.
One thing it at first contained but was stripped out later is $16 billion for emergency pandemic aid. It was removed because Republicans objected to it. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said: "It is heartbreaking to remove the COVID funding, and we must continue to fight for urgently needed COVID assistance, but unfortunately that will not be included in this bill."
Buried deep in the bill is something called member-directed spending. This is Congress-speak for "earmarks." In the vernacular, it is called "pork." They used to be popular with the members because it was a way to guarantee some pet project got funded. But they also got a bad name because some of the pet projects were seen as wasteful. In 2008, John McCain's platform when he ran for president included banning earmarks. In one ad, the narrator intoned: "$233 million for a bridge to nowhere, $3 million to study the DNA of bears in Montana, $1 million for a Woodstock museum. Who has the guts to stand up to wasteful government spending? One man, John McCain." McCain lost, but then-speaker John Boehner picked up the ball and banned earmarks in 2010. Now they are back.
Is this a bad thing? Maybe. Some of the projects may sound absurd, but really aren't. Woodstock was a major cultural event in American history and spending $1 million for a museum about it in a trillion-dollar budget really isn't so much. And if there are no earmarks and states get lump sums for broad areas, are there any guarantees that the governors won't make even worse choices?
The positive thing about earmarks is that they may make Congress function again. Often there is a bill that is a couple of votes shy of passing. We saw that a lot last year. By explicitly providing funding for one or more pet projects of the recalcitrant legislator, sometimes stuck bills can be moved. Can you imagine the well-funded Kyrsten Sinema Center for Gay and Lesbian studies at the University of Arizona or the magnificent Kyrsten Sinema Theater for the Performing Arts in Tucson or the state-of-the-art Kyrsten Sinema High School in Flagstaff or a dozen other such items? West Virginia is littered with projects named for famous earmarker Robert Byrd. Maybe even more could be named for Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). The Manchin Yacht Dock of Charleston, anyone?
The bill released yesterday contains some earprints of Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. For example, there is $32 million for dredging Mobile harbor, $60 million for the University of South Alabama College of Medicine, and $100 million for the Mobile Downtown Airport. Do you think Shelby is likely to vote against this bill?
Earmarks still have something of a bad name, but they do give the party leaders a new tool for getting votes on bills. And the legislators themselves love them, so we may see a lot more pork in the years ahead. (V)
The omnibus bill (see above) has more than just spending provisions in it. It renews the Violence Against Women Act, which was first signed into law in 1994 but has since lapsed due to Republican opposition. The original bill made domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking federal crimes. Most of these things were already state crimes, but by making them federal crimes as well, if a state AG doesn't want to bother prosecuting them, a U.S. attorney could decide to do so. The new version will renew these protections and also include special protections for transgender, Native American, and immigrant women. It will also strengthen rape prevention and provide training for law enforcement and judges on the subject.
Joe Biden will be happy to see the Act renewed. He was one of the key authors of the original bill when he was a senator from Delaware. He said then when he worked on the bill, many senators saw domestic violence as a family issue and none of the business of the federal government.
One provision relating to the bill that was controversial is the so-called "boyfriend loophole." It would have banned dating partners and stalkers convicted of domestic violence from owning firearms. The NRA strongly opposed this provision so it was dropped from the final bill. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) explained that the Democrats needed 60 votes in the Senate, and the boyfriend provision was a dealbreaker for many Republicans, so it had to go in order to get 10 Republicans on board. This is how the sausage is made. (V)
Art. 2, Sec. 1, Clause 2 of the Constitution reads:
Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.
Republicans are increasingly saying that the state legislatures can make whatever laws they want for appointing electors (except as explicitly forbidden by that clause). If they want to hold an election, fine. If they don't want to hold an election, fine. If they want to hold an election and then ignore the results if they don't like them, fine.
What is scary is that at least three or four of the Supreme Court Justices buy into this idea, which has never been directly tested. However, in 2000, in Bush v. Gore, then Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote that state legislatures had near-unchallengeable authority to decide how presidential electors were appointed. If one goes back to the founders, what they really meant was that the states were seen as mini-countries and the federal government was not supposed to interfere unless Congress specifically passed a law doing so. The model was something like the European Union. Each country gets a certain number of seats in the European Parliament, but the legislatures of the individual countries have some leeway to determine how the parliamentarians are chosen.
It is doubtful that the Republicans would have the nerve to try to abolish elections altogether and have the legislature appoint the electors directly, although for over 100 years the legislatures did appoint the senators, until the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913. But if a state legislature wanted to abolish the office of secretary of state and have the speaker of the state House appoint someone to run elections, the Supreme Court might buy that.
Another argument Republicans are making is that the courts should butt out. In this view, if a legislature does something, that is the final word and the courts have no power to tell them "nope." It would seem they are only a fan of checks and balances when asking courts to overturn elections that a Democrat won.
The big question here is not how far the Republicans want to go. They will go for anything that keeps them in power. The big question is how many Supreme Court justices will buy into the "independent legislature theory." It appears that Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh are at least somewhat favorable. The Democratic appointees certainly aren't, so it may come down to John Roberts and Amy Coney Barrett.
However, some lawyers are pushing back on the idea of untrammeled legislative power. The founders were big fans of checks and balances and to now say the legislature can do whatever it wants to and the other branches have no role clearly goes against what the founders intended. But in the end, it doesn't matter what the founders wanted. It matters only what five current justices want. (V)