AG Merrick Garland is a by-the-book kind of guy, which happens when you spend decades as a federal judge. And yesterday, he provided a rather sizable reminder of this fact, as he announced the appointment of Jack Smith as special prosecutor to oversee the two ongoing Department of Justice investigations of Donald Trump.
Garland's reasoning is that, now that Trump is a presidential candidate, it is essential to make things as fair and impartial as is possible. Speaking to the press on Friday, he said: "Based on recent developments, including the former president's announcement that he is a candidate for president in the next election, and the sitting president's stated intention to be a candidate as well, I have concluded that it is in the public interest to appoint a special counsel."
Clearly, the AG decided weeks ago that this is how he would handle things if Trump declared. Meanwhile, everyone in the country knew Trump was going to declare on Tuesday, which meant that Garland was able to begin searching for a candidate in advance of the formal announcement. Put another way, there is simply no way that Garland identified, recruited and secured the cooperation of a special counselor in just 2 days.
Smith, of course, has an impressive résumé. He began his career as a prosecutor in New York and eventually spent several years in the U.S. Attorney's office for the Eastern District of New York. He left that post to work for the International Criminal Court, prosecuting war crimes committed in Kosovo, then became chief of the Public Integrity Section of the Justice Department, and then was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee. When Donald Trump took office, Smith left the latter job and returned to The Hague to serve the International Criminal Court again. So, he's been on the sidelines during the Trump years. And during the years Smith was working for the government, he went after politicians from both parties, including former senator John Edwards (D) and then-Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R). In short, he is about as neutral as possible for someone who is a longtime public servant.
Of course, Smith could be as fair and impartial as Solomon and the Trumpers would declare him to be hopelessly corrupt and compromised. A Trump spokesperson on Friday said: "This is a totally expected political stunt by a feckless, politicized, weaponized Biden Department of Justice." And Trump himself described the appointment as "totally unfair."
Maybe the Trumpers really believe this, or maybe they are just putting on a show. You never know with them. But the fact is that the appointment of Smith is a gift to the former president. The Department of Justice could very plausibly move forward with an indictment right now, but clearly that's not happening. At very least, Smith is going to have to be brought up to speed, which could take a while, since there is so much stuff and since this is the holiday season. Further, Smith will have to do at least some of his own investigating, so that he's not just a rubber stamp for Garland. Add it up, and the former president just bought at least 3 months, and probably more. This is a fellow who loves to drag things out in general. And in this case, the longer it drags on, the closer we get to the 2024 election and the more problematic an indictment gets.
In view of all this, they should be dancing late into the night at Mar-a-Lago. Trump is savvy enough about these things that he must know that. But whether we are right about that or not, he's going to play the role of victim this week, this month, and for the entire time that Smith is at work. (Z)
With all the votes counted in CO-03, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R) has 163,832 (50.08%) to 163,278 (49.92%) for Democratic challenger Adam Frisch. And so, Frisch has conceded. In his statement, he said:
The likelihood of this recount changing more than a handful of votes is very small. Very, very small. It'd be disingenuous and unethical for us or any other group to continue to raise false hope and encourage fundraising for a recount. Colorado elections are safe, accurate, and secure. Please save your money for your groceries, your rent, your children, and for other important causes and organizations. I just got off the phone with Rep. Boebert. I called her to formally concede this election.
Statements like this one used to be a given. Not so much these days.
Why did Frisch throw in the towel so readily? Well, to start with, he's right. There's very little chance that a recount will change the outcome. Recall that the most famous recent recount win was in 2008 in Minnesota. In that case, about 5 million votes were cast, the margin was .01%, and the recount shifted a grand total of 440 votes (-215 for Republican Norm Coleman, +225 for Democrat Al Franken). In CO-03, the margin is 16 times as large by percentage (.16%) and the number of votes is 94% fewer. A flip just isn't happening. So, perhaps Frisch is a public-spirited fellow who saw the opportunity to make lemonade out of lemons and make a statement about the importance of accepting defeat in a democracy.
That said, there's a very good chance that Frisch's statement is also a calculated political move, at least in part. He's 55, and young enough to return in 2024 for another shot at Boebert's seat, or to make a run for governor once Gov. Jared Polis (D-CO) is term-limited in 2026. Appearing to be a gracious loser might win him a few more supporters. Further, under the terms of Colorado law, there will be a recount regardless of what Frisch says. And if it does somehow flip the result, his concession is not legally binding. So there's no real downside to his conceding graciously.
As to Boebert, she nearly lost her seat despite being in a red district (R+6), having the advantages of incumbency, and running in an environment favorable to Republicans. It certainly appears to be another illustration of how everyone except the Trumpy voters does not much care for Trumpy candidates. Will Boebert learn something from this and perhaps distance herself a bit from the former president? We doubt it, although she really should consider it. If Frisch returns for another go-round in 2024, he won't be a relative unknown anymore, and he'll raise millions from hopeful Democrats across the nation. He will also benefit from an environment that should be more favorable to Democrats. So, she might not be so lucky next time if she stays on her current course. (Z)
A very good mix of questions this week, we'd say, although pretty heavy on the civics stuff, for reasons that will be obvious when you get to that section.
P.M.C. in Vero Beach, FL, asks: All along we've heard how gerrymandering allows the red party to rule despite getting fewer votes than the blue party overall in elections. Additionally, the New York situation only made the situation worse for the blues. It was not surprising that the red team won a narrow victory in the house, given this overall gerrymandering situation.
But wait, in the total votes for House members, the red team received almost 4 million more votes than the blue team. How can this be? Shouldn't this have resulted in that invisible red wave that we were expecting!
V & Z answer: This was the most popular question this week. We mention that for anyone who finds it interesting.
In any event, the Republicans did win a majority of seats, so it's expected they would get more votes overall. Beyond that, there are a few reasons that 4 million figure is misleading. First, many votes in California aren't reported yet (or weren't reported when that 4 million figure began circulating). Those votes will skew very blue and will cut the overall gap down quite a bit.
Second, there were 13 house races this year where there was a Republican and no Democrat and only 3 with a Democrat and no Republican. So, there are roughly 10 races' worth of votes that added to the Republican total while adding nothing to the Democratic total. Or, if you would like something a bit more specific, these 16 races added about 1.5 million votes to the Republican total.
Third, there were 10 races with a Republican vs. a third-party candidate as opposed to only 3 with a Democrat vs. a third-party candidate. Or, if you would again like something a bit more specific, these 16 races added about 1.3 million votes to the Republican total.
We'll note that there were also races in California, Louisiana and Alaska that had multiple Republicans or multiple Democrats on the ballot. At the moment, these races have collectively added 600,000 votes to the Democrats' overall total. However, once Alaska is reported, that number will go down a bit.
Add it all up and, once the dust has settled, the Republicans will probably end up having won about 500,000 more votes than the Democrats did.
T.V. in Moorpark, CA, asks: Now that the GOP will be in the majority come January, they have already said they will open multiple investigations into the Biden administration. Do you think the White House will comply with any subpoenas?
Any chance the lame duck session could result in changes as to how congressional subpoenas are enforced?
V & Z answer: Biden probably won't cooperate, but you never know. He could decide to handle things the way Hillary Clinton did with the e-mail server, and yield to every demand in order to show he has nothing to hide.
And big changes like rewriting the rules for subpoenas tend to happen when both sides think they will come out ahead. The Democrats might like to have real subpoena power long-term. The Republicans might like to have real subpoena power for the next 2 years. So, maybe they'll work something out.
J.A. in Kansas City, MO, asks: What's the downside of having House Democrats help elect a Jim Jordan (R-OH) or Andy Biggs (R-AZ) or Lauren Boebert as Speaker? Seems like the spectacle of a true whackadoodle as Speaker would help highlight the moral bankruptcy of the modern Republican Party and help ensure a change in 2024. The risk is low, as Democrats control the Senate and the Executive branch.
V & Z answer: Any Democrat who supported that would be participating in the denigration of Congress and of democracy. Their votes would be publicly known, and many of their constituents would be furious. That kind of ratfu**ing is not going to happen.
M.S. in Alexandria, VA, asks: Does the House have to hold a vote to dissolve the 1/6 Committee?
V & Z answer: Generally, the legislation that creates a select committee includes language that speaks to its ultimate disposition. In this case, the enabling legislation says: "The Select Committee shall terminate 30 days after filing [its] final report."
R.S. in San Mateo, CA, asks: The Republicans will disband the 1/6 Committee in the House. Can the Democratic Senate form a new one?
V & Z answer: As noted above, the Republicans will not get the chance to disband the Committee because it's self-disbanding. Kind of like the mission briefing on Mission: Impossible. The Senate could create its own committee, but it would have to pass enabling legislation, and that legislation would be filibusterable. So, it's not happening. On top of that, the Democrats have achieved what they set out to achieve. The ball is now in the DoJ's court.
P.B. in Chicago, IL, asks: Over the past week, Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo has made an interesting argument that I tend to agree with: It is better to have the Republicans narrowly control the House rather than have it narrowly controlled by the Democrats.
His point is that in 2024, if the Republicans controlled the House, then they can't run on "All problems were the fault of the Democrats since they controlled all of Government." It makes some sense to low-info voters if the Democrats can say "We didn't get anything done because the GOP House blocked us at all times".
Also, since it will be a constant waste of time while the Republicans investigate everything and possibly impeach many of the Biden administration, it will make them look petty and useless.
Just wondering what your thoughts are on this idea?
V & Z answer: Marshall is being too idealistic, we think. It does not matter if the Republicans have zero, one, two or three thirds of the trifecta, they will still blame the Democrats for everything from the common cold to the fact that humans are still subject to gravity. In 2020, for example, they blamed the pandemic on the Democrats despite the fact that the White House was in Republican control, and the president actively sabotaged the national response to the COVID-19 virus.
That said, Democrats can probably get a little mileage in 2024 out of ads that say "When we controlled the House, we took steps to improve America's infrastructure, help small businesses, and combat climate change. When the Republicans controlled the House, they spent 2 years getting to the bottom of Hunter Biden's alleged laptop."
D.K. in Iowa City, IA, asks: Will the stepping-down decisions of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) put pressure on Joe Biden to not run for President in 2024?
V & Z answer: Very doubtful. Biden's decision will be based on his health and on what the polls tell him. If he has reason to believe that he's more likely to win in 2024 than any other Democrat, and he's physically up for it, then he will run.
M.M. in Bainbridge Island, WA, asks: I'd like your opinion about a possibility that, if true, makes me shake with anger: Between TFG's announcement and 2024 candidacy, and his legal troubles, are we about to be subjected to two more years of constant media attention to him? Can you assure me they learned something from the 2016 campaign? The only way to defeat the man is to ignore him, make him irrelevant. Have you thought about how you'll write about him?
V & Z answer: We wrote about this a couple of times this week, and our view is that he's not going to get anywhere near the attention he once did.
For our part, we write about things that we think are interesting, or that we think readers will find interesting, or that we think are important and must be mentioned. There is little that Trump himself can do or say that clears these hurdles. We wrote up many of his early outrageous statements and actions because of the possibility that they might wreck his base of support. But there's clearly nothing he can say or do to alienate the faithful, and he long ago began repeating the same things over and over. So, there's nothing to talk/write about. Maybe once he starts attacking Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) head on, we'll write about that for a while. But even that will become old hat pretty quickly.
As we already noted, it is instructive that none of the major outlets covered his announcement speech in its entirety. They all skipped it entirely or else cut away once he transitioned into broken-record mode.
B.L. in Reading, MA, asks: I watch a slew of political shows and am sorry I can't be sure what commentator to attribute this to. But her argument was that Donald Trump is losing his appeal because his popularity was based on voters believing he was the answers to their fears over immigrants, societal changes, their poor lot in life. But now, many realize that Trump is only about Trump. What is your opinion of this idea?
Also, I've been a faithful reader since before the 2008 elections. But I somehow missed a couple things I hope you can clear up for me. What is the origin of the poke fun at the Canadians humor? And more recently, I am scratching my head over what TFG stands for. I'm old but savvy enough to know what BFF means, but I can't come up with one family friendly phrase for these initials.
V & Z answer: We don't think that most people really believed that Trump would solve the problems he claimed he would solve. And those who did believe it have persuaded themselves that he delivered, as promised. Do you know how many Trumpers think there's now a wall along the whole Mexican border?
If Trump's support has weakened, it's because he has alienated independents and moderate Republicans, while also arousing Democratic voters to get to the polls. This makes him much less able to win elections (or to help others win elections), which is why many Republican leaders (and many voters) are looking for someone who has the Trump style without the baggage, like Ron DeSantis.
As to the Canadians, we can't find the original reference, but a few years back PM Justin Trudeau scored some sort of victory, and we made a casual observation that he could now turn his attention to the re-invasion of America, which he and the 'nades have been working on since 1812. The bit just took off from there.
And while we do not use TFG, we allow it to stand in readers' questions and letters. It stands for "The Former Guy."
N.H.R. in London, England, UK, asks: Will the Democrats ratf**k Donald Trump's primary opponents to try and ensure that he gets the nomination for the Republican party in 2024? Should they?
V & Z answer: It is unlikely they will try, since he's such a known quantity that there's no much they can do. That said, if we were given $100 million, and instructions to muck around in the GOP primaries, the correct strategy would be to keep the contest going for as long as possible. So, prop up Trump when that's needed, and prop up Ron DeSantis when that is needed. The longer and bitterer the contest for the nomination is, the worse off the Republicans are.
M.H. in DeKalb, GA, asks: Do you think it is possible that Donald Trump is the best thing that has happened for the Democrats? He has essentially cost the Republicans the last three elections, and I can see no reason that would not be repeated in 2024. After all, he is no Grover Cleveland.
V & Z answer: We're thinking about writing a Trump vs. Cleveland piece this week. Stay tuned.
In any event, Trump is indeed the gift that keeps om giving. That said, if you gave Democrats the option to go back in time, and to make Jeb! the winner of the 2016 election, we think most of them would take it. Trump has just done so much harm to the country, and has created so much unhappiness...
S.C. in Mountain View, CA, asks: Whither punditry? (You can read that as "to where does punditry go?" or the homophone "will punditry wither and die?" As for the latter, we can only hope, but I won't hold my breath.)
Okay, I admit I emailed you the wrong question last week, as your analysis showed that, by and large, the legitimate pollsters got it right.
So what does this say for punditry? Why did the pundits ignore the legitimate polls or let themselves be taken by the illegitimate ones?
V & Z answer: Sigh. We have an ungodly amount of content in the pipeline, but there's also a lot of news each day, and putting together some of the more specialized stuff takes a fair bit of time. We will most certainly have two more postmortem pieces that follow up on that polling item. The second of those two is tricky, and we're figuring out how to do it properly, which is actually the primary reason for the delay.
That said, here's a preview: The media blew it because they are inclined to think "no news" is not news. So, there have to be regular "momentum shifts," even if they are illusory. And the media, in general, is not comfortable saying "we just don't know what's going to happen." They tend to feel the need to commit to a grand storyline.
M.O. in Arlington, VA, asks: What are the political/social implication(s) of the implosion of Twitter and the looming collapse of the cryptocurrency business? Is there any relationship between these happenings and recent political evolutions? Your thoughts would be of great interest to me.
V & Z answer: We have consistently been skeptical of cryptocurrency and NFTs. To us, they seemed to be examples of technological slight of hand, in addition to being very eco-unfriendly. The argument that was made was that they were not subject to the same abuses as traditional financial instruments, but that clearly was not the case, as the meltdown of FTX was caused by the same things as the meltdown of Enron. We tend to think crypto is either on its way out, or else will recede to the fringes of the financial world, and that the impact of its downfall will be limited. We are happy to have additional opinions on this, since it's not our area of expertise, and since we're hardly impartial.
As to Twitter, if it collapses, or even if it becomes something more like Truth Social, there will be significant downsides. The platform has become an important tool for journalists to both collect and share information. In addition, it has allowed the citizens of oppressive governments to get their story out. And, it's been a way for members of marginalized communities to connect with and support one another. Twitter does a lot of harm, too, but it does do some good.
As to a connection between the declines of Twitter and crypto, we're inclined to think it's just a coincidence that it's happening at the same time. But maybe not; there's also turmoil at Meta and other tech companies. Maybe the pandemic allowed those companies to get into some very bad habits and now the piper has to be paid.
K.H. in Maryville, TN, asks: I think this is politics-adjacent.
With all the hoo-hah in the news this week about Ticketmaster and Taylor Swift, do you think Congress will step in and break up the (seeming) Ticketmaster monopoly?
V & Z answer: Just so everyone is on the same page, Ticketmaster merged with Live Nation about 10 years ago, giving them near-total control over major concert venues. This week, tickets for the new Taylor Swift tour went on sale and it was a fiasco. There were crashed servers and people tossed out of their place in line after 4-5 hours for no reason. Further, because Ticketmaster uses "variable demand" pricing, some tickets rose to be thousands of dollars in order to purchase. Oh, and people had a better chance of getting tickets if they also agreed to buy Taylor Swift merchandise, which is an arrangement that feels kinda like blackmail.
Anyhow, Congress isn't going to break up the monopoly. The Republicans generally do the bidding of big businesses, and some Democrats do, as well. If anything is going to happen, it will have to be the DoJ filing an antitrust suit.
M.W. in Northbrook, IL, asks: I thought your comments about Tip O'Neill were right on regarding public vs. private negotiations (I was just becoming aware of politics in this era as a teen). Personally, I think the rise of 24-hour news destroyed the "private" negotiations. I think Biden would happily negotiate in private with GOP leadership, but it just seems impossible.
Can you posit a path back to this more reasonable time?
V & Z answer: Let's begin with a 1994 quote from Barry Goldwater, who was speaking of the growing influence of the religious right: "Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the party, and they're sure trying to do so, it's going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can't and won't compromise. I know, I've tried to deal with them."
As long as the Republicans are utterly reliant on voters who think they are being guided by what God wants, and who prefer to get 0% of what they want rather than giving the other side any %, then the polarization will continue. There is no legislation or political trick or reform that will fix it. We wish we could tell you there's a simple solution, but there isn't.
Y.A. in Newton, MA, asks: I keep reading: "X beat Y. That comes as no surprise since X outspent Y, 3 to 1." Or: "Despite being outspent by X, Y pulled a surprise victory." What's your impression from the latest election results regarding the impact of campaign spending?
V & Z answer: In general, it is better to have money than to not have money. Also, donations are sort of an indicator of voter enthusiasm (although thanks to platforms like ActBlue and WinRed, that enthusiasm might be on the part of people who can't actually vote for the candidate).
That said, this cycle was an excellent illustration that money only goes so far. There are serious diminishing returns as more and more is spent, and even a near-unlimited amount of money cannot make up for a candidate who is very poor or is a bad fit for where they are running.
C.F. in Nashua, NH, asks: We know the GOP hates ranked-choice voting. Which party do you think would have benefited if RCV was used in Georgia?
V & Z answer: The Democrats. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) needed a fairly small fraction of the votes that went to the Libertarian (about 20%) and he would have gotten above 50% and would not have needed a runoff.
A.S. in Black Mountain, NC, asks: What is the logic (?) behind the 50% threshold like Georgia's to determine a run-off election?
V & Z answer: When the question is: "Why does [former Confederate state] do [strange political thing]?", the answer is pretty much always the same: white supremacy.
When the Southern states passed laws requiring that a winner receive a majority rather than a plurality, the Democrats were dominant, with between 60% and 80% of the voters. The only way the Party could lose an election in such circumstances was if the Democratic vote was split, and an independent or Republican (a.k.a., the candidate of the Black voters and the small number of white liberals) won with a plurality. So, the Democrats would slug it out in the primary, and the winner would be the only viable option for white, Democratic voters in the general.
Even if a bunch of Democrats defected and insisted on voting for the primary loser in the general election as a protest vote, all that would do is force a runoff where write-ins were not allowed and the white, Democratic general-election defectors would be compelled to vote for the only remaining nominee for their Party.
J.E. in San Jose, CA, asks: I appreciate the analysis of how Sen.-elect John Fetterman (D-PA) did relatively better in the collar counties than Hillary Clinton. Beto O'Rourke (D) employed a similar rural strategy in Texas but did not win. What's the difference? Is it that Pennsylvania is a swing state? Is it Beto's ill-fated gun comment? Something else?
V & Z answer: Well, Fetterman's opponent was weaker than O'Rourke's opponent. After all, Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) has won statewide whereas Mehmet Oz has never won an election of any sort. But the main difference is surely that Texas is redder. Fetterman just needed a few breaks whereas O'Rourke needed absolutely everything to go his way.
T.B. in Bozeman, MT, asks: How would John Fetterman have fared against the hedge-fund guy from Connecticut? (Sorry, I can't remember the wannabe carpetbagger's name!)
V & Z answer: There's no way to be certain, of course, but David McCormick (R) had many of the same liabilities as Oz, namely he was connected to Donald Trump, he was an inexperienced campaigner and he isn't really a Pennsylvanian. Further, Fetterman vs. [Republican candidate] polls had the Senator-elect performing about the same against all comers (with the notable exception of Jeff Bartos, who polled far worse than any other Republican against Fetterman).
So, our guess is that Fetterman would have beaten McCormick, and by about the same margin as he beat Oz.
M.C. in Taguig, NCR, Philippines, asks: After saying how no one thought that John Fetterman was putting on an act, you surprised me by stating that Hillary Clinton is not authentic. I had previously guessed that, aside from years of Republican smears, Clinton's problem was more an Elizabeth Warren one of people not liking an educated, mature woman from outside their cultural milieu telling them what is good for them. I am not much of a fan of Clinton, but I had the impression that she cares about and believes what she says. Was I missing something, either about her or about how others regard her?
V & Z answer: She undoubtedly has much stronger core convictions than, say, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) or Donald Trump. But she also cared about winning elections. And so she displayed a certain... flexibility in terms of what she "believed." For example, she did a pretty clear 180 on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which she helped negotiate, when it became clear that the TPP was a political loser.
She also had the bad luck to go head-to-head against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a man whose whole brand is "authentic," in the primaries.
R.L. in Tucson, AZ, asks: As I'm typing this, Kris Mayes is leading Abraham Hamadeh by 570 votes out of 2,588,440 votes cast for the office of Attorney General, so there will almost certainly be a mandatory recount. My question is what if anything makes a recount more accurate than the original count, and are the recount results always used as the final, official results for elections in which they're used?
V & Z answer: In theory, a recount might be more accurate because during a recount, everyone knows that every vote really counts and they are more careful. Also, the mechanism could be different, depending on the state. In some states, the ballots are optically scanned at the precincts on Election Night by people who may not be experienced with the scanning machines, and mistakes could be made. Similarly, judgment calls are being made by people who may not have experience and who may be applying many different sets of standards.
In a recount, all the ballots have probably been collected at election centers at the county level. In some cases, piles of ballots are put on tables with one Democrat and one Republican at each table. They examine each ballot together and put them in separate piles based on the race being recounted. Disputed ballots might even be examined by a state or federal judge. This procedure can make people who don't trust the machines or the other party trust the results better. But in some states, they just run everything through the counting machines again. The only benefit here is that the machines may be operated by more experienced people. When every single vote matters, that could be a slight advantage.
Whatever happens, the final count is the one that is the official count.
C.P. in Silver Spring, MD, asks: I've seen the term 'discharge petition' mentioned online recently; apparently. if 218 members of the House sign one they can bring a specific piece of legislation to the floor for a vote? Is this true, and if so what are the odds this happens next year after the new House delegation is seated?
V & Z answer: This is true. Further, the signatures are secret until the petition succeeds, so members can sign on without sticking their necks out too far.
And there are a few successful discharge petitions in every Congress. However, it is certainly possible there could be a higher number of them in 2023-25, or that they could be used in higher-profile circumstances, if a small number of Republican members decides that they are effectively the Joe Manchins of the House, and that they can extract a lot of goodies for their constituents if they play ball with the Democrats.
S.H. in Oregon City, OR, asks: Several pundits have been saying that with such a small margin in the House, Democrats and less-rabid Republicans may be able to "find common ground" and pass legislation. None of them have mentioned how such bills would get to the House floor. Is there a way to do that beyond getting the buy-in of the Speaker?
V & Z answer: See the above answer.
A.S. in Black Mountain, NC, asks: It is reported that Rep. Madison Cawthorn's (R-NC) offices in the Capitol and Hendersonville, NC, have been vacated. It is also reported that phone calls to them go unanswered. He is still our representative for a while longer. Can his salary be withheld for the period he is not representing us?
V & Z answer: Congress does not currently have the power to do that, although they could theoretically adopt a rule fining him for not being in his office, along the same lines that they established fines for not being masked while on the floor of the House chamber. They could also expel him from Congress, at which point his salary would be forfeit. It is extremely unlikely that either of these steps will be taken, however.
A.J. in Salt Lake City, UT, asks: We all know what it takes to impeach a president, as it dominated a lot of news regarding TFG. The Republicans have a long list of others they would like to impeach. What is the process in such situations?
V & Z answer: One or more members have to draw up articles of impeachment, and then those articles have to be voted for by a majority, just like any other legislation. Here are the articles for Donald Trump's second impeachment, which were approved by the House about a week after the 1/6 insurrection.
M.B. in Montreal, QC, Canada, asks: Assuming the House impeaches Joe Biden and others, is there any way they can force the Senate to actually hold a trial?
V & Z answer: By Senate rules, the chamber basically has to drop everything and conduct a trial when it receives articles of impeachment from the House. So yes, House Republicans can force a trial. However, they have no role in determining how the trial is conducted. And, other that noting that the Chief Justice must preside if it's the president being impeached, the Constitution is also silent. So, Senate Democrats could decide, for example, that the House impeachment managers will be given 10 seconds to present their case, and then the Senate will move on to an immediate vote.
R.H.D. in Webster, NY, asks: The Dean of the House is the current person who has served the longest in that chamber, regardless of party. That was Don Young (R-AK), before he passed away.
Since his passing, who holds that title? I'm thinking it's none other than Nancy Pelosi, since she came to Congress in 1987. Is that correct?
If there is a tie based on members coming in at the same time, how is that broken?
V & Z answer: Pelosi is currently seventh in line, having taken her seat on June 2, 1987. Here are the six people ahead of her, beginning with the current dean:
- Hal Rogers (R-KY; January 3, 1981)
- Chris Smith (R-NJ; January 3, 1981)
- Steny Hoyer (D-MD; May 19, 1981)
- Marcy Kaptur (D-OH; January 3, 1983)
- Peter DeFazio (D-OR; January 3, 1987)
- Fred Upton (R-MI; January 3, 1987)
As you can see, there are actually two sets of "tied" members on the list (Rogers and Smith; DeFazio and Upton). The way they break the tie is that they get a ruler, then make a joint appointment with a urologist, and then...
No, wait. That's not it. Actually, the way they break ties is by last name, in alphabetical order. So, if Chris Smith had been born Chris Jones, he'd be dean right now.
R.H. in Santa Ana, CA, asks: As we all know, if neither candidate reaches 270 electoral votes, the election goes to the House of Representatives, where each state delegation gets one vote. So, the half million Wyomingites have the same vote as 39.5 million Californians.
What happens if the delegation is evenly divided? What if a state has three Democrats and three Republicans in the House? Who gets that vote?
V & Z answer: If a state's vote is tied, then that state casts a vote of "present," and gives its support to neither candidate. This is why the election of 1800 took so long to resolve; there were half a dozen states that kept casting "present" votes over and over.
D.M.C. in Seoul, South Korea, asks: In regards to your item, "Senate Republicans Pick Mitch McConnell as Their Leader," it strikes me as odd that the leadership for the next Congress would happen even before the sitting of the new Congress (and before all of the new senators have been chosen).
So, I'm curious, "who got to vote in the Republic Leadership election?" Is it only current Republican senators for the 117th congress (2021-2023)? If so, how is this justified? It seems unfair to the new senators and, given the power of the Senate leaders, undemocratic.
V & Z answer: The leaders, especially if they are new, need some time to prepare for the task ahead of them. It would be rather impractical for someone to find out on the first day of a new session that they have a major new job to do.
In theory, if the new members want new leadership, they can insist on a new election. However, this never happens. They can take solace in the fact that, at the end of their time in office, they will foist leadership on their replacements.
M.S. in Hamden, CT, asks: You and others reported that Kevin McCarthy was re-elected as head of the Republican House conference by a vote of 188-31. But the total 219 votes cast is more than a majority of the House and more than the current 213 Republicans in the House. Who cast the remaining six votes? Similar numbers of total votes were cast for other Republican leadership positions, so this isn't a simple typo that's been repeated. There don't seem to be enough non-voting members from U.S. territories to make up the shortfall.
V & Z answer: That's an excellent question. And, unfortunately, we don't know the answer. There are two non-voting members who are part of the Republican conference, namely Jenniffer González-Colón of Puerto Rico and Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen of American Samoa. That gets us to 215. But the other four votes? It is unclear.
The rules of the House Republican Conference allow people besides sitting Republican representatives to be added to the voter list. But they also dictate that votes be taken by secret ballot. So, we cannot find any indication of who those additional four people were. Our guess is that they are staffers of the House Republican Conference. Alternatively, they may be representatives-elect who were invited to participate. If any reader has better information, let us know.
D.D. in Portland, OR, asks: Now that we're nearly 2 years out and the constant crazy tweets are a memory, I'd like your take on who deserves the mantle of "worst president ever." Maybe I'm experiencing the type of euphoria that migraine sufferers experience when the meds kick in, but to me there are two top candidates:
- Candidate 1: Extorted a small country for political purposes. Fomented an insurrection which was embarrassing, but did not threaten our democracy. Did more crazy stuff that I care to recall.
- Candidate 2: Started two longstanding wars of choice, each with no positive outcome. Asleep at the switch on 9/11.
Your opinion is much more informed than mine, so I'd appreciate your thoughts.
V & Z answer: We aren't going to give our personal opinions; instead we'll project how history will view these presidents, in our view.
To start, as odd as it seems, ill-advised military excursions do not tend to be remembered, long-term. Who holds the Quasi-War against John Adams or the incursions into Mexico against Woodrow Wilson? Vietnam may hang around Lyndon Johnson's neck for a long time, but there's already evidence that even that is fading. Our guess is that Bush will ultimately be remembered as a largely ineffectual nonentity, along the lines of Rutherford B. Hayes or Warren Harding.
Meanwhile, presidential reputations tend to get distilled down into, for lack of a better term, talking points. There have been close to 50 of them, at this point, and most people aren't going to remember more than a couple of things about any given president (if that many). Our guess is that the talking point for Trump will be that he did severe damage to democratic institutions. That's also the rap against James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson, who currently occupy the bottom slots on the list. So, we would imagine that, long-term, Trump is going to end up in the basement, or maybe one step above the basement, thanks to Buchanan.
M.K. in Toronto, ON, Canada, asks: You attribute the phrase "axis of evil" to Michael Gerson, but I've always seen it associated with David Frum. What's the story? Is its coinage ambiguous?
V & Z answer: Yes. Someone between Frum and Gerson initially coined the phrase "Axis of Hatred." And someone between the two of them suggested that it be changed to "Axis of Evil." We'll never know for sure who was who, since both Frum and Gerson claimed credit for "Axis of Evil" and said the other one came up with "Axis of Hatred." However, our read of the evidence favored Gerson's claim. Further, he was the chief speechwriter, so he gets credit for the end product, even if that end product reflected others' suggestions.
W.S. in Austin, TX, asks: Based on his recent behavior, Elon Musk looks like a new version of an old robber baron. Does that apply? If so, who is most similar? Andrew Carnegie?
V & Z answer: Probably not Carnegie. He knew his strengths, stuck with them, and only surrendered his wealth voluntarily, in the form of charitable donations.
However, Carnegie's colleague Henry Clay Frick seems a fairly reasonable parallel. Frick got rich investing in coal, and then made a deal with Carnegie to co-manage Carnegie's steel businesses. Frick was not especially well suited to this new industry, and his harsh treatment of workers led to the notorious Homestead Steel Strike of 1892. Perhaps you will recognize this pattern.
P. F. in Wixom, MI, asks: In answering the question from H.R. in Pittsburgh about gridlock in the House, you gave us the scoop on how Nathaniel P. Banks became speaker.
Was the year mentioned (1855) a typo, or can the staff historian please explain what was going on back then that made the 34th Congress take its seats in December 1855 when the election years surrounding that month should have been 1854 and 1856?
V & Z answer: That was not a typo. In the nineteenth century, and into the early twentieth, it took a long time for some members to travel to Washington. Further, many of them wanted to be present at home for harvesting season. Oh, and the summer weather in Washington was both miserable and dangerous (it was easy to catch malaria).
When a member was elected to Congress, their term did not actually start until March 4. However, the custom was to commence the new session in early December, meaning that people took their seats over a year after being elected. That first session, known as the "long session," would usually last until October of the next year. And then there would be another session, a lame-duck "short session," from December through March. As you can imagine, a lot of members who had retired or lost their seats would not bother to show up for the short session. So, it was not unheard of for someone elected to Congress to end up spending only 10 months of their term in Washington. And even those who showed up for every day of work only spent 14 months in Washington.
R.O. in Santa Fe, NM, asks: I don't think you've addressed this before. The Big Ten athletic conference will add two new members, UCLA and USC. While current members have had their occasional problems, USC seems to be a scandal factory. Any thoughts?
V & Z answer: UCLA has had plenty of scandals, too. The fact is that universities are large and complicated places with a lot of opportunities for outright bad behavior or, failing that, negligence. And negative coverage of very famous universities attracts more attention than uncovering scandalous behavior at, say, Arkansas State. Further, there is also much appeal, for some readers, in taking California down a peg. USC, UCLA, Stanford, Caltech and Berkeley all check the "famous university" box and the "California" box, so they are going to get a lot of attention when something goes bad.
P.D. in Smithfield, RI, asks: Why is the Saturday posting consistently later than the other days?
V & Z answer: It's the most time-consuming post of the week to put together. Also, there is more likely to be a late-night commitment that delays the start of work on the post. There aren't too many things that end at 11:00 p.m. on Wednesday nights, but there are plenty of things that end at 11:00 p.m. or midnight or 1:00 a.m. on Friday nights.