Dem 51
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GOP 49
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Saturday Q&A

Better late than never! Recall also that this week includes some questions left over from last week, because we ended up devoting all of the last week's Q&A to Speakership questions.

Current Events

E.W. in Skaneateles, NY, asks: Are any voices on the left questioning whether the classified documents found in Joe Biden's offices were planted there by someone sympathetic to Trump? The timing seems... interesting... to say the least. Could this be in the realm of possibility?

Also, why do you think it took until now to find these documents? Just how many records do presidents and vice presidents create and use anyway, and why are they not cataloged better?

V & Z answer: That theory is out there, but we don't find it credible. The first problem is that this dirty trickster would have to acquire documents that Biden might plausibly have had. It wouldn't work for Donald Trump, for example, to dip into his vast cache of classified materials because those materials would likely post-date the Obama presidency, and thus would not be something that Biden could have possessed as VP.

The second, and much larger, problem is that this hypothetical person or people would have to gain access to the areas where the documents were found. An office at a think tank in D.C.? Ok, maybe. But Biden's personal library in his home in Delaware? That space is guarded by the U.S. Secret Service 24/7; it's not plausible someone could get in and out without being discovered.

Also, if someone did have the power to acquire any documents needed, and if they did have the ability to evade the U.S.S.S., then surely they would plant the most damaging thing they could. And given Hunter Biden's laptop, that would mean a bunch of documents related to economic dealings with Ukraine.

As to your latter questions, we will start with this data point: The Nixon Library currently holds in excess of 46 million pages of documents related to Richard Nixon's life and presidency. That gives a vague sense of how much paperwork a person who serves in Congress, as VP and as president, and who is a major public figure for the better part of half a century, might produce. And, like all presidential libraries, the Nixon Library has a full-time staff whose job it is to sort and catalog those mountains of paperwork.

Our sneaking suspicion—and we have nothing but guesswork here; no hard evidence—is that the timing of the Trump document revelations and the Biden document revelations is not coincidental, but not for the reason you posit. As a general rule, there would be no real need to go through the paperwork from Biden's pre-presidential years until the time came to populate his presidential library. However, it is very plausible that when the Trump story broke, someone in Biden's orbit said, "You know, we better go through everything, and make sure we don't also have classified stuff." Of course, they did have classified stuff, but it's still better, legally and politically, for Team Biden to make that discovery than for the folks at the National Archives to do so. And one has to imagine that, right now, everyone at the National Archives is working overtime to try to identify any documents that are not accounted for.

D.K. in Iowa City, IA, asks: Do you think the problems Joe Biden will have with these classified documents could deter him from running in 2024? Would that be a good thing for Democrats? I believe it would.

V & Z answer: Turning to Nixon once again, imagine you were able to get in a time machine and sit down for a chat with him on, say, Dec. 1, 1972. And during that chat, you said: "Dick, your presidency is going to be ended by a scandal. Guess what the scandal will be?" In view of all the shady behavior that he and his team partook in, we doubt he would correctly guess Watergate.

That is to say, you can't always predict what is going to capture the public's attention and fan the flames of their outrage. However, we are dubious that the document situation—though it looms large in the current news cycles—will be detrimental long term. The more likely effect is that it will serve as a Get Out of Jail Free card for Donald Trump, politically and possibly legally.

As to tossing Biden overboard, incumbency is an enormous advantage when running for president, which is why so few incumbent presidents lose their reelection bids. There certainly could be a Democrat who is so strong that they are more electable as a non-incumbent than Biden is as an incumbent. But, at the moment, we don't see an evidence-based answer to the question of who that person might be.

R.E.M. in Brooklyn, NY, asks: One of the remedies discussed if House Republicans try to destroy the U.S. economy by refusing to raise the debt ceiling is having the Treasury Department mint one or more trillion-dollar coins. Would that be inflationary? The most recent calculation of the U.S. money supply is $21.35 trillion. Would minting one of the coins cause the dollar to be worth 4.7% less?

V & Z answer: Since it's never been done before, there's no way to know for certain. However, the odds are that it would not be inflationary. The inflationary effect would be expected only if the government released a disproportionate amount of that money into the world, thus dramatically increasing the money supply (and decreasing the buying power of money). But that's not what would happen; the government would just use that money to allow it to keep pumping money into the economy at its usual rate.

B.K. in Dallas, TX, asks: Why is Social Security included in the budget? The Social Security payments come from a fund that people pay into. The only part of the budget that Social Security affects is the interest the Feds owe on money borrowed from the fund.

V & Z answer: The federal budget covers all the money that the government takes in, and all the money that it puts out. It does not matter the source of the money, the destination of the money, or the constraints on how it's handled.

As to the relationship between Social Security and the budget, we had a lot of questions along those lines this week, because the Freedom Caucusers, of course, are talking about cutting Social Security as a means of "fixing" the budget. At first glance, this does not seem to make sense because the Social Security money, by law, is separate from the rest of the budget.

We do not know what is in the minds of the Freedom Caucusers, and we probably don't want to know. But there are four possible answers to this seeming conundrum. The first is that the Freedom Caucusers don't actually understand how the budget works and, more specifically, how the Social Security budget works. The second is that the Freedom Caucusers understand, but they believe their voters don't understand. Either of these two things is certainly possible.

The third option is that the Freedom Caucusers (and others) recognize that Social Security has been an extremely helpful tool in keeping the government's books... well, not balanced, but less imbalanced than they otherwise would be. By law, any extra money that Social Security takes in above its expenditures has to be invested in treasury bills. In other words, the Social Security trust fund is a giant, reliable source of low-interest loans for the federal government. But now, Social Security is getting to the point that it's paying out more than it takes in. Soon, it will be way more. So, if the expenses of Social Security are not reduced (either by cutting benefits for everyone, or else increasing the minimum retirement age) then the government will not only lose a major source of low-interest loan money, it will have to start paying back the loans it's already taken out. Double whammy.

The fourth option is that the Freedom Caucusers (and others) recognize that if things continue on their current course, the Social Security trust fund will be depleted in the mid-2030s. Allowing the program to collapse would be political suicide, and so Congress would presumably have to step up and make up the shortfall between "money in" and "money out." That would require either higher taxes or big cuts elsewhere in the budget, most obviously defense.

S.B. in Los Angeles, CA, asks: You have outlined the various concessions Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) he made to get the Speakership. Where applicable, would you please also outline how these various issues were handled by Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), so we can just how far McCarthy caved?

V & Z answer: As a politician of, by all indications, considerably more skill than McCarthy, it's not publicly known exactly what boons Pelosi granted in order to secure election to the speakership a second time. She made a soft commitment to step down after two terms (which she did honor, but probably would not have if the Democrats had remained in the majority). And she persuaded Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) to drop her challenge in exchange for the chair of the House Administration Subcommittee on Elections. If there were any other concessions, we won't know of them until Pelosi writes her autobiography.

R.B. in Seattle, WA, asks: Let's suppose that sometime in the next 2 years, a motion to vacate the chair is not only made but carried, so Kevin McCarthy loses the speakership. What happens next?

Does the House revert to being unable to conduct any business, as it was last week? Can committees still function? Can bills be brought to the floor? If a conference committee is working with the Senate on some bill, can that work go forward? Once a new speaker is elected, is it possible or required to pass a new rules package for the House, or to reorganize the House in other ways such as committee assignments? And finally, I would suppose McCarthy can run again in the new speaker election if he chooses; is that right?

V & Z answer: Now that rules have been adopted and members have been sworn in, the House could continue to do many things if the speakership was vacated. The main thing that the lower chamber could not do is bring new bills up for a vote. First, because that is the Speaker's job. Second, because the election of a new Speaker takes precedence over other items of business.

And if McCarthy is removed, he is certainly allowed to run again. We are no sure why he would, however, as it would make no sense for a member to vote to fire him and then turn around and vote to reelect him.

G.H. Reading, MA, asks: Given the Republicans' very slim majority in the House, what happens if the Democrats suddenly find themselves in the majority in the 118th Congress? We know that House vacancies do occur due to resignations, criminal indictment or when a Representative passes away. In fact, a few Republican Representatives' tenures appear to be on thin ice. Mr. Santos of Long Island is one example. So what would happen and what would be the procedure to remove Kevin McCarthy if his party loses their razor-thin majority?

V & Z answer: It probably depends on the precise circumstances. If the Democrats gain a majority that's only going to last, say, a week until a special election can be held in Alabama, then they will probably won't do anything with that. But if their majority is going to last longer, or is going to be ongoing, then the Democrats would bring a—wait for it—motion to vacate the chair. Then they would elect one of their own as Speaker and would adopt many changes to the House rules, while also promptly dissolving some of the new select committees the Republicans have created.

E.R. in Irving, TX, asks: You wrote: "The House Ethics Committee has been significantly weakened." How?

V & Z answer: The changes are very much inside baseball, and are rather underhanded. Most of the legwork for the House Ethics Committee is actually done by the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), which is a bipartisan entity made of up of a board (four Republicans, four Democrats) and a bunch of staffers. The members of OCE are bureaucrats, not members of Congress, and they investigate ethics complaints and refer only the most serious ones to the House Ethics Committee.

The first rule change was to place term limits on the OCE board. This will force the resignations of three of the four Democrats. The second change was to limit the hiring of new staffers for OCE to the first 30 days of a new Congress. There was already a requirement that new staff be approved by the board.

It takes time to find and install new board members, usually several weeks. And it takes time to find and hire staff. Because of the new rules, it will be nigh-on impossible for OCE to fill its board and then, in turn, to hire enough staff, since there's now only 30 days to complete this entire to-do list. This will mean that OCE will lack the resources to conduct all the investigations it needs to conduct, and so some things will fall by the wayside. In particular, they are supposed to be working right now on looking at the MAGA members' involvement in the 1/6 insurrection. Wonder why the MAGA 20 wanted to the OCE hamstrung? Hmmmm....

D.L. in Florence, MA, asks: You wrote: "the House Rules Committee would consist of three of its members, six other Republicans, and four Democrats, a hugely disproportionate number of MAGA Republicans given the distribution of House seats."

I'm wondering why there is such a big variance in the number from each party. I seem to recall committee hearings where there was an almost even number of Republicans and Democrats, so why is it so stacked in favor of the majority, especially when the balance in the House as a whole is so evenly split?

V & Z answer: Because the Rules Committee serves as the gatekeeper for which bills are, and are not, approved for being brought up on the floor of the House, it has a lot of power to interfere with the majority's ability to move their agenda forward. And so, the committee is always stacked in favor of the majority party. Sometimes it has 9 Democrats and 4 Republicans, and sometimes it has 9 Republicans and 4 Democrats.

B.M. in Providence, RI, asks: Reading your item "What Will House Republicans Actually Do Now?" makes me wonder why we don't see witnesses who are subpoenaed to appear in front of hostile House members make jiu-jitsu moves to turn the hearing against the questioners? If the witness is a private citizen (like Hunter Biden or now Anthony Fauci) why not talk back at the liars and hypocrites? Embarrass committee members who act in bad faith.

V & Z answer: There is a political problem and a practical problem. The political problem is that this sort of behavior can make it look like the person is hiding something. As a general rule, Democratic and independent voters are more likely to draw negative inferences from bad behavior than Republican voters are, which means Republican witnesses are much more able to get away with shenanigans than non-Republican witnesses.

The practical problem is that a lot of people are not good public speakers, and one of the most difficult types of public speaking is trying to be witty/snarky on the fly. We've never seen Hunter Biden give testimony before Congress or anyone else, so we don't know how skilled he is, but he just might not have the ability to give a performance of the sort you propose.

That said, there are certainly some would-be witnesses who will make a mockery of the proceedings, at least on a passive-aggressive level (as Hillary Clinton did during her famous marathon testimony session). In particular, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has essentially told House committees who want to subpoena him: Bring it on.

A.S. in Brooklyn, NY, asks: With the seemingly endless number of issues surrounding George Santos being not enough to invoke a sense of shame and get him to resign, and with the Republicans in Congress unwilling to make their majority any more tenuous by forcing him out, is there any way the anyone else, the U.S. government as a whole, the state of New York, or maybe just the residents of his district, could remove him? Say a recall vote or something along those lines? Or could we actually see a member of Congress possibly serve his term from a Brazilian jail cell?

V & Z answer: There are three ways in which a member's term can end prematurely: death, resignation, or expulsion by their colleagues in Congress. So, unless someone is willing to commit murder (or, perhaps, to make Santos an offer he can't refuse to resign), then the only power to remove him lies with the other members of the House.

Note that even conviction and imprisonment are not automatically basis for expulsion. Customarily, Congress does expel any member convicted of a crime. But there is no legal requirement for them to do so.

S.J. in Taipei City, Republic of Taiwan, asks: Do you guys know or have any idea why Sen. Dianne Feinstein declined to become president pro tempore of the Senate?

V & Z answer: The president pro tempore only has a few roles to play, and most of those can be designated to someone else. The only one that cannot be designated is their place third in the line of succession, behind the VP and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Quite clearly, it would be problematic for someone who is pushing 90, and who is suffering cognitive/memory issues, to be president. And so, it is problematic for someone like that to be very high in the line of succession. It's customary to choose the eldest member of the majority delegation as pro tempore, but it's not required. And so, if Feinstein had stood for the position, she would surely have been defeated by her Democratic colleagues, which would have been embarrassing for her. It has not been publicly revealed, however, whether Feinstein figured this out on her own, or if someone (say, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY) "figured it out" for her.


S.K. in Sunnyvale, CA, asks: You wrote: "If Kevin McCarthy allows the sane Republicans to work with the Democrats on bills that the Senate might accept, the MAGA 20 crew will call for a vote to vacate the chair."

But earlier you mentioned that it would take 218 "yeas" to sustain such a motion; the Democrats and sane Republicans could easily defeat it, if they were both in favor of moving such legislation forward. The question is, would they? Could the Democrats get away with voting nay on a motion to vacate, without looking to the voters back home like they're suddenly supporting McCarthy's speakership (which they were not willing to do last week)?

V & Z answer: We think this is something Democratic members could sell to their members. As a general rule, Democratic voters want actual governance (unlike some MAGA Republican voters) and recognize that governance involves some amount of give and take. So, we think something like "We had to back McCarthy in order to get X priority for us" would pass muster, especially since it would also involve poking the Freedom Caucusers in their eyes at the same time.

C.C. in Berlin, Germany, asks: Do you think it would be politically wise for the Democrats to use the new rule to vacate the speaker's chair on a regular (daily?) basis?

V & Z answer: No. The Democrats in general, and Joe Biden in particular, have already signaled that they plan to run in 2024 on the message of "Elect us if you want governance, elect them if you want a clown show." Constant motions to vacate would undermine that message.

That doesn't mean that the Democrats will never file a motion to vacate; they'd do it if the circumstances were just right. But they would strongly prefer that it come from the MAGA 20, with the Democratic caucus just passengers along for the ride.

C.R. in Alexandria, VA, asks: The Speaker of the House traditionally invites the president to deliver the State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress. With Kevin McCarthy now elected Speaker of the House and beholden to the far right, do you believe that he President Biden will still be invited to deliver a State of the Union Address?

V & Z answer: Yes. Refusing to invite him would look bad, and would also deny the Republicans the opportunity to do certain kinds of grandstanding (like rolling their eyes during key parts of the speech) and would also probably mean they would not be able to give a State of the Union response. That response is made possible because the president provides a copy of the speech in advance for preparation purposes. But if Biden does not get an invite, then he isn't going to pay the Republicans the courtesy of an advance copy.

Further, if the House refuses to invite Biden, then the Senate will invite him to deliver it in their chamber instead. So, he'll still get to deliver the SoTU in handsome environs with a nice audience (and none of the MAGA 20 in the audience).

S.K. in Chatsworth, CA, asks: You wrote that there are 448 seats in the House. With the Senate, there are 535 representatives and senators. During a joint session of Congress, which sometimes includes Supreme Court justices and cabinet members, how do they fit everyone in? Who gets to sit on the floor, and who has to sit in the cheap seats?

V & Z answer: Note that there are actually 540 members who potentially have to be accommodated because of the five non-voting delegates in the House. That said, there are always some members who skip the State of the Union, and the remainder are accommodated by adding additional, temporary chairs to the House floor. You can see a bunch of the temporary seating in this picture from one of Donald Trump's SoTU addresses:

There are 30 or so members sitting in temporary chairs on each side of Trump

You can see where the permanent seats end on each side, and the temporary seating has been wedged in.

Some of the seats on the floor are reserved for the party leaders of Congress, or for other key dignitaries (you can see the Joint Chiefs of Staff front and center in the above image). Beyond that, however, it's every man and woman for themselves when it comes to the seating of the members of Congress. To get one of the prime seats on the center aisle, where there's a chance to shake the president's hand or get a photo-op, they have to arrive 5-6 hours early and camp out on the seat. The folks who show up right before the address are the ones who get stuck in the crummy temporary seats with a prime view of the president's rear end.

Meanwhile, the gallery on the second level (500 seats) is reserved for various dignitaries (like the Cabinet), for guests of the president and the members of Congress, and for members of the press.

M.B.T. in Bay Village, OH, asks: Isn't the current make-up of the House an opportunity for—dare I say it?—some bipartisan action? Could not 20 or more moderate Democratic representatives join with enough normal GOP members and get things done? That kind of coalition could essentially neutralize the MAGA 20. It would be a kind of Liz Cheney/Adam Kinzinger group in reverse and writ large. Over time, this would isolate the MAGA crew into a raving but powerless loony bin faction that, even if re-elected, could continue to showboat for the cameras all they want but would be powerless in what really matters to the rest of the world.

V & Z answer: It makes sense to us. It also makes sense to Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) who just did an interview with Politico on this very point. That said, the opportunity to reach across the aisle existed during the speaker elections and none of the Republicans took it. Meanwhile, all of the Republicans have been voting for things like "let's create a committee to investigate the weaponization of the FBI." So, maybe there are no Republican moderates who are willing to buck the party line.

J.H. in Boston, MA, asks: You wrote that all the election-denying secretaries of state lost their elections. But didn't we previously discuss one that was certain to be elected in a deep red state? I want to say it was Wyoming? You wrote that it didn't matter since that state's election result was already certain, but you also ran a Sunday letter from a reader admonishing you about how it could end up mattering a lot?

V & Z answer: This is all true. When we wrote that, it was in the context of how election-denying politicians were rejected, over and over, in competitive elections. We should have been clearer that we were excluding the election for Secretary of State of Indiana, which was not competitive, and where election denier Diego Morales (R) was indeed elected. That said, Morales did underperform other Republicans in the state by about 6 points.

J.C. in Arlington, VA, asks: Mike Madrid [Lincoln Project] said on his Mike Drop podcast that if Tucker Carlson decides to run for president, he will sweep the field. Even Donald Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) would be vanquished. Is that something you think could happen?

V & Z answer: We would not have imagined that Mehmet Oz would leave a cushy TV gig to tilt at senatorial windmills, and yet he did. So, we suppose it's possible Tucker Carlson could do the same to tilt at presidential windmills. After all, if there is one person who is deeply, deeply impressed with the brilliance and appeal of the Fox host, it's Tucker Carlson.

But the notion that Carlson would immediately be a runaway favorite for the Republican nod is nonsense. Both the Trump and the DeSantis partisans are deeply committed to their horses. And even they can see that a MAGA candidate with actual political experience is better than one with zero political experience.

B.C. in Farmingville, NY, asks: I know we are now 2 years out from the events of January 6, but questions still remain. At a lighthearted debate with a GOP family member, they claimed that all of the defense of the Capitol buildings rested with Nancy Pelosi and that any of the additional defense should have been requested by her but was not. His notion was that the lack of defense there was not the fault of Trump or anyone in his party. Where might approval for additional defense of the Capitol have lied? Was there a failure on someone's part to properly estimate the size of the crowd?

V & Z answer: There are a couple of elements to this claim. The first is that Pelosi somehow mismanaged the Capitol Police. However, the Capitol Police are not under the control of the politicians. To insulate them from political influence, they are managed by the Capitol Police Board. The Board apparently decided not to ask for National Guard support in advance, but Pelosi had nothing to do with that decision. It's also worth noting that the senate majority leader on the day was Mitch McConnell (R-KY). So, how could Pelosi be responsible here but not McConnell?

The other element to this claim is that Donald Trump really wanted to deploy 10,000 (or possibly 20,000) National Guard troops, and offered to do that, but Pelosi turned him down. This claim fails the smell test in so many ways that it makes rotten sardines bathed in dog poop seem like a red rose. The only vaguely truthful thing here is that Trump apparently did make a remark to then-acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller about activating a bunch of National Guard troops. However, Miller did not take that as an order, but instead as an offhand comment meant as a humblebrag about how big the crowds were going to be for Trump's speech that day. Certainly, Miller did not consider acting on that instruction and Trump never followed up.

Further, does it really seem plausible that Trump was trying to make the best possible decision, and he concluded that he just had to have input from... Nancy Pelosi? And that he allowed Pelosi to overrule him? Oh, and even if that did happen—and there's no evidence it did, beyond the claims of a man who was caught lying over 30,000 times during his time in office—the buck stops with the president, not with anyone else.

C.B. in Chicago, IL, asks: Why is it so hard to find a 2024 Senate map?

V & Z answer: Maybe we don't understand what you're looking for, but it does not seem hard to us. Here is a static map with a rundown of all the races on tap, and here is an interactive map.

K.S. in Lorton, CA, asks: The 2023 election season is gearing up here in Virginia and I am seriously considering running for the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, challenging the incumbent Democrat in the race. I have been a practicing Democrat myself for decades, though have voted in the Republican primary several times, thanks to Virginia's open primary. For this race, though, I am considering running as an independent. The fee to run and the number of signatures required are the same regardless of party.

If I run as a Democrat, I'm running for the primary on June 20. As an independent, I'd have the whole year and don't have to be beholden to a party that already holds the majority on the Board. As the Board of Supervisors is currently nine Democrats and one Republican, running as an independent would seem to make the most sense, especially with a rising feeling of disdain for the two-party system in the area. I already have some support from local civic organizations and plan to reach a decision by mid February. I know local Virginia politics is not your forte but I'd love any insight you, or the other readers might offer.

V & Z answer: The challenge here is that many people, if they don't recognize the candidates, just vote based on the (D) or the (R) next to the name. So, to get elected as an independent, you have to work really hard to make yourself known to the voters. Knocking on doors, going to public events, visiting the meetings of various organizations, etc. The good news is that if you're willing to put in the work, you're dealing with few enough voters and a small enough area that you might pull it off.

That's what we've got; if readers have thoughts, we'll run some of those tomorrow.

C.L. in Boulder, CO, asks: often has comments such as "[Elected official or candidate X] doesn't strike me as very smart" or "[Elected official or candidate X] reads and writes at a roughly third-grade level." Sometimes you point out the opposite: "[Elected official or candidate X] has degrees from [Elite Universities Y1 and Y2]."

I can totally believe that a person of normal or higher intelligence might not be a very articulate speaker or might make some unwise choices, but apart from someone like Herschel Walker, who has been battered as a professional football player, helmet notwithstanding, I have a hard time believing that people are really as dumb/uneducated as many people on this site make them out to be. I know that intelligence isn't a requirement for elected office, and I think some people (ahem, Donald Trump) have possibly lost some of their cognitive prowess, but I tend to believe that these people, at least at one time, were somewhat capable. Who would support a real dummy from Day 1, especially for a safe seat or a competitive seat, when surely you can find a better candidate?

V & Z answer: There are numerous skills that are helpful when running for political office. Intelligence is one of those, but it's certainly not at the top of the list. There are plenty of people who are persuasive and are good at telling people what they want to hear without being particularly bright. Ronald Reagan leaps to mind.

It is also the case that "really smart" is a turn-off for many people. Most extremely bright people develop the habit, either consciously or subconsciously, of code switching depending on their audience. That is to say, they express different kinds of ideas, and in a different way, based on the possibility that the "highfalutin'" stuff will be an extreme turn-off to some people. For this reason, some politicians deliberately construct a public image that understates their actual intelligence level. Dwight D. Eisenhower was famous for this. So was Sen. Joe Manchin's (D-WV) uncle, A. James Manchin (D-WV), who gave the Senator his start in politics.

In other words, there are, as you note, some politicians who used to be much sharper than they are now. And there are some politicians who are just "playing dumb," like Ike and Jim Manchin did. However, there are also some politicians who are actually pretty unintelligent, or who only have extremely domain-specific intelligence, and who got themselves elected to office based on other attributes. Former representative Louie Gohmert and current representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) are legitimately of limited smarts, by all indications (including the assessments of their colleagues). By contrast, Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) and former HUD Secretary Ben Carson appear to have intelligence, but intelligence that is very domain-specific (football strategy and surgery, respectively).

There are dumb Democrats, but they are rarer than they used to be, such that we can't think of someone who is currently in office and is at the level of a Louie Gohmert. You have to turn to Democratic members who have already left Congress to reach those depths; someone like Cynthia McKinney (GA), Patrick Kennedy (RI) or Jim Traficant (OH).

B.H. in Pittsburgh, PA, asks: Why do you frequently use the terms "known unknown" and "unknown unknown?" I find it very irritating and would prefer you use just "known" and "unknown." Are you making fun of Donald Rumsfeld or it is more accurate to write it your way?

V & Z answer: We are not making fun of Donald Rumsfeld, we're making use of one of the few useful notions he came up with in his long career. "Known unknown" and "unknown unknown" specifically refer to events that are in the future, and that can be expected to have a significant, but presently unclear, impact. And so, they are considerably more specific than "known" or "unknown."


V.I. in Los Angeles, CA, asks: I have two questions related to the role States play in national politics. First, has it ever happened that the outgoing and incoming Speaker of the House both hailed from the same State, such as the case with Kevin McCarthy following Nancy Pelosi?

And second, can a national ticket for president and vice president include two individuals from the same state? While improbable, the possibility of a Trump-DeSantis ticket perhaps should not be dismissed out of hand so early in the cycle. (A DeSantis-Trump ticket, on the other hand, is completely unimaginable, both on political as well as psychological grounds.)

V & Z answer: It has happened once before that a speaker from a particular state handed off the gavel to a different speaker from that same state. That was in 1835, when John Bell of Tennessee handed the job to his fellow Volunteer, James K. Polk.

And a national ticket can indeed include two people from the same state. However, electors from that state would not be allowed to cast electoral votes for both members of the ticket. So, in this case, the electors from Florida would vote for Trump for president but could not vote for DeSantis for vice president. This would run a non-zero chance of electing a president and vice president from different parties.

Normally, when this risk exists, one of the people on the ticket "moves" to some other state. For example, Dick Cheney decided in 2000 that he was going to "move" back to Wyoming from his residence in Texas. However, DeSantis can't exactly move to a state that is not Florida, and Donald Trump's ego probably wouldn't allow him to "move" back to New York, tail between his legs. Maybe he could "move" to his resort in New Jersey.

D.K. in Stony Brook, NY, asks: Can you give us some idea of how significant 100 judicial appointments is? What is the total number of such slots, what is the typical turnover, how many vacancies are there in general at any one time, etc.

If there are only 500 slots, then for Joe Biden to have filled 100 of them is, of course, a lot. If there are 3,000, then it's only 3%.

V & Z answer: When these numbers are bandied about, they invariably refer to what are called Article III judges, which means judges of the district, appellate and supreme courts. It does not include judges on more specialized courts, like the United States Court of Federal Claims (which rules on monetary claims made against the federal government).

There are a total of 870 Article III judgeships, which means Biden has already filled about 11% of them. There are currently an additional 85 vacancies, with Biden having put forward nominees for 32 of those.

S.N. in Santa Clara, CA, asks: Last year, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) asked the Michigan Supreme Court to determine if the state's 1932 abortion law was still relevant. In a similar vein, could the Biden administration ask the U.S. Supreme Court to determine if the law requiring the national debt ceiling to be raised is constitutional since it potentially conflicts with the fact that Congress lawfully spent the money?

V & Z answer: No. Article III, Sec. 2 of the Constitution, which outlines the powers of the federal courts, refers several times to "cases" or "controversies." The Supreme Court has ruled, on numerous occasions, that this means that federal cases can only be considered if there is an actual cause of action, and that advisory opinions are not allowed. So, if Joe Biden wanted to get SCOTUS involved, he would have to find a legal cause of action, and one that he has standing to bring. In other words, he would have to argue that he, either in his capacity as a private citizen or in his capacity as president, has been unlawfully harmed by the debt ceiling. Not an impossible argument to make, but not an easy one, either.

By contrast, state constitutions do not always have verbiage that forbids advisory opinions. Some state constitutions even go so far as to explicitly empower their courts in general (or their highest court, in particular) to issue advisory opinions. Michigan is one of the states that explicitly grants that authority; Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and South Dakota are the others.

D.K. Iowa City, IA, asks: If Donald Trump leaves the country before his trials, would he be tried in absentia? What would that entail if he were convicted?

V & Z answer: It is not legal, in the United States, to try someone in absentia. By law, they have to be present for their trial.

Well, actually, they have to be present at the start of the trial. If they absent themselves afterwards, then the trial can continue. So, if Donald Trump were to be charged with a crime and to be put on trial, and then during the trial he decided that he didn't like where things were headed and somehow managed to skip the country, then the proceeding could still be completed and a verdict could be rendered. He would then be a fugitive from American justice, and unless he was in a country with a non-extradition treaty (or in the embassy of such a country), he would be at constant risk of being arrested and returned to the U.S. in chains.

T.H. in Edmonton, AL, Canada, asks: Imagine my surprise to learn that living in a parliamentary government means no "checks and balances." You wrote: "But those systems don't really have checks and balances, so when a coalition is cobbled together in the parliament, it can actually implement the agreed upon program. The U.S. is stumbling toward a system that has all the disadvantages of a multiparty system without any of the advantages."

Can you please elaborate on these statements? This Canadian, until hither and unbeknownst to myself is quite possibly living in a check-free, balance-free parliamentary democracy that is on the precipice of socialist anarchy! I would like to request a civics lesson. Namely, could you please provide a high-level "compare and contrast" of the "checks and balances" and the "advantages and disadvantages" of the U.S. and parliamentary systems of government as it relates to multi-parties?

V & Z answer: There are two different sorts of "checks and balances." The first is the sort wherein the various branches of government keep an eye on the other branches to make sure there are no misuses of power. This is the kind of checks and balances that every democracy has, including the 'Nades.

The other kind is the sort wherein it is difficult or impossible for any one branch to implement its political program without cooperation from at least one of the other branches. The fellows who wrote the Constitution did not much trust the teeming masses, nor did they trust strong executives. So, they deliberately made it difficult to put forth a political program without significant consensus between the legislative and executive branches. In most parliamentary systems, by contrast, the chief executive comes from the legislature, such that consensus is, effectively, automatic.


A.A. in Kingwood, TX, asks: When I look at the Republican Party, their platform can be summarized by the following tenets:

  1. Tax cut for corporations and wealthy people.
  2. Do away with any regulations—good or bad.
  3. Culture war du jour to distract people from 1 and 2.
  4. Nominate conservative "judges" (quotes required, since qualifications do not seem to matter) to uphold 1 to 3.

Of course, this is no governing platform, and I wonder how long a party can survive without a clear strategy around how they plan to lead when in power. My question is—we had a few parties come and go in American history, was there any time when a party crumbled for lack of a concrete platform and, if it did happen, how long did it take for the party to go the way of the dodo? Are there any parallels to the modern day GOP?

V & Z answer: The Republican Party has been around for 168 years and the Democratic Party has been around for longer than that. Neither of them are going to collapse anytime soon. And probably not ever. They've both gotten pretty good at adapting when circumstances call for it, which is why the Republican Party of 2023 is still the "Republican Party," but has a very different platform from the one it had in, say, 1876.

The only party in U.S. history that had national success without having much of a platform was the Whigs, who were around for about two decades, from 1833 to the mid-1850s. The main commonality of the party's members is that they opposed... whatever the Democrats were trying to do. Eventually, the Whigs were destroyed by the issue of slavery, where the difference of opinion was so great that it could not be smoothed over.

The lesson here is that it's possible to linger for a pretty long time without much in the way of a political program. But in contrast to the Whigs, unlikely that the GOP will collapse, or will face a crisis that divides the Party and forces an immediate change or course. It is more likely that it will slowly wean itself off of Trumpism, as that ideology becomes less and less politically viable.

C.J. in Redondo Beach, CA, asks: Are you aware of any books specifically of various Speaker fights of yesteryear? I read a lot of history books (in the middle of one on the California Gold Rush at the moment), but other than an article here or there, I've never really read much on any of the contested Speaker battles. I think something like that would be fascinating.

V & Z answer: The book you are looking for is Fighting for the Speakership: The House and the Rise of Party Government (2012), by Jeffery A. Jenkins and Charles Stewart. Stewart is on the faculty at USC, which is concerning, but Jenkins is at MIT, and undoubtedly cleaned up any messes made by his co-author. Anyhow, they pretty much take you on a chronological journey though 200 years of speaker elections. For example, Chapter 5 is titled "Shoring Up Partisan Control: The Speakership Elections of 1839 and 1847" and Chapter 6 is "Partisan Tumult on the Floor: The Speakership Elections of 1849 and 1855-1856."

F.F. in London, England, UK, asks: I visited Berlin over the winter holidays, and only upon my visit did I appreciate the Berlin Wall enclosed West Berlin like an island within East Germany. My earlier, uninformed, impression was that the East/West German border ran through Berlin, and the wall was just the part of that border that ran through Berlin.

My question is, why did defectors make high risk attempts to cross the wall rather than go around Berlin and cross the actual border, which presumably was not walled?

V & Z answer: We think you are operating under two misapprehensions. First, here is the map that (Z) uses when lecturing about the Cold War and the division of Germany:

It shows the division of Europe at Yalta.
Berlin is well inside East German territory

As you can see, Berlin is ensconced well within East Germany. Walking around the Berlin Wall to the other side of West Berlin would leave someone... still in East Germany. It would be necessary to travel west another 90 miles to reach West Germany.

Further, the border between East and West Germany most certainly was walled. It was, in fact, one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world before reunification. Not only was there a wall, there were actually two of them, about 5 km apart, along with a bunch of fortifications, tripwires, and other nastiness. Oh, and there were thousands of soldiers guarding the border. So, to escape that way, a person would have to breach the first wall, cover 5 km of essentially "no man's land" territory, and then breach the second wall. You would have an easier time crossing the Korean DMZ.

This means that if someone wanted to escape East Germany, their best hope was to breach the relatively less imposing Berlin Wall, and then to either take shelter in West Berlin, or to take an airplane to the rest of West Germany or to some non-communist nation.


B.C. in Walpole, ME, asks: Neither I nor my wife follow sportsball. We don't even distinguish among the one with the bat, the one with the pointed ball, the one with the hoops, the one with the flat crabcake-style ball, the international one—It's all sportsball to us. Consequently, as we passionately follow the first-time-in-a-century, Ghost-of-Gridlock-Future drama on Capitol Hill, we are amazed as coverage of this slow-moving political disaster is interrupted to update us on an injured sportsball player. Our hearts go out to him, to his family, to his sportsball team. But it's being covered like it's Jan. 6. Can you explain?

V & Z answer: As we noted in "This Week in Freudenfreude: That's a Lot Of Bills," the player in question was Bills safety Damar Hamlin, who suffered a freakish hit that caused his heart to stop beating. He was resuscitated on the field—twice—and taken to a hospital. He has since been released, and is on the road to recovery.

There are undoubtedly many reasons this story got so much attention. To start, it involved America's most popular sports league, and it was a game that was nationally televised, such that tens of millions of people saw it happen live. That gave football fans something of a stake in the outcome.

Another reason is that, because it became a BIG story, it developed BIG storylines of the sort that people find compelling. For example, if a person likes to be inspired, there's the story that we wrote about, with the millions of dollars donated to Hamlin's toys-for-tots fundraisers. If a person likes to be upset about how humanity is going to hell in a handbasket, then there were a bunch of stories like that. For example, Skip Bayless, who is the Tucker Carlson of the sports media, wrote a tweet that could be understood as saying that getting back to the game was more important than Hamlin's recovery. And then he refused to apologize for his clumsy wording.

However, the biggest reason the story became something of an obsession, in our view, is error management. This is a concept that we've noted a few times in the past, it's the idea that it's more advantageous (or less damaging) to make a lot of small errors than it is to make one big error. For example, smoke detectors are set to be hyper-sensitive, which means they produce lots of false alarms. That is because nobody ever sued a smoke detector maker because the device went off when it shouldn't have. But people will most certainly sue if the smoke detector doesn't go off when it should have. So, much better to have 100 false positives than one false negative.

Anyhow, if Hamlin had suffered a garden variety injury, even a serious one, there's a script for the media to follow. He would have been taken off the field, would have given a thumbs up to signal that everything was OK, and there would be a few stories about how football is a rough game and how Hamlin will/will not fully recover. You could also argue there would be a pretty clear script if he'd died; a couple of days' coverage about the tragedy, a bunch of thought pieces about whether it's worth it to risk human lives for entertainment purposes, coverage of the funeral, stories about how the Bills will be putting a patch with Hamlin's number on their jerseys for the rest of the season, and will be dedicating their playoff run to him, and then the news would have moved on to the next story.

But there's never really been anything quite like the Hamlin story, where information was scarce, and where it was not clear whether there would be a happy ending or not. The media has no pre-set, socially acceptable script for something like this. And that left them with two broad choices: move on, or dwell on the situation. Had they moved on, it might have made some people very angry (as they became angry with Skip Bayless). On the other hand, even people who were weary of the story weren't going to get angry/complain/cancel their subscription just because the coverage lingered a bit. So, error management pushed the media into giving vast coverage, because the potential costs of over-covering the story are far less than the potential costs of under-covering it.

J.B. in Hutto, TX, asks: What can possibly be done to reverse the decline of local journalism?

V & Z answer: At the moment, the most promising options appears to be subscription-based websites that connect journalists with interested readers. Substack, for example, has a number of people who are supporting themselves and are doing the good work that used to be done by small, local papers and/or by alternative weeklies.

H.F. in Pittsburgh, PA, asks: On New Year's Day, A.B. wrote in from Wendell, NC; Miami, FL; and Chesapeake, VA. A.B. in Lichfield, England, is also one of your go-to British correspondents. Is there another contributor designation that occurs more frequently?

V & Z answer: Our fifth most common initial combination is J.C., then fourth is J.B. (which is also the most common initial combination in the U.S.), and then A.B. is third. In case anyone cares to guess which two initial combinations are more common than A.B., we'll put the second and first place finishers at the bottom of the page. Hint: The correct answers are not X.W. or Q.Z.

S.K. in Atlanta, GA, asks: As usual, this week I was listening to in my car while driving to work when something caught me off guard. Your item "The Beat Goes On" ended with the signature of "Z & V." I think that's the first time I ever heard those initials reversed. What happened here? Was there some sort of insurrection? Inquiring minds must know!

V & Z answer: If you think the QAnon shaman was a sight, you should see the shaman.

No, actually, there was no insurrection. Generally speaking, we put first the initial of the person who did more of the writing. However, we also put two initials in cases where there were significant contributions from both people. If (Z) adds just a sentence or two to a piece by (V), (Z) does not add his signature.

Anyhow, because of the time zone difference, it is somewhat common for (V) to write a substantive piece, and for (Z) to come along later and add a few paragraphs, quite often because of news that broke after (V)'s night came to an end. In that case, you would see the fairly common (V) & (Z) signature. It is far less common for the reverse process to happen because (Z) finishes close to, at, or sometimes after our target deadline. So, there is less likely to be time for (V) to add 2-5 paragraphs. Further, there is not likely to be late-breaking news that (Z) was unaware of, because all of the day's news has generally broken before he ever starts writing.

P.L. Denver, CO, asks: Thanks so much for sharing your dogs with us, (Z)!

I am a lifelong Dachshund lover having gotten my first dog in the fifth grade. I have since had Butch, Pretzel, Heineken, Ginger, Greta, Fritz, Collins, Zoe, Rollo, and Ava (a mix—we think with Jack Russell).

Question for you—are you a lifelong Doxie fan? What do you like about them?

V & Z answer: (Z) does not like to think of himself as "owning" animals. However, every animal that has ever come to live with him has been the result of passive circumstances, as opposed to actively seeking out a pet.

In the case of Otto, (Z)'s ex-wife was actually the dachshund fan, and it was she who brought him into the family. However, while she was a fan of the fun parts of having a dog around, she was much less a fan of things like taking care of feedings, handling dog park trips, going on walks, etc. As it turns out—and who could possibly guess this would be the case?—dogs tend to gravitate toward the person who gives them food and other forms of attention. And so, when the ex-wife departed, Otto strongly preferred to remain behind. There was theoretically going to be a "shared custody" arrangement where he alternated weeks, but that lasted all of 0.0 weeks.

Meanwhile, we already recounted, a couple of weeks ago, how Flash joined the pack.

So, (Z) is a recent convert rather than a long-term devotee. However, he knows now that dachshunds are full of character, are very loyal, are generally pretty healthy, are long-lived by dog standards, and that everybody is charmed by the breed, probably because of their short little legs. Kids, in particular, are delighted with them. So, if (Z) ever was to actively seek out a dog in the future, it would be a doxie.

Reader Question of the Week

Here is the question we put before readers two weeks ago:

S.B. in Laurel, DE, asks: In your item "What's a Woman?," you relayed a list of legal definitions that The Independent Women's forum is working on and several legitimate points of how difficult it would be to enforce. Rather than (again) defend what it means to be a transgender woman, I'd love it if you posed your question to your readers. I'm eager to hear what your cisgender readers think, especially the women. What is a woman?

And here some of the intriguing answers we got in response:

H.R. in Jamaica Plain, MA: I'm a cisgender lesbian woman in my 70s. If I'd grown up at a different time, I might have identified as non-binary. One of my grandmothers lost her life at a young age because her gynecologist (in the 1930s) failed to diagnose the symptoms of cervical cancer. He attributed her symptoms to her "male nature." At a different time, would she have identified as a trans male? Or was she just an assertive, competent woman? It's complicated and I think everyone's experience is different, so whatever identity feels right to a person, it should be up to each to recognize for themselves. No one else can understand what it is like to live inside another person's skin. That said, when I read about the attempt at a biological definition on, I was horrified. What about post-menopausal women? They can no longer bear children. Are they no longer women? What about women who for medical reasons have had a complete hysterectomy? Are they no longer women?

A.B. in Chesapeake, Va: While in medical school in 1975, I learned of a condition known as testicular feminization. Since renamed as Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, the person is born with XY chromosomes, but the cells of the body are not receptive to male hormones. The individual manifests as a sterile woman with a range of possible appearances including standard human female. At the time, we were told of a famous Hollywood actress with this condition; the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 did not yet exist and her medical history was unethically released. I always had my doubts about the veracity of the report, but when she adopted her children, it gained support in my mind. Those that do not know who this individual is would never, and I mean never, guess that this person has XY chromosomes and has been in many movies where her female sex was an integral part of the story. Whether or not it is true, there is no question that such individuals exist. This demonstrates the futility of trying to define human male/female based on chromosomes and would only release extremely private information about one's health history that belongs to no one but themselves. Uneducated lawmakers who do not understand the complexity of these medical issues should just butt out. Just as with reproductive health, it is far more complicated than these idiotic rubes could hope to know.

W.S. in Austin, TX: J.E. in Manhattan wrote: "The 'what is a woman' question isn't one that can be answered by a biologist, it's very much a social question as well, and much of the anti-trans propaganda is predicated on this idea that there is something innate and ineffable about being a woman, when a large chunk of what people experience as being women is dependent on the context they are in—their experience."

This gets right to it, of course. Social context is more important than biology for many in this area. "If you lived on a desert island with no other people and no social roles of any kind, would that affect whether you are a man or woman?" would be an easy question for many to answer... but much trickier for others.

But there are other ways to look at it. For instance, I consider myself to have a male body (hardware) that supports an abstract consciousness (software). The word "man" and my pronouns only refer to the hardware, full stop. They certainly don't define my social roles, basic nature, capabilities, concept of myself, etc. All that is up to me.

The idea that the pronouns could or should define the social roles, basic nature, capabilities, etc., strikes me as a load of antiquated gendered bulls**t. And I don't define other people on such a basis either, which is why it was very easy for me to vote for Hillary (who was, by far, the best qualified candidate running in 2016 and whose policies approximated my own).

Hillary's female hardware didn't seem very relevant compared to her service as senator and secretary of state, her general intelligence, and her poise under fire in the debates and the Benghazi grilling... none of which her pronouns covered at all.

D.L. in Northglenn, OH: The dictionary definition of woman is "an adult female human being." For everyday usage, I think this definition works quite well. It works because it specifies the three essential characteristics of womanhood without going into the complex boundary issues that all three of these characteristics have.

Of course, legal definitions are all about complex boundary issues. And the legal answer here seems obvious to me. Legal documents ought not to rely on the precise definition of the term "woman." For example, Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. It does not use the term "woman." And most legal documents also shouldn't be discriminating on the basis of sex and so the issue shouldn't usually come up. It does in some rare cases; for example, in the construction of gender-segregated prisons. Lawyers drafting documents about things like that ought to specify their actual intent instead of relying on the default, which means they must first think through the realities of non-binary gender.

You will no doubt notice that I have totally weaseled out of attempting to specify what gender and sex are or ought to be. Gender diversity is inevitable in a free society. We all need to learn how to tolerate each other. And strict and precise definitions have no part in that.

I suppose you could say I identify as a cisgender male, although "identify" is much too strong a word.

M.L. in Westchester, NY: I am an older, straight, cisgender woman who looks quite "femme" but always bridled at the expectations of what a "woman" should be. As a scientist and opinionated feminist who has gladly accepted the descriptions of "surly" and "bitch" (offered by more than one random guy who thought I needed his judgment...), I welcome an update to the gender definitions that I grew up with. I see it happening with the younger generation in my position as an educator. The kids these days are breaking down the male/female dichotomy, and they do it with style.

Some say that there is a problem with athletics. I have done plenty of competitive sports and see how, in some of them, I got easily beat by cis-men. OK, I can imagine training at the professional level and getting beat out, at high stakes, by someone who genetically has more muscle mass or whatever due to her trans XY genes. That would be tough.

IMHO, this is a problem with how we approach sports, and not how we approach gender. Side-stepping that argument for brevity, trans people are not taking such a drastic step with themselves and their bodies just to get some college scholarship. Sure, it might happen someday (cringier version of The Soul Man? The fact that it would be 1 out of 1 bazillion cases won't matter to the trans-haters, but it should be acknowledged that this argument is good at freaking certain people out but soooooo not a real problem.

What I personally "know" about trans (I don't really know, but I'm trying): I imagine 10-year-old me, a girlie girl who loved sparkles and pretty dresses, learning that I would soon be growing a beard and getting a deep voice and being expected to wear suits and ties and all that "guy" stuff. That might be something like what a trans girl born in a male body goes through. I would never take the freedom away from such a person to adjust course and have the life that fits them. No matter what might happen in some sports game.

Does that mean that "woman" means :likes sparkly dresses"? Facepalm. No. And definitely no. Many awesome women in my life are not so stereotypically femme in the ways that I am. But then, others are not so in-your-face feminist as me.

What I really want to say is that I hope it doesn't matter what I, or any cis-gender person, thinks. Gay couples have won their right to marry, and that will (damn well better!) not ever go away. Trans people are the new Big Scary for the right but they are here and they also won't go away. I see it in the youth I teach. They don't accept the previously drawn lines. They have a long fight in front of them, but they have allies in folks like me. They are the ones who will get to define what a woman is. I expect that definition to be broad.

(OMG I so did not intend that pun, but I'm keeping it!)

D.F. in Cedar Rapids, IA: I am transgender female. With respect to the 2023 anti-trans legislation, be careful what you wish for. Does the Independent Women's Forum want Mr. Kye Allums in the women's restroom?

Looks like an attractive Black man

Or, Ms. Mela Habijan in the men's restroom?

Looks like an attractive Arab woman

Okay, granted, they may not care as much about Ms. Habijan being in the men's bathroom. (The men may feel differently, however!)

As I said, be careful what you wish for!

M.M. in San Diego, CA: This cis-gendered woman thinks that "What is woman?" is a loaded question. It asks for a narrow definition based on biology that would exclude intersex individuals.

And a word to our trans friends: The general public, as far as I can tell, seems to conflate gender and sexuality, so unpacking that misconception might help further the cause (as if you don't already have enough on your plate(s)).

L.E. in Putnam County, NY: This is something on which I have strong views.

As I have said, saying "trans women are women" is like saying "Donald Trump was reelected in 2020"—readily disproven by the only valid measure, so those defending the assertion are driven to seize desperately on diversionary irrelevancies.

You highlighted the "conservative" Women's Bill of Rights, but there is also the broader-based Women's Declaration International is active in 160 countries; that includes the USA-based branch. These organizations are clearly not "conservative," nor is the Women's Liberation Front, which co-sponsors both.

Women can only be defined by biology and not by ego; to dismiss the latter claim is not to take rights away from a minority but to affirm that a purported "right" cannot exist for anybody.

To be indulged in one's pretense of being the opposite sex is to be harmed, to deny that one is being harmed in such situations is proof that one is mentally ill.

Plenty of sources out there back me up, but the hard reality precludes treating actual sex as subjective.

A.H. in Newberg, OR: A.B. in Wendell wrote: "NOBODY defines me... except ME"

From a grouchy old curmudgeon (AKA Old Fart) on the Left Coast. White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP). I have been called a "Pinko, Commie, Socialist" all in the same breath; I am a tax-and-spend LEFT COAST LIBERAL and damn proud of it. My pronouns are Me/Gramps/Great Gramps

You express yourself beautifully. I am more interested in fighting for truth, justice, and the American way, than tilting at windmills. If you need anyone to hold your beer, just let me know! If you need a beer I can provide a fine Oregon Kraft Brewed IPA.

Angela Bridgman in Wendel, NC: OK, so you knew I was gonna have to jump in on this...

I would argue that anyone who self-identifies as a woman... is a woman. One of the things about this Land of the Free... is that NOBODY has the right to define someone else.

There are laws in place against public lewdness in bathrooms and the like, and being trans does not exempt you from them, as those of us who fought HB-2 pointed out. Even if you are trans, standing on the potty so you can look down into the next stall would be illegal.

Furthermore, laws like HB-2 were completely unenforceable, anyway. Not to mention they protected nobody, since those hell-bent on entering a women's bathroom to commit a crime were not gonna let a law stand in their way!

I love it how when the issue is gun control, they all say criminals won't obey the law, but when the issue is something like HB-2, they act as if criminals WILL obey such a law...because they would LIKE the criminals to obey it.

Now, I come from a perspective of being out trans for 30 years, and I remember having what was called a "carry letter." This was a letter you got from a licensed therapist who was treating you that stated your gender identity. This was used when you got harassed in the bathroom. I never once had to use mine, but I had one. Then again, I also went through the whole process under the old HBIGDA guidelines (WPATH did not yet exist)—and the HBIGDA guidelines were far more restrictive than current guidelines.

Also, back in my day, we still flew mostly under the radar, and I remember being the only trans person that people around me knew, knew of, spoke to or had even heard of! That is certainly no longer the case.

But I will say this...NOBODY has the right to define me, other than me. And NOBODY is going to restrict my rights without a fight. Even during HB-2, I carried my birth certificate, and was quoted on national news that if I was asked for my birth certificate, I was gonna ask for their warrant!

My attitude hasn't changed. I am hurting nobody by my mere existence and I will be good and goddamned if anyone has the right to hurt me just for existing, and I will be good and goddamned if ANYONE other than me has ANY right to define me.

You can quote me with my full name and city if you want, because I am OUT TRANS, LOUD AND PROUD

A.S. in Renton, WA: I spoke on this topic recently to my progressive church, from my point of being physically intersexed. "Woman" and "man" are social constructs. Sexual biology is a bell curve. Gender is independent of biology.

(And I then went on to show from the Bible that God doesn't give a **** about what the bits look like of the person you love. In fact that all God really cares about is LOVE.)

A.R. in Los Angeles, CA: I'll give you the legal perspective.

With respect to federal programs reserved for certain groups, it's not new for people or corporations to try to get federal funds for programs for which they don't qualify. It's called fraud, and prosecutors and courts are already proficient at handling these types of cases. In the example given of SBA loans for minority or female-owned businesses, the fraud usually consists of putting up a figurehead who doesn't really own or run the business. It's hardly as elaborate as someone pretending to be a woman where a physical exam would be the best evidence of the scam. The idea that we need definitions of "woman" and "man" to solve these rampant impersonations is patently absurd. This is nothing but the North Carolina bathroom bill writ large.

It also flies in the face of decades of well-settled case law interpreting the Fourteenth amendment and equal rights laws like title VII and IX. The first issue is that discrimination, whether it's based on race, sex, sexual orientation, age or other protected classification, occurs when the offender perceives the target to be part of a protected class. In other words, if a man is targeted for being gay, it's irrelevant whether he is actually gay. All that matters is that those discriminating against him did so because they believed he was gay. So the question, "what is a woman" is the wrong question because it's irrelevant. The question when it comes to discrimination is whether it occurred because of her sex, whether or not the offenders were, in actuality, wrong about her sex.

The second issue raised was what about all those women-only sports teams and other single-sex programs. Again, this is nothing new. What's more relevant to this is the affirmative action case SCOTUS is deciding. Case law has long held that past discrimination can be remedied by so-called "affirmative action," one of which is the ability for girls and women to have access to education and programs that are single-sex, provided there's an "exceedingly persuasive justification" that benefits the group that has been unduly burdened. See Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan (school violated equal protection clause in denying men entry to nursing program). See also Ruth Bader Ginsburg's eloquent opinion in United States v. Virginia (the VMI case).

Conservatives suddenly seem alarmed that someone could try to evade these long-standing rules by impersonating a female and so the proposed solution is a law defining these terms once and for all—and a belief that many Democrats would vote for it. Frankly, any Democrats who vote for this nonsense should be drummed out of office and out of the party. There is no evidence that men are impersonating women to gain access to women-only schools and programs.

We need to call proposals like this exactly what they are: anti-transgender legislation. Their purpose is to enshrine into law discrimination based on gender identity. This is an overt attempt to do an end-run around the holdings in Bostock and Obergefell that sexual orientation and identity are protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.

B.J. in Arlington, MA: I've thought about this question a fair bit. More specifically, as a white, cis-gendered male, I've wondered: What is a man? I am confident that I am one and yet cannot define why. I know that I am only physically attracted to "women," of course only women who present themselves in certain ways (the "types" I'm attracted to). Everything else about gender identity, from behavior to occupations to clothing styles to hair cuts to pronouns, seems completely arbitrary. And yet I am totally comfortable in my "role" as a man, in terms of behavior, occupation, clothing, hair, pronouns, and everything else. Is that just social training? Probably yes.

So the best answer I have is that a "woman" is a person who fits the cultural and biological pattern that the majority of "men" would want to have sex with, and vice versa. In other words, the only reason for gender identity norms is the desire to know what kind of genitals each person has, and what kind of genitals they are interested in other people having.

That doesn't seem like a good enough reason to legislate anything.

Here is the question for next week:

K.C. in West Islip, NY, asks: I enjoyed "This Week in Freudenfreude: This Bugs Me," though I do wonder about your overall opinion (and the opinion of the readers) on this topic. I often ask my students: Do you believe social media, and the Internet in general, has had an overall positive or an overall negative effect on intelligence?

Submit your answers here!

The second-most-common initial combo is J.S., and the most common is... M.M.

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