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Johnson Is Confronting Biden Already

That didn't take long. Newly minted House speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) is feeling his oats and wants to show Joe Biden who's boss around town. He is planning to force a vote today on a bill that gives aid only to Israel, with aid to Ukraine "later." Also, it pays for the aid by cutting the funding to the IRS, which will increase the deficit. IRS estimates that for every dollar it gets in funding, it collects $12 in taxes it would otherwise not collect. But Johnson's rich donors very much like the idea of weakening IRS, deficit be damned.

Biden and many Republican senators think that the aid-to-Ukraine bill will show up sometime after the rapture, if then, and want it coupled to the aid-to-Israel bill. Democrats are already hammering Johnson on his idea of cutting tax enforcement so wealthy tax cheats can get away with it. Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-MA) said: "Speaker Johnson is failing his first test. Conditioning aid to Israel on helping the rich avoid taxes is cynical partisanship, not leadership." Did Auchincloss expect otherwise? Probably not. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called it a gift to wealthy tax avoiders. He is pushing the Senate to approve Joe Biden's entire $100 billion request. Johnson probably knows that his bill will never become law, but he wants to get Democrats on record opposing aid to Israel so Republicans can use that in ads in 2024. It is not clear Democrats will take the bait, though. Some accused him of cynicism by attaching the aid to a poison pill. To make it worse, if House Democrats stick together and all vote against the bill, it might fail in the House, because Reps. Thomas Massie (R-KY), Joe Wilson (R-SC), Chip Roy (R-TX) and some other Republicans are against aid to Israel.

But Johnson's problem is much bigger than Democratic opposition. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been adamant that funding for both wars must be in the same bill. This means that Johnson is not only at war with the Democrats, but also with Senate Republicans. Not a great start in his new job. McConnell is not going to allow himself to be bulldozed by a guy who has been on the job for a week. McConnell could offer amendments to put back the Ukraine aid, beef up funding for border security, and remove the cuts to the IRS. That would probably mean most Democrats and many Republicans would sign on since they don't want to deal with ads next year of the type: "Sen. X or Rep. Y voted against tightening up border security."

It will be very informative to see how this plays out. If Johnson ends up with very little of what he wants because McConnell doesn't want it, he will soon be transmuted into an animal—a paper tiger or a lame duck, your choice. Of course, if he gets what he wants, he will be seen as a raging bull. (V)

Johnson's Finances Are Coming under Scrutiny

Now that Speaker Mike Johnson is two heartbeats from the presidency, he is under a huge microscope for the first time. The Daily Beast is reporting that Johnson has never listed having a bank account on his financial disclosure forms since he has been in Congress. That is extremely unusual and means one of three things: he's extremely poor, he uses some odd alternative to banks (stuffing money in the mattress?), or he's lying.

Members of Congress are required to disclose all bank accounts unless the amount in the account is under $1,000 and the total value of all the member's accounts plus those of his or her spouse and dependent children is under $5,000. Ordinary members of the House and Senate make $174,000 per year. When he became speaker, Johnson got a pay raise to $223,500. Members are paid once a month on the last day of the month. That means for the past 6+ years, Johnson has been getting $14,500 every month. If he doesn't have a bank account, obviously he can't get his salary by direct deposit to his bank account. If he picks up a check every month, where does he cash it absent a bank account? Does he go to some local check cashing place and get $14,500 (minus a fee of 1-12%) in cash every month? We doubt that many check cashing places have that amount of cash lying around all the time, assuming they will do it at all.

Here is the reporting form. It is due May 15 of every year for the previous calendar year. It is possible that Johnson deposits his November check to his bank account on Dec. 1 and then withdraws $13,501 in cash immediately and stuffs it in his mattress, so on Dec 31 (the reporting date), he has only $999 in his account, which doesn't have to be reported.

In addition, if Johnson has no checking account or less than $999 in his, how does he pay his mortgage? He did report a mortgage of between $250,000 and $500,000. Even if his mortgage is $250,000 at a rate of 3%, the interest alone would be $625. Zillow says his house in Benton, LA, is worth $600,000, so a more likely 4% loan on $400,000 would be $1,333/mo. just in interest. And his checks would bounce unless he withdraws only $12,168 in cash every payday and times everything perfectly.

And what about his car insurance company, and his credit card company, and his cell phone provider? These folks tend not to be receptive if you ask if you can bring a wad of cash to the office every month. And even if they grudgingly say "all right," bringing cash to half a dozen offices every month wastes a lot of time. Does Johnson's dentist take bitcoins?

Many Americans have less than $1,000 in their bank accounts, but that is usually true of people making, say, $30,000 a year, not people making $174,000 a year. Oh, and Johnson's wife has two jobs, so where does her money go? Also, banks charge fees if your balance is too low. Chase and Citibank charge $12/mo. unless you have $1,500 in your account all the time. Maybe he found a bank that requires a smaller balance to avoid fees, but why would someone making $14,500/mo. pick a bank based on the monthly fee structure? According to the banks, the median amount that Americans have in their checking accounts is $5,300 and the average amount in savings accounts is $41,600. But Johnson, who is in the top 12% of all earners, has $999 or less in his checking account and under $5,000 in all his checking, savings, money market, and CD accounts combined? This doesn't compute.

Oh, and the website is reporting that Johnson owns a 12,000 sq. ft. mansion in Baton Rouge, a 5,000-acre ranch in Shreveport, and a 200-acre island in the Gulf of Mexico. These would have to be reported on the ethics form. We don't know if this is true, but this is far more typical of members of Congress than not having $1,000 in their checking accounts. Intelius is reporting that a James Michael Johnson born in Jan. 1972, who has a relative named Kelly Lary Johnson, owns two properties in Benton, LA, seven properties in Shreveport, LA, and six properties in Baton Rouge, LA. James Johnson and Michael Johnson are extremely common names so they may have mixed in some others with the speaker, although Johnson was born in Shreveport and now lives in Benton, so at least some of these are plausible. Maybe Johnson wasn't sure about the reporting requirements (even though he is a lawyer), so he went to the top and got advice about reporting from Clarence Thomas. (V)

Donald Trump Jr. Testifies

Yesterday, Donald Trump Jr. was forced to testify in his father's trial. Dad has been accused of giving false documents to banks, insurance companies, and tax authorities. Junior is the first Trump to testify, but his sibs Eric and Ivanka will also testify. Junior's father didn't show up to listen to his son. He knows Junior is a doofus and has nothing to say worth listening to.

When questioned by an attorney from AG Letitia James' office, Junior said he knew nothing about the accounting standards known as GAAP. That is not surprising, since financial statements prepared by the Trump Organization did not comply with them. They were supposed to. Among other things, GAAP says you are not allowed to lie on financial statements. Since Junior is running the company along with Eric Trump, one might have thought he would at least be aware of the concept of not lying on financial statements, but Junior apparently didn't handle that part of the business. He wore a pink tie and joked with photographers that he should have worn makeup.

The defense is arguing that banks and others are supposed to do their own due diligence and not rely on what would-be borrowers tell them. In other words, it is fine to lie to them because they are supposedly smart enough to know you are lying. The next step up is to claim that lying to IRS on your 1040 form is OK because IRS has smart revenue agents who can detect all the lies. Remember, there is no jury in this trial, only a judge. Good luck with this defense before an experienced judge. (V)

Republicans Are Trying to Take Control of the Election Machinery

Republicans are starting to come to the conclusion that it doesn't matter who gets the votes. What matters is who counts the votes. For example:

Election watchdog groups are warning that these changes and others like them could imperil public confidence in voting, something Republicans have been doing for decades. If people can't vote or don't believe their vote will be counted, then they won't vote. It is as simple as that. Of course, Republicans are hoping that more Democrats than Republicans will skip voting, but that is not guaranteed.

In some places, Republicans are trying to make election boards "fair" by having an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. In practice, that means if Republicans pull off dirty tricks, which they love to do, the board won't be able to do anything because it will be deadlocked. Of course, having partisan officials on election boards is a terrible thing in the first place. In just about every other democracy, elections are run by nonpartisan civil servants, not political appointees with an axe to grind.

Running an election is more complicated than it looks and takes much time. Deadlocked boards make it worse. What if the partisan secretary of state says every county shall have exactly five polling places, no matter if it has 10,000 voters or 1,000,000 voters, and the relevant election board is deadlocked and can't make a decision? And this is only one of many issues. (V)

How Might Third Parties Affect the Presidential Race?

Looking at an upcoming presidential race featuring Joe Biden and Donald Trump, some voters may be saying: "Oh God please, not those two again," and may start looking at third-party candidates. The number of people looking for an alternative could be larger than normal in 2024. How might that affect the race?

The list of third-party candidates from which the double haters can choose may be exceptionally long next year. Anti-vaxxers will have Robert Kennedy Jr. available. Leftists will have Cornel West. Then there will be whoever the No Labels group, Green Party, and Libertarian Party put up. In addition, there are the candidates of truly minor parties, like the Constitution Party and dozens of even smaller parties. It is a veritable cornucopia for protest voters, most of whom will be very angry if either Biden or Trump is the winner, which is practically guaranteed (unless one of them is in jail or dead).

Now, don't misunderstand our pooh-poohing of these microparties. They have no chance of beating either of the 800-pound gorillas, it is true, but they could dramatically affect the election outcome by drawing more from one of the big parties than the other. Two recent polls have shown Kennedy pulls more support from Trump than from Biden, probably due to anti-vaxxers who don't like Trump for some reason. Kennedy is also being funded largely by Republican donors. That is a sign that they think his candidacy will hurt Biden, but they could be wrong.

In 2016, the third-party vote was 6.1%, the most this century. Second highest was 2000, with 3.8%. The other years it was under 2%. What do 2000 and 2016 have in common? Gotta think about that.

One factor to keep in mind is that the popular vote doesn't actually matter. It's not about who gets the most votes. It's about who wins Arizona, Wisconsin, and Georgia. Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball has done the math to see what percentage of the vote third parties have averaged 2000-2020 state by state:

State 2000 2004 2008 2012 2016 2020 Average
Utah 6.8% 2.5% 3.7% 2.8% 27.8% 5.4% 8.2%
Alaska 13.7% 3.4% 2.7% 4.4% 12.2% 4.4% 6.8%
Vermont 8.7% 2.3% 2.1% 2.5% 13.1% 3.2% 5.3%
Idaho 5.2% 1.4% 2.9% 3.5% 13.3% 3.4% 4.9%
Montana 8.2% 2.4% 3.4% 3.0% 8.9% 2.5% 4.7%
Oregon 6.5% 1.5% 2.9% 3.6% 10.8% 3.2% 4.7%
Washington 5.3% 1.6% 2.4% 3.2% 10.6% 3.3% 4.4%
Wyoming 4.5% 2.1% 2.7% 3.5% 10.0% 3.5% 4.4%
North Dakota 6.3% 1.6% 2.3% 3.0% 9.8% 3.1% 4.4%
New Mexico 4.2% 1.1% 1.3% 4.2% 11.7% 2.2% 4.1%
NATIONAL 3.8% 1.0% 1.5% 1.8% 6.1% 1.9% 2.7%

Take a look at this table. Do you see anything noteworthy about it? Like, except for Vermont, all the states are west of the Mississippi. And even more interesting, none of them are remotely swing states. The top state, Utah, got that ranking largely due to Evan McMullin's run in 2016, but that was basically due to LDS Church members being disgusted with Donald Trump. If McMullin runs again in 2024, it could happen again, otherwise probably not.

As to the states where third parties do the worst, the list is headed by Mississippi (1.3%), North Carolina (1.5%), Oklahoma (1.6%), Alabama (1.6%), Florida (1.7%), Georgia (1.9%), Tennessee (1.9%), South Carolina (2.0%), Louisiana (2.0%), and Texas (2.0%). So basically the Confederacy plus Oklahoma.

What about the swing states? Here the top of the list is Nevada (3.2%), Arizona (3.0%), Wisconsin (2.7%), Michigan (2.4%), Pennsylvania (2.0%), Georgia (1.9%), and North Carolina (1.5%). So they are somewhat in the middle. But in a close election, 2-3% could tip the scales if the third-party candidates pull votes much more of one of the big parties than the other. Also, voters in the swing states well know that their vote could determine the presidency, so they are less inclined to waste it than voters in, say, Idaho, where everyone knows which party is going to win the state, no matter what.

Regional dynamics can also play a role. Would Kennedy do well in Arizona, Wisconsin or Georgia? The Kennedys aren't closely associated with any of them. Nor is Cornel West. We don't know about the other major minor-party candidates yet. But keep in mind when you see polls with third-party candidates doing well, ask about Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, not national numbers. (V)

Peter Meijer Will Launch a Senate Bid in Michigan This Week

With the retirement of Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), a Senate seat in a swing state is open. Needless to say, that causes ears in Michigan to perk up. The Democrats have pretty much nailed down their candidate in fundraising powerhouse Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), although she has to first knock out a minor opponent in a primary.

The Republican side will feature a much bigger battle. Former representative Mike Rogers is already in. So is former Detroit Chief of Police James Craig. The talk of the Senate is that former representative Peter Meijer will join them later this week. This could be a race where that ol' candidate quality matters. Rogers is fairly Trumpy. Meijer is not. In fact, Meijer voted to impeach Trump. However, he is also independently wealthy, so he can self-fund his campaign in addition to getting money from non-Trumpy Republicans nationwide. On the other hand, billionaire Betsy DeVos is on Team Rogers, so that could even out.

Money won't be the only factor, though. Rogers is strongly anti-choice in a year when abortion is probably going to dominate the ads from almost all Democrats. That is not going to change, since his benefactor, DeVos, once likened getting an abortion to owning slaves. The Republican primary is going to be a knock-down drag-out fight, which rarely helps a party. (V)

Two More House Members Are Retiring

Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) is calling it quits. So is Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX). Buck has been bucking his party quite a bit of late. He is not an election denier and has castigated House Republicans for being so focused on 2020 and not 2024. He said: "If we're going to solve difficult problems, we've got to deal with some very unpleasant truths or lies and make sure we project to the public what the truth is." This is not a message many House Republicans want to hear. Especially not the ones scared witless of Donald Trump.

Buck is not some kind of quasi-liberal. He is a member of the Freedom Caucus, but he still voted to certify Joe Biden's election. He voted against Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) but he did vote for Mike Johnson. He also opposes impeaching Joe Biden. His district, CO-04, covers nearly all of Colorado east of Denver. It is about a third of the state by area. Since it is R+13, some other Republican will simply take his place in 2025.

Granger is different. First of all, her first name isn't "Kay," it's "Norvell." She is the first Republican woman to represent Texas in the House. She is also 80 years old and tired of all the infighting among House Republicans. What is actually surprising is that she is giving up enormous power. She is chair of the House Appropriations Committee, you know, the group that decides how the federal government will spend $6 trillion or so every year. Most representatives would give their right arm for that job (especially those representatives who are left handed). She's had the position for only 10 months. When was the last time you heard of a politician who has been in the House for 26 years, has finally achieved one of the half-dozen most powerful positions in Congress, and then after 10 months announces she doesn't want it anymore?

Part of the problem is that time and time again she has been forced to capitulate to the Freedom Caucus on funding issues. She is a big supporter of Kevin McCarthy and doesn't like the FC at all. In fact, she was one of the representatives who helped tank Jim Jordan's bid for the speakership. Now with Mike Johnson as speaker, it is only going to get worse, although it is far from certain that he will last the year, let alone another 14 months. Her district almost encircles Fort Worth and extends for miles west of it. Its PVI is R+12, so it is a safe Republican seat. (V)

The House Is a Game of Inches

The nine-seat microscopic majority the Republicans currently have in the House will motivate them to go to the mat in 2024 to increase it. It will also motivate the Democrats to fight tooth and nail to pick up at least five seats. Not every seat is in play, but 87 seats are between R+5 and D+5. Any of those could flip under the right circumstances. Also, 18 Republicans are in districts Joe Biden won. Eleven of them are first termers, who don't have much of a brand. Five Democrats are in districts Donald Trump won. If Mike Johnson proves to be a Freedom Caucuser through and through, all of the Biden 18 and all 37 Republicans in swing (R+5 to D+5) districts will be lashed to him more tightly than Odysseus was lashed to the mast. In the near term, Johnson will have to make many decisions that put the Freedom Caucus on one side and much of his caucus and all the Democrats on the other. His legislative skill will be tested sorely.

In the end, three factors will determine which party controls the House on Jan. 3, 2025, as follows:

The Cook Political Report has just moved two districts to toss up, namely those of Rep. David Valadao (R-CA) and Jared Golden (D-ME), so that balances out. (V)

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte Is a Leading Candidate to Run NATO

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, a Norwegian politician, has run NATO since 2014. He was supposed to retire earlier this year, but with the war in Ukraine ongoing, he was granted an extension of his term. Although he has been a highly respected leader, his time has come and NATO is furiously looking for his successor. The leading candidate to be his successor is Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. He is going to retire after the Dutch elections on Nov. 22 and is not running for another term in the parliament. Rutte has been prime minister four times, but he is only 56 so he is definitely interested in a new high-profile job. He has something of a reputation for kicking the can down the road to avoid making tough decisions, which may not make him the ideal candidate for running an organization that sometimes needs to make quick decisions about going to war. On the other hand, he is a very experienced politician and gets along with people very easily. He would be the 14th secretary general and the fourth Dutch one.

Insiders say that Rutte is likely to get support from most of the countries in Eastern Europe because they like his positions on Russia. However, the most important vote is from the U.S. and, despite his long time in politics, many American officials don't know much about him except maybe that he has never been married and often rides his bicycle to work. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) said: "I may have met him, but I don't recall." Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said: "I don't know him. Doesn't ring a bell." But relatively unknown isn't necessarily a bad thing. He doesn't have a lot of enemies. Being unknown didn't hurt Mike Johnson.

On the other hand, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ben Cardin (D-MD) knows Rutte and said he has "a good deal of respect for him." Cardin added: "I've not talked to him recently. Everything I know about him is positive." Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy knows Rutte and likes him a lot, which is obviously a factor at the moment. One of the reasons Zelenskyy likes Rutte is that, in July, the Netherlands, under Rutte's leadership, was one of the first two countries (along with Denmark) to start training Ukrainian Air Force pilots to fly F-16s. Rutte is a very staunch supporter of Ukraine and opponent of Russia.

One other factor that will give Rutte many brownie points in the U.S. is not related to the war in Ukraine at all. For various reasons, there is only one company in the world that makes the machines that produce the most advanced semiconductor chips—the Dutch company ASML, a spinoff of the Dutch electronics giant Philips. These babies are as big as railroad boxcars and cost $200 million each. Without them, you can't make high-end chips. Joe Biden doesn't want China to be able to buy any more of them. Rutte accommodated him by ramming through a law requiring ASML to get an export permit for each machine it sells, and Rutte made it clear China is not getting any more of them. The technology of extreme ultraviolet lithography is so complex and exacting that it could take China a decade or more to be able to catch up to ASML, which isn't standing still. Biden is extremely happy with Rutte's decision on this and China is extremely unhappy. The machines draw lines on chips 0.005 microns (5 nm) wide, which is 1/10,000 the thickness of a human hair. If ASML wanted to etch angels dancing on the head of a pin, it could put millions of them there. Here is a photo of just part of one of the ASML machines.

ASML Extreme UltraViolet lithography machine

If Donald Trump is elected again in 2024, the biggest part of the secretary general's job would be Trump management, especially since Trump has said he wants to withdraw from NATO. Rutte once criticized his country's "wine-sipping elites" for their opposition to Trump. That could come in handy if Trump wins next year.

Probably Rutte's biggest problem is his gender. All 13 previous secretaries general have been men and some people think that it is time for a woman. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is highly competent, extremely popular, and completely fluent in German, English, and French (she was raised bilingually in German and French in Brussels and later lived in Palo Alto for 4 years while her husband was a professor at Stanford) but she seems to be gunning for another term running the EU. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas might be too provocative for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen would be the third Scandinavian in a row, which some people think is one too many. Many NATO members want the new secretary general to be from an EU country, which rules out Americans, Canadians and Brits. So Rutte has a chance despite his gender. (V)

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