A nice thought, but the real world is more challenging
04/01/19 Filed in: Political System
Follow-up and reader feedback at end.
The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all
be as happy as kings. – Robert Louis Stevenson
James Thurber reprised this theme in a piece published early in World War II (months before the “Battle of Britain”). After getting up and opening the windows to let in the sun, a “little old gentlemen” is dogged by one misfortune after another ending with 100 planes overhead that had “an excellent view of him.” The “moral” of the story amends the Stevenson line by adding “and you know how happy king are.” Fables for our time – VIII, James Thurber, newyorker.com, 2/7/1940.
Point well taken! Once in a while there is a ray of sunshine, but a lot of the news falls in the discouraging category. Consider this quick review of several current situations, none of which appear to have obvious and/or agreeable solutions.
A. Russian troops in Venezuela – US support for the bid of Juan Guaido to end the disastrous rule of President Nicolas Maduro is amply justified on both humanitarian and national security grounds; many nations have joined the chorus. The idea was to bring about regime change with sanctions and moral pressure, without military intervention.
A handful of nations prefer to maintain the status quo, notably Cuba, Russia and China – and they have been working to prop up the existing government, no matter the consequences for the people of Venezuela. A few days ago, Russia brought in about 100 soldiers and a substantial amount of military equipment by air, for the apparent purpose of shoring up Maduro’s hold on power.
The president and his advisers have denounced this action in no uncertain terms, but it’s unclear how the US can safely counter the Russian gambit. Trump adviser warns Russia about military presence in Venezuela, Reuters, 3/29/19.
This challenge is consistent with Russia actions elsewhere in recent years, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is gambling that he will be able to get away with it again. Words alone aren’t likely to change the situation, so the question arises as to how the US can apply pressure without risking a dangerous escalation. Putin pulls a Syria in Venezuela, Wall Street Journal, 3/29/19.
Mr. Trump’s credibility is now on the line. If he doesn’t want to be humiliated in our own hemisphere, he needs a strategy to get Russia and Mr. Maduro out of power in Caracas.
In an ensuing interview with Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, retired General Jack Keane suggested stepping up defensive arms shipments to the Ukraine and publicly calling Russia out for violation of UN-approved sanctions on North Korea. Keane cautioned against military intervention in Venezuela as the next move, however, on grounds that such action would not be appreciated by other Latin American countries and could have unintended consequences. Russia defends troops in Venezuela, msn.com, 3/31/19 (click embedded Fox News video, of which first 3:35 is about Venezuela).
What a mess, and it’s not one of this country’s making. Let’s hope that matters can be satisfactorily resolved.
B. Border crisis – Congress has failed for decades to pass legislation that would effectively stem illegal immigration into this country, the problem has grown steadily worse in recent months, and the effectiveness of US border patrol operations is being degraded. 2019 on track to experience highest level of illegal immigration in a decade, Jason Hopkins, dailycaller.com, 3/5/19.
The extremely high number of Central American migrants reaching the southern border are not from Mexico or Canada, which means they cannot be quickly deported due to trafficking laws. Many of them are family units, not individuals. Also, instead of trying to evade border enforcement officials, they are actively seeking them out and simply pleading for asylum.
Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost says the combination has stretched her agency to the breaking point. “Each day, nearly 25 percent of my agents are diverted away from our border security mission to care for, transport and process family members and unaccompanied children,” Provost said while testifying in front of a House Judiciary committee. “We know that when agents are occupied, narcotics smugglers, criminal aliens, gang members and others use the opportunity to violate our borders and our laws.”
Notwithstanding such reports, our political leaders cannot seem to agree as to whether there is a problem, and if so what is causing it and how it should be addressed.
#BUILD THAT WALL - No one is proposing to build a wall along the entire southern border, but the president has repeatedly requested funding to upgrade and extend the border barriers that are currently in place. Democrats insist that such expenditures would not be worth the cost, and disagreement over the issue resulted in an extended government shutdown battle – which the president lost. Government reopens for 3 weeks, 2/4/19.
After the 3-week period, the president declared a national emergency and claimed the right (under existing legislation) to reallocate funds that had been appropriated for other purposes to construct border barriers. Congress passed a resolution of disapproval; the president vetoed it, and the veto override effort fell short. Trump’s border emergency survives, Arit John, bloomberg.com, 3/26/19.
Legal challenges will probably slow the border barrier construction, despite the president’s apparent victory, and it’s far from clear that upgraded barriers – in themselves – can normalize the situation along the border. There are several other factors in the equation, including visa overstays, sanctuary cities, and failure to require larger employers to use the E-verify system (for checking employment eligibility).
#LOOPHOLES – Would-be immigrants who illegally cross the border cannot simply be sent back where they came from if, for example, they claim asylum based on political persecution or other threats in their home country. Even though most of such claims are without merit, they can’t be denied without a hearing, which generally takes weeks or even months to schedule given the case backlog. Meanwhile, the capacity of detention facilities is limited and many of the immigrants are of necessity being released (they may or may not return for the hearing). Build the wall to save taxpayers billions, Betsy McCaughey, townhall.com, 3/14/19.
They're turning asylum into a scam. The system is meant to protect victims of persecution, such as Cubans fleeing Castro's prisons. Now it's overwhelmed by Central Americans escaping poverty for a lifestyle upgrade.
It may be possible to limit the damage by administrative action, but the courts haven’t been notably accommodating. Legislation will be needed to effectively close the loopholes, and for now a divided Congress isn’t likely to focus on fixing the problems.
#AID CENTRAL AMERICAN COUNTRIES – Financial support for Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador has been touted as a way to stem the current flood of immigrants from these countries – at a cost of less than $1 billion per year. The real crisis in Central America, Sen. Tom Carper, News Journal, 3/17/19.
This conclusion seemingly overlooks the magnitude of the remittances being sent home by US immigrants from these Northern Triangle countries, which leaves the governments of these countries disinclined to make more than token efforts to restrain emigrants headed for the US. See table below (includes remittances from other countries, but remittances from the US account for over 90% of the totals). Record $120 billion [10 years] sent home to 3 countries, Paul Bedard, Washington Examiner, 3/20/19.
The president has complained before about paying foreign aid to these countries, which are making little effort to help the US, and the aid payments are now to be suspended. State Department will cut aid to Central American countries over immigrants, Daniel Jativa, Washington Examiner, 3/30/19.
"We were paying them tremendous amounts of money. And we're not paying them anymore. Because they haven't done a thing for us. They set up these caravans," Trump said Friday.
#CLOSE THE BORDER – In addition to a cut-off of foreign aid, the president has said he is considering closing the southern border – or at least long stretches thereof – effectively stopping trade with Mexico. No one seems to be clear about the details, but it’s hard to imagine such a step could be taken without doing considerable economic damage. Trump threatens to close southern border, voicing heightened frustration with Mexico, John Wagner & Colby Itkowitz, Chicago Tribute, 3/29/19.
Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney made clear yesterday that the president’s statement is not an empty threat, Mulvaney says “something dramatic” would have to happen for the president not to shut the border, foxnews.com, 3/31/19.
C. Mueller probe – The biggest news story in recent days has been the delivery of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on a nearly 2-year investigation focused on whether the Trump campaign (and/or ensuing administration) (1) colluded in Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 elections, or (2) attempted to obstruct justice in connection with investigations of this or related matters. According to a summary delivered to Congress by Attorney General William Barr, the answer in both cases was negative. A redacted version of the report has been promised by, say, mid-April.
One might think both sides would see this event as an opportunity to dial back the hyper-partisan rhetoric in DC and focus on some of the nation’s problems for a change. There’s a good chance, however, that things won’t work out that way.
Among the questions that will be debated: Why wasn’t the Mueller report released immediately, what’s Barr trying to hide? What about the other investigations of the president that have been promised? Given that impeachment would be a political decision, doesn’t an ample basis already exist to get on with it? And on the other hand, shouldn’t there be an investigation of who started the investigation of Russian collusion in the first place and whether they were justified in doing so?
D. Healthcare – Last week, the president and his Justice Department announced their agreement with a lower court decision that declared GovCare unconstitutional. The legal theory: abolition of the individual mandate destroyed the original rationale for upholding GovCare, namely that this legislation is justified as a “tax” even if it wouldn’t pass muster as a “regulatory mandate. Trump promises “far better” Obamacare replacement, but shares no details, Bob Fredericks, New York Post, 3/27/19.
From a legal standpoint, we doubt this position will hold up. No one in Congress ever suggested that elimination of the individual mandate would effectively repeal GovCare, and if this had been the understanding the Senate would not have approved this measure.
If the suit did prevail, however, it would probably turn out that Republicans don’t have a replacement for GovCare at the ready – any more than they did in 2017. The reaction of Senate Republicans to the president’s comments was decidedly noncommittal. Republicans won’t act on Obamacare repeal until White House delivers proposal, David Drucker, Washington Examiner, 3/28/19.
In floor remarks Wednesday morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., did his best to steer the debate back toward Democrats' "Medicare for All" push, making no mention of Trump’s latest push to do away with the Affordable Care Act.
Too bad, because the administration is working on some ideas that would give people more choices about how to cover their healthcare needs. These ideas need to be marketed as additive, however, rather than as a replacement for GovCare. For better or worse, that vehicle is here to stay. A losing healthcare strategy, Wall Street Journal, 3/27/19.
The Administration has written new rules that allow highly affordable short-term health insurance, as well as association health plans that offer group insurance across different risk pools than a single employer or the Obamacare exchanges. The GOP can build on that base to offer a new campaign vision to take to voters. But better to do it without pursuing a legal strategy that is likely to fail and could blow up politically.
Perhaps all is not lost quite yet. Calling on experience with the tax bill, here’s the proposed path forward: White House to send “principles” for Obamacare replacement plan to Capitol Hill, Zachary Halaschak, Washington Examiner, 3/31/19.
E. Appointments – A longstanding bone of contention between the administration and the Senate has been the delay in approving presidential appointments, not just in cases where there are serious questions about the background or fitness of a particular appointee but also for many noncontroversial appointees. The drill is to require record votes (with up to 30 hours of floor time before cloture can be invoked) for numerous appointees, which has led to a massive backlog of appointees awaiting confirmation. Senate Democrats are holding up hundreds of Trump appointees, Tom Schatz, dailycaller.com, 3/7/19.
. . . during President Trump’s first term, cloture has been invoked 128 times, five times more than the last four presidents combined by this time in their first term. If all 128 post-cloture debates used the full 30 hours of debate, it would total 3,840 hours, or 160 days. Many of these 128 cloture votes have been wasted on non-cabinet level, highly-qualified candidates, like the nomination of Fernando Rodriguez Jr. to be Judge of the United States District Court for the South District of Texas. *** After being dragged through the cloture process, Rodriguez was confirmed by a vote of 96-0.
After over two years, Senate Republicans appear to have had enough. It’s reported that they will bring the “nuclear” hammer down this coming week and change the rules to reduce the cloture time to 2 hours for lower level appointments. It’s a pity that this step has become necessary, but there has been fault on both sides over the years in delaying the confirmation of appointees, and similar situations will probably arise in the future. Senate plans “suitcase nuke” gambit, Chad Pergram, foxnews.com, 3/28/19.
[Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell] noted that if a Democrat wins the White House in 2020, Senate Republicans would continue to slow-walk nominees as payback for what’s going on now.
**********FOLLOW-UP & FEEDBACK**********
#On 4/2/19, sent a note plus the link for this blog entry to the three members of Congress from Delaware.
SAFE’s latest blog entry provides an overview of five knotty challenges: (A) Russian troops in Venezuela; (B) Border crisis (note comments re Sen. Carper’s recent column in the News Journal); (C) Mueller probe (competing demands for follow-on action); (D) Administration agreement that Obamacare (which we prefer to call GovCare) is unconstitutional; and (E) Slow-walking of presidential appointments. *** We would welcome any questions or feedback that you may care to offer.
# This is terrific. Sad to say, I just don't think any of them will pay any attention to it. – SAFE director
#As with our meetings with Sen. Carper, I think we must continue these efforts. Thanks for what you do. Do not lose hope. – SAFE member