Why Can’t We Wait?

Nov 01 2011

This week, President Obama changed his mantra from “pass this bill” to “we can’t wait”.  He pushed through new rules to help both underwater homeowners and students burdened by debt in an effort to make something happen.  Now these new rules will likely only make a very small difference (only Fannie/Freddie mortgages will qualify and there was already a 15% discretionary income cap available to most student debt), but this change in mantra signals a huge shift in how the Executive branch intends to operate.

Obama’s Presidency has so far been characterized as “leading from behind”, in effect prodding at Congress to do what it ought.  But “pass this bill” seems to have been the last friendly prod.  “We can’t wait” coupled with the new rules is the opening shot in what may become an Executive power grab.

Historically there has been a power struggle between all three branches of government, with Congress generally holding most of the power.  Through most of the 19th century, a person had more power and influence as a senator rather than a president.  But in times of national crisis, the Executive has seized considerable power, most notably Lincoln during the Civil War and FDR during the Great Depression and WWII.  Since FDR, there has been a very palpable power struggle between the Executive and Congress with power flowing much more freely than it had prior.  Does the current Great Recession require greater intervention from the Executive, and if so, what are Mr. Obama’s intentions for gathering the power necessary?

It seems he’s testing the waters.  While some argued that Mr. Obama should have seized power during the debt ceiling crisis (including former President Clinton), he did not yet seem ready or willing to do so.  But Congress has still been unresponsive in any substantial measure  and the brinksmanship still remains on the forefront.  So keep an eye out for the Executive Order power play and populist appeals.  Will Mr. Obama consolidate enough power from Congress to enact his strategy for combating the Great Recession or will Congress fire back and fend off the incursion?

For now, it will be like watching two great defensive sports teams: lots of parrying and dodging, but if a strike should occur, it could be game changing.  I, for one, can’t wait.


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Walking the Halls

Oct 30 2011

A few quick tips for navigating the people highways in DC – from the Metro tunnels to the Halls of Congress:

  1. Look to the direction you intend to walk, not at the face of the Hill staffer you’re about to run into.
  2. Walk down the middle of the hallways.  People can pop out of doorways in a hurry.
  3. The default behavior should be to let oncoming traffic pass on your left.
  4. Take corners slowly and give a wide margin for others who might be cutting the corners tightly, otherwise you might find yourself wearing someone’s lunch for the rest of the day.
  5. And please, please, please, if you’re going to stand on the escalators, stand on the right.  Though if you find yourself on the right, feel free not to stand too.

Most of all, have patience and have perspective: at least you’re not driving a car in DC rush-hour(s).

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Why the President’s Approval Rating Matters

Oct 16 2011

To most of us, the President’s approval rating equates to his likelihood of being re-elected, or his party retaining control of the executive branch.  Indeed, the media tends to push this view and seems to especially enjoy playing out various scenarios of election-day-magedon.  The more astute might equate approval rating with political capital and ability to push his agenda on a macro scale.  While not immediately obvious, there is a more nuanced consequence to the President’s approval rating particular to Members of Congress.

The leverage a Member has to negotiate or flat-out defy the President’s agenda is directly affected by the popularity of the President in that Member’s district.  If the Member’s approval rating is greater than that of the President’s, then the Member has less incentive to comply with requests from the Executive Branch.  This applies to both parties.  For example, say a moderate Democrat (might be hard to find one these days) who is popular in her own district is facing a vote on Obama’s jobs bill (or part of it, as will be more likely at this point).  If Obama  is popular in her district as well, she will feel pressure to support the bill.  Likewise, a Republican in a swing district might feel it necessary to drag his feet in following his party’s leadership in denouncing it.  If Obama has low approval ratings in those districts, the Dem might look for ways to temper the bill while the Republican will have more freedom to publicly criticize it, should they so desire.

This effect is greater, in either direction, when the President will be on the ticket in the approaching election.  Down ticket campaigns (i.e. Congressional campaigns) will concern themselves with the President’s rating and either distance themselves from or tie themselves to the President.  Of course, there will be exceptions as there are many forces in play in any campaign, but consider this one of those forces.

Consequently, the success of the Obama administration to push legislation through Congress over the next 13 months will depend on his approval rating relative to those of Members of Congress.  And that’s why he is campaigning now, not just for re-election, but so that Members of Congress are more likely to warm to his policy agenda.  Think thumb-screws.  Any Member who is looking at an approval rating less than that of the President’s in their own district might be inclined to find more ways agree with him.

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Metal Detectors

Oct 10 2011

Through various trials, errors, and suggestions by the Capitol Police, I have learned a few helpful tips in navigating through the Hill’s various metal detectors.  For those who would rather learn from my experience instead of their own, here’s a short list:

  1. Walk straight through the detector, without hesitation or hanging out in it (as cool as it might be), and modest belts and watches will not set off the buzzer.  If yours does, wear a belt with less metal next time.
  2. Coats go on the x-ray belt, suit jackets do not.
  3. If you use one of the plastic dishes for small items, put it back where you got it once it’s gone through.
  4. Consider putting small items (wallet, phone, etc) in your bag or briefcase before you arrive at the security point.  This is especially helpful if you are waiting in a long queue.
  5. If you lost your wallet, check with the most recent security point you passed through.

(Subject to additions and modifications.)



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Bernanke: No Way to Run a Railroad

Oct 04 2011

Today I had the opportunity to attend a hearing by the Joint Economic Committee with number two on my list of heros: Ben Bernanke.  It’s rumored that Mr. Bernanke wears red socks, a rumor that inspired my own collection of colorful socks.  And no, it is not a rumor that I dressed as him for Halloween a couple years back.  In any case, it was exciting to see and hear him in person.

While Mr. Bernanke answered most questions with surprising frankness, he dodged other questions that only served to put an exclamation at the end of his overall point: this is “no way to run a railroad”.

Mr. Bernanke confirmed our greatest fears: the current condition of the US economy (and the Euro crisis for that matter) is a political problem, not an economic one.  He reiterated that US debt was downgraded because of political brinkmanship, not from concerns about the US long-term growth.  One Member asked, what can Congress do? Mr. Bernanke’s reply: short-term fiscal stimulus, medium-term deficit reduction, and clarity about policies; the continuous threat of government shutdown… it’s no way to run a railroad.

Is Congress truly that dysfunctional?  If so, how has it come to this and what can be done about it?  What is clear, according to Mr. Bernanke, is that if Congress does not get its house in order, it will be the economy that suffers.





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What’s the Matter with Policy?

Sep 05 2011

At last I am in DC to experience first-hand why logical policy ideas fail to make it through the legislative process, or if it does survive the grinder, why those ideas are often no longer recognizable.  Somehow, straight-forward, no-brainer ideas turn into political brinkmanship while the most wrong-headed policy ideas slip through into law.  Why?

Is it because no politician wants to give a “win” to an opponent even if the policy idea is sound?

Is the processes of getting a bill turned into law so complex that only a select few have the capacity to navigate the storm?

Are interest groups using Congress as pawns in a proxy battle against each other?

Or does Congress wield too much power for their own (and the country’s) good?

Or perhaps this was the intention of our Founders to force compromise to make sure no one gets what they want.

At this point, when Congress seems so dysfunctional, I am inclined to believe that the Founders were playing a big democratic joke on everyone and then died before they had the chance to deliver the punchline.

Indeed, Congress has an approval rating of approximately the last two digits I write when indicating the date on a recent check.  Yet individual Members often have approval ratings better than the President among their constituents.  Does this mean that people are cynics of Congress as an institution or are they simply dissatisfied with the recent processed, empty-calorie laws that tend to be its final product?

I am an optimist.  And I won’t be passing my own judgement until I learn the broad, historic context and the current machinery on which Congress operates.  In the mean time, I will be questioning the judgement of others.  I don’t consider our government as a fluke of history; I tend to believe that whether by evolution or design, policy concerning such a diverse country was meant to be subject to the gauntlet that is Congress.


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