Revenge of the Wonks

After four years of political spectacle, President Biden's quieter approach seems to be working so far. But without robust debate, his ambitious agenda may be weaker than it need be.

Ezra Klein has a thoughtful piece in The New York Times arguing that President Joe Biden is deliberately dialing down the noise of politics compared to The Former Guy, and “it’s working.” That is, instead of focusing on getting attention, he’s focused on winning legislation. I can’t argue with Klein’s diagnosis of Trump’s time in office and how much the Orange Cheeto’s communications strategy revolved around being at the center of attention at all times. But I do worry about the risk of not using the bully pulpit effectively. If the public isn’t mobilized to be with Biden, will the big bills Democrats are moving forward survive the legislative process? If something gets pushed through quietly, does the lack of debate beforehand make a backlash bigger? (We’re going to get a backlash either way, given how the GOP works.) Klein argues that Biden’s polling numbers—he’s currently at 54% approval, ten points higher than Trump’s plateau—bear out this strategy. And the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion package moving forward through the Senate now, is polling 10 to 20 points higher.

But it remains to be seen if the other big initiatives underway—on immigration reform, on infrastructure and climate change, and on democracy reform—will do as well. Strong numbers in public opinion polls don’t mean that much when interest groups get mobilized to put pressure on Congress. Still, Klein isn’t wrong to point out that dialing down the noise of politics, with all the partisan bickering that results, may be a smart way to move legislation in an era when many Americans don’t pay much attention to the details of policy but take political conflict as a sign that there’s something wrong. Citing the work of political scientists John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse and their book Stealth Democracy, he writes, “The more partisan fighting there is around a bill, in other words, the more Americans begin to believe something must be wrong with the legislation — otherwise, why would everyone be so upset?”

If you’re a policy wonk like Klein, you also have to admit that dialing down the noise of politics means dialing up the influence of policy wonks. That’s because there’s almost no attention to the details of what’s being moved through Congress. It’s a great climate if you’re the expert who’s won a policy fight; if your favorite provisions have made it into one of those big bills, it’s got a very good chance of making it into law. And if you’re a legislator trying to improve one of those bills, the lack of attention makes it much harder to change their course. The lock is in.

Take what is happening with HR 1, the For the People Act. As I wrote here a few issues back, the bill stands to fundamentally change the way politics works in America in all kinds of positive ways. In the face of rising efforts by Republican state legislators to make voting more difficult, the bill could be the last hope of Democrats who don’t want to be locked out of power for years. But right now, though, you’d be hard pressed to know HR 1 exists, even though it passed the House Wednesday night. Did you know that Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) offered an amendment to lower the national voting to 16? I doubt it, because the liberal advocacy ecosystem wasn’t activated to buttress her. Did you know that Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) offered an amendment to restore incarcerated felons’ right to vote? Same thing. Both proposals went down to bipartisan defeat on the House floor.

Earlier in the week, while the bill was before the House Rules Committee, a bipartisan group of legislators led by Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) and Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) tried to add an amendment that would require members and their families to put stocks and other covered investments into a blind trust until after they are out of office, but it wasn’t even allowed to the floor for a vote, as Donny Shaw reports for Sludge. He notes, “Nancy Pelosi is one of the wealthiest members of Congress and her husband, Paul Pelosi, is one of the most active stock traders among congressional spouses. Paul Pelosi would have to give up his stock trading if the Spanberger amendment were law.” (He notes that the Pelosis’ wealth has more than tripled since 2008, and that the Rules Committee is commonly understood to be very much ruled by the Speaker.)

But here’s the thing about omnibus reform bills. Years of work have gone into crafting HR 1, and there’s a relatively well-financed coalition of public interest and advocacy groups lined up behind it. At this stage in the game, they’re not interested in anything that would upset the carefully constructed apple cart that’s gotten the bill this far. So the good government groups that got the bill this far, with Pelosi’s support, weren’t going to spend a nickel of their political capital on tightening congressional stock trading rules, despite their bill’s other provisions covering ethics. And Pressley and Bush’s good, debatable ideas, never had a chance.

This way of making legislative sausage may cause some indigestion. So, for a bill that aims to empower small donors and tighten campaign contribution limits (among many valuable features), you’d be hard-pressed to know that it actually increases the amount of money the national party committees can spend in coordination with their presidential candidate from $50 million to $100 million. There’s no mention of that interesting change on the Brennan Center’s “Annotated Guide to the For the People Act of 2021”—the site just says the bill would “allow the national committees of political parties to spend more money in coordination with their candidates.” Nor would you know that the bill actually makes it harder for presidential candidates to qualify for public financing, by upping the qualification threshold to $25,000 in small donations of $200 or less from each of at least 20 states. The current threshold is $5,000 in donations of $250 or less from at least 20 states. So, to get public matching funds, future presidential candidates will need to find more than six times as many donors as they do now. (I only learned about these changes because Howie Hawkins, the 2020 Green Party candidate for president, wrote about them in Counterpunch. I don’t agree with all of his complaints about the bill, but I do appreciate that he has taken the time to read it and offer a perspective from outside the Beltway on it.)

Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, who has been working on the issue of campaign finance reform since the 1970s, tells me the increase in the national party coordinated spending limit is there because the bill also “prohibits participating presidential candidates from creating joint fundraising committees with national and state party committees.” He adds, “Joint fundraising committees have been used by presidential candidates to solicit individual contributions that can run as high as $1 million or more, as opposed to the national party limit of currently $33,600. The higher coordinated spending number for presidential candidates also reflects a more realistic number for the parties to be able to spend working with their presidential candidate in terms of the costs of presidential elections and also reflects the need for candidates and their parties to be able to respond to the unlimited spending of unlimited contributions by outside groups in the wake of Citizens United decision.”

Daniel Weiner, the deputy director of Brennan’s election reform program, tells me, “One of the other important MIP [money-in-politics] reforms would be to significantly tighten up coordination rules, meaning that the parties would no longer be able to have in-house super PACs that could also work closely with presidential campaigns. As a political matter, letting the national committees give more to their own candidates makes these other changes more palatable. And on policy, I generally don’t have a problem with the parties sharing resources and working closely with their own candidates, provided they are both subject to contribution limits. On balance, since H.R.1 both strengthens limits and improves enforcement, letting the national committees give more to presidential campaigns is an acceptable trade.”

Now, maybe this is the right decision in policy terms. Maybe it’s not. But if there was a public debate over these changes, or a hearing on Capitol Hill, good luck finding it. If the For the People Act somehow makes it through the Senate, though, it’s in there. We have to trust the wonks. They know what’s best for us. Including how we should rule ourselves. Oh, the irony. (And yes, if you’re reading this you are more of a wonk than you may want to admit!)

Notes on Organizing

-A must read: Katey Lauer’s essay on how West Virginia Can’t Wait deliberately built a “leaderful” movement there over the last few years. Their model, which was focused on rural organizing, is relevant everywhere.

-My friend Claire Potter has a wonderful interview with Harvard scholar Theda Skocpol in today’s issue of her newsletter, discussing the role of the so-called Resistance in “revitalizing liberal politics everywhere” and explaining why she has been so critical of Indivisible’s national leadership.

-While the center “held” this winter, with major American institutions like the US Chamber of Commerce joining with the AFL-CIO in publicly insisting that all votes be counted and the election certified, what if a democratic socialist like Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic winner instead of Joe Biden? Could the left withstand a coup attempt? That’s the provocative question posed in Waging Nonviolence by Eileen Flanagan and George Lakey, two leaders of Choose Democracy, which trained 10,000 people in nonviolent anti-coup strategies last year. Don’t treat it like an academic one—Flanagan and Lakey are looking forward to 2024, and offer several scenarios based on the worrisome but realistic assumption that political polarization in America is likely to get worse, not better, over the next few years.

-Bonus link: My old pal Marc Cooper, who I had the pleasure of editing in the early 1990s while at The Nation, has his own political newsletter called The Coop Scoop, which I highly recommend. He and I chatted for an hour last week about the current state of political organizing in America, and you can soak up that conversation here.

Facebookization, Continued

-Researchers from NYU’s Cybersecurity for Democracy center report that “content from sources rated as far-right by independent news rating services consistently received the highest engagement per follower of any partisan group” on Facebook.

-At least 247 US government officials and employees have been hired by Amazon in the last ten years, with about 200 retained since the start of 2017, David Corn and Dan Spinelli report for Mother Jones. One assumes most, if not all, are not working in Amazon warehouses. Still, says Jeff Hauser, director of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “If you combine the quantity and breadth of their hires, Amazon may have more of a revolving door than any other American company now. There is almost no department of the US government Amazon is not interested in.” Indeed, the company has a massive lobbying operation in Washington, counting at least 20 different firms and 118 individual lobbyists.

Annals of Grifting

-While political campaign consultants have long been known to profit from the fees they charge campaigns to place TV ads, it looks like some Republican firms have figured a new way to cash in. As Meagan Flynn and Michael Scherer report for The Washington Post, they’re taking exorbitant cuts for making viral ads that drive millions in donations to candidates running against entrenched Democrats. Kim Klacik, who ran a quixotic campaign against Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-MD), raised $8.3 million but paid almost half of that in fundraising fees to Olympic Media. Another long-shot Republican who ran against Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Lacy Johnson, raised $12 million but only kept $5 million after Olympic took its cut and other fundraising costs were deducted.

-Officers with the Capitol Police in DC told Pro Publica’s Joaquin Sapien and Joshua Kaplan that after George Floyd was killed, they spent weeks working 12- to 16-hour days, poised to fight off a riot, “even though intelligence suggested there was not much danger from protestors.” “We had intel that nothing was going to happen — literally nothing,” said one former official with direct knowledge of planning for the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. “The response was, ‘We don’t trust the intel.’” By contrast, despite advance intel seen by a small group of officers, warning that as many as 20,000 people were coming to protest on January 6th and anticipating violence, no such preparations were made. “We normally have pretty good information regarding where these people are and how far they are from the Capitol,” said Keith McFaden, a former Capitol Police officer and union leader who retired from the force following the riot. “We heard nothing that day.”

-Keep an eye on this: Federal investigators are poring over records of communications between members of Congress and the mob that ransacked Congress, CNN’s Even Perez reports.

-With about 1/3 of Americans subscribing to conspiracy frauds like QAnon, we’re going to need a lot more “exit counselors” like Diane Benscoter working patiently to deprogram them, but as far as I know, there’s no organization trying to do this at any scale right now. (Please prove me wrong.)

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Cuomo Agonistes

-Must watch, Charlotte Bennett’s first on-air interview with CBS’ Norah O’Donnell. She offers new details of the governor’s efforts to get her to sleep with him, including asking her, in his office, whether she was comfortable with intimacy in the wake of her past as a survivor of rape.

-“You gotta wear heels when he’s in Albany sweetie, that’s the rule,” a woman who worked in Governor Cuomo’s office told a new colleague, a blonde woman in her 20s who had been given a desk in His Yuckiness’ “line of sight,” Gothamist’s Gwynne Hogan reports. “Nearly a dozen current and former staffers of Cuomo’s office who spoke to Gothamist/WNYC this week said Cuomo has cultivated an intense work culture that was brutal for some, traumatic for others….The former staffers…described a workplace where outdated gender binaries were the norm, bullying was constant, and where people worked non-stop, blurring the lines between personal and professional lives.”

-Yes, the head of the NY state Democratic Party Jay Jacobs is defending Albany’s toxic culture. “I think they play hardball up in Albany, there’s no question about it. I’ve been the recipient of some of that myself at times. And you have to have a thick skin to work up there,” Jacobs told NY 1 Tuesday night.

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