We Have A House Speaker. Now What?

After three weeks it appears Congress has finally chosen a House Speaker: Mike Johnson of Louisiana. If you’ve never heard of him, don’t despair. Almost nobody has. He’s only 51 years old and first arrived in Congress in the 2016 election.

So why him? Well, a couple of reasons. First, Trump likes him; that’s pretty important. The last few weeks have shown that Trump can’t anoint a speaker (Jim Jordan) but he can shoot one down (Tom Emmer). Also, and equally important, he hasn’t done anything to piss off his fellow Republicans. The last few weeks have shown House Republicans sometimes act like rivals at a 3rd grade lunch table with all the petty grudges and silly hurt feelings.

I have to confess I’m a little troubled by this selection. It’s true that Congress can now get back to work on support for Ukraine, Israel and keeping the government running. But Mike, like Kevin McCarthy before him, sits under a sword of Damocles because any one member of the House can call for a “motion to vacate,” essentially call for a vote of no confidence. Again he can afford to lose only four votes before we do this all again.

Essentially, other than a new person in the speaker’s seat, nothing has changed. Several Republicans have voiced opposition to ongoing support for Ukraine and the Republicans who opposed McCarthy were (among other things) unhappy that he worked with Democrats to vote on September 30th to keep the government running until November 17th.

So what does Mike bring to the table? Good question.

The role of Speaker of the House requires a great deal of knowledge. There are countless rules and customs around how legislation passes, how committee assignments are made, et. There is a steep learning curve and it’s not a job for legislative novices.

Frankly I fear Speaker Johnson will enjoy a short honeymoon and once the far right Republicans who drove out McCarthy start resharpening their claws, well…

Stay tuned.

More Thoughts On The House Speaker

It’s been eight days since my last post and it hasn’t gotten any better. Last week I wrote that House Republicans ousted Rep. Kevin McCarthy because eight ulta conservative members didn’t like the job he was doing. They didn’t feel his promises could be trusted and they didn’t like the fact that he worked with President Biden and House Democrats to keep the government open.

Since then two things have happened: Hamas (the governing authority in Gaza) opened fire and stormed into Israel. There they killed and kidnapped Israeli citizens; the number keeps changing. The United States has always seen Israel as a longtime ally and ordinarily we’d help them. But without a functioning House of Representatives we can’t send them any aid.

Also the Republicans don’t appear any closer to find a Speaker candidate they can all support. As I said last week they removed Kevin McCarthy without having a clear successor. Within a few days two Representatives announced their candidacy: Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Jim Jordan of Ohio. They both hoped they would garner the support of enough members to win a floor vote of all 433 members; there are normally 435 members but 2 seats are vacant. Since all 212 Democrats will almost certainly vote for the House Minority Leader Hakeen Jeffries of New York, any Republican candidate must get 213 votes out of the 221 members, leaving only a 4 vote margin. When Republicans voted on a secret ballot 113 members voted for Scalise and 99 for Jordan. Scalise hoped that after this he could convince 100 members to then coalesce behind him. When it didn’t happen he pulled his name from contention.

Still with me? Good. When Steve Scalise pulled out, Representative Austin Scott of Georgia announced he would run. Again on a secret ballot 124 members voted for Jordan and 81 for Scott; Jordan asked for another secret ballot and he gained a few votes but not nearly enough. This vote was 152 to 55.

Now let’s make this more complicated. These votes among Republicans were secret ballots but when they actually cast votes for Speaker they vote in public. Former President Trump backs Jim Jordan and has always made it clear that he has zero tolerance for disloyalty. It’s generally assumed that several members will vote for Jordan just to avoid angering Trump. But again, if more than 4 of them don’t vote for a candidate he won’t win.

Democrats are, as you would expect, taking a back seat and are seeing this as a Republican problem. But a “do nothing” Congress has real consequences. As I said earlier the government is set to run out of money on November 17th. With no Speaker the House cannot pass any legislation. That means no laws can be passed and no money can be directed to Ukraine or Israel.

For me the largest problem is this: there does not appear any Republican who can gain enough support. It was McCarthy, then Scalise, now Jordan and Scott. A small group of conservative Republicans don’t appear to be aware of the chaos they are causing and the damage they are doing. They appear to enjoy the limelight and crave job security above all else. They claim to demand that government do fewer things and do them better but their actions belie a different agenda. I pray that good sense begin to take over and they get back to their jobs.

Thoughts On the House Speaker

We all knew this was going to happen but it doesn’t make it better: the House of Representatives has no Speaker. With our two party system the selection of the House Speaker has been little more than a formality: every two years we swear in a new Congress and the leader is chosen by the Representatives. It’s almost always a straight party vote. But this past January we elected 221 Republicans and 212 Democrats (two seats are currently vacant). Representative Kevin McCarthy expected to be elected easily but a small group of ultra conservative members refused to support him at first. After fifteen ballots these Representatives agreed to support him with one condition: any one person can call for a “motion to vacate.” That means any representatives can call for a vote to see if they still want him.

When Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida called for such a motion. As expected no Democrats voted to support him, but 8 Republicans did the same. McCarthy was stripped of his role as Speaker (though not as a Representative) by a vote of 216 to 210.

So what’s next? Clearly the Republicans need to meet and choose someone they can all agree on. But that’s not going to be easy. The eight Republicans who refused to support McCarthy have not (as of yet) coalesced around one person that all the other Republicans can agree to. It may become a difficult fight.

I have two primary concerns about this:

The government is only funded until November 17; both houses of Congress and President Biden will need to agree on funding the government. If they don’t most government employees will not be paid and will not be allowed to work. Some of those deemed essential workers (e.g. TSA and the military) will be required to work but will not be paid. I’ve always felt that public service is a noble vocation but it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to work for the government given this level of nonsense. Unlike most members of Congress many government employees don’t have the luxury of missing paychecks. Last week I met an Air Force Reservist who was headed to Poland for several months while his family stays here. We’re asking enough of him without demanding that he do this for free.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February of 2022 we pledged monetary support to Ukraine. We’ve never seriously considered sending troops there but we found it important that Ukraine remain free and Russia be defeated. Some of the most conservative Republicans now believe we should end that support which would almost certainly lead to a Russian victory over Ukraine. I worry that these Republicans will not support a speaker without a pledge to abandon Ukraine. Even if you don’t think Ukraine is worthy of our support I believe it’s naive to think that a Russian win would satisfy Putin. Ukraine isn’t a member of NATO and we’re not obligated to support them. But if Russia then decides to invade Poland or one of the Baltic nations (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) they are NATO members and we are obligated to come to their aid. Article 5 of the treaty states that an attack on one member is considered an attack on all. If we abandon Ukraine now it will require a larger support somewhere else.

As for now, fasten your seatbelts. Congress is going to be a bumpy ride.

The War In Iraq, Twenty Years Later

The date March 20, 2003 doesn’t sound important and most of us don’t remember where we were, but it is an important date. On that day President George Bush announced that American troops began an invasion of Iraq. It’s a good time to ask why we invaded, what happened, and where we are now.

No understanding of the invasion can be understood outside the attacks of September 11, 2001. On that morning we watched in horror as passenger planes crashed into the World Trade Centers, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania (that was likely headed toward the White House). It didn’t take long before we learned that the mastermind behind these attacks was Osama bin Laden; he was in Afghanistan being protected by their government.

But not long after these events President Bush and his administration began to push the idea that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was somehow linked to the attacks. There wasn’t any evidence of this and the Bush administration stopped pushing it but never completely disavowed it. Instead they pushed the idea that Saddam Hussein had both the ability to and intention of attacking us. He possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction, we knew where they were, and we could confiscate them. Further, they claimed that the conquest of Iraq would be a cakewalk. Ordinary Iraqis would see us as liberators. Six weeks later, on May 1st, President Bush announced Mission Accomplished on the USS Abraham Lincoln.

In the years since then we’ve learned that none of this was true. It wasn’t a cakewalk, we weren’t seen as liberators and we didn’t accomplish the mission in six weeks. So what happened?

Today I heard an excellent podcast on this. The podcast is called On The Media and the link to this episode is here. It’s true that members of the administration “cherry picked” information that made their case and they gave too much credibility to sources who made unsubstantiated claims.

But the podcast shows that those behind this campaign felt that the only path to peace for the United States lay in “liberating” nations like Iraq and that the Iraqis suffered so much under Saddam that they would welcome us. President Bush also talked about the “axis of evil,” countries that included Iran and North Korea.

War is horrible and should be used only as a last resort. Saddam Hussein was never a threat and all we did was lose thousands of lives and leave a country that is broken to this day.

We need to remember this next time there is a call to war.

Christian Nationalism Is Neither

I’ve been hearing a phrase in the last few years called “Christian Nationalism” and the more I hear the more I’m concerned. Don’t get me wrong: I’m proud to be both American and Christian but along with our Founders I believe that both institutions function best when they are separate.

Christian Nationalists believe that the United States was founded on specific Christian values, that we have drifted away from these values, and the only hope for our future is to reclaim and recapture them. Problem is, they tend to be pretty selective in which Christian values they embrace. So, in no particular order, here are my objections to this movement:

  • Several of our Founders practiced a Christianity we would barely recognize. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and our 3rd President. He was a Deist in the sense that he believed in God but he didn’t believe parts of the Bible that spoke of Jesus’ miracles or Jesus’ resurrection. He took a razor and edited out those parts of the Gospels he believed and pasted them together in a book called The Jefferson Bible. It ends with the crucifixion of Jesus but stops there.
  • The Founders did hold strong beliefs that a person need not be a believer. The 1st Amendment of the Constitution not only allows Americans to believe what they wanted, that included having no beliefs at all. I used to work with someone who grew up in Germany. When she started working she was told that part of her salary would be paid to either the Lutheran or Catholic Church and she was asked to choose one. She didn’t want her government to give anything to support religion but was told that wasn’t an option. As an American I recoiled at this. Because of our 1st Amendment nobody is required to support any faith. Christian Nationalists would make it more and more difficult not to hold Christian beliefs.
  • They are selective in which Christian beliefs they support. They are strong in their opposition to marriage equality or other LGBT rights but they say little or nothing about Christian values about welcoming the stranger or feeding the hungry. They clearly use the Bible to back up their beliefs that exclude others.
  • They don’t know as much as they claim to know. There was movement to place the 10 Commandments in public places, arguing that this should be the basis of American values. But ask one of them to recite the 10 Commandments. In 2006 Stephen Colbert hosted a show on Comedy Central and he would interview politicians. You can read about this here and it’s good for a laugh. Stephen was interviewing Georgia Congressman Lynn Westmoreland who proposed that the 10 Commandments be displayed in Congress. Mr. Westmoreland argued that this was something we all needed to know. But when asked to recite them, he could only name 3 of them.

At the end of the day my problem with Christian Nationalism is this: it’s not about Christianity or Nationalism. It’s about fascism. A small group of entitled people who want to ensure that their feelings aren’t hurt, who don’t want their prejudices challenged, and want to make sure “those people” know their place. I don’t believe Jesus would have any place for Christian Nationalism.

Fox News And Press Freedom

It’s old news that President Trump lost his bid for reelection in 2020, claiming massive voter fraud. It’s also old news that Fox News claimed, particularly in the first few weeks after the election, that Mr. Trump’s claims were valid. They pushed a story that Dominion Voting Systems changed votes from Donald Trump to Joe Biden, thereby illegally swinging the election to Biden. Dominion provides electronic voting machines to more than 28 states.

Dominion then sued Fox News for $1.6 billion claiming that Fox knew none of the allegations were true but pushed them anyway. Today we found out that Fox News anchors sent emails to each other where they admitted that the allegations weren’t true and Trump operatives (like Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell) were unreliable.

All along Fox has claimed that they are protected by New York Times v. Sullivan, a Supreme Court Case from 1964. In that case the court found that New York Times couldn’t be sued for honest reporting mistakes. Freedom of the press protects them unless it can be shown that the news organization either knowingly reported what they knew wasn’t true or they were incredibly reckless. Reckless, in this context, means that the organization went with the story while intentionally not investigating because they knew there was an excellent chance the story was wrong.

Today’s story shows that Fox News new their sources were fabricating their charges and that they went with the story fearing that they would lose viewers and make Donald Trump angry. The Constitution does not protect them.

Remember When Nobody Wanted To Be Called A Hypocrite?

For decades the Republican party has run on a platform of overturning the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision to allow early term abortions. Earlier this year they got their wish as Roe v. Wade was overturned and the question of abortion has gone back to the states. I wrote a long opinion on this here.

We now have Republican candidates who claim to oppose abortion with spotty records. Understand I’m not opposed to people changing their opinions as that may be due to a number of reasons. Maybe they’ve simply reconsidered or they’ve had an experience that sheds new light on the issue.

But when someone says or does something that indicates that the rules don’t apply to them, well that’s hypocrisy. And it should be embarrassing.

Former NFL player Hershel Walker is running for Senate from the state of Georgia. In the last few weeks two women have come forward and claimed that they were impregnated by Mr. Walker; when he found out he pressured them to abort the pregnancy and paid for it. They’ve presented some evidence (including a copy of the check he wrote to her to cover the cost of the procedure). Mr. Walker denies both charges. He did affirm he wrote the check but claims not to remember what the money was for.

Interestingly he advocates that all abortions be illegal, even in cases of rape or incest or if the mother’s life is in danger.

I guess he believes abortion is wrong unless he’s the father.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 157: He Never Going To Stop Making Money Off The Rest Of Us

President Trump claims to be the wealthiest President, and while nobody knows it’s generally assumed he’s correct. And while he uses that as a measure of his intelligence most of it was inherited. To quote an old sage it’s like waking up on 3rd base and claiming to have hit a triple.

I’m enough of a capitalist that I don’t begrudge anyone his wealth, though I would like people like Mr. Trump be a little more generous to those who wasn’t born to a wealthy family. What I do object to, however, is when a wealthy person preaches self sufficiency while draining money from tax payers.

The Secret Service was founded in 1865 to prosecute counterfeiters. After President McKinley was assassinated in 1901 its agents began to protect the President. The agency has since expanded to protect the President’s family and candidates running for President. This requires the protection detail to travel with the President at government expense.

In 2009 President and Mrs. Obama celebrated a “date night” in New York City. This was roundly criticized by Republicans as a waste of taxpayer money. We don’t know how much it cost but some thought the price tag (including transportation) was something north of $70,000. But by any measure President Obama didn’t personally profit from this.

When President Trump was elected he criticized his predecessor for, among other things, playing golf at government expense. As a candidate in August 2016 he said this: ““I’m going to be working for you. I’m not going to have time to play golf.” During the next four years he played golf 307 days; nearly one day in four.

Because the Secret Service needs to be in close proximity to the President they often stayed at Trump properties. Now you’d think the President would comp them those rooms or at least only charge them what any government employee would pay. You’d be wrong.

Not only is it estimated that we paid $1.4 million for those room, we’ve recently learned that the Trump organization charged as much as $1,185 per night. In 2017 his son Eric (who is afforded protection as the President’s son) stayed at Trump’s hotel in Washington D.C. He stayed there even though that hotel is a few blocks from the White House. The Secret Service, again required to be in close proximity, was charged $1,160 when the normal rate would have been $242.00.

Not only are these expenses exorbitant but they are paid directly to the Trump Organization. In other words when President Trump travels and stays at one of his properties, he profits at taxpayer expense.

I’ll remind him of this next time I see him.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 155: No Mr. Trump, Those Documents Don’t Belong To You

In the hours after the 2016 election I began this category (The Trump Chronicles). A year and a half ago I hoped I had written my last column on that topic.

Much as I have tried to stay true to that hope but I finally couldn’t stand it anymore. I write this shortly after Mr. Trump’s home in Mar a Lago was searched by federal officials. As you can imagine our former President is decrying this “invasion” while claiming there was nothing to see.

Well, no. It appears that when he left office in 2021 he took several boxes of documents with him, including some with classified information. Despite being told over and over that White House documents belong to the American people, he insisted that they belonged to him. Since he saw himself as the supreme leader, everything belonged to him.

He had a habit of tearing papers in pieces when he was done with them, which necessitated government employees to tape them back together. You can read about it here.

Shortly after he departed the White House the National Archives noticed missing material. They contacted Mr. Trump’s staff requesting their return. They were then subpoenaed (court ordered) and the staff insisted they weren’t in possession of anything in the subpoena. The government’s last resort lay in a search warrant. They had to prove that they had probable cause to believe Mr. Trump had documents that didn’t belong to him and they did.

Particularly troubling for me is that some of those documents were classified. Since Mr. Trump spent most of his transition time (election to inauguration) trying not to leave one could easily believe that the process of stealing that information was chaotic and perhaps nobody intended to steal classified information.

But here’s what concerns me: the noose is tightening on Mr. Trump. He’s currently being investigated by the Department of Justice as well as the states of New York and Georgia on criminal charges. He’s never been one to take responsibility for his actions and I believe if indicted he will flee the United States. His primary destination has to be Russia, which explains why he supports Russia over Ukraine and continues to fawn approval from Russian President Putin.

Now imagine he flees to Russia with classified files as a bribe for asylum. Crazy? I hope so, but I’ve said this many times before: I hope I’m wrong.

And Now Uvalde, Texas. Had Enough? The Republican Party Hasn’t.

Last week we learned the name of another small city with an elementary school: Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. In the last 23 years we’ve also learned about Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado; Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut; Marjorie Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida. There are several more, but you get the point. Each of these schools lost students to gun violence.

This type of mass murder also happens outside of schools as we learned of shootings at St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, New York; Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada; Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. And this is only a fraction.

I wrote a longer article in 2018 and I don’t wish to repeat it here. I argued that it was time to outlaw the purchase of assault rifles. They have no place in legal activities such as hunting. Simply put, they are weapons of war and are designed only to kill a large number of people in a short time.

After every massacre the National Rifle Association and the Republican Party attempt to frame them as mental health issues. This allows them to divert attention away from the guns and their responsibility for the deaths.

After Sandy Hook in 2012 it briefly appeared that the deaths of students that young would shame those groups into talking seriously about reasonable gun control. Alas, no.

As I write this there are some Republicans who are feigning interest in reasonable legislation and I’d like to believe them. I hope I’m wrong.