The Paul Ryan Reverse-Robin Hood Budget — Bad Policy and Bad Politics

Bad Policy, Bad Politics

Paul Ryan’s reverse-Robin Hood budget will hurt people – starting with the GOP.

Paul Ryan Cartoons 19

By April 11, 2014One comment SHARE–USNews & World Report Thomas Jefferson Street Blog

By a vote of 219-205 yesterday the Republicans rammed through their “reverse-Robin Hood” budget authored by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

For the next decade, the Republicans basically propose taking from the middle class and the poor and giving to the wealthy. This is a crass and clear class warfare tactic coming from the Republicans in the House. By cutting $5.1 trillion in education, health care, help for seniors, food assistance for the poor and proposing huge tax breaks for the super wealthy, the Ryan budget upends not only our economy, but our society and our values.

It basically holds that we are over-spending on our kids, our elderly, our families. It is what many would call the ultimate selfish budget plan. According to Brookings, if you are in the top 1 percent of wage earners (over $633,000) the Ryan plan would cut taxes in half. If you are among the 75 percent of Americans making between $20,000 and $200,000 you likely would be facing a tax increase.

[Read blogger Leslie Marshall on how Ryan's budget fails to plan for infrastructure.]

Instead of creating a tax system that is fair and strives to close loopholes, the Ryan plan actually makes the current system worse. So, there is only one way the Republicans work towards a balanced budget: more cuts in essential programs for people.

Money for nutrition programs for poor people would be cut by $125 billion over five years; funds for education would be cut by $145 billion over 10 years; $90 billion would be cut from Pell Grants for college students; interest would be charged on student loans during school that would cost students $40 billion. The Affordable Care Act, which now is helping insure 7.5 million new sign-ups as well as 3 million on their parents plans and 5 million on Medicaid, would be scrapped. Medicare would be a voucher program and privatized.

This budget is an effort to take America away from investing in education, infrastructure, growth and prosperity. Instead, it is a document out of the usual Republican playbook of “it’s your money, you can keep it” which ignores our responsibilities as a society to one another and to a flourishing economy. No one denies that living within our means is critical; the key is a balance between revenue and expenditures. To many Republicans, there is no give on the revenue side, except to lower the taxes for the wealthy.

[Read blogger Carrie Wofford on how Ryan's budget guts domestic spending.]

It is bad policy, but I believe it is also bad politics.

The Democrats should not hesitate to debate this budget, these priorities, not just on the basis of fairness, but because they won’t work and are harmful to the country. This is not only a reverse-Robin Hood budget but it is also anticompetitive and upends a society that needs more focus on education, not less, a society that needs more job training, not less, a society that needs more money devoted to infrastructure and mass transit, not less. The list goes on and on.

If the goal is more homeless on the streets, more families in poverty, greater numbers incarcerated, more people in emergency rooms causing health care costs to skyrocket, the Ryan budget could be called a success. But that is not the outcome anyone wants.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Democrats should argue that this is an extreme budget, not a balanced one, that it will harm the middle class and working families. It is time for Democrats to engage in a debate that will match the old Republican rhetoric with realistic policies: leave no child behind, clear the skies, protect Social Security and Medicare. Were these just words for the Republicans or were they accompanied with plans that are truly pragmatic?

Sadly, the Ryan budget does nothing to encourage me that they are committed to Head Start and preschool education, affordable college for our kids, creating good paying jobs, attacking the serious problems from climate change, keeping a true safety net or improving our health care system.

This is a backward budget not a forward-looking budget and Democrats should take it on with full force.

Free Speech is Not Freedom to Spend


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April 10, 2014, 04:18 pm

We need a constitutional amendment on regulating campaigns

By Peter Fenn

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After 30 years as a political consultant, after working in the Senate and running a PAC, after working on hundreds of campaigns, I have come to the hard and difficult conclusion that America needs a constitutional amendment to state simply and clearly that nothing in the First Amendment shall preclude our government from regulating campaigns.

I’ve written before that we need either a brain transplant on the Supreme Court or an amendment to the constitution, and I was not sure which was the most likely!

Maybe I’ve been around too long. Every new Supreme Court decision, every new attempt by Congress at campaign finance reform that goes awry, every new cycle where it is increasingly clear that money is driving our elected officials, I am tempted to pull my hair out. (And I don’t have much left!)

We have always had problems with money and politics from the founding of the republic but nothing like what we face today.

We have 100 years of court cases upholding the regulating of our campaigns and yet this “Plessy Court” has decided that much of it is out the window.

We have fallen into the abyss — with Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and the latest case on individual limits, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, we have codified the notion that was viewed as very scary 35 years ago: Freedom to speak is freedom to spend. An individual’s right to state his or her views is akin to writing as big a check as one may choose.

That, my friends, is not what our founding fathers had in mind.

The astronomical funds spent have increasingly sent shock waves to our system. This is quickly becoming an earthquake.

Campaign spending is over the top: billion dollar presidential campaigns; $25 million on a House race in Colorado; the Koch brothers who will spend hundreds of millions this year alone; Sheldon Adelson who wants to buy a presidential candidate.

It is obscene.

I am not trying to get money out of politics. That will never happen, nor should it.

I am trying to get back to a commonsense standard of how we conduct our elections.

Think about it. How well is our political system working, how successfully are we promoting representative democracy? Just ask many European nations who have a much saner approach to elections.

There is, of course, the question of undue influence on our politicians.

Money is access; money is power; money provides influence.

As former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) once said long ago (I am paraphrasing): “We are the only human beings on the face of the earth who are expected to take thousands of dollars from perfect strangers and not be affected by it.”

Sure, people give money for a whole host of reasons but the largest elephant in the room has “Influence” tattooed across its belly.

Second, the amount of time and effort that candidates and officeholders spend raising money is out of control. This is time they are not doing their jobs, not solving problems, not engaging with their colleagues to come up with ideas that help their country.

The average Senate candidate has to raise over $5,000 a day, 365 days a year, for six years, to win. (The average cost of a winning Senate race in 2012 was $10.5 million; the average cost of a successful House race was $1.7 million.)

The more money that has to be raised by those in office, the less time is spent for the public good.

Third, after Citizens United and McCutcheon we are left with a system in tatters that rewards secret donations, shadow groups and unaccountable big donors. There is little transparency for many of the largest contributors in America.

Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) introduced a constitutional amendment last year that would allow Congress and the states to pass legislation regulating the raising and spending of money on elections.

Even Dan Pfeiffer, senior advisor to President Obama, mentioned it on the Sunday shows last weekend and said the president had been thinking along the same lines.

When I started the Center for Responsive Politics in 1983 with Tom Bedell and a distinguished bipartisan board of former senators and congressmen, we never thought it would come to this. When we wrote the first monographs and surveyed former members, the costs of House campaigns were a couple hundred thousand dollars and the Senate around $1 million. We were worried about the trend but thought Congress could deal with the problem. As Ellen Miller and Sheila Krumholz so ably built the center over the past 30 years, it has shined a light on the severity of the problem.

Now, it is up to a public outcry that will lead Congress and the states to put in place an amendment that allows laws to be passed to regulate our campaigns. It is that simple. But it is surely not that easy. I hope I see it in my lifetime, but I am not holding my breath.

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CIA: Come Clean

It’s Time for the CIA to Come Clean

Intelligence agencies must be held accountable for torture and spying on Americans.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. speaks before attending a closed-door meeting Thursday, April 3, 2014, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein and the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to release parts of a CIA torture report.

By April 4, 2014Leave a Comment SHARE

It is time for some straight talk from our intelligence agencies. The Senate Intelligence Committee voted overwhelmingly, 11-3, to release the executive summary of its report that has been the subject of repeated controversy.

The CIA needs to come clean with the American people on its “enhanced interrogation techniques” (read: torture) and the fact that it gave us nearly zip in terms of actionable intelligence. The National Security Agency needs to admit not only the extent of its collection of metadata and stop it, but also the back-door collection of American’s emails and stop that, too, unless it gets warrants for both.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the NSA.]

There is ample precedent for a clean-up of America’s intelligence operations. Former CIA Director James Schlesinger, who died this past week, courageously commissioned an initial examination of past misdeeds in the wake of the Watergate scandal. On May 7, 1973, Schlesinger ordered the agency to look at incidents of wrongdoing that were illegal or fell outside the CIA’s charter. Two CIA veterans, Howard Hunt and James McCord, were part of the Watergate break-in team.

Schlesinger’s successor, William Colby, added to the internal review of CIA actions. A thorough examination of assassination plots against foreign leaders, coups, illegal wiretapping, spying on Americans and other questionable activities was done and the report became known as the “Family Jewels.” This formed the basis of much of the investigation in 1975-76, undertaken by the Church Committee, that led to the reforms and the creation of permanent oversight committees.

[Read more from Peter Fenn on how the CIA is abusing its power.]

Thus, there is ample precedent for the intelligence agencies to come clean, not cover up.

President Obama should make sure that the efforts of the Senate Intelligence Committee and some within the CIA to get to the bottom of torture activities is made public and serious reforms are put in place. We should also have a thorough investigation of NSA spying on Americans and ensure that reforms are put in place there as well.

After 9/11, few seemed to focus on the actions undertaken and supported by the intelligence agencies. Nor was there oversight of the actions that leaders (in particular Vice President Dick Cheney) undertook with flimsy legal justification. It is time to put a stop to the philosophy that Cheney and others espoused: that they were above the law. It is time we had leaders with the courage of a James Schlesinger and Bill Colby to look seriously at the past so they don’t repeat it.

Republicans’ Attacks on Obama Ring Hollow

Imperial or Ineffective?

The party is painting Obama as simultaneously too strong and too weak, and it’s benefiting Democrats.

The Associated Press

Over-the-top attacks on President Obama aren’t helping the Republicans.

By April 2, 2014One comment SHARE—-USNews & World Report, Thomas Jefferson Street Blog

Which is it: “The Imperial President,” who consolidates power like some sort of dictator or the feckless, weak “Lead From Behind” president?

It seems like quite a daily struggle for the Republicans to figure out how to attack President Barack Obama. Is he too strong or too weak? Is he too aggressive or not aggressive enough? Is he trying to do too much or too little? In any case, many seem to want President Obama impeached. That worked out real well during the Clinton era didn’t it?

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Of course, it would be one thing if Congress were perceived as the go-to body, the get-things-done gang, the paragon of policies that are destined to make America great. Oops, how is that 9 percent popularity rating working out for ya?

Is the Republican Party the schizophrenic party that it appears to be? Or, as some articles have discussed lately, are they just the shoot from the lip party intent on winning in November?

The difficulty with this strategy may be that it is not just contradictory but that it is so over the top. It may work with the red-meat crowd and the radical right conspiracy theorists in the party but it doesn’t resonate with regular folks who don’t pay much attention to politics.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

They want results. They want action. They want to see people in Washington who deliver. And so far, the one person who seems to deliver in the swamp that is Washington is Obama.

Bringing the troops home? Check. Reducing the unemployment rate substantially? Check. Bringing the deficits down? Check. Saving the auto industry? Check. Passing the Violence Against Women Act and equal pay for equal work? Check. And the Affordable Care Act – no more pre-conditions, limits on treatments, three million kids on their parents’ health care, 7.1 million sign ups? Check.

So if the Republicans want to now criticize Obama for doing too much, let them at it.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Voters are ready for more strong leadership, not less. The more Obama delivers, the better.

The phrase “Imperial Presidency” was coined by the late historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in response to Richard Nixon, not because of his actions on the critical issues of the day but because of Watergate and over reaching into the lives of those who disagreed with him. The fact is, that the phrase does not even come close to describing President Obama.

But the more the Republicans go over the top with their attacks, the more Obama and the Democrats will benefit.

The Party That Cried Wolf

The party that cried wolf

Does this sound like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)? Maybe Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)? How about the Koch brothers in one of their multi-million dollar ad campaigns against the Affordable Care Act (ACA)?

“This program I promise you will pass just as surely as the sun will come up tomorrow. And behind it will come other federal programs that will invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country, until, one day … we will awake to find that we have socialism. … One of these days, you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.”

Actually, this is from Ronald Reagan in the early 1960s as he campaigned against Medicare, now one of the nation’s most influential, effective and popular programs. He argued that this was akin to socialized medicine and that doctors were going to be told where to live and how to practice.In 1962, a Gallup poll showed that 44 percent approved of Medicare and 40 percent wanted private insurance. Shortly after Medicare was signed into law and implemented by President Johnson, the approval jumped to 61 percent and disapproval fell to 31 percent.

In the mid-60′s, nearly one in three elderly Americans lived in poverty and many were one illness away from bankruptcy. Medicare changed all that and, funny, virtually no one is crying “socialism” today. Maybe one of the reasons is that the number of seniors in poverty has dropped from one-third to less than 10 percent.

But that has not stopped the Republicans from crying “wolf” over the ACA. The outpouring of venom, disregard for the facts, unrelenting and false “horror stories,” and now the wholesale effort to sink the ACA reminds many of their past efforts to destroy Medicare.

Make no mistake, there is serious money and political clout behind the effort to demonize the ACA. The constant pounding has taken its toll, combined with the lack of any large political committee or administration effort to counter it.

Even with the barrage and the disaster of the rollout, the numbers are extremely encouraging. It appears that new sign-ups will approach the 7 million goal after all, with the torrent of activity coming up to today’s deadline. Over 3 million young people are covered on their parents’ health care plans, 8 million uninsured are eligible for Medicaid and 100 million have received preventive care such as mammograms and flu shots at no cost.

Despite the Republicans holding 50 “show” votes in the House to gut the ACA and Republican governors in 24 states denying 5 million people Medicaid coverage for ACA, it is taking hold.

Remember, when Medicare and Medicaid were first established in 1965, only 25 states agreed to participate in Medicaid. It took until 1982 before all 50 states signed up.

The real question now, as with Medicare in the 60′s, is when will the Republicans stop crying wolf and accept the facts about the program? And will they pay the political consequences?

If the Republicans spend the next seven months believing that the ACA is the one and only issue for them, they do so at their peril. The worst thing that the Democrats can do is to run from the ACA; the best thing they can do is call the Republicans on their long history of crying wolf.

Because once voters see that the ACA will help the vast majority of the nearly 50 million Americans who were uninsured and will provide real change for our nation’s health care system, you will see Medicare-redo.

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Turnout, Turnout, Turnout — The Democrats Answer to 2014

Turnout, turnout, turnout

Democrats could be in trouble or we could have the upper hand — it all depends on the strategy for 2014 that we choose.

For those of us Democratic political media consultants, we are learning a pretty hard lesson: Even though TV may still be king for a while, it is becoming more and more about turnout. It is more and more about targeting. It is more and more about communicating with new media techniques and new ways to connect to get people to the polls.

Republicans argue, with some degree of clarity, that Democrats face an “enthusiasm gap” much like in 2010 and that Republicans are energized to take back the Senate. They maintain that our strongest constituencies — young people, Hispanics, African-Americans — have historically been less likely to turn out in off-year elections.If Democrats allow things to play out the usual way they may just be right.

But if Democrats in the key states with Senate races and in the targeted House races change the model, Republicans could well have egg on their faces.

Let’s look at some historic numbers and some changing demographics. In the presidential election of 2000 we saw a rather anemic voter turnout, 105 million Americans, that dropped to 80 million in the off-year of 2002, up to 122 million in the presidential year of 2004, down again to about 80 million in 2006, way up to 132 million in 2008, down to 90 million in 2010 and, again, up to about 130 million in 2012.

Clearly, there is a fairly consistent pattern here — whether it is a 25 million vote drop-off or a more than 40 million drop, the numbers are big. The real question for 2014, of course, is just who stays home.

Now let’s look at the demographics and the dramatic change in who votes. When Clinton was first elected president, the electorate was 87 percent white; when Obama was reelected, it was 72 percent white. In 2012, African-Americans were 13 percent of the electorate, Hispanics were 10 percent, Asians were 3 percent and 2 percent “other.” And, of course, as has been true for a long time, women were a majority of the electorate, at 53 percent.

Gallup just released a report that looked at younger voters ages 18 to 29, about 19 percent of the electorate in 2012. In 1995, 71 percent of young people were non-Hispanic whites and 29 percent were non-white. Now, non-Hispanic whites are 54 percent of the electorate and non-whites have risen to 45 percent. Again, a serious shift.

Hmm … and we have a Republican Party that is perceived as anti-black, anti-Hispanic, anti-women, anti-gay, anti-immigrant and anti-middle class. Not exactly an enviable position with the current makeup of the electorate.

Republicans do believe, however, that by counting on the traditional turnout model, a dispirited Democratic Party and putting all their eggs in the Obamacare basket, they can ride to victory.

But here is the rub for the Republicans. After 2008 and 2012, the Obama team members have done an amazing job of locating and identifying their voters in key states. They don’t just know counties, or cities, or precincts — they know houses. They know the neighborhoods and the streets and the homes we live in. They know how often we vote, they know our interests, they know our Facebook friends.

In key 2012 battleground states with 2014 Senate races — like Iowa and Colorado and New Hampshire and North Carolina and Virginia — they are organized and ready. In other battleground states, with money and personnel and focus starting early, Democrats can do a great deal to impact the turnout of their voters.

My central point is not that media and message won’t be critical in 2014 but that the targeting and voter identification and get out the vote operations could upend the traditional model we have seen in off-year elections.

But the Democrats must think differently, must spend their budgets differently, must engage in a lot more hand-to-hand, house-to-house action than ever before.

The tools are there, the skills are honed, the groundwork has been laid. Now Democrats must seize this advantage and must focus over the next seven months on turnout, turnout, turnout. Spoken like a true TV guy, right? 

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A Win For Democracy

A Win for Democracy

A Maryland judge made a little noticed but very important ruling.

The American Bar Association recently ruled that it won’t consider accrediting foreign law schools.

By March 25, 20143 Comments SHARE—-USNews & World Report, Thomas Jefferson Street Blog

Government overreach. Gross abuse of taxpayer money. Abuse of power. Trampling on the rights of citizens to petition their government.

Here we are not talking about some tea party attack but a precedent-setting court action in one of America’s most liberal counties — Montgomery County, Md. – as reported in Monday’s Washington Post.

Here is the back story: The county executive and the county council sided with the police chief to take away bargaining rights from the police union. The police union gathered more than 35,000 signatures to take the issue to the ballot in November of 2012.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the tea party.]

First, the county spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees to keep the referendum off the ballot. They lost. Then, instead of forming a campaign committee to advocate for their position in the upcoming election, County Executive Ike Leggett authorized a full-fledged political campaign to support Question B using taxpayer funds and county employees on county time. How was this justified? By claiming it was “government speech.”

So the county hired political consultants, produced political mailers targeting 163,000 households, used its computers, website and its list of 125,000 email addresses, produced yard signs and flyers, put bus signs on its buses, which were viewed 540,000 times a day, and produced advertising – all with taxpayer’s money.

As Judge Ronald Rubin wrote in his decision declaring the actions illegal, “the County crossed the line from providing information to a full bore partisan political campaign.” He also added, “It is beyond question that the referendum process itself is subject to the Election Law, including its campaign finance disclosure provisions.”

Ike Leggett and the Montgomery County government did not comply with the state law, they did not file a campaign committee, they did not report raising and expending funds, they did not pass “Go.” Instead, they went ahead and conducted a political campaign without regard for the proper legal process, based on the interpretation of an email from a state lawyer that the judge called “too thin a reed to support the blanket rule for which the defendants argue.”

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Why is this important beyond a local dispute? The reason that this lawsuit was brought against the county was to uphold the democratic process, to ensure that such actions by a government, violating the law, would not stand. If Montgomery County was allowed to spend whatever it takes of taxpayer’s funds in a political campaign and command their employees to work on a campaign, our country is in trouble.

Think about it. How about initiatives and referenda dealing with abortion, or gun control, or gambling, or other worker’s rights questions — is it OK for government to employ a complete political campaign to advocate for one side or the other? With your money? Totally outside campaign laws?

In the end, Rubin ruled that, “based on this court’s factual findings, the question is not even a close call.”

Process matters. Fairness and democratic principles matter. That is a very important bottom line.







  • Peter Fenn

    Peter Fenn is a Democratic political strategist and head of Fenn Communications, one of the nation’s leading political and public affairs media firms. Fenn Communications has worked in over 300 campaigns, from presidential to mayoral, and has represented a number of Fortune 500 companies. Fenn is also an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. Follow him on Twitter: @peterhfenn.

How to Counter the Koch Brothers

How to counter the Koch brothers

A new George Washington University battleground poll conducted by the Tarrance Group and Lake Research shows that 52 percent of likely voters have never heard of Charles and David Koch.

No surprise there — but by November that may change, certainly in states with key Senate races. As the flood of money from the billionaire brothers pays for attack ads in states like North Carolina, Colorado, Alaska, Arkansas and many more, the name Koch will become infamous.They were once known for endowing Lincoln Center; now they may be known for almost singlehandedly destroying the party of Lincoln.

I am having a little deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would say. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, an independent expenditure group, the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC), came rolling into states spending large sums to attack Democratic senators. The NCPAC’s head, Terry Dolan, once said, “We can lie through our teeth and the candidate we help stays clean … we can elect Mickey Mouse to the House or Senate.” In other words, NCPAC was the slash-and-burn group, much like the Koch brothers of today.

It took some time, but senators like Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) and John Melcher (D-Mont.) found that they could take NCPAC on and discredit both the message and the messenger. “Out-of-state extremists coming in with millions and telling us how to vote” was a strong argument.

The dilemma these days, with so much clutter on the airwaves, is how to make sure the campaign stays on message with the actual opponent but also incorporates a bit of jujitsu to ensure the Koch brothers’ millions are used against them.

By November, voters in these key states should know the amount of money they have spent, the tactics they have implored and the right-wing agenda they espouse.

Here are some thoughts on just how to take them on and still stay on message in your campaign.

Define the Koch brothers for who they are and what they stand for. Extremist. Some of the wealthiest people in the world — worth $80 billion. Intent on buying elections.

They have decided that they can manipulate you with their millions. They have decided they can lie in their ads with false testimonials on the Affordable Care Act and get away with it. They want to win at all costs. The unprecedented expenditures are a drop in the bucket for them. Compute how much they make in a minute, an hour, a day, a week and what they are spending in your state on television.

Poke fun at them — use humor to break through the clutter. Melcher did that in 1982 with his famous “talking cows” ad going after NCPAC.

Tie the Koch brothers to the Republican candidate. Make your opponent either endorse them or repudiate them. Don’t let your opponent ignore the effort to buy the election and distort the facts.

Go viral with online pieces that tell the whole story of the Koch brothers — longer than a 30-second ad. Shine the light of day on them.

Have press conferences to illustrate the absurd nature of what they are trying to do and how much they are spending doing it. How many poor people could they feed, house, clothe? How many people in foreclosure could they help? How many jobs could they support? How many hospitals and clinics could they build? How many nurses could they hire?

The basic point is, don’t let the Koch brothers off the hook; make them an issue. Keep your focus on your opponent and your message but don’t fail to make the Koch brothers the albatross around the neck of the Republicans that they should be.


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