Why Policy Matters
It sure has been a crappy few weeks for the Obama Administration, right? Starting with the Senate refusing to pass a really minimal gun control legislation – carefully crafted in a bipartisan fashion, we now have revelations of the IRS targeting tea party groups, and the Justice Department obtaining AP phone records via subpoena.
It’s funny, because one of the attacks on Obama is that he’s perpetually in campaign mode. Problem is, he wins campaigns; if he was in campaign mode, none of this stuff would be a big deal. Its messaging has sucked, lately, and Congressional Democrats tend to suck, as well.
The background noise during all of this is the right-wing’s incessant attempts to manufacture a scandal out of the 9/11/12 attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi. Literally every single allegation-cum-conspiracy theory has been thoroughly debunked to the point now where (a) it’s palpably all about Hillary 2016; and (b) chief scandal author Darrell Issa has finally reached a last-resort argument, whereby calling the Benghazi attack an “act of terror” is an impeachable offense, because the Administration should have called it a terrorist act. I kid you not.
The CIA and State Department’s editing and re-editing of a post-attack talking points document is not a cover-up or a scandal – it’s what diplomats and spies do. This is why the Wikileaks publication of secret diplomatic cables is, in my opinion, a bad thing. We oughtn’t broadcast what our diplomats or spies are doing. In an interesting twist, the Republicans demanding the public release of Benghazi-related information were quite outraged by the Wikileaks diplomatic cable release.
The Republican narrative – despite all evidence to the contrary – has been that the White House intervened to make Obama look good. The evidence reveals that the CIA and State were squabbling over post-attack documents so as to provide information without compromising any extant interests or missions.
The AP investigation and the IRS targeting are brand-new stories, the details of which are not fully hashed out, but they certainly look bad, and the Obama Administration is uniquely susceptible to outrageous criticism because of the right-wing narrative that Obama is a tinpot dictator, despite being limited to two terms and a do-nothing Congress.
The IRS absolutely should not be targeting tea party groups or liberal groups, for that matter. But that isn’t an accurate depiction of what happened. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision, it quickly became chic to set up a tax-exempt political advocacy group. I want the IRS to look into the activities of those groups to ensure that they comply with extant regulations on maintaining tax-exempt status, just as much as I want the IRS to crack down on, e.g., tax-exempt “churches” that overtly engage in campaigning and politics. As long as it’s done in an evenhanded, non-partisan way. The Treasury Inspector General reports that the IRS scrutinized certain 501(c)(4) applications using “inappropriate criteria”.
In fact, a few left-wing groups were subjected to the same scrutiny as right-wing groups, and while some tea party applications for a government tax-free subsidy were delayed, only Emerge – a left-wing group – had its application denied.
What’s nice is that everyone hates the IRS, Obama demanded the Treasury Secretary seek the resignation or dismissal of the acting IRS Commissioner.
As for the phone records scandal, there is a legitimate debate to be had about government access to journalists’ source information, and the balancing of equities between investigating leaks of classified information and shield laws. But you can’t have a legitimate debate in a climate of alleged scandal. Because this isn’t a “scandal”. This is what law enforcement does, every day – gather information as part of an investigation using whatever legal means possible, and the law allows this when all other avenues to learn the information have been exhausted.
The AP delayed reporting the story at the request of government officials who said it would jeopardize national security. Once officials said those concerns were allayed, the AP disclosed the plot, though the Obama administration continued to request that the story be held until the administration could make an official announcement.
The May 7 story was written by reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman with contributions from reporters Kimberly Dozier, Eileen Sullivan and Alan Fram. They and their editor, Ted Bridis, were among the journalists whose April-May 2012 phone records were seized by the government.
Brennan talked about the AP story and investigation in written testimony to the Senate. “The irresponsible and damaging leak of classified information was made … when someone informed The Associated Press that the U.S. government had intercepted an IED (improvised explosive device) that was supposed to be used in an attack and that the U.S. government currently had that IED in its possession and was analyzing it,” he wrote.
He also defended the White House decision to discuss the plot afterward. “Once someone leaked information about interdiction of the IED and that the IED was actually in our possession, it was imperative to inform the American people consistent with government policy that there was never any danger to the American people associated with this al-Qaida plot,” Brennan told senators.
These are stories about tone-deaf executive branch overreach. Yet what the government did in this AP phone records case is likely completely legal. The government didn’t spy or snoop on the AP – it obtained phone records from the phone company. Under the law, the government is allowed to obtain information from third parties, and there is no 4th Amendment problem. Furthermore, you don’t hear a lot of Republicans in Congress making noise about it – how do you demonize the mainstream media every hour of every day for years, then suddenly pivot to its defense to score a few points against Obama? The right’s animus for Obama is only matched (or exceeded) by its animus for fact-based reportage.
This is why elections matter, this is why policy matters, and this is why legislation matters. This is why whom you send to Congress matters.
For instance, in 2007, a bill in Congress called the “Free Flow of Information Act” would have required the DOJ to first obtain a court order before obtaining phone records or otherwise pursuing journalists’ sources to investigate criminality. Although it passed the house, it failed to make it past a Republican filibuster in the Senate to a vote. Put bluntly, Republicans killed the media shield law that would have prevented the DOJ from doing what it did to the AP.
For fiscal 2013, the GOP-controlled House proposed spending $1.934 billion for the State Department’s Worldwide Security Protection program — well below the $2.15 billion requested by the Obama administration. House Republicans cut the administration’s request for embassy security funding by $128 million in fiscal 2011 and $331 million in fiscal 2012. (Negotiations with the Democrat-controlled Senate restored about $88 million of the administration’s request.) Last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that Republicans’ proposed cuts to her department would be “detrimental to America’s national security” — a charge Republicans rejected.
Ryan, Issa and other House Republicans voted for an amendment in 2009 to cut $1.2 billion from State operations, including funds for 300 more diplomatic security positions. Under Ryan’s budget, non-defense discretionary spending, which includes State Department funding, would be slashed nearly 20 percent in 2014, which would translate to more than $400 million in additional cuts to embassy security.
So, facts matter, and policy matters, and you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.
Oh, also this week, Congress voted for a 37th time to repeal Obamacare. So, you know, jobs & growth agenda? Not so much.