I shall post videos, graphs, news stories, and other material there. We shall use some of this material in class, and you may review the rest at your convenience. You will all receive invitations to post to the blog. (Please let me know if you do not get such an invitation.) I encourage you to use the blog in these ways:
To post questions or comments about the readings before we discuss them in class;
To follow up on class discussions with additional comments or questions.
To post relevant news items or videos.

There are only two major limitations: no coarse language, and no derogatory comments about people at the Claremont Colleges.

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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Congress and Willy Wonka

Chad Pergram offers a neat analogy:

Congratulations, members of the 2010 Congressional freshmen class. Like Charlie Bucket in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," you've all scored a golden ticket. You have special entrée to the United States Congress.

Now the question is, can you make it out of the Congressional chocolate factory unscathed?

Or will vanity, arrogance, greed, lust, sloth and general misbehavior prevail?

The halls of Congress are wonderful, much like Wonka's factory. Capitol Hill features its own alluring versions of chocolate rivers, lickable wallpaper and edible grass. The temptations are great. TV cameras and klieg lights offer the beacon of fame. K Street lobbyists command your attention. People want to donate to your campaign.

Like in the Willy Wonka tale, will you suffer the same fate as Augustus Gloop? Will you fail to heed warnings not to drink out of the Congressional chocolate river and be sucked into an oversized pipe in the Capitol Hill Fudge Room?

Or will you wind up like Violet Beuaregarde and morph into a roly-poly blueberry after trying a Congressional Three-Course-Dinner? Will you get rejected like Veruca Salt as a "bad egg" and dispatched down the House garbage chute? Or, will you turn out like Mike Teevee and be shrunk to a minuscule size when you try to appear on the still untested version of Congressional Wonkavision?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Lettermarking and Phonemarking

Bans on earmarks mean less than you might think. For one thing, earmarks account for only a tiny sliver of federal spending. For another, there are ways around earmark bans. The New York Times reports on Senator (and former Representative) Mark Kirk (R-IL):

Mr. Kirk, for example, sent a letter to the Department of Education dated Sept. 10, 2009, asking it to release money “needed to support students and educational programs” in a local school district. The letter was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the group Citizens Against Government Waste, which shared it with The New York Times.

The district, Woodland School District 50, said it later received about $1.1 million in stimulus money.

In response to questions about the letter, a spokeswoman for Mr. Kirk defended the practice of reaching out to federal agencies to secure financing for constituents.

“Senator-elect Kirk became the first member of the Appropriations Committee to stop requesting earmarks and voted against the stimulus bill,” the spokeswoman, Susan Kuczka, said in a prepared statement. “He has and will continue to be an advocate for his Illinois constituents before administration agencies but will not request Congressional earmarks to be included in House or Senate legislation.”

Lettermarking, which takes place outside the Congressional appropriations process, is one of the many ways that legislators who support a ban on earmarks try to direct money back home.

In phonemarking, a lawmaker calls an agency to request financing for a project. More indirectly, members of Congress make use of what are known as soft earmarks, which involve making suggestions about where money should be directed, instead of explicitly instructing agencies to finance a project. Members also push for increases in financing of certain accounts in a federal agency’s budget and then forcefully request that the agency spend the money on the members’ pet project.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Last Vote

At Fox News, Chad Pergram has a nice vignette on the last vote of the season:

The bouquet of jet fuel is a powerful essence on Capitol Hill. As soon as members think there's a chance they can hit the exits for a long Congressional break, the jet fuel aroma permeates the Capitol. And lawmakers grow antsy.

The scent certainly wafted through the air Wednesday afternoon. But not so much because lawmakers were hell-bent on escaping Washington. Instead, it was to accommodate just one lawmaker flying in. Exclusively for this vote.

The 9-11 vote was crucial to her. And even more critical to many of the constituents she represents.

At 5:32 pm, Rep. Steve Austria (R-OH) strolled into the chamber. Without removing his long trench coat, Austria voted aye. The tally board flipped to 205-60, the first time it moved in more than 40 minutes.

Austria crossed the chamber to the Republican side.

"You weren't the one we were waiting on," said Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX) to Austria.

Conaway was right.

And a moment later, in the back of the chamber appeared Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY). Velazquez voted yes. The tally board advanced to 206-60. And Edwards closed the vote at 5:36 pm. One hour and 16 minutes after it began.

The House is currently comprised of 434 members with one vacancy. And 168 members didn't vote Wednesday, including Speaker-elect John Boehner (R-OH). But Velazquez wasn't about to be one of 168 MIA members. And especially not on this vote. Instead, Velazquez rushed back to Washington from her native Puerto Rico where the Congresswoman was caring for her 90-year-old mother, stricken with bleeding ulcers.

Velazquez landed at Dulles International Airport in the Washington suburbs around 4:20 pm. Right about the time the vote started. Fighting DC's notorious rush hour traffic, the New York Democrat then raced to the Capitol and entered the building wearing track pants, New Balance running shoes and no coat. Velazquez voted and then turned to leave, visibly shaken, her eyes moist from tears.

I caught Velazquez just before she headed back down the House steps and asked why it was so essential for her to come back.

"I was torn between two important things that I care about," said Velazquez, choking back tears. "My mother and the 9-11 responders."

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Gift of Objection

The New York Times reports on the ailing Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR):

Mr. Wyden, who had expected to be absent this weekend, returned to the Capitol for important votes on Saturday. And in his first appearance on the floor, he thanked his colleagues from their warm gestures.

“Senators,” he said. “let me thank all of you for your many kindnesses over the last 48 hours. When news about your prostate is ricocheting around the blogosphere, all the calls and notes and even offers to object on my behalf have meant a lot.”

Offers to object? Yes, that is what he said.

In some workplaces, a concerned co-worker might send a note, or even bake a casserole. But in the Senate, where business is conducted by the unanimous consent of all members, and where any one senator can hold up a piece of legislation, nothing is more precious –- or better represents the singular authority of a United States Senator -– than the ability to stand up on the floor, and declare to the presiding officer, “Mr. President, I object.”

But a senator cannot object to floor proceedings or vote from a sickbed (unless of course, the sickbed has been wheeled onto the floor –- which actually has happened in the Senate). And because senators cannot vote for each other, the offer to stand up and object on Mr. Wyden’s behalf was as sure a message of comradeship as a senator could express.

This story won't seem odd to you after you've done the simulation.