Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Myth of Insulating Appointees from Political Pressure

I had not intended to start this blog with a series of posts about Barack Obama, but I see via TPM Election Central that he has proposed a New Orleans plan. Before I get into a complaint about one aspect of the plan, let me applaud the idea of Democrats putting forth proposals for New Orleans. All three leading Democratic contenders are scheduled to be in New Orleans soon and, if I were running for President, I'd be there about every other week. It is Exhibit A in what happens when you leave governing to people who don't give a shit about governing and its continuing problems are a national tragedy. In some ways, it's worse than Iraq because there isn't a civil war going on in New Orleans, it's part of a very rich country with a functioning government. There's simply no reason why it has to be such a continuing disaster.

One of the points of Obama's plan is: "Like the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the FEMA Director will have a fixed term of office to insulate him or her from politics." This is one of the many things that frustrate me about Obama - he seems to have bought into the notion that the problem is politics and that everything will be sunshine and light if we can just get past politics.

Michael Brown was not a horrible director of FEMA because he was under political pressure to be incompetent. He was a horrible Director because he was unqualified for his job. A fixed term wouldn't have changed that. What would have changed that is a law Congress passed in 2006 to set minimum requirements for the job of Director of FEMA. A law that Bush promptly signalled his intent to ignore in a signing statement (honestly the gall of W is something to behold sometimes). Barack Obama sits on the Committee for Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which under Joe Lieberman's alleged leadership has not held hearings or otherwise investigated the Katrina mess. From his role on the Committee, Obama more than most Americans is in a position to try to do something about FEMA (and, to his credit, he has tried to do some things).

The inability to solve the problems of New Orleans is a failure of politics, but it's not a failure because it is political. It is a failure because we have a breathtakingly incompetent and arrogant Administration and a Democratic Congress that is unwilling to stand up to it. The problem has been the Executive Branch's lack of accountability to Congress, an accountability that is - at heart - political. It's just that as Digby and Matthew Yglesias have pointed out, we're in this upside-down world where Congress, particularly the Republicans, have not acted in their own political self-interest. In that world, the political process breaks down and so does accountability. (It is true that part of the motivation behind the Administration's continued incompetence might be political, but that's for another day.)

Since politics is not the problem, "insulating" the FEMA director is not the solution. I laughed when I read Obama's endorsement of wanting the FEMA director to be like the FBI director. Because that worked so well for the Clinton Administration with Louis Freeh, who worked openly against Clinton, often giving Republicans on the Hill political cover for their attacks on Clinton and his policies. Louis Freeh could not have been more political, but his term appointment did not insulate him from political pressure or prevent him in acting in a political way. The only thing it insulated him from was accountability. I appreciate Obama not wanting to relive the political fights of the 1990s, but the best way not to repeat history, Senator, is to learn from it.

The last thing we need in the next Administration is less accountability. The heart of accountability in a democracy is the political process.

While I'm on this, let me propose eliminating the term appointment for the FBI Director. It makes the FBI, already incredibly powerful, even more so by eliminating accountability. If President Obama or Clinton or Edwards want to seriously change the FISA or Patriot Act laws, what will FBI Director Mueller do? Will he support them or will he undermine them by working the Hill and/or the press. Regardless of who the next President is, if Mueller wants to stick around, he can until 2011. While he can be removed, it would likely take a ton of political capital to do it. Wouldn't want a hack politician like the President of the United States going after an apolitical, above-it-all guy like Mr. Mueller, would we?

Obama's Republican Friends

I highly recommend Taylor Marsh's blog and I agree that Obama's promise to reach out to Coburn and other Republicans on foreign policy is a mistake. I don't think it's a mistake because of Coburn's anti-abortion or other crazy rightwing policy positions, however. It's a mistake because of Coburn's awful foreign policy positions. From Coburn's January 2007 press release:

"It is vitally important to realize the dire global consequences should America abandon its mission in Iraq. Radical Islamic terrorists would control the country, aligning themselves with rogue nations like Syria and Iran while using one of the world’s largest oil supplies to fund their terrorist activities. The region would be further destabilized as Iraq becomes a safe haven for terrorists plotting attacks against America and our allies, especially Israel.”

“We must understand what motivates the terrorists we are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and across the globe. They believe everyone must believe as they do or be killed. They preach intolerance and bomb churches and synagogues. We must take seriously their threats to wipe Israel off the map and their desire to see America defeated. Abandoning our mission in Iraq would hand these terrorists a great victory and further embolden them to attack us at home."

Stay the course in Iraq. Beat them there so they can't follow us here. This is someone Obama wants to work with on foreign policy? The same Obama who called Hillary Clinton "Bush-Cheney Lite"? Of course, it's not just Coburn that Obama wants to work with, it's also the very serious John Warner, whose big idea on Iraq is to bring 5,000 troops home by Christmas. As Digby points out, Warner's war concerns amount to little more than kabuki. While he ponders and worries, he's unwilling to do anything to actually end the war or put pressure on Bush to end it. Lugar is largely the same, saying there are problems with staying in Iraq, but not willing to do anything about it.

You don't get more "foreign policy establishment" than Warner or Lugar. For a guy who has recently been trying to sell himself as having a new approach to foreign policy, it seems counter-productive to talk about how much you want to work with folks who are the personification of that establishment. It's especially weird after you've spent so much time criticizing Hillary Clinton whose policy positions are either the same as or to the left of these guys (all three of whom voted for the atrocity that is the Military Commissions Act).

I find Obama to be the most frustrating of the Democratic candidates, but that's a subject that deserves it's own post because it goes beyond this issue.

Cuba and The Electoral College

While not generally an Obama supporter, I was heartened to see his comments about easing restrictions on Cuba. I share Steve Clemons' hope that Hillary Clinton modifies her position. While I've never understood or agreed with the Bush/neocon theory that the United States shouldn't talk to countries and leaders it doesn't like, it seems particularly perverse when dealing with Cuba. Cuba is no threat to the United States militarily, especially since the break up of the Soviet Union. Moreover, it seems to me that, given how close it is to the United States, liberalizing trade and travel would likely undermine the Castro regime by injecting American influence through popular culture, business interests, and personal connections. It should be a no brainer that when a policy that's been in place for 40 years hasn't worked, then perhaps a new policy is in order. FIdel Castro's poor health is not a reason to stay the course. Freedom and a U.S. friendly government will not suddenly bloom in Cuba the day Castro dies. His reported bad health, however, is an opportunity to look for new ways to influence Cuba.

While Obama's position on Cuba makes foreign policy sense, it may or may not make political sense. There's a reason why the policy has lasted long past its sell-by date and that's the influence of the hard line Cuban-Americans in the important swing state of Florida. Now, that influence may be waning as those who originally fled Castro pass away and are replaced by a new generation of Cuban-Americans born in this country, but it's still remarkable how one relatively small group of individuals have managed to set U.S. policy for so long.

The Cuba situation highlights one of the problems with the Electoral College. It's not just that it gives individual states a great deal of influence - why states like Ohio and Florida will be pandered to and visited by every candidate while the only time anyone out here in California will see them is at a fundraiser. It's that it also gives interest groups in those battleground states more influence than their size would give them in the general U.S. population. According to the 2000 census, there are slightly less than 1.3 million Cuban-Americans in the United States. Two-thirds of these folks live in Florida, so while Cuban-Americans make up approximately .6% of eligible voters in the United States (based on an estimate of 202 million eligible U.S. voters), they make up 8% of Florida voters. If the President were elected by popular vote, of course, it wouldn't matter where Cuban-Americans lived. It's the electoral college that creates this distortion in the amount of influence this relatively small percentage of the U.S. population has.

I should add that this isn't intended as a slam at Cuban-Americans. I don't blame them for trying to influence elected officials to see things their way (to the extent there is such a thing). The problem is with the system that gives them - or anyone else - such an inflated amount of influence.

An Introduction

I'm not quite sure yet what this blog will be. Like most blogs, it's bound to follow the interests of the author, which in my case includes politics, feminism, law, and popular culture. I'm single, childless and almost 40, but I'm happy about all those things. Okay, maybe not the almost 40 part, but I'm cool with everything else.