Obama administration

Get Ready for Speaker Paul Ryan

Congressman Paul Ryan speaking at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore)

Congressman Paul Ryan speaking at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore)

After weeks of speculation and uncertainty on Capitol Hill, the Republican House majority finally appears to have its next speaker in sight: Congressman Paul Ryan. 

Remember him? The conservative budget guru from Wisconsin who would have been vice president three years ago if Mitt Romney had won. He’s set to be selected for the position on Thursday, and now it looks like he has enough Republican votes to win the job.  
 
Ryan initially seemed disinterested in replacing Speaker John Boehner, who is retiring to avoid more infighting in his caucus and after he realized his dream of having a Pope address Congress.

Ryan's reluctance isn't surprising. Trying to run the House with his own troops in revolt is a tough job, especially for a guy who says he will only take the job if he still can go home to Janesville every weekend to be with his family.
 
Despite pressure from Boehner and Romney, Ryan said he was perfectly happy holding onto his dream job as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. But that changed late last week after it became clear no one else had a remote chance of stitching together a majority of the Republican caucus.
 
Ryan became a household name after rising to the top of the House Budget Committee in 2007. Since then, he’s proposed several budget plans with bold social service cuts, such as replacing Medicare with a voucher system and repealing the Affordable Care Act. 
 
Two years ago, Ryan emerged as the key Republican negotiator in a budget deal co-authored by Democratic Senator Patty Murray. It was a rare example of bipartisanship in a time increasingly marred by political polarization.  
 
A famously devout fan of controversial novelist Ayn Rand and heavy metal bands, Ryan stands in sharp contrast to the man he’s poised to replace. And maybe that would be a good change for Congress, but don’t get your hopes up that Ryan’s latest rise in the ranks will do much to sew the Republican Party back together. 
 
With 247 members today, House Republicans hold their largest majority in decades, and Ryan’s ascent makes him the de facto leader of a splintered party conference, which includes the centrist Tuesday Group, the larger, very conservative Republican Study Committee and the radical, anti-establishment Freedom Caucus.
 
Ryan, a member of the Republican Study Committee, initially struggled to gain the approval of the Freedom Caucus, which consists of a few dozen representatives who have generally put in less time on Capitol Hill. Last week, about two-thirds of them came around, cautiously giving Ryan their blessing, but not promising to make his job any easier than Boehner’s.
 
Comprised of many members of the Tea Party movement, the Freedom Caucus refused to support any spending bill that did not strip all federal funding away from Planned Parenthood. In cases like that, the faction’s opposition can be just enough to bring the legislative process to a halt.  
 
Ryan's path appears to be easier than expected, thanks to Boehner, who managed to push through a debt ceiling and spending deal Wednesday. Congressional leaders struck the crucial two-year budget deal Monday night following negotiations with the Obama Administration.

Leaders hope to move the proposal along for a vote in the Senate, getting the dirty work out of the way just in time for Ryan’s entrance to the speakership. The deal has already met some resistance from Sen. Rand Paul, who vowed to filibuster the proposal.   
 
Chances are good the Freedom Caucus will remain a thorn in the side of any Speaker. Chances also are good that Oregon Congressman Greg Walden, who is in charge of fundraising for House Republicans, will take on an expanded role since Ryan won't hit the road like Boehner did.

The challenge for Ryan will be to figure out clever ways to negotiate with the White House, a more stable GOP majority in the Senate and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Pushing for more job security, Ryan hopes to change a rule that allows a single member of the House to move for a vote to remove the speaker. In Boehner’s time, the rule has posed a constant threat to his hold over the speakership. That may be the only way to neuter the Freedom Caucus enough to get on with the business of legislating.

Obama Links Climate Change, National Security

The Obama administration says climate change could be as treacherous to U.S. national security as terrorists, Russia and pandemics.

The Obama administration says climate change could be as treacherous to U.S. national security as terrorists, Russia and pandemics.

The Obama administration is linking climate change to national security, which may not have much immediate impact on a GOP-controlled Congress, but is likely to become a major debating point in the 2016 presidential election.

In a report released today, the White House put climate change on par with terrorism and pandemics as threats to U.S. security. “Climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows and conflicts over basic resources like food and water,” according to Obama's 35-page strategy document. 

The President has made fighting climate change a major emphasis of his second term, perhaps as much to elevate it on the political radar screen as to register actual accomplishments. At least one specific recommendation — to diversify the sources of energy for the U.S. military — may have a chance to move forward.

A key theme in the report is the connection between energy security and national security. “Seismic shifts in supply and demand are underway across the globe,” it says. “Increasing global access to reliable and affordable energy is one of the most powerful ways to support social and economic development and to help build new markets for U.S. technology and investment.”

The report calls for actions to increase the nation's resiliency in the face of climate change challenges. That includes more and perhaps different kinds of investment in infrastructure. “The present day effects of climate change are being felt from the Arctic to the Midwest. Increased sea levels and storm surges threaten coastal regions, infrastructure and property. In turn, the global economy suffers, compounding the growing costs of preparing and restoring infrastructure.” 

Buttressing America against challenges caused by climate change, the Obama administration report claims, will increase the country's national security.

Ebola Scare Elbows onto Political Stage

Fear of the spread of Ebola has taken center stage, pushing other political issues and concerns to the side as a national election approaches.

Fear of the spread of Ebola has taken center stage, pushing other political issues and concerns to the side as a national election approaches.

The arrival of the Ebola virus in the United States has claimed a lot of attention that otherwise would have gone to a stepped-up war on terror and the looming election November 4.

The death of a Liberian man in a Dallas hospital and the resulting exposure of two health care workers who treated him have spiraled into questions as large as whether the United States should close off its borders to anyone who has been in West Africa where Ebola has become an epidemic.

The Obama administration ordered tighter checks at major U.S. airports where most flights from West Africa land and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention is busily trying to train health care workers in protocols for treating persons with Ebola virus symptoms.

However, Americans have grown concerned after a series of missteps at the Dallas hospital where Thomas Eric Duncan died after he was initially sent home. The chief clinical officer for the hospital has apologized for mistakes that were made.

Those mistakes have extended to improper procedures and equipment that led to healthcare workers Nina Pham and Amber Joy Vinson contracting Ebola. Another nurse has turned whistleblower about protective gear that she said failed to cover someone's body around the throat and could expose a health care worker. The nurse said she would ask to be sent to another hospital if she came down with the Ebola virus.

The CDC has admitted to blame for being too cavalier about the readiness of hospitals to handle Ebola patients. Its judgment also was called into question after Vinson was allowed to go on a flight despite having a temperature.

The apparent bungling of Ebola care in Dallas and statements by nurses and others that most hospitals lack the training and equipment to deal with an Ebola outbreak has fed fears nationwide that the deadly disease could spread here just like in West Africa.

Like so many other issues, there is a partisan divide on the federal government's ability to respond effectively to Ebola here. An ABC/Washington Post poll revealed 76 percent of Democrats are confident of the federal government's ability, while only 54 percent Republicans share that confidence. More Republicans than Democrats worry that the Ebola virus could affect them personally.

Gone is the pride and relief Americans felt when the first two American health care workers who contracted Ebola in West Africa recovered successfully in the care of a Atlanta hospital. Pride and relief have been replaced by concern and, in some cases, fear-mongering that has made a lot of other bogeymen fade into the background.

Income Disparity Blamed for Slow Growth

Warnings about the ramifications of income inequality usually don't come from Wall Street. This week, they did.

Standard & Poor's chief economist says growing income disparity is retarding overall growth in the U.S. economy and poses a future threat of even deeper boom/bust cycles. The concentration of wealth by a few has stifled spending and saving by the many. 

The remedy urged by S&P involves redoubled commitment to quality education. The rating agency's report says more schooling translates into higher earning capacity. If the average American worker logged one additional year of education, S&P estimated it would add $105 billion per year to overall national economic activity.

S&P discouraged use of tax policy to cure income inequality. It said higher taxes could remove incentives to work and convince employers to hire fewer workers.

When worker wages lag, the S&P report concluded, lower wage earners tend to curb spending or go deeper into debt when faced with emergencies such as medical expenses or the need for a replacement vehicle to get to work. 

The report by S&P confirms the income disparity is expanding. While the top 1 percent of U.S. wage earners raked in an average of $1.3 million in 2012, the bottom 90 percent have seen their incomes erode after adjusting for inflation for the past 13 years.

Just Don't Call It an Earmark

"What's in it for me?"  That's been the time-honored question asked for centuries by politicians in the midst of heated negotiations.

Up until the last four years, one direct incentive Congressional leaders could use to cajole extra votes came in the form of earmarks. Members fought for and secured earmark dollars for local transportation and water projects, university research and economic development to address the needs of their district and solve local challenges.

The practice of earmarking also ensured federal resources were distributed across the country — from small rural communities to big metropolitan cities. Using earmarks as an incentive to support broader legislative compromise, congressional leaders could grease the gears to move legislative packages that weren't perfect but kept the government trains moving on time. It's a process that worked for decades. 

After the GOP wave election of 2010, the practice of earmarking came to an end.  Many new House GOP Members ran on a platform of eliminating wasteful spending — with earmark spending first and foremost in their crosshairs.

One unintended consequence many Republicans failed to aniticipate was how eliminating earmarks would change the balance of power in DC.  With earmarks gone, all grant funding decisions would reside solely with the Obama Administration, a realization that deeply annoys the most conservative Republicans. 

One pro-earmark Republican who saw this coming is Conservative Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe. Here's what Inhofe recently wrote in a May 17 op-ed in the Tulsa World:

"What I warned America in late 2010 is proving true today: Eliminating earmarks has not saved taxpayers one dime. Instead our debt has increased by $4 trillion, and Congress is giving specified amounts of taxpayer dollars to the president so that he can spend it as he and his unelected bureaucrats so please. Republicans’ decision to cede power to the president through the earmark moratorium has made Congress less accountable, less transparent, and less responsible to its constituents."   

How About Congressional Oversight? 

It's taken some time, but after four years Congress is starting to develop ways to exercise renewed influence over the spending process. Two bills attracting overwhelming bipartisan support will require more congressional input and oversight over grant project selection. It's no surprise the two bills are infrastructure measures that typically would have been flooded with earmarks — the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) and the Transportation Reauthorization bill.

WRDA will be the first bill since the earmark ban to establish a creative process for project approvals through congressional review. The legislation is expected to pass this week. Here's how it is supposed to work: