Congress on Sidelines as Politics, Events Pass It By

Congress returns from its summer recess, but still will be mostly on the sidelines as Trump tweets, court rulings and midterm elections dominate the daily news cycle. [Photo Credit: Associated Press]

Congress returns from its summer recess, but still will be mostly on the sidelines as Trump tweets, court rulings and midterm elections dominate the daily news cycle. [Photo Credit: Associated Press]

What goes on in Congress matters less these days than what goes on about Congress.

The five-day memorial for the late Senator John McCain drew attention to his lifelong dedication to duty, honor and principle, as well as a willingness to reach across the political aisle to compromise.

The mid-term elections have taken on amplified importance as a virtual referendum on President Donald Trump and as a contest for the heart of both the Republican and Democratic parties. Republican primaries are judged as battles between GOP moderates and Trump backers. Democratic primaries are viewed as tests of how far left the party may swing.

Trump’s hardline, nationalist approach to trade continues to ruffle feathers abroad and at home as farmers, manufacturers, workers and consumers fret over the end game. Congress ultimately will have to decide on any new trade deals, but for now is sitting on the sidelines. Congress is beginning to tackle the one-time subsidies Trump proposed to help farm producers cope with the impact of his tariffs.

The courts have played an outsized role in curbing Trump policies, including a ruling that forced reunification of families separated at the border, blocked blanket detention of asylum-seekers and elimination of DACA and delayed a rollback of fuel efficient standards.

The Robert Mueller investigation into Russian election meddling and potential Trump campaign collusion plugs along, with recent convictions, new grants of immunity and the pall of more indictments. Trump tells campaign rally audiences that a Democratic takeover of the House will lead to his impeachment. There are other investigations and lawsuits about Trump Organization business practices that also result in indictments, including of Trump family members.

Capitol Hill hasn’t gone completely quiet, however. This week will see the start of confirmation hearings on Trump Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, amid Democratic complaints that documents have been suppressed that might shed light on Kavanaugh’s views about executive privilege and prosecution. While the hearings could be confrontational, it appears likely Kavanaugh will win confirmation.

As the end of the federal fiscal year approaches, which in recent times has been tense with the threat of a partial government shutdown, Congress has dutifully moved 12 appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2019. No shutdown will occur, even though Trump said it might be a good thing. Congress has even been upstaged by Trump on spending as the President unilaterally blocked scheduled federal worker pay increases.

Facebook and Twitter remain in the congressional line of sight. After being blamed for turning a blind eye to false-flag accounts, the social media platforms are being accused of putting the squeeze on conservative political voices. Trump has gone further and alleged Google has manipulated search results to play up critical news stories about him and downplay positive stories.

There is an eerie silence in the halls of Congress on efforts to denuclearize North Korea, advance a major infrastructure package, act on immigration reform or respond to the looming denouement of the Syrian conflict, which many observers believe will be a massive humanitarian crisis.

Trump tweets remain the dominant story in most daily news cycles, whether he chastises the FBI and his Attorney General, whines about his treatment by the press or insults US allies or his critics. Apart from the content of the tweets, what troubles Republicans on the Hill are their unpredictability and inconsistency, which makes pursuing a congressional agenda more difficult.

The long, smothering shadow of Trump’s tweets does give congressional Republicans more time to start their own digital firestorms. Ryan Gosling’s biopic of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon has drawn criticism from GOP Senators Ted  Cruz and Marco Rubio for failing to feature the astronaut planting the US flag.

Cruz, who is running for re-election this fall, and Rubio said Armstrong’s achievement was a distinctively American moment, paid for by US taxpayers. Gosling defended the omission by saying Armstrong’s achievement “transcended borders and countries.”

Of course, the back-and-forth sniping has nothing to do with Congress.

Yet Another Unbelievable, Wacky Week in Washington, DC

As weeks go in Washington, DC, this has to be one of the wackiest as President Trump plots an attack on Syria, Facebook is accused of being a monopoly and former FBI Director James Comey’s memoir says the White House is run like a forest fire. And that doesn’t include the retirement announcement of House Speaker Paul Ryan and former Speaker John Boehner’s decision to advocate for legal medical marijuana.

As weeks go in Washington, DC, this has to be one of the wackiest as President Trump plots an attack on Syria, Facebook is accused of being a monopoly and former FBI Director James Comey’s memoir says the White House is run like a forest fire. And that doesn’t include the retirement announcement of House Speaker Paul Ryan and former Speaker John Boehner’s decision to advocate for legal medical marijuana.

You can’t say nothing is happening in the nation’s capital. You just can’t believe what’s happening.

President Trump is preparing to respond to a poison gas attack of civilians in Syria, signaled a reversal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and had a tweet tirade over a raid of the home and office of his personal attorney, Michael Cohen. Trump said the raid was “disgraceful.” Cohen’s attorneys said it was “unnecessary and inappropriate.” Cohen said the agents who carried out the raid were “polite and respectful.” Media reports suggested the purpose of the raid may have been to seize recordings Cohen made of his conversations, including with Trump.

GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan announced he is retiring at the end of his term, fueling speculation of an impending GOP shellacking in the mid-term elections this fall. Meanwhile, Ryan’s Republican predecessor, John Boehner, announced his views on cannabis have “evolved” and he will advocate for legalization of medical marijuana.

Former FBI Director James Comey’s tell-all memoir is leaked that delivers scathing criticism of Trump as “unethical and untethered to the truth” and more like a mob boss than the leader of the free world. Trump responded on Twitter by calling Comey an “untruthful slime ball” and a “leaker” of classified information. Somewhere in the West Wing, former strategic advisor Steve Bannon was trying to convince Trump aides to go gonzo.

Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo underwent confirmation hearings where some of the most heated questions centered on what he says to Trump in their private conversations. Meanwhile, the Senate moved forward the nomination of a former coal industry lobbyist as the top deputy at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Senate and House committees, including the House Energy and Commerce Committee chaired by Oregon Congressman Greg Walden, grilled Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg about failures to protect user privacy. Questioning zeroed in on whether Facebook is a monopoly and should be regulated.

The Congressional Budget Office issued an updated analysis of the GOP tax cut indicating it will result in a $1.9 trillion deficit and 80 percent of the benefit will accrue to foreigners, which complicates Republican campaign plans to tout the tax cut as a major achievement. Retiring Tennessee Senator Bob Corker told reporters voting for the GOP-backed tax cut may have been his biggest blunder in office. Trump dismissed the CBO findings.

Despite promising a swift response with “new, smart missiles,” Trump and his national security team were still debating how and when to respond to Syria’s renewed used of chemical weapons in light of Russia’s threat to defend Syrian military installations if attacked by US missiles or armed forces.

Trump’s tariff talk, which rattled stock markets, angered farmers and drew reciprocal tariffs, cooled off after Chinese President Xi Jinping gave what observers viewed as a conciliatory speech on trade relationships and included a reference to protection of intellectual property of foreign companies. Despite tough talk on the campaign trail and quick action when in office to dump US participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trump suddenly recognized the continued efforts of the other 11 Pacific Rim partners to write fair trade rules as a possible source of leverage on China.

Trump chose to stay in Washington, DC instead of attending a Latin American summit focusing on trade, including apparently stalled talks on revisions to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Vice President Mike Pence, who is filling in for Trump, is expected to hear pushback from Latin American leaders about Trump’s comments and actions toward Latino immigrants. Aides to Pence said his individual meetings with leaders are intended to “soften the edges” of US foreign policy and immigration views.

The week provided a lot for Trump to fume about, prompting stories about the President’s renewed consideration of firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Previous musings about such firings have been dismissed by the White House, Trump’s lawyers and Republican leaders on the Hill. However, this week Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley sought expedited consideration of bipartisan legislation to insulate the Mueller investigation from any adverse action by Trump.

Toward the end of the week, Trump pardoned Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, who was convicted in 2007 of perjury and obstruction of justice involving the leak of a CIA officer’s identity. Libby’s sentence was commuted by President George W. Bush, but not pardoned. The timing of Trump’s pardon seemed like a signal that he would protect those who protect him.

The beehive in Washington, DC this week didn’t include any mention of or tweets about North Korea. The leaders of North and South Korea are scheduled to meet April 27 and a face-to-face meeting between Kim Jong-un and Trump is anticipated in either May or June.


America Drifting Back to Cold War Paradigm

While trade, transportation and immigration legislation languishes in Congress, the nation seems to be drifting back into a Cold War mentality.

While trade, transportation and immigration legislation languishes in Congress, the nation seems to be drifting back into a Cold War mentality.

While trade and transportation bills languish in Congress, the United States seems to be slipping into a multi-front cold war as it returns to troops to Iraq, sends heavy arms to Baltic states bordering Russia and fends off cyberwar attributed to China.

The House spectacularly derailed fast-track trade authority legislation last week and House and Senate leaders have tried for months without success to find common ground on a long-term transportation funding measure. President Obama has pushed both. He says a trade pact with Asian countries will prevent China from ultimately writing the rules of commerce in that critical region. Obama says transportation investments are essential to support 21st century commerce and job creation.

However, foreign affairs keep drawing attention away from those priorities and toward a familiar destination. Islamic State gains in Syria and Iraq have sharpened sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Obama's attempt to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran has shaken long-time alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia, which is now engaged in its own military conflict with Houthi insurgents in neighboring Yemen.

Russian moves to seize Crimea and sponsor armed conflict in eastern Ukraine has made former Soviet states jittery, causing the United States to promise heavy military hardware. That prompted an escalation by the Russians who have put some of its remaining nuclear capability on alert.

Special operations forces and unmanned drones continue to carry out attacks to kill high-value targets, such as a top Al Qeada official in Yemen, as part of an effort to degrade terrorist organizations' abilities to attack the United States.

Meanwhile, Chinese computer hackers keep breaking into public and private databases to steal proprietary data and amass huge online personal information data banks.

By just about any definition, it seems like a world at war.

Recent polls suggest Americans may be willing to see troops dispatched to Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS, which a majority views as a threat to the United States. GOP presidential hopeful Scott Walker has said he would entertain sending ground forces back to Iraq.

The mood swing is very different from the atmosphere leading up to the 2008 election when Obama succeeded in drawing a sharp distinction with Senator Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary and Republican opponent John McCain in the general election over ending U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Senate hawks such as McCain and GOP presidential candidate Lindsay Graham have pummeled Obama for failing to respond more decisively and engaging more deeply in removing Bashar al-Assad as Syria's ruler and arming Ukrainians to fend off Russians in the besieged eastern part of the country. There hasn't been a rush to support their views, but public opinion appears to be sliding in their direction.

The latest Gallup Poll shows Americans have very low confidence in Congress, which may influence their resignation at the institution's inability address major issues such as trade, transportation funding and immigration reform. The same poll showed Americans have the greatest confidence in the military.  

Beheadings May Unite a Divided Nation

Maybe it took the beheading of American journalists to unify a national divided on almost everything to confront the newest danger to world security.Most pundits predicted it would take a miracle to unsnarl partisan gridlock in DC. Maybe it will take something very non-miraculous, like the beheadings of two American journalists by Islamic radicals.

As Congress wanders back to the nation's capital, pressure is building on President Obama to take action against what is viewed as the fast emerging threat posed by ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The threat is fresh enough, there is even disagreement over what to call it. Obama and others refer to the group as ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

No Nap for a Superpower

Most Americans would like to withdraw from international contretemps, but the rest of the world isn't cooperating. American involvement is in demand across the globe.

Nowhere is American fatigue deeper than with the Middle East. We fought two long, expensive wars and a majority of Americans want to put them in the rear-view mirror. That doesn't seem likely.

Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a deal to audit all the ballots cast in the recent Afghan presidential runoff, avoiding at least for now a splintered national government, which could give the Taliban hiding in the hills an opportunity to make a political or military comeback.

Iraq continues to disintegrate, forcing President Obama, who campaigned on getting America out of the country, to consider going back in. He already has consented to send up to 1,000 military advisers to Iraq and is applying pressure to install a national unity government that can woo back disaffected Sunnis and opportunistic Kurds.

The United States is playing a lead role in fragile, emotionally charged negotiations on Iran's nuclear capabilities. There is a small window for Iran's new government to compromise in return for a significant relaxation of economic sanctions. Direct dialogue with Iran may have side benefits in trying to quell Sunni-led terrorist insurgency in Iraq.

Political Merry-Go-Round Keeps Spinning

What's a circus without a merry-go-round? Washington is becoming more like a three-ring circus with conflicting political agendas.

Washington, DC is a fascinating place. Just consider the last 24 hours.

President Obama, America's first black chief executive, mounts a podium in front of the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate Martin Luther King's historic "I Have a Dream" speech. Obama praises King for words that "belong to the ages," chides those who dismiss racial gains since the 1963 speech and points out unfinished work to curb growing income inequality in America.

At a fundraiser in Idaho, House Speaker John Boehner tees up a battle with Obama over raising the federal debt ceiling this fall. Despite a warning from the Treasury Secretary Jack Lew that the nation will run out of cash in mid-October, Boehner promises a "whale of a battle," including a possible shutdown of the federal government.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry warns that those responsible for the toxic gas attack in Syria will be held accountable and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says U.S. warships are ready to obey a presidential order to launch cruise missiles at military targets in the war-torn country. Senator John McCain, who has advocated U.S. military intervention for months, calls leaks about pending missile strikes "crazy."

What's Really Behind U.S. Inaction in Syria

There are potent reasons why President Obama has delayed a response to the Syrian government crossing his red line and using chemical weapons on its own citizens.

Risking a deepening image of presidential dithering, Obama continues to search for a measured response that doesn't repeat mistakes made by the United States in the 1980s in Afghanistan and further strain relations with Russia, which continues to protect the Bashar al-Assad regime. 

This week's report of a chemical weapon attack that may have killed as many as 1,500 Syrians makes Obama's tightrope walk even trickier.

The Washington Post's Max Fisher posted a blog listing five reasons for what appears as Obama inaction. First and foremost is the fear that the rebels, some of whom have affiliation with al-Qaeda, could be worse than the current regime. The United States learned that lesson when it sided with Afghanistan militants in resisting a Soviet invasion. The Russians got repelled, but the United States got sucked into a prolonged war against the Taliban and, at times, with the ruling Karzai government, purportedly a U.S. ally.

Obama's widely ridiculed "lead-from-rear" strategy in Libya resulted in a regime change. But it also resulted in a politically embarrassing episode with a militant attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on the eve of the 2012 presidential election. You can understand Obama's hesitancy to burst in on another party where the United States will inevitably be the piñata.

Fisher says there isn't much political advantage for Obama to become bogged down in Syria, despite his red line ultimatum. He already is accused of public policy attention deficit for jumping from issue to issue. Now Obama, as evidenced by his 2-day bus trip to promote his college affordability agenda, is trying to focus on a few longer-term economic priorities.

Obama's Horrible, Very Bad Week

If Alexander thought he was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, President Obama must feel like he is having the same kind of week. Scandals, bad judgment and roiling international events have rocked his boat.

Obama is trying to take command and provide damage control by firing the interim Internal Revenue Service administrator, releasing reams of email after the fatal raid on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and supporting a press shield law. But that may not be enough to stop the political carping.

It also didn't help that just as Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to make a breakthrough by securing Russian agreement to a June summit to discuss the Syrian civil war, Russians claimed they uncovered and expelled a U.S. agent, with whiz-bang spy gadgets and a satchel of cash.

Then came news that jobless filings increased, drought may accelerate wildfire season and across-the-board federal budget cuts may hamper the ability of emergency responders during the hurricane season later this year.

Obama can probably empathize with Alexander's wake-up discovery of gum in his hair, trip to the dentist. distaste for his railroad pajamas and lack of dessert in his lunch.

Whatever the emotion and political fallout, the compounding brouhaha has pushed economic stimulation and job growth back into the shadows again.

The subject that most voters in America list as their number one concern was on track as Obama began his second term, but events and politics have conspired to push it off stage. The Newtown school shooting prompted an all-out push by Obama for gun control measures. The effort attracted national attention, but ultimately hit a roadblock in the U.S. Senate.