Here at PSA we’ve been working hard to create a program for Congressional staff that adds value in the oftentimes crowded programmatic environment of Washington, D.C. The PSA Congressional Fellowship Program aims to bring together House and Senate staffers from both parties to socialize, debate, and learn together with the goal of enhancing bipartisanship in their daily jobs. The most recent event with the Summer 2009 Fellows was a dinner with 9/11 Commission Chairman and former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean, and Politico sent a reporter to cover the event. The resulting article, “Bipartisanship, in three courses”, published this morning, highlights many of the most important aspects of what we do at PSA.
“Whereas members of Congress at least have the opportunity to work together if they choose to do so,” the reporter writes, “staffers are rarely forced to remove their partisan blinders. Until now.” She quotes PSA Fellows Pablo Duran of Sen. Tom Udall’s (D-NM) office and Brandon Andrews of Sen. James Inhofe’s (R-OK) office lamenting the rarity of meeting staff from across the aisle. “‘I don’t know that anyone makes a concerted effort to not do it,’ Andrews said. ‘I just think it doesn’t happen, because people travel in different circles.’”
We will be visiting the White House to meet with President Obama’s chief national security speechwriter, Ben Rhodes, this week and going on a weekend Retreat after that. It’s been an exciting summer so far, and we appreciate Politico’s interest in the work we do here at PSA.
For those who are interested in applying to be a Fellow in the Fall 2009 session, information can be found on our website here.
PSA is excited to welcome a new class of Fellows to its Congressional Fellowship Program next week. The initial group of 27 Fellows includes highly motivated and accomplished staff from 14 Democratic and 13 Republican offices, with 16 from the House and 11 from the Senate. The Program, taking place from June to October 2009, will help these young leaders build relationships across the aisle and gain skills and knowledge necessary to bridge the partisan divide and build consensus on critical issues.
They bring impressive backgrounds to the Program, including active duty military service, legal practice, scientific research, political campaigns, community service, think tanks, and media. Building on these diverse backgrounds, Fellows will participate in critical analysis of U.S. foreign policy guided by former senior foreign policy officials. Following the completion of a series of five events geared toward enhancing effective bipartisan dialogue, Fellows will complete a Final Project aimed at resolving real world challenges on Capitol Hill. The full list of Fellows can be found on the PSA website.
The Congressional Fellowship Program will fill a crucial need on Capitol Hill for the promotion of bipartisanship in a long-term context. Too often, contacts between Members and staff from opposite parties are temporary, made on an issue-by-issue basis. We believe that relationships formed in the earlier stages of a career can help forge a more bipartisan atmosphere and process in Congress across the range of foreign policy challenges faced every session. No one party has a monopoly on wisdom, and by bringing together these Fellows now, they will be able to get to know each other and share ideas and experiences that will pay dividends in future policy debates. We look forward to working with the Fellows and to a great summer.
Obama and Shultz at the White House on May 19 (AP photo)
At a meeting Tuesday with former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA), and former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, President Obama summed up the group’s deliberations on the goal of achieving a world without nuclear weapons:
“This is a reminder of the long tradition of bipartisan foreign policy that has been the hallmark of America at moments of greatest need, and that’s the kind of spirit that we hope will be reflected in our administration.”
It’s great to hear this from the President who also made “bipartisanship and openness” an official plank in his campaign platform, and now identifies it as a key to effective US national security and foreign policy for his Administration.
You might think Obama’s commitment to bipartisan consultation and cooperation on national security would win nothing but plaudits from a group of former leaders obviously assembled not just for their substantive expertise, but for their bipartisan credibility. So then what are we to make of George Shultz’s reply, in the role of spokesman for the elder statesmen? Not once, but twice, the former Reagan administration official remarked that President Obama was wrong about nuclear disarmament being a “bipartisan issue,” because:
“It’s really nonpartisan. This is a subject that ought to somehow get up above trying to get a partisan advantage. And it’s of such importance that we need to take it on its own merits. And that’s the way we’ve proceeded. And that’s the way, at least it seems to us, you’ve proceeded.”
Just when the heat on the Obama presidency seemed to be peaking, Pennsylvania’s senior senator suddenly became a Democrat. It hasn’t been since Sen. Jim Jeffords’ switch gave Senate Democrats a majority in 2001 that a major defection has happened, and Republican soul searching has dominated the news cycle ever since.
Former Bush speechwriter David Frum argues for a bigger GOP tent. Referring to the two Republican senators from Maine, Frum argues, “It ought to be obvious to any Republican why we need to make room for politicians like Snowe and Collins in our party. It’s not like we have so many votes that we can afford to throw them away.” Frum worries that while some Republicans are more concerned about the “quality” of Republican elected officials, “quantity” is required to govern. Meanwhile, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor has started a new group, the National Council for a New America, to lead the GOP to a new understanding with the American voter, and perhaps to electoral success.
It is certainly amusing to many Democrats to watch the Republican hand wringing. “I wonder if this is how Republicans felt all those years,” some must wonder, recalling the Democratic Party’s own recent periods of strategic chaos, when Karl Rove’s claims of an enduring Republican majority seemed just a little too plausible. David Brooks calls the jubilation among Democrats “the joy of pulverization,” of scoring another touchdown when you’re already up by four. For Republicans, he calls it “demoralization piled on top of demoralization.”
Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey who had a famously unhappy tenure as President Bush’s EPA Administrator, penned a New York Times column lamenting one-party control of Washington.
To the extent we lose more members of the Republican Party, we lose what ability we have left to affect policy, and that is going to be devastating to our nation. Our democracy desperately needs two vibrant parties.
This is about much more than the switch of one senator or even than the potential 60-vote supermajority Democrats may now soon achieve. After all, power is fleeting and the political winds fickle; laws enacted by one Congress can be overturned by the next. As Whitman wondered in her column, what will happen when one party holds such sway over the two political branches of our federal government? While it is easy to see why this is a bad development for Republicans, Democrats may find that Specter’s switch raises as many questions for them as it answers.
Yes, that’s me, the sinister looking guy on the left side of the screen. And yes, it’s a real beard. About a year ago, when Kevin MacDonald and his crew were in DC filming the movie “State of Play,” my wife and I showed up at an open casting call for extras. We got called back to do a scene set in a Congressional committee hearing room (actually the old EPA building on Constitution Ave, NW), where Rep. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) grills the CEO of PointCorp (a.k.a. Blackwater) about private contractor abuses in Iraq. For no especially good reason, I got yanked from the crowd to sit in as the CEO’s lawyer, and the rest is, as they say, on the silver screen.
Why am I writing about a Hollywood movie here, on PSA’s bipartisan foreign policy blog? Well, for one thing, I’m in it, and I think it’s worth seeing despite that. It’s a pretty good film, and the twist at the end is better than I expected. But there’s more than that. For those of us who spend our professional lives thinking about good government policy and how it is—or isn’t—made, I think this movie holds an important lesson.
Without spoiling the plot, I can say that the young, idealistic Congressman’s investigation of the shadowy, powerful, paramilitary corporation is very far from a made up scenario. It’s based, of course, on real investigations of waste, fraud, abuse, and even war crimes committed by private citizens whose salaries have been paid by the US government. For more on that, see my fellow Across the Aisle blogger David Isenberg’s recent piece. What’s worse is that in the movie, as in real life, the bad guys don’t get caught, partly because their high-level political connections immunize them from meaningful scrutiny, but much more importantly, because our system for oversight of government action by Congress is fundamentally broken.
With trillions of dollars in new government spending already swelling the coffers of the Executive Branch and two ongoing wars, it is time to get serious about oversight. The President’s appointment of Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney to lead a stimulus oversight team was a fine gesture, but an Executive appointee monitoring Executive spending is like a fox guarding a henhouse. Truly effective oversight will depend on Congress’s willingness to flex some of its Constitutional muscle. (more…)
After the House passed the stimulus bill without a single Republican vote last month, many declared the age of bipartisanship under the Obama Administration over. How quickly the pundits and the talking heads who hailed the bipartisanship of the new President trumpeted its demise.
So, is President Obama bipartisan or isn’t he? Everyone wants the answer and they want it now. The media is tracking bipartisanship as if it can be quantified issue by issue and moment to moment. This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about what bipartisanship is and why it is important.
In a piece for this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Times political reporter Matt Bai evaluates Obama’s effort to reach white male, gun-toting, church-going (and traditionally conservative) voters. He highlights Obama’s dogged pursuit of a “50-state” strategy, which includes dozens of campaign offices in places like Southwestern Virginia, South Dakota, and North Carolina. Bai suggests that despite being the first ever Democratic nominee who is not a white male, Obama might have a good shot of bringing white males into the Democratic camp. This speaks to the question of whether Obama can win a commanding majority that includes both traditional Democratic voters and new converts from rural, white, working class communities. But Bai touches only briefly on the much more important question of why Obama would want to win such a majority. He writes:
From the start, Obama has aspired not simply to win but also to stand as a kind of generational break from the polarized era of the boomers, to become the first president in at least 20 years to claim anything more than the most fragile mandate for his agenda. Absent that, even if he wins, Obama could wake up on Nov. 5 as yet another president-elect of half the people, perched uncomfortably on the edge of an impassable cultural divide.
From a purely tactical standpoint, winning by a wide margin would clearly be preferable to winning by a narrow margin. After all, extra electoral votes to push the winner over the top are an insurance policy against potential close calls like Florida in 2000, and a commanding win certainly bodes better both for popularity polls during the winner’s first term, and for his chances of winning a second term in 2012.
One might think that the current crisis roiling the American economy might be an opportunity for Senators Obama and McCain to spell out their differences on one important issue; U.S. military spending.
Consider the fact that on September 24th, during the fight over the Wall Street bail out, the House of Representatives passed, bill passed by a vote of 392-39, a $612 billion defense authorization bill for 2009 without any public protest or meaningful press comment. This show there is unlikely to be any significant pressure to cut military or related national security spending.
Instead, Senators Obama and McCain seem to be reading off the same page. That is the kind of bipartisanship we do no need. The time is long past for someone to stand up and say the obvious; that both military and associated “national security” spending is out of control and continually getting more outrageous.
The latter category includes nuclear weapons spending at the Energy department, plus the State department, as well as Veterans Affairs, and the intelligence agencies. All together that totals exceeds a trillion dollars annually.
Let’s stipulate that there are multiple factors which impact U.S. military spending. And yes, while the financial crisis will increase pressure to reduce military spending, other countervailing political factors will ensure that there likely will be no significant reduction.
Why is this? The primary reason is that the United States is at war, even if is an undeclared one and one which the country is largely disengaged and removed from. And no politician dares cutting military spending for fear of being accused being ‘soft on defense” or not “supporting the troops.”
Unlike the situation at the end of the 1980s and early 19980s there is nothing comparable to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, which drove significant reduction in U.S. military spending.
Today the situation is reversed. The United States is fighting the “long war” (formerly known at the global war on terror) and politically both the incumbent administration and the opposition party are reluctant to cut military spending at such a time.
Sadly, there is nothing in the campaign platforms of either Sen. John McCain or Barrack Obama to suggest that they would significantly reduce military spending.
In fact McCain says the United States must enlarge the size of its armed forces. That alone will guarantee that operation and support costs, traditionally one of the highest categories of U.S. military spending will stay high.
Likewise Sen. Obama supports plans to increase the size of the Army by 65,000 soldiers and the Marines by 27,000 troops.
The question isn’t as silly as it seems at first blush – in fact, there’s a case to be made, if ultimately rejected. Some intellectual leaders of the neoconservative movement, notably Robert Kagan, believe that neoconservatism is of a piece with values that have long been part of the American lexicon – moralism, idealism, exceptionalism, militarism, and the political will to impose these values on the rest of the world from time to time in the service of democracy and freedom. As Kagan presents the neconservative movement, there is a deep continuity between America’s past and present approaches to foreign policy, and so, in an important sense there is nothing (fundamentally) new in neoconservatism. Put simply, neoconservatism is good ole’ fashioned American values, albeit expressed in modern foreign policy. And so, he reasons, we are all neocons (even if we won’t admit it).
So that’s what the high priest of neoconservatism preaches, but is Kagan right? Consider, dear friends, the Bush Administration’s approach to Iraq and the “War on Terror.” Neocons do not favor intervening to curb violence and spread democracy everywhere, but rather insist on taking action primarily in the Middle East, where, as Professor Ronald Steel of the University of Southern California astutely observes, a perfect storm of interests formed – the need to obtain control of vital commodities, the desire to further insinuate American power in a strategically critical part of the world, and the temptation of a cheap and easy victory. The neocons, in other words, are not motivated primarily by defending liberal principles and traditions. Instead, they feel compelled to act only when a narrow range of economic and political interests coalesce. This is precisely why neocons have been consistently uninterested in intervening to protect “freedom” in places like Chile and El Salvador, resource-poor locales unable to enhance the geostrategic position of the United States.
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I fear that I sound like a crotchety old guy when I say that it seems to me that America’s standards are rapidly deteriorating and that we need far better leadership to get us out of our funk.
If our economy is a high-end service economy, we should be mortified by the tumult in our financial markets brought about by excessive greed, unbelievably poor and lax regulation, and a system that increasingly socializes risk even as profits are privatized. It is amazing that an administration that came to power calling for deregulation, and put many officials in power who are openly disdainful of regulation, will end up leaving a legacy of nationalization of key industries.
If we are an industrial economy, then we should all be terrified by the current strike at Boeing, which is threatening to derail the phenomenally dramatic turnaround in that company’s fortunes stemming from their successful gamble on the 787 Dreamliner. But why, many ask, should the workers not be doing what some claim to be extorting the company at its moment of greatest opportunity and vulnerability when workers across the United States feel that CEOs even from failing companies are getting enormous salaries when the average worker is getting squeezed?
All blog posts are independently produced by their authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of PSA. Across the Aisle serves as a bipartisan forum for productive discussion of national security and foreign affairs topics.