Presidential Signing Statements

George W. BushA political scientist at Florida International University, Kevin Evans explains, Why the Obama Administration Has Issued Fewer Signing Statements. It’s quite interesting, because I actually didn’t know anything about Obama’s signing statements. I remember being really mad about Bush’s. But Obama just hasn’t gotten much press on this issue.

There are different kinds of signing statements, of course. In fact, most are not harmful at all. Some of them are nothing more than, “This is important legislation and if it weren’t for the fact that the United States currently has pretty much the Platonic Ideal of a president, this would never have become law.” As we all know, President Bush was the king of the most pernicious form of signing statements, the constitutional challenges: “I’m signing this bill, but there are details that I don’t feel I have to abide by.” This would be like the anti-torture legislation which Bush signed by noted that he didn’t accept that minor bit about not torturing people.

Bush filed twice as many of these signing statements than all other presidents combined! I couldn’t believe that a president with a congress that gave him every damned thing he wanted would be so picky in his signing statements. It was the best illustration (and maybe my first) that the Republicans had become a proto-fascist political party. Even the smallest limitation of executive power had to resisted and resisted in the strongest possible terms. But that was then. How is the current president who gets just about nothing he ever wanted doing?

Well, it turns out that that is part of what makes him look pretty good. As Evans explains, “You cannot have signing statements without a bill signing and there has not been much bill signing lately.” But it is more than that. The biggest issue is that after Bush’s gluttony fest, people are very aware of them and they get a lot of attention. What’s more, Obama promised that he would not follow in Bush’s footsteps. But note: neither of those facts would have changed Bush’s behavior—Bush was pretty much the first Revolutionary Republican. Evans also mentions the fact that increased signing statements tend to push congress into action. That certainly would have been a much bigger deal for Obama.

So what do the numbers look like? Well, Bush created roughly 1200 of these constitutional challenges in 162 total signing statements (112 in the first term). Obama has created a total of 22 signing statements. (Evans does not provide the total number constitutional challenges, and I have been unable to find the data elsewhere; it is probably on the order of 100.) This is all good. Of course, you may remember that the Clinton administration made a big push to unclassify documents. Once Bush got into office, his administration proceeded to re-classify most of those documents. So the next Republican administration will likely continue on with the Bush approach to signing statements.

More Fed Craziness

Robert MarshallA couple of days ago, Ylan Q. Mui at the Washington Post wrote a curious article, Virginia Coin Moves Closer to Reality. I say “curious” because she takes this threat seriously. And this is just plain crazy: every bit as crazy as secession and a whole lot more crazy than requiring ultrasounds before allowing abortions.

The push is coming from Robert G. Marshall, a Republican member of the Virginia House of Delegates. And he is just brimming over with fatuous statements of the libertarian “The Fed is printing money!” and “Zimbabwe, I tell you!” variety. See, for example, any speech by Ron Paul.

But the problem with the article is that there are very few direct quotes from Marshall. Instead, Mui will make an outrageous statement and then end it with, “according to Marshall.” For example, “And those are only the problems that the Fed might create. Who knows what other threats may be lurking in the shadowy world of cyberattacks, Marshall said.”

People like Marshall (and apparently also Mui) just don’t understand how the monetary system works. Value of currency is not determined by dividing the total amount of cash by the total amount of assets. If it were, then we would have already had runaway inflation as the Fed has tripled the monetary base over the last five years. Instead, we have ridiculously low (Too low!) inflation.

There are a lot of people like Robert Marshall out there in the conservative world. I tend to see them as traitors. They are always eager to see that the United States doing it all wrong. They don’t do even the most basic of research before going on tilt with their crazy ideas. But the real problem is that we have reporters like Ylan Mui and papers like the Washington Post that take cranks like Marshall seriously.

John Dies at the End

John Dies at the EndTonight at the Shattuck Cinema, Northern California will get its first official look at Don Coscarelli’s newest genre defying film John Dies at the End. Spoiler alter: John does not die at the end. He dies about a third of the way through, but that doesn’t really matter because death doesn’t really matter because time, the universe, and all that jazz is some kind of cosmic pretzel. It all makes sense, but mostly it is just a hell of a fun ride.

Let me describe the opening of film. Our hero David hacks the head off a man with a cheap ax from Home Depot. In the process, he breaks the ax handle. He goes to the hardware store and gets a new handle for the ax. Another event causes him to break the ax head. He goes to the hardware store again and replaces the head. When he gets back home, the reanimated man he killed at the beginning (his head reattached with plastic weed trimmer line) comes back. He sees the ax and says, “That’s the ax that slayed me!” David posits the question, “Is he right?”

Ah! That’s the way all horror films should start: with a good philosophical question about the nature of reality. It really all does depend upon your definition of what is is. And what John Dies at the End is is a lot of stuff: gore fest; film noir; amputee romantic comedy; and, of course, treatise on the question of existence.

The film is nothing so much as a reminder that David Cronenberg used to make really great movies. This film reminded me a lot of Videodrome and especially eXistenZ. But, perhaps for personal reasons, I think that John Dies at the End is better than anything Cronenberg ever did. I always feel like an outsider while watching Cronenberg—his obsessions are not mine. But in John, I was fulling plugged in. Over the last few years, I’ve become more and more a mystic; existence is far more bizarre than we can imagine.

Consider, for example, this discussion of the nature of the universe (this is from A Brief History of Time):

He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

To be honest, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to think about this story. But what I do take away from it is that the old lady was right: turtles all the way down. When you start thinking about the nature of existence you are forced one way or another to just shrug your shoulders. Some find such thoughts really boring. Others, like me, find them forever fascinating.

John Dies at the End provides a concrete way to think about such things. Plus a lot of blood. And jokes.

Republicans Need to Stop Being Republicans

Reasonable RepublicansJonathan Bernstein has some good advice for Republicans wishing to take the crazy out of their party. He starts by noting that throwing money at the problem will not help. The truth is that a lot of their most stunning crazy failures won primaries will little money. In some cases, this fact helped their candidacy—giving them that whole “outsider” appeal. Bernstein suggests two things. First, stop allowing the crazy rhetoric. He mentions the inevitable conspiracy theories whenever a Democrat is in the White House, “Not to mention ‘San Francisco Democrats’ and ‘Taxachusetts’ and ‘Chicago politics’ and ‘real America.’ Republicans have been training their audiences, and now their audiences respond.” Second, Bernstein says that the Republicans should stop focusing on symbolic issues and propose things that have real value. “The drawback to relying on symbolic issues is that sane candidates are at a disadvantage. After all, they tend to be constrained by reality, and so they’re less likely to outbid the nuts when it comes to who loves the flag the most or who hates the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ the most.”

Bernstein is a smart—maybe even brilliant—political observer. And there is much to what he mentions. But I think he is missing a big point: the crazy is pretty much all the Republican Party is anymore. Look back on the Republican Party 30 or 40 or 50 years ago. Its policies were more liberal. But were the people really more liberal than they are now? I don’t think so. Any political movement is constrained by the time in which it exists. The truth is that the Republicans have been fantastically successful over the last 30 years in moving the debate to the right. The center of gravity is now such that Democrats are in favor of the policies that would have been conservative only a few decades ago. That means that in order to be a modern day conservative, your ideas have to be so extreme that they are simply unreasonable.

It’s even worse than that. In most areas, there simply are no ideas to be had. I’ve written about this before regarding healthcare reform. The one decent, somewhat workable idea conservatives had for healthcare reform was what became Obamacare. Once it became the Democratic idea, the Republicans turned on it as though it were sent through the ether straight from Stalin. And then the Republicans were left with… What? Allowing insurance to be bought across state lines? Tort “reform”? To call these ideas fiddling around the edges is to give them undeserved airs.

So where does that leave the Republican Party? It leaves it with conspiracy theories and symbolic gestures. The party is not in its current state for no reason. They are in this state because there really isn’t anything else to do. Except, of course, my new idea: join the Democratic Party and let that party divide into a true liberal party and a reasonable conservative party. But that would require the current Republicans to be reasonable. And why would they want to do that? Especially when the Democratic Party is effectively the reasonable conservative party they would end up with anyway?


That cartoon above is from 2009. We’ve been talking about this for a long, long time!

Republicans Should Hate Sequestration

Elephant and DonkeyThe House Democrats put out a report on how bad the looming Sequestration is likely to be. It is actually quite frightening. We will see major cuts to air traffic controllers and food safety inspectors and border patrol and Coast Guard. We’ll see big cuts to Head Start and nutrition programs. Less medical research. Less disaster aid. Less embassy security. And all those military cuts. These cuts ought to bother Republicans at least as much as they bother Democrats. But that isn’t even the main reason that Republicans should stop Sequestration.

The Sequester is going to be bad for our economy. But it won’t be really bad. It won’t be, “helps the Republicans” bad. Instead, it will cause the recovery to continue to sputter along. The next year will be bad. But after a year and a half, the economy will likely be doing better—just in time for the midterm elections. And by the time the 2016 presidential elections come along, it is very likely the economy will be booming. And that is the last thing that Marco Rubio wants.

The Republicans are just not being smart about their scorched earth strategy. Regardless of how badly the government acts, the economy will eventually heal itself. The Republicans can’t depend upon the economy being bad forever. So they need to plan. If they do things to hurt the economy now, it is going to bite them later, because they can only sabotage the economy for so long. Now is not the time. If they were smart, they would convince the Democrats to delay the Sequester for one year. That would allow them to tank the economy just in time for the 2014 midterms.

Frankly, I don’t believe that they are capable of thinking this way. They’ve drunk their own tea. They don’t even know how the economy works anymore. If they did, they’d been dealing with the Sequester better than they are.

H/T: Greg Sargent