Think Lobbying is a Waste of Time? Think Again

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According to Politico, the first year of the Trump administration saw a decline in lobbying spending from the first year of the Obama White House, and only a small increase over 2016.

Between the government shutdown, the failure to get anything done until the year-end tax bill, and ongoing partisan gridlock over everything from health care to immigration – not to mention the near-daily cacophony of chaos from the White House – the lobbying slowdown shouldn’t be a shock.

It’s also no surprise that the slow pace of action prompts many Washington-based interest groups to cut back their federal lobbying. Why spend precious time and money talking to Congress when nothing gets done?

Actually, maintaining a strong D.C. advocacy presence is a good idea, even in times of gridlock. In fact, it’s essential. Here’s why:

1. Stuff is happening. It may seem like Congress can’t get anything done, and it’s true that 2017 ended with health care, immigration, infrastructure and other issues stuck in neutral. But if you scratch below the surface, you’ll find that a lot is going on. In 2017, Congress passed and the President signed nearly 100 bills into law. While some were non-controversial post office namings and the like, others – like the massive annual defense authorization bill – have important policy implications. Just because it’s not on the front page doesn’t mean it’s not happening – and that it doesn’t affect you.

2. Congress isn’t the only game in town. Even if Congress is bollixed by gridlock, the Executive Branch– the alphabet soup of Cabinet departments and independent agencies – are writing regulations, issuing grants and putting out executive orders, all of which have big impacts on nearly everyone. In fact, the more gridlocked Congress becomes, the bolder the Executive Branch becomes. Since late December alone, the Trump administration has issued major rules on health care, trade, and the environment, just to name three. Even when Congress does pass legislation, it’s up to these agencies to interpret the law into practical rules. Ignore them at your own peril.

3. You can’t wait until it’s too late. It may seem like legislation develops at a snail’s pace. That often is true, which is why being a constant presence on Capitol Hill matters.  Effective advocacy requires being part of the discussion from the outset of the legislative process, when key principles are established, not just when the final text is almost fully baked. Congress passed tax reform at the end of 2017, but the process started back in 2012. Interest groups who ignored tax reform until last year were far less likely to find a receptive audience on Capitol Hill than those groups that were engaged from the beginning.

4. It’s all about the relationship. At its heart, effective lobbying demands trust: policymakers won’t listen to you unless they know you are serious, credible, and reliable – all of which takes time to demonstrate. Just as you’re more likely to take the advice of an old friend over a vague acquaintance, elected officials will more readily listen to people they know and trust. And building strong relationships with members of Congress takes time. The relationships you build today will lead to better outcomes tomorrow.

5. Information is power. Lobbying relationships are not a one-way street. Meeting with elected officials gives you the ability to learn first-hand what Congress and the administration are working on and where potential threats and opportunities to your issues lie. Not only that, but legislators are always looking for support for their policy ideas; listening to what they are working on and providing support (or at least feedback) is a great way to build stronger connections.

6. It’s not just about the bills. Members of Congress (and their staffs) do more than just pass legislation. They hold hearings to raise awareness about emerging issues. They write to Executive Branch agencies to spur action. They engage with state and local leaders back home to press your concerns. And, not surprisingly, they want to do these things, particularly when there’s not a lot going happening on the legislative side, because these actions show results, which make them look good. If you think they’re twiddling their legislative thumbs, then find new ways to engage them.

7. Your opponents aren’t taking a break. Every day, thousands of lobbyists and grassroots advocates are pressing their cases on Capitol Hill and with agencies – and their agendas probably aren’t the same as yours. In fact, they might be the diametric opposite. If members of Congress hear just one side of the story, once legislation moves it won’t be in your favor.

Lastly, even if you still think that lobbying is a waste of time, remember this:

8. It’s your job as an American. Lobbying your elected officials is the cornerstone of democracy and as American as apple pie. It’s so important that the Founding Fathers enshrined it in the First Amendment, right next to free speech, religion and assembly: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Lobbying isn’t just a constitutional right. It’s your responsibility as a citizen. At a time when democracy appears to be in retreat around the globe, exercising your right to tell our leaders what to do is an easy way to keep ours running strong.


Five Reasons Why a Shutdown Will Hurt the GOP (And One Why it Will Help)

closedYour faithful blogger has fond memories of the 1995 government shutdown: furloughed without pay, catching a matinée of Waterworld, wondering when/if the next paycheck would arrive. Like the inhabitants of Kevin Costner’s over-budget epic, Republicans and Democrats were at war with each other, and hopelessly lost at sea.

As Congress and the White House barrel towards another potential shutdown Friday at midnight, both sides are prepping their spin on why the other side will shoulder the blame. But history – and common sense – suggest that Republicans have the most to lose, in the short run, at least. Here’s why:

1. They control government. During the previous two shutdowns (1995 and 2013), a Democrat sat in the White House. This time the GOP controls both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s a lot easier to spread the blame when both parties have a finger on the button. And while it’s true that Senate Democrats can prevent a funding bill from getting 60 votes, the voters see the Republicans are ultimately in charge.

2. They are viewed as more hostile to government. Republicans make no secret of their desire to shrink government and criticize the size and scope of the federal footprint. In fact, some conservative commentators are making the argument that a shutdown will show the public how irrelevant Washington is to their lives. When you’re caught with the murder weapon and an MO, it’s hard to pin the blame on the other guy.

3. They are viewed as more hostile to compromise. Since the Tea Party wave of 2010, Congressional Republicans have shown their stubborn streak, dismissing compromise as a four-letter word and demonstrating an unwillingness to negotiate. Hell, they basically overthrew their last House Speaker because he wasn’t hard-line enough. Democrats, meanwhile, have a hard-won reputation as, let’s say, more ready to cave when the pressure is on. It may be true that the Democrats’ spines have been stiffened by pressure from DACA supporters, but the take-no-prisoners reputation the GOP has cultivated over recent years will be hard to overcome.

4. They always get blamed. Republicans tried the “See? We don’t need government!” tack before, and it failed. Miserably. In both 1995 and 2013, images of shuttered national parks turned the public sharply against the party they believed was behind the shutdown. Although Republicans will attempt to pin the blame for a shutdown this time on Democrats’ demands for a resolution of DACA, old perceptions tend to stick.

5. The President is unpopular. Gallup currently pegs Donald Trump’s approval rating at 39 percent. Numbers as low as those create a sort of reverse Midas touch, making everything the White House touches turn sour. It will be hard to convince voters that a President they dislike is the good guy in a prolonged shutdown battle.

In short, a combination of history, reputation, and precedent all suggest that Republicans would get more of the blame for a shutdown if it takes place. Then why go through with it?

Besides their Lucy-won’t-yank-the-football-away-this-time cockeyed optimism that Republicans show every time the possibility of a shutdown rolls around, there is another reason conservatives may be hungering for the government to close: Shutdowns reduce public trust in government. And if you want a smaller government, gaining broad support for the notion that government is incompetent is a good way to go.

As P.J. O’Rourke once said, “The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it.” A third government shutdown in 20 years reinforces the notion that Washington is dysfunctional and out-of-touch. Despite the short-term political fallout, that perception is a long-term win for those who want a smaller government.

Of course, a shutdown is not inevitable. Both sides could finds a way to avoid this fiscal cliff and pass a short-term continuing resolution. But even then, all they do is delay a crisis to another day.

So buckle up. Find Waterworld on Amazon. And get ready to party like it’s 1995.


A Watershed Moment for Renewables?

solar2Despite the Trump administration’s hostility towards renewable energy, momentum is increasingly on its side.

Last week, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission unanimously rejected a plan from Energy Secretary Rick Perry to subsidize struggling coal and nuclear plants, giving them a competitive advantage over other sources of energy.

DOE’s proposal argued that recent natural disasters and extreme weather events exposed threats to the nation’s electric grid that need to be addressed by allowing coal and nuclear plants to “[recover] fully allocated costs and thereby continue to provide the energy security on which our nation relies.” In essence, Perry’s department argued that ensuring the reliability of the electrical grid demands letting coal and nuclear plants charge more for power, helping them stay on line.

Putting aside for a moment the irony that dependence on coal and other fossil fuels increases greenhouse gases, which in turn makes extreme weather events more extreme, the plan was viewed by many energy experts as a blatant effort to give the struggling coal industry a leg up over natural gas and renewables. As the Washington Post noted:

The plan, however, was widely seen as an effort to alter the balance of competitive electricity markets that federal regulators have been cultivating since the late 1980s. Critics said it would have largely helped a handful of coal and nuclear companies, including the utility FirstEnergy and coal-mining firm Murray Energy, while raising rates for consumers.

Surprisingly, that view was apparently shared by the FERC – including four members appointed by President Trump – which rejected the proposal, opting instead to maintain competition in energy markets.

It’s no secret that President Trump wants to help coal country; during the 2016 campaign he promised to bring coal jobs back. The fact that DOE’s plan to achieve this was so roundly rejected by the FERC shows how hard it will be for Trump to keep that promise. If Perry’s proposal was Plan A, Plan B must not be any more realistic. The fact is, if coal cannot remain competitive in electricity markets without artificial government subsidies, its path forward is bleak.

Meanwhile, the cost of renewables continues to decline. The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that the costs of wind and solar projects in the western U.S. are so low that that

. . . it is cheaper to build a new wind or solar project than to operate most existing coal plants in the West. It’s also significantly cheaper than the cost of a new gas plant, often considered the most significant competitor of coal, and renewables provide long-term price stability that gas plants don’t.

At the same time, elected officials increasingly are seeing the policy and political benefits of talking up renewables. This month, New York Governor (and possible 2020 Democratic Presidential contender) Andrew Cuomo announced his “2018 Clean Energy Jobs and Climate Agenda,”  which seeks to end the use of coal in the state’s power plants by 2020 while expanding renewable energy through wind and solar investments and “clean energy” workforce development.

In other words, while President Trump is feverishly working to save jobs in the coal industry, New York is looking to create jobs in renewables. It’s as if in the early 1800s the federal government tried to prop up canal building while the railroads were taking over.

None of this is to suggest that it’s smooth sailing for renewables: White House budget proposals continue to go after clean energy programs, and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is continuing his crusade to undermine climate regulations. And around the world, far too much carbon is being spewed into the atmosphere. But the tide is turning.

Opponents of federal investments in clean energy have always argued that policymakers should let the market work. Hopefully they won’t abandon that principle when the fossil fuel industry comes knocking.

The Real Consequences of “Shithole”


To the surprise of absolutely nobody, President Trump expressed his true feelings about much of the developing world yesterday, asking a bipartisan group of lawmakers, “Why do we want all these people from shithole countries coming here?”

The consequences of the President’s comments are many: the further degradation of our civic discourse. The confirmation (as if we need more) that the 45th President of the United States is racist. The fate Wolf Blitzer’s epic struggles to avoid saying “shithole” on live TV.

But to understand the biggest impact to the country – and the world – of Trump’s behavior, consider this factoid: Xi Jinping, China’s president, has never called other countries “shitholes.”

The U.S. and China are locked in a competition for global influence. And since Donald Trump’s inauguration, China has won the upper hand: Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which was designed in part as a bulwark against China’s economic influence. He withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, enabling China to bolster its leadership image as a climate protector.

Meanwhile, as China looks to invest a trillion dollars in its “One Belt, One Road” plan to extend its trading prowess into nearly 60 countries, the Trump administration threatens to tear up more trade agreements and dithers on a domestic infrastructure package.

And now Trump’s latest comments. If you are a developing nation looking to forge alliances, economic and otherwise, with a global superpower, which do you choose: the nation that is investing heavily in trade infrastructure with a market of nearly 1.4 billion people? Or the one whose leader calls your homeland a shithole?

One nation is offering stable investment backed by long-term planning. The other offers insults. Particularly for leaders in democratic (or semi-democratic) nations, there is absolutely no political upside to aligning yourself with the United States as long as Donald Trump is in the White House.

A single insult from Donald Trump won’t shift the global economic order. But for the next three years, at least, developing nations looking to build alliances and markets are going to think twice about partnering with a country whose leader who demonstrates such contempt for their people.

Talking ≠ Governing


Two events this week suggest that the next president of the United States will have an incredibly low bar to meet to be a success. The reactions to them suggest that a lot of folks are ok with that. And that’s a problem.

Let’s review: on Sunday night, Oprah Winfrey gave a (genuinely) inspiring speech at the Golden Globe awards. Then, on Tuesday, President Trump allowed the media to televise his hour-long meeting with bipartisan leaders of Congress to discuss immigration and other matters.

The reactions from the press and others was near-rapturous: the Oprah 2020 bandwagon short into hyper speed. People started parsing her every utterance about clues to her policy inclinations. Lots of observers argued that, if you’re going to have a celebrity as president, why not someone who can inspire? As CNN’s Chris Cillizza noted, “You could close your eyes and imagine that speech being given in Iowa, let’s say, or as a campaign kickoff.”

Meanwhile, the Trump meeting/press gaggle was must-see TV on the cable networks. Clearly intended by the White House to prove that the President is not, as Michael Wolff’s book suggests, an unstable moron, the stunt appeared to (mostly) do the trick. For a day, the public discussion about Trump was not about his daily work habits or stream-of-consciousness tweeting. With two Democratic leaders cleverly seated on each arm, Donald Trump looked, well, like he belonged there. Pundit Michael Medved tweeted that “the session today should end all talk (for now, at least) that he’s not ‘mentally fit’ for the job. Today, he looks unequivocally presidential.”

So there you have it: for the 46th president to succeed, he or she needs to give rousing speeches and hold meetings without throwing food at people like a colobus monkey. In other words, the president needs to look and sound the part.

The problem is, there is a hell of a lot to the job that a good speech or meeting doesn’t show.

In many ways, politics is like other professions: if you don’t do it every day, it looks a lot more glamorous than it really is. Most lawyers would tell you that the reality of lawyering is not what you see on Boston Legal: a lot less confronting witnesses in tense courtrooms and a lot more poring over case law and endless depositions. Doctors don’t spend the bulk of their time straddling patients on gurneys in the ER, performing tracheotomies with a pen as the blood gushes everywhere. (If you’ve ever had a rectal exam, remember that it’s not much fun on the giving end, either.)

Being a successful president demands a set of skills and a temperament that the cameras don’t capture. For starters, you need a good understanding of policy. Although it’s Congress’ job to write the bills, the president isn’t there just to sign them. Presidents need to be able to get on the phone with members of Congress and make the case for their agenda. And since lawmakers get to specialize in certain issues through the committee system, presidents need to know enough about a wide array of issues to hold their side of the argument. Presidents need to understand the intricacies of legislating, knowing, for example, that when a Senator asks you to support a “clean DACA” bill, she means a bill that does not include funding for a border wall. If you can’t figure these things out, the legislators will win every time, advancing policies that won’t look like yours.

Presidents also need to make sure their public pronouncements don’t undermine their bargaining positions. No member of Congress wants to back politically sensitive legislation if they think that the president will change his mind and leave you isolated. That requires having the discipline to stick to a position, even when you hear all the voices on the other side pushing you in the other direction with well-thought points. Without a clear sense of where you stand and why, every argument will sound convincing. And if you get a reputation of telling one side one thing in private and something else to their opponents, nobody is going to listen to you.

Don’t presidents have policy advisors to help them navigate the intricacies of legislation? Yes, but its’ not their name on the door of the Oval Office. When a vote is on the line, a recalcitrant Senator does not want to hear from a White House staffer. Putting the full weight of the presidency on the phone can do wonders for twisting arms. And since it’s not uncommon for advisers to disagree with each other, the president has to make the final call, which can be even more difficult when some advisors have hidden agendas of their own.

More than that, presidents need the temperament and discipline to make calls on issues that pop up out of nowhere, with at times limited information. Does North Korea really have the capability to launch a nuclear strike on the mainland U.S.? If the U.S. comes out in support of the Iranian protesters, will that help, or will it raise expectations of support America can’t possibly fulfill? Meanwhile, there are nearly 200 other nations and international alliances looking for guidance – and asking for favors – from the U.S. If Angela Merkel calls to discuss Syria, she doesn’t want to hear a speech or be a prop in a photo op.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with good optics; part of the president’s role is to rally the public, use the bully pulpit, demonstrate the power and prestige of the office through Rose Garden ceremonies, State of the Union addresses and the like. All that matters.

And there is nothing wrong, in of itself, with political neophytes running for office. To be perfectly fair to Oprah, she may very well have the skills and temperament to be a good, or even great, president (and she hasn’t even said she’s running).

But if there is a lesson to be learned from the Trump Era, it is that politics is a discipline, and like, being a doctor or lawyer, success demands a lot more than what you see on TV. Perhaps had someone informed Mr. Trump back in 2015 that life as Commander-in-Chief is a lot less glamorous (and a lot harder) than what it looked like in Air Force One, it’s entirely possible that right now he’d be spending lots of time playing golf at Mar-a-Lago, watching Fox and Friends and tweeting insults at Hillary Clinton (in other words, the same as now, but without the nuclear button).

The real danger comes not from celebrities and other political neophytes running for office. After all, anybody can run for president if they meet the qualifications in the Constitution. And having prior government experience is pointedly not one of those requirements. Rather, the danger is that the voting public makes choices based on superficiality.

Imagine a scenario where the President is little more than a figurehead, with no capacity to make tough decisions, leaving those decisions to unelected (and unvetted) advisers. Or worse, a President who knows little but thinks he does, making fact-free and poorly thought-out pronouncements that divide the country and reduce faith in government.

We can probably survive one of those, but not another.

Six Reasons Congress (Probably) Won’t Do Much This Year

capitol_usa_washington_dc_sunrise_national_mall_city_landmark_parliament-1371061As Congress comes back to town to start its 2018 session, the to-do list is long: preventing a government shutdown, dealing with the expired Children’s Health Insurance Program, renewing the foreign surveillance program, doing something on Dreamers (and maybe the border wall), disaster relief, and a few more.

Republican leaders have placed even more big items on their wish list: entitlement reform, infrastructure funding, welfare reform, amending Dodd-Frank, and taking another stab at Obamacare repeal are all being bandied about as follow-ups to their success on taxes.

But the odds of Congress accomplishing much before the midterms is pretty slim. Here are six reasons why:

1. Republicans aren’t on the same page. If there are two issues on which virtually all Republican lawmakers could agree, it’s cutting taxes and repealing Obamacare. They accomplished the first at the end of 2017, but failed mightily at the second (although they did manage to repeal the individual mandate in the tax bill). Beyond those two issues, what else unites Republicans as much?

Immigration reform is a top priority, but one that exposes severe cracks in the GOP coalition between those who want more border security and nothing that even remotely looks like amnesty, and those who support a more nuanced approach. Entitlement reform? In theory yes, but the political challenges make many GOPers queasy. Even energy issues have lost urgency since the pro-production crowd got drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge into the tax bill.

Simply put, there is no other issue for which Republicans can be counted on to put aside their differences and political queasiness like taxes and Obamacare. And as 2017 showed, neither of them was easy. The fact that House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are not on the same page about entitlement reform and welfare further shows that, with taxes behind them, Republicans don’t have a unifying agenda.

2. Republicans will need Democrats. Republicans were able to muscle tax reform through (and nearly repeal Obamacare) thanks to the reconciliation process, which enabled them to advance both with a minimum of 50 votes (and the Veep’s tie-breaking vote). But under budget rules, they can’t use reconciliation again this fiscal year. Without it (and with a 51-49 seat majority) they will need the support of at least nine Senate Democrats on any major item they bring up.

This means major items like entitlement reform and welfare reform – where there are stark differences between the parties – will be hard, if not impossible, to enact. True, there are exactly nine Democrats up for re-election in 2018 in states that voted for Donald Trump in 2016. But the odds of Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bob Casey (R-PA), or Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), to name three Democratic Senators facing the voters in November, supporting entitlement cuts are basically zero. And in any event . . .

3. Both parties need to energize their bases. Midterm elections are typically won or lost on which party best energizes and turns out its base. After a year in which Republicans kept Democrats out of the discussions on health care and taxes (see reconciliation, above), and with the possibility of taking back one or more chambers in the 2018 midterms, Democrats have no incentive to play ball with the Republican majority. The more Democrats draw stark differences between them and Republicans, the more energize their base will become.

On the GOP side, with 2017 elections showing flagging enthusiasm, there is little incentive for Republicans to compromise, either. Their political calculus will be, the more base-pleasing their proposals are, the more likely their voters will come out – especially if they can paint Democrats as obstructionists. Although there are a number of House Republicans from blue states like New York and California who will want bipartisanship on issues like immigration and the environment, they don’t control the agenda.

4. Legislative success doesn’t portend electoral success. A lot of ink was spilled in 2017 on Republicans’ desperation to get something big passed; had tax reform failed, a lot of observers would have chiseled their political obituary in stone. That would seem to indicate that Republicans will crave more legislative success to ensure they keep their majorities.

But history has shown that big policy success doesn’t lead to election wins – especially if those wins piss off the other side. Leading up to the 1994 midterms, the first with Bill Clinton in the White House, Democrats had scored big victories on gun control and deficit reduction; they ended up losing both chambers. In 2010, two years into Barack Obama’s first term, Democrats boasted of passing Obamacare, stimulus, and Dodd-Frank. They lost the House and nearly lost the Senate.

In fact, the only recent example of a party in the White House gaining seats in their first midterm was in 2002, when Republicans took back the Senate two years into George W.  Bush’s first term. That was due in no small part to the post-9/11 political landscape. But beyond that, the only major legislative achievement Republicans could boast of was . . . a major tax cut. With that history, Republicans may be less motivated to expend political capital on controversial issues that won’t help them at the polls.

5. The must-dos will suck up time. Even if Congress and the White House can finally approve this month appropriations bills for the remainder of the current fiscal year (and that’s looking iffy, since discussions have barely begun), they will find themselves forced to address a host of simmering issues, from the Dreamers to stabilizing the Obamacare insurance markets. Republicans would love to see these wrapped up into larger reforms of immigration and health care, but for all the reasons stated earlier big packages will be mightily tough.

With only 108 scheduled legislative days in the House before the election and a similar number in the Senate, those must-dos will eat up a lot of time. And that’s not even counting unexpected must-dos, like confirmations of Cabinet secretaries in case any leave (has anyone heard from Rex Tillerson lately?).

6. The Executive Branch is not exactly helping. Presidents play a major role in shepherding policy through Congress: using the bully pulpit to drive consistent messages that dominate the news cycle, offering serious policy proposals and putting forth consistent redlines on what they will sign or veto, cajoling or intimidating members of Congress.

Unless you’ve been hiding out on Ahch-to the past year, you’ve  noticed that the White House has not been a study in message discipline, policy seriousness or effective lawmaker-wooing. Most accounts suggest that President Trump’s major role in passing tax reform was in staying the hell out of the way. Unless the President was right when he claimed he understood the “big bills” better than any of his predecessors, Congress is going to have to do it while ignoring the simmering dumpster fire down Pennsylvania Avenue.

As a result, beyond its must-dos, the odds of Congress and the White House achieving any significant policy goals is pretty slim. The one caveat to all of this: if Republicans hang onto their majorities in November election, it is quite possible that a lame-duck session could yield some significant action.

On the other hand, if Robert Mueller concludes his investigation right around then, everything will go out the window.

Welcome to 2018!


2018: The Year in Review

strpJoin Capital Zoo as we peer into our crystal ball and review the year that’s about to be:

January 4: President Trump claims that the voice on the infamous Access Hollywood tape is really Hilary Clinton’s. Congressional Republicans demand an investigation into Clinton’s sexual assaults.

February 11: Soohorang, the official mascot of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, is banned for blood doping.

February 20: President Trump signs an executive order requiring all federal agencies to pay government contractors in Bitcoin.

March 4: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces that actors credibly accused of sexual assault or harassment are ineligible for Oscars. As a result, the Academy Award for Best Actor goes to Stormtrooper #2 from The Last Jedi.

March 14: Video surfaces of President Trump thanking Vladimir Putin for throwing the election to him. Congressional Republicans call for the appointment of a special counsel into Clinton.

April 7: Fresh off his Oscar win, Stormtrooper #2 wins season 26 of Dancing with the Stars.

April 20: The Homeland Security Department finishes construction of Trump’s border wall. However, due to a precipitous drop in the value of Bitcoins, the contractor is underpaid. As a result, the wall is thirty inches tall.



May 2: Lin-Manuel Miranda premieres his new musical, Trump, in which he successfully rhymes “Scaramucci” with “Pair of Guccis” and “Grab her tushie.”

May 5: President Trump rolls over his phone in bed, accidentally tweeting out 280 characters of gibberish. It is retweeted 784,000 times.

May 6: CNN devotes its entire day of programming to analyzing Trump’s tweet.

May 17: Stormtrooper #2 gets his own talk show on NBC.

June 1: The alt-right movement, suffering from a profoundly hostile public image, changes its name to “Crabtree & Evelyn.”

June 2: Ivanka Trump announces her new line of body lotions will be sold exclusively at Crabtree & Evelyn. It is not immediately clear which one she is referring to.

June 18: Special counsel Robert Mueller announces his team has found definitive proof that President Trump personally colluded with Russia during the 2016 election. Congressional Republicans commence impeachment hearings on Hillary Clinton.

June 20: North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un opens a Twitter account. Surprisingly, most of his posts are Stranger Things fan fiction and retweets of Bobby Flay recipes.

June 28: Hillary Clinton releases her next book, What Happened During the What Happened Book Tour, and its follow-up, How What Happened Happened During the What Happened During the What Happened Book Tour Book Tour.

July 6: Steve Bannon announces he is temporarily removing himself from public life.

July 7: Steve Bannon’s neighbors report seeing a six-foot tall chrysalis growing in Bannon’s living room, accompanied by a strange vibration.

July 15: House Republicans demand the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Special Counsel Robert Mueller. House Democrats respond by calling for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the Special Counsel  investigating the Special Counsel.

July 25: The Department of Labor reports that 63 percent of working-age adults in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area currently are employed by special counsels.

August 3: The Trump administration issues a directive to agencies banning additional words, including “education,” “organic,” and “Mueller”

August 12: Looking to bolster their offense, the New York Yankees acquire Tectron X47, a sentient 15-door tall cyborg developed in Japan for a three-year, $591 million contract.


August 28: The Homeland Security Department acknowledges that, due to the devaluation of the Bitcoin, its 30-inch tall border wall was built out of blocks of government-surplus cheddar cheese.

September 1: The Border Patrol reports an unusually large number of feral mice entering the country illegally.

September 16: Every starting and back-up NFL quarterback gets a concussion, forcing the League to cancel the rest of the season. In an unrelated development, Colin Kaepernick begins working as a Jimmy John’s delivery boy.

September 23: Steve Bannon finally emerges from his chrysalis as a matterless black aura that floats above the surface of the Earth, menacing all who stand in its path, but mostly Jared Kushner.

October 2: Vice President Pence confesses that he once made eye contact with a woman who was not his wife and announces his immediate resignation from office.

October 10: President Trump’s first nominee to replace Vice President Pence is withdrawn when, during his Senate hearing, he fails to correctly identify the United States on a map.

October 15: President Trump’s second nominee to replace Pence is withdrawn when, during his Senate hearing, he admits to being Vladimir Putin with a fake mustache and nose.

November 6: The battle for control of the Senate comes down to Arizona, whose election is thrown into chaos when feral mice, having fully devoured the government-surplus cheddar cheese border wall, eat through thousands of paper ballots.

November 10: Paul Ryan relinquishes the Speakership and resigns from Congress to become the official spokesman for P90X.

November 15: Unable to find a candidate who is not the subject of an ongoing sexual harassment investigation, Republicans nominate Stormtrooper #2 to run for Ryan’s Wisconsin seat. He wins and is immediately elected Speaker of the House by acclamation.

December 5: Steve Bannon’s matterless black aura returns to work at Goldman Sachs, where it proceeds to make $5 billion hedging against the government’s use of Bitcoins.

December 30: Calling himself the winningest leader in the history of the world, Donald Trump announces he has nothing left to accomplish and resigns from the Presidency. Without a sitting Vice President, the line of succession falls to House Speaker Stormtrooper #2, who is administered the oath of office by newly confirmed Supreme Court Chief Justice Ted Nugent.

December 31: Billions of people around the world ring in the new year, vowing that 2019 will be a marked improvement over 2018.

Ignoring Threats is Bad for Our Health


Here’s a scenario to chew over:

It’s 8 a.m. on a chilly December morning. President Trump at his desk in the Oval Office, hard at work watching Fox and Friends. The first of his 12 daily Diet Cokes is in one hand, the twittering fingers of his other hand perched over his phone.

Suddenly, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster bursts in with Vice President Pence, CIA Director Pompeo and, what the heck, Jared Kushner. McMaster informs the President that the NSA has picked up chatter about an ISIS plot to attack a major U.S. city in the coming days with a powerful nuclear device. The death toll could be in the tens of thousands, millions left homeless, the economy rocked.

The Vice President asks McMaster what the odds are that this chatter is real. McMaster responds that, of 100 security analysts he asked, 97 believe the ISIS plot is likely to happen. Only three cast doubt on the intel.

What does the President do?

After tweeting out something in ALL CAPS about KEEPING AMERICA SAFE and BUILDING THE WALL, one would expect him to direct his administration to do everything in its power to stop the attack.

In fact, were it to get out that the President was informed of the high probability of an attack and did nothing, the calls for his impeachment would grow louder. And arguing that he did not act because the security assessment was not unanimous won’t hold water. After all, if there is one thing that (most) Americans can agree upon, it’s that protecting the public from serious, genuine threats to their safety and security is a legitimate role for the federal government.

This is why this week’s announcement that the Trump Administration is removing climate change as one of the global threats to the country’s national security is so absurd.

In essence, the White House has made the decision that a serious, genuine threat to the country’s safety and security is not a real problem at all. (Just imagine for a moment if former President Obama had removed ISIS from the list of threats to the country. We can name at least one compulsive Twitter user who would’ve gone nuts over that.)

There really should be no dispute that climate change is a serious, genuine threat. Serious, in that the Defense Department itself has identified it as something that keeps them up at night, stating in a 2015 report to Congress that:

climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water. These impacts are already occurring, and the scope, scale, and intensity of these impacts are projected to increase over time.

And the threat is genuine, demonstrated by the fact that 97 percent (if not more) of climate scientists agree that the climate is changing due to human activity.

No, 97 percent is not 100. But if 97 out of 100 firefighters told you your house was on fire, will you listen to the three naysayers and go back to watching The Voice?

Apparently, the Trump Administration is. And while the public (and hopefully Congress) would revolt if they learned that the President had rejected the view of 97 percent of security analysts, the White House’s rejection of the consensus of 97 percent of climate scientists is met with a shrug.

Partly that’s due to the fact that terrorism is more visceral. We can more easily tie a terror attack to the perpetrators than we can attribute a natural disaster like the California forest fires or Hurricane Harvey to climate change. And while hearing of a terror cell broken up provides an immediate (albeit short-lived) sense of relief, we don’t get the same feelings from efforts to slow the impacts of a changing climate.

But it’s also due in part to a certain level of timidity by those who believe the science in pointing out the impacts. Nobody should ever falsely attribute any one weather event to “climate change.” But the science behind the assertion that  climate change will lead to more extreme weather events is solid.

Perhaps it’s time, then, for some reframing.

In 2006, journalist Ron Suskind released The One Percent Doctrine, a book about the Bush administration’s fight against al-Qaeda. The title came from an anecdote in the book where then-Vice President Cheney articulated his approach to dealing with the threat of terrorism:

“If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.”

The administration was criticized for the notion of taking decisive (and probably deadly) action based on just a one-percent risk; substituting a “hunch” for clear-eyed analysis and concrete evidence has disastrous ramifications (see “Iraq, 2003-?”).

But most sensible observers would agree that the consequences terrorists building nukes necessitates action even when 100-percent certainty is unattainable. If there was a 25 percent chance that a terrorist group was planning a devastating attack, would that be a high enough risk to take action? What about a 50-percent chance?

Or, more to the point, what about a 97-percent chance?

We understand the impacts of climate change – rising sea levels, more ferocious storms, droughts, resource deprivation, loss of life and property, and ultimately political instability – as well as we know the ramifications of a major terrorist attack.

So perhaps in the future, those who believe climate change is a threat need to adopt the “97 Percent Doctrine.”  Let the public know that there is a 97-percent likelihood that in 20 years their favorite beach destination will be underwater. A 97-percent chance that their community will be devastated by a Category 5 hurricane. A 97-percent chance that their children will inherit a lifestyle crippled by violent storms, political instability, and food shortages. If the public is willing to endure long lines at the airport to guard against a small chance of a terror attack, they should be willing to accept changes based on a 97-percent chance of an unstable climate.

If it sounds like fear-mongering, it’s not. The threat is real. It’s time to talk frankly and vividly about it.




The Simple Reason High-Tax States Are Getting Screwed by the Tax Bill

New-York-New-York-City-Chinatown-Manhattan-Usa-1777986.jpgAs the GOP-led tax bill stumbles its way towards the finish line, a number of House Republicans from New York and a handful of other states have come out against it. There aren’t enough to derail the bill, but the notion of a Republican voting against a tax cut still seems about as likely as a Star Wars fan rating the prequels as the best of the canon.

The reason is simple: the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is potentially devastating to places like New York, New Jersey and California. By limiting the deductibility of state and local taxes (SALT) and property taxes to $10,000, the bill may actually increase the tax burden on many of these states’ taxpayers. As New York Republican Rep. John Faso put it in announcing his opposition to the final package:

I remain concerned that as a result of the state’s high income and property taxes, the partial elimination of the SALT deduction effective January 1, 2018 impacts New York families more severely than those in other states.  .  . the overall impact of changes to the SALT deduction will accelerate the trend of hardworking individuals and businesses already leaving our state – further eroding New York’s tax base.

It’s easy to think that this treatment of New York and the like is an intentional act of blue-state sabotage by Republicans. In truth, the lower SALT is more likely due to the fact that it raises a lot of revenue, helping to keep the bill under the $1.5 trillion bogey that Republicans had to hit to avoid needing the votes of Senate Democrats. (And if you had to choose between sticking it to middle class voters, or raising the corporate tax rate to 22 percent, well . . . never mind.)

The real reason that high-tax states are being screwed in this bill is much simpler, and it does not bode well for them: They simply don’t have any juice in Congress anymore.

Consider the Senate: In 1986, the last time a major tax reform plan passed, the 10 states* with the (current) highest tax rates were represented collectively by an even proportion of Democrats and Republicans. Today, those ten states send 19 Democrats and only one Republican to the Senate. That’s one of the reasons why, even though Ronald Reagan desperately wanted to eliminate SALT in 1986 (and had a Republican-led Senate), he ultimately gave up on it.


The House, meanwhile, presents a double whammy for these 10 states. First, those states are represented by a higher proportion of Democrats now than in 1986. In ’86, Democrats controlled the House. They don’t today, meaning that those 10 states’ representation in the House majority party has shrunk significantly.


Second, those 10 states have lost a net of seven seats due to reapportionment since 1986, giving them even less clout in the House.


The loss of clout among high-tax states has ramifications far beyond the tax bill. Let’s assume that voters in those states demand their state and local governments lower taxes to offset the increase on the federal side, particularly to help them get below the $10,000 cap. (This would be a tall order: some estimates put the average SALT deduction by California taxpayers at $23,000 and by New Yorkers at $26,000.)

Any reduction in revenue at the state and local level will likely be accompanied by spending cuts, particularly in states with balanced budget requirements. Those states will be forced to look to Washington for extra help. But with shrinking power in D.C., that help won’t come. And, as Rep. Faso warned, there is the possibility that the combo of higher taxes and less spending will lead more people to leave these states, further reducing their representation in the House.

From a purely political perspective, this should concern Democrats and cheer Republicans. But disrupting the longstanding fiscal relationship between states and the federal government that has been the cornerstone of tax policy for more than a century should concern everyone.

And, by the way, the White House should keep this in mind: While nine of the 10 “high-tax” states voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, number four on the list is Wisconsin, the state that was critical to President Trump’s victory. Badger State voters might have second thoughts next time around if their loss of SALT leads to a tax increase.

*New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Illinois, California, Maryland, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Oregon

Photo: Max Pixel

Get Ready for the Great 2018 Tax Mess

files-1614223_960_720That big gust of wind you’re about to hear is a massive exhalation of relief from Republicans that, at long last, they’ve managed to pass a major piece of legislation in 2017.

Notwithstanding Doug Jones’ upset win in Alabama on Tuesday, Congressional Republicans appear to be on track to send to the White House a sweeping tax bill in the coming weeks. But that joy may be short-lived, for 2018 could be a very messy year – for taxpayers, and for them.

It’s worrisome enough for Republicans that their tax plan is massively unpopular. Their bigger problem is that the plan is massively complicated. Even with a carefully thought-out process, major changes to the tax code always lead to unintended consequences and intractable conflicts between provisions that won’t become apparent until CPAs and tax attorneys apply the new laws to their clients’ finances. The tax code is like a humongous Jenga tower: change one incentive or rule, and it impacts scores of others downstream.

And the current bill is hardly the product of thoughful deliberation. Already the bill’s writers have had to confront glaring contradictions and paradoxes as they cobbled together enough votes to pass it.

Once the final bill is signed into law, it will fall on staff at the Treasury Department and IRS to make sense of the new law, educate the public about how to apply new rules and clarify details that Capitol Hill left fuzzy.

And that’s the real problem: Treasury doesn’t seem even remotely ready to handle it.

The current fiscal year 2018 budget plan cuts funding for the IRS, on top of years of cuts that have left its staff depleted. As National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon testified before a House Ways and Means subcommittee this week:

Since FY 2010, overall funding for the IRS has declined by more than $900 million, or 17 percent when adjusted for inflation, while the number of individual taxpayers has increased by 10 million, or more than 6 percent.  These reductions have forced the Service to reduce the total number of full-time, permanent employees by almost 21,000, and resulted in a reduction in the number of employees assigned to answer telephone calls from 9,400 in 2010 to 6,200 in 2015, a 34% drop.

Meanwhile, National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson highlighted IRS budget cuts as one of the agency’s major challenges in her 2016 annual report to Congress, stating that “the IRS cannot function well in the 21st century with the budget it has today.”

Reardon also pointed out that during the 1986 tax reform process, Congress actually provided additional funding to IRS to hire more staff.  That’s a far cry from today, when Treasury could only muster a measly  one-page “report” on the bill that would get them kicked out of a high school AP class.

Capital Zoo raised this issue with a moderate Republican House member from the northeast this week. This member, who wants to support the final bill, shared his concern that the administration hasn’t been up to the task so far of explaining or analyzing the bill. But it’s unlikely that pedestrian concerns about competence or capacity will slow down the tax train.

As a result, once the bill passes, expect a hot mess of confusion and controversy about how to interpret and apply the new laws. Remember the disastrous rollout of following the enactment of Obamacare? That will look like a walk in the park in comparison.

The larger problem, however, is not the confuision itself, but its consequences. If the new rules go into effect in January 2018, business will need to account for the new law as they plan finances for the year, debate investing in new equipment and make capital investments. How can they make business decisions like these without understanding their true tax implications?

If the tax code is unclear, and Treasury is unable to provide answers, both businesses and individuals could choose to delay spending decisions, which would slow the economy – the precise opposite of what the bill’s backers hope to see. That would make 2018 an extremely bumpy ride for an already unpopular bill – and for those who voted for it.