Saturday, January 30, 2010

half a headline

So the Deseret News (and Salt Lake Tribune) both have stories on Rep. Jason Chaffetz's second 15 minutes of fame (first was his debut on the cable show about House freshmen), which is justified since he got on national TV with his good question.

But the headline should not be limited to "conservative House Republican confronts Democratic President, claims Democrat broke campaign promises." That is the journalistic equivalence to "Dog bites Man," i.e. completely expected. What is news is that President Obama and Rep. Chaffetz had an intelligent exchange on national TV. You be the judge who came out ahead:
CONGRESSMAN CHAFFETZ: Thank you, Mr. President. It's truly an honor.

THE PRESIDENT: Great to be here.

CONGRESSMAN CHAFFETZ: And I appreciate you being here.

I'm one of 22 House freshmen. We didn't create this mess, but we are here to help clean it up. You talked a lot about this deficit of trust. There's some things that have happened that I would appreciate your perspective on, because I can look you in the eye and tell you we have not been obstructionists. Democrats have the House and Senate and the presidency. And when you stood up before the American people multiple times and said you would broadcast the health care debates on C-SPAN, you didn't. And I was disappointed, and I think a lot of Americans were disappointed.

You said you weren't going to allow lobbyists in the senior-most positions within your administration, and yet you did. I applauded you when you said it -- and disappointed when you didn't.

You said you'd go line by line through the health care debate -- or through the health care bill. And there were six of us, including Dr. Phil Roe, who sent you a letter and said, "We would like to take you up on the offer; we'd like to come." We never heard a letter, we never got a call. We were never involved in any of those discussions.

And when you said in the House of Representatives that you were going to tackle earmarks -- in fact, you didn't want to have any earmarks in any of your bills -- I jumped up out of my seat and applauded you. But it didn't happen.

More importantly, I want to talk about moving forward, but if we could address --

THE PRESIDENT: Well, how about --

CONGRESSMAN CHAFFETZ: -- I would certainly appreciate it.

THE PRESIDENT: That was a long list, so -- (laughter) -- let me respond.

Look, the truth of the matter is that if you look at the health care process -- just over the course of the year -- overwhelmingly the majority of it actually was on C-SPAN, because it was taking place in congressional hearings in which you guys were participating. I mean, how many committees were there that helped to shape this bill? Countless hearings took place.

Now, I kicked it off, by the way, with a meeting with many of you, including your key leadership. What is true, there's no doubt about it, is that once it got through the committee process and there were now a series of meetings taking place all over the Capitol trying to figure out how to get the thing together -- that was a messy process. And I take responsibility for not having structured it in a way where it was all taking place in one place that could be filmed. How to do that logistically would not have been as easy as it sounds, because you're shuttling back and forth between the House, the Senate, different offices, et cetera, different legislators. But I think it's a legitimate criticism. So on that one, I take responsibility.

With respect to earmarks, we didn't have earmarks in the Recovery Act. We didn't get a lot of credit for it, but there were no earmarks in that. I was confronted at the beginning of my term with an omnibus package that did have a lot of earmarks from Republicans and Democrats, and a lot of people in this chamber. And the question was whether I was going to have a big budget fight, at a time when I was still trying to figure out whether or not the financial system was melting down and we had to make a whole bunch of emergency decisions about the economy. So what I said was let's keep them to a minimum, but I couldn't excise them all.

Now, the challenge I guess I would have for you as a freshman, is what are you doing inside your caucus to make sure that I'm not the only guy who is responsible for this stuff, so that we're working together, because this is going to be a process?

When we talk about earmarks, I think all of us are willing to acknowledge that some of them are perfectly defensible, good projects; it's just they haven't gone through the regular appropriations process in the full light of day. So one place to start is to make sure that they are at least transparent, that everybody knows what's there before we move forward.

In terms of lobbyists, I can stand here unequivocally and say that there has not been an administration who was tougher on making sure that lobbyists weren't participating in the administration than any administration that's come before us.

Now, what we did was, if there were lobbyists who were on boards and commissions that were carryovers and their term hadn't been completed, we didn't kick them off. We simply said that moving forward any time a new slot opens, they're being replaced.

So we've actually been very consistent in making sure that we are eliminating the impact of lobbyists, day in, day out, on how this administration operates. There have been a handful of waivers where somebody is highly skilled -- for example, a doctor who ran Tobacco-Free Kids technically is a registered lobbyist; on the other end, has more experience than anybody in figuring out how kids don't get hooked on cigarettes.

So there have been a couple of instances like that, but generally we've been very consistent on that front.
OK, I am going to judge too... sorry, I can't help myself.

Chaffetz has some good points. Obama has some good counters, let's take them one by one.

  1. Lack of Transparency on Health Care Reform bill vs. Campaign Promise to have debates on C-SPAN: Obama was correct that all of the markup hearings were on C-SPAN as well as floor debates and various speeches/rallies by people for and against. But that is largely a dodge. Chaffetz is right that the important part of the decision making was done behind closed doors. Obama was smart to admit to this and accept responsibility for it. While that particular campaign promise sounded like a good idea at the time, it was completely unrealistic and I bet Obama regrets making it.
  2. Earmarks: Again, pretty good point by Chaffetz. While certain spending tags were not technically earmarks, again I think Obama did a bit of a dodge because there was a lot of spending allocated for particular projects. ProPublica, not known as a conservative rag, called them earmarks by another name. Obama'z 2009 strategy of being above the fray and allowing Congress to do the heavy lifting while he pushed behind the scenes on major legislation seems to have had messy, as in the case of the Recovery Act, and disastrous, in the case of the Health Care Reform bill, results. Now again, Obama said we will try to do better and have been making incremental progress. That is true. And really as I have stated before, earmarks per se are not a bad thing. Boondoogles that get in dead of night as earmarks are the real bad. And some times one has to weigh the greater good of the bill versus the wasteful earmark that is needed to get someone (or some group of someones)'s vote. see the Louisiana Purchase.
    Obama's challenge to Chaffetz though was brilliant. He essentially said, sure, I haven't done everything that I said I can do, but I am just the president. Congress writes the bills, the President (unlike many Governors) cannot do line-item vetos to eliminate earmarks. So Congress likes to stuff pork into "must pass" bills like Defense appropriations, or their even more obese cousins Continuing Resolutions or Omnibus Appropriations bills. Obama's retort isn't just good politics, it is true. Republicans were rather fond of earmarks when they were in charge of both the Congress and the Presidency and still are. Even Chaffetz is not immune. First, he said he would do zero earmarks, even if it would hurt his district, but then he changed his tune and talked about earmarks vs. "congressionally directed spending" the difference? These were earmarks he liked.
  3. Lobbyists: Chaffetz is right that Obama did make several exceptions to his no lobbyists rule and it burt him badly. Case in point was former Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who was (as is his wife) a lobbyist and who failed to report all kinds of income while being a lobbyist. The Daschles "went Washington," and never looked back. And arguably, this doomed the health care bill back in February of 2009. So Obama learned his lesson the hardway. And Obama is right that they are still the most lobbyist-free administration since the lobbyists took over the city. And 43 percent of Chaffetz's money over his brief career have come from PACs, which are by definition "special interests" lobbying for something. By contrast, less than 1% of Obama's 2008 money came from PACs.
So my vote? Narrow edge for Obama.
What's yours?

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