Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Catch of the Day

So many "scandals," so many silly analogies -- but Steve Benen appears to be exactly correct about Lamar Alexander's ridiculous comparison between Iran-Contra and Obama Administration efforts to raise money for publicizing options under the ACA. Benen:
In order for Alexander's comparison to make sense, here's what would have happened: imagine Obama asked Congress to approve the Affordable Care Act, but instead, Congress did the opposite, approving a measure ordering the president not to change the existing the health care system. Obama, undaunted, sold weapons to North Korea and then used the profits to do the opposite of what Congress instructed.
That sounds about right.

Benen's whole post is good, but I'll expand some of the history, anyway. He notes that there's plenty of precedent for public-private partnerships in these kinds of cases. Alexander's point is that if Congress doesn't fund it, the government can't pay for it. That's correct -- but that's not relevant here, since what HHS is doing is finding funds for a private entity ("Enroll America"), not a government agency. Alexander thinks that doesn't matter because the Contras were also a private agency, but the major difference is that in the 1980s the Boland Amendment and other law specifically prohibited the government from doing anything to help the Contras; the narrower issue of Iran-Contra was whether that prohibition applied to National Security Council staff. In this case, while Congress didn't supply any money for HHS to fund Enroll America, they did not specifically tell HHS that it couldn't implement the law as part of their normal responsibilities.

At any rate, Alexander has forgotten even more: the larger problem of Iran-Contra wasn't that the administration was raising private funds for the Contras; it was that the Reagan Administration retailed weapons to Iran and then used the profits elsewhere. That's not the executive raising money from the private sector for something in the private sector; that's the executive generating new funds that they control and that Congress can't touch. Indeed, the real scary part of Iran-Contra (and here, I'm working from memory) was the idea that this could be self-sustaining; the executive branch could develop permanent funding streams that Congress would have nothing to do with. That would indeed upset the Constitutional balance, and that's probably the core of why Iran-Contra was such a large scandal.

And back to Benen's point: unlike the Contra war, which Congress opposed and was trying to stop, the ACA is actually law; it's the responsibility of HHS to attempt to carry it out as best it can. Certainly, if there's no funding for a specific task, they can't spend money on it. But there's no Congressional prohibition against trying to execute this particular law; indeed, the presumption is exactly the opposite, that HHS has been told by Congress to enact Obamacase as best as it can.

And meanwhile: Nice catch!


  1. Just a quibble: it's not just that Congress couldn't control the funding flow, it was unaware of the funding flow (because, precisely as you say, it was money raised secretly through illegal activity and used to fund illegal activity).

  2. All of this is true. I don't think it takes away, yet, from the potential import of yesterday's scandals. (Yikes....I can't believe I had to add an 's' in referring to the number of scandals in a day)

    Both the AP and IRS stories have potential to be very serious. The IRS story is vintage mid-level crime for Nixon (not as serious as Watergate, but Nixon used the levers of power to persecute his enemies); the AP story, too, has elements of an overaggressive executive branch (though its much easier to see the fault originating outside the White House there).

    We don't know much about these things...yet. As Nyhan noted, at this point in presidential terms, and with our current politics, it's likely that one or both of these scandals will have legs, and we'll find out more. There COULD be an "innocent" explanation (by "innocent," I mean something like incompetence, poor execution, or lack of White House involvement). Heck, that's my default assumption (mostly because of my partisanship, but also because I tend not to see conspiracies behind every tree).

    HOWEVER. The AP story is chilling; combined with the Obama Administration's aggressive pursuit of leakers/whistleblowers generally, I have trouble believing that behavior like this has been strongly discouraged over the last 4+ years....and I had hoped my vote would push in that direction. The IRS story can ALSO have an innocent explanation behind it (there is research showing that those low on political trust and high in political efficacy are likely to cheat on their taxes (and Tea Partiers are that in spades); we know that the 501c4 designation has been getting ABUSED by political groups for years, so there's reason to go fishing there, too). However, it's a foolish IRS agent that doesn't run their profiling technique past their bosses. And IF it consisted of "tea party = investigate", that's, at a minimum, managerial incompetence. Combined with the IRS head apparently knowing about this and seemingly LYING to Congress last year....um, yeah.

    Yesterday was a bad day for fans of good government.

    1. Matt, I may be wrong, but that all strikes me as a little alarmist. I agree that the AP story may be an instance of the administration's overaggressiveness against leaks and such, but that's something that bothers the left, not the right. It's hard to see Republicans working very hard to gin up outrage over it, especially since the immediate victim was an agency of the lamestream media.

      The IRS story, by contrast, plays to the right beautifully, but has serious flaws as a political scandal inasmuch as there almost certainly was no political direction to it. The IRS head was a Bush appointee-holdover, and mid-level management had apparently ordered the thing stopped or changed. Both these facts are completely inconsistent with any kind of political effort against the Tea Party run from the White House. If it's managerial incompetence, as you say, that may be unfortunate, but it's not enough to keep a political scandal going. (And it's not even managerial incompetence if management itself caught and corrected the problem.)

      It seems highly implausible to me that there's going to be any White House connection in either case, mainly because the Obama administration doesn't seem to have a Karl Rove. So the White House can take the tack it's apparently taking and present Obama as just as shocked as the next person and agreeable in advance to whatever reforms might be needed. What's left to feed the scandal then? Remember, this is America: the biggest-seeming news story at any given moment has a short half-life, and will soon be bumped in favor of something else unless there are big new revelations.

    2. "The IRS story is vintage mid-level crime for Nixon (not as serious as Watergate, but Nixon used the levers of power to persecute his enemies)"

      How is it not the greater crime for a president to use an armed organ of the state as henchmen to threaten and harass personal or political enemies?


      If Obama (which I doubt) ordered elements of the IRS to target political enemies, then it's way more disruptive of democracy than Watergate. The IRS demands placed on Tea Party groups were ludicrous.

    3. If Obama (which I doubt) ordered elements of the IRS to target political enemies.....

      .....then he should be impeached. We don't need to decide which is worse, that or Watergate (which included a whole bunch of misdeeds including misuse of the IRS). The disruptiveness to democracy would be clear regardless.

      But I too doubt that's what happened, so this whole discussion is beside the point. As Matt said, the scandals have the potential to be very serious. But that potential is always there. On any given day, we could find out that Obama really has been dealing weapons to North Korea, as in the hypothetical above, or that he's been financing Obamacare by robbing banks while wearing a Nixon mask, or that he's in league with the space-aliens housed at Area 51 to take over earth and farm humans for food. (All impeachable offenses, no question, especially the Nixon mask.) Conversely, the Olympic gold medals I imagine myself winning have the potential to cover me in glory. So let's start guessing my winning scores! It's meaningless.

      The point is, we've got Obama's political opponents yelling "scandal" and "impeachment," and probably continuing to do so for the next three and a half years, any time there's a snafu anywhere in the executive branch. Hey, the machine at the branch Post Office in East Des Moines ran out of stamps! Maybe Obama's trying to shut down the US Mail! Maybe it's retaliation against the Iowa Tea Party! Or maybe the machine just ran out of stamps. It's playing into the GOP's hands to posit and seriously discuss "potentials" for which there is no evidence whatsoever.

    4. Just to clarify: Nixon repeatedly ordered his staff to have the IRS target his political enemies; when it didn't happen to his satisfaction (it did happen, just not to his satisfaction) he replaced the IRS commissioner to get someone who was willing to target his political enemies. I don't know how many times I've seen orders to use the IRS against his enemies on the tapes, but it's easily over a dozen, and of course the tapes only have a fraction of everything Nixon did in office.

    5. @Jeff: yes, it was a bit alarmist, but I was exploring the outer boundaries. To be honest, those outer boundaries of these scandals are pretty darn scary to me. Where I would more strongly disagree with you is on the potential 'legs' of these stories. I count on the media to keep the AP story alive, and I count on the GOP to keep the IRS story alive. They've been trying their damndest with Benghazi, yes, but the simple truth on Benghazi is that the only argument that is remotely plausible is the the Obama administration made a self-serving argument after the attacks had happened. I don't think the media has run with it because they consider that par for the course, especially after Bush did it BEFORE wars, rather than just after a few people died.

      If you're right that new info is coming to light isolating the White House from the IRS scandal, it can still be pursued (see Fast and Furious), but it will die off. (I haven't seen those stories yet, but have no reason not to trust you on them).

      However, I would say that the AP/IRS things ares more likely than your run-of-the-mill to have legs.

  3. Whiff of the day to Sarah Kliff for failing even to mention the secret arms sales in her interview with Lamar Alexander. Her focus on domestic policy vs. foreign policy is just weirdly misplaced considering the more significant differences: 1) Sebelius is not acting in secret. 2) Sebelius is not contravening a law specifically forbidding her conduct. 3) She is not selling arms to Iran to raise the money.


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