Analysis 03-31-2017


Why Can’t America Govern Itself?
Problems with Republicans, Democrats, the White House and Congress.

Is Trump a poor president?  Or, is America becoming ungovernable?

One way of looking at it is that Trump, a businessman, is a poor president who is unable to make the political moves deals can pass legislation.  He has Republican majorities in both Congress and the Senate.  And, he has a signature campaign plan – repeal and replace Obamacare.  However, the proposal faced so much opposition from his own party that he had to pull the bill in order to prevent its defeat.

Obviously, much of the reason for its defeat was political.  The Democrats weren’t about to help Trump or the Republicans scrap a bill that they had helped pass in 2010.  Then, there were the Trump campaign promises to preserve several parts of the bill so no patient would be harmed by Obamacare’s repeal – which complicated the repeal process.  Finally, there were Republicans on both ideological wings of the party, who had provisions they wanted – and weren’t prepared to compromise.

As it stands now, healthcare reform isn’t dead, but it is no longer at the top of Trump’s “to do” list.  The failure of the bill has rebounded more on Speaker of the House Ryan and the congressional Republicans more than Trump, so he is facing less trouble from his base.  That’s because the GOP is split between those who support Trump and those who don’t

The next major issue Trump will try to address is tax reform – something Republicans and Democrats can agree upon.

Or maybe not.

If tax reform were easy, it would have been passed long ago, especially given the widespread agreement that the US tax code is opaque, cumbersome, inefficient, and riddled with inequities. Yet, the US has gone more than three decades, encompassing four presidents, since the last time Congress seriously reformed taxes. There’s a reason for that.

The tax code is a cornucopia of special-interest goodies. There will be losers as well as winners. Any proposed change is going to make for many powerful enemies in and out of Washington.

There are accountants and accounting firms who make much of their money deciphering the opaque tax laws for companies and average Americans.

There are companies, who have managed to insert special breaks for their businesses in the tax code.  There are tax breaks for American families.

But, most of all, Trump must get any reform past the same Congress that defeated his healthcare plan.   For example, both the Trump administration and Republican congressional leaders reportedly favor a border-adjustment tax (BAT), an extremely complicated mechanism that essentially exempts exports from taxation, but imposes a 20 percent tax on imports, including component parts.  This was a key part of Trump’s plan to bring jobs back to America.

Most members of the House Freedom Caucus (the same GOP congressional group that defeated the health care reform), however, see the BAT as a $1 trillion tax on consumers. As Representative Jim Jordan (R., Ohio), one of the leaders of House conservatives put it, “the idea that you’re going to add an entirely new tax is a big problem.” Likewise, many of the conservative senators who opposed the health-care bill are opposed to the BAT.

It’s not just the Freedom Caucus that has concerns about the direction of tax reform. Deficit hawks are worried that, in the absence of corresponding spending cuts, a big tax reduction would balloon deficits and the debt. Further complicating matters, the defeat of health-care reform means the loss of $300–$500 billion in savings over the next ten years that Republicans were counting on to offset revenue reductions from tax reform. If the BAT is not included in the final bill, that means the loss of as much as an additional $1 trillion in revenue. While the tax reductions and other changes can be expected to spur economic growth, no one expects growth to offset every dollar in lost revenue. Spending restraint remains the key to making tax reform work, but so far the Trump administration has shown little appetite for cuts. The president’s so-called skinny budget moves spending around but doesn’t actually reduce it.

Also remember that Democratic support is unlikely. While a few Democrats, particularly in the Senate, have made positive noises about reducing corporate tax rates, no one has yet spoken favorably about the Republican proposals under way. At the same time, Democrats are united against any tax-reform proposal that significantly reduces taxes for upper-income earners. Most Democrats remain firmly in “resist” mode, opposing any Trump initiative even before it is launched. And the defeat of health-care reform has not done anything to make Democrats more willing to compromise. One can argue that Republicans were similarly obstructionist with Obama, but that doesn’t change the basic math. Without Democrats completely reversing their positions, it is going to be hard to muster a majority for any tax reform worth its name.

Here is the problem.  Both healthcare and tax reform are issues that the majority of Americans can back.  Yet, the Congress is unable to get them passed.

If popular legislation can’t get passed, does that mean the US has become ungovernable?  Or, is this just a Trump phenomenon?

This problem goes back, beyond Trump.  Remember that Obama took over a year to get his landmark health care legislation passed.  He also had the advantage of larger majorities in both the House and Senate, in addition to his higher popularity.  In end, he had to add some “sweeteners” to get some critical Democratic Senators to vote for it.

In the end, Obama relied on executive orders and regulation written by his administration rather than go through the jungle of congressional law making.  It was simpler and had the same impact as law – until Trump became president.

The American Congress has become much more political and partisan in the last few decades.  While there was once a one year period between elections, where legislation could be passed without much political turmoil, Congress is now in a permanent political campaign.

A good example is Obamacare, which has been a political godsend for Republicans.  It has not only energized their voter base, it is a moneymaker as far as campaign contributions go.  Healthcare reform would have ended that issue for Republicans.  As a result, the House Freedom Caucus opposed the bill, even though it gave them much of what they had campaigned for.

Meanwhile, Democrats, who admit that Obamacare has major problems didn’t vote the reform because they wanted to use the issue in the 2018 midterm elections.

Another problem is that the traditional philosophical divide between Democrats and Republicans is blurring.  This was best seen in last year’s election of Trump.

Trump was the outsider, who was denounced by leaders in both the Democratic and Republican parties.  Rather than being a hindrance, it was the factor behind his victory.  Trump had changed the debate from Republican/Democrat to Washington/anti-Washington.

The result is that many Republicans in Washington dislike Trump as much as the Democrats.  Unfortunately for them, they are also learning that many GOP voters dislike them as much as the Democrats.  Just ask Senator John McCain.

Don’t forget that the Democrats are facing the same problem, with their establishment/Sanders split.  They have had three DNC chairs in the last 10 months, and have asked for the resignations of all their DNC staff members.  The only reason that the Democrat’s problem is hidden is that they are out of power and unity is option for them now.

This means there are three parties in Congress – the Democrats, the pro-Trump Republicans, and the anti-Trump Republicans – something that makes governing hard.

All this unrest has become a major factor in what is happening in Washington today.  And, while what happened with the healthcare reform legislation is seen as a sound defeat inside Washington, all it does is strengthen Trump’s claim that Washington is too powerful.

Another problem is that the majority of voters see politicians as children – or at best a national reality show.  This was seen Monday night in a fancy New York restaurant,  Democrat Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer loudly confronted a female supporter of President Trump. “He’s a liar! He’s a liar!” Schumer shouted, according to the N.Y. Post.

Twenty-four hours later Schumer was in the East Room of the White House, eating appetizers, drinking cocktails and listening to a military chorus and orchestra.

Voters know Schumer and Trump used to be friends in the upper levels of New York’s wealthy elite. Now, however, Schumer calls Trump a “liar” and Trump calls Schumer the Democrats’ “head clown.”

Voters look at this behavior and ask why Trump and Schumer can’t talk about fixing healthcare, the pending Supreme Court confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch, Schumer’s threatened filibuster, raising the national debt limit, Trump’s supplemental budget request for border enforcement and rebuilding the military, tax reform, and the next government shutdown looming late next month.

Fact is governing America means both Trump and Schumer need to talk amongst themselves. Trump will need Democrat support if he truly wants to go around his recalcitrant Republican conservatives.  And, Schumer’s Democratic union members would love those infrastructure jobs that Trump wants to create.

No wonder Washington and its residents aren’t liked by the majority of Americans.

The bottom line is that America’s leaders can’t seem to pass the legislation needed to govern.  At the same time, American voters have historically low opinions of the people who govern them.

That is the makings of a nation heading towards becoming ungovernable.

Unfortunately, this is something that neither Trump, Clinton, Obama, nor anyone else on the political horizon can solve.

America is heading down a path towards ungovernability.  And, both parties are equally guilty.

A turnaround can happen only if both parties realize that winning political points on a daily basis in news shows and popularity polls does not mean they are successfully governing the nation.  Until that happens, their internal party politics will continue to be roiled and the nation will continue to drift.





Preventing a Defense Crisis: The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act Must Begin to Restore U.S. Military Strength
By Thomas Spoehr and Rachel Zissimos
Heritage Foundation
March 29, 2017

Years of underfunding and overuse have created a U.S. military in crisis. The military services testified before Congress in February 2017, and the picture they painted was dire. Of the Army’s 58 brigade combat teams only three are ready to fight, more than half of the Navy’s aircraft are grounded waiting maintenance or parts, the Air Force is short 723 fighter pilots, and the Marine Corps reported that its equipment is obsolescing and increasingly unable to meet the demands of the modern battlefield. The foremost responsibility of both Congress and the Commander in Chief is to ensure the nation’s security. The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) provides an opportunity to begin to correct the mistakes of the past—which include the imposition of the Budget Control Act (BCA) on defense spending and the unwillingness of Congress to provide timely and predictable funding. For the ninth year in a row, defense appropriations are operating under a continuing resolution due to Congress’ failure to pass appropriations bills on time.

Read more


Trump Administration Taking the Fight to al-Qaeda in Yemen
By James Phillips
Heritage Foundation
Mar 8th, 2017

The Trump administration has escalated the long-standing U.S. counterterrorism campaign in Yemen, a failed state that has slipped into anarchy amidst a multi-sided war.

In recent days, the Pentagon has launched over 40 airstrikes against leaders and bases of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, regarded by U.S. intelligence officials as the most dangerous of al-Qaeda’s many franchises. The airstrikes followed the Jan. 28 commando raid staged by Navy SEALs that killed several of the terror group’s leaders, as well as some Yemeni civilians sheltering with those leaders and Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens. The intensifying counterterrorism campaign is aimed at reversing the expansion of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in southern Yemen, where it has flourished in recent years due to the ouster of Yemen’s government from the capital city of Sanaa by Iranian-supported Houthi rebels in 2014.

Read more


Washington Has a Clear Choice on the Future of Iran Nuclear Deal
By John Glaser
Cato Institute
March 29, 2017

When it comes to foreign policy, the Trump administration has been engulfed in scandal and intrigue from day one. From the resignation of Michael Flynn, to a botched Yemen raid, to a U.S. bombing campaign in Mosul, Iraq that killed up to 200 civilians, to unrelenting controversy over Russian meddling in our election, it’s difficult to even keep up. With all these distractions, it is easy to forget that there are important issues that demand thoughtful attention. High among these is the Iran nuclear deal. Not only must the Iran deal compete for attention with other controversies swirling around the White House, it has to withstand antagonism from hawks who refuse to acknowledge its success. At the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) for “bestow[ing] a windfall of billions for the Iranian regime to distribute to its proxies.” At the same conference, House Speaker Paul Ryan described the deal as “an unmitigated disaster” that is “dangerous for the United States and for the world.”

Read more


The National Security Economics of the Middle East
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
March 23, 2017

The economics of national security in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have changed dramatically since 2001. Counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and internal security have emerged as having the same priority as military forces, and the rise of non-state actors, the use of proxies, and the increased use of asymmetric warfare has changed the nature of warfighting as well. Nuclear and missile threats are not new to the region, but they are a rising threat, and one that affects the cost and shape of many of the region’s military forces. Internal security has also increased in priority and in cost. The 9/11 attacks made it clear that violent Islamist extremism posed a major threat inside and outside the region, a threat reinforced by the al Qaeda attacks inside Saudi Arabia in 2011, and by the emergence of ISIS and its claims of creating a “Caliphate” in Syria and Iraq in 2011. At the same time, the major political upheavals that began in 2011 have shown that national security faces a critical threat to internal stability growing out of failures to provide effective governance and development, and that regional states need to pay far more attention to the needs of their peoples, to the impact of massive population growth, to the need to create jobs and higher levels of income, and to dealing with social change. The end result is that the economics of national security now go far beyond spending on military forces.

Read more


Is the Kurdish Peshmerga a militia?
By Michael Rubin
American Enterprise Institute
March 29, 2017

Representatives of 68 states wrapped up meetings last week to discuss strategies to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh). The Islamic State’s defeat may end one chapter in Iraq’s history, but it simply pushes other suppressed issues to the forefront. As Arab delegations traversed Washington, many showed that they are as reticent about Shi’ites in Iraq governing themselves as they were prior to late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s fall. The distrust if not antipathy toward the Shi’ite militias coalesces around the question of what to do about the Popular Mobilization Units (Hashd al-Shaabi), the volunteer forces which answered Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s call to supplement the Iraqi security forces in order to defeat the Islamic State.

Read more


Iran May Be Renewing Its Interest in Armored Warfare
By Farzin Nadine
Washington Institute
March 27, 2017
PolicyWatch 2777

On March 12, Iran unveiled the Karrar (Attacker) tank, which it called its first indigenously designed and developed main battle tank (MBT), with series production at the Bani-Hashem Armor Factory in Dorud. In recent years, Iranian military leaders have emphasized asymmetric forms of warfare against more powerful conventional adversaries and assigned only limited roles to tanks. Yet recent events in Syria and Iraq have shown Tehran that modern armor can still be an effective force multiplier in asymmetric situations. Iranian tank crews and technicians have been working closely with Assad regime armor units during the Syria war, giving them insights into their capabilities and limitations in irregular warfare settings. At the same time, Iran lacks tanks with the protection, mobility, and firepower to survive on the modern battlefield. The Karrar may be an attempt to fill this gap, but its claimed advancements seem exaggerated.

Read more