Stories by Fred Messner

Daniels: Government Faces “Limits” When Helping the Unemployed

September 28th, 2011 at 1:39 am 43 Comments

Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels visited Georgetown University on Friday, September 23rd, for a refreshingly intimate conversation sponsored by the Georgetown College Republicans.

Daniels is known for his candor and modesty, and both were on display when I asked him what could be done for the 14 million unemployed workers as well as for myself and the graduating classes of 2012, 2013, and 2014.

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Introducing: Joan of Bachmann Watch

July 21st, 2011 at 5:30 pm 37 Comments

The Tea Party has discarded Sarah Palin in favor of a new icon: Michele Bachmann.

The incense and hallelujahs once heaped upon the Martyr of Wasilla have been redirected to the Saint of Waterloo. As with Palin too, the Bachmann-mania seems likely to prove both  embarrassing and temporary. Before it subsides, we thought it might be a useful service to future generations of Republicans to preserve some of the most effusive statements – in hopes of inoculating this party against recurrences of this form of delusion in the political cycles to come.

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D’Amboise Disavows Fave Radio Crazy

July 21st, 2011 at 1:51 pm 13 Comments

In his pursuit of Olympia Snowe’s Senate seat, Tea Partier Scott D’Amboise is seeking as much media attention as possible.  One outlet that has given him considerable airtime, four interviews in the last year, is the Monticello, ME-based “Aroostook Watchmen” radio show.

Steve Martin, host of “Aroostook Watchmen”, has used his show to address a number of unusual issues, ranging from “Keeping Globalism Out Of America” to stopping the “emerging Mormon Caliphate” (5/12/2011).  Martin’s website for the Aroostook Watchmen is titled www.nofda.com.

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Will the “No New Taxes” Pledge Cause Financial Disaster?

July 19th, 2011 at 9:07 am 26 Comments

The Cato Institute held a debate at the Rayburn House Office Building to discuss whether the Republican Party’s “No New Taxes” pledge is an effective tool for Conservatives’ ultimate goals of shrinking the federal government and restoring fiscal responsibility to Washington.

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Will Contractors Sue After Default Day?

July 14th, 2011 at 10:43 am 11 Comments

What happens on the day after Aug 2 if the debt ceiling is not raised? FrumForum this week contacted a number of government vendors and contractors who unanimously stated: they had no idea whether they would be paid or not.

The Washington Post today offers some guesses.  David Frum has suggested that people owed money by the US Government will go into debt themselves, remedy but ultimately will be forced to litigate, seek lay off workers or default on their own obligations.

In 1985, troche under circumstances very similar to the debt ceiling crisis of today, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued an opinion asserting that the Secretary of the Treasury is within his rights to not only prioritize debt service over domestic spending, but also more broadly “liquidate obligations in any order it finds will best serve the interests of the United States” in a situation where Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling.  The GAO reaffirmed that position in May of this year and an independent report from the Bipartisan Policy Center agreed that the Executive Branch may be forced to simply “pick winners and losers.”

But the GAO position only states that the Treasury Secretary has the right to prioritize the order of payment, not void contracts.  The obligations would still be in force and the U.S. Government would still have defaulted on an obligation and unpaid creditors could theoretically attempt to sue in federal court.  Whether a contractor whose biggest client is the U.S. Government would actually take their client to court over a ten or fifteen-day delay is another matter.

But if the delay gets longer – all bets are off.

What to Watch in the Debt Negotiations

July 7th, 2011 at 1:06 pm 4 Comments

While we await the news from today’s debt ceiling negotiations between Republicans and Democratic leaders, help news outlets are already leaking and reporting on the possible contours of a deal. But which reporting is actually likely to be part of a deal and how much is smoke and mirrors? What developments would be unexpected if they become part of a final deal?


1. Medicare and Social Security are on the table.

Plausibility: Plausible, salve but what about Medicaid cuts?

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin has given reporters a broad outline of a deal: $1 trillion in revenue raising by closing tax loopholes, discount with the Democrats conceding cuts to Social Security and Medicare. This deal certainly looks like it could be a “Grand Bargain”.

But curiously, Durbin did not mention cuts to Medicaid. Earlier reporting had suggested that Medicaid cuts were a large part of the negotiations. Medicaid was always the more vulnerable program because the constituency that depends on it (the poor) carries less clout then the constituency that depends on Medicare (the elderly).

If Medicare cuts, and not just Medicaid cuts, are on the table, then it would be politically courageous for politicians to support them.


2. Republicans will accept revenue increase without tax cuts to offset new revenue.

Plausibility: Needs to happen if Republicans are serious about a deal, unknown how serious they are about a deal.

Several news stories are hinting that Republicans are buckling from their previous opposition to revenue increases that are not offset with tax cuts. This has been a key problem with Grover Norquists anti-tax pledge that many Republicans are committed to: it is hard to reduce government deficits over the long term if every time revenue is raised by removing a subsidy (for example, ethanol subsidies) that the revenue raised is off-set by a new tax cut.

Eric Cantor reportedly wants to “talk” about closing some of these tax loopholes which could increase revenue, but he still claims to want tax cuts to off-set them. Senator Kyl has also made comments about increasing “revenue” but its unclear from where the revenue would come.

Ultimately, if Republicans are serious, some sort of significant revenue increase that is not off-set by tax cuts will need to be part of final deal, both to get Democratic votes and to actually reduce the deficit within a reasonable time frame.

It might be that Republicans have no intention of supporting any sort of revenue increase which is what lead to David Brooks column from this week warning that the Republicans “may no longer be a normal party”.


3. Jim DeMint and Olympia Snowe will get a Balanced Budget Amendment as part of the deal.

Plausibility: No. Snowe is positioning to win reelection.

So far, the most out-of-left-field position is an op-ed by Senators Olympia Snowe and Jim DeMint arguing that any solution to the debt crisis must involve a balanced budget amendment being added to the Constitution.

You may recall that Bruce Bartlett referred to the balanced budget amendment as “quite possibly the stupidest constitutional amendment I think I have ever seen. It looks like it was drafted by a couple of interns on the back of a napkin.”

So is this meant to be a serious part of a debt deal? Probably not. What’s more plausible is that Snowe faces reelection next year and her support for the amendment coupled with an op-ed co-authored with DeMint seems designed to try and get her to run to the right of any potential primary challengers.

Congress Won’t Enforce the War Powers Act

July 7th, 2011 at 9:30 am 5 Comments

It has been 109 days since President Obama deployed U.S. forces to Libyan skies without congressional approval.   Now, politicians on both sides of the aisle are publicly questioning whether the President is in violation of the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which requires congressional notification within 48 hours of the commencement of “hostilities” and congressional approval for military action lasting longer than 90 days.

But the War Powers Resolution, passed over President Nixon’s veto, has never been enforced and doubts have lingered over its constitutionality.  So how serious are the legal challenges facing the President?

The White House has made the argument that its foray into Libya is not subject to the constraints of the War Powers Resolution because it is not actually engaged in “hostilities,” or at least not at the moment. Harold Koh, Legal Advisor of the Department of State, claims the United States hasn’t been involved in hostilities in three months.  On April 4th, at which point U.S. involvement in Libya was a scant 3 weeks old, the U.S. “shift[ed] to a constrained and supporting role in a multinational civilian protection mission—in an action involving no U.S. ground presence or, to this point, U.S. casualties—authorized by a carefully tailored U.N. Security Council Resolution,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last Tuesday.

The position of the Obama Administration is that the standard of “hostilities” is “ambiguous,” and that a mission in support of a U.N. resolution involving no ground troops or casualties cannot meet that standard, wherever it may lie.

But this defense leaves itself open to multiple avenues of attack.  According to Jack M. Balkin, Knight Professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment at Yale Law School, Congress could simply see the facts on the ground differently and decide that the U.S. military is, in fact, engaged in hostilities. “The weakness of the claim that the Obama administration was they offered a balancing test and said, ‘The way we balance things we think we’re OK.’  But if you’re not persuaded, or you don’t buy the way everything is balanced, you won’t agree with the ultimate conclusion,” he told FrumForum.

And there is reason to dispute the White House’s semantics.    A 1980 opinion from the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) held that the word “hostilities” was chosen to be a broader alternative to the phrase “armed conflict.”  Certainly American intervention in Libya is armed conflict.  Surprisingly, the Obama Administration has specifically affirmed this opinion, saying that the previous view of the OLC is “still in force.”  But if the Administration accepts that the War Powers Resolution is intended to require congressional approval for mere “armed conflict,” and not a narrower definition of “war” or “hostilities,” how can it continue to insist that operations in Libya fall outside its jurisdiction?  The White House doesn’t appear able to reconcile these opposing points.  “It’s like the administration has said, ‘we accept this view and we’re just not going to follow it,” Balkin said.

The argument that the War Powers Resolution does not apply because the armed forces are only playing a “supporting role” is even more easily debunked.  The language of the War Powers Resolution specifically includes occasions when the U.S. military “command[s], coordinate[s], participate[s] in the movement of, or accompan[ies] the regular or irregular military forces of any foreign country or government.”  So whether the U.S. has troops on the ground isn’t really pertinent.  If the military is involved in any way in armed conflict, the War Powers Resolution applies.

So, in light of the fact that the Obama Administration appears to be violating the War Powers Resolution, how does this answer the original question about the President’s legal challenges?

Presidents have been ignoring the War Powers Resolution since it was passed, and no troops have ever been withdrawn in accordance with the 90-day requirement. According to Richard Pildes, Sudler Family Professor of Constitutional Law at New York University Law School, some administrations have rejected portions of the resolution as unconstitutional, while others have found creative ways to work around it.  The Clinton Administration informed Congress of bombings in Bosnia, per the War Powers Resolution requirement, but it did so four times, ostensibly restarting the 90-day countdown each time.  Other administrations have reported military action to Congress “without acknowledging that those reports are required,” Pildes told FrumForum.

But it is up to Congress to decide whether the President is in violation of the War Powers Resolution and how to respond.  “The statute has not been enforced in the courts and the courts have not gotten involved in disputes about the meaning of the War Powers Resolution.  The issue stems from the Executive Branch issuing decisions and interpretations and Congress responding to those interpretations,” Pildes said.

That response, however, would necessarily be indirect.  Congress could attempt to legislate a withdrawal of troops, but that would require a two-thirds majority overriding the probable Presidential veto.  But Congress would more likely pass a joint resolution expressing their displeasure towards military action.  Or, Pildes said, “they could try to punish the executive branch in a variety of ways, such as holding up appointments.”

But the one thing Congress cannot do is sue the Executive Branch over the War Powers Resolution.  The courts have invoked a variety of doctrines to avoid being forced to decide the issue.  So President Obama, like so many administrations before his own, is openly defying the War Powers Act.  But he can rest easily knowing that Congress largely lacks the power to enforce it.

Not All Students Are Equally Studious

July 1st, 2011 at 1:19 pm 5 Comments

This is the third part in a FrumForum series on the value of college written by FrumForum’s summer interns.

I am currently a student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service (SFS), a vocational-leaning program embedded in a liberal-arts dominated institution.  The arguments made by Daniel Smith the New York Magazine do not suggest to me that college lacks value.  They suggest, and my experience confirms, that students do not derive the benefits of college just by paying and showing up.  Like most things in life, they must be earned.

SFS is notorious at Georgetown for being the most difficult of the undergraduate schools.  To graduate, SFS students must demonstrate proficiency in a second language, take a wide range of economics and political science courses, and are strongly encouraged to study abroad and find internships within the city.  Many go on to work for the State Department or for other government departments or NGOs.  That does sound like it’s worth the price tag and the time.

But, rather predictably, the fact is that the graduates who have the most success tend to be those who did the most work and took advantage of the opportunities they were given.  For those who didn’t, it’s a mixed bag.  I have a number of friends who simply go through the motions of college.  Like most college students, they attend class, do the majority of their homework and manage to pull decent grades.  But there are also a great many students for whom college is more than a four-year slog toward a degree.  For them, college is a chance to pursue a wide range of interests without the pressure of paying a utility bill.  Young adults who forgo college to work may be free of the accompanying mounds of student debt, but they do not enjoy the freedom to fail without major consequences.  I am working this summer as an intern at an internet blog, but I doubt I will ever be a journalist.  I do think I will be able to acquire some important skills and gain valuable “real-world” experience.  But I can only spend my summer this way because I know I will be safely back on the Hilltop at Georgetown in September, whether I write like H.L. Menken or Charles Barkley.

This is why it is so frustrating for me to read articles like Smith’s.  It is not that college lacks value.  It is that the value of college is completely dependent on the student. By being enrolled at an American university, students have the opportunity to essentially choose the level of prosperity for which they are willing to strive.  And the path to prosperity is hard but by no means secret.  Every student knows that an engineering major is more rigorous than degree in history, but we are also well aware that it projects far greater lifetime income.  Now, I am not accusing history majors of indolence.  My point is that higher education offers a range of outcomes, which, unlike the outcomes of primary education, are almost completely dependent on the student.

Unfortunately, all graduates are counted equally in statistics, regardless of how many internships they applied for or how often they went to office hours.

When taken as a uniform bloc, college students may understandably give writers like Smith the impression that they are wasting time and money.  This is akin to saying that a gym membership is “not worth it” because only some percentage of all buyers experience results.  Clearly the numbers would be different among those who showed up and worked. The American university is still a vehicle to the middle class and beyond. But like any vehicle, it won’t drive itself.

Can Conservatives Accept Success in Fighting Terror?

June 29th, 2011 at 11:21 am 15 Comments

America is winning the War on Terror.  At least by the most visible metrics, here that is.  As David Frum wrote for FrumForum, cheap the death of Osama bin Laden was the culmination of a decade in which the leadership of Al-Qaeda has been decimated by Predator drones and Islamic terrorism in general has collapsed in complexity, scope, and ambition.

But some conservatives seem reluctant to accept the gains that they, themselves, fought so hard to achieve.  Instead, they are desperately grasping for new enemies to fight.

I visited the Heritage Foundation on June 28th to watch Catherine Herridge of Fox News promote her new book, The Next Wave: On the Hunt for Al-Qaeda’s American Recruits.  What I saw from Herridge and the audience was a voracious appetite for claims of Muslim American subversion tinged with a faint, but troubling willingness to engage in 9/11 conspiracy speculation.

The lion’s share of Herridge’s talk was devoted to the activities of Anwar al-Aulaqi, the New Mexico-born civil engineering student turned radical Al-Qaeda cleric. Aulaqi is one of the most active radical Muslim clerics in the Middle East.  He releases footage of his extremist sermons on a regular basis and is currently allied with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. The U.S. government has placed Aulaqi on its list of global terrorists to be killed without trial.

But Herridge believes that the government is doing too little too late.  She explained that the intelligence community overlooked his role in the 9/11 attacks and is now trying to cover up their failure to address his radicalization.  In one instance, she said, Aulaqi was taken into custody only to be released without charge.  “This event is like a bomb waiting to be triggered.  I’ve spoken to people on the Hill about this.  I have spoken to people within the government about this, and it’s just what I call ‘crickets,’ radio silence,” Herridge said.

Herridge uses a somewhat fluid standard of proof for her charges, one that ranges from official arrest warrants to the presence of “too many coincidences.”  Nonetheless, she held Aulaqi up as an example of “Al-Qaeda 2.0,” a social media-savvy, largely American-born incarnation of global jihad. “There always seem to be his fingerprints on these plots,” she said.  According to Herridge, these new terrorists are the “digital jihadist Facebook friends from hell.”

On some level, this is true.  There are definitely American Muslims being radicalized and social media does contribute to those instances.  But the important question is this: With the figurehead of global jihad resting at the bottom of the Arabian Sea and Islamic terrorism on the retreat, what type of threat do disjointed and largely incompetent would-be terrorists actually pose?

Well, Herridge disagrees with the premise of the question. According to her, the recent ineptitude of Islamic terrorism is not a triumph of our national security apparatus, but a tactical shift of which we must be especially wary.  “There has been a shift.  Part of that has been by design because we’ve become better at pulling a string and unraveling these things, but it doesn’t make them less important,” she told FrumForum. And the small scale of recent attacks is not the only worrisome terrorist strategy:  “A failed plot is good news for them too.  It gets them a lot of publicity and it helps them raise a lot of money,” she said.  Apparently, the terrorists benefit even when we foil their schemes.  Is there any way to beat these guys?

Herridge’s illusion of an inexhaustible, ever-regrouping global jihad is troubling.  As a nation we have sacrificed immensely to combat terrorism. Our fight has consumed vast amounts of blood and treasure and eroded our conception of liberty at home. Necessary as it may have been at one point, does anybody want to live under the Patriot Act forever?  If we cannot acknowledge progress and eventually victory, we will continue paying this price indefinitely.  Now, when we finally have Islamic terrorism on its heels, we cannot afford to ignore our own success.

U.S. Burmese Policy “Yields Little”

June 23rd, 2011 at 1:01 pm Comments Off

A Congressional panel yesterday criticized the White House for keeping it in the dark about any progress in US efforts to engage Burma’s military dictatorship after watching a videotaped appeal from Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi calling for greater American and international pressure on the regime.

The House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific hearing on Capitol Hill was convened to address last November’s rigged elections in Burma. Election laws enacted in March 2010 stipulated that one fourth of the national legislature would be appointed by the military, regardless of the election’s results.

Although the White House pledged to pursue a diplomatic process of “pragmatic engagement” with the country’s ruling military junta following the election fiasco, Congress has heard little about the initiative. Democratic Rep. Eni Faleomavaega, the subcommittee’s Ranking Member, suggested the Obama White House had not cooperated with the subcommittee’s efforts.  “I hope we can get someone from the administration down here in the future and have them tell us what the heck is going on over there,” he said.

Jennifer Quigley, advocacy director of the US Campaign for Burma, concurs that engagement with the regime, despite the administration’s good intentions, has yielded little. “There hasn’t been any positive outcome whatsoever from the engagement, she told FrumForum today. “We don’t have a problem with engagement.  But when you have no timeline and you set no benchmarks, it’s just this open-ended thing that goes on and on.  And so you don’t see any changes on the ground.

“As far as the Obama Administration [is concerned], we had problems with them focusing on Burma even before the events in the Middle East.”

Among the witnesses yesterday were Aung Din, executive director of the US  Campaign for Burma and Dr. Chris Beyrer, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health and Human Rights.  But the highlight of the hearing was a previously recorded video address from Suu Kyi, the Burmese democracy activist and former general secretary of the Burmese National League for Democracy (NLD).

The NLD won Burma’s 1990 general elections in a landslide, but were prevented from assuming power by the military.  Suu Kyi has spent 15 of the 21 years since the election under house arrest. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

In recorded address, the first official contact between the Burmese dissident and Congress, Suu Kyi was appreciative of the attention her country has received from the U.S. government and its efforts on Burma’s behalf.

Nevertheless, she expressed disappointment over Burma’s lack of “progress towards democracy”.  Suu Kyi said she was especially concerned with continuing human rights violations and corruption in the Burmese judiciary.

“Without the rule of law, none of our people can be secure,” she said.

Suu Kyi further criticized the regime for refusing to release political prisoners — even while it publicly promises more open political discourse.

“Why are they still in prison?” she said.  “If [the regime] is sincere in its claims that it wishes to bring democracy to Burma, there is no need for any prisoners of conscience.”

But despite wide agreement among the witnesses about the nature of the problems facing the Burmese people, the panel, which never included more than three Congressmen at once, could come up with little in terms of substantive policy suggestions to ameliorate the situation in the former British colony.

All three witnesses praised the reasoning behind the Obama administration’s policy of “pragmatic engagement” with the ruling junta, but criticized what they see as a complete lack of results.

According to Dr. Beyrer, “The situation in Burma has not changed.”

Ultimately, the witnesses agreed that there is little the US can do unilaterally to help the Burmese.  Indeed, the main policy recommendations from the witnesses were for the US to advocate for the enforcement of a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution from March of this year and encourage a UN Commission of Inquiry into human rights violations in Burma.

The March resolution calls on the Burmese government to allow basic liberties, ensure the rule of law, and cease human rights violations.  Suu Kyi sees the implementation of the UNHRC resolution as Burma’s best roadmap to democracy.

“The requests, the urgings, the demands of this resolution are very much in line with what we in Burma think is needed to start Burma on the genuine path of democratization,” Suu Kyi said.

The Burmese general election in fall 2010 was widely criticized for failing to allow political parties to mount any serious opposition to the ruling military junta.

Political parties were also required to expel all members with criminal records, including former political prisoners such as Suu Kyi.  The State Department derided the 2010 elections as “devoid of credibility” and “a mockery of the democratic process.”