Washington Merry-Go-Round

Same sex marriage and the GOP

          WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Founded by Drew Pearson 1932

Same sex marriage and the GOP

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – It’s hard to think of any other public policy where attitudes have moved as quickly and dramatically as they have on gay marriage or of its impact on GOP presidential politics. A majority of Americans are now in favor of same sex couples having the right to marry, and politicians in both major political parties are positioning themselves for the next election when opposition to gay marriage will cost votes, not the other way around.

Hillary Clinton’s decision to announce her unqualified support for marriage equality in a video message this week is seen as an early step toward a likely presidential run in 2016. The Supreme Court next week will hear challenges to Prop 8 in California and DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) signed by President Clinton in what he says was a defensive move to head off even more discriminatory legislation.

The earth is moving on the Republican side too with Ohio Senator Rob Portman’s revelation that he now supports gay marriage after learning two years ago that his college-age son is gay. Portman was on the short list for vice president in 2012, and presumably still harbors ambition for higher office. By declaring himself so publicly and prominently for marriage equality, he has made a clear break with the far right of his party, a declaration of independence that could serve him well in the future.

The GOP is in the grip of its farthest right members at a time when the country has moved toward more social inclusion and away from the religious right intolerance that motivated the Republican base for so long. The report unveiled by RNC Chairman Reince Priebus this week, which is titled “Growth and Opportunity Project,” takes some significant steps towards structural reform but doesn’t attempt to overhaul the party’s policies, a task that is beyond the capability of the RNC, and would require the involvement of GOP leaders at a time when the iconic conservative magazine, National Review, despairs in an editorial that the party is “leaderless and issueless.”

This is the first time in a long while that the party has not had a clear candidate in waiting, some elder whose turn it is to win the nomination and lead the GOP. Mitt Romney was that person in 2012 although it took the party a long time to reconcile his rich guy moderate persona with the strident conservatism that prevails in the GOP.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is emerging as the folk hero on the right, just as his father, former Rep. Ron Paul has been for the last two presidential elections. Paul is clearly angling to run and he will have a following, though it’s hard to see how someone who espouses such far-right libertarian views could win a national election.

Another Tea Party favorite, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, seems to have more maneuvering room to expand his appeal in part due to his Cuban heritage and his leadership role in the Senate on immigration reform. He and Paul may have to duke it out for which one best represents the Tea Party, a fight that could be decisive in the primaries when choosing a candidate who could actually win a national election is the GOP’s challenge.

In the RNC report, Priebus recommends fewer debates so the candidates won’t have each other to kick around for the better part of a year. More moderate candidates like New Jersey Governor Chris Christi and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush will have a tough time getting through a primary process dominated by the right, but a less known moderate like Portman, newly positioned on the hottest social issue of modern times, might be just what the doctor ordered for the ailing GOP.

© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

 

Why Cyprus matters

          WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Founded by Drew Pearson 1932

Why Cyprus matters

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – When news broke early this week that the tiny country of Cyprus planned to tax the savings accounts held in its banks, the initial reaction was derisive laughter. It seems absurd to tax savings, and why should it matter to the world economy what Cyprus is doing anyway. The nation is too small to make much of a difference.

Well, no one’s laughing anymore. Cyprus has since backed off on the 15 percent levy it was thinking about imposing, but unless Germany and the rest of the Eurozone leaders step up with a bailout plan, the Cypriots will have to find an alternate scheme, and fast, or face a collapse of their banking system.

The government was trying to get at the fortunes stashed in its banks by Russian oligarchs, much of it ill-gotten gains that were being laundered through the Cyprus banks. The situation is very much in flux but there are two critical components that make what’s happening in Cyprus very much a matter of U.S. national interest.

First, Russian President Vladimir Putin showed more of his true colors when he threatened to cut off gas supplies to Western Europe, especially Germany, if they persisted in penalizing the wealthy Russian depositors. Objecting to the proposed plan is one thing; threatening economic retaliation vaults Putin into a whole other sphere of roguish leader.

Imagine if President Obama spoke out on behalf of investors in the Cayman Islands, which like Cyprus for the Russians, is a favorite parking place for U.S. investors to avoid scrutiny and U.S. taxes. Obama did the reverse during the presidential election, castigating Republican Mitt Romney for allegedly hiding his fortune overseas. To threaten economic retaliation like Putin has done sets a dangerous precedent in today’s inter-related global system.

Russia is putting tremendous pressure on Germany to back off, and to put more of its own money into the banking system of Cyprus, as opposed to extracting a fee from depositors. As much as 40 percent of the deposits in Cyprus are from Russians, and it’s an open secret that the accounts are in part the product of money-laundering. Moscow boasts more billionaires than any city in the world, and though many may be legitimate, there is a segment that is profiting from the Russian Mafia and using the banks in Cyprus as a convenient place to shelter money gained illegitimately.

Second, by declaring a bank holiday early this week, Cyprus is guaranteeing a run on its banks when and if they open. Cypriots are marching in the streets, outraged that their savings might be taxed. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t affect the rest of Europe or any of the industrialized democracies, but with so many economies so shaky, it could be a virus that spreads. Cyprus is small, but its economic sector is big relative to its size, and a run on its banks could have a ripple effect around the world.

Banks don’t typically have enough cash on hand to fulfill their obligations if depositors all show up at the same time to claim their funds. A collapse of the banking system in Cyprus is a bigger deal than anyone first supposed because the country has no real means to stage a comeback. It only has two industries, tourism and banking, and the lack of financial diversity is complicated by ethnic rivalries. The country is divided between Greeks and Turks, who don’t get along, and there are few places the government can turn to for the 7 billion Euros it needs to prop up its banking system.

Given the dire circumstances, the European Central Bank could increase its contribution, and in order to buy time, the government in Cyprus could extend the bank holiday into next week to avoid what everyone expects will be a massive flight of deposits out of Cyprus and into who knows where, that’s anybody’s guess.

© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

 

Faux intellect Ryan

          WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Founded by Drew Pearson 1932

Faux intellect Ryan

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – It feels like the presidential campaign never ended with Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., back in the news and Mitt Romney on the list of speakers appearing before the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). If you woke up after a deep sleep and missed Election Night, you’d never guess President Obama won reelection and the voters repudiated the GOP’s plan to make cutting the budget the number one priority for the nation.

The budget that Ryan and Romney campaigned on would have balanced the budget in 40 years – count ‘em, 40 years – and even with that far distant goal, the GOP team would have had to cut popular programs to keep their promise of never, ever raising taxes. Now Ryan has upped the ante, coming forward with a budget this week that would balance in a mere 10 years, a commitment that the Republican leadership made to get the GOP caucus to support the January 1 debt ceiling compromise that raised the rates on upper-income earners.

Ryan presents himself as the intellectual leader of the Right, but the budget he offers is simply more of the same, only worse, than what he and Romney ran on last year. It is intellectually dishonest in the sense that Ryan calls for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare. That’s not going to happen, yet he pockets the savings as though he had just won the lottery.

Obamacare is the Houdini of public policy. Since its inception in 2009, it has survived every challenge and escaped every tough spot it faced, and there were many. When Massachusetts elected Republican Scott Brown over Democrat Martha Coakley, there went the 60th vote to overcome a filibuster in the Senate. Democrats found a way around that, but then had to survive a challenge in the Supreme Court. That was a close call with Chief Justice John Roberts providing the unlikely fifth vote to uphold the law’s constitutionality.

Then there was the election with Republicans up and down the ticket running on repealing Obamacare. And they’re still not done. They voted by last count 35 times to repeal Obama’s signature achievement.

Now Ryan assumes in this latest iteration of his budget that Obamacare goes away, but that’s not going to happen. Worse, he makes no pretense of replacing it with anything that would assure health care for 40 million people, or provide coverage for people with preexisting conditions whom insurance companies routinely turn down, or charge so much that coverage is unaffordable.

Ryan’s other cardinal sin in assembling his budget is pocketing $716 billion in savings that the Obama administration took out of Medicare, claiming it as found money when he and Romney ran on how, if elected, they would return that money to Medicare. In truth, it came out of payments to insurance companies to give them an incentive to create private plans that would attract seniors. It worked, and the additional money was no longer needed; the insurance companies were doing fine on their own, and Medicare beneficiaries did not suffer the way Romney and Ryan claimed they would.

Ryan also happily incorporates the increased revenue from top earners that Obama fought for, and that the Republicans resisted for so long. If the Ryan budget is an opening bid, and as the House Budget Chairman, he is willing to engage in serious negotiations, that’s one thing. If it’s his end point, then we’re back where we started. It might as well be last October when positions were hardened into campaign rhetoric, and saying No to Obama is all the GOP knows how to do.

Meanwhile, is Ryan the best budget voice the GOP has or is he simply a faux intellectual

© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

 

Unconstitutional Coca Cola

          WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Founded by Drew Pearson 1932

Unconstitutional Coca Cola

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – Sugary drinks are killing us, but is it government’s role to regulate the sale of super-sized sodas? New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg says yes, citing the dramatic rise in the rates of diabetes and obesity, conditions that contribute to illness and premature death, and strain resources in the public health system.

Taxpayers foot the bill for these costly health outcomes. That’s why Bloomberg believes he has the responsibility, and the power, to restrict the availability of the extra-large sugar-laden drinks that have become the new normal in restaurants, coffee shops, theaters and fast-food establishments.

The 16-ounce size that Bloomberg wants to regulate would still be available at convenience stores and at the bodegas that dot the city’s streets. Milk shakes would be exempted. They contain sugar but aren’t simply empty calories because of their dairy base.

Critics howled “nanny state,” and the discrepancies in the law, regulating a fountain soda purchased at a Dunkin’ Donuts differently from one bought at a convenience store, introduced a host of legal questions.

The soda industry brought a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the mayor’s order, and won the first round this week in what could be a protracted legal battle. Justice Milton A. Tingling, Jr., writing for the State Supreme Court of Manhattan, called Bloomberg’s initiative “arbitrary and capricious.” He said the exceptions threaded throughout the law would result in confusion and conflicts throughout the city. The result, he wrote, would be “uneven enforcement, even within a particular city block, much less the city as a whole.

The judge is right: Why is it okay to buy a “Big Gulp” at your neighborhood 7-11, but it’s not okay to buy a 16-ounce coffee with sugar at Dunkin’ Doughnuts?

Put another way, though, why is it okay to ban smoking in restaurants and public places, but it’s not okay to ban smoking in your local private law firm? The answer is that the government takes the first action on behalf of the public, and the local law firm – and virtually every other business establishment in the country – follows suit on its own because no smoking has become the new cultural norm.

Bloomberg is in the last year of his third term as mayor, and he clearly wants to leave a big legacy in terms of public health and safety. He is spearheading an anti-gun violence group, contributing money to elect politicians in tune with his agenda. He has had success on his healthy living agenda, banning trans-fat in New York restaurants and requiring fast food restaurants to publish calorie counts.

He was in the vanguard of elected officials to call for a smoking ban in bars and restaurants in New York. Everybody laughed at first, but no one’s laughing anymore, and they’re not smoking in bars and restaurants anymore either. The City Council extended the ban to public parks and beaches in 2011, and there are fewer cigarette butts to be found in Central Park, but it’s mostly the consequence of a changed culture, not aggressive NYPD enforcement.

Last year, there was a flurry of stories that Bloomberg would be pushing a ban on smoking indoors in your own home. The pushback to that from the public, and on editorial pages, was significant enough that if the mayor was considering such a policy, he was prompted to come forward and say nothing like that was in the works.

But he’s not backing off on sugar drinks, and if he can tailor a proposal that is more uniform, and approaches the issue the way government did with smoking bans, Bloomberg could well be in the forefront of a welcome public policy revolution and cultural change.

© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

 

Is Obama playing the GOP?

          WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Founded by Drew Pearson 1932

Is Obama playing the GOP?

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – President Obama is courting and maneuvering Republican lawmakers whom he knows are trying to extricate themselves and their party from the Tea Party’s tentacles. He treated GOP senators to dinner and a key congressmen to lunch. But all is not as it seems.

On the surface, all appearances indicate that the president is on a charm offensive to woo just enough Republicans to vote with Democrats on key issues such as sequestration. But the real goal is 2014. Mid-term elections usually turn out poorly for second term presidents, who then move on to lame-duck status. This time, things may be different.

The Republican brand has been severely wounded by Tea Party zealots who challenged and defeated mainstream Republicans in recent primaries. These same zealots insist that Republican senators and congressmen toe the line or they, too, will face primary challenges.

This is where the president weighs in. In normal times opposing parties go after legislators who appear vulnerable for the next general election. Vulnerability can stem from a variety of reasons: changing demographics, changing priorities, personal problems, or unpopular stands. But this time, Democrats know that the real game is going to be played out in the primaries where a small number of Tea Party activists can muster enough strength to oust a mainstream incumbent who would probably win in the general election.

This takes us back to the president’s wooing. None of the folks he wined and dined are considered vulnerable targets. All of them would probably win reelection in a walk. But if they break with the Tea Party by siding with the president on virtually anything, they might find themselves vulnerable after all – in the primaries.

On the other hand, if these respected legislators cave in to the Tea Party, they will not only be compromising their own beliefs but alienating the general election voters as well. However, they know that something must be done to prevent the Tea Party from destroying the GOP.

Obama needs to pick up five seats to create a filibuster-proof Senate and 17 seats to regain control of the House. If he succeeds, his final two years, beginning in 2015, could prove to be his strongest. Historically this would be a daunting task, but by turning safe GOP seats into vulnerable seats, he might just do it.

And what is a mainstream Republican to do? The old Nixon adage of running right in the primaries and to the center in November may not work when the right is held hostage by uncompromising extremists. The president understands this, which is why he is helping a select group of mainstream Republicans move away from Tea Party ideologues, making them vulnerable to those very ideologues in the process. It’s not cynical; it’s politics.

© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

 

Cold War ends with Castro and Chavez

          WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Founded by Drew Pearson 1932

Cold War ends with Castro and Chavez

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – Most Americans have no reason to mourn the passing of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, and there is some hope that what comes next in that oil-rich country may be a less virulent version of Chavez’ dictatorial socialism, one that can accommodate a more cooperative relationship with its democratic neighbors.

Dead of cancer at 58, he promised the poor more than he delivered, letting them share in a minimal way in the country’s oil profits. He fell far short of his promise of a revolution, and he over stayed his time in office, allegedly fixing elections to ensure victory.

Cuba’s Fidel Castro was his mentor, and they seemed to speak with one voice in their denunciations of America. Chavez the socialist and Castro the communist had little light between them. Together, they were the anachronistic embodiment of a Cold War long over. Indeed, Chavez, reminiscent of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev pounding his shoe on a desk at the United Nations in 1960, is most remembered in the U.S. for his excoriating remarks about Pres. George W. Bush during a 2006 speech in that forum.

Critics call Venezuela “Cuba with oil,” a slap at the mismanagement of the county’s economy and its giant oil reserves and an acknowledgement of the two countries’ kinship and similarities. Relying almost solely on oil revenue, Chavez caused Venezuela to suffer from the “oil curse,” a label given to nations that failed to invest black gold revenue in industries that could ensure a prosperous post-oil future.

As a member of the oil cartel, OPEC, Venezuela under Chavez has consistently urged the cartel to prop up prices by reducing output. The cartel has been something of a yoke around the U.S. economy for decades, but the good news is that OPEC is losing power in part because of oil discoveries in other parts of the world, notably Canada and Russia. Also, the U.S. is producing more oil than it has in decades, and using less, as cars become more efficient, and fuel standards increase.

Throwing his oil weight around is how Chavez maintained his international presence. He also attempted some positive and possibly cynical public relations moves, donating 200 million gallons of heating oil over eight years to Citizen’s Energy, a charity founded by former Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy.

Chavez also sold 100,000 barrels a day to Cuba at cut-rate prices, more than Cuba needed so it could turn around and sell the excess at a profit. You could say Chavez’ socialism extended to Cuba and Cuba’s communism extended to Venezuela, because in return Fidel and now his brother Raul supplied Venezuela with doctors and nurses. It was a cozy arrangement, but now Fidel is out of power and his brother, who is not nearly as doctrinaire, has loosened the reins on the Cuban economy, not enough but it’s a start.

The passing of Chavez and the retirement of Castro marks the end of an era in Latin America, and the beginning of what President Obama hopes could be a more fruitful relationship between the U.S., Venezuela, and Cuba. Chavez’ designated successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, will face the voters within 30 days and it’s likely that he will win on the strength of his association with Chavez on an expected sympathy vote.

Maduro has been more conciliatory to the U.S. in his past comments, and administration officials are discounting as domestic politics his bizarre assertion that the U.S. somehow gave Chavez his cancer. Hatred of the U.S. and fear that the capitalistic bully will come in and seize their oil resources is a time-honored feature of Venezuelan politics, and Maduro is tapping into that sentiment as he faces a competitive election.

But actions are what will matter for both Raul Castro and Nicolas Maduro, two leaders who most likely will attempt to lead their nations out of the Dark Ages of their predecessors’ Cold War delusions.

© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

 

Kerry’s first challenge: Syria

          WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Founded by Drew Pearson 1932

Kerry’s first challenge: Syria

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – Former Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., used his first trip as Secretary of State to move the dial on U.S. policy toward Syria, and it’s about time. After two years of civil war and some 70,000 Syrians dead, President Assad is still ensconced in his palace. The White House says that Assad has lost all legitimacy and must go, but has done little to force the issue, instead staying on the sidelines.

During recent Senate hearings, it came out that former administration officials, Hillary Clinton at State and Leon Panetta at Defense, had urged President Obama last year to arm the Syrian opposition. Wary of getting pulled into yet another war and uncertain how to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys in the polyglot opposition, Obama refused their request to get the U.S. more involved militarily.

Obama’s dilemma is understandable. The Free Syrian Army is led by Gen. Salim Idriss, a secularist defector, but other rebels, many of whom do not follow him, include the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nura organization, and a variety of mostly Sunni fighters. Arrayed against them are the forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, including Christians, Kurds, and Shiite Muslims, many of them from the Alawite sect. Alawites comprise just over 10 percent of the population, but through the Assad family, they have ruled Syria since 1970.

Kerry met with leaders of the Syrian Opposition Coalition at a conference in Rome and announced $60 million in U.S. “non-lethal aid,” which White House spokesman Jay Carney said is on top of an earlier transfer of $50 million in non-lethal assistance. The administration has also provided $385 million in humanitarian aid.

Yet the administration resists providing weaponry directly to the fighters, though Kerry gave some indication that could change. When he met with opposition leaders, he said their requests were “under review.” These leaders initially had refused to meet with him, fearing they would just become props in a photo-op and their pleas for military assistance would be rejected.

It took a round of phone calls from Kerry and from Vice President Biden to persuade the coalition leaders that change is in the air and that Kerry would hear them out and take their demands seriously. The $60 million in non-lethal aid, mostly military rations and medical supplies, was a show of the administration’s good faith.

What the Syrian coalition really needs is ammunition and what they really want is U.S. anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. Kerry’s opening moves suggest that more change could be in the offing despite Obama’s reservations. The rebels have been advancing in recent weeks, and State Department officials explained that this latest package of non-lethal aid is meant in part to build security and civil society in the areas where the rebels have gained control.

Kerry’s trip to Europe and the Middle East couldn’t come at a better time with the rebel army gaining ground and Assad looking more and more beleaguered. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, Kerry has forged relationships with most of the world’s leaders, including Assad, and there is some hope that Kerry can persuade Assad to go into exile while there’s still time.

In diplomacy, personal relationships matter and Kerry embarks on his mission with a great deal of credibility at home and abroad. He also understands that diplomacy, just like politics, works best when there are carrots and sticks. When he can offer an incentive to encourage the behavior that is in the U.S. interest, he is in a better position to make demands that might be accepted.

As a second-term Secretary of State, Kerry has great leverage to re-set U.S. foreign policy in areas where it is clearly not working, or where it is stalled. Both descriptions are true with Syria. In his talks with European officials, Kerry opened the door to a more interventionist policy toward Syria with greater military assistance. He told students in Germany that the U.S. is working toward a peaceful resolution, but if Assad’s regime keeps up its brutal slaughter of citizens, “then you need to at least provide some kind of support for those fighting for their rights.” He delivered on those words just a few days later, showing he means business.

© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

 

Connecting the Sequester dots

          WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Founded by Drew Pearson 1932

Connecting the Sequester dots

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – If you listen to the Democrats, the impact of the looming sequester will be dire, damaging military readiness, costing tens of thousands of people their jobs, and denying preschoolers access to Head Start. If you tune in to the GOP’s talking points, there’s nothing to worry about. Republicans say Democrats can make cuts that aren’t harmful, and that President Obama is exaggerating the impact of sequestration in order to raise taxes.

What’s the ordinary voter to think? Polls show that the American people do not like sequestration and support the “balanced” approach to cutting the deficit that Obama campaigned on. Strong majorities believe sequestration if it goes forward will hurt the overall economy and have a major effect on the military.

Yet the stock market is feeling no pain. Given these public attitudes and all the media attention devoted to the oncoming sequester, framing it like a freight train bearing down on the country, the stock market should be coming off the rails. Instead, it’s going gangbusters, roaring back after a drop on Monday of 216 points.

Maybe the stock market is as disconnected from Washington as the rest of the country, or worse, the stock market is in its own bubble, as remote from real people as the politicians. Either way, with no substantive discussions slated as yet to avoid the March 1 sequestration deadline, the voters will get to judge which side has the better argument – that it’s a hurtful instrument, or that it can be easily absorbed in a budget worthy of a super power.

Both Republicans and Democrats can be accused of overplaying their hands, understandably because this is a battle for the hearts and minds of the voters. Sequestration, if it takes effect, will put the squeeze on programs, with some being impacted immediately while others will take more time, weeks or months for the adverse effects to be felt.

The White House is working hard to counter the GOP notion that it is picking and choosing among programs for maximum hardship to make a political point. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters Wednesday that federal aid to school districts that don’t have a property tax base, like the ones around military bases and on Native American reservations, will likely have to scale back the school week to three or four days to save money.

Duncan also said that two of his department’s biggest pots of money are for poor children and for children with special needs. If the president had more discretion in picking and choosing where to cut, it would still be a no-win situation with children paying the price for Washington’s failure to find a compromise that would avoid sequestration.

Republicans maintain that cutting 2.5 percent from the federal government isn’t a big deal, and they would have a point if that was the true figure. With only seven months left in the fiscal year and entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicaid exempt from the axe, the true figure for Defense Department cuts is 13 percent; and for domestic programs, it’s 8 percent. And it gets worse. There are untouchable elements within the Defense Department, such as payroll for the men and women in our Armed Forces. Take these elements out of the equation and the Defense Department cuts for its remaining programs probably amount to as much as 30 percent. The same goes for domestic programs.

On the other hand, the government is not without funds, only the authority to use them. For example, the Fed’s $85 billion-a-month program of Quantitative Easing (printing money to buy back government and other securities) is pouring billions of dollars into the Treasury every month.

And the public seems to intuitively understand this. The means to solve the problem are there, and it is assumed our elected officials will figure out how to connect the dots.

© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

 

Internet war spies

          WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Founded by Drew Pearson 1932

Internet war spies

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – In the midst of all this worry about cutting defense spending, President Obama signed an executive order to boost U.S. defenses against cyber hacking. It didn’t cost a penny, at least not yet, but Obama is giving Congress fair warning that in the event of a serious external threat, the necessary funds better be there.

The recent revelation that much of the cyber hacking into U.S. computers originates from a Peoples Liberation Army unit in Shanghai supports Obama’s contention that strengthening America’s hand in cyber space is a matter of national security. The president highlighted the issue in his State of the Union speech earlier this month.

For Americans who have grown accustomed to hackers in all walks of life, Obama sought to raise awareness of the dangers of this new kind of warfare, telling the public why he felt compelled to move without waiting on Congress, revealing that he had signed an executive order and explaining why.

“We know hackers steal people’s identities and infiltrate private e-mail. We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets. Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air traffic control systems. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy.”

The president’s executive order is more of an alert than anything else. It focuses on the defense sector and orders the various players to share information and get geared up for this new era of Internet warfare. Despite the looming specter of sequestration and the chunk it could take out of the defense budget, there is little doubt if Obama asked for a significant amount of money to build up cyber defense, he would get it.

A credible outside threat would get a response from this Congress, and the answer to an Obama request wouldn’t be no, it would be how much?

The problem is that cyber warfare is vague and theoretical, just like the sequester, and until there is an attack that poses an existential threat – like cutting off power, paralyzing the banking system, or throwing air traffic control into chaos – it doesn’t register with the American public.

The war games that nations play in cyber space resemble video games, and we can only hope that generations of kids who grew up playing video games will be able to muster the right response at the computer terminal when the time comes.

It’s a very different era from when President Roosevelt launched the Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb, and kept the secret from all but a very few in his administration. His own vice president, Harry Truman, knew nothing of it until he was informed after FDR died suddenly and would be sworn in as president.

When Truman met at Potsdam in July 1945 with the leaders of the allied powers, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, he got word that an atomic bomb test dubbed “Trinity” had been successful. He conveyed that information to Stalin, who did not seem at all surprised at this remarkable development of lethal power, saying only that he hoped that Truman would use it. Less than a month later, acting on Truman’s order, the Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

The point here is not to belabor the wisdom or the morality of that bomb, but to point out that Stalin knew everything about it, and was probably clued in before Truman. A Soviet spy ring had infiltrated the Manhattan Project. Cyber hacking is a new and even more ominous form of spying, and the threat it poses should give Obama the upper hand on defense, and put squabbling over sequestration into perspective.

© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

 

Sequestration poker

          WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Founded by Drew Pearson 1932

Sequestration poker

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – President Obama spent much of Wednesday afternoon in interviews with local TV anchors from states where the defense industry is a major player, and where the economy will suffer if the planned sequester goes forward. From Boston, Mass. to Charleston, S.C. and Wichita, Kansas, Obama did his best to warn those representing four red states and four blue states about the dire consequences that lie ahead, that is, if anybody believes him.

After crying wolf so many times about fiscal apocalypse, Washington politicians shouldn’t be surprised that the stock market is booming and the general reaction from the public about the impending sequester can be summed up in one word, “Whatever.”

There’s an assumption that the White House and congressional Republicans will get together at the eleventh hour and craft some kind of compromise, or they will figure out a way to buy more time and kick the can down the road, as the saying goes.

That’s a reasonable assumption based on past behavior, but this time is different. That’s because conservatives and progressives have come together in an unlikely alliance. The far right wants to shrink government through spending cuts, even if it means taking a meat cleaver to the defense budget. And the far left wants to cut defense spending. When will they ever get another opportunity without being tagged as peaceniks?

Without a viable alternative to sequestration, the two sides are playing a high-stakes poker game, giving few hints about what end game they might have in mind. The sticking point, as it’s been all along, is Obama’s insistence that revenue be part of any deal, that it can’t be all spending cuts. Republicans say that in the New Year’s deal to avert the fiscal cliff, they agreed to raise the tax rates of the highest earners, and that’s all the revenue they intend to provide.

Republicans have a vested interested in voters seeing the compromise they made as an increase in taxes when the overall package extended the Bush tax cuts for most taxpayers, along with other sweeteners like the child care tax credit. Overall, it cost the Treasury money, which the GOP prefers to forget as it makes the case for cutting spending.

The Pentagon announced that it will begin furloughing federal workers one day a week beginning in April if a deal is not reached by the March 1st deadline. And the national parks are putting out guidelines about reduced visiting hours for the public during the peak summer travel season should  the planned sequester be put in place.

Here’s the catch: March 1 is a soft deadline. The politicians have three weeks – until March 27 – to find the $85 billion in cuts required under sequester. That’s when the continuing resolution, which funds the government, runs out, and that’s when the situation does get serious.

Some politicians remember what happened during the 21 days over New Year’s between 1995 and 1996 when the Republicans shut down the government. Families traveling to Washington found the Smithsonian museums closed while tourists in New York could only gaze from afar at the Statue of Liberty.

Poker is a game built on opponent assumptions. The White House assumption is that Republicans, remembering how they got blamed in the nineties, will not use the March 27 deadline to shut down the government. The GOP’s assumption is that Obama, saddled with a faltering economic recovery, will make concessions on entitlement spending that could end the gridlock.

What emerges will not be a visionary grand bargain, but rather a chipping away at the mountain of debt without sacrificing either party’s principles or values, what history will regard as too little, too late, but enough to keep the wolf from the door.

© 2013 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND