Rocky Seas for Team Obama
Although the Rich pardon has attracted the most attention recently, a startling story in the Los Angeles Times called new attention to his involvement in the FALN terrorist pardons. Career pardon attorney Roger Adams, who one suspects will pop up at he confirmation hearing, accuses Holder of having pressured Justice Department attorneys to reverse their recommendation to deny the pardons to the terrorists (who never expressed remorse). Holder presumably twisted arms of career attorneys to comply with the wishes of the Clintons (and aid Hillary's then upcoming Senate race). Senate Republicans will no doubt remind Senate Democrats of their attacks on Alberto Gonzales and other Bush appointees who allegedly "politicized" the department.
In the preparation for the hearings, Holder may not have done himself any favors. Indeed, he's given fodder to those who claim he places politics about propriety. He will be shepherded through the confirmation process by none other than Ron Weich, chief counsel to Minority Leader Harry Reid, and Sen. Pat Leahy's Chief of Staff Ed Pagano.
It is extraordinary that current Senate staffers would work for the executive branch nominee -- a fundamental violation of the separation between the branches of government. These aides are employed by and paid by the Senate, which is supposed to be performing its institutional obligation to examine and, if appropriate, confirm the executive branch's nominees. Granted they are of the same party as the incoming administration, but are key aides of the senators -- who are supposed to be evaluating the qualifications, character and experience of the nominee -- appropriately tasked with double duty to make sure Holder gets through that evaluation unscathed? Do they write and answer the questions for the nominee? And why would they be permitted to do all this on the Senate's payroll?
A Capitol Hill insider had this to say:
I can't think of another example of a current Senate staffer facilitating a nominee's confirmation. If the Senate is really conducting an independent review of the nominee, doesn't this arrangement undermine it? Would you ever let a judge's legal clerk act as the lawyer for a defendant? That's why we have conflict of interest restrictions for lawyers.
It only adds to irony that it is Holder's own alleged conflicts of interest which will be at issue in his hearing.
As for President-elect Obama this will only add to the sense that the "Chicago Way" -- an embrace of questionable characters and an aversion to real reform -- remains his Achilles heel. And should Holder fail to get confirmed, or emerge so damaged from the hearing to be of reduced stature and influence, the Obama team will have to explain how yet another nominee with ethical concerns made it through its vetting process. The question looms: Is the Obama team tone deaf when it comes to ethics?
A trillion is a lot of money
Even more than a rocky confirmation hearing, President-elect Obama's fortunes may flounder on the shores of a stimulus package, so vast and so packed with mines that virtually everyone has reason to dislike some aspect of it. His tax "cuts" have drawn fire from both ends of the spectrum. Democrats don't like the idea of tax cuts at all, while Republicans are figuring out these don't amount to much at all. Americans for Tax Reform explains:
Obama wants to create a new business tax credit for firms that make new hires or forego layoffs. During the campaign, this was the "Patriot Employer" concept widely derided as central planning through the tax code. In order to get this tax credit, an employer would have to open themselves up to unionization, pay wages at a rate set by the government, and provide health care the government deemed "acceptable," among other mandates.
The cornerstone of the "tax cut" part of the Obama $1 trillion plan is to create a new refundable "Making Work Pay" credit of $500 per adult and $1000 per dual-income working couple. This would phase out at $75,000 of income for couples and $40,000 of income for singles. For some people, this new tax credit would be an income tax cut -- that is, a direct reduction of income taxes owed.
For most recipients of this new credit (and for all recipients of the expanded "Additional Child Tax Credit" he has discussed with Congressional Democrats), this would not be an income tax cut at all. According to the IRS, 40% of families do not have a tax liability today. You can't cut income taxes for families that don't pay income taxes. This is nothing more than welfare through the tax code. When this proposal is scored by Congressional and Administration budget experts, they will properly label this as spending -- and they will be correct. Spending money on someone who already has no tax liability is not a tax cut -- it's welfare.
And of course, fiscal conservatives and the public at large are fretting over the enormous spending figures which will sink us further in debt -- if it doesn't first set off a new round of 1970s-style inflation. The Obama team may have banked too heavily on the new president's popularity, expecting their stimulus plan to sail through within days of his inauguration. Now it seems that mid-February is an ambitious deadline.
Along the way both Democrats and Republicans will seek to add or subtract from the Obama plan. Speaker Nancy Pelosi still wants to raise taxes on the rich, while Republicans are dismayed by the absence of any tax rate cuts. And both sides will fight over the amount and type of spending. At the end of the day it is not clear that Republicans join in what is sure to be a massive spending bill. They may instead force Democrats to walk the plank alone, putting enormous pressure on the so-called Blue Dog Democrats to jettison their usual aversion to fiscal discipline.
So reality is setting in: governing is much harder than campaigning, and President-elect Obama is not the infallible figure the media has made him out to be. In Washington there are dozens of ways to get knocked off course, especially when the captain of the ship lacks prior executive experience but has no shortage of bravado.
How the president-elect navigates through the next couple of weeks will help determine the course for his first year. For now, it seems that it won't be all smooth sailing.