The Test of Congressional Oversight

People (such as the president) seem to think congressional oversight is all about finding witches, but in fact it’s not about finding witches at all! Oversight is the process whereby the congress reviews activities of the federal government, in order to improve the federal government.

It’s not only about when the executive breaks the law, taking funds that were appropriated for one purpose to use them for another purpose, or using a federal office to try to derail a properly-predicated federal investigation. It’s also for making sure that our laws work properly, that we appropriate funds where they’re needed, that we expand programs that work and curtail or rework those that don’t.

Oversight is a big deal. Think about kids in school. We could send all the kids to the library every day. It’s full of books, they could read them. We wouldn’t need teachers or tests or anything. Just stick them in a room with some books, right? Wrong. Doesn’t work out. The teachers and tests and principals provide oversight of the kids’ educations, so that if a kid doesn’t understand something, they can try again.

But as with a teacher in a school, oversight only works when there’s feedback. The teacher needs the kids to take tests and quizzes in order to see if they learned the material. If the kids all said, “We’re not doing it. We’re going to court so you can’t test us on this,” it wouldn’t work. So if the president says that congress can’t see some things, that’s a problem for oversight.

There are some things that congress can’t see. They don’t get to know what the president’s lawyer advised him about, because of one type of privilege. Another type of privilege means the president can get advice from staff. That’s called executive privilege. But these privileges are narrow. They’re like how teachers can’t ask what your religion is. Some stuff gets to stay private and can’t be used on the test.

But anyone who wants a kid to learn, or wants a government worth a damn, should favor reasonable and careful oversight. That’s one of the reasons people elected many Democrats to the House of Representatives in 2018: they felt that the Republicans were not doing enough oversight. The Democrats have to continue overseeing this presidency, as they’re bound to by their commitment to their voters.

And they will. They may impeach Mr. Trump, the equivalent of a detention in school, if he doesn’t take his tests. They won’t have a choice. You can’t run a school where a kid refuses to learn or to take tests.

Toward a Candidate Consensus on Climate

The climate is a foundational issue. Beto O’Rourke deserves praise for putting a policy out there. Jay Inslee deserves credit for making it the central issue of his campaign.

The basic problem isn’t hard to understand. We burn carbon fuels, and that releases CO₂. The carbon accumulates in the atmosphere, warming the planet. It accumulates in the oceans, making them more acidic. We have to burn less carbon.

Given we still want to have stuff from far away, and that transportation is one of the largest sources of pollution, transportation is a big target to change. Electrification of transport, coupled with renewable generation of electricity, is the logical step toward carbon neutrality.

But we also know that humans are stubborn, particularly wealthy humans that make a lot of money selling carbon. Economists recognized that getting them to go along is difficult because they can simply lie about the science, buy politicians (or even the whole Republican Party), and stall any real change. So, economists propose a variety of pricing systems, whereby carbon emissions are priced.

Think of it like a gold rush. Someone shouts, “There’s gold in them-thar hills,” everyone goes for it. Already there’s some gold in decarbonizing, but there’s less than there would be if the actual costs of carbon were recognized as part of the economy. By adopting some form of carbon pricing, the greed of man is leveraged to turn gas guzzlers into sippers or even into electrics or hydrogen fuelcells.

Think of it like a tower-building contest. Right now, the contestants are paid per foot, so if you have a tower that’s barely over one foot-mark, it would take more effort to get to the next one. By pricing carbon, it’s like changing it to being paid by the inch. If you can add six inches, it doesn’t make another foot, but it’s still worth it. And you add up all the six-inch additions that all the tower-builders can add, and it’s a lot more than if just a few of them could add a whole foot.


But the main thing is focus. We need leaders, both in the White House and in the congress, who will speak often about the need to address the issue. It’s time for legislation. It’s time to reject anyone who calls it a Chinese hoax.

The consensus is to make carbon more expensive, and in doing so to make alternatives, including reductions in use, clean energy, and carbon sequestration more attractive.

What Should Candidates Talk About?

With the 2020 primary campaign still new, recent newsworthy questions involved issues that, while possibly illuminating about how candidates feel, don’t really get at where they want to go. Questions of imprisoned felons voting and whether the president ought to be impeached don’t really speak to the purpose of a president.

On the other hand, promising to pardon those convicted of federal possession, while welcomed, only serves a small minority of drug offenses and doesn’t stop the flow of new cases and new convicts. Which is part of the whole problem with election coverage and candidacy—that a president’s power is what it is, doesn’t get at the legislative problems we have, doesn’t tackle the problems in the states.

Put another way, if we chose our congress and state governments like we do the president, by national vote, the rhetoric of campaigns and the questions often asked by cable news would make a lot more sense. But we do not.

A more realistic stump speech would be along the lines of revoking the global gag rule, cancel the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, end the ban on transgender service, and other such policy tweaks. But, important in their own right, none of them would solve our larger problems. Getting anywhere anymore will take legislative acts. That means finding some way to get Republicans’ heads dislodged from their hinds. At least enough of them to actually move the country forward, where they’re currently dragging us backward.

Given the quandary, what should candidates talk about?

Talk about unions. Tell the people that rulings like the one the SCOTUS just handed down against class arbitration require employees of firms big and small to join together so that the fact of the strike can overcome the myth of judicial economy.

Talk about climate. Tell the people that driving costs more than the $3 they pay per gallon, and that the most valuable thing in the world is the world itself. That if meaningful progress toward carbon reduction is stalled by the oil trusts, the oil trusts get busted.

Talk about science. What’s a recent study, finding, discovery that made you worried or excited or anything at all? What has science done in your own life, be it technology, medicine, or even just plain old hope?

Talk about people. We’re living our lives spinning through space, and to make it all work out we need government and we need better government. What does that look like? Not sticking it to corporations or more regulation, but how to we make the process better? Talk it up, because government is one of those giant leaps for mankind that seems to get trashed a lot by the Republicans. Governments are people, my friend. They need to be properly cared for, watered, etc.

Talk about progress. What are the outcomes we should expect if the government works for the people. What are the numbers that show we’re not improving and what are the ones that show we are, and what’s the difference in government between how we handle those things.

In other words, talk about the fabric of humanity. Stop focusing on these silly short-sighted news cycle issues. Talk about the stuff that’ll still matter in a post-Trump world. Those are our gravest challenges. Those are the things most worth our time.

Impeachment: Let the Record Develop

Having read most of the Mueller Report, the facts in Volume II are quite damning, and they point toward impeachment. But not right away. The proper course is for Congress to further develop their record of the events presented in the report (and to consider other matters not part of the report). Once the record is developed, it may confirm the need to impeach.

There’re political risks with impeachment for both sides. But there’s also a question of whether Trump might actually benefit from impeachment—if not politically, then at least in terms of criminal liability.

The Senate, a majority-Republican body, is unlikely to convict even though the facts be plain. That public airing of facts, along with a false dawn of a Republican jury acquittal, could protect him from prosecution once he is no longer president. Not directly, of course. Double jeopardy analyses would not apply to a Senate trial. But the publicity and opportunity to tune a legal defense might be in his favor.

What’s more, Trump’s personal liabilities aside, he probably doesn’t suffer a greater political cost from impeachment than he will already suffer from the report per se. It’s damning as is.

That’s not to say that anyone can expect Trump to welcome or to call for his own impeachment. There are reasons against. For one, the proposition of Trump testifying—given his fraught relationship with the truth. A Senate trial might just be another perjury trap for the man. Another being the precious Senate time taken up on the matter when they could be confirming more William Barr types.

The Republicans, not Trump, probably run the greater risk from a Senate trial. If the case is made and they acquit, that will not look good for a party that wants to claim the mantle of justice. Particularly, the firing of James Comey with the timeline from the report makes the case bad for Republicans. The fact that Trump was wrestling with his own appointed, party-confirmed Republicans to curtail the investigation only makes it a harder charge to dismiss. This is a historically weak position to defend—dead simple in terms of actually whipping the votes for acquittal, but with no ammunition to back it up on the stump.

The Democrats’ risk is merely looking like they are bringing a political action—a brush Trump has tarred them with for over two years now. They’d like a fig leaf of bipartisanship in voting to impeach. But if the record is strong enough, they don’t need it. The self-evincing weakness of no Republicans joining a motion to impeach on damning evidence will only play against the Republicans in the Senate all the more.

If there’s a bipartisan bone in a Republican representative’s body, they should join the call when the time comes.


To be clear, that evidence is in hand.

And as the Special Counsel’s report acknowledges, there is substantial evidence to show that the President was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks.

So sayeth Attorney General Barr, in an attempt to excuse the attempts at obstruction by Trump. As I read it, Barr makes the case of corrupt motive right there. Acting out of frustration and anger to try to lift the cloud of an investigation is exactly intentionally corrupt obstruction. Sincerity does not lessen the intent, but only sharpens it.

If Trump’s opponents were behind the investigation, that does not allow obstruction. If an investigation is undermining, the courts are there. To circumvent the courts and dispense with an investigation through firings is corrupt! If there are illegal leaks, they are to be investigated and dealt with appropriately. None of what Barr says lifts an ounce of guilt off the president’s head.

Trump had every opportunity to voice and tweet his concerns to the people and to Congress. He chose, instead, to seek the firing of the special counsel, only to be rebuffed. He could have been empathetic to the investigation’s founding, but he fired FBI Director Comey in a particularly—and intentionally—disruptive manner.

The report makes the case of intentionally corrupt attempts to obstruct. Barr himself betrayed an alternative, but equally damning, theory of Trump’s intent. There is no clean reason Trump could have to undertake the actions documented in the report.


Let the record develop. There is a case for impeachment, but there’s equally a case to push for real reforms now and let the next president’s attorney general make the call on an indictment. Real justice will always be about more than cells and shackles. It requires more than trials and investigations can give us. It demands we change the conditions that allow or promote crime.

In the case of obstruction, that might include reporting requirements in the Department of Justice and the White House. It might include changes to the Vacancy Reform Act. A new Special Prosecutor law.

But impeachment is always on the table. It’s in the Constitution for a reason.

The 2020 election will take place in 80 weeks.

Audrey Podenco’s Civics Homework

The Podenco family elections were coming on Saturday, and all four members were running. Audrey, the daughter, had a class on democracy, and her homework was to do an at-home election lasting a whole week. She had it all planned on Friday night at supper when her mom, Frida, had joked, “What about Sally?”

Of course, Audrey was still worried about Joe Katz, who lived with his half-brother who was 30 and worked nights so they were more like roommates than parent and child. How the heck was he gonna have an election?

“I forgot Sally,” Audrey said. Sally was their Labrador-ish dog with an extra-long tail so they called her Salamander—Sally for short, which had made Audrey laugh when Roger, her step-dad, explained because—She had made up tables with a ruler and everything, wanting to document the whole election to earn an A on the assignment. There wasn’t room for Sally.

“I didn’t think she was eligible,” Audrey said. “If you really want to vote for her, you can as a write-in. See?” She showed off the ballots she had made, with all their names except for Sally and then a blank line where they could write-in anyone.

That night, as Roger let Sally lick the plates clean before he turned on the dishwasher (he wasn’t supposed to!), he told her that she had his vote. “You’re obviously the leader of the family, Sal. Without you, we’d be lost.”

The election began at lunch on Sunday, with everyone having Saturday to come up with their platforms. Everyone said what they would change if elected, and everyone acted magnanimous toward each other and to each other’s ideas.

Audrey said she would make it so every month you had a birthday, instead of once per year, but that your real birthday would still be the big one, but that you’d be celebrated once a month with a mini-birthday (but no, you wouldn’t get a birthday wish except on the real one; birthday wishes don’t grow on tress).

Frida said she would repeal the law of gravity and replace it with the law of gravy, so that everything would have to be held down by a dollop of gravy (this was a covert influence campaign—it was Roger’s turn to make dinner, and she was lobbying for biscuits and gravy).

Roger said he would adopt the Hague Television Convention, requiring the family to use a point system to determine what to watch on TV. He had a whole chart about it, but the gist was that he could let them pick most of the time, saving up his points so he could watch major sporting events without argument.

“You know, we can adopt these ideas regardless of who wins,” Frida said. “The law of gravity has kept us down for too long!”

Sally barked at a squirrel out the window. “She seconds!” Roger said.

Later that afternoon, Audrey was out walking Sally when they came across a discarded pizza box. As they stepped past it, Audrey gave it an idle kick, sending it a few feet onward. At this, Sally romped about and pounced atop the box, sledding briefly before the road’s friction stopped her.

“Right on, Sal,” Audrey said, and then she ran and jumped on the box, surfing it a little ways. “You always have good ideas. You get my vote,” she told her dog.

After they got home, Audrey said to Frida, “How can Sally vote? She can’t write or talk.”

“Some people can’t vote,” Frida said. “Like you, you’re too young. Those who can’t rely on the rest of us to get it right.”

Audrey nodded. “It’s a big responsibility, when you think about it.”

The next morning while Frida mowed the lawn, Sally was running ahead, picking up sticks and moving them to the heap off to the side. After she finished, Frida gave Sally a dog cookie for being a good lass. “You earned my vote for sure, Old Sally,” Frida told her.

Finally Saturday rolled around, and the Podencos assembled in the living room. “I set up the bathroom as the voting booth, because it’s private,” Audrey explained. “You just go on in, and I left a few different pens and markers so you can express your vote in whatever way you like. Put your ballot in the empty tissue box, and after everyone’s voted, we’ll count them.”

“Who goes first?” Roger asked.

“Oh! I didn’t think about—”

“I’ll go first,” Frida said. “I have to go, anyway.”

After Frida had gone and voted, Roger said Audrey could go next. After she left, Frida said how glad she was that they were teaching civics so young. “Democracy is important, and it makes me proud of our community,” she said to Roger.

“It’s a waste of paper, I say. That was a fresh box of tissues. What did she do with them?”

“Oh, Roger! She put them in bags so we can take them with us to school and work, so if we get the sniffles we’ll be able to blow our noses.”

“Smart!” Roger said, as Audrey finally came back from the voting bathroom.

Roger went last, and he brought the ballot tissue box back when he came out.

“Okay, now we’ll count the votes,” Audrey said, reaching into the box. “One for Sally!” She made a tally mark on the recording sheet. She pulled out the next ballot. “Two for Sally!” she cried, making another line. She pulled out the final ballot, which she didn’t technically need to, obviously, because the result was already determined at that point, but everyone’s vote counts, even the ones that technically don’t. “It’s a landslide! Sally got all the votes.”

Sally barked in triumph, while Frida said, “I can’t believe we all voted for Sally.”

“You’ll get ’em next time, dear,” Roger said in consolation.

But Sally kept barking. Her bark became a grunt, and her grunt became intelligible. She was ordering the Podencos around! She made Roger bring his shoes to be chewed on, and she made Frida put all the sticks back in the yard, and she made Audrey order her a pizza with bacon and bones, yuck!

And the Podencos were never heard from again.

The moral of the story is: democracy is great, but you still have to be fucking careful whom you elect.