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The Do-Nothing Congress Prefers Theatrics Over Doing Its Job (Washington Examiner) December 6, 2019

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Stop everything, Game of Thrones is on. That phrase from households turning to the most popular television show of the year now applies to Congress as well.

Stop the legislative wheels from turning, no room for sideshows now, time to gather round for the latest political theater: the Trump Impeachment Show.

Not that Congress was doing much anyway. So far, in 2019, Congress has enacted only 70 laws, at least 10 of which were purely ceremonial. A typical two-year Congress, even in these leaner times, would enact 300-500 new laws so, 11 months in, this 116th Congress could easily go down in the record books as the least productive in 40 or 50 years. Throw in an impeachment trial in the Senate and an election next year, and we could have a record-setting do-nothing Congress.

Apparently, the public has noticed. A Gallup poll shows the approval rating for Congress at a meager 24%, with 72% disapproval. Either unaware of or unconcerned by the lack of public support, Democrats in the House have nevertheless proposed a $4,500 annual pay increase for members of Congress. While workers and businesses are doing more with less, Congress wants more for doing less.

Why has Congress become so unproductive?

For starters, a Congress that used to be led by powerful committee heads reviewing substantive legislation is essentially now driven by party leaders. The key legislative decisions are made by the majority and minority party leaders such as Nancy Pelosi in the House and Mitch McConnell in the Senate, not by the heads of once-powerful committees such as the budget or finance or appropriations committees. These political leaders often hold bills, sometimes in secret if possible, until they are certain they have the necessary votes in their party to pass them before springing them on the full legislature.

This leads to the next big problem: Congress no longer moves along bipartisan lines to enact legislation but instead relies increasingly on party-line votes. The most important legislation of the Obama years, the Affordable Care Act, was passed on a purely party-line vote of Democrats, and the most significant legislation so far of the Trump administration, tax reform, was passed strictly by Republicans. You have to go back to the first term of George W. Bush to find a major piece of legislation, No Child Left Behind, with support from both parties. Overall, party unity voting has increased from about 60% in the 1970s to nearly 90% today.

Even before the impeachment hearings, Congress had become political theater. Members no longer deliberate and reach a compromise on important legislation, as had been done from the founding of the republic, but instead settle into their fixed party trenches, making speeches and taking only the votes that would help them win the next election. Public policy is no longer about finding the consent of the people or solving big problems.

Instead, the goal seems to have been borrowed from the late Al Davis, owner of the Oakland Raiders: “Just win, baby.”

Now with the impeachment hearings, it has truly become a Game of Thrones, directed and produced by party leaders. There is no genuine investigation. Even the witnesses are mere props, used by the directors to make points everyone already knows as dramatically as possible. In all likelihood, we know the outcome as well. With widespread agreement on what Trump has done, it boils down to the debatable question of whether this constitutes an impeachable offense. The Democratic House will say yes, because that is their worldview and benefits their cause, and the Republican Senate trial will conclude no for the same reasons.

Game over, then, with important issues such as immigration, gun control, drug prices, and wasting infrastructure, all awaiting action. At the very least, Congress should catch up with the rest of America and learn to multitask.

David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the co-author, with Gordon Lloyd, of How Public Policy Became War, published May 7.

Beware the Regulator (National radio commentary, Salem/Townhall) November 26, 2019

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Many see Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as two peas in the liberal Democratic pod but they are actually quite different. Bernie Sanders is a revolutionary who wants to change what he calls the rigged American system. He comes from a European political tradition, socialism, and seeks to turn the economic order upside down.

Elizabeth Warren, on the other hand, is a regulator. If the system is rigged, she has the plans to regulate it, not revolutionize it. She made her political splash creating of a new consumer regulatory bureau and she teaches the laws of bankruptcy. She is in the American progressive tradition of trust-busting and regulating business.

There is nothing subtle about Bernie. How will he pay for Medicare for All? By taxing the rich, he openly says. She says, I have a plan for it.

In the end, the regulator may be more effective at getting elected and more dangerous than the revolutionary.

To listen to the audio:

David Davenport: Beware The Regulator

Impeachment is an Extraordinary Remedy, National radio commentary (Salem/Townhall) November 20, 2019

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In the first 175 years of the nation, the House of Representatives impeached only one president, Andrew Johnson. Now in the last 57 years, it’s impeached two, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, and it may be ready to impeach a third.

Why the rise in impeachments? Because we forget that impeachment is extraordinary. The normal way to remove a president is by the people through elections. The extraordinary way is impeachment, with its Constitutional requirement of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Lacking political patience, we threaten to make the extraordinary now ordinary.

Politics is an ugly business. Quid pro quos in foreign policy? They doubtless happen more than we think and, if we don’t like them, we have a chance to cast our vote in one year. But a case of high crimes and misdemeanors demanding an extraordinary remedy?

I think not.


Who’s Afraid of the Federal Debt? (Washington Examiner) November 19, 2019

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Congratulations, Washington, you have set another record. The Treasury Department announced recently that the federal deficit rose an astounding 26% during the last fiscal year, bringing the total one-year deficit to nearly $1 trillion. The cumulative federal debt is now more than $22 trillion, greater than our total gross domestic product for the year. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell has declared the debt situation “unsustainable.” In his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump said he would eliminate the deficit in 8 years. Instead, he has presided over a nearly 50% increase.

Like other presidential candidates, he probably failed to realize there would be math on the test.

It occurs to me that we should now pose the question raised by the Three Little Pigs in their classic 1933 Disney cartoon: “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?” Like some in Washington, pig No. 1, unafraid of the wolf, “built his house on hay and played around all day.” Pig No. 2, seeing no real danger from the wolf, “built his house with twigs and danced with lady pigs.” Only pig No. 3, who toiled mightily to build with bricks, saw his house survive all the huffing and puffing when the wolf blew into town.

Who, then, is afraid of the big bad budget deficit? Not President Trump, who has decided to build his house on the promise of economic growth. Trump’s economic strategy has been growth at all costs, which he has pursued with tax cuts, high tariffs, and jawboning the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates. Apparently, he thinks he can outrun the big bad wolf. However, despite a rising economy, government red ink has grown faster than the economy. Tax revenue has fallen more than $400 billion short of projections from the Congressional Budget Office, and government spending is up at twice the rate of increased tax revenues. Already losing the race, the likelihood of more modest economic growth will doom this strategy.

Likewise, Democrats running for the presidency are ignoring the budget deficit, proposing to build their campaign house on even higher federal spending. “Green New Deals,” “Medicare for all,” and free college tuition are the building materials of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and others — all projected to add tens of trillions of dollars of new federal spending. Although the Democrats talk of increasing taxes on the wealthy to help pay for some of this, new federal spending is not tied directly to new sources of revenue and, as we have learned the hard way, it is always easier to get Washington to pass a spending bill than a tax increase.

Finally, Congress has allowed the federal budget house to be built of flimsy materials. Although the Constitution delegates to Congress the spending power, in practice, the president and his Office of Management and Budget take the lead. Not only does Congress not operate as a check on spending, it usually increases it.

The last budget agreement between the president and Congress is typical: The president wanted and received more money for the military, and, in exchange, Congress sought and was granted greater spending for its domestic priorities.

There is no check on the budget; it only ratchets one way: up.

This leaves only you and me to be afraid of the federal debt. Like the 2008 housing crisis, it is a bubble waiting to burst. No one knows how much debt is too much, and it just takes some of the nations that own our debt to lose confidence and stop buying it or call it. At $1.2 trillion, China owns more of our debt than any other nation. The debt also risks future entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security, which have created most of the massive increase. Moreover, the debt creates an immoral transfer from today’s lack of discipline to future generations. As former President Herbert Hoover put it: “Blessed are the young for they shall inherit the national debt.”

You and I should be afraid of the federal debt, and through the ballot box we must make Washington afraid, also.

To view the column at the Washington Examiner:


David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the co-author, with Gordon Lloyd, of How Public Policy Became War, published May 7.

Impeachment Hangs on Whether Trump’s Actions Were Illegal or Merely Ugly (Washington Examiner) November 8, 2019

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In the first 175 years of the Republic, the House of Representatives impeached only one president, Andrew Johnson. Now, in the last 57 years, we have impeached two presidents, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, and are on the verge of impeaching a third. It’s worth considering the modern rise in impeachments: Are presidents really that much worse, or is something larger afoot?

We normally evaluate a president’s performance through elections. We are continuously shown opinion polls about what people think of President Trump and impeachment, but impeachment is not a popularity contest. The people’s view properly comes to the fore a year from now in the 2020 election.

Let’s keep these two accountability measures straight: Elections are for the people to express a judgment and preference, but impeachment is a constitutional question for the two branches of Congress to decide.

Compared to the normal recourse for presidential failures through an election, impeachment is an extraordinary measure. It is based on a high standard spelled out in the Constitution: “High crimes and misdemeanors.” And, at least for 175 years, it was used incredibly sparingly.

So what has changed?

Well, for one thing, everything a president says and does may now appear in a public record. A phone call with a foreign leader would have been private in an earlier time, but not today. That does not justify anything a president says and does, but politics is an ugly business, including global politics.

A quid pro quo in foreign policy? Hardly shocking. I’m sure it happens all the time. We may not like it, might even want to vote against it, but does it really rise to the high bar of an extraordinary remedy for “high crimes and misdemeanors?”

Or, to take a different angle, today everything is seen as extraordinary and we demand immediate action. Lacking political patience, we jump to extraordinary remedies because we can.

The textbook case of rushing to extraordinary remedies came in California 16 years ago when, having just elected Gov. Gray Davis to a new term, his opponents turned around, got enough ballot signatures, and put him on the ballot to be recalled.

Why? Because they could. The joke was that if you put “none of the above” on a ballot, that would win, so it was easier to get a negative vote through a recall than to beat him head-to-head. So we can’t wait a year to judge Trump in the election?

Finally, what has changed is that our politics and policymaking have become political theater and war. We no longer debate and deliberate over the best policies, rather we use executive orders and party-line votes to impose the will of the party in power. We declare “war” on policy problems and enact national emergencies. The Senate, historically called the world’s greatest deliberative body, hardly deliberates at all anymore.

Now, votes in Washington are not about finding the best policy or even doing the right thing. They are political theater, the point of which is to please and energize your base, raise more money, win elections, and stay in power.

You could tell that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was not eager to pick this impeachment fight a year before the election, but her base more or less demanded it, just as Trump is stirring up his base for the coming political war. This impeachment battle, sadly, is more about the politics of war than about meeting a constitutional standard or doing the right thing.

Willie Brown, the former speaker of the California Assembly and former mayor of San Francisco, is still an insightful political observer. A few years ago, when federal prosecutors wanted to go after former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich for involving politics in the replacement of former President Barack Obama in the Senate, Brown warned that politics was a crazy business (I would say ugly) and that there always has been plenty of “this for that talk,” but that doesn’t make it illegal.

That is pretty much where we are today. Politics has once again revealed itself to be ugly, and many people don’t like it. However, that does not make it illegal or a reason to choose an extraordinary remedy rather than allowing the people to decide in the next election.

David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the co-author, with Gordon Lloyd, of How Public Policy Became War, published May 7.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


Sanders vs. Warren: The Revolutionary vs. The Regulator (Washington Examiner) October 25, 2019

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Many see Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as two peas in the liberal Democratic pod. Battling to consolidate their overlapping constituencies, they might be called left (Warren) and lefter (Sanders). But a deeper look at an earlier time in history, specifically the Progressive Era and the New Deal, reveals real and important differences in the left back then that are at play in the Sanders vs. Warren battle today.

In short, the early Progressives, such as President Theodore Roosevelt, were focused on government regulation of the economy and business which, at the time, was a bold new idea. Teddy Roosevelt was known as a “trust-buster” through his antitrust prosecutions and regulatory reforms. His “Square Deal” sought to regulate industries in such a way as to increase fairness to the public while also respecting business. At heart, he was a reformer.

By contrast, Teddy Roosevelt’s fifth cousin, President Franklin Roosevelt, was more interested in an economic revolution. His “New Deal” sought to turn economic policy upside down, focusing on the “forgotten man” who was losing out to the “financial titans” and “economic royalists.” In his 1936 speech accepting the nomination for a second term, he said he was not interested in regulating the power of big business but ending it. In his 1944 State of the Union message, he set out a “second bill of rights” to provide economic security for people. The New Deal was America’s French Revolution, changing everything.

Today, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders support many of the same policies, but there is an important difference: One is a reformer while the other preaches revolution. Likewise, one is a descendant of an essentially American political movement, progressivism, while the other professes loyalty to a brand of European politics, socialism. It is a bigger difference than first appears.

In the 2016 presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders was a prophet crying in the wilderness with a new and even extreme message. By the 2020 campaign, however, most of his positions have been embraced by others on the Democratic debate stage. “Medicare for All,” free college, and an increased minimum wage are all standard Democratic fare by now, so the prophet has become mainstream. He can try to take credit for being first (“I wrote the damn bill”) but that energizes only his enthusiasts.

What continues to distinguish Sanders from other Democrats is his constant preaching of the need for “a political revolution.” This system, he argues, is “rigged” and needs to be overturned. He recently gained the support of another revolutionary, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, strengthening his movement.

Although new front-runner Elizabeth Warren shares many of Sanders’ policy positions, she comes at them from the more cautious and nuanced stance of a regulator and a reformer, not a revolutionary. She made her mark in the Obama years by championing the establishment of a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and was appointed assistant to the president to get it up and running. A centerpiece of her campaign is heavier regulation of Wall Street and banks that she argues will level the playing field for everyone. Her own area of expertise as a Harvard law professor has been the complex system of bankruptcy laws.

A key difference between the revolutionary Sanders and the reformer Warren came to light in the most recent presidential debate. Sanders openly said that he would pay for Medicare for All with a special tax on “extreme wealth.” Apparently, Elizabeth Warren did not know there would be math on this exam because, when asked how she would pay for it, she could only admit later that she would have to develop a plan for that.

Bernie goes for the jugular — taxes on the wealthy — and we can predict that Warren will find a more nuanced approach.

Revolutionaries rarely win political campaigns but, in a sense, Bernie Sanders has already won. His policies are now in the more cautious hands of a regulator and reformer, Elizabeth Warren.

Conservatives: Beware the Wrong Message (National radio commentary, Salem/Townhall) October 22, 2019

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Conservatives’ message was individual liberty and limited government, but it’s been narrowed to a defense of capitalism and free markets. This message is a dead-end for younger voters, especially.

Young people view both government and markets with suspicion but they think government is fairer. Having lived through 2008, facing student debt, wage stagnation, lower-paying jobs — they dislike the harshness of markets.

A 2017 Pew poll found that 57 percent of younger Americans want a “bigger government with more services,” which is what liberals offer.

There is a larger point to conservatism than just free markets and capitalism. Young people love their individualism and resent being told they have to wear helmets and pads through life. They can still be reached with a message of individual liberty and limited government, which is where conservatives need to begin.

To listen to the audio:

David Davenport: Conservatives: Beware the Wrong Message

Democrats Foolishly Pine for a New New Deal (Washington Examiner) October 18, 2019

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If you are a Republican running for political office, it’s a safe bet that you seek to identify with conservatives’ last great president, Ronald Reagan. Increasingly, the Democrats’ alternative is not so much a person, since he has faded from memory, but a program: Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s. With their poor understanding of American history, young people fail to realize that what they really want is a new New Deal, and what candidates such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are prepared to offer them is best understood as a further expansion of the original New Deal.

In a speech on socialism and the economy in June, Bernie Sanders said, “Today … we must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal and carry it to completion.” New front-runner Elizabeth Warren also admires the New Deal, and opinion writer Noah Smith called her “the closest thing modern American politics has to a successor to FDR.” When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced her sweeping new environmental proposals, she labeled them a “Green New Deal.”

But what does it mean to identify with the New Deal today, 87 years after Roosevelt launched it? In short, it means more government guarantees of economic security, or, as I call it, government that is big, expensive, and federal.

Roosevelt was actually a precursor of the Rahm Emanuel school of public policy. You remember Emanuel’s famous proclamation as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff that you never want to let a serious crisis go to waste because it is an opportunity to do things you could not do before. Without question, Roosevelt confronted a major crisis, the Great Depression, but he used it to implement a sweeping New Deal that permanently changed what the federal government does and how it does it. Not only did he implement the first large economic security program, Social Security, but he also built out the modern presidency and administrative state that continues to balloon in size and power. The New Deal was America’s French Revolution, changing everything.

At the heart of the New Deal was Roosevelt’s belief that the federal government should go into the business of guaranteeing people economic security. He foreshadowed this emphasis in his first inaugural speech when he asserted, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The true breadth of Roosevelt’s agenda, however, awaited in his 1944 State of the Union message when he introduced “a second bill of rights,” which was a sweeping list of economic guarantees Americans should expect. Among these were the right to a useful and remunerative job, a decent home, an education, adequate medical care, and protection from the fear of old age, sickness, accident, or unemployment.

From the cradle to the grave, it is pretty much all there, thanks to your Uncles Sam and Franklin.

After Roosevelt enacted Social Security, other presidents found opportunities to move the economic security ball down the field. Lyndon Johnson added Medicare and Medicaid. Barack Obama provided guarantees of healthcare. Even Republican George W. Bush added prescription drug benefits for seniors. Since these protections are virtually all for seniors, however, young people now want their share: free college, assistance with student debt and expensive housing, and, while we are at it, why not a guaranteed annual income? This is the new New Deal: economic security by the government for everyone.

Expanding the New Deal is actually the heart of the Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren agendas. We can have all of this, they say. We can double down on the New Deal, or, as Bernie Sanders says, “carry it to completion.” The question, of course, is the same question candidate Tulsi Gabbard posed to Elizabeth Warren in the most recent debate: Where do we send the invoice for all of this? Perhaps someone should also ask whether government guaranteeing and taking over everything from healthcare to college costs and a guaranteed minimum income is even the sort of country we want.

David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the co-author, with Gordon Lloyd, of How Public Policy Became War, published May 7.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


Hoover Digest: Essay and Interview on “How Public Policy Became War” October 15, 2019

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The lead essay in the latest issue of Hoover Digest is from Gordon Lloyd’s and my new book, “How Public Policy Became War”


The issue also contains the transcript of an interview Peter Robinson did with me on Uncommon Knowledge about the book:


Beware A ‘War’ On Climate Change (National Radio Commentary, Salem/Townhall) October 3, 2019

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Politicians have learned that, if they don’t know how to solve a problem, they declare a war on it.

So: now we live under countless domestic policy wars—the war on poverty, war on crime, war on drugs, war on terror, war on energy consumption and the like. These wars spend money, increase federal executive power, but solve very little.

Now comes a dangerous cry to declare a war on climate change. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calls climate change “our World War Two” and Senator Sanders, who proposes an even bigger Green New Deal, agrees. Scholars claim it is already a war that we are losing and ask the president to declare an emergency.

All of this is code for “we don’t really know what needs to be done, but it needs to be big, expensive and federal.” Beware a new policy war on climate change.