Sunday, April 5, 2009

WaPo: Mr. Holder muddies the waters on D.C. representation

A Constitutional Question
Mr. Holder muddies the waters on D.C. representation.
Sunday, April 5, 2009; A18

THERE HAS been much debate in the halls of Congress and on the streets of this town about legislation to give the District a vote in the House of Representatives. Now comes news that there are differences of opinion even within the Obama administration.

President Obama sponsored similar legislation when he was a member of the Senate and has said he supports the current measure. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., a longtime District resident, is a staunch supporter of D.C. voting rights. But as The Post's Carrie A. Johnson reported last week, the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) has concluded that the bill cannot stand up to constitutional scrutiny. The department has declined to make the opinion public, but most who challenge the legislation say that the Constitution endows only states with such representation and that a constitutional amendment is necessary to give the same right to the District. Scholars on the other side, including conservative legal luminaries Kenneth W. Starr and Viet D. Dinh, argue that the Constitution grants Congress exclusive powers over the District -- including the power to bestow upon it a House vote.

The bill has passed the Senate, and advocates hope that the House will follow this spring. It would then fall to the president to decide whether to sign the measure. The president should take into consideration the views of his OLC -- an elite section of the Justice Department that is responsible for, among other things, reviewing pending legislation for constitutionality. But the president is well within his rights to take into consideration other views, both inside and outside the administration, when deciding whether to sign a piece of legislation. A president should not sign a bill he considers unconstitutional, but as the support of Mr. Starr and Mr. Dinh demonstrates, there are solid arguments on both sides of this question. We strongly support passage of the legislation and would urge Mr. Obama to sign it and allow the matter to be fully and expeditiously decided by the courts.

Mr. Holder's handling of the voting rights matter gives us pause, however. When presented with the OLC's negative view of the bill, Mr. Holder took the highly unusual step of seeking the views of his solicitor general's office, which is tasked with a very different mission than that of the OLC. The solicitor general is obligated to defend any congressional act unless there is no plausible defense; this contrasts sharply with the OLC's mission of providing the attorney general with its views on the best, most legitimate legal interpretations and conclusions. Not surprisingly, the solicitor general's office informed Mr. Holder that it could mount a reasonable defense.

The attorney general is the ultimate decision maker at the Justice Department and as such is entitled to overrule opinions from the OLC. But such rejections should be based on well-thought-out differences of legal opinion and not on political preferences. Unfortunately, Mr. Holder's highly unusual solicitation of the solicitor general's office raises questions about what drove his actions. To dispel any concerns, Mr. Holder should order the release of all memos from the two offices on this subject and make his own views public as well.

WaPo: The House and Senate pile on the chicanery to mask the growing debt

Budget Gimmicks (Cont'd). WaPo Editorial
The House and Senate pile on the chicanery to mask the growing debt.
Sunday, April 5, 2009; A18

THE HOUSE and Senate passed their budget plans for the upcoming fiscal year last week, though details will still have to be worked out in conference. Not surprisingly, given the Democrats' monopoly and President Obama's popularity, his major policies were accepted; both resolutions call for expanding health care, increasing education funding and implementing a new cap-and-trade regime to limit greenhouse gas emissions. They would also make the bulk of the Bush tax cuts permanent, except for those that hit families making more than $250,000 a year. Also similar: hand-wringing about the growth in national debt, even as all three budgets pump up that debt by trillions over the next decade -- and beyond.

There are differences among the three budgets. The Senate did not include reconciliation instructions, the process that makes legislation filibuster-proof. The House did, hoping to facilitate passage of health-care reform, even in the face of warnings by senators from both parties, including Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), one of the original authors of the procedure, that such an effort to marginalize the minority would make health-care reform more difficult. The Senate also indicated its preference for a larger estate tax exemption and lower rate than are in the Obama budget or the House version, as well as rejecting a reasonable plan supported by Mr. Obama to ask high-income seniors to pay more for Medicare prescription drugs.

Demonstrating that it has no real appetite for meaningful energy policy at this time, the Senate passed an amendment that would prohibit climate-change legislation that would affect prices -- which, of course, is part of the purpose of such a policy to help encourage less energy dependence. Message to Mr. Obama: Cap-and-trade is not looking good. Another amendment that fell by the wayside was a proposal to set up an entitlements commission -- an idea that looks increasingly necessary as policymakers continue to punt on the topic.

The president's original framework, even relying on some budgetary sleights of hand, added $9 trillion to the debt over 10 years. Rather than change policy to brighten the fiscal picture, the House and Senate chose to add more gimmicks and dishonesty. They jettisoned the $250 billion placeholder the administration responsibly included to provide the banking system with more capital, and they skimped (in the House version) and outright ignored (in the Senate's) the White House plan to better prepare for budget emergencies and natural disasters. They also assume that the president's Making Work Pay tax credit will expire after 2010 (House) or 2012 (Senate). One of the lessons not to be learned from the Bush era is the trick of putting magically disappearing tax cuts into the budget. In a similarly disingenuous act, the House and Senate assumed that, down the road, they would allow the alternative minimum tax to take a large bite out of middle-class taxpayers. The technical term for that is: fat chance. Finally, while the president gamely submitted a 10-year budget, Congress reverted to the well-worn trick of a five-year budget to mask the longer-term costs of its decisions.

Rarely has there been a moment in history where responsible budgeting has been more critical for laying out a rational plan for the government to navigate tricky economic, financial, and fiscal challenges while simultaneously reassuring global credit markets that the United States is a safe place to invest. Yet all of these budgets fall short.