A Campaign Finance Proposal: Let’s Do Away with SOTU

Well, Trump blinked. In his standoff with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) over the 2019 State of the Union address, the president finally conceded that he doesn’t get to deliver the speech before a joint session of Congress unless he’s invited to do so — technically by the House and Senate, but as a practical matter by Pelosi herself. She’s going to wait until the ongoing “government shutdown” ends to invite him. He’s going to impatiently await that day.

It’s not very often that I agree with any politician, let alone Pelosi. When I do, it’s usually on “even a stopped clock is right twice a day” grounds. This matter included. I don’t really care WHY she withdrew the invitation. I just hope it stays withdrawn. Forever.

The Constitution requires the president to “from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

It does not require the president to do so in the form of a live speech. While the first two presidents (George Washington and John Adams) gave State of the Union speeches, the third (Thomas Jefferson) just sent a written report — as did every subsequent president for more than a century, until Woodrow Wilson revived the speech ritual.

Radio, then television, transformed the State of the Union address from mere constitutional busy work into something else entirely: A free campaign commercial for the sitting president and a shorter one for the opposition party.

The sitting president gets as long as he cares to take — Bill Clinton is the record-holder at 89 minutes — to harangue his cabinet, the Supreme Court, and both houses of Congress, in front of the American people, on all the major broadcast TV networks and cable news channels). The opposition party gets to respond in kind, usually at much shorter length, with a likely future presidential contender sometimes chosen as that party’s face.

Now, I am not a fan of campaign finance law. In my opinion, anyone who wants to donate his or her money to a political candidate should be allowed to do so in any amount.

But that body of law does exist, and the value of, say, two hours of prime time television on all the biggest challenges (not counting the “newsy” countdown stories and post-speech “analysis”) far exceeds maximum legal campaign contributions limits. If all of the declared candidates for the next presidential election were given “equal time,” that might make it legal. But it would also be boooorrrrring.

It’s 2018. The president of the United States doesn’t have to schlep down to Capitol Hill to deliver a speech. He can fulfill his constitutional duty with a written report. Or, heck, with a constantly updated website that automagically updates statistics revealing the “state of the union.” If he wants to speechify, he can embed a YouTube video or set up a Google Hangout.

End the “State of the Union” dog and pony show. Permanently.

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Parkland and Covington: Two Schools, Two Causes, One Lesson

“You’re not interesting because you went to a high school where kids got shot,” comedian Louis C.K. said at a New York gig in December, addressing Florida high school students who trafficked on their credentials as “school shooting survivors” to shill for the gun control movement. “You didn’t get shot. You pushed some fat kid in the way and now I gotta listen to you talking?”

America’s “left wing” went ballistic. How dare this man mock kids who’d been through something so horrible?

On January 19, a group of students from Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School found themselves targeted as bigots after social media (quickly followed by mainstream media) carried video clips that appeared to show them harassing and mocking an American Indian activist participating in the Indigenous People’s March.

The story quickly fell apart as it became apparent that the kids were waiting for buses, not counter-protesting the Indigenous People’s March, that they were themselves the targets of harassment by a racist group (the “Black Hebrews”), and that the conduct of Nathan Phillips, the Indian activist, was either itself confrontational or else easily perceived as such.

America’s “right wing” went ballistic. How dare biased media actors frame these kids?

The two incidents may seem at most tenuously connected, but taken together they constitute teachable moments for young political activists — and for those who rush to decry perceived mistreatment of those activists.

In a statement responding to the controversy, one of the Covington Catholic students, Nick Sandmann, writes:

“I never understood why either of the two groups of protestors were engaging with us, or exactly what they were protesting at the Lincoln Memorial. We were simply there to meet a bus, not become central players in a media spectacle. This is the first time in my life I’ve ever encountered any sort of public protest, let alone this kind of confrontation or demonstration.”

The first part of that statement is naive. The second part is flatly false.

It’s naive to expect a bunch of people, congregating in the vicinity of “left-wing” protests, wearing  US president Donald Trump’s signature accessories  (“Make America Great Again” hats), to be perceived as anything other than “right-wing” counter-protesters.  And when protesters and counter-protesters meet, there WILL be uncomfortable “engagement.”

Sandmann falsely — or, to be charitable, perhaps again naively — characterizes himself as never having encountered public protest before. In fact, at the time of the confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial he had just finished participating in exactly such a public protest — the “March for Life,” an annual anti-abortion demonstration — after having traveled 500 miles for the specific purpose of doing so.

As Finley Peter Dunne wrote, “politics ain’t beanbag.” Those who enter the public square in support of a cause — ANY cause — thereby open themselves up to  mockery, misunderstanding, the whole panoply of unpleasant “engagement.”

Which is not to say that young people shouldn’t engage in political activism. But when they do, they’re acting as adults and implicitly asking to be treated as adults.

Thus endeth the lesson.

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Syria: In the History of Bad Excuses, This One’s Top-Tier

US Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) thinks — I’m using the term “thinks” very loosely here — that Americans dying in Syria is a compelling reason to continue exposing Americans to the danger of dying in Syria. So do Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL), James Inhofe (R-OK), and Jack Reed (D-RI).

Ever since US president Donald Trump announced his intent to withdraw US troops from Syria in December, “hawks” in Congress have been looking for an argument against the withdrawal.

And this is the best they can come up with? If the troops don’t stay in Syria, they can’t keep getting killed in Syria? Wow, that really shows Trump, doesn’t it?

At issue:  The single deadliest Islamic State attack on US forces in their nearly four-year US invasion and occupation of Syria, on January 16 in Manbij, in which four Americans (two members of the armed forces, a contractor, and a civilian Pentagon employee) died.

When former president Barack Obama authorized the invasion and occupation of Syria in 2015, he did so in complete defiance of both US and international law. Congress had not then declared war on Syria and has not since then offered any formal legal basis for Obama’s actions. And since Syria is a United Nations member state which has never attacked the US nor indicated any intent to do so, the invasion/occupation constitutes a war of aggression — “the supreme international crime,” as Nuremberg Tribunal judge Norman Birkett called it.

Despite the complete absence of any compelling military or political reason for invading and occupying Syria, and despite the complete illegality of that invasion and occupation, these Senators believe that Trump should reverse his decision and keep US troops at risk in a land whether they’re neither needed nor welcome.

After all, if US troops aren’t there, US troops can’t be killed there, and US troops need to be killed there every once in a while to justify keeping them there in perpetuity. The Senators’ campaign donors in the “defense” industry need them kept there. Government contracts and stock dividends depend on it!

That’s the caliber of mind and morality the voters of South Carolina, Florida, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island send to Washington, DC.  Can’t say I blame the voters for wanting those guys to go somewhere, anywhere other than South Carolina, Florida, Oklahoma, or Rhode Island. If nothing else it probably raises those states’ average IQs and reduces their petty crime rates.

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Now More Than Ever, It’s Clear the FBI Must Go

The New York Times reports that “[i]n the days after President Trump fired James B. Comey as F.B.I. director, law enforcement officials became so concerned by the president’s behavior that they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests.”

That’s an interesting way of putting it, but let’s try another:

Enraged at the firing of their director, and suspecting the firing might portend a threat to their place and power in the American political establishment, FBI officials went to war with the president of the United States. They redirected taxpayer money and government resources away from anything resembling a legitimate law enforcement mission, putting themselves instead to the task of drumming up a specious case that said president is an agent of a foreign power.

This is exactly the kind of bovine scat subsumed by the recently popularized term “Deep State” — an entrenched bureaucracy, jealous of its prerogatives and bent on the destruction of anyone and anything it perceives as dangerous to those prerogatives.

I’m far from the first writer to point out that this latest news reflects nothing new. Yes, it’s over the top, but it pretty much sums up what the FBI does, and what it has done for the entirety of its 111 years of existence. It attempts to protect “America”  — which it defines as the existing establishment in general and itself in particular — not from crime as such, but from inconvenient disruption.

That’s why the Bureau under J. Edgar Hoover surveilled (and attempted to blackmail) Martin Luther King, Jr. That’s why its COINTELPRO projects illegally infiltrated and attempted to disrupt domestic political groups in the Vietnam era. That’s why the FBI had the material that COINTELPRO operator Mark Felt (“Deep Throat”) leaked to journalists  by way of attempting to succeed Hoover as the man who brought down Nixon.

Trump is no Martin Luther King, Jr., but he’s certainly disruptive. That, not some cockamamie theory about a Russian mole in the White House, explains the FBI’s declaration of war on his presidency.

Almost exactly a year ago — after the FBI officials got caught destroying evidence in a  probe of its investigations of Trump and of Hillary Clinton — I suggested that the time has come to abolish the Bureau.  This latest news confirms that judgment. The FBI guards its own power, not our freedoms. It’s just too dangerous to keep around any longer.

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Shutdown Theater: Blame? Why Not Credit?

According to the headline at CNN, “Trump bears most blame for shutdown.”

But according to the CNN/SSRS poll the story is based on, the question asked was “Who do you think is more responsible for the government shutdown?” (emphasis mine).

Those are two entirely different questions. “Blame” is only one variant of “responsibility.” CNN’s coverage of its own poll begs the question by conflating the two, assuming universal belief that the “government shutdown” is a bad thing.

That take ignores a very different viewpoint. Many Americans consider the shutdown a good thing. No, probably not a majority, but enough that they show up on the nation’s newspaper opinion pages and in “man on the street” interviews.

Radical libertarians like me are, unfortunately, a tiny part of the “yay, shutdown!” demographic. We prefer, on principle, to see the government doing as little as it can be made to do. Shut down as much of it as possible for as long as possible!

But there are also Republicans and Democrats who assign responsibility — in the form of credit, not blame — to their own parties or to Congress as such,  presumably one of two principles:

First, the notion that one side is right, that the other side is wrong, and that no compromise is acceptable, on the issue holding up a deal — President Trump’s demand that any spending deal fund his “border wall.”

Supporters of the wall may credit Trump with backbone for refusing any deal that puts off the wall to yet another funding cycle.

Opponents of the wall may similarly credit US Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi with backbone for refusing any deal that funds the wall.

Secondly, notions concerning which branch of government should enjoy primacy. That is, who’s in charge here, Congress or the president?

Supporters of a stronger executive may credit Trump with pushing for power they believe he’s entitled to and a policy they agree with him is correct.

Supporters of a stronger Congress may credit Schumer and Pelosi with resisting executive overreach and trying to counteract this instance of that overreach through Congress’s power of the purse.

While I’m a fan of “government shutdowns” in general, and wish they’d just kind of wander off and forget to open back up one of these times, I agree that these other fights are worth having as well.

Which side will win the current brawl? In my opinion, absent some Hail Mary maneuver (like the “emergency declaration” Trump is publicly pondering), the side which first understands and exploits the phenomenon above.

That is, the side which stops trying to shift blame for the “shutdown” and starts claiming credit for it.

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Gambling: Let People (Not the Government and not “the” People) Decide

Why should it be up to the US Department of Justice, or this or that group of politicians or lobbyists, or some percentage of your state’s voters, whether or not you can place a bet on the outcome of a sporting event, a roll of the dice, a spin of the wheel, or what cards get dealt at a poker table?

Since a 2011 re-interpretation of the Wire Act, states have been able to permit, license, and regulate “intrastate” online gambling — that is, gambling where both sides of bets are located in the same state, even if the bets are placed over the Internet (for example, online poker games where all parties are located within their borders).

In December, rumors began to circulate that the US Department of Justice plans a re-re-interpretation of the Wire Act to crack down on such activities, which currently take place in Nevada, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, voters in a number of states decided ballot issues related to gambling in the 2018 election. In my home state of Florida, a coalition funded by the Walt Disney Company, the Seminole Tribe of Florida, and an anti-gambling group successfully pushed through a measure requiring a statewide popular vote to license any new non-Seminole casinos.

The motives for such actions are obvious but mixed. Some people think gambling is immoral and shouldn’t be allowed. Some companies (and some criminals) know that limiting gambling is better for their bottom lines than allowing it, and can afford better lobbyists and slicker advertising than new companies trying to get into the business.

Of course, most people who want to gamble find their way to the areas where it’s allowed (but regulated), or buy into their state governments’ own versions (lottery tickets, for example), or just make bets with friends in the reasonably certain knowledge that they’ll never get arrested at their weekly poker games or while handing over the money they (foolishly) bet against the Kansas City Chiefs to go all the way this year.

But why should anyone have to sneak around? Again, I ask:

In what universe is it legitimately the business of DoJ, or Disney, or the Seminole Tribe, or a legislature, or the little old lady next door who thinks that a deck of cards is The Devil’s Picture Book, if you and I want to bet five bucks on the outcome of a coin flip or anything else?

If I want to put money down on the spin of a roulette wheel, it’s my money. If you don’t, then don’t. Problem solved. Unless, that is, you just have an unscratched itch to run other people’s lives. In which case that should remain your problem, not mine.

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