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April 18, 2014

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April 9, 2014

Wyden Calls His Own Tune in Senate Finance | Madisonville

Wyden Calls His Own Tune in Senate Finance | Madisonville  Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden is bringing a new accent to the Senate Finance Committee as the recently installed chairman. Literally. Wyden at work constructs whole sentences that roll along in a monotone until he decides to single out a word for the stress.  And a big stress it is, too.

There’s no particular logic to where he chooses to do it. But once the listener gets in the spirit of it, it’s easy to forget the subject: In Tuesday’s case, it was the misery inflicted on Americans by tax preparers who are incompetent or crooked.

“most of those paid tax return preparers don’t have to meet ANY standards, ANY standards for competence,” Wyden says. Except that the normal typeface doesn’t do justice to the difference between monotone Wyden and stressed Wyden.

Wyden makes the capital letters that should open a sentence seem like they’re cowering under his desk. Proper nouns stay under the radar. “my home state of oregon gets this issue RIGHT.” Who’s suffering from this abuse? “they could be immigrants PROUD to pay taxes in their NEW country,” Wyden says. “the most VULNERABLE people in america will bear the brunt.”

Nina E. Olson, the IRS’ national taxpayer advocate and one of the witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing, either speaks the same way Wyden does or she couldn’t resist following his example, the way some people involuntarily mimic the tics of their conversation partners.

“the only CREDIBLE argument,” “seemed very REASONABLE,” “the BEST enforcement,” “it is a BRIGHT line that all taxpayers can understand,” she said.

“it’s your job to go to BAT for taxpayers,” Wyden said.

“as was discussed in YOUR statement,” Olsen said.

“the heart of what YOU’VE been talking about is very unSCRUPulous preparers,” Wyden said.  He said unSCRUPulous a lot.

“that’s a very important distinction that AUDITS will not get you,” Olsen said. “the irs right now is doing a PILOT.” (That sentence may suggest a way for the IRS to avoid notice.) “there may be things on that END that you can work with.”

Olsen even had a flair for this that exceeded Wyden’s. “there’s a very high learning CURVE,” she said, starting with a loud “c” and working up to a crescendo to a finish on the VEEE note. Try that at home. It’s not easy. Wyden looked appreciative of everything she said.

The two of them communicated with a mysterious musicality, reminiscent of the recordings of whale singing available in national parks and wax candle shops.  The Senate could put it in the gift shop.

“what HAPPENS here on the finance committee,” Wyden said. What happens on the Finance Committee may never sound the same.

April 4, 2014

House Agriculture Discloses the Real News | Madisonville

House Agriculture Discloses the Real News | Madisonville

Not much can beat the House Agriculture Committee for showing what a rich and diverse country we live in. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s appearance Thursday for a “Review the State of the Rural Economy” had moments that felt like the scene in “Men in Black” where Tommy Lee Jones turns to the National Enquirer to get reliable news.

The mainstream media are missing some big stories.

Like “the black vultures problem that is plaguing the Southeast,” says Tennessee Republican Scott DesJarlais. The vultures are attacking livestock, often going for the eyes — but not always. “They also attack the backside of animals,” DesJarlais says. That detail prompts a quick mental check about April Fools’ Day. There’s no comfort in confirming that it was two days earlier.

Farmers are setting off fireworks and firing their guns into the air because they can’t kill the vultures without a permit. Unruffled (heh heh), the vultures keep coming back. Full story

March 26, 2014

‘Debt: The Sequel’ Flops in House Financial Services | Madisonville

Debt: The Sequel Flops in House Financial Services | Madisonville

Republicans thought they had the home-field advantage at the House Financial Services Committee’s “Why Debt Matters” hearing Tuesday. The falling snow seemed to energize them as much as the cause and they came early and in force, outnumbering the Democrats by more than 2-to-1 when Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas gaveled the hearing open.

The Republican juggernaut slowed down from there.  Sequels, even debt sequels, rarely work as well as the original.

Hensarling nevertheless reeled off the dangers, many of which are mighty familiar: an economic and political death spiral, street lights going out, ambulances not running, buildings going vacant and college graduates turning to subsistence farming. College graduates with the skills for subsistence farming seemed like an inviting campfire in the dystopia, but Hensarling didn’t mean it to be.  Not that the chairman was predicting any of this. He was just saying.

Ranking member Maxine Waters of California mentioned the Bush administration’s tax cuts and wars. She didn’t want to dwell on those things. She was just saying. Waters, to her own surprise, got David Cote, the chief executive of Honeywell Inc., to offer immigration reform as a way to spur the economy and contribute revenue to the government.

Cote was appearing for the debt-matters case and raising immigration reform was his own goal for the team. Later, in the spirit of just saying, Cote told the committee, “There’s a phrase we use a lot in the company, which is ‘we are where we are.’ ” Even Republicans must have wondered at this point whether the 1 percent are all they’re cracked up to be. Full story

March 17, 2014

A Hip Factory in Every Basement | Madisonville

A Hip Factory in Every Basement | Madisonville  The House Small Business Committee meets in a room in the Rayburn building that feels like the warehouse office of one of the business start-ups Congress loves to celebrate.  The translucent plastic panels that screen the fluorescent lights and the drop ceiling tell you that this committee doesn’t waste money on luxuries. You half expect to hear an electric insect killer snap a few bugs to death with a mighty zap that momentarily dims the lights.

The man on the long side of the room chewing his nails turns out to be Missouri Republican Sam Graves, the chairman who bit his way through a hearing on “The Rise of 3D Printing: Opportunities for Entrepreneurs” on March 12.  Washington visitors who wandered over to see their representatives in action may have hoped for a congressional version of “Shark Tank.” Full story

March 7, 2014

McHenry Reaches for the Stars, Settles for Football and NASCAR | Madisonville

When your second-grader’s class stages “Macbeth” at parents’ night, you’re torn between admiring the effort of the kids and worrying that the teacher is unhinged.

McHenry Reaches for the Stars, Settles for Football and NASCAR | MadisonvilleSo it was when Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, the North Carolina Republican, chaired a hearing called “The Growth of Financial Regulation and Its Impact on International Competitiveness.” Vanity prevailed over good judgment when the Oversight and Investigations unit of the House Financial Services Committee took this up Wednesday.

Even the big-thinking McHenry must have noticed that the performance was falling short of the ambition.

Missouri Democrat Emanuel Cleaver II, for example, decided the best way to explain financial regulation and international competition was to talk about his days playing football. Cleaver said he lived for the chance to “put your helmet into” a running back or receiver. Those days are gone.  “It’s been outlawed,” he said. “You can’t even trip anymore. You pamper the quarterback.”

Full story

February 28, 2014

Thinking Like a Terrorist With House Homeland Security | Madisonville

The government spends billions of dollars to find terrorists and plug leaks in the borders. It turns out much of that money could be saved simply by asking members of the House Homeland Security Committee where to look. Members were bubbling over with good ideas for Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson when he came to talk about his “vision for the future.”

Members of Congress like security. They can back-seat drive to their heart’s content. There’s no penalty for false alarms, and if they happen to get one right, well, they look more clear-eyed than the rest of us. Full story

February 12, 2014

‘The Very Model of a Sensible Central Banker’ | Madisonville

The Very Model of a Sensible Central Banker | MadisonvilleNewly installed Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen has already mastered the art of agreeing without conceding anything:  Energy has been a great contributor to growth. Certainly regulation has an impact on the economy. The monetary policy of any country affects other countries. We will monitor the impact of the rule. I think it remains an interesting possibility. We have to be very careful not to jump to conclusions. These and other bromides she served warm to Tuesday’s House Financial Services Committee hearing.

Jeb Hensarling, the Texas Republican who chairs the committee, wants to know if Yellen would be a “sensible central banker.” One wished Yellen might be a Gilbert and Sullivan fan and give the hearing a rousing,  “I am the very model of a sensible central banker.” Full story

February 5, 2014

House Judiciary’s Easy Come, Easy Go Eavesdropping Hearing | Madisonville

The House Judiciary Committee has become even more captivating since it last made the Madisonville news, in the days after Thanksgiving.  Members got together Tuesday to consider changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, under which the Obama administration is gathering data on every American’s phone calls and emails with the help of a FISA court that doesn’t like to give “no” for an answer.

At least some members got together for that purpose. Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen wasn’t one of them. He wanted to welcome a special group and the enthusiasm in his voice made the listener momentarily think the Rockettes might be in the room, or at least an a cappella group from Memphis, somebody to lighten the mood of the hearing. Cohen offered instead members of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.

Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner was there to remind everybody that Congress still has members who think the place has something to do with legislation. Sensenbrenner can also growl, telling the administration official that the government is misusing the authority Congress gave it and its actions are about to result in the loss of that authority altogether.

Intelligence officials are gathering the phone and email data because they see everybody as a security risk and want to have evidence available in case a crime is committed. The administration says it listens to the actual calls and reads the emails only when it really, really, really needs to. And when, as Virginia Democrat Robert C. Scott slyly pointed out, an intelligence worker wants to spy on a love interest.

California Republican Darrell Issa thinks his calls should qualify for scrutiny, although apparently not because of anybody he is dating. Let’s say I talked to somebody in Lebanon, who talked to somebody in Lebanon, who talked to somebody in Lebanon, who talked to somebody in Lebanon, who talked to somebody in Lebanon, Issa started. (The deputy attorney general who testified must have hoped this would keep going for Issa’s full five minutes.)

Issa eventually got to the point that he’s worthy of surveillance if the person at the end of his phone tree was a terrorist. This is Issa’s idea of being caught with a smoking gun. Worth noting is Issa’s chairmanship of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Georgia Democrat Hank Johnson brought up Osama bin Laden, calling him one of the top five leaders of al-Qaida. Johnson notes this in a tone usually associated with a listing of the meanest guys in professional wrestling or the best greasy-spoon restaurants in Washington.  The listener had to poke himself to remember who bin Laden was, given that he’s been dead almost three years running now.

January 29, 2014

Ed Perlmutter’s Cap Captivates | Madisonville

Colorado Democrat Ed Perlmutter used the House Financial Services Committee hearing Tuesday to draw attention to his Denver Broncos cap.

He left the hearing room and ostentatiously walked back in. The cap was unmissable, not just because it was bright orange but also because it swallowed up Perlmutter’s head.

He took the cap off, made sure to lay it visibly on his desk, then put it back on. Perlmutter doesn’t overwhelm with his physical presence, but he seemed to be managing an extra inch or two of height to make sure all the cameras would notice.  When his five minutes of question time arrived, Perlmutter slid into the conveniently vacated ranking member’s chair, orange cap donned. Then it was doffed and perched over the front of his desk.

If Peyton Manning can move the ball half as far as Perlmutter moved that Broncos cap, Denver will do well in this weekend’s Super Bowl.  Full story

January 15, 2014

The Carper and Coburn Travel Agency | Madisonville

Some causes look so doomed that all you can do is sit back and admire the pointlessness. So it felt Tuesday, when the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee looked for ways to make sure government employees aren’t wasting money on travel and conferences. As anyone who’s ever packed a bag knows, the value of a trip or conference is only clear after it’s over.

The Carper and Coburn Travel Agency | MadisonvilleChanging the wasteful-spending-on-travel-and-conferences culture in government is like changing an aircraft engine during the flight, said Chairman Thomas R. Carper of Delaware. Carper didn’t mean it that way, but that’s about as good an illustration of pointlessness as you’re likely to find.

Ranking member Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said that as a physician, he used to attend conferences. About half of them were good ones and about half weren’t, he said. If even penny-pinching Citizen Coburn can spend his own money wisely only half the time, what chance does the government have?

Not that the two senators weren’t helpful.

Carper, for example, told two administration officials they could save money by booking travel after 6 p.m. And Coburn wondered whether they’d ever used Kayak.com to avoid booking charges. Carper helpfully noted that the sooner they book their trips, the less they cost.

The Delaware Democrat also told them that if a conference is financially justifiable in a given location, it should be held there even if the place is desirable. This could mean government agencies are so spooked by bad publicity that they’re ordering their employees off to Buffalo, N.Y., for conferences or it could mean that Carper’s home-state office isn’t being entirely truthful to him about why nobody is going to Wilmington, Del. Full story

January 10, 2014

The Coal War Chronicles | Madisonville

Finally. A war that Republicans think the Obama administration is waging effectively. Most Americans won’t have noticed the War on Coal, but the House Natural Resources Committee got together on Thursday to tut-tut about the president’s ruthless treatment of the enemy.

The Coal War Chronicles | MadisonvilleTut-tut may overstate members’ engagement in this hearing.  Chairman Doc Hastings from Washington and ranking member Peter A. DeFazio from Oregon were about as excitable as two doctors delivering babies and treating horse-kickings in a rural medical practice, circa 1955. Hastings and DeFazio also happen to look like two country doctors, circa 1955. Doc Hastings is the sterner, round-faced one. Doc DeFazio is the younger, smiling one. Doc DeFazio also gives the impression that he’s disappearing beneath his collar.

The committee brought in Robert Knox, an assistant inspector general for investigations who’s been looking into the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement at the Department of the Interior.  The Surface Mining people’s alleged War on Coal crime was to pressure a contractor to play down the number of jobs that would be lost because of a proposed regulation and then to fire the contractor for refusing to do so.

Republicans put more than twice as many soldiers on this battlefield as the Democrats, but it didn’t do much good.  Inspectors general aren’t very good witnesses. Members of Congress try to provoke them into comments that have nothing to do with the investigation, but Inspector General 101 class teaches them to avoid such elementary traps.

Knox said the contractor wasn’t fired, that reasonable explanations were available for the estimated jobs impact of the regulation, and that nobody applied any political pressure.  Republican forces’ morale sank. They couldn’t yield their time fast enough. Outnumbering the enemy by more than 2-to-1 doesn’t help if you’re unarmed.

North Dakota’s Kevin Cramer lifted the Republicans’ spirits briefly when he disclosed that he spent 10 years as his state’s coal-mining regulator.  Cramer’s website, by the way, says he has a doctorate in leadership. Doctor Leader Cramer, coal warrior. The Republicans must have felt like orcs watching Lurtz move into battle. But Cramer disappointed, focusing on an Interior Department employee that the inspector general discovered had made a smart-aleck comment about rule-making and the real world being different things.

The Democrats didn’t fare much better, but they didn’t have to. Doc DeFazio tried to yield his opening statement time only to discover his Democratic colleagues didn’t want it. New Jersey’s Rush D. Holt finally agreed and stammered something out.

The good news is that this coal war crime revolved around an estimated loss of 7,000 jobs and the wasted $3.7 million paid to a contractor said to have done an unsatisfactory job.  No zeros are missing in those numbers. You’d expect a couple of small-town doctors to pay attention to the little things.

December 20, 2013

Grin and Bear and Long-Term Care | Madisonville

Grin and Bear and Long Term Care | Madisonville  “Continuing the conversation” was the subtitle of the Senate Aging Committee’s hearing Wednesday on the future of long-term-care policy.  Continuing the conversation is a formulation with a lovely gentleness, an effort to reassure, to conjure up endless sunshine and an elderly couple taking long walks under autumn leaves surrounded by several generations of handsome, smiling descendants.

The easy-going feeling of “continuing the conversation” is also in hopeless contradiction to the grim reality.  The witnesses flood the panel with detail, but it mostly added up to an insolvable problem. Americans aren’t arranging for care in old age. Congress isn’t going to spend the money to do it for them. And the ratio between those needing care and those available to provide it is getting worse. At least nobody mentioned death panels. Full story

December 16, 2013

The 500 Nods of Elizabeth Warren | Madisonville

Most Americans of working age can’t remember when manufacturing wasn’t in decline.  It’s been a staple of news and politics since the Carter administration. The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Policy tapped right into the mood of inevitable decay at a hearing last week on rebuilding American manufacturing.

The 500 Nods of Elizabeth Warren | Madisonville  The late afternoon timing of the hearing didn’t help anyone’s attention span.

Imagine the late shift at a factory out near the railroad tracks that’s been cutting back production for years.  The workers aren’t sure the foreign owners remember they have a factory there and the workers also aren’t sure whether it’s better to be remembered or forgotten.

Or alternatively, what with last week’s snow turning crusty and it already becoming dark outside, imagine the factory political commissars bringing next year’s production targets to workers at a ball-bearing plant in the Ural Mountains.

On a gloomy Washington day, even the lighting wasn’t interested in the hearing room.

Only three of eight senators showed up and there weren’t many more people in the audience.  The perkiest staff member turned out to be the one responsible for Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller’s crutches.  Both of them (Heller and the staffer, although both crutches also departed) left as soon as it was polite to do so. Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., kept the witnesses busy until Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., could get back from the Senate floor and take over the questioning.

Teaching at Harvard demands a few tricks to keep the students engaged. Warren has an entire repertory of nods and head shakes to do so. She’s Bartholomew Cubbins but with head gestures.  Warren’s moving head carries more nuance than many members of Congress can find in the dictionary.

She has a slow, methodical “aren’t you clever” nod to encourage a witness. She can do a rapid “hurry up and finish your point” nod and she can tweak that into a “good point, please continue” gesture or, just as subtly, turn it into its near opposite, the “I’ve heard this before and don’t believe it for a second” nod. Warren has an emphatic, chin-down-once-and-stop nod to say, “Well done for citing that obscure research,” and she varies that slightly in a, “The policy is obvious. How could anybody disagree?” nod. She’s got a middle-speed “as a witness before this committee you can have your say nod but nobody is taking you seriously” nod.

Warren has a combination nod and head shake to say, “The evidence is mixed.” She’s got a nod that turns into a head shake. She can shake her head to convey disbelief, and, like everybody else, she can shake her head in disagreement. What sets Warren apart is that she can even shake her head in agreement.  She pulled that one off at least once at Wednesday’s hearing.

American manufacturing should be so adept.

December 4, 2013

The Post-Thanksgiving Judiciary Committee Gobbledy-Glock | Madisonville

The Post Thanksgiving Judiciary Committee Gobbledy Glock | MadisonvilleThe House Judiciary Committee this week sounded like the living room after Thanksgiving dinner. After loading up on turkey and stuffing, family members moved to the comfortable chairs and fell into familiar roles.  Americans travel far for the once-a-year chance to hear deranged in-laws and peculiar cousins vent. Judiciary decided the country wanted more of it in the week after Thanksgiving.

Republicans and Democrats tried beforehand to rein things in by promising to discuss the president’s constitutional duty to faithfully execute the laws. But Uncle Robert W. Goodlatte, the GOP host from Virginia, dropped any pretense of even-handedness by immediately telling everybody the president not only wasn’t executing the laws, he was personally leading the gang breaking them.

The Post Thanksgiving Judiciary Committee Gobbledy Glock | Madisonville

(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

Uncle Bob cited Edward Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” and Federalist Paper 47. He brought some neighbors in to back him up, and, in an upping of the Thanksgiving ante, put them under oath. The four neighbors’ collective publications and appearances on TV must have added up to thousands. So Uncle Bob thought he had conquered the living room right there. Full story

November 20, 2013

Honk if You’re Driverless | Madisonville

Vehicles that accelerate, brake and park themselves. Lane markers that keep cars on the straight and narrow. Children alone in a car that drives itself. No more accidents from fatigue, drunkenness or distraction.

Even in the presence of technology that would allow every American to watch C-SPAN on the road, members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Highways and Transit Subcommittee didn’t know what to make of the Brave New World seminar on driverless cars on Tuesday.

Honk if Youre Driverless | Madisonville“I envision the day we’ll have these vehicles, like the Flintstones, or something,” said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. Nevada Democrat Dina Titus provided him with a verbal poke: Didn’t he mean the the Jetsons? Ah, yes, Cohen replied: “Who? The Jetsons? Yeah, that’s the opposite.”

Cohen then showed that something driverless can keep moving. “I got a ticket — and I went to court on it, which was a mistake, I guess, for parking more than 12 inches from the curb, which I didn’t know was even the law. And I don’t think I did it. The car’s going to know 12 inches? I mean, how’s the car going to know the Memphis city code?”

New Jersey Democrat Albio Sires and Illinois Republican Rodney Davis saw a similar problem but from opposite ends. Davis worries that the autonomous car industry will overlook rural drivers. Sires wonders if the industry is too optimistic about urban areas.

“It’s hard for me to fathom a car in New York City being without a driver,” Sires said. This worry conjures up questions about whether these cars can scream obscenities without human assistance. Or what amount of body damage will an autonomous taxi consider acceptable to cross three lanes of traffic to pick up a fare?

“I used to have a ’65 Mustang that I did a lot of work on,” Sires said, taking the path of greatest nostalgia to another point, about the loss of backyard tinkering. “I can’t imagine anybody doing any work on these cars that are so sophisticated. I think it’s just going to put people out of work.”

Texas Republican Roger Williams, a car dealer no less, may know something about the market that advocates of autonomous cars overlooked. “Something like this is going to have to be able pull a horse trailer,” he said.

Publius Valerius Publicola

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