When the Going Gets Tough … Take a Vacation

Congressional Quarterly, in its daily update last Friday, described what is next for Congress:

The House "is done for the next 10 days," having voted to take the next week off (Democrats, to their credit, wanted to cancel the recess for more budget talks). The Senate's "President's Day recess has begun; the next session where something might get done (emphasis added) starts at 2 on Monday, Feb. 25."

Ron Fournier is a veteran political journalist, having worked at The Associated Press in two stints (among other stops) before joining the National Journal. I've always respected his writing.

A short but powerful take from Fournier on the current state of Congress:

The amount of unfinished business is stunning: A vacancy atop the Pentagon’s chain of command, billions of dollars of haphazard budget cuts due soon to take effect, immigration reform, gun control, climate change, and millions of jobless Americans. So what’s a Congress to do?

Take a vacation.

In Washington, it is politely called a 10-day “recess.” Lawmakers explain how hard they work at town halls and fundraisers back home. But their job is to legislate and to fix problems.

If you took 10 days off with critical work undone and deadlines threatening, how would your boss respond?


Obama’s NLRB Appointments Raise Concerns About Board

The National Labor Relations Board has been in the news quite a bit lately, as we mentioned a couple of weeks ago on this blog. Now, President Obama’s latest NLRB appointments are drawing the ire of some concerned he may be creating an anti-business sentiment on the board. National Journal reports:

President Obama made three recess appointments (recently), filling vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board that were left open by Republican refusals to confirm appointees.

The appointments to the NLRB, a lightening rod for conservatives opposed to any expansion of labor rights, are Sharon Block, currently deputy assistant secretary for congressional affairs at the Labor Department; Terence Flynn, now the chief counsel to NLRB member Brian Hayes; and Richard Griffin, general counsel for the International Union of Operating Engineers.

Block’s appointment fills a vacancy left by Craig Becker, a former associate general counsel to both the Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO who was seated on the NLRB via a recess appointment in March 2010. Obama withdrew his appointment of Becker for a full term last month after it was fiercely resisted by Senate Republicans.

The NLRB appointments followed Obama’s controversial recess appointment of Richard Cordray to a new consumer board…

The Wall Street Journal also reports how business groups are less than thrilled about the appointments, or the manner in which they were appointed:

Unions applauded the appointments, which will likely earn Mr. Obama some goodwill with this key Democratic constituency heading into November’s presidential election. SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said Mr. Obama "showed true leadership" with his installments, a notable compliment given that last year, union leaders accused the president of being too willing to compromise with Republicans.

The International Union of Operating Engineers, which employs Mr. Griffin, said he is fair-minded and would provide "stability and balance to American workers and employers." The Senate Republicans that have tried to cripple the NLRB have a position "comparable to ejecting the referee if you don’t like the score of the game," the union said in a statement.

Business groups and Republicans disagreed. Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, the ranking Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, said he was "extremely disappointed" in Mr. Obama’s decision to "avoid the Constitutionally mandated Senate confirmation process." Mr. Enzi said that two of the three nominees were submitted to the Senate on Dec. 15, just before the Senate was scheduled to adjourn for the year. That gave the Senate "only one day to consider and review these nominations," he said in a statement.

Some labor lawyers who represent employers suggested Wednesday that lawmakers might legally challenge Mr. Obama’s appointments. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell stopped short of saying he would do so but suggested Mr. Obama might have overstepped his boundaries. The NLRB and consumer protection agency appointments "potentially raise legal and constitutional questions," Mr. McConnell said in a statement, adding that the ones at the NLRB "are particularly egregious."

Insiders Say Pipeline Not Dead Yet

We’ve told you more than a few times in recent months that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is an important project for Indiana and our country. Check out this two-minute video. After all, the $7 billion project will bring 700,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada to the U.S.

When the Obama administration recently delayed a final ruling (citing the need to reroute in Nebraska, but realistically putting off a politically tricky decision until after the 2012 election), many considered it a death knell for the proposal. But a group of energy and environmental insiders put together by the National Journal team in Washington differs with that assumption. Check out the latest.

“As long as there is substantial money to be made from developing the tar sands, they will be developed,” one Insider said.

Insiders predict (64% to 36%) that the economic and political reasons for the pipeline will eventually win out, arguing that the oil industry may hold out hope for a future Republican administration and GOP majorities in both chambers of Congress—under which the project would likely win swift approval.

Canadian pipeline developer TransCanada said that it will move the route out of Nebraska’s environmentally sensitive Sandhills area. The State Department last week proposed the rerouting to protect a massive aquifer there. Company officials, who had claimed that such a reroute wasn’t possible, said that the move will likely require adding 30 to 40 more miles of pipe to its 1,700-mile proposal.

President Obama was accused last week for making a political play with the pipeline, because the reroute would delay the decision past the 2012 election. For that same reason, though, most Energy Insiders believe the project will ultimately be approved. “Eventually, politics will be set aside,” said one.

In terms of politics, Insiders were split on whether the reroute decision and the consequent delay would benefit Obama. Just over half – 51 percent – said that the delay would help the president; 49 percent said it would not.

The delay until after the 2012 election “is a significant indicator of just how bad the Obama insiders think their election prospects are right now,“ one Insider said. In appeasing environmentalists but sacrificing some independent votes, the administration wanted to ensure it held onto its political base and contributions, Insiders said.


FCC Report: Media Needs to Serve Somebody

There was big news in the world of journalism yesterday (for those who follow such things and/or care what the Federal Communications Commission has to say) when the FCC released a 470-page report on the state of the U.S. media. In summary, their conclusion wasn’t exactly a positive one, with the overall finding seeming to be that American media isn’t serving the public. What’s most interesting — or perhaps most telling — is that the Democratic and Republican commissioners seemed to have two entirely different takes on the report. Imagine that. National Journal reports

Federal regulations designed to ensure that broadcasters serve the public interest are broken, allowing stations to dump local-news reporting and lowering standards for news ranging from international developments to government scandals, the Federal Communications Commission said on Thursday.

"Over time, court rulings, constitutional concerns, and FCC decisions have left a system that is unclear and ineffective,” the agency said in a long-awaited report on the U.S. media. “The current system operates neither as a free market nor as an effectively regulated one; and it does not achieve the public-interest goals set out by Congress or the FCC.”

The 470-page study turns the tables, with the FCC reporting on media outlets that usually are the ones doing the reporting.

To promote public-interest programming on public airwaves, the report recommends more disclosure from broadcasters. It also calls for C-SPAN-like public-affairs networks in each state.

Too often, the report asserts, the FCC rubber-stamps broadcast licenses without ensuring that the outlets involved cover the local community.

Further, the proliferation of Internet-based news outlets has not improved the quality of journalism, the researchers found.

“It turns out you can have an abundance of media outlets and a shortage of real news,” said the report’s lead author, former journalist Steven Waldman. At the root of the growing dearth of quality reporting, he concluded, is the fact that advertising is increasingly disconnected from content.

“If ad rates were the same online as they are in print, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Waldman said. In a first for the agency, the report urges lawmakers to consider the “positive benefits” of online tracking when drafting privacy legislation. Such tracking, the report states, offers a possible way for news websites to attract more ad revenue.

To help strengthen the public service potential of media, the report makes six broad recommendations: emphasize online disclosure as a pillar of FCC media policy; make it easier for citizens to monitor government by putting more information online; consider directing more existing government spending to local media; foster an environment for nonprofit media outlets to succeed; promote broadband access; and ensure that media policy helps historically underserved communities.

The highly anticipated report didn’t go far enough for Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who has long called for tighter public-interest regulations.

“Enlightened policy that promotes the public interest is basically glossed over by the staff report as having been tried and failed,” Copps said at Thursday’s commission meeting, where the findings were presented.

He took the report’s authors to task for “tinkering around the edges” by not calling for major overhauls. “In the recommendations, there is some hedging about whether all that consolidation we are living with today—all these local, independent stations bought up by mega-media interests—has been good or bad,” Copps said.

But Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell said that the report highlights the competitive and innovative nature of the media market. Regulations and policies will only hurt, he argued. “The government should keep its heavy hands off of journalism,” McDowell said.

McDowell stressed that the report is only the beginning of a debate over potential solutions.

The findings contained few surprises in their evaluation of the media market, noting that many traditional news outlets have been decimated by economic challenges and shifting technology.

So what’s your take?

All About Perspective: Analysis Shows Changes in Media Coverage of Deficit, Unemployment

Make of this what you will, but a recent analysis from National Journal conveys coverage of the nation’s unemployment crisis has waned, while a focus on the deficit has increased. The author of this article concludes it means conservatives are winning the message war, but perhaps other factors are at play. What do you think?

Major U.S. newspapers have increasingly shifted their attention away from coverage of unemployment in recent months while greatly intensifying their focus on the deficit, a National Journal analysis shows.

The analysis — based on a measure of how often the words "unemployment" and "deficit" appear in major publications — portrays a dramatically shifting landscape of coverage over the past two years, as the debate over how to fix the federal deficit has risen to prominence and the question of how to handle still-high unemployment has faded from the media’s consciousness.

National Journal compiled counts of articles that mention one of the words in their headline or first sentences in the five largest newspapers in the country by print circulation — a group that consists of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post. The data was taken over a period of roughly two years from April 15, 2009, to May 15, 2011, using LexisNexis, a news information service. The numbers exclude mentions that also used the words Europe(an) and Greece or Greek in an effort to focus solely on the domestic debate, though even with those included, the trend was not materially different.

Mentions of unemployment have been dwindling since they spiked to 154 in the month ending August 15, 2010; over the month ending Sunday, there were 63. Deficit mentions, meanwhile, surged up to 261 in the month ending December 15, 2010, when the leaders of President Obama’s deficit commission released their final report. Mentions of the deficit remained higher after the commission’s work wrapped up and as House Republicans and then the White House unveiled dueling proposals. In the month ending Sunday, there were 201 mentions.

To be sure, the decline in unemployment articles coincided with a one-half-percentage-point decrease in the headline unemployment rate as well as materially better payroll job growth, but the labor market remains fragile and the pace of its recovery far from sufficient.

More likely, the broadening gap demonstrates just how effective conservatives have been at changing the narrative of economic policy from one dominated by talk of fiscal stimulus to one now in lockstep with notions of fiscal austerity.

That major newspapers and other media outlets have covered the deficit with greater intensity in recent months should come as no surprise given the focus of the politicians and policymakers they cover. The declining mentions of unemployment are perhaps more surprising, as the issue remains salient for millions of Americans.

An Endorsement — Not — for Palin

I don’t feel I’m exactly going out on a limb when I say I don’t consider Sarah Palin a legitimate presidential candidate in 2012. It’s a little more interesting, however, when a key Republican player addresses the topic.

Steve Schmidt was chief strategist for John McCain’s presidential run. He said this last week about the former Alaska governor:  "My honest view is that she would not be a winning candidate for the Republican Party, and in fact were she to be the nominee, we could have a catastrophic result."

The CongressDaily update from the National Journal also reported:

Schmidt, who backed McCain’s choice of Palin as his running mate but clashed with her advisers, added: "I don’t think it’s inconceivable that she could be the Republican nominee for president of the United States. I think it’s almost inconceivable that she could be elected president of the United States."

Schmidt’s assessment came as he shared the stage with longtime Democratic strategist Bob Shrum at a forum sponsored by the Atlantic and the Aspen Institute.

Shrum jumped in as soon as Schmidt suggested Palin couldn’t win, joking, "Let me endorse Sarah Palin for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012."

The public perception of Palin during the campaign and her subsequent messy exit from the governor’s post will, in this corner, leave her a popular speaker/guest at events of all kinds but not a serious candidate on the national stage.

Time for a Cool Change

Nothing like an homage to the Little River Band in a headline. Anyhow,  Mary Gilbert of National Journal (via GovernmentExecutive.com) has an interesting Q&A session with Univ. of Vermont professor John P. Burke, expert on 20th century presidential transitions and author of such books as "Presidential Transitions: From Politics to Practice." They discuss what’s in store for the next Commander in Chief.

Q: This has been the longest presidential campaign in America’s history. Will there be any break for the winner before he must turn to the task of governing?

Burke: I don’t think so at all. I think one of the challenges this year during the transition is that they are going to have to move very quickly on a number of different fronts to begin the process of governing.

Q: What are some of the particular challenges that the incoming president faces in 2008?

Burke: Number one, because it is the first post-9/11 [transition], that means that the whole issue of getting your homeland security team up and running early during the transition is a new task that prior presidents haven’t had to face. Secondly, because we’re fighting two wars, making sure that your foreign policy team is in place early is much more important in the upcoming transition. And then third, making sure your economic team is in place given the financial crisis and a recession and so on. So on three different fronts, the pressure during this transition is much greater, I think, than transitions in the past.

Q: When should candidates start thinking about the transition?

Burke: It depends upon the candidate. And it usually begins very early. One of the interesting things about George W. Bush’s transition to office is that he actually began in the spring of 1999, when he tapped his, in effect, gubernatorial chief of staff, Clay Johnson, to begin the pre-election transition process. Other candidates have started later. His father started shortly after Christmas of 1987. Jimmy Carter started right after he won the Pennsylvania primary, which I think was in April 1976…. As somebody who studies transitions, I think it’s very, very important that they do begin that process early.

 Read the whole thing here.