From D.C.: Long-Awaited Good News, Long-Brewing Bad News

Pilots can use their iPads, and soon so can passengers!

1) Long-anticipated note of sanity from the FAA: Passengers will shortly be able to use tablets, iPads, music players, and similar non-transmitting devices even during those perilous moments when "the cabin door has now been closed." These are the same devices that pilots increasingly rely on throughout the flight for their navigational info. 

Better news still: The ban on in-flight use of cell phones remains. 

Just when you fear that the government is so hamstrung and contested it can't do anything right, it does. Well done all around.

2) Long-brewing struggle over basic mechanics of self-government reaches a climax, as the GOP minority in the Senate filibusters a court nominee whose qualifications they don't even pretend to question. Their objection is to a twice-elected president getting to fill vacancies on an important court. That may sound like a stretch, but please check out Andrew Cohen's detailed account. Also, I note with admiration that most stories are calling this what it is, a filibuster. For instance, the exemplary lead paragraph in today's NYT story:*

Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked the confirmation of two of President Obama’s nominees, one to a powerful appeals court and another to a housing lending oversight post, setting up a confrontation with Democrats that could escalate into a larger fight over limiting the filibuster and restricting how far the minority party can go to thwart a president’s agenda. 

From the beginning, the American federal experiment has involved a balance between majority power and minority rights. But the essence of a democracy is that in the end, after all views have been heard and all interests considered, the majority will prevail.

As I argued here, the nullification crisis of the 1840s was essentially a defiance of the majority's ability to impose its decisions on parts of the country that disagreed with them. As a famous Republican put it at the time: "Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events." He would recognize today's dynamics.

3) Who cares if the government can't function? The views of two other long-time, now-disaffected Republicans, Bruce Bartlett and Mike Lofgren, are worth checking out. First, from Lofgren, who worked for years on Capitol Hill:

A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress's generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.

A deeply cynical tactic, to be sure, but a psychologically insightful one that plays on the weaknesses both of the voting public and the news media. There are tens of millions of low-information voters who hardly know which party controls which branch of government, let alone which party is pursuing a particular legislative tactic. These voters' confusion over who did what allows them to form the conclusion that "they are all crooks," and that "government is no good," further leading them to think, "a plague on both your houses" and "the parties are like two kids in a school yard."

Bartlett moves from this to 

... what I will henceforth call the Lofgren Corollary to the definition of chutzpah. Chutzpah, of course, is a wonderful Yiddish word for someone with massive nerve, the classic example being the child who murders his parents and then asks the court for mercy on the grounds of being an orphan. The Lofgren Corollary refers to Republicans who intentionally sabotage government programs by denying them adequate resources and then complain that the programs don’t work, thus justifying further reductions in resources leading to more problems. The goal is to ultimately abolish the program on the grounds of being ineffective.

Of course it always helps if you can also deny the government agency administering a program a permanent leader...  Another tactic is to make sure that an agency never knows exactly what its budget is. In the last three years, virtually every agency of government has had to deal with wildly fluctuating estimates of how much money it will have to spend... 

Once one understands the Lofgren Corollary, it is very easy to implement in a variety of situations—as long as one cares nothing about the proper functioning of government.

* Ooops! From a reader just now:

I'm watching the PBS NewsHour, and the news summary for the Thursday covered the Republican filibusters of Patricia Millett to the DC Court do Appeals and Mel Watt to the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Judy Woodruff concluded the piece by saying that the votes on the Senate today left both nominations "short of the 60 votes required for confirmation."

As Cary Grant was widely claimed to have said, "Judy, Judy, Judy......"   
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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