The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

Washington’s Short-Term Memory on Commissions

Police stand guard at the U.S. Capitol during a protest against the certification of the 2020 presidential election results by Congress in Washington, D.C., January 6, 2021. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

On the menu today: Washington wants another bipartisan commission to investigate another attack on our government, but the establishment’s rosy memories of the 9/11 Commission edit out a lot of partisan wrangling and infighting; how certain problems persist, long after the national media stops paying attention to them; and why the CDC’s masking guidelines for children don’t make sense.

We Could Use a Thorough Investigation of January 6, but We May Not Get One

I’d like to see a bipartisan, respected, even-handed, independent commission thoroughly investigate the Capitol Hill riots of January 6. The U.S. Capitol Police have never held a press conference or answered questions from the media about their decisions on that day. We’ve gotten conflicting answers about why the National Guard wasn’t deployed before that day and the delays in deploying them once the rioting started. We’ve heard claims that President Trump was initially pleased to see a halt in the counting of the Electoral College votes.

The country could use some straight answers on all of these fronts, but it’s an open question if we’re going to get them.

Advocates of a January 6 Commission often cite the example of the 9/11 Commission that was established in 2002 and offered its final report in 2004. But I think most of Washington has a rosy-colored view of that commission and how it worked.

People forget there were a lot of accusations that each side had appointed its share of partisan hacks whose primary objective was to defer blame, either from the Clinton administration or the Bush administration. Jamie Gorelick had been deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, and Attorney General John Ashcroft charged in public testimony that Gorelick herself had been the architect of the metaphorical wall that separated criminal investigators from intelligence agents. Commission member Richard Ben-Veniste attended the VIP screening of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Former Georgia senator Max Cleland resigned from the commission to take another government job, after emerging as the harshest critic of the Bush administration on the panel. (Bush had campaigned for his defeat in 2002.) The commission’s executive director, Phillip Zelikow, had worked on the Bush administration’s transition team. Former senators such as Slade Gorton and Bob Kerrey, and former House members such as Lee Hamilton and Tim Roemer, were investigating the consequences of foreign-policy decisions that they themselves had voted to enact.

The commission agreed to a variety of strict rules for collecting testimony from President Bush and Vice President Cheney — joint testimony, no taking of an oath, no transcripts or electronic recordings, no publication of commission members’ notes, and the interview would occur in the Oval Office.

In 2008, New York Times reporter Philip Shenon published his book The Commission, offering the most in-depth portrait of how the 9/11 Commission went about its work, and charging that the panel made “a series of oversights, omissions, and distortions that raise fundamental questions about 9/11 and the government’s failure to prevent it.” Whether or not you buy into that assessment, it’s clear there was much more behind-the-scenes disagreements and infighting than the public ever saw or heard.

The commission’s co-chairmen, Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, began their 2007 book Without Precedent with the words, “We were set up to fail.” They elaborated, “both of us were aware of grumbling around Washington that the 9/11 Commission was doomed — if not designed — to fail: the commission would splinter down partisan lines; lose its credibility by leaking classified information; be denied the necessary access to do its job; or alienate the 9/11 families who had fought on behalf of its creation.”

Eventually Kean and Hamilton agreed that their mission was to lay out the facts, not to point fingers. And by a lot of standards, the 9/11 Commission report was a success; it may well be the most widely read government report in history.

Regarding the accusations of conflicts of interest for commission members, people in government know other people in government and often work for or with one another in one capacity or another over the years and decades. If this January 6 commission does come to fruition, you will have a hard time finding five prominent retired Democratic officials who have not publicly criticized Trump, and you will probably have a hard time finding five prominent retired Republican officials who have not praised him in one form or another.

A lot of Trump critics will want the commission to confirm their narrative that Donald Trump riled up a crowd and attempted to launch an insurrection against Congress, disrupting the certification of the Electoral College vote, and somehow delaying or revering the 2020 election results. A lot of Trump fans will want the commission to confirm their narrative that this was a legitimate exercise of First Amendment-protected protests that got way out of hand, exacerbated by an unprepared U.S. Capitol Police force and Washington, D.C., mayor Muriel Bowser not wanting additional federal police personnel on the streets.

Some of us can envision a scenario in which neither political party’s elected officials get to play the hero.

The Unseen News

One of the themes I try to emphasize in this newsletter is that certain trends and events occur or continue to occur, whether or not they get a lot of attention in the national media at any given time. Trees that fall in the forest do make a sound, even if no one is around to hear them.

Coverage and discussion of the waves of migrants attempting to cross the U.S.–Mexico border pops into the news cycle intermittently, but U.S. Customs and Border Protection makes large numbers of arrests just about every day: 43 at a hotel in Pharr, Texas, 45 in a trailer home in Edinburg, Texas, 69 illegally present migrants in a home in Garceno, Texas, a group of 278 migrants near Hidalgo, Texas — and that’s just this week. We won’t get the updated figures for what the CBP labels “Southwest Land Border Encounters” — people attempting to cross the border — until sometime in early June. But it looks like after an astounding jump in the figures for March and April, May’s numbers will be high, too.

You don’t always hear a lot about the border, but the issue is still there.

We were always going to have a big explosion of the federal debt as soon as the pandemic walloped us; tax payments took a nosedive, while the government’s expenditures skyrocketed. No one complained about the deficit or debt because it was an emergency. One year ago, in April 2020, as the economy screeched to a halt, the U.S. government had a $737 billion deficit, the largest in 40 years, in part because of the passage of the CARES Act.

The good news is that this year’s April monthly deficit is lower than last year. The bad news is that at $225 billion, it’s about 30 percent of the previous year, at a time when the economy has largely reopened and the pandemic’s effect on American life is fading:

Cumulative year-to-date revenues are up substantially: 16 percent greater than at this point during the last fiscal year (although later filing deadlines in fiscal year 2020 inflate this difference) and 5 percent greater than in fiscal year 2019 — even though the deadline for paying individual income taxes fell in April 2019 but has not yet arrived in 2021. Greater revenues this fiscal year are partly the result of growing wages and salaries . . . Even though revenues have stepped up, spending has leapt further ahead: Cumulative outlays are 21 percent ($687 billion) greater than at this point last fiscal year and 56 percent ($1.4 trillion) greater than at this point in fiscal year 2019.

You don’t always hear a lot about the deficit, but the issue is still there.

From October 2018 to October 2019, the U.S. saw more than 69,000 deaths from a drug overdose. From October 2019 to October 2020, the U.S. saw almost 89,000 deaths from a drug overdose — an increase of 28.3 percent.

You don’t always hear a lot about the drug trade, fentanyl, methamphetamine, and overdoses, but the issue is still there.

Sometimes it feels as if the national media are playing peek-a-boo; when they can’t see something, it is as if it has disappeared.

ADDENDUM: An important argument from Phil Klein:

Based on the low transmission rates of the coronavirus among children, an unvaccinated adult without a mask is more likely to spread the coronavirus than an unvaccinated child. Yet because unvaccinated adults are impossible to distinguish from vaccinated adults, they are in effect not required to wear masks under CDC guidelines. Put another way, children are being treated differently by the CDC not because they are more likely to spread disease, but merely because they are more easily identifiable than unvaccinated adults.

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