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Gutting the Ethics Committee

What?!

House Republicans, overriding their top leaders, voted on Monday to significantly curtail the power of an independent ethics office set up in 2008 in the aftermath of corruption scandals that sent three members of Congress to jail.

The move to effectively kill the Office of Congressional Ethics was not made public until late Monday, when Representative Robert W. Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, announced that the House Republican Conference had approved the change. There was no advance notice or debate on the measure.

The surprising vote came on the eve of the start of a new session of Congress, where emboldened Republicans are ready to push an ambitious agenda on everything from health care to infrastructure, issues that will be the subject of intense lobbying from corporate interests. The House Republicans’ move would take away both power and independence from an investigative body, and give lawmakers more control over internal inquiries.

Among other things, the changes would destroy the independence of the OCE, making them answerable only to Congress. It would also bar them from investigation criminal matters or talk to whistleblowers.

When the Republican revolution happened in 1994, it was driven, at least in part, by the hideous corruption of the Democrats (see., e.g., Dan Rostenkowski). One of the things that made me happy was the GOP immediately changed the way Congress did business, increasing transparency and accountability, making laws apply to them as well as the public and cracking down on perks. This is an ugly step in the opposite direction.

Speaker Ryan has spoken against this measures as has Trump. We’ll see how it does when it comes up for a full vote.

Update: Shortly after I posted this, the GOP withdrew the rules change.

Year in Review

They year hasn’t ended until Dave Barry posts his Year in Review. And you know this one’s going to be a humdinger:

Let’s begin with the gruesome train wreck that was the presidential election. The campaign began with roughly 14,000 candidates running. Obviously not all of them were qualified to be president; some of them — here we are thinking of “Lincoln Chafee” — were probably imaginary. But a reasonable number of the candidates seemed to meet at least the minimum standard that Americans have come to expect of their president in recent decades, namely: Not Completely Horrible.

So this mass of candidates began the grim death march that is the modern American presidential campaign — trudging around Iowa pretending to care about agriculture, performing in an endless series of televised debates like suit-wearing seals trained to bark out talking points, going to barbecue after barbecue and smiling relentlessly through mouthfuls of dripping meat, giving the same speech over and over and over, shaking millions of hands, posing for billions of selfies and just generally humiliating themselves in the marathon group grovel that America insists on putting its presidential candidates through.

After all that, the American people, looking for a leader, ended up with a choice between ointment and suppository. The fall campaign was an unending national nightmare, broadcast relentlessly on cable TV. CNN told us over and over that Donald Trump was a colossally ignorant, narcissistic, out-of-control sex-predator buffoon; Fox News countered that Hillary Clinton was a greedy, corrupt, coldly calculating liar of massive ambition and minimal accomplishment. And in our hearts we knew the awful truth: They were both right.

It wasn’t just bad. It was the Worst. Election. Ever.

This is the one thing right before New Year’s I always look forward to. And Barry doesn’t disappoint.

Obama Whacks Russia

By comparison of Obama to Michael Corleone at the end of The Godfather is looking more and more apt:

President Barack Obama took unprecedented steps Thursday to retaliate against alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election, prompting vows from Russian authorities that Moscow will respond in kind.

The administration described Russia’s involvement as “Significant Malicious Cyber-Enabled Activities” and sanctioned six Russian individuals and five Russian entities, as well as ordering dozens of Russian diplomats to leave the country. This is the first time the names of Russian officials involved in the hacking have become public on the sanctions list.

Obama said 35 Russian diplomats have been ordered to leave the country and two Russian compounds are being closed under Thursday’s actions.

“Russia’s cyberactivities were intended to influence the election, erode faith in US democratic institutions, sow doubt about the integrity of our electoral process, and undermine confidence in the institutions of the US government,” a White House statement said. “These actions are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

According to statements from the White House and the Treasury Department, the government has sanctioned nine entities and individuals over their alleged interference in the election: the GRU and the FSB, two Russian intelligence services; four individual officers of the GRU; three companies that provided material support to the GRU’s operations. The US also sanctioned two Russian individuals for using cyber-enabled means to cause misappropriation of funds and personal identifying information.

I think this is appropriate, assuming the CIA is correct about Russian interference. The point is not that Russia “won” the election for Trump. The point is that they are sewing doubt and discord and trying to humiliate the US. It also, again, is about boxing Trump into a corner where he will have to actively lift the sanctions if he wants to kiss Putin’s butt.

The Obama-Israel Kerfuffle

The last week has been a bit fraught for US-Israeli relations. Last week, the US abstained from, rather than veto, a UN resolution condemning settlements in the West Bank. The US has abstained from or even supported condemnations of Israel before. But this one was unusually harsh. The Administration’s actions were condemned by Israel and Trump. Israel began expansion of the settlements in retaliation. And, today, Kerry gave a speech blasting the settlements as a threat to peace.

The Right Wing has gone with their default explanation (encouraged by Netanyahu) that Obama just hates Israel. If so, this hatred is hard to see. Obama has continued to give Israel $3 billion a year in military aide, was practically the only leader to support them during the War on Hamas and has, until now, blocked any UN actions against them. There is a profound disagreement between Obama and Israel on the Iran Deal. But the GOP seems to think that the proper relationship with Israel is to give them money, support everything they do and maybe go to war with Iran. As often I disagree with Obama’s foreign policy (such as it is), the alternative the GOP seems to prefer is just as silly. And let’s get some perspective here. The Administration has firmed up their opposition to the settlements which every Administration, Republican or Democrat, has opposed and which every Administration, Republican or Democrat, has seen as a problem for creating peace. Not as a big a problem as Palestine’s refusal to let Israel exist, but a problem nonetheless.

If I had to guess, I would say one of two things is going on here.

First, this may be Obama doing an end-of-the-Godfather settling of business. It’s no secret that Netanyahu has been a thorn in his side for the last eight years: opposing the Iran deal, which Obama saw a lasting legacy; expanding the settlements; meeting with the opposition party; interfering with … whatever it is Obama thinks he’s doing in Syria. So this may be one last slap in the ongoing slap fight between the two Administrations.

There’s another possibility and one I think is more likely: that Obama’s trying to tip Netanyahu out of office. Netanyahu’s approval ratings tend to be poor and he is currently mired in a corruption scandal. It’s possible that this could help tip him out of office, potentially putting someone in office who is less of a hardliner. Of course, it’a also possible it would make the Israelis rally behind him or replace him with someone who take an even harder line. But with Trump less than a month away from office, Obama might be trying to make Trump’s Israel policy, which includes moving our embassy to Jerusalem, harder to implement.

Or it may just be amateur hour. The problem with Obama’s supposed six-dimensional chess is that it’s often hard to tell the difference between six-dimensional cheese and just randomly bumbling around.

2016 Ending on a Low Note

Jesus:

Carrie Fisher, the actress best known as Star Wars‘ Princess Leia Organa, has died after suffering a heart attack. She was 60.

Family spokesman Simon Halls released a statement to PEOPLE on behalf of Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd:

“It is with a very deep sadness that Billie Lourd confirms that her beloved mother Carrie Fisher passed away at 8:55 this morning,” reads the statement.

“She was loved by the world and she will be missed profoundly,” says Lourd. “Our entire family thanks you for your thoughts and prayers.”

Fisher was flying from London to Los Angeles on Friday, Dec. 23, when she went into cardiac arrest. Paramedics removed her from the flight and rushed her to a nearby hospital, where she was treated for a heart attack. She later died in the hospital.

Within the last 48 hours, we’ve also lost Vera Rubin, who discovered dark matter and was an inspiration to generations of women who went into astronomy, and George Michael, whose music I didn’t particularly love but who meant a lot to many.

There’s been some arguing over whether 2016 has actually been that bad for celebrity deaths. The argument goes that we have more famous people than ever before and many of those are at an age where death is not unexpected (e.g., Rubin, who was 88). I can see that argument. And I won’t mourn too heavily for someone who lives to be in their 80’s or 90’s. But we’ve seen a lot of big names taken this year well before their time — Prince, Bowie and now Fisher. So I can see both sides of the argument.

Either way, Fisher was an icon to my generation and her presence in The Force Awakens was one of the many good things about it. I don’t know if you’ve seen Rogue One, but if you have, you’ll know why the ending of that movie is now particularly poignant (the movie is great, BTW, and you should totally see it).

RIP, Ms. Fisher. We didn’t have you with us nearly long enough.

Israel to the Rescue

This seems like … a really smart thing to do:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instructed the Foreign Ministry to explore ways of increasing the humanitarian aid that Israel provides to Syrian civilians wounded during the civil war in that country, particularly in the battle for Syria’s largest city Aleppo.

Netanyahu announced the move on Tuesday, during a reception for foreign correspondents based in Israel.

The prime minister added that he had instructed the ministry to find way of bringing wounded civilians from Aleppo to Israel for treatment in Israeli hospitals.

Israel has actually been doing this for some time now, bringing thousands of wounded civilians out of the fray, giving them medical attention in field hospitals on the border, then returning them to Syria. But given the appalling atrocities in Aleppo, it looks like they’re going to ramp up the program, transporting Syrians across Syrian territory into Israeli territory.

I have to give credit to Netanyahu, who is the only leader who has kept his wits about him during the Syrian crisis. He supports keeping Assad in power, fearing what might happen if Assad falls and some more radical group takes over (hello, ISIS). Israeli forces have been striking ISIS targets in Syria and he’s been working hard to make sure the Israelis and the Russians don’t accidentally end up shooting at each other. He has so far resisted calls to accept refugees, believing (correctly) that this raises the danger of Israeli Jews one day becoming a religious minority in their own country. I really can’t fault him in any steps he’s taken. And this one is just another opportunity to demonstrate that, for all the (sometimes justified) criticism, Israel is still the most modern and humanitarian country in the region. What other country in the Middle East would lend medical aid to the citizens of a nation with whom they are, technically, still at war? And yet, Israel is the only one with a huge Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement targeted against it.

This is what a coherent foreign policy looks like, incidentally. We haven’t seen one in a long time and I’m dubious that we’ll see it under Trump. But Netanyahu has identified his country’s interests — keeping the devil they know in power, avoiding conflict with Russia and lending humanitarian aide — and executed it. If the big powers had been so coherent in their foreign policy, tens of thousands of people might not have died so needlessly.

Done Deal

I know this comes as a shock. I mean, after all, there were appeals for the Electoral College to overturn the election from Martin Sheen and Michael Moore. But, no, the Electoral College vote went … almost as expected:

Donald Trump has surpassed the necessary 270 votes in the Electoral College, the next step in the official process to become President.

Trump received 304 electoral votes to Hillary Clinton’s 224. Six “faithless” electors voted for other candidates, costing Trump two votes and Clinton four. And Hawaii’s electors are still set to meet later Monday, with the state’s four votes expected to go to Clinton.

The results mean Trump — who lost the popular vote by more than 2 percentage points to Clinton — easily staved off a long-shot bid by opponents to turn Republican electors against him.

The Electoral College results will be officially certified January 6 during a joint session of Congress.

(Of course, I’m sure some crazy person will come up with a scheme whereby Congress could overturn the Electoral College.)

There were actually nine faithless electors today, matching the total of all election since 1912 combined. Two Texans voted for Kasich and Paul. Three Washingtonians voted for Colin Powell. One voted for Faith Spotted Eagle. One Minnesota elector and one Maine elector voted for Sanders but were overruled. And one Colorado elector voted for Kasich but was overruled.

And that is kind of amazing. I am a bit hesitant to read too much into the actions of nine people, but electors almost never do this. It was a protest vote, yes, but a protest vote with fire. It is a reminder that the 2016 election was a vote against political insiders and that the public will happily turn on Trump is he turns out to be just another insider in outsider clothing.

Hopefully, this will bring some closure and start to diminish the bad craziness we’ve seen from the Left since November 9. We need an opposition that has at least some of its marbles. And an opposition that is, for example, urging the Electoral College to overturn an election based on anonymous CIA claims that the Russians released some politically embarrassing information on the Democrats does not have its marbles.

Russia and Turkey

Last year, Turkey shot down a Russian plane. I wonder if this will make the tension worse:

Russia’s ambassador to Turkey was assassinated at an art exhibition in Ankara on Monday. The gunman shouted, “Do not forget Aleppo!” as he opened fire.

The shooting of Ambassador Andrey Karlov was captured on video. Russia’s foreign ministry described it as a “terror attack.”
“We are currently in contact with Turkish authorities, who are assuring us that a thorough, comprehensive investigation will be conducted,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in remarks broadcast on Russian television. “Murderers will be punished. Terrorism won’t sustain. We’ll fight it.”

For the moment, both countries are making the right noises, calling it an act of terror. But given the tensions in the region, specifically over Allepo, this has the potential to develop into a dangerous situation.