Post Politics Hour's Daily Politics Discussion

Robert Barnes
Washington Post Political and Supreme Court Reporter
Tuesday, February 17, 2009 11:00 AM

Don't want to miss out on the latest in politics? Start each day with The Post Politics Hour. Join in each weekday morning at 11 a.m. as a member of The Washington Post's team of White House and congressional reporters answers questions about the latest in buzz in Washington and The Post's coverage of political news.

Robert Barnes, Washington Post political and Supreme Court reporter, was online Tuesday, Feb. 17, at 11 a.m. ET to answer questions about the latest news from Washington, the court and the transition.

A transcript follows.

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Robert Barnes: Good morning, all. The fast pace continues, doesn't it, with President Obama signing the stimulus bill today and continuing his campaign-like schedule outside Washington. At the court, the reports seems to be good news for Justice Ginsburg, who has vowed to be back on the bench next Monday when the court resumes hearing oral arguments. So let's get to the questions.


Anonymous: Regarding many (not all) GOP governors supporting Obama's stimulus plan while GOP members of Congress oppose it: has either side commented on the other's position?

Robert Barnes: The difference you speak of was displayed vividly in Florida last week, where Gov. Charlie Crist joined the president in promoting the stimulus, and every Republican member of the state's congressional delegation opposed it. Crist is facing a huge budget shortfall, and needs all the help he can get. But I think there's also a bigger issue there. Covering the Republican Governors Association after the election, there was a real feeling there that they should be leading the party's rebirth, rather than members of Congress. The governors profess to be more pragmatic and less partisan. But that doesn't exactly translate into a message for the party.


South Riding, Va.: This may sound silly with the current stimulus bill barely off the ground, but do they have a timeline in place to know if it is working and a "plan b" that they will deploy if the economy doesn't start showing signs that it is moving in the right direction?

Robert Barnes: I believe the general guideline, and I'm sure someone will correct me if I'm wrong, is that the effects are not likely to show for six months, and that is more of a "things stop getting worse" scenario than "things start getting a lot better." Some economists who believe the stimulus isn't big enough say Congress and the administration will be back in a year to do more.


Anonymous: President Obama still has a few vacancies to fill in his cabinet and I'm curious why it's taking so long -- is the bench not deep enough or is the (ha-ha) vetting process just that tough ?

Robert Barnes: It is a mammoth task to change an administration, and Obama's missteps re Daschle and the Commerce secretary job have hurt. On the other hand, this group's been pretty busy. I think we can rule out the vetting process being too stringent, no?


North Manchester, Ind.: I have seen some over-wrought pieces on how the Roberts' court is going to do away with the exclusionary rule. I haven't been able to find the facts on the case that is apparently before the Court. Since bad facts can make for bad law, have you seen this case's underlying situation?

Robert Barnes: That speculation is based on a January 5-4 decision that said evidence seized in an improper arrest doesn't always have to result in a conviction being thrown out. Chief Justice Roberts wrote that "when police mistakes are the result of negligence such as that described here, rather than systemic error or reckless disregard of constitutional requirements," the evidence need not be barred.

Some folks seemed to think the decision was the logical extension of an earlier court decision, while others wonder if it is a change in how the court views the Fourth Amendment.

Here's a link to the story


Poplar Bluff, Mo.: Robert, thanks for the chat. Do you think the bill to give D.C. a vote in Congress will pass in the Senate and do you think it will be challenged in court? Thanks.

Robert Barnes: I'm afraid I no longer try to predict what will happen to the DC voting bill, but I think it's safe to say that if it passes, it will be challenged in court.

_______________________ Evidence Is Valid, Despite Police Error (Post, Jan. 15)


Raleigh, N.C.: Good morning. If you've poked around various lefty blogs, you've probably seen the chart tracking filibusters, and how their use has been steadily increasing before skyrocketing in the last Congress. Going forward, it's apparent that the filibuster could make the Maine senators the most powerful pols outside of Obama in Washington. One thought I've seen is that someone could sue and say that the Constitution says legislation has to pass by a majority, and the filibuster is unconstitutional. There is definitely evidence in the first 50 or so years of the Republic that those closest to the Founding Fathers didn't intend for their to be a supermajority requirement in the Senate.


Robert Barnes: Couple of filibuster questions. As to your point, I think it unlikely the courts would get involved in the Senate filibuster. And we could certainly debate which side abuses the process, but seems to me both parties like the system when it works to their advantages. But let the debate begin.


Farmington Hills, MI: Robert,

After reading Mr. Cohen's article in the Post this morning I am confused. He claims that districts are gerrymandered to favor incumbents but that because lobbyists contribute so much campaign money they have inordinate influence. Shouldn't a politician who is more secure in reelection be less likely to need a lobbyist campaign funds? What is your opinion? Richard Cohen: Partisan Realities (Post, Feb. 17)

Robert Barnes: Chicken and egg. They are more likely to be reelected because it is easier for them to raise money..


Providence, R.I.: Robert, what upcoming Supreme Court cases are especially important, in your opinion? Thanks.

Robert Barnes: There are two cases on the court's upcoming docket that I think will be particularly revealing, and both involve race. One tests the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act, which was almost unanimously extended by Congress and signed by President Bush. The other questions the city of New Haven, Conn's decision to throw out the results of a test used to provide promotions to firefighters because minority candidates scored poorly on it. The case is brought by white firefighters who did well on the test.


Arlington, Va.: I noticed that Bob Martinez, a Republican senator from Florida, signed on to a letter by Gov. Crist and Sen. Nelson urging the administration to hurry the stimulus funds to Florida. One would have hoped that he would have fought against accepting them. Do you know any state, South Carolina maybe, where the state would turn the money down?

Robert Barnes: I think you mean Mel Martinez, but we get your point. There are some other questions on this as well. I know of no state that will turn down the stimulus money, and it would seem a hard sell to say Minnesota doesn't want the money that Minnesota taxpayers are providing to Washington. But anyone out there know of a governor who is saying, no thanks?


New York: Robert, is Minnesota going to get a second senator before the next election cycle? Thanks.

Robert Barnes: We're getting closer, right? I believe the courts there this week, perhaps as early as today, will have more on which disputed votes will be counted. One side is going to be very unhappy with the way this turns out. We'll look for a link to a recent Post story on this.


Rockville, Md.: Dear Mr. Barnes, I realize that you may not be a state politics expert, but I am wondering if you can clarify what it means when, in describing the California economy, legislators (and others) there are says that the economy is near collapse or going "off the cliff." These sound, of course, ominous, but what are the exact manifestations of going off the cliff? What does it mean for a state economy to collapse? The crisis is serious, but there is also hyperbole that muddies rather than clarifies a situation, is there not? Thanks!

Robert Barnes: I was just in California, and the stories do appear especially gloomy. They predict deep cuts in social services and layoffs of state employees, the same as in other states. There was also a decision in California last week that the prisons are severely overcrowded, and unless the state fixes the problem, tens of thousands of prisoners must be released.


Suburban Cincinnati: Hello, Mr. Barnes.

I know your expertise is in the courts, but can you tackle a question or comment on the stimulus package?

First, I don't see the benefit of giving the average worker an extra $8 per week in his paycheck. What is that going to do to stimulate the economy?

I'm if that guy, I go to the grocery store and pick up a six-pack or maybe buy some food. That is such a small amount of money that I can't see it doing much good at all. Better not to spend the money. I guess brewers will benefit.

On the other hand, I am self-employed. I run a public relations consulting group here in Cincinnati, and have a partner in Columbus. Clients are cutting back. In good years, I struggle to pay taxes every year. I'm struggling to pay the mortgage, utilities and bills, and my credit rating is sinking.

Deductions from paychecks do not apply to me. I am able to deduct most of my income taxes. But I have to pay both sides of the Social Security tax -- 15 percent of my gross income. A reduction or suspension of that tax is where Congress could have helped out workers, and especially self-employed workers.

What if anything is in there for self-employed workers? To be narcissistic, what's in it for me?

Robert Barnes: Your question deserves a more detailed response than I can provide, I'm afraid. There certainly has been criticism that, in balancing spending and tax cuts, the stimulus plan's efforts to provide both has shorted both.


New York: Robert, who is challenging the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act? Would it be southern states? Interesting. Thanks.

Robert Barnes: The challenge comes from a small municipal utility district in Austin, TX, which is relatively new and has no history of discrimination. It was selected for the challenge by a former Texas solicitor general who has been a critic of the Voting Rights extension.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: When Congress passes, and the president signs, a bill negating a Supreme Court decision -- most recently, the Lily Ledbetter Law -- can the Supreme Court overturn that legislation? If so, must it be on different grounds than their initial decision?

Robert Barnes: Well, the Ledbetter decision was based on congressional language that five members said necessitated their decision. Justice Ginsburg, in dissent, called on Congress to act, and even Justice Alito, who wrote the opinion, said Congress was free to change the law.


What's to Debate?: The Senate helpfully keeps track of the filibusters for us. The last Congress came in at 139 Filibusters in two years. These guys are already at four in about as many weeks. Not pretty. Cloture Motions - 110th Congress (U.S. Senate)

Robert Barnes: Thanks for the assistance.


Silver Spring, Md.: There will certainly be a lively debate over possible resumption of allowing photographs of the flag-draped coffins of the dead returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. My understanding was that individual soldiers were not identified, and that any family members present (not sure if any are there) are not photographed, and that photgraphs of individual soldiers' funerals are strictly off-limits to photographers, at least on federal property. I cannot see any justification for keeping the costs of the war hidden (okay, maybe the financial costs, as we have done by having tax cuts during a war). Someone could exploit the photos to show the wars have high costs, or that the dead must not have died in vain, but is that a justification to keep the dead hidden, as the Soviet Union tried to do during their war in Afghanistan? Pentagon Rethinks Photo Ban on Coffins Bearing War Dead (Post, Feb. 17)

Robert Barnes: It's an interesting question, Silver Spring, and I thought the Post story offered both sides. I can tell you, as a former editor, it was sometimes made difficult for the paper to cover burials at Arlington even when the family wanted the paper to write about the life and death of their loved one.


Filling the vacancies: I would add the issue that qualified people often have to take a pay cut to leave private sector. Question: should the Postmaster General make double the income of POTUS?

Robert Barnes: I can't answer your specific question, but certainly there are times when government must be paid a higher salary to get certain expertise (and please don't write in with post office horror stories, I'm not being specific here!) But in general, I think there are many qualified people who are willing to take a pay cut, at least for a short time, to serve an administration they admire.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Chief Justice Roberts recently pointed out that all nine current justices (as well as all others going back a few decades) have previously served as Appeals Court judges before ascending to the Supreme Court. Do you anticipate a candidate who has never served as an appellate judge ever being nominated and successfully confirmed as a Supreme Court justice, or are those days over?

Robert Barnes: I don't think those days are over, and I would expect that if Obama gets to nominate more than one justice, at least one will not come from the appeals court.


For Suburban Cincinnati: Stopping the payroll tax would be a bad idea for a number of reasons.

1. Last year we gave everyone $600 up to a certain income level so it was slightly progressive. Effect on economy -- zilch. Stopping the payroll tax is similar except that since it is a percentage of income, the rich get more benefit than the poor (regressive) so it would have even less effect -- zilch/2.

2. What would cover the losses in Social Security and Medicare?

3. At the end of the day, you may pay your bills, some guy may buy a Japanese TV, but how does the country benefit? If you use the money to build a bridge, repair a school or do cancer research, you get a bridge, a better school, or, who knows, maybe a cure for cancer.

Robert Barnes: We're running out of time, so I'm going to simply post some of your thoughts that are interesting, but don't seem like questions. Cincinnati's first.


Salinas, Calif.: Re: Arlington. "One would have hoped that he would have fought against accepting them -- stimulus funds to Florida." Will the citizens of Florida, or any other state in this present and future economy, feel good that their senator refused needed relief for their state knowing that he/she based their vote on party ideology rather than the facts on the ground?

Robert Barnes: Thanks, Salinas.


State Stimulus Funds: I believe Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Sarah Palin of Alaska all said they do not need/want stim money.

Robert Barnes: But are they going to turn it down?


New York: Gov. Tim Pawlenty was against the stimulus package, but says he's taking the money because his state pays more to the federal government than it gets back. Is this going to be a GOP mantra? Because if that's a good enough reason for taking the money, isn't it a good enough reason to support the bill? Seems a bit disingenuous, let alone hypocritical, to imply that money going to you is good, but the money going to everybody else is a big, fat case of generational theft. Thanks.

Robert Barnes: Thanks for writing, New York


Lyme, Conn.,: I am trying to read the stimulus bill (a bit wordy but good plot twists). My sense is either political party could be right about how this bill will work. The success or failure will be in how the spending is managed and implemented. Can Congress do anything to be more specific about the speed and accuracy in seeing spending occurs as intended and not possibly wasted or delayed?

Robert Barnes: I don't have a good answer for Lyme, but let's salute someone who is trying to read the bill.

That's all our time for today. I do appreciate all your good questions, and am sorry I couldn't get to them all. We do these almost every day, and maybe one of my colleagues will be able to get to yours.

We appreciate you spending time with The Post.


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