Episode 82: Lessons from LBJ and the Great Society

The Voting Rights Act.  The Civil Rights Act. Medicare. Vietnam. The 1960s were a transformational time for America and at the center of much of it was Lyndon B. Johnson.  This year marks the 50th anniversary for landmark legislation that would not have been possible without one of Washington’s most heralded legislators.

On this week’s podcast, host Andrea Seabrook sits down with Julian Zelizer, author of  “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society.” Zelizer says yes, Lyndon Johnson was an incredible legislator. But in order to really understand how he was able to move massive change through Congress, we have to look at the broader social and political context of the time.

It’s this bigger picture, says Zelizer, that can give us clues on how to break through today’s Washington gridlock.

Episode 81: The ultimate insider's tour of the U.S. Senate

For spring break, we are going to take you on the ultimate insider’s tour of the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol. Your guide: Senate historian Donald Ritchie, who will retire in May after nearly 40 years in the Senate Historical Office.

The office serves as the Senate's “institutional memory,” according to its Website, collecting information on important dates, precedents and statistics. But it is so much more. Movie set designers, mystery writers and biographers have depended on Donald Ritchie to answer the serious and the trivial questions about everything from carpet color to whether this is actually the most do-nothing Congress.

We asked Ritchie for a tour of some of his favorite places in the Senate – and some of our's too – such as:

  • Lyndon Johnson’s Senate office, nicknamed “the Taj Mahal” for its ornate decorations.
  • The Old Senate Chamber, where the Senate met from 1810 to 1859. When senators first gathered there, there were 32 of them. By the time they moved out in 1859, there were 64 -- and no more room. It also is the room where abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner was severely beaten by a Southern lawmaker during the pre-Civil War debates over slavery.
  • The original Library of Congress – a small room that started as a law library. When the British set the Capitol on fire in 1814, they used the books in this library as fuel for the blaze. Thomas Jefferson sold his private book collection to the federal government to restock the facility and the rest is, well, library history.
  • The Senate bathtubs tucked deep in the Capitol. Marble soaking tubs date back to the 1850s and were a pleasure -- and hygienic necessity -- when senators would arrive after long, hot carriage rides.

So come behind the scenes with guest host Todd Zwillich and Senate historian Donald Richie on this week’s DecodeDC podcast.

And for a look at the some of the sites we visited, check out the slideshow below from our staff photographer, Matt Anzur. You also can see full size versions of the images on the Scripps Washington bureau Flickr page.


Episode 80: U.S., Russia and Ukraine: A web of complexity

It isn’t every day that Democrats and Republicans are on the same side of anything, so it may come as a surprise that the nation of Ukraine has not only brought them together, but brought them together in opposition to the White House. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle feel the United States should send lethal weapons to help Ukraine in its fight against Russia. The White House does not.

Only minutes before the 113th Congress was about to adjourn in December, the Ukraine Freedom Support Act passed unanimously. Four days later President Barack Obama signed it into law, authorizing $350 million in lethal and nonlethal military assistance to Ukraine. But while the bill allowed the United States to send weapons to Ukraine, it didn’t force the administration to send them – and it hasn’t. Ukraine is still waiting.

The U.S.-Russian relationship is complicated – real complicated. On the one hand, there are disagreements and clashes between the two countries over Ukraine’s sovereignty. On the other hand, they need to work together on things such as a nuclear deal with Iran. And that may mean that even though Congress has overcome its usual gridlock on this one issue, the former member of the Soviet bloc may never get its weapons. 

On this week’s podcast, guest host Todd Zwillich decodes the web of foreign policy issues around sending – or not sending – weapons to Ukraine. It’s a story that reaches from Washington to Moscow to Berlin to Tehran.

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Episode 79: The six words behind the case against Obamacare

“What did they know and when did they know it?”

It’s Washington’s favorite question for scandal, for mystery or subterfuge.

Senator Howard Baker coined “what did they know and when did they know it” back in the Watergate hearings. It’s what lawmakers are asking about politics within the IRS, what regulators asked bank executives about the financial crisis and, of course, what EVERYONE wants to know about Hillary Clinton’s emails.

But it also is the question at the heart of the current challenge to the Affordable Care Act, the ACA, also known as Obamacare. That’s the challenge the Supreme Court heard last week. Specifically, what did the people who wrote the law know about six words in the middle of a 906-page document. Those words stipulate that for people who cannot afford health care coverage, subsidies are available through “an exchange established by the state.”

A key reminder, an exchange is just another word for a marketplace where you can go and buy health insurance. If you know anything about the ACA, you know that the federal exchange, or at least its web site, healthcare.gov., was a disaster when it first launched. States have the option to set up their own exchanges and skip the federal marketplace altogether.

The government argued before the court that those words refer to any exchange, whether it was set up and run by the state or run for the state by the federal government. After all, it’s called the Affordable Care Act because the whole goal was to make health insurance affordable to everyone.

The people challenging the law say the language is clear, it means exactly what it says. They argue that the Democrats who wrote those words actually wanted to withhold federal subsidies from states that didn’t build exchanges. That was their intention – a sort of carrot and stick.

Michael Cannon, director of Health Policy Studies at the libertarian CATO Institute did research into those six words that formed the basis of the court challenge, and this is what he says:

“It’s very clear right there in the statute. … Congress really meant that -- they intended that,” he said. “We thought that we were going to find that that was just a drafting error, that those words were accidentally slipped into the law and that’s not the case. All the evidence points to the conclusion that Congress meant to do this.”

John McDonough, who was a top aid to Sen. Ted Kennedy and deeply involved in writing the text of the ACA in 2009, says there’s no mystery about what the lawmakers meant when they wrote those words:

“Absolutely every member who voted for the law and every staffer involved in crafting the law fully understood that the subsidies would flow and were intended to flow to all 50 states regardless of whether they had a state exchange or if they had a federal exchange.”

McDonough says the opponents to Obamacare are just cherry picking six words.

“The Supreme Court has talked repeatedly that you never interpret a law just looking at random words here and there. You interpret a law based upon the context and the whole meaning of the whole statute and when you do that, there is no argument left.”

Our podcast guest host, Todd Zwillich examines how those six words have became a federal case and why this law never got the copy-editing it deserved.

Episode 78: Generation Me

Political scientists and lawyers have had their chance to diagnose the causes of the obvious ills in the American body politic, and to write some prescriptions.  It’s high time to give some other faculties a chance.

In this week’s podcast, we talk to a psychologist, Dr. Jean Twenge, of San Diego State University and the author of “Generation Me.” Twenge’s research often involves psychological differences between generations. Her writings are smart, thought provoking and very in tune with the times.

One research finding we talk about in the podcast is that the well-documented decline in the trust Americans have in government and big institutions mirrors a decline in trust we have for each other.  We just generally trust people less than we have in the recent past.  So which is the chicken and which is the egg, less trust in people or in “the system”? It is all scrambled.

Twenge suspects that a big part of this change is that Americans’ identity – our sense of individualism – is much less bound up in belonging to community, traditions, institutions and groups than it used to be.  If that’s the case, it makes sense that we are more alienated from politics and government.

Twenge has found this trend is exaggerated among young people, which is depressing.  Millennials, she says, are especially uninterested in the civic world around them and less idealistic.  And she says they have good reason.