Challenging the election results.

Plus, how do bills actually get written?
Isaac Saul Jan 4, 2021
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 13 minutes.

The continuous attempt to overturn the election (and Trump’s phone call). Plus, how do bills even get written?

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is leading a charge to challenge the electoral college results this week. Photo: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America

Quick hits.

  1. New members of Congress were sworn in over the weekend. Democrats retained control of the House of Representatives with an 11-seat majority. As expected, Democrat Nancy Pelosi was re-elected as Speaker of the House. The control of the Senate will be determined in tomorrow’s runoff election in Georgia.
  2. The homes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were vandalized this weekend.
  3. The federal government is considering cutting the Moderna vaccine dosage in half to speed up immunization efforts. Moncef Slaoui, Operation Warp Speed’s chief advisor, said that two half doses in people between the ages of 18 and 55 gives an “identical immune response” to two full doses.
  4. Iran has resumed 20% uranium enrichment at its nuclear facility, breaching the terms of the deal the U.S. exited in 2018 that was being held in place by European powers.
  5. A judge in the United Kingdom has rejected a U.S. effort to extradite Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, who has been charged under the Espionage Act for leaking classified documents.

What D.C. is talking about.

Challenges to the election results. Yes, we’ve been here before: for the last two months, President Donald Trump and his allies have been filing unsuccessful court challenges to election results across the country. But now, the president is being joined by Republicans in the House and Senate in an effort to throw a wrench into what is usually the no-drama spectacle of Congress receiving the electoral college votes from the election.

At least 12 Republican senators or senators-elect and more than 140 Republican members of the House say they plan to “object” to the electoral college results when they’re delivered to Congress on Wednesday. The challenge will not change the outcome, nor the fact that Joe Biden will be sworn into office on January 20th, but it will force members back to their chambers to debate the validity of election results. In a world where Republicans had healthy control of the House and Senate, such a move might have actually changed — or at least significantly delayed — the outcome dictated by the votes.

The senators objecting to the results are Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Mike Braun (R-IN), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Steve Daines (R-MT), Josh Hawley (R-MO), Ron Johnson (R-WI), John Kennedy (R-LA), James Lankford (R-OK) and four newly-elected senators: Bill Hagerty (R-TN), Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), Roger Marshall (R-KS), and Tommy Tuberville (R-AL). The revolt is happening despite the fact that Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Republican leader of the Senate, has criticized the decision and asked them not to impede the process. Dozens of other Republican senators and members of the House have also criticized the move, as has every Democrat who could find a microphone.

On Sunday, things got kicked up a notch when a recording of an extraordinary call between President Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger was leaked to The Washington Post.

In the call, Trump insists that Raffensperger “find” nearly 12,000 votes, cites a number of debunked theories about how fraud was committed in Georgia, and repeatedly declares that he actually won the state by hundreds of thousands of votes (you can read a full transcript of the call here). Throughout the call, Trump openly pressures Raffensperger to help him change the results in Georgia, an outcome that would still leave him well short of the electoral college votes needed to be re-elected.

As certification approaches, columnists from the left and right have reacted to the relentless efforts to overturn the election and the planned challenges on Wednesday.


What the left is saying.

The left has excoriated Trump and the Republican members of Congress who are getting on board, describing his actions as a grave threat to democracy and insisting that it’s a straw man issue concocted as a long-term ploy to increase voter suppression.

“While the facts show that the November presidential election was clean and secure — and that there were no irregularities that could have moved the needle in any of these swing states — the myth that the vote was awash with fraud has taken hold among Republicans,” The Washington Post editorial board wrote. “‘We will fix this,’ the Georgia Republicans ominously promised. Fix what? Democracy?

“While many Republican state lawmakers may feel they need to say these things because their constituents believe President Trump’s lies about voter fraud, it is also the case that perpetuating the lies is politically useful for them,” the board added. “USA Today reports that state legislators across the country have called for election ‘reforms’ that would make it harder to vote, in response to a nonexistent election-fraud crisis they have cooked up. Depressing turnout, especially among populations that, say, lack photo ID or prefer to mail in their ballots, could tilt the playing field in favor of Republican candidates.”

In The New York Times, Charles Blow pointed out that Trump actually lost the election in the suburbs — not in the cities, where he is focusing most of his ire (and where he actually performed marginally better this time than he did in 2016).

“But that thought is antithetical to the war Trump wants to wage in America between the suburbs and what he deems problematic ‘inner cities’ and ‘Democrat-run cities’ — code for where concentrations of Black people and other people of color live,” Blow wrote. “That prevailing racialized perception in conservative politics is part of the danger that Trump’s campaign to undermine the election poses: It threatens to strengthen efforts to disenfranchise Black voters and other voters of color who disproportionately vote for Democrats in the future… Trump not only attempted to erase Black votes after they were cast, he attempted to suppress them before they were cast. This is nothing new among conservatives, but Trump has dragged the practice out of the back rooms and into the light of day once again, giving it a telegenic, digitally contagious persona.”

Ruth Marcus wrote that “Trump’s anti-democratic conduct is so flagrant and so repeated that we become inured to how abnormal and unacceptable it is,” and said Republicans are now using “the very voter fears that Trump so carefully nurtured and his allies have stoked to justify the need for extraordinary intervention.”

“Speaking to Fox News’s Maria Bartiromo, [Ted] Cruz cited ‘unprecedented allegations of voter fraud’ — allegations that emanate from Trump and his allies — that he said have ‘produced a deep, deep distrust of our democratic process across the country,’” Marcus wrote. “This is the arsonist calling the fire department to put out the blaze that he kindled.”


What the right is saying.

Republicans are once again split on the president’s actions. Many Republican members of Congress, former Republican politicians and prominent conservative pundits are criticizing Trump. But polling numbers show large swathes of the Republican base support the effort, and some of Trump’s most loyal supporters are insisting he continue to fight the “deep state” and “the swamp.”

In Powerline Blog, John Hinderaker made the case for challenging the election results, saying that while it won’t do much good in the short term (i.e. it won’t stop Biden/Harris from being inaugurated), it will be a step toward election integrity in the future.

“Democrats have gone ballistic over this news, with ‘sedition’ being one of their milder characterizations of Republican skepticism of official election results,” he wrote. “Of course, it was not always so. In the past, Democrats have objected to Electoral College results on the flimsiest possible grounds… In 2001, 2005 and 2017, Democratic Representatives and, in 2005, Senators voted against accepting the Electoral College tally. Thus, every Republican president since George H. W. Bush has seen Democrats vote against accepting the legitimacy of his election.

“2005 is the best analogy,” he added. “In that year, George W. Bush was re-elected rather easily over John Kerry, but the Democrats focused their rage on Ohio. They alleged that Bush’s re-election was illegitimate, mostly because the actual election results were different from certain exit polls, and also because of a ridiculous conspiracy theory involving Diebold voting machines. The vote in Ohio wasn’t even close; nevertheless, Democrats in both the House and Senate voted against accepting it.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial board called Trump’s actions, and Democrats’ refusal to ever accept his win in 2016, a “tragedy.”

“Democrats in 2016 abused the FBI to push the Russia collusion myth and refused to accept Donald Trump’s legitimacy,” the board wrote. “Hillary Clinton still doesn’t. Now some Republicans are returning the disfavor by challenging the ritual counting of the Electoral College votes by the new Congress this week. Neither one justifies the other, and these columns have called out Democrats for their anti-democratic panic attack… The leading culprit here is Mr. Trump, who as always refuses to accept responsibility for defeat.

“Note that the Senators in their statement don’t allege specific acts of fraud,” the board added. “Instead they cite ‘allegations of fraud and irregularities’ that feed ‘deep distrust’ of the results—distrust they and the President are feeding… The courts have rejected every Trump campaign attempt to intervene in the state results, often by judges appointed by the President. Mr. Trump’s lawyers make charges in public that they won’t even bring to a court, perhaps because they know there are penalties for speaking falsely before judges.”

Andrew McCarthy, who endorsed Trump before the election, openly questioned his decision, writing that it was “always a gamble” and that “the case for having supported the president’s reelection bid is harder to make.

“Since the election, we’ve had two months of a president publicly insisting the election was rigged while hoping no one noticed that his campaign expressly declined the invitation to prove massive fraud and illegality in Wisconsin,” McCarthy said. “In Pennsylvania, Trump’s team did not just formally drop fraud charges, they explicitly represented to federal courts that they were not alleging fraud… Don’t faint when the Democrats start to ‘raise critical issues’ too. If the election was rigged, for example, is that why Republicans did so much better than expected in the down-ballot contests? If Republicans are going to press the president’s claims, why wouldn’t Democrats target all those congressional seats and state houses won by the GOP?

“Four years from now, what’s to stop Democrats from delegitimizing an election some Republican has won by mimicking Trump’s own lines of argument?” McCarthy asked. “Conservatives can scream bloody murder while Democrats, relying on today’s House Republicans, insist that Vice President Kamala Harris has the unilateral authority to decide which states’ electoral votes to count, and which to invalidate as too suspect.”


My take.

What’s left to be said that I haven’t said already? As someone on the “front lines” of looking into these claims of election fraud, I’m at a loss. That the president would use his platform to deny he lost and raise millions of dollars to support baseless allegations of fraud is as unsurprising as it is disappointing. He claimed widespread fraud in 2016 when he won, insisting that 3 million people voted illegally (four years later, by the way, we still have zero evidence of anything close to that).

That more than 140 House Republicans and a quarter of the Republican Senate would sign onto this nonsense is also disheartening. Politico’s Tim Alberta, who has been one of the best reporters covering the GOP for decades, seemed to have finally snapped on Twitter. “Words matter. It's past time we reformed our political terminology,” he said. “We should not—for the rest of their careers—refer to any of these Republican E.C. objectors as ‘conservatives.’ They are radicals. They are extremists. There is nothing conservative about subverting democracy.”

I’m finding it hard to disagree with him.

There’s no precedent for what’s happening right now. Hinderaker is right that Democrats have objected to election results in the past, but he glosses over the fact it was a couple of rogue politicians out of a 535-member Congress. In 2004, Democrat John Kerry openly disavowed an effort to object to the results in his name. In 2016, Hillary Clinton called Trump and conceded, and publicly addressed the nation, the morning after her defeat. Yes, she has called him illegitimate and continues to today. But that’s peanuts compared to what we’ve got going on now. The high-minded constitutionalists like Ted Cruz point to 1877, and that too is spurious. At that time, a commission was appointed precisely because several states didn’t certify their results — the exact opposite of what is happening this year.

For weeks, I’ve wondered if Trump actually believed any of this fraud stuff or was just rallying the base. The mindblowing call with Raffensperger (seriously, you should read the transcript) affirms that he’s taken it hook, line and sinker. He recites the same absurd, silly, and illogical theories I’ve deconstructed in the pages of this newsletter for two months. He ignores the fact that Georgia has counted its ballots three times, once by hand, with little discrepancy. He claims he could not have possibly lost because a lot of people attended his rallies. He is in complete and utter denial that 81 million Americans showed up to vote for a 78-year-old establishment Democrat because it doesn’t compute with the “reality” his media diet, aides and allies feed him: that he is the most beloved president of all time.

“There’s nothing wrong with saying, you know, um, that you’ve recalculated,” Trump says to Raffensperger at one point. Actually, um… yes, there is. Not only would such a move be completely illegal, subvert the will of voters and destroy American democracy, it would also cause a massive civil uprising from the left.

The truth is that Trump lost. Handily. Precisely because so many people find “Trumpism” — the kind of detached-from-reality, burn-it-all-down politics we’ve witnessed for the last two months — that repulsive. Biden is hardly an inspiring candidate, and his politics have been a letdown to millions for decades. But, to 81 million Americans, Trump is just that much worse.

Many readers of this newsletter will accuse me of just being another deranged anti-Trumper. Some will dismiss me as a communist or radical left (some, to my amazement, already have). My response to them is simple: Is Mitch McConnell an anti-Trumper? Is Tom Cotton a closet liberal? Is Dick Cheney a communist? These politicians, and many others across the conservative political spectrum, are alarmed and vehemently opposed to what’s happening now. The truth is everyone at or near the center sees this for the deranged obscenity that it is — it’s the actual partisans on the far-right who view what’s happening as remotely acceptable.

It’s gotten so bad that all 10 living former Defense Secretaries — Republicans and Democrats — felt compelled to pen a joint op-ed insisting that there is no role for the military to play in overturning election results. Is anyone concerned yet?

In 2016, many liberals were in a bubble. They were blind to the parts of the country that saw Obama’s presidency as a failed effort to buck the establishment; obsessed with the idea that Hillary Clinton was preordained to make history and dismissed the possibility that Trump could defeat her. But that bubble pales in comparison to the one 25% of the country inhabits now — a bubble where the results will somehow change, where Trump will serve a second term, where widespread fraud actually took place, and where Democrats were somehow clever enough to steal a presidential election yet not to take the Senate, or to expand their majority in the House, or to reclaim any statehouses.

This charade — the president calling state election officials insisting they commit illegal acts, Republican senators making theater out of a benign process to formalize the Biden presidency — won’t change the outcome of the 2020 election. But it will certainly change the future of politics, which somehow just got a whole lot uglier, and probably change the future of voting, which miraculously might be more cumbersome in four years than it already is.


Your questions, answered.

Q: All this talk of how inconceivably long the recently passed COVID/omnibus bill is reminds me of a question I've had before when hearing about very long bills. How does a bill like this get written?  Who does the writing, how many of them are there, and when does it get done?  Is a lot of it copy/paste from previous bills?  Or do all the individual provisions get written months in advance and then they're just deciding which pieces to include when assembling the whole thing?  It's all quite fascinating (and opaque) to me, so I'd love to hear any details you can share.

— Mike, Livermore, California

Tangle: For today’s reader question, I asked one of the Tangle editors — Sean Brady — to write up a reply of his own. Sean works as a proofreader for the Texas Legislative Council, so he has an inside look at how this works at the state level. Here’s his response:

Good question! Before talking about the recent giant omnibus bill in particular, I want to crack down on a couple of assumptions that I imagine a lot of everyday Americans have about the legislative process. At least, these were things that I assumed were true until I started my current day job and gained a clearer understanding:

First, the question of who actually writes bills. If you grew up on Schoolhouse Rock, as I did, you would be excused for thinking that representatives and senators in Congress do the actual writing. While that might have been true originally, it is very rarely the case today. The House and Senate each have an Office of the Legislative Counsel, a politically neutral government agency that includes a team of dozens of expert attorneys. A representative who wants to create a small piece of legislation, whether to make good on a campaign promise or at the insistence of lobbyists or constituents, will communicate a concept or set of priorities to an attorney at the Counsel (usually through an aide or staffer, rather than directly). That attorney will then put together a draft and return it to the representative’s office for approval.

Second, if you’ve never read the actual text of a bill, you might imagine that it looks like a nicely worded email, something like “The House moves to allocate $900 billion towards COVID-19 relief. Attached is a breakdown of specific areas of funding and respective amounts. Thanks!”

Spoiler alert: It doesn’t. Here is an example of a small, friendly little House bill from 2009 about small business contracts. While you can certainly find information in there if you know where to look, it’s full of parentheses, numbers, abbreviations and run-on sentences, and looks as if it was written in 1885. The attorneys who create these drafts follow a system of language requirements and formatting guidelines to try to ensure that the message and purpose of the legislation is airtight and can’t be easily dismantled in court by an unhappy party.

Also, as you guessed in your question, drafting attorneys will always write bills that make small changes to already existing law if possible, rather than create something from scratch. They do that because it’s way easier, but more importantly, they do it to make sure they aren’t contradicting any provisions already set out somewhere else in our vast legal code.

As far as the omnibus spending bill goes, the answer to most of your questions, as I understand the situation, is yes. Large bills are created by one or more of the various committees and subcommittees in Congress, with the help of the Legislative Counsel offices and other related departments in Washington. The massive 5,000-page tome that included the COVID relief is really a compilation of a number of large budget bills, and it was published by the House Appropriations Committee, a bipartisan group of 53 representatives led by Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-NY).

The first 1,800 or so pages of the omnibus consist of the budget determinations for each of the 12 House appropriations (the corrected list of which can be found in last Tuesday’s Tangle). Each of those budget bills, as you can imagine, is one of the most important pieces of legislation passed by its respective committee each year, legislation that takes weeks or months to craft and often sees multiple revisions.

So yes, it was likely more a matter of assembly. While the Legislative Counsel attorneys almost certainly worked absurd hours in the lead-up to the passage of that bill last week, you can bet they were given much more time to write it than members of Congress were given to read it. Political plays and motivations aside, it was a monumental accomplishment of production by everyone involved behind the scenes.


A story that matters.

Veterans Affairs hospitals across the country still lack the proper Personal Protective Equipment and supplies to battle COVID-19, according to a ProPublica report. “As COVID-19 overwhelmed the antiquated system, VA leadership asked employees at more than 170 hospitals to enter inventory by hand into spreadsheets every day and did ‘not have insight’ into how resources were being deployed,” a government accountability report said. Some nurses are still reusing N95 masks every day, and more than 90 VA staff members have died of the virus.


Numbers.

  • 4.33 million. The number of vaccine doses that have been administered, according to a Bloomberg count.
  • 33%. The percentage of the vaccines distributed to states that have been administered, according to a Bloomberg count.
  • 1,193,881. The number of people who traveled through airports on Saturday, the most since the beginning of the pandemic.
  • 201,908. The number of new coronavirus cases recorded in the United States yesterday.
  • 1,353. The number of new coronavirus deaths recorded in the United States yesterday.
  • 20,666,700. The number of Americans who have been infected with coronavirus since the pandemic began.

Did you know?

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Have a nice day.

A new law in Virginia has capped the price of insulin at $50 for a 30-day supply. The bill, Act 66, could impact nearly one million Virginians who are living with diabetes. Previously, three-month supplies of insulin in Virginia could cost as much as $900, a price that was prohibitive for many families. Price increases in insulin have been a major focus of groups who criticize Big Pharma for jacking up prices on drugs these patients can’t live without. Nine states have now passed bills limiting the cost of insulin: Colorado, Illinois, Maine, New Mexico, New York, Utah, Washington, and West Virginia.

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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