August 24, 2021
Since August 14, just ten days ago, the U.S. has facilitated the evacuation of 70,700 people from Afghanistan; more than 21,000 flew out in the last day alone. President Biden maintains that the U.S. will be out of Afghanistan by the August 31 deadline.
The evacuation, which began chaotically as the Afghan army and government crumbled and the Taliban took over the country in less than two weeks, has become far more orderly and efficient. (If there’s one thing the military does exceedingly well, it’s move large numbers of people!)
The administration has refused to say how many Americans remain in the country— the State Department urged employees to leave the country beginning in April—but its reluctance is likely out of concern about passing that information on to the Taliban. This evening, Ned Price, the State Department spokesperson, said that the department has called every American who has expressed an interest in leaving Afghanistan, identifying them through a repatriation form on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
News broke today that the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, William J. Burns, met secretly on Monday in Kabul with a Taliban leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar, to discuss the continuing evacuation efforts. Regardless of what they discussed, it seems to me a sign that the U.S. feels secure enough about the safety of Kabul to risk sending the country’s top spy there for a parley.
Another demonstration of that security came today when two Representatives, Peter Meijer (R-MI) and Seth Moulton (D-MA), took it upon themselves to fly to Kabul, unannounced ("to conduct oversight on the mission to evacuate Americans and our allies," Moulton’s office said). The State Department and U.S. military personnel were said to be furious that they had to "divert resources to provide security and information to the lawmakers.” “It’s as moronic as it is selfish,” a senior administration official told the Washington Post. “They’re taking seats away from Americans and at-risk Afghans—while putting our diplomats and service members at greater risk—so they can have a moment in front of the cameras.”
Although no Americans have yet been hurt in the evacuation, that state of affairs is precarious. Threats of an attack on the Kabul airport from ISIS-K, which would like to destabilize the Taliban before it cements its power, continue to loom.
Meanwhile, Congress is busy at home. The House of Representatives has a number of major bills before it. It has the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill for road, bridges, broadband, and other so-called “hard” infrastructure projects, and its counterpart, the $3.5 trillion list of Democratic priorities for “soft” infrastructure, including child care, housing, funding for measures addressing climate change, education, and so on.
These bills represent the largest investment in America since at least the 1960s. They are also a signature effort for the Democrats. They reject the Republican policy of replacing government action with private investment spurred by tax cuts, returning the nation to the era before the Reagan Revolution.
The House is also considering two major voting rights acts. One is the For the People Act, which protects the right to vote, ends partisan gerrymandering; reduces corporate money in elections; and requires new ethics rules for elected officials. The other is the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which is more limited than the For the People Act but which has been carefully tailored to address the Supreme Court’s previous reasoning for gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2013 and again in July of this year.
The John Lewis Act would restore the power of the Department of Justice to prevent states from restricting the vote, as Republican-dominated states have been rushing to do since the 2020 election.
Democrats from different parts of the country and with different constituencies have different priorities. Holding them together, especially on the infrastructure bill, has not been easy. Progressives refused to agree to the bipartisan bill until they were assured it would not replace the larger package. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi agreed to move the two forward together, and then, on August 12, nine Democrats from moderate districts demanded a vote on the bipartisan bill without waiting for the larger measure.
Meanwhile, those who see voting rights as the single most important issue for Congress right now have been frustrated as the infrastructure bills have taken up so much of Congress’s time.
Negotiations led today to a House vote on a rule that folded together these concerns. It approved the start of the process of writing the $3.5 trillion bill, guaranteed a vote on the bipartisan bill by September 27, and called for a vote on the John Lewis voting rights measure. The vote on the rule was 220 to 212 with all Democrats voting yes and all Republicans voting no.
The House then passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act by a vote of 219 to 212. Not a single Republican voted yes. The bill now moves to the Senate, where Republicans plan to kill it with the filibuster.
Yesterday’s full approval of the Pfizer vaccine by the Food and Drug Administration has, as expected, led to more requirements for proof of vaccination in public spaces. Today, Louisiana State University announced that no one will be admitted to football games without proof of vaccination or a recent negative Covid test. Ohio State University explicitly said that the FDA's full approval of the vaccine meant it would require its staff, students, and faculty to be vaccinated. Biden’s efforts to combat the pandemic seem to be gaining ground again.
Each of these major news items shows a remarkably effective political party, especially since the Democrats are accomplishing as much as they are while—with the exception of a handful of Republicans willing to sign on to the bipartisan infrastructure package—Republicans are doing all they can simply to stop the Democrats.
This week, Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania announced they are starting hearings on the 2020 election to address their concerns that it was fraudulent. Republicans in the Wisconsin legislature, too, are revisiting the 2020 election. An “audit” of the 2020 election in Arizona has been plagued with irregularities, errors, and problems: it was supposed to announce its “results” this week—three months behind schedule—but three of the five leaders from the Cyber Ninjas conducting the audit are sick with Covid.