American Daily: March 25, 2015

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

25 March 2015

“I grew up listening to classic rock and I’ll tell you sort of an odd story,” Cruz explained to CBS This Morning on Tuesday morning (March 24). “My music taste changed on 9/11. And it’s a very strange… I actually find this very curious, but 9/11… I didn’t like how rock music responded, and country music collectively, the way they responded, it resonated with me, and I have to say it, just as a gut level, I had an emotional reaction that says, ‘These are my people.’
  • Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan need to keep a better check on their web presence

But other potential GOP presidential nominees need to up their website game. Take Sen. Ted Cruz. Unfortunately for the Texas Republican, long before he ran for Senate in 2012, had been nabbed by an Arizona attorney who shares his name. Based on a search of the Wayback Machine, an internet archive, the Arizona Cruz's website dates back to at least early 2008, when it was a normal, if slightly Geocities-tinged, business website. "Putting All Your Real Estate Needs In 'CRUZ CONTROL,'" the attorney's tagline said at the time. But sometime within the past year he ditched his law site to instead mock the would-be-president. On a simple black background, in large font, the website screamed: "COMING SOON, Presidential Candidate, I Luv CHRISTIE!!!!!" Attorney Cruz wouldn't say anything to Mother Jones over email except to acknowledge that he has owned the domain for several years. But he deleted the section about loving Christie shortly thereafter. Given the initial message, though, it seems unlikely that the Arizona attorney will be easily persuaded to relinquish control of the domain to the senator.

I discussed the Tax Foundation report with 10 public finance economists ranging across the ideological spectrum, all of whom said its estimates of the economic effects of tax cuts were too aggressive. “This would not pass muster as an undergraduate’s model at a top university,” said Laurence Kotlikoff, a Boston University professor whom the Tax Foundation specifically encouraged me to call.
Here’s why there was a Confederate flag in each of those windows on the second floor in Davis Hall. The school, being as small as it was, had Greek organizations, but rather than having separate Greek housing, they had Greek floors in the dorms where all members lived. The floor with the Confederate flags in the windows was inhabited by the men of Kappa Alpha Order, known as the KAs. Every black person on campus (and those who were attuned to racial insensitivity) knew to stay away from the KAs. They were the good ol’ Southern boys, and the organization itself was founded on loaded terms like “chivalry,” “modern knighthood” (gee, why does that sound familiar?), and the “ideal Christian gentleman.” They list Confederate commander Robert E. Lee as their “spiritual founder,” which still doesn’t really make much sense to me, and though it wasn’t their official emblem, they were very, very fond of the Confederate flag. Those windows and the flags in them belonged to the KAs.

"Pimp My Ride" premiered on MTV in 2004 with a straightforward premise that was beautiful in its simplicity: Take a kid with a beat up car and have the rapper Xzibit orchestrate a massive and ridiculous upgrade. The theme song explained it all in just a few lines: "So you wanna be a player, but your wheels ain't fly / You gotta hit us up, to get a pimp't out ride."

But although the show operated within such a minimal framework, things were a bit more complicated behind the scenes. From cars that would break down in a matter of weeks to fat-shaming a contestant to one MTV employee apparently trying to convince another car owner to break up with his girlfriend, there was a lot more to the creation of this show than Xzibit simply saying, "Yo dawg."

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The Homer Simpson rule and Donald Trump

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

23 March 2015

Donald Trump

Hello everyone. You might have seen news last week that TV personality and real-estate mogul Donald Trump has formed an exploratory committee to investigate a presidential run. This is further than he got in 2012, when he stoked a lot of speculation about a run, but did not undertake any of the necessary administrative steps to becoming a declared candidate. 

Now that Trump is more formally running in 2016, this is a good opportunity to remind you of the Homer Simpson rule of American politics:

There's an episode from season six of "The Simpsons" in which a young Homer sees Jack Kennedy on TV. Homer's mother suggests to her husband that their son might grow up to be President. Grampa, however, scoffs at the idea. "You, President?" he sneers. "This is the greatest country in the world. We've got a whole system set up to prevent people like you from becoming President."

I think Grampa Simpson had it right. As much as the American system is designed to give members of a party base the power to choose its nominees, there is so much vetting involved that if the party insiders in Fairfax genuinely don't want someone to be a nominee, they won't be.

In other news, the Houston Chronicle is reporting that Senator Ted Cruz of Texas will announce a bid today. Senator Cruz is in a different league to Trump, if only by dint of being an elected politician rather than a joke, but the Homer Simpson rule applies to him, too. There are a lot of people in the Republican Party who don't want Cruz to be their nominee, and that will make it very difficult for him to get the nod.

Finally, when Jeb Bush first announced his interest in running, I said I was skeptical of his chances. Three months later, and my prediction seems to still be up in the air. Bush hasn't crashed and burned, but he hasn't cleared the field either.

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American Daily: March 19, 2015

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

19 March 2015

  • Anwen Crawford reviews Kendrick Lamar's new album, To Pimp a Butterfly.
“To Pimp a Butterfly” is a capacious record, and it will accommodate many interpretations, but it is, importantly, a record about patrimony, both personal and national. The album charts the cultural inheritance of one young American black man, but it also maps the debts still owed to black people in America. Right away, the album lines up its fathers, beginning, on the first track, “Wesley’s Theory,” with the crackle of a vinyl record: the Jamaican reggae musician Boris Gardiner, singing the title song to his soundtrack for the 1974 blaxploitation film “Every Nigga Is a Star.” Then someone yells “Hit me!,” as James Brown once did, and then George Clinton cuts in, amid whomping bass notes and a racket of synthesizers that squeak and shimmy just as they did on Parliament’s “Mothership Connection,” from 1975. Lamar was born in Compton, and he triangulates his West Coast hip-hop heritage with hard funk and jazz poetry. The musical universe of “To Pimp a Butterfly” is precise: the mid-seventies (almost every major sample on the record is taken from a track released in 1974 or 1975), when organized black militancy was in decline but the imaginative possibilities of black popular music were expanding—in Parliament’s case, all the way into outer space. The album is not as an exercise in period style so much as an excavation of a still latent future.
  • Starbucks' terrible idea to have its baristas talk about race with their customers.

The race and class dynamics that put a comfortable white person in the same room with person of color whose employment relies on serving that white person fancy beverages makes these conversations inherently exploitative. You can’t have an honest conversation about race when it’s a conversation imposed or strongly encouraged by a wealthy white man who happens to be your boss. You can’t have an honest conversation about race with people whom you also have to make happy in order to pay your rent. And if you are a barista of color, and you choose to opt out of these conversations, you still have to continue to work in a place in which your experiences as a person of color are being discussed and debated.

And then there’s the 72-year-old Biden, who is mostly left out of this conversation — not because he hasn’t repeatedly signaled an interest in running, but because the handicapping crowd has never taken him all that seriously as a foil to Hillary. Biden has a well-known tendency to get caught up in the moment and say things that are impolitic or even partly untrue, which in Washington tends to make you a figure of ridicule, though in most other places it’s known as having a pulse.
  • Why Obama should not explot a legal loophole if he loses in King v Burwell.
Under the Administrative Procedure Act, courts must “set aside” agency action that is “not in accordance with law.” The D.C. Circuit has construed that to mean that an unlawful rule is a legal nullity not just to the parties before the court, but to anyone and everyone in the country. The Supreme Court, however, has never endorsed that interpretation and it’s not obvious that it would.

USA on moon to scale

The USA overlaid on the Moon, to scale

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You come at Abe Lincoln...

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

19 March 2015

From this Grantland feature, a whole suite of The Wire creator David Simon's shows that exist only in his imagination:

There was a partial adaptation of Taylor Branch’s massive civil-rights trilogy America in the King Years. A collaboration with George Pelecanos on Times Square in the ’70s and ’80s. A “very careful treatment” of the CIA from 1945 to 2001, written with his Wire buddy Ed Burns. And a telling of the Lincoln assassination with “crackling” scripts that “avoided the marble men of Lincoln and Booth who have been written to death” and functioned “as a sort of post-9/11 allegory.” He describes it as a “traumatizing act of terror” followed by “paranoia and military trials with indefinite detention … the smell of rendition in Guantanamo and overreach and wartime fear.”

"Except for the Lincoln project," the article says, and much to my disappointment — it sounds the most fascinating of the lot — "all are technically still alive, if stuck in some lower rung of development hell."

The Simon miniseries that will air later this year doesn't sound half bad though:

The events of Show Me a Hero were set in motion in 1985, when U.S. District Judge Leonard Sand ruled that [Yonkers, New York] had “‘illegally and intentionally’ fostered segregation in its schools and neighborhoods by concentrating all of its public housing in one section of the city.” He then issued a desegregation order and instructed that 200 housing units be built elsewhere in and around Yonkers, including on the city’s largely white east side. This was not the Deep South in the 1950s. This was the liberal Northeast in the ’80s.

At the center of the story is Nicholas Wasicsko, who successfully ran for mayor in 1987 by pledging to oppose Judge Sand’s demands, then reversed course when a federal appeals court upheld the order days before his inauguration. In the excruciating face-off that ensued, Wasicsko had to stand against a dug-in city council majority who fought the order despite fines that amounted to $1 million a day and nearly crushed the city’s operations. Just 28 years old, Wasicsko was the youngest mayor in the country.

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Did Obama just suggest America make voting mandatory?

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

19 March 2015

Obama voting

The President and two of his fellow citizens cast voluntary votes 

US media outlets are reporting on something that doesn't have a whole lot to do with the importance of middle class economics, the putative subject of a speech President Obama made at the City Club of Cleveland today. Here's what the Associated Press highlighted, for instance:

They say the only two things that are certain in life are death and taxes. President Barack Obama wants to add one more: voting.

Obama floated the idea of mandatory voting in the U.S. while speaking to a civic group in Cleveland on Wednesday. Asked about the corrosive influence of money in U.S. elections, Obama digressed into the related topic of voting rights and said the U.S. should be making it easier — not harder— for people to vote.

Just ask Australia, where citizens have no choice but to vote, the president said.

Iiiiinteresting. But just how forcefully did Obama back a transition to an Australian-style voting system? Here's the video of the event; the question that inspires the president's musings, about campaign spending limits, begins at the 1:06:58 mark:

Obama begins his response with discussion of the negative affect of money on politics, and the difficulty of overturning the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that made it easier for Americans to donate to parties and candidates. Then he turns his attention to creative ways of overcoming the influence of money:

I don’t think I’ve ever said this publicly, but I’m going to go ahead and say it now. I don’t think we should be making it harder to vote, I think we should be making it easier to vote and — what I haven’t said… I’ve said that publicly before. So my Justice Department is going to be vigorous in terms of trying to enforce voting rights; I gave a speech down in Selma, at the fiftieth anniversary that was incredibly moving for me and my daughters, and the notion that in this day and age, that we would be deliberately trying to restrict the franchise makes no sense. And at the state and local levels, you can push back against that and make sure we’re expanding the franchise, not restricting it. In Australia and some other countries, there’s mandatory voting. It would be transformative if everybody voted. That would counteract money more than anything. If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map of this country. Because the people who tend not to vote, they’re young, they’re lower income, they’re skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups. And they’re often the folks who are scratching and climbing to get into the middle class and they’re working hard. There’s a reason why some folks want to keep them away from the polls, but we should want to get them into the polls. So that may end up being a better strategy in the short term. In the long term, I think it would be fun to have a constitutional amendment process about how our financial system works. But realistically, given the requirements of that process, that would be a long-term proposition.

This isn't exactly a full-throated embrace of the Australian voting system; on the face of it, it's really more of an endorsement of inclusive franchise laws and high turnout elections. Yet the only thing the President mentions here that he hasn't said publicly before is mandatory voting, which he says would be "transformative." He definitely seems to like the idea, but he pitches it as more of a pipe dream than a solid proposal. (On the other hand, when he says "that may end up being a better strategy in the short term," does he mean boosting turnout or actually mandating voting.)

To be clear, there is no way the United States will adopt an Australian-style voting system. For a start, the Constitution gives the states the responsibility of running elections, so the only way to get a nation-wide mandatory voting requirement passed would be for all fifty states to agree to it. Furthermore, there's a very good chance such a law would be unconstitutional; I can see a decent argument that requiring someone to vote would be a form of compelled speech, something the court has previously ruled is a violation of the First Amendment. And, finally, the US's individualistic culture seems a poor fit with a mandatory voting law; I expect that even if one were enacted, it would be so widely flouted that enforcement would be next to impossible. Australia's high turnout rates — and the US's low ones — have as much to do with our respective cultures as our laws. Whether Obama likes it or not, Americans will not any time soon be forced by law to vote.

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American Daily: March 18, 2015

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

18 March 2015

  • Congressman Aaron Schock has resigned after a Politico probe into his expenses.
[Illinois Representative] Schock billed the federal government and his campaign for logging roughly 170,000 miles on his personal car from January 2010 through July 2014. But when he sold that Chevrolet Tahoe in July 2014, it had roughly 80,000 miles on the odometer, according to public records obtained by POLITICO under Illinois open records laws. The documents, in other words, indicate he was reimbursed for 90,000 miles more than his car was driven.

The new system — which calls for voters to be automatically registered using drivers' license data — was passed after a sharply partisan debate in the state Legislature and has raised many questions in the minds of both average voters and political operatives.

  • Red State: Conservatives need to do better in response to Ferguson.
Even if you read only the parts of the Ferguson DOJ report that come directly from the files of the FPD (which is to say, files that would be most favorable to the Department), the report paints an incredibly damning picture of the Ferguson Police Department. No conservative on earth should feel comfortable with the way the Ferguson PD has been operating for years, even according to their own documents.
  • What would be at stake in a competitive Democratic Party primary?
Yes, there is a lot of consensus among Democrats on the broad economic strokes: Higher taxes on capital gains and inherited wealth to fund middle class tax relief. More investments in infrastructure and education, particularly subsidized community college. Universal child care and early education; national family leave and sick leave policies designed to enhance workplace flexibility. A minimum wage hike. But there are remaining disagreements among core Dem constituencies and among party actors.

Wall Street bonuses v minimum wage earnings

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American Daily: March 17, 2015

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

17 March 2015

  • Barack Obama's polling figures are improving

Remember when it was inevitable that Barack Obama’s approval ratings were converging with those of George W. Bush’s second term as voters permanently lost confidence in him and tuned him out? Well, the 44th president’s three-day job approval average at Gallup just turned positive (48/47) at a point in his presidency where W.’s was at 34% and about to plunge into the high 20s.

In Ferguson — a city with a population of 21,000 — 16,000 people have outstanding arrest warrants, meaning that they are currently actively wanted by the police. In other words, if you were to take four people at random, the Ferguson police would consider three of them fugitives.

It was close to 5 o’clock on the afternoon of Nov. 4, 2013, and Sasha Fleischman was riding the 57 bus home from school. An 18-year-old senior at a small private high school, Sasha wore a T-shirt, a black fleece jacket, a gray newsboy cap and a gauzy white skirt. For much of the long bus ride through Oakland, Calif., Sasha — who identifies as agender, neither male nor female — had been reading a paperback copy of “Anna Karenina,” but eventually the teenager drifted into sleep, skirt draped over the edge of the bus seat.

As Sasha slept, three teenage boys laughed and joked nearby. Then one surreptitiously flicked a lighter. The skirt went up in a ball of flame. Sasha leapt up, screaming, “I’m on fire!” Two other passengers threw Sasha to the ground and extinguished the flames, but Sasha’s legs were left charred and peeling. Taken by ambulance to a San Francisco burn unit, Sasha would spend the next three and a half weeks undergoing multiple operations to treat the second- and third-degree burns that ran from thigh to calf.

  • A 24-year-old NFL player is retiring over concerns about his safety.

Borland said he began to have misgivings during training camp. He said he sustained what he believed to be a concussion stuffing a running play but played through it, in part because he was trying to make the team. "I just thought to myself, 'What am I doing? Is this how I'm going to live my adult life, banging my head, especially with what I've learned and knew about the dangers?'"

Emoji March Madness

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The death and life of great American sim cities

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

17 March 2015

Sim New York

A Sim City New York

I'm not much one for games, but I do love cities, and from what I'm hearing, it might be worth my while on this occasion to look further afield than Candy Crush and Freecell and check out Cities: Skylines.

"There's a surprising amount of excitement and expectation for [game developer] Colossal [Order]'s attempt at fixing SimCity's mistakes," writes Kotaku's Luke Plunkett:

You'll do some very big things, like planning entire regions and suburbs, but you'll also be doing some very small things. There's a surprising amount of micromanagement in the game once you progress and pick at it, and while some of it sucks (more on that below), other parts are great. Public transport is one such highlight: instead of just dropping depots, stations and stops on the map, Skylines lets you actually plan out specific routes for each mode of transport. Being able to manually assign bus routes and subway lines feels great, like you've got more precise control over the movement of the people in the city.

That sounds really cool! I haven't been this excited about computer-simulated urban design since the late-'80s days of Sim City's original two-dimensional incarnation.

And that incarnation, argues Ian Bogost, was distinctly American in its outlook:

Maxis’s games have hardly escaped criticism. Game design is a process of abstraction, and you can’t simplify a complex system like the operation of cities without consequence. SimCity was profoundly but weirdly American in its assumptions. Taxation caps out at 20 percent, a level far below what would be needed to operate a social welfare state city like, say, Copenhagen. And at higher tax levels, Sims go on strike or move out of town in disgust. But even in such a seemingly American context, race plays no role in the operation of one’s simulated cities, and the classic features of American sprawl—highways, exurbs—weren’t possible in the earliest versions of the game, even as rail transit has always remained the best way to reduce traffic and increase density in a SimCity metropolis. The game’s most recent version did even stranger things, casting residents as a kind of bizarre blend of middle class laborer and migrant worker, and making homelessness rampant, causing players to reveal curious and sometimes uncomfortable truths about themselves and the world in their quest to (virtually) eradicate it.

So perhaps a bit like America in the first half of the 20th century, before the Eisenhower-led Interstate System (and without any of that embarrassing redlining and segregation)? 

It turns out that the latest edition of Sim City might also unintentionally reflect current American ideas about contemporary problems facing cities. Among other difficulties, players of the game have to address homelessness — and like real city-leaders, they find the problem a vexing one. Matteo Bittanti collected online discussions about how to deal with (virtual) homelessness:

For Bittanti, it's impossible not to see the connections between the homeless problem in the Bay Area and the way it's portrayed in SimCity.

"That is, can we fix homelessness in SimCity, or because we haven't fixed homelessness as a problem in real life, therefore we are bound to lose?" Bittanti asked. "Is SimCity a reflection of what's happening in reality, and therefore is very realistic, or is it a programming issue?"

And maybe this has something to do with the IRL America, too:

Bittanti says that it's impossible to distinguish between videogames and America in the same way that Jean Baudrillard thought it was impossible to distinguish between Disneyland and America. The book, he told me, is about simulation and its discontents, the unexpected convergence and collapse between reality and simulation.

"To me video games are the so-called 'real America,'" he said. "The real America operates according to a video game logic, and that game logic is neo-liberalism, and that absolutely manifests in San Francisco, that to me is the epicenter of inequality. In San Francisco you either have a Tesla and you drink a seven dollar cappuccino or you're homeless in the streets."

Bonus after the jump: When Sim City met health care policy...

Read More

From the Bogost piece, it seems that wonks during the early '90s could not only live out their urban design fantasies, but also pursue their interests in health care reform: 

In at least one case, the 1994 title SimHealth, Maxis attempted a title of this sort that would soon after be called “serious games.” A complex management simulation of the U.S. healthcare system, SimHealth was released amidst debate around then-President Bill Clinton’s proposed Health Security Act, an attempt to reform U.S. healthcare in ways that wouldn’t be taken up again until Obama’s Affordable Health Care act.

SimHealth was never a hit.

Even in Sim-America, the health care system is broken.


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American Daily: March 16, 2015

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

16 March 2015

Hours before D.C. shut down for the President’s Day long weekend last month, the Obama administration quietly set out to ban a form of armor-piercing ammunition commonly used in the popular, semi-automatic AR-15. Using rule-making power it’s had since Congress banned armor-piercing rounds in the 1980s, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) announced the proposal late on a Friday.

On Tuesday, while D.C. was distracted in the run-up to Hillary Clinton’s first public comments on the brewing email scandal, the administration quietly pulled the plan after after the National Rifle Association, gun manufacturers, and their supporters rallied to stop the effort.

  • Why polls about the Republican primary field aren't useful right now.

By now, I think a lot of people get that winning the support of party leaders — not voters — is the key to winning the invisible primary. Political science research has shown that party leader endorsements are correlated with voters’ opinions about the candidates before the primaries begin, and are correlated with how many delegates the candidates win at the party conventions and thus who is nominated. Party leaders thus shape the field even before Iowans gather to pick corn and presidents. Just ask Mitt Romney.

  • Should a President Hillary Clinton appoint Obama to the Supreme Court?

And here’s the thing that is fascinating about the idea: can you imagine the confirmation fight an Obama SCOTUS appointment would touch off? Presumably most of the people who would have voted for a President Clinton would think (a) she should be able to appoint any minimally qualified Justice she wanted, and (b) it would be a no-brainer to crown Obama’s career with one more stint of service. But the Right would absolutely melt down in ways that would not help the conservative cause.

I was walking home from school one day, alone and happy. I loved walking home alone. “I’m independent,” I used to think. It was early 2002 and I was in fifth grade. I was at the tail end of the journey, crossing the Long Island Railroad tracks that ran parallel to my house. But as soon as I made it to the other side I heard a high-pitched screech. I turned around. I met the angry eyes of a woman in a beat-up red sedan with children in the back seats. The railroad tracks separated us but — after looking at me and then in the opposite direction — she made an abrupt U-turn. She drove across the tracks. I walked quickly toward my house, looking over my shoulder as the woman drove toward me. She pulled up. I stopped. I was two blocks from home. She rolled down her window and yelled, “TAKE THAT OFF YOUR HEAD.”

The room was packed. Owen’s originally scheduled six shows sold out so quickly that the club added four more, and those sold out too. It was Saturday night and the crowd was decked out, heavy imported leather coats draped over chairs in the dimly lit venue. Nearly everyone there was black. Except for Owen, who is as white as the Easter Bunny.

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I Didn't Know That!

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

13 March 2015

Today in I Didn't Know That!: constitutional minutiae!

Over at Brookings's Lawfare blog, Jack Goldsmith schools Republcian senators — and me! — on how treaties are ratified passed:

The letter states that “the Senate must ratify [a treaty] by a two-thirds vote.” But as the Senate’s own web page makes clear: “The Senate does not ratify treaties. Instead, the Senate takes up a resolution of ratification, by which the Senate formally gives its advice and consent, empowering the president to proceed with ratification” (my emphasis). Or, as this outstanding 2001 CRS Report on the Senate’s role in treaty-making states (at 117): “It is the President who negotiates and ultimately ratifies treaties for the United States, but only if the Senate in the intervening period gives its advice and consent.” Ratification is the formal act of the nation’s consent to be bound by the treaty on the international plane. Senate consent is a necessary but not sufficient condition of treaty ratification for the United States. As the CRS Report notes: “When a treaty to which the Senate has advised and consented … is returned to the President,” he may “simply decide not to ratify the treaty.”

I must admit, I had also assumed it was the Senate that was charged with ratifying treaties. But as a reading of the actual constitutional text confirms, Goldsmith is technically correct — the best kind of correct:

Article II, Section 2.

The President ... shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur

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