The Surge

Slate’s guide to the most important figures in politics this week.

Welcome to this week’s edition of the Surge, your weekly newsletter ranking Washington’s top biters, poopers, sex people, and tax policy questions.

Democrats embarked on their quest to reinstate honor to the term “Infrastructure Week” by unveiling a major legislative package to rebuild the country, but some members are concerned that it won’t give doctors in the New Jersey suburbs a tax cut. Chuck Schumer is preparing for another procedural Senate showdown or two, while in the House, Democrats have given up on a controversial election review. At the Transportation Department, it’s gettin’ to be that you can’t suggest a vehicle miles-traveled tax is “promising” anymore without making everyone all hot and bothered. The dogs are back at the White House, reasserting their authority.

But first, let’s do our best to understand what in the world is going on with the Florida man.

Matt Gaetz.
Matt Gaetz. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Mandel Ngan/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Rank 1

Last Week

1. Matt Gaetz

Where will he land next? Newsmax? What about jail?

There comes a time when every elected official, having achieved all of his stated goals in the service of his constituents, needs to consider the next chapter following a storied career. For Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, after two-plus terms in Congress and zero bills signed into law, that time is now. It was first reported this week that one of the GOP’s leading court jesters was considering quitting Congress to get into the TV game, having had conversations with Newsmax and other networks. But there’s one other career landing spot we learned about shortly after that news broke: the federal penitentiary system. The Department of Justice is investigating whether Gaetz had a sexual relationship with a minor and whether there’s an interstate travel element to the alleged relationship that would expose Gaetz to federal sex trafficking laws. And as we learned shortly after that news broke, there’s a second-order question as to whether other actors have been trying to extort the Gaetz family (?) by offering to make the investigation “go away” (??) in exchange for a large fee and/or participation in a hostage-rescue scheme (???). The Surge is not a lawyer (so please, by the way, stop asking us for legal services). Politically, however, the two best outcomes for Gaetz would be: no charges against him, charges against the alleged extorters, and a Newsmax gig (2024 Republican VP consideration) or a federal sex-trafficking conviction and the chance to perform anti–Deep State martyrdom (the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.)

Rank 2

Last Week Up from last week #4

2. Rita Hart

Democrats pull the plug on an Iowa election challenge.

Democrat Rita Hart, who lost the Iowa 2nd District congressional race last November to GOP Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks by a whole six votes out of nearly 400,000 cast, announced this week that she would drop her contestation of the race to the House Administration Committee. “Despite our best efforts to have every vote counted,” Hart said in a statement, “the reality is that the toxic campaign of political disinformation to attack this constitutional review of the closest congressional contest in 100 years has effectively silenced the voices of Iowans.” While Hart had argued that 22 valid votes, which went uncounted, would have put her ahead in the final count, the dispute became politically untenable for Democrats. The GOP was successfully hammering vulnerable House Democrats with the argument that they were hypocritical in trying to overturn a state-certified election. It was evident by last week that House Democrats wouldn’t have the votes to switch out the winner if the appeal reached the House floor. The message to Hart was received.

Rank 3

Last Week

3. Joe Biden

Still popular, but with weak spots.

We are more than two months into the Biden presidency, and so far, the country has not succumbed to its proud tradition of immediately hating the person it just elected. An AP-NORC poll this week showed Biden with a 61 percent overall approval rating, the same approval figure he had when inaugurated in January. He enjoys such a healthy number because—and the administration may have considered this in shaping its governing priorities!—he’s received high marks on the issues most people care about: management of the pandemic, the economy, and health care. But there is an issue on which he’s in trouble: His approval ratings are underwater on border security and immigration, the area in which Republicans are training their criticisms, and the reason why Sens. Ted Cruz and Susan Collins are squatting on the banks of the Rio Grande at night engaging in a staring contest with “coyotes” across the border. While border security and immigration may not be the issues that are of the broadest concern to voters across the spectrum, there are few motivators quite like them among the Republican base.

Rank 4

Last Week Up from last week #7

4. Major, the Dog

Another name off the list. How many remain?

Cold were the Wilmington nights, dreaming of blood. After a “biting incident” in early March, White House “sexy bad boy” Major Biden was schlepped off to Delaware along with his German shepherd colleague, Champ, for additional training. Well, sure, maybe Major went through the motions—whatever it took, however he had to debase himself, to punch that ticket back to the seat of power. It worked. He returned to the White House last week and, after closing his eyes and pawing at a random name from the White House staff manifest, “nipped someone while on a walk” Monday night. Major holds leverage over the Biden administration that Joe Manchin can only dream of. What’s Biden going to do, deport him to Delaware permanently? Send him off, shall we say, on an ice floe? That precious 61 percent approval rating would tank. Major runs the joint. And while we don’t know which dog pooped on the floor, we have a good idea.

Rank 5

Last Week

5. Pete Buttigieg

The joys of paying for infrastructure.

The Biden administration this week introduced a pile of major infrastructure proposals, coming soon to a Congress near you. What you won’t find in the proposals, though, is any change in the way surface transportation is traditionally funded: the gas tax or an alternative user-fee funding mechanism. The travails of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg this week showed how thorny that issue can be. The gas tax hasn’t been raised in 28 years, and the appetite to increase it isn’t there on either side, as Republicans hate all taxes and Biden has promised not to raise taxes on people making below $400,000. Even if the gas tax were increased, that funding stream would grow obsolete if the Biden administration had its way and accelerated the transition to electric vehicles. After Buttigieg suggested last week that an alternative—a vehicle miles-traveled tax—showed “promise,” though, he was hammered. By this week, he was saying that neither a gas tax increase nor a mileage tax was on the table. Instead, Biden has proposed a slew of corporate tax increases to cover the costs, and in a few months, maybe everyone will just agree not to pay for anything much at all.

Rank 6

Last Week

6. Tom Suozzi

No tax increases without my tax cut.

Another early obstacle—and there will be many more—for Democrats’ plan to pass a major infrastructure overhaul is that some members from high-tax, high-cost states won’t go along with the plan’s tax increases unless they secure a tax cut that sharply benefits the wealthy. Long Island Rep. Tom Suozzi became the first Democrat this week to say that he would oppose any changes to the tax code unless it includes a repeal of the Trump-imposed cap on the state and local tax (SALT) deduction. Since then, three New Jersey Democrats representing the New York suburbs—Reps. Mikie Sherrill, Bill Pascrell, and Josh Gottheimer—have joined Suozzi, and a bloc of four Democrats is enough to secure leverage in the narrow Democratic House majority. While these four might be the most vocal right now, repealing the SALT cap is a strongly held position among many congressional Democrats—including the New York senator and California congresswoman who run their respective chambers of Congress—as suburban professionals (aka “high-propensity midterm voters”) are now a critical part of the Democratic electoral coalition. The Biden tax proposal doesn’t include a SALT cap repeal, but it’s hard to see this Congress moving any tax changes without addressing it—and it’s something of a complicator to the message that the rich need to pay their fair share.

Rank 7

Last Week

7. Elizabeth MacDonough

What can Democrats get past the Hammer this time?

In February, Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth “the Hammer” MacDonough sent a terse note to Chuck Schumer that, in her reading, a minimum wage increase isn’t allowed under reconciliation rules. But Schumer’s not done trying with Ol’ Lizzy MacDon’t yet. Schumer is hoping a minimum wage increase will fit under reconciliation rules in an infrastructure bill, since, as the Intercept writes, “setting wages is directly related to the budget impact of any infrastructure spending.” He’s also looking into the possibility that Democrats could have an extra-secret reconciliation bill available to them under a creative reading of the budget statute, which would give them two filibuster-free legislative vehicles remaining this year instead of one. Both of these ideas, however, would have to pass muster with the Hammer, and they don’t call her the Hammer for nothing. (No one has ever called her the Hammer until this newsletter blurb).