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An American Reformation: Politics

Brian Williams has made a comeback.  After losing his spot as NBC Nightly News host and a self-imposed exile due to exaggerated and boastful reporting, Williams scored a late-night gig on MSNBC.  About a year ago, Williams anchored the eponymous, “The 11th Hour With Brian Williams,” as a 30-minute wrap-up of the day’s political news.  As the election drew closer, the 30-minute turned to 60.  And when the political world turned upside down after Trump won, the 11th Hour became a permanent fixture.

Well about a month ago, one of my favorite political operatives, James Carville showed up for an interview.  Carville has a lengthy history in Democratic politics, but I remember him from Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential Campaign.  He championed the “It’s the Economy, Stupid” meme before memes were a thing.   He met his wife, Mary Matalin a campaign advisor to President George H.W. Bush during that race.  He is from Louisiana and has a great Cajun accent (I think it’s Cajun.  It is definitely southern).

The interview topic was politics of course and Williams and Carville went back and forth discussing the state of political discourse and governance in America.  After a few minutes of chatter, William asked what advice Carville would give to the Democratic Party as it prepares for 2018 and 2020.  Carville’s response was interesting.  Usually, politicians and political operatives tout a four or five bullet point list of domestic policies that are popular at the moment.  I was expecting, generic attention to universal and affordable health care, the minimum wage, income disparity and criminal justice reform.  Instead, I heard what my college professors were preaching 20 years ago.  America needs a political reformation.

I’ve posted about restoring democratic norms and concerns that  America might slip into a tyrannical state.  Neither post was meant to be hyperbolic but rather, to point out how seemingly minor and unrelated curbs of free exercise can lead to authoritarian rule.  America is not immune.  Even if we set aside a descent into tyranny, our government does not function as efficiently as it could or should.  Our politics are destructive and polarizing to the extent that a portion of the electorate may have been influenced by a foreign power’s misinformation campaign during the last presidential election.  Our norms are slowly eroding – behaviors that we must have to maintain our democratic traditions.

You reform something when you want to improve it.  A reformation is needed when an entire practice, program or institution requires amelioration.  We have experienced reform eras in the past.  At the turn of the 20th century, during what is now called the Progressive Era, social reformers of all stripes lobbied for social and welfare changes largely in response to the cultural and societal upheaval brought on by industrialization.  America made progress, some of which remains.  It was out of this period that women gained universal suffrage.  Labor unions sought improved working conditions and better wages while political reformers tried to break up the political machines.  Perhaps the greatest failure of the Progressive Era was Prohibition, the constitutional amendment prohibiting the distribution of alcohol.

Given our current challenges, a comprehensive political, economic and social reformation, while difficult, may be our best opportunity to avoid at best, more of the same and at worst, the slippery slope towards tyranny.  In this post, I want to highlight a few key reforms that activists have prioritized and that should be part of our national dialogue.   Each is critical to maintaining a healthy republic but in recent decades has seen deterioration, none more so than campaign finance.

A Political Reformation

Campaign Finance Reform

There is too much money in politics.  To be clear, we will never eliminate money and influence nor will we remove the possibility that a select group of the citizenry, by virtue of birth or economic prosperity, will have undue access to our political leaders.   But our current environment is ridiculous and cannot be sustained if we are to maintain the charade of freedom, liberty, and justice for all.

The United States has always had to some degree campaign finance laws, regulated and enforced by the Federal Election Commission.  Modern campaign finance laws were passed post-Watergate and attempted to limit contributions to and spending levels by candidates for political office.  In an attempt to be brief, I will dispense with as much of the detail as possible.  While some of these regulations and limitations were found to be constitutional, others were not and it is those in the latter category that has led to the explosive increase in campaign funding and spend.

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United vs. the FEC, that independent groups, including labor unions and non-profits, could not be banned or limited in the amount of money they could spend on political education and advertising if the entity itself was not as a whole, a political organization.  Did you get that?  In short:  create an LLC, give it a purpose other than political and you can spend as much money as you want on political education and advertising.  That includes advertising in support of and against a particular candidate.  As long as the newly created LLC has no ties to a political candidate, everything is legal.

By itself, Citizens United would have cracked a few tiles on the floor of the campaign finance laws.  But I think they would have held.  But it was v. FEC, that blew the hull off the ship. was decided at the federal court level and said that the government could place no limit on the amount of money individuals could donate to these non-political LLC’s.  In all of these decisions, the court narrowly decided that use of money was covered under the freedom of speech clause in the First Amendment.   Further, and I do take issue with this part of the decision, corporations were afforded the same constitutional protections as individuals.  This last part – corporations protected like individuals – is very much a conservative interpretation of the constitution and has reverberated beyond just campaign finance reform.   But we will set that aside for now.

Disclosure requirements still exist.  But with these rulings, as of 2010, we now have massive amounts of dark money flooding into the electoral process.  And it comes in at all levels.  Billionaires with very specific special interests, set up multiple Super PACs (Political Action Committees) to help fund candidates who align to a specific agenda.  Perhaps more importantly, these Super PACs spend their money against candidates who do not align with a specific agenda.  The Koch Brothers of Kansas have been known to fund libertarian candidates at all levels of government throughout the country in order to foster their preferred economic policies and to ensure the protection of their own fossil fuel industry.  This might explain why the Republican Party has moved away from climate science, global warming, and environmentalism in the last 10 years.

There are few viable options to resolve this mess.  First, the Supreme Court could overrule itself.  It has been done before (Dred Scott v. Sandford, Plessy v. Ferguson), but reversals typically take decades.  They usually do not occur within the same group of justices.  Depending on who you ask, this option has slightly viable chance of succeeding all the way up to “not a snowball’s chance in hell.”

The better option, in my opinion, is a constitutional amendment that addresses wholesale campaign finance.  Such an amendment would give the federal and state governments the power to regulate and limit contribution and spend levels.   In my quick research for this post, I learned that there are efforts underway but there is a long way to go.  A constitutional amendment requires 2/3 of both Houses of Congress and 3/4 of the states to ratify (38).  So it is an uphill battle, but one that is crucial to our democratic process.   This brings me to the next major reform that really must go along with campaign finance.

Lobbying Reform

K Street.  You have heard the anti-establishment forces utter this meme in disgust.  “K Street.”  Evil, right?

K Street is a street in Washington D.C. on which a lot of lobbying firms have offices.  It is actually a very nice street.  Clean but busy.  The last time I walked along the sidewalk, it was 99 degrees and I was close to heat stroke but other than that, K Street was pleasant.  But lobbyists have way too much power in D.C. and to be perfectly honest, I am not sure there are any good solutions right now.  I can certainly point to the problems.  For one, there is the “revolving door” between government and K Street.  But before the reader becomes disgusted, you need to realize that public policy is very complicated.  Every one of our policies has a great deal of intricate detail.  There are few experts and as such, it is not surprising that policy masters would move from the Hill to a lobbying firm and back to the Hill, depending on Congressional priorities and public demand.  The reality is when Obama was inaugurated and made it clear that he was going to pursue healthcare reform, did it not make sense to bring in experts in the various health care areas?  Should the administration have not hired the expert in prescription drugs because he or she had worked for the drug lobby and instead hired someone who had less experience in the subject?  Apply the same concept to Republican administrations and tax policy.

Campaign finance reform will help address some of the most outrageous lobbying activities, but we truly need to investigate the impact that lobbying has on our legislative process and most importantly, the outcomes of public policy for the American people.

Voting and Electoral Reforms

The voting reforms I have in mind are easy to explain and should be easy to implement.  I posted on this a while back.  A warning though to new readers:  I was really mad at the time.  In short:  anecdotal evidence suggests that we are the only democracy in the world that makes it more difficult to vote.  We actually make it hard for eligible voters to cast ballots.  Republicans are typically more egregious in this space but Democrats have been slow to counteract ballot initiatives that disenfranchise voters.  Moreover, it was the Democratic Party’s failure to mobilize and respond to the Republican onslaught in 2010 that left the latter in charge of a majority of statehouses.  There is much work to do.

There is an easy answer to the problem of voter apathy:  at 18, everyone is automatically registered to vote.  Done.   A few weeks ago, I was on a business trip to Silicon Valley, California where I was fortunate enough to spend time with a colleague from Sydney, Australia.  I had spoken with Steve many times on the phone (usually during my early evenings, which were his next day mornings!), but had never met him.  The best part of my job is meeting and talking to people from around the world.  I ask them all sorts of questions.  As a side, the most common question people ask me these days is, “How does healthcare work in the United States?” and “Trump?”

Steve explained that in Australia, every 18 year old is automatically registered to vote.  By law, everyone is required to cast a ballot or they are financially penalized on their taxes.  It does not matter for whom you vote (the government has no idea), and I believe the ballot could be cast as a blank.  But every citizen must vote.  Think about that.  Unfortunately, we ran out of time (lucky Steve), because I wanted to understand how it worked in practice.  If the Australian government requires people to vote, then it must make it easy for the population to cast ballots.  How do they do that?

The post I have linked to above details many of the problems that have occurred since the Supreme Court gutted a key Voting Rights component in 2013.  The solutions to this problem are easy.  They really are.  But we do have a significant roadblock, and that is – one of our political parties, does not in principle agree with making voting an easy proposition.  This has been consistent for the conservative party in America.  Democrats were guilty in the post-Civil War South and now the Republicans have picked up the flag.  I believe that this can be solved through the Supreme Court.  We had a good start this past fall, but we must continue and it will take time.

Gerrymandering of House Districts.  Earlier this spring, Jon Oliver (one of my favorite Brits), did a fantastic segment on gerrymandering.  It was so good, I am including it here.  Gerrymandering has been around since our founding and in some cases, the Supreme Court has held that politicians can take partisanship into account when drawing districts at the state level.  But what we have today are a number of deliberately skewed populations to advantage the Republican base.  More importantly, at least from my perspective is that these gerrymandered districts are drawn in such a way that the majority of voters (who are overwhelmingly Republican) are of the “Tea Party” or Freedom Caucus variety.

This creates several issues.  First, moderation becomes a scarce commodity.  The Freedom Caucus (the legacy of the Tea Party) has 31 out of 248 Republican House members.  This does not sound like a lot, but it is enough to stop legislation from moving forward.  The Freedom Caucus is the farthest right group in the House.  They are fiscal hawks and demand a dollar for dollar offset for every dollar spent.  They can kill a bill by simply saying ‘No’ which they do often.  And because they are in politically safe seats, they do not pay a price at the ballot box.

Gerrymandering also works in the opposite manner.  Legislatures might draw the districts in such a way as to spread the opponent’s voters across several areas.  In doing so, you dilute their votes.  All of this means, that the House is less democratic and representative.  Combined with the other challenges requiring reform, and we have an exacerbated and polluted political environment.

The Supreme Court has just heard arguments on a Wisconsin gerrymandering case, Gill vs. Whitford, which if decided for the plaintiffs, could significantly limit partisan gerrymandering and restore the idea of one person – one vote.  Of course, we do not know how SCOTUS will rule; certainly I would have felt better had Obama been able to fill Scalia’s seat.

Elected Officials – Housing Allowance

No one is going to like this but hear me out.

Several weeks ago, I posted a couple of articles about Senator Ted Kennedy and term limits.   The 1994 mid-term elections were a watershed moment in modern electoral history.  The Republicans regained control of the House and the Senate for the first time in decades and they did it on an incredibly conservative platform.  (You may remember Gingrich’s 1995 plan to cut welfare funding and to use the savings for state-funded orphanages.  No joke).   Gingrich ushered in a new kind of political discourse.  While I would not hold him solely responsible, he was certainly the point man in the divisive politics of the mid-90s.

Gingrich encouraged Republican members of Congress and GOP Senators to disassociate from their Democratic peers.  Prior to Gingrich, Senators and House members socialized more often and stayed in Washington over more weekends.  The Kennedy biography offers some excellent examples of the relationship building for which Kennedy and his peers were known.  Members on both sides of the aisle were encouraged to spend time together.  When important policy decisions and compromises had to be made, those relationships were crucial.  Senators and House Members were able to find common ground on items of agreement and each side could then “live with” some aspects of the bill for which they would never have voted had they not had the relationship.

While I am not proposing that our representatives spend more time in Washington than in their home states and districts, the reality is that Senators and House members are leaving the city every weekend.  As a result of this weekend flight, coupled with long work days during the week, our representatives spend very little time socializing “outside of the office.”  Think about that in the context of your own career.   I have always found it easier to get things done in an organization if those from whom you need something have gotten to know you in a social setting.  It is just human nature.  From a political perspective, it is hard to criticize someone if the night before you had met for a few drinks and appetizers.

A housing allowance for members of Congress and Senators is just an option.  One of the reasons that members return home each weekend is because their families remain in their districts.  Why?  Typically it is due to cost.  Washington D.C. is expensive.  A housing allowance or even congressional housing would offer representatives an option for staying back every few weekends.  It might also offer the opportunity to move their families to D.C.   What is better than socializing with your colleague?  Having your family socialize with your colleague’s family.

There are less expensive ways to achieve the same goal.  The Congressional baseball game is an example.  There should be more.  The objective is simple:  build relationships.  Seek commonalities.  Get along.

Senate Procedure Reform

The Senate has arcane and somewhat bizarre parliamentary rules.  You have likely heard of the filibuster rule.  It seems to be a thorn in Trump’s side at the moment.  I also posted on the filibuster a few weeks ago and took the position that it should not be repealed for legislation (meaning, legislation should continue to require 60 votes).  Moreover, I believe we need to return to the 60 vote rule for judicial appointees but we cannot do so until we implement a more comprehensive Senate procedure reform.

The filibuster forces compromise and moderation.  And that is a good thing.  But instead of going that route, the Senate is resorting to the Reconciliation Process to enact sweeping legislation.  Last month, Vox posted a good overview of the Budget Reconciliation Process and explained why continuing down this path would be detrimental to policymaking.

The budget reconciliation process was created in 1974 to expedite Congress’s budget process. The idea was to create a shortcut for an annual bill aligning how much Congress intended to tax and spend with how much it was actually taxing and spending.

The bill was given special protections from the normal delays and impediments of the legislative process — notably, it was protected from the Senate filibuster and could only be debated for 20 hours. The result was that a reconciliation bill could pass with only 51 votes, while normal legislation could be held to a 60-vote threshold.

Ezra Klein, Vox September 29, 2017

The intent here was good.  The problem was human nature.  Why shoot for 60, when you can win with 51.  Both parties have forgone the pretense of writing good legislation that will meet the needs of a majority of Americans.  Instead, they write legislation that the Senate parliamentarian will accept under the budget reconciliation process.   The Affordable Care Act did not go through reconciliation until the end after the Democrats lost their supermajority.  Up to that point, Obamacare had gone through the normal legislative process.  The Republican attempt to repeal Obamacare was targeted for Reconciliation which meant that the GOP could not include or address some of the laws most impactful provisions, nor could they overhaul or build new models to compete with the exchanges.  Their entire repeal and replace legislation was driven by the manner in which they planned to bring it to the Senate floor.

Mitch McConnell plans to do the same with tax reform.  Passing major legislation in this manner, to circumvent obstruction results in half-assed and half-baked legislation that is incomplete and at times riddled with holes.  The process does a disservice to the American people.  Both parties are guilty although the practice has escalated recently.  It is particularly disturbing that Republican leadership continues to track toward “governing on their own” rather than compromising with the minority party.  The same I am sure could be said by conservatives of the Democrats when the latter were in the majority.

Finally, the tools of obstruction need to be examined.  Objecting to motions to proceed are ridiculous.  The arcane rules required to initiate debate should be reviewed and reformed.  They are complex and when used to obstruct as is often the case, they offer little value.

In Summary

Of this list of potential reforms, campaign finance should have the highest priority.  The grotesque amounts of money infecting our political process affects both parties and all candidates.  It leads to a government beholden to special interests and unable or unwilling to govern.

While not cited here, I would also argue that officials appointed to serve in government agencies should actually know something about the subject their agency regulates.  But I will leave that for another post.


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