Gridlock

It is common knowledge that the Republicans in the Senate have vowed not to allow President Obama’s nominee for the vacancy in the Supreme Court ever see the light of day. It is also common knowledge that those same Republicans are deep into the pocket of the NRA and recently voted as a group not to pass any laws restricting the use of AK-15s and other weapons of mass destruction. They have bought into the dream of the gun manufacturers, who support the NRA, that every man, woman, and child in this country should be armed against….every other man, woman, and child.

Furthermore, it is widely known that the core of the Republicans in Congress met soon after Barack Obama’s election and vowed not to pass on any legislation the man favored, to adopt what has been called a “scorched-earth” policy of no compromise. But, as has recently been pointed out, this policy goes back further than Obama and those who chalk it up to the determination of a group of racists not to cooperate with a black president may have to rethink their position. It appears it is not racism; it is simply twisted political thinking. As a recent article points out:

The link between the design failures of the presidential system itself and these failures is clear enough. The worse things go for the president, the better the chances for the opposition party to regain power. Cooperating would merely give the president bipartisan cover, making him more popular and benefiting his party as well. Republican leaders have openly acknowledged these incentives. In the Obama era, this has forced the Republican leadership to mount a scorched-earth opposition, demonizing the president as an alien socialist who threatens America’s way of life.
This Republican belief that compromise always helps the White House, at least when it comes to electoral politics, goes back further than the Obama years. It started in force with Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole and the Republican reaction to Bill Clinton’s election in 1993, and what they did in the year that followed was a model for how Republicans acted in 2009. The GOP’s midterm victories in 1994, 2010 and 2014 seemed to validate it.

What this means is that the commonsense notion that politics is all about compromise, reaching the decision that works best for everyone — even though it may not be the decision that each individual wants — has been displaced in our era by a group of small-minded men and women whose only goal is to oppose the opposition, to see to it that their party is strengthened and the opposition party rendered weak and helpless. The central notion of the “Common Good” that goes back at least as far as St. Thomas Aquinas, has been preempted in our era by “what’s good for the party is good for me.” The idea is that the political party that one belongs to demands complete loyalty because it is that party — and the money that goes into that party’s coffers — that will determine whether or not I keep my high-paying job. And please note: this is not about party loyalty. It’s about self-interest.

If the Supreme Court must limp along with only eight members for a while, or if more and more people must be killed by weapons designed for modern warfare (and not for killing deer) so be it. What matters now is ME. If I am an elected official my only goal is to remain in office and do whatever it takes to remain there. What is good for my constituency matters not a whit. What matters is what is good for me and for my ability to remain in public office.

The two main players in this sick drama are, of course, the PACs and the lack of term limits in public office. The entire situation could be remedied if the Congress were to address these two issues. But they will not because those two factors are what keep them in office. And professional politicians, which is what we are surrounded by today, know what side their bread is buttered on — if they know nothing else.

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Dreaming Aloud

When I am elected to be Philosopher King, I shall wave my magic wand to clean up some of the mess we are leaving for our children and their children, with special emphasis on the following:

1. Immediate cessation of fracking.

2. Promote the development of alternative energy with tax subsidies (commensurable with the ones currently enjoyed by Big Oil), including solar, wind,    and the tides.

3. Eliminate tax subsidies for oil exploration and development (shift them to #2).

4. Fund research into desalination methods to convert sea water into potable water for human and animal consumption and use in agriculture.

5. Tax the wealthy proportionally and reduce “defense” spending by half  to raise the money for the above.

6. Raise the minimum wage to $15.00 to help restore the middle class.

7. Mandate federal tax penalties on all families for any children beyond two to encourage “zero population growth.” Tax breaks for childless couples or those with only one child.

8. Restore, on a permanent basis, international family planning programs that have twice been eliminated by Republican administrations.

9. Eliminate teachers colleges and all certification requirements for teachers. Require all teachers to take a solid core of liberal arts courses and a legitimate academic major with a fifth year as an intern working with an experienced teacher.

10. Raise starting teacher’s salaries by at least 50% to attract the best and the brightest.

11. Disallow all electronic toys in schools, except computers, and require writing, reading, and memorization of such things as poetry and the multiplication tables.

12. Predicate all wages and salaries in all lines of work on years of schooling to encourage students to remain in school and pay attention.

13.Eliminate all donations above $100.00 in political elections and eradicate all lobbying by special interests at the state and federal levels.

14. Implement term limits in all public offices at the state and federal levels.

Well, I can dream, can’t I??

Pandora’s Box

The Supreme Court recently indicated that it will address the question of campaign spending limits. We have already seen how the court leans on this issue in the “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission” case in which the court, in its wisdom, saw fit to insist that corporations are persons and in the name of “free speech” should be allowed to contribute to politicians as much as any wealthy individual would. The current case will determine whether there are any limits whatever on what a person (or a corporation) can give to a political candidate and, given that the court agreed to hear the case, the bets are that the court will remove those limits entirely, which are minimal as things now stand. As we are told in a recent HuffPost story;

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court announced Tuesday that it will hear a case challenging the per-biennial cycle limit on campaign contributions from individuals.

The case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, argues that the limit on what individuals are allowed to give candidates ($46,200 per two-year cycle) and parties and PACs ($70,800 per two-year cycle) is an unconstitutional violation of the individual donor’s free speech rights.

The present court has tended to lean to the right on issues such as this since Sandra Day O’Connor left the court. Thus, despite the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo Supreme Court decision, which upheld limits set in 1971 on how much money an individual could give to any one candidate, the present Court is almost certain to lift those limits entirely in the name of free speech. Many believe it is a foregone conclusion. But then so was the decision regarding the Affordable Care Act which the Supreme Court upheld to the surprise of nearly every student of the history of the Court. So there is hope.

The problem stems from the fact that the Constitution was written at a time when the major concern was the abuse of power on the part of the Executive. The framers understood power and the need for balance, of course. They had read John Locke and Montesquieu and were very careful to see to it that no one branch of the government became so powerful that it overshadowed the other two, though they did tend to err a bit on the side of the Senate. But the framers never fully considered the effects of great wealth on the workings of an ostensibly democratic government — though several of them, like Thomas Jefferson, saw the possibilities: recall his concern that “a rich country cannot long be a free one.”

In any event, there is nothing in the Constitution about corporations and about PACs or about the limits of spending on political candidates. This allows the Court to refer to whatever portion of the document that seems to them to be appropriate to make a case for whatever decision they regard as politically expedient — not unlike those who read portions of the Bible to support their own take on Judeo-Christian teachings. And given that this Court leans to the right, it is most likely that we will see all limits removed from campaign spending, in which case we can conclude with assurance that the government will henceforth go to the highest bidder.

Pandora’s Box was opened with “Citizens United” and we saw how ugly that got in the last election. What we are about to see, in all probability, is all of the remaining contents of that box in the coming months and years. Barring a Constitutional amendment on spending limits, or a sudden and unexpected shift to the left by this court, we may be witnessing the end of America’s experiment with democratic government.

Representation

Our system of government is not a democracy. Don’t believe what they tell you. In its purest form Democracy involves a system in which everyone votes on every issue. But that is unworkable in any setting where there are large numbers of people involved, so the idea of representation was born wherein one person represents the wishes and desires of a great many more. This is what we have. When the founders discussed the concept as they were drawing up the Constitution they were fully aware of the inherent absurdity of representative government. One person cannot exactly represent any other person or two people or three. Even identical twins will disagree from time to time. By the time we have one person who is supposed to represent a thousand the absurdity will have become apparent to all but the most dim-witted.

But the large question the founders wrestled with was: given that we want representative government how should the representative vote on a particular question — as the majority of those he represents would have him vote (if he took a poll, for example), or as he thinks the majority should vote? The two cases might be quite dissimilar and this is because the concept of representation is absurd on its face. Clearly, there are problems with the concept of representation.

Above all else, the founders did not want what the British had. By the end of the Civil Wars in 1651 Great Britain had become a Commonwealth; Parliament came into power and the House of Commons was supposed to be a representative body — not pure representation (whatever that might be) but “virtual representation.” The English bought into the idea even though twenty-nine out of thirty Englishmen did not enjoy the privilege of voting. And representation was a bit of a joke: voting was restricted to men (!) of property. In some Burroughs there were no voters at all. Cornwall and Devon sent seventy representatives to Parliament; Manchester, Birmingham, and Sheffield had none. London, Westminster, and Southwark elected only six members.*

The founders of our nation knew they didn’t want what England had, so they settled on numerical representation, which makes a bit more sense. But it does not get around the absurdity of representation itself. Aware, perhaps, of this inherent absurdity, the founders decided to restrict the House of Representatives to two-year terms. With voting restricted to male property owners (though the notion of “property” was more generous than it was in England) there were relatively few voters and as we can see from the Federalist Papers the founders were certain that incompetent members would be voted out after a term. Term limits were not part of the deal: they seemed unnecessary. In addition, representatives didn’t stand to make much money while in Washington. On the contrary.

Much has changed, of course, as incompetent members of the House and Senate now serve for years (and years), make piles of money, and are seldom voted out of office. Further, they are elected in the first place because of special interests whose will has become the political will that drives the machine of government. The Representatives vote pretty much the way their wealthy supporters tell them to. So we have evolved from the absurd idea of representation to the even more absurd idea of  a government driven by special interest. The candidate goes to the highest bidder, and the sky is now the limit.

There are a couple of steps that could be taken to remedy the situation and make the notion of representation closer to the idea the founders had — despite its theoretical flaws. There could be term limits on members of the House and Senate, and there might be prohibitions against lobbyists and PACs in Washington. This would make it more likely that our representatives might actually represent the will of most of the people. But these steps will likely not be taken because those who would have to initiate such action are the ones who benefit from the status quo. So we seem to be stuck with a dysfunctional government separated into warring camps, unable to get along, in whom the people have little or no confidence. The founders must be wondering what on earth went wrong.

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[*The information about “virtual representation” in England was culled from John Miller’s excellent book “Origins of the American Revolution.]

Antiquated Constitution?

About one hundred years after the Constitution was adopted in this country Henry Adams was convinced it was already obsolete. As the grandson and great-grandson of Presidents he might have been concerned that the document tied the hands of the executive. That would be understandable. It certainly is the case that when it was written, one of the major concerns of its authors was to limit the powers of the President. Perhaps it limited the executive too much. Adams thought it made government stagnant and he hoped that when Grant took office the situation would be remedied. It wasn’t, however, since Grant didn’t do much of anything except make some bad appointments and get mixed up with the Gold Scandal. Adams came to believe that Grant was a living argument against Darwin!

But there does seem to be some truth in Adams’ concerns. A document written in the eighteenth century, especially one that didn’t even mention corporations, seems antiquated at best and positively outdated at worst. Large Wealth has gained the upper hand and turned our Republic into a corporate oligarchy. Further, consider the powers granted to the U.S. Senate which is the body that was targeted by Adams for most criticism. It has immense power and its members seem to be around forever gaining more and more power. The Senate is able to abuse that power even more readily than the President — something the framers did not foresee.

Madison, for example, was convinced that no minority, within or without the Senate, could ever stall the workings of a democratic system because the majority would simply sweep them aside. In Federalist # 10, Madison expresses almost naive confidence in the ability of a majority to eliminate what he called “factions,” or those small groups within and without government that would misdirect the public good. He says “If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by a regular vote.” But then Madison was also convinced that those in Congress would be the best and brightest in the country at large, “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of the country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary and partial considerations.”  Yeah, right.

Let’s consider some of the powers of the Senate listed in Article II Section 2 where, ironically, the document explains some of the powers of the President (note the repeated qualifications):

[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; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law.

It is precisely the powers to “advise and consent,” as Adams saw it, that pretty much tie the hands of the executive and can bring government to a halt. In fact, as we have seen in our day, the Senate can simply refuse to act on presidential appointments and they remain vacant for years. During Adams’ lifetime, Secretary of State John Hay was repeatedly frustrated by the Senate’s reluctance to ratify treaties Hay had painstakingly arranged. The two-thirds majority required for ratification was the killer. It seems that this power is the one Adams most strenuously objected to as it ties the government in knots. It was certainly one of the most hotly debated topics at the time of the writing and subsequent adoption of the Constitution: would the President be hindered from doing his job or would he be given enough power to do the job and then abuse that power? It was a difficult line to draw.

But given the snail’s pace with which this government goes about its business; its susceptibility to the influence of “factions” and PACs; the lack of term limits on members of Congress; the persistent misreading of the second amendment; and the unrestricted influence of large corporations on the election and functioning of officials within government, a strong case can be made that the Constitution can no longer do the job it was designed to do more than two hundred years ago. Rexford Tugwell, part of F.D.R.’s “brain-trust,” years ago proposed a revised Constitution that was widely discussed but went nowhere. Perhaps it is time to reconsider.