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.

Advertisements

Courting Failure

I found two pieces of information about the federal court system interesting and worth pondering. Consider the first item from the New York Times about the number of vacancies in our courts:

The number of vacancies on the nation’s federal courts has reached an astonishingly high level, creating a serious shortage of judges and undermining the ability of the nation’s court system to bestow justice.

Of 856 federal district and circuit court seats, 85 are unfilled — a 10 percent vacancy rate and nearly double the rate at this point in the presidency of George W. Bush. More than a third of the vacancies have been declared “judicial emergencies” based on court workloads and the length of time the seats have been empty. By far the most important cause of this unfortunate state of affairs is the determination of Senate Republicans, for reasons of politics, ideology and spite, to confirm as few of President Obama’s judicial choices as possible.

This, in itself, is an embarrassment, though it seems unlikely this Congress could do anything to make itself look worse. But the number of important court cases backing up due to Congress’ reluctance to either nominate or  confirm proposed justices raises serious questions about the ability of these people to govern this nation — if we had any doubts.

On the other hand, we read a good piece of news from Phoenix, Arizona regarding a decision by federal district court judge Murray Snow regarding the country’s self-proclaimed “toughest” sheriff, Joe Arpaio, and his policy of racial profiling in defiance of federal mandates and constitutional principles guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens in this country. A case was brought against Sheriff Arpaio by, among others, Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres, a Mexican tourist who was in the United States legally when deputies took him from a car in which he was riding with a white driver and kept him detained for nine hours while they determined whether or not he was indeed in the country legally. The country’s “toughest” sheriff has apparently a defiant attitude toward federal laws and a declared policy that reflects his own particular brand of racism — and, sad to say, keeps him secure in his office.

Arizona lawman Joe Arpaio has required prison inmates to wear pink underwear and saved taxpayers money by removing salt and pepper from prisons. He has, at times, forbidden convicted murderer Jodi Arias from speaking to the press.

The stern Maricopa County Sheriff has said the federal government will not stop him from running his office as he sees fit. But on Friday it did.

A judge [Murray Snow] ruled Friday that Arpaio’s routine handling of people of Latino descent is not tough enforcement of immigration laws but instead amounts to racial and ethnic profiling.

Some of those profiled sued Arpaio, and Judge Murray Snow found their complaints to be legitimate.

The federal court in Phoenix ordered “America’s Toughest Sheriff” — a moniker Arpaio sports on his website — to stop it immediately and has banned some of his operating procedures.

The sheriff’s office has a history of targeting vehicles with occupants with darker skin or Latin heritage, scrutinizing them more strictly and detaining them more often, Snow ruled.

As is the case here, it is not unusual for the courts to do things right in this country. Indeed, one might say the judicial system is one of the great strengths of this country and something we can be very proud of — and which keeps us this side of barbarism. But the unwillingness of Republicans in Congress to act on federal court appointments means that many cases will go untried and  innocent people will suffer unfairly. In the case of the country’s “toughest” sheriff, the case took eight months between the days of the final testimony and the decision itself.  One suspects that Judge Snow’s calendar is filled to the brim. Can we agree that this is yet another strike against the Congress?

The founders thought that incompetent politicians would simply be voted out of office. Alexander Hamilton says this repeatedly in the Federalist Papers. That doesn’t often happen, however, because they have enough wealthy backers (like the Koch brothers) to convince gullible voters at election time that they are doing a bang-up job on the voters’ behalf. So we are faced with Congressmen who hang on to their offices for dear life, by ignoring their civic duties and their constituents but pleasing those who hold the purse strings, knowing that it beats real work and pays very well. In spite of the fact that it might lead to inefficiency (though that ship has already sailed), there surely ought to be term limits on congressional offices. It would force the politicians to be a bit more responsive to their constituents and less concerned about reelection. Politics would be less a career choice and more a temporary respite from the business of making an honest living. That’s one the founders missed, for all their prescience and political savvy.

Same Old, Same Old

I have blogged about the lack of term limits in the Senate and House of Representatives. Others have expressed their dismay as well. It was clearly an oversight on the part of the framers and was corrected in the case of the President but not in the case of the other national offices. I have also spoken about the fact that the Senate ties the hands of the President and makes it impossible for him or her to do the job. This situation is simply exacerbated by the length of time many of the Senators remain in office.  I stand by my claims in that earlier blog. Henry Adams thought it a blunder of immense proportions and I would have to agree.

There is an obvious case in point as Orin Hatch, Republican Senator from Utah, recently failed in his attempt to win the endorsement in his home state and will have to run in a  primary to regain his senate seat. He’s a good bet to win for the seventh time. The man is 78 years old (which doesn’t seem so old as I approach that age) but it reflects 36 years in the Senate and tremendous power in the form of committee chairmanships. In fact, Hatch stands to be the chair of the Finance Committee if a Republican majority wins in November, which is likely with the economy in the fix it is in.

In any event, a story about Hatch tells us that The senator on the campaign trail has been promoting his potential ascension to the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee if Republicans win a majority in the Senate this November, something he emphasized in his last pitch to delegates gathered here Saturday.

“I’m not impressed by the title and neither should you be,” Hatch said prior to the first round of voting. “But believe me when I say that a strong and experienced chairman can make all the difference in the world,” he added to cheers from the audience.

The man’s a pro. “I’m not saying that it is important to have me in that chairmanship, but believe me it is vital.” This is what we call innuendo, and it is a powerful and persuasive rhetorical tool. It’s something like intellectual slight-of-hand. Now you see it, now you don’t. Clearly, Hatch thinks (a) that the Republicans will achieve a majority again in November, and (b) an experienced Senator like himself will be assured of the chairmanship of an important committee where he will be in a position to benefit those who vote for him. His opponent for the Republican nomination, being new to the job, will not. You gotta love it!

But we should have learned by now not to put much stock in what politicians say and while it is true that a veteran Senator has a much better chance of getting a key chairmanship than a new person, there is every reason to elect new blood into the Senate. The idea that  a man or a woman could remain in such a powerful office for nearly 40 years was never in the minds of the framers of the Constitution, who envisioned a fluid political organization with what Thomas Jefferson called a “rebellion” every 20 years. Though he may have been referring to Shays’ rebellion in 1787 which almost certainly hastened the ratification of the Constitution, he may also have meant a non-violent rebellion, a radical shake-up of the status-quo. This seems likely since in calling for a rebellion every 20 years Jefferson hopes to avoid “lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty.” He was convinced, as were the others who were in on the founding of our Republic, that there would be change and that change would be a good thing.

As it turns out, of course, the Senate is filled with ancient relics, immensely wealthy men (mostly) who hang on to power like grim death. These days the job pays very well while in the early days it did not when it actually involved personal sacrifice. Perhaps that is why the framers thought people would not stay in office very long. In any event, today’s longevity is not the way it was supposed to be, and I say again that the Constitution is in need of serious revision to accommodate the oversights and the many violations of the spirit, if not the letter, of the framers’ original intentions.

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.