Term Limits: Another Bumper-Sticker Solution

Americans have very hazy notions of how government actually works. As a result, they tend to embrace “reforms” that sound superficially attractive but would actually make things worse. I call them “bumper sticker” solutions because they are usually short and simple enough to slap on your car’s bumper.

Vox recently addressed one of those “solutions,” term limits, and did a very good job of explaining why this particular “fix” is a terrible idea.

In one recent survey, 75 percent of Americans said they supported term limits, including 65 percent of Democrats.

For that reason, it’s worth spending a few minutes on this point, because it does get to a fundamental problem with how the public views Washington. There is a perennial myth that the problem with Washington is that the longer people spend there, the more corrupt they become. Therefore, the only way to ensure good judgment in politics is to constantly have a bunch of fresh-faced lawmakers who are total rookies and don’t understand how anything in Washington works.

Since 15 states do have term limits, we actually can know something about their effects. And the political science literature here is pretty unequivocal. Term limits are the surest way to weaken the legislative branch and empower the executive branch. Term limits are also a great way to empower special interests and lobbyists. Basically, what term limits do is shift power toward those who are there for the long haul.

For example, here’s the conclusion from a 50-state survey published in 2006: “Term limits weaken the legislative branch relative to the executive. Governors and the executive bureaucracy are reported to be more influential over legislative outcomes in states where term limits are on the books than where they are not.”

This result has been replicated multiple times. In one study, a post-term-limits respondent said that after term limits, “agencies [do] what they want to. [One bureaucrat told me] we were here when you got here, and we’ll be here when you’re gone.” As the authors of this study note, “Legislative oversight is the venue of specialists. A term-limited legislature tends to be populated by generalists, who lack the accumulated knowledge to exercise oversight effectively, if they even recognize it as their responsibility.”

Term limits also strengthen the power of lobbyists and interest groups for the same reason….  But like the executive agencies of the state government, lobbyists and interest groups are also there year after year. They are the true repeat players building long-term relationships and the true keepers of the institutional knowledge. This gives them power.

The truth of the matter is that government operations are complicated, and competent policymaking requires significant substantive and procedural knowledge. At the federal level, congressional (House) terms are two years–just enough time for a neophyte to find the bathroom and figure out the arcane rules of procedure. The first thing every newly elected Representative does is hire staff from among the available pool of political and policy experts with relevant experience, and for at least the first term–and probably the second–a smart Congress-critter will be guided by those staff member, because they’ve  been around long enough to know the ins and outs.

A significant percentage of the people who staff congressional offices are in Washington for the long haul serving consecutive committees and elected officials. If elected folks are term-limited, those faceless staff members will be the ones really making policy decisions. So much for accountability.

We already have a mechanism for limiting legislators’ terms. It’s called voting. The biggest impediments to its effective use are gerrymandering and civic ignorance.

Who Are We?

A few weeks ago, a friend shared an essay from the Philadelphia Magazine that I’ve now reread more than once. It was all about bravery in times of American crisis--not, as the author explained, the personal courage that people display running into burning buildings and in similar exploits, but civic bravery, which she describes as

directly related to being a citizen, and it requires both personal courage and a bigger-picture, idealistic, long-game sort of mind-set. That strain of bravery, birthed in Philly in 1776, is what Americans both great and unknown would tap into in years to come, and what propelled most everything we think of as progress in this country: women’s suffrage, the New Deal, the Freedom Riders and so forth.

The article goes on to hone in on an aspect of American society that has been the focus of much punditry, not to mention a number of comments to this blog–the pervasiveness of an unbecoming fear that is both self-serving and disproportionate to the objects that trigger it:

The troublesome part about all of this is that so many of us seem unable or unwilling nowadays to accept fear as part of being alive in tumultuous times, or to push for the greater good despite personal risk (or perceived personal risk) the way our best countrymen have through the ages. How else to explain why our elected politicians can’t get past reelection concerns to pass even the basic gun legislation when most Americans clamor for it? Why else are so many unarmed young black men, one after the next after the next, dying at the hands of police officers? How to reconcile otherwise compassionate, charitable people scared to welcome refugees fleeing certain death (yearning to breathe free, just like your great-grandparents)?

After quoting former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski for the proposition that fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and paves the way for demagogues, she says the obvious: “Hey Mr. Brzezinski, meet Mr. Trump.”

The essay ends on a hopeful note, citing signs that might portend a revival of civic bravery. Some–like substituting Harriet Tubman for Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill–don’t seem particularly brave to me, but at a time when the Presidential candidate of a major American political party has enabled and normalized bigotry (with, it must be noted, the enthusiastic approval of a majority of that party’s members), Black Lives Matter certainly fits the bill. As she notes,

The time I spent writing this overlapped with the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police officers, followed by a sniper attack that killed five officers guarding otherwise peaceful protests. It seems there is no end to the fear and the hateful fruit it bears. But then: Black Lives Matter, a movement started mostly by millennials, is gaining momentum across all generations. This movement begun by blacks is roiling across races, as more people are finding that the essential nubs — life, liberty, innocents not being shot to death, not allowing fear to ruin lives — are too important to ignore. The movement is facing down threats, counter-protesters, online vitriol, death. But it goes on. Think of that photo from the Baton Rouge protests a few months back: a young black woman, a calm protester, standing wordless and serene in the street, surrounded by faceless police in riot gear. No puppies. No bubbles. Civil Bravery circa 2016, it turns out, looks an awful lot like Civil Bravery circa 1965.

The entire essay is worth a read–and some sober consideration.

What Do We Do?

Early in my lawyering career, the partner I was assigned to said something I still remember: “There is only one legal question, and that’s ‘what do we do.'”

That is also the basic question at issue in all policy debates. We citizens can only hope that what policymakers will decide to do will be informed by fact, rather than by emotion, partisanship, disinformation from those with a stake in the outcome, or fixed ideologies that make reasoned decision-making impossible. In less hot-button matters,at least, that goal still seems achievable.

But what do we do when we are faced with distasteful realities about the electorate–realities that determine the behaviors of elected officials chosen by those voters? Dylan Matthews at Vox recently addressed one such unpleasant reality.

Noting the efforts of essayists and pundits to “take the concerns of Trump voters seriously,” he pointed out that, in fact, these would-be sympathetic observers are actually tiptoeing around the real concerns of Trump supporters, which are not rooted in economics:

There is absolutely no evidence that Trump’s supporters, either in the primary or the general election, are disproportionately poor or working class. Exit polling from the primaries found that Trump voters made about as much as Ted Cruz voters, and significantly more than supporters of either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. Trump voters, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver found, had a median household income of $72,000, a fair bit higher than the $62,000 median household income for non-Hispanic whites in America.

It is very hard to disagree with what Dylan pinpoints as the actual motivation of a troubling number of Trump supporters:

So what is driving Trump supporters? In the general election, the story is pretty simple: What’s driving support for Trump is that he is the Republican nominee, a little fewer than half of voters always vote for Republicans, and Trump is getting most of those voters.

In the primary, though, the story was, as my colleague Zack Beauchamp has explained at length, almost entirely about racial resentment. There’s a wide array of data to back this up.

UCLA’s Michael Tesler has found that support for Trump in the primaries strongly correlated with respondents’ racial resentment, as measured by survey data. Similarly, Republican voters with the lowest opinions of Muslims were the most likely to vote for Trump, and voters who strongly support mass deportation of undocumented immigrants were likelier to support him in the primaries too.

In April, when the Pew Research Center asked Republicans for their views on Trump, and their opinions on the US becoming majority nonwhite by 2050, they found that Republicans who thought a majority nonwhite population would be “bad for the country” had overwhelmingly favorable views of Trump. Those who thought it was a positive or neutral development were evenly split on Trump.

Matthews notes–with examples–why policies providing more substantial economic security (which he supports) are unlikely to ameliorate racial animus, and then he addresses the “what should we do?” question:

One thing this analysis decidedly does not imply is “Hey, Trump supporters are just racists, let’s give up on them.” Trump’s nomination is a threat to America that must be addressed and never allowed to happen again. Giving up is not an option. We have to figure out some way to respond….

Any solution has to begin with a correct diagnosis of the problem. If Trump’s supporters are not, in fact, motivated by economic marginalization, then even full Bernie Sanders–style social democracy is not going to prevent a Trump recurrence. Nor are GOP-style tax cuts, and liberal pundits aggressively signaling virtue to each other by writing ad nauseam about the need to empathize with the Trump Voter aren’t doing anyone any good.

What’s needed is an honest reckoning with what it means that a large segment of the US population, large enough to capture one of the two major political parties, is motivated primarily by white nationalism and an anxiety over the fast-changing demographics of the country. Maybe the GOP will find a way to control and contain this part of its base. Maybe the racist faction of the party will dissipate over time, especially as Obama’s presidency recedes into memory. Maybe it took Trump’s celebrity to mobilize them at all, and future attempts will fail.

But Donald Trump’s supporters’ concerns are heavily about race. Taking them seriously means, first and foremost, acknowledging that, and dealing with it honestly.

Agreed. But how?


It Isn’t Just the Groping

Women voters need to reject Donald Trump decisively. Not simply because he is a pig who evaluates us solely on the basis of our looks (or because, as an Australian parliament’s motion put it, he is “a revolting slug”). Not simply because he clearly feels entitled to grope those of us he considers to be “tens.” And not even because he advocates “punishing” those of us who have the temerity to believe we should be able to control our own reproduction.

We need to reject him because even if he were a competent and informed candidate, he would never pursue the policies women need to achieve parity in the workplace.

ThinkProgress.org recently revisited the inequities of the workplace–the realities that working women face, and our lack of progress toward genuine equality of treatment and compensation. The gender wage gap hasn’t improved in years–women make 79 cents for every dollar a similarly employed man makes, a number that hasn’t moved since 2007.

As ThinkProgress reported, the wage gap closed at a relatively rapid pace between the late 1960s and 1990s, but that progress has “all but flatlined” since 2000. A slowdown in women’s wage growth–growth that helped narrow the gap in earlier decades, has come to a standstill. (In fact, that standstill has affected all wage earners, not just female ones.)

Not surprisingly, the story is even grimmer for women of color.

Women make less than men, on average, for a number of reasons. About 10 percent of it is thanks to different work experience, often because women are much more likely to take breaks from work to care for family members. The drop of women in the labor force over the last decade can be tied to the country’s lack of paid family leave, child care assistance, and support for flexible schedules.

Some of it is also due to the fact that women end up working in areas that tend to pay less. But that doesn’t mean they can escape the gap by choosing different paths. They make less in virtually every industry and every job. And while getting more education boosts earnings, women make less than men with the same educational credentials at every level and even make less than their former male classmates when they graduate from top-tier universities.

Social attitudes that promote discrimination in the workplace are often not recognized as unfair; employers who have been socialized into older attitudes about gender tend to see differential treatment simply as recognition of “the way things are.”

Studies have found that people of both genders are inclined to give men more money, especially if the woman is a mother. Meanwhile, women’s job performance is continuously underrated compared to men’s.

It’s tempting to believe that 21st Century Americans have moved beyond gender stereotypes, but even the most reasonable efforts to achieve workplace equality continue to encounter substantial resistance. A majority of Republicans–including 2008 Presidential candidate John McCain–opposed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which required equal pay for men and women doing the same job. They resisted re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act. And they continue to oppose other measures that other nations have put in place to ease the balance between work and family, like paid family leave and child care assistance.

Donald Trump is far from a typical Republican, but on matters of gender equity, he has proven to be even less progressive than his putative party. The behaviors and attitudes that his son has approvingly called “Alpha male” would reverse the already far too incremental progress toward women’s equality, and take us backward by legitimizing attitudes about gender not seen since the 1950s.

Of course, the effect on women’s equality might not matter, since the election of this narcissistic buffoon would probably signal the end of the world as we know it.

Post-Final-Debate Reflections

Yesterday morning, as my husband and I were surveying the post-debate reactions, he made an offhand remark that struck me as really perceptive–even profound: “How is Trump refusing to honor the results of a democratic election any different from the Republicans in the Senate refusing to vet a Supreme Court nominee?”

He’s absolutely right. There is no difference, and all of the Republicans currently clutching their pearls over Trump’s forthright acknowledgment that he neither understands nor intends to follow the rules of constitutional government need to recognize that the orange monster they have nominated is simply an exaggerated and less self-aware version of what the GOP has become, with its accusations of “vote fraud” intended to suppress minority turnout, and its highly selective defenses of Constitutional principles. (Second Amendment good; Fourteenth not so much…)

In fact, a case could be made that Trump is less culpable than Mitch McConnell, since McConnell knows what the rules are, and deliberately chooses to ignore them when it suits his and his party’s purposes. Trump, on the other hand, is clearly ignorant of democratic norms and the most basic operations of government. (He continues to berate Hillary for not single-handedly effecting changes to U.S. law when she was in the Senate. I doubt whether he could even define federalism or checks and balances, let alone comprehend Senate procedures.)

We are at one of those periodic turning points in American political life; I don’t think it is an exaggeration to suggest that this election–coming on the heels of the slow-motion disintegration of a once-responsible political party– will serve as an indicator of the country’s future trajectory.

Either the electorate will administer a final coup de grace to the current iteration of the GOP, after which we will see a new or different political party emerge, as happened after the implosion of the Whigs, or the election will be close enough, and down-ticket Republicans successful enough, to maintain the toxic status quo. If the latter,  we will occupy the America of  Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, where the rule of law is subservient to autocratic power, where (in Leona Helmsley’s famously dismissive phrase) taxes and laws are for “the little people,” and “We the People” becomes “me, myself and I.”