Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Polling and Gerrymandering

A couple of days ago, I ran across one of those proliferating “wow, look what Trump is doing to the GOP” polls. It showed Clinton crushing Trump, the Senate going Democratic, and in the House, “generic Democrats” beating “generic Republicans” by 11 points.

The problem is, those “generic” preferences are meaningless. In the last House elections, Democrats nationally received a million more votes than Republicans. Have you noticed who controls the U.S. House of Representatives–by a very healthy margin? Republicans.

There are two reasons national generic preferences are irrelevant. The most obvious is that in individual congressional districts, voters do not have a choice between Generic Candidate A and Generic Candidate B. They are faced with real people, some of whom are appealing and some of whom are appalling, and party doesn’t predict those characteristics.

There is also a reason that voters face lopsided choices, or in some cases, no choice at all, and that reason is gerrymandering–partisan redistricting intended to make districts “safe,” aka uncompetitive.

As I have argued previously, this lack of competitiveness breeds voter apathy and reduced political participation. Why get involved when the result is foreordained? Why donate to a sure loser? For that matter, unless you are trying to buy political influence for some reason, why donate to a sure winner? Why volunteer or vote, when those efforts are clearly irrelevant?

It isn’t only voters who lack incentives for participation: it’s very difficult to recruit credible candidates to run on the ticket of the “sure loser” party. The result is that in many of these races, voters are left with a choice between the incumbent and a marginal candidate recruited to fill the slot, a placeholder who offers no new ideas, no energy, and no genuine challenge. In other safe districts, there is no challenger at all; in either case, the primary is the real election. Such contests simply exacerbate cynicism and voter apathy.

Here in Indiana, a legislative study committee has been convened to consider the possibility of changing the way our legislators draw district boundaries. As one legislator noted during the last public meeting, the current system, which allows representatives to choose their voters rather than the other way around, is a clear conflict of interest. Several states have established nonpartisan redistricting commissions, and others are considering similar reforms.

Study committees tend to be places where legislation goes to die. In this case, citizen turnout at Study Committee meetings and pressure from large numbers of citizens–mostly mobilized by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause–has given us hope that we can actually get something done. The next meeting of the Interim Study Committee will be July 7th at 1:00 in the afternoon in the Indiana Statehouse. If there is once again a robust turnout from members of the public, that will send a very important message to legislators who want to hang on to a status quo that benefits them.

If you can attend, I hope you will.

 

It Really is All or None….

At its most basic, government is a mechanism for living together. Politics, as the old saying goes, is war without the weapons–the process of mediating the demands of various interest groups and constituencies. Some governments are expressly established to privilege members of certain groups over others; America’s legal system, in contrast, is based upon a belief that people should be treated as individuals–that government should treat its citizens based upon their behavior, rather than their identity.

Being true to that ideal has always been a struggle; there have always been Americans who want to single out others as “less” not because those individuals have behaved badly, but simply by virtue of their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. That–as Paul Ryan recently noted–is the textbook definition of bigotry.

In the Age of Trump, those voices of bigotry are in danger of being legitimized. They are certainly being amplified.

From Talking Points Memo, we learn that

The same Republicans who have argued that gay couples should not be allowed to marry, that LGBT Americans don’t need federal anti-discrimination protections and that trans people should not use the bathroom that matches their identity are now claiming that they — not Democrats — are the party on the LGBT community’s side.

Their reasoning? That somehow, in the wake of the Orlando shooting at a gay night club that left 49 people dead, there’s now a mutually exclusive choice between supporting Muslims and protecting gay people, and Democrats have chosen the former.

The unlovely premise of that rationale is that all Muslims are terrorists, as one Republican congressman has baldly stated.

It is hard to think of anything more un-American–or more dangerous– than treating any group of people as a monolithic whole. The truth of the matter is that–idealism and fundamental fairness aside–no one in any group is safe in a society that allows government to pick and choose which identities are to be privileged and which marginalized and demeaned.

The effort to set one marginalized group against another is particularly despicable, although politically understandable. (You guys go fight each other and don’t pay any attention to the fact that we “real Americans” are running the show.)

Fortunately, the LGBT community understands–and rejects–the tactic.  An essay titled “We Are Strong, but We Are Not Okay” posted in the wake of the Orlando massacre, included this paragraph:

We are not okay when you criminalize the Muslim community because of the actions of one evil man. We have been the Muslim community: hated, feared, misunderstood. Questioned, berated, threatened, afraid to show our faces. Why would we condone treating an entire community as poorly as ours has been treated in the past, and in many scenarios, still is? When you come for one minority, you come for us all.

Treating citizens as individuals, refusing to discriminate on the basis of group identity, is a central premise of this nation’s approach to government. An attack on that premise is an attack on America.

Unfortunately, that’s a lesson we keep having to learn.

 

Another Contender for the Title of “Most Despicable”..

So many “public servants” who are anything but….

I had never heard of Tom Cotton until he authored that treasonous letter during the Administration’s negotiations with Iran–the one sent to the Iranian government by 47 Republican Senators in a deliberate attempt to sabotage an effort aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It was later reported that he received a million-dollar campaign contribution from Israel–but I’m sure there was no quid pro quo.(If you believe that, I have some swampland to sell you….)

Not that I would have had high expectations of a newly-elected Republican Senator from Arkansas, but his sheer arrogance, his willingness to ignore the longstanding bipartisan patriotism that used to stop policy disputes at the water’s edge, was astonishing and disheartening.

It was clear then that something was very wrong with this guy, and recently, more evidence has emerged of what can only be described as significant moral defects.

Cotton has been one of the Republican Senators refusing to act on judicial vacancies–from the Supreme Court down to the District Court level–simply because Obama is President.

It’s bad enough that the federal courts are so understaffed that Americans are being denied access to justice. But according to several news reports, Cotton isn’t just participating in the GOP’s willingness to indulge partisan spite at the expense of the common good. He’s twisting the knife.

Consider, for example, the New York Times’ Frank Bruni’s report on Cassandra Butts’ nomination to serve as the United States ambassador to the Bahamas.

After “decades of government and nonprofit work that reflected a passion for public service,” Butts received a nomination from President Obama to a diplomatic post for which she was well qualified. Her confirmation should’ve been easy, but the Senate kept putting her nomination on the back-burner – Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), for example, blocked her as part of a tantrum against the Iran nuclear deal.

And then there’s Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who blocked Butts and the nominees for the ambassadorships to Sweden and Norway.

Cotton eventually released the two other holds, but not the one on Butts. She told me that she once went to see him about it, and he explained that he knew that she was a close friend of Obama’s – the two first encountered each other on a line for financial-aid forms at Harvard Law School, where they were classmates – and that blocking her was a way to inflict special pain on the president.

Bruni’s report added that Cotton’s spokesperson “did not dispute Butts’s characterization of that meeting.”

Butts died recently at age 50 of acute leukemia, which she didn’t know she had until her life was nearly over. She waited 835 days for the Senate to vote on her nomination, but the vote never came.

In the highly competitive sweepstakes for “most despicable,” it will be hard to top that.

What a Sane Country Would Do

Orlando was the worst, but it was only a matter of degree.

You all know the statistics:

  • More than 30,000 people are killed by firearms each year in this country
  • More than 30 people are shot and murdered each day
  • 1/2  of them are between the ages of 18 and 35

And our lawmakers do absolutely nothing to prevent these deaths. Quite the contrary–they facilitate them.

Rational laws that would save lives don’t have to violate anyone’s sacred Second Amendment rights. (I do wish some of those Second Amendment purists were half as vigilant about other provisions of the Bill of Rights…). We simply have to stop electing people too timid and/or self-serving to stand up to the NRA–lawmakers willing to enact rational measures that overwhelming majorities of Americans–and majorities of its own members– support.

Just for starters:

The day after the San Bernardino massacre, Senate Republicans defeated a measure that would have prevented terrorists from buying guns.

The GOP-controlled Senate refusal to pass new gun control measures came weeks after the Washington Post reported that suspected terrorists had successfully purchased more than 2,000 guns from American dealers between 2004 and 2014, even though law enforcement is notified whenever someone on the FBI’s watchlist attempts to purchase a firearm.

You might think that allowing people we deem too dangerous to be allowed on a plane should be prevented from buying lethal arms, but according to the NRA, that would violate their rights.

And learning anything about the nature and extent of gun violence would also evidently imperil the Second Amendment. President Obama lifted the ban on such research, but Congress has adamantly refused to fund it. It’s anyone’s guess what the NRA is afraid such research would uncover…

The invention of a gun that can only be fired by its owner would seem to be a no-brainer–a boon to all those “good guys with guns” the NRA keeps talking about. If stealing that good guy’s gun becomes futile because only he can use it, that would certainly seem to be a good thing. But the introduction of guns with that feature was met with death threats (click through if you don’t believe me), intimidating retailers who might otherwise sell them, and a fear that laws might be passed requiring all guns sold to have the feature. That, of course, would reduce gun sales…

NO “good guy” needs an assault weapon. (I love the argument that citizens need these armaments in order to defy an overreaching government. Anyone who thinks the possession of an assault rifle would allow him to prevail over government drones, tanks and other sophisticated arms in the event our government suddenly went on the offensive is simply insane.)

None of these measures would interfere with legitimate ownership and use of a gun. All of them would make us safer.

The NRA doesn’t care. Their constituency is the gun manufacturers.

The question is: why do we continue to elect lawmakers in thrall to an organization that isn’t even responsive to its own membership?

Lessons from Kansas

Remember the book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” If we ask that question today,  the obvious answer is Sam Brownback (and in all fairness, the Kansans who elected–and inexplicably re-elected– him.)

Brownback took office in January of 2011. Like Indiana’s Mike Pence, Brownback had Republican majorities in both legislative houses, and together they were able to implement what Rolling Stone has called “the Republicans’ wet dream agenda.”

They passed huge tax cuts for the wealthy along with tax cuts on business profits, significantly reduced business regulations, and at the same time cut spending on welfare, rejected federal Medicaid money, and put the delivery of Medicaid services into private hands.

One of Brownback’s advisors was Arthur Laffer—best known for the “Laffer curve”–the theory that reducing tax rates leads to higher tax revenues. Laffer’s theory was the impetus for Reagan’s tax cuts; he has called what Kansas Republicans did “a revolution in a cornfield.” Other advisors included Steve Anderson, from the Koch brother’s Americans for Prosperity.

Whatever Kansas is these days, however, it sure isn’t prosperous.

As New York magazine recently reported in an article characterizing Kansas as a “parallel political universe,” the “revolution in the cornfield” has left the state in a world of hurt.

Marginal gains at the municipal level were dwarfed by the $688 million loss that Brownback’s budget wrought in its first year of operation. Meanwhile, Kansas’s job growth actually trailed that of its neighboring states. With that nearly $700 million deficit, the state had bought itself a 1.1 percent increase in jobs, just below Missouri’s 1.5 percent and Colorado’s 3.3.

Those numbers have hardly improved in the intervening years. In 2015, job growth in Kansas was a mere 0.1 percent, even as the nation’s economy grew 1.9 percent. Brownback pledged to bring 100,000* new jobs to the state in his second term; as of January, he has brought 700. What’s more, personal income growth slowed dramatically since the tax cuts went into effect. Between 2010 and 2012, Kansas saw income growth of 6.1 percent, good for 12th in the nation; from 2013 to 2015, that rate was 3.6 percent, good for 41st.

Meanwhile, revenue shortfalls have devastated the state’s public sector along with its most vulnerable citizens. Since Brownback’s inauguration, 1,414 Kansans with disabilities have been thrown off  Medicaid. In 2015, six school districts in the state were forced to end their years early for lack of funding. Cuts to health and human services are expected to cause 65 preventable deaths this year in Sedgwick County alone. In February, tax receipts came in $53 million below estimates; Brownback immediately cut $17 million from the state’s university system. This data is not lost on the people of Kansas — as of November, Brownback’s approval rating was 26 percent, the lowest of any governor in the United States.

This is what happens when people elect stubborn ideologues unwilling to learn from reality or experience. (Here in Indiana, we’re about to see whether Hoosier voters have learned anything about returning ideologues to office.)

If Brownback had been Governor of Kansas when that storm blew her away, Dorothy probably would have stayed in Oz.