Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

City And State

In the wake of John Kerry’s 2004 electoral defeat,  the editors of The Stranger, an alternative newspaper published in Seattle, published a wonderful rant. The editors looked at the red and blue election map, and pointed to the (visually obvious) fact that even in the reddest states, cities were bright blue. America’s urban areas comprised what they called an “urban archipelago” that reflected political values and attitudes vastly different from those of rural America.

Academic researchers have since confirmed that observation: virtually every major city (100,000 plus) in the United States of America has a political culture starkly different from that of the less populous areas surrounding it. As I wrote in a post back then, the problem is, the people who live in densely populated cities have demonstrably less political voice than their country cousins. Most states don’t really have “one person one vote” and the result is that rural voters are vastly overrepresented. State taxes paid by city dwellers go disproportionately to rural areas, and the people who populate state legislatures  have gerrymandered voting districts to keep things that way.

Representative government wasn’t genuinely representative then, and in 2021, the situation hasn’t improved.

Earlier this month, Governing Magazine noted the same problem, in an article titled “Why Cities Have More People But Less Clout.”

Gun violence is on the rise in Philadelphia. In January, homicides jumped by a third over the same month in 2020, which itself had been the deadliest in three decades. Non-fatal shootings increased last month by 71 percent.

City officials, wanting to address the issue, have repeatedly come up with gun control measures they believe will save lives. Their efforts, however, have gone nowhere. Pennsylvania, along with more than 40 other states, blocks localities from passing their own firearms regulations.

Last fall, Philadelphia sued the state to end its gun pre-emption law. “If the Pennsylvania General Assembly refuses to do anything to help us protect our citizens,” said Darrell Clarke, the president of the Philadelphia city council, “then they should not have the right to prevent us from taking the kinds of actions we know we need to keep our residents safe from harm.”

Good luck with that. Courts have repeatedly upheld Pennsylvania’s power to block local gun control laws. Across the country, states have consistently pre-empted localities on a broad range of issues, from minimum wage increases and paid sick leave requirements to bans on plastic bags or removal of Confederate monuments.

Sounds pretty familiar to us Hoosiers…

The article reports what most of us know–that the majority of the nation’s economic growth has been concentrated in major cities that are the primary economic engines of their states. You would think that would make them deserving of support– but state officials pretty consistently opt to keep money flowing from those cities to rural, less prosperous areas of the state. Cities send far more tax dollars to the state that they receive back in spending.

As cities are prospering (or at least were, before the pandemic and the great migration out of downtown offices), they have been moving in an increasingly progressive direction. Only three of the nation’s 25 largest cities have Republican mayors. Meanwhile, a majority of state legislatures are controlled by the GOP. That creates a disconnect that leads to frequent pre-emption, particularly in Republican states in the South, Southwest and Midwest.

It isn’t just a partisan political gap; the urban/rural divide “reflects and is reinforced by other overlapping differences, including cultural attitudes, education levels, class and race.”

Democrats can compete and win statewide in states including Michigan, North Carolina, and Wisconsin — and now Arizona and Georgia — but they’re shut out of power at the legislative level in all those places. Pennsylvania falls into this category as well.

The article acknowledges the a long tradition of outstate resentment of the dominant city–a resentment made stronger by the partisan split.

“They don’t have any reason to take into account the interest of the urban population in making legislation, and they have a lot of interest in not doing so,” says Schragger, the UVA law professor. “Particularly on cultural issues and fiscal issues, it pays for these legislators to resist giving cities more home-rule powers, because their constituents tend to be opposed even to local policies that are contrary to national conservative positions.”

The article is further evidence of America’s undemocratic move to minority rule, buttressed by giving every state two senators, irrespective of population count (the recent Republican Senate majority, which refused to rein in Trump’s abuses after his first impeachment, was elected with 20 million fewer votes than the Democratic minority), and
by the anti-majoritarian operation of the Electoral College.

How we give America’s urban majority at least an equal say with its rural minority is an increasingly critical question.

 

Texas

Early in my academic career, I really came to appreciate Texas. I taught Law and Public Policy, and on those rare occasions when Indiana failed to provide a “teachable moment”– an example of truly awful policy– I could always count on Texas.

I still remember Molly Ivins’ wonderful explanation of the logic of the Texas “lege.” She noted that when gun deaths exceeded highway deaths, Texas lawmakers sprang into action–and raised the speed limit.

Ted Cruz (known around Twitter and Facebook these days as “Fled” Cruz) is a perfect example of the sort of Republican Texas routinely elects–arrogant, bigoted, and thoroughly full of himself. While he took off for Cancun, Beto O’Roark was setting up telephone outreach to elderly citizens who’d lost their power and access to clean drinking water, and AOC, the much-hated “socialist” who doesn’t live anywhere near Texas was raising two million dollars for relief efforts. (I note that, as of yesterday, it was up to five million…)

To be sure, Cruz has lots of company. Former Governor and Energy Secretary Rick Perry (who was Governor in 2011 and ignored experts who recommended winterizing the power grid) insists that Texans prefer an occasional apocalypse to the indignity of federal regulation, and a “compassionate” Republican mayor had to resign after telling freezing people who’d lost power and water to stop whining and get off their lazy asses and take care of themselves.

I don’t think it is at all unfair to claim that these buffoons are perfect representatives of today’s GOP–a party that exhibits absolutely no interest in actual governing. I agree entirely with Ryan Cooper, who wrote in The Week that  the blizzard nightmare is “Republican governance in a nutshell.”

After describing Cruz’s attempted getaway, Cooper wrote that

what Cruz did is emblematic of the Republican Party’s mode of governance. The reason Cruz felt comfortable leaving Texans to freeze solid on the sidewalks of Houston is the same reason the Texas power grid crumpled under the winter storm. Theirs is a party in which catering to the welfare of one’s constituents, or indeed any kind of substantive political agenda, has been supplanted by propaganda, culture war grievance, and media theatrics. Neither he nor anybody else in a leadership position in the party knows or cares about how to build a reliable power grid. They just want to get rich owning the libs….

People have known for decades how to winterize electrical infrastructure — after all, there is still power in Canada and Finland. The reason those investments haven’t been made in Texas is because it would have cost a lot of money, and nobody wanted to pay for it — especially because the deregulated Texas energy grid makes it hard to pay for upgrades or extra capacity.

The reason the Texas grid isn’t connected to the national system is pure GOP ideology; the grid was purposely kept within the state in order to avoid federal regulation. (It’s notable that a couple of small parts of the state that aren’t connected to the Texas-only grid–places that were subject to those hated regulations– have mostly been fine.)

Unfortunately for Texas politicians, it’s hard to blame the “libs” for this debacle, although they’ve tried; after all, Republicans have run the state since 1994–and they’ve pretty much been owned by the state’s fossil fuel companies–especially Governor Abbott.

When the Texas power grid buckled under the strain of worse-than-expected winter cold, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) went on Fox News and blamed frozen wind turbines for what was mostly a problem with natural gas–fueled power supply. Then he savaged the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the Texas-only power grid. But he has notably “gone easier on another culprit: an oil and gas industry that is the state’s dominant business and his biggest political contributor,” The Associated Press reports.

Abbott, in office since 2015, has raised more than $150 million in campaign contributions — the most of any governor in U.S. history — and “more than $26 million of his contributions have come from the oil and gas industry, more than any other economic sector,” AP reports. In a news conference Thursday, Abbott mostly blamed ERCOT for assuring state leaders Texas could handle the storm.

ERCOT, of course, is managed by people appointed by Abbott…

Today’s Republicans may not be good at–or interested in– governing, but they are absolute masters of shamelessly lying and blaming others when they are threatened with the consequences of an ideology that translates into “let them eat cake.”  

 

Whither The GOP?

Remember when John Edwards ran for President and talked incessantly about “two Americas”? He was talking about divisions between rich and poor, but we now know that–whatever the contribution of economic status to culture war–the real differences that divide us are psychological and tribal.

And the question of the day concerns the tribe that has gone off the rails.

A recent Gallup poll found that sixty-two percent of U.S. adults believe the country needs  a third party. That is an increase from 57% in September. Support for a third party has grown significantly; it was 60% in 2013 and 2015 and 61% in 2017. Furthermore, Republicans’ current level of support for a third party is the highest Gallup has measured for either party–virtually all of the increase is due to the increase among Republican respondents.

Given recent reports of substantial Republican defections in the wake of the Capitol insurrection, that sounds promising–until you dig into the Gallup report.

The survey asked Republicans and Republican-leaning independents what direction they would like to see the party move in the future. A 40% plurality want the party to become more conservative, while 34% want it to stay the same and 24% to become more moderate.

Republican identifiers were twice as likely to say the party should become more conservative than moderate (44% to 21%). And we know that the current use of the term “conservative” is vastly different from its former definition.

Media is currently obsessed with the status and prospects of the GOP. An article in Politico offers advice for a “Reaganesque” revamp.

The thesis is that there are only three possible paths: the one the party is currently on (Splitsville ahead), a full-throated swing to crazy-ville (doubling down on xenophobia and protectionism and recruiting more Marjorie Taylor Greenes), and “imitating Ronald Reagan.” According to the author, Reagan masked the party’s racism with his focus on tax cuts:

The lesson is that while politics based on racism can always get you some votes, it doesn’t quite get you enough. To form a new, stable political coalition, Republicans need a strategy that speaks to people’s hopes and self-interest more than to their fears. Tax cut politics appealed across the board—including to the racists, but not only to them.

To repeat a Reagan-like transformation of the party, Republicans have to offer an alternative vision that is appealing enough to voters to serve as a replacement for the dwindling politics of tax cuts.

The article suggests what some of those policies might be (I’m dubious, but hey…). The problem is, embracing any of them would require dramatically distancing the GOP from Trump–something the polling suggests is highly unlikely. (It’s not just Gallup: a Politico poll fielded after January 6th found Trump’s overall favorability rating at an “abysmal” 34%–but 81% of Republican respondents gave him positive marks.)

Michael Gerson–former speechwriter for George W. Bush– has offered a far more honest–and much less hopeful–analysis.

Gerson acknowledged that the Impeachment vote was a “historic collapse of moral and political leadership. And it was no less tragic for being expected.” And he points to the tribal truth underlying that collapse: Republicans’ widespread belief that the “White, Christian America of its imagination is on the verge of destruction, and that it must be preserved by any means necessary.”

We saw the Indiana iteration of that belief last Thursday. Today’s GOP is the White  grievance party–nothing more.

As Gerson recognizes, this isn’t political philosophy. It’s a warped religious belief. “There can be no compromise in a culture war. There can be no splitting of differences at Armageddon.”

Can the GOP really have a productive debate between people who believe in democracy and those who have lost patience for it? Between those who view politics as a method to secure rough justice in a fallen world, and those who view it as a holy crusade against scheming infidels? Between those who try to serve conservative political ideals and those who engage (in Sasse’s immortal words) in “the weird worship of one dude”?

The greatest need in our politics is a conservatism that opposes authoritarianism. The greatest question: Can such a movement emerge within the framework of the Republican Party?

Gerson says he’s skeptical. Me too.

 

 

The Founders And The Filibuster

Among the many forgotten lessons of America’s past is the abysmal failure of the nation’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. Thanks to the widespread absence of effective civics instruction, much of the public is unaware of the very existence of America’s first effort at nation-building, let alone the reasons that initial effort failed.

The Articles had numerous flaws–mostly attributable to the reluctance of the colonies to cede authority to a central government. Probably the best-known weakness of that first effort was the inability of the new central government to levy taxes. The central government could ask for revenues–for example, monies to retire debt amassed during the Revolutionary War–but if a state didn’t want to pay, it didn’t pay, and the federal government could do nothing about it.

The lack of a dependable revenue stream wasn’t even the worst of it. Under the Articles, any changes to the structure or operations of government needed a unanimous vote of the 13 colonies–and most other policies required the concurrence of a super-majority. Those provisions made governing impossible. When the Founders met in Philadelphia to replace the fatally-weak Articles with the Constitution, changing that unworkable super-majority requirement was  high on their “to do” list.

What we know of that history and the Founders’ antagonism to government by super-majority should inform our approach to the current iteration of the Senate filibuster.

Ezra Klein recently hosted Adam Jettleson, a longtime Senate staffer, on his podcast, and reported their conversation in a column for the New York Times. Jettleson pointed out that one of the biggest misconceptions about the filibuster is the idea that it promotes bipartisanship.

In fact, it does the opposite because it gives the party that’s out of power the means, motive and opportunity to block the party that’s in power from getting anything done. And when the party that’s in power doesn’t get anything done — when voters see nothing but gridlock from Washington — they turn to the party that’s out of power and try to put them back in office.

Republicans are well poised to take back majorities in both the House and Senate — all they need is a handful of seats to do so. So they have every rational, political incentive to block Biden from achieving any victories. A program that would cut child poverty massively would be a huge victory for Biden. And the ability for Biden to pass it on a bipartisan basis would be a huge victory for his campaign promise to restore bipartisanship and unity.

Jettleson reminded listeners that the Framers had anticipated this very situation. They identified this huge drawback with supermajority thresholds in 1789, when they had direct firsthand experience with the Articles of Confederation.

In Federalist 22, Alexander Hamilton addresses this misperception head-on. He says, “What at first sight might seem a remedy,” referring to a supermajority threshold, “is in reality a poison.” You might think it would cause compromise, but really what it does is it provides an irresistible temptation for the party that’s out of power to make the party in power look bad.

As Klein observed, bipartisanship is something the majority wants, but the minority has no incentive to give–something  Mitch McConnell certainly understands. During the first years of the Obama administration, McConnell knew he could win the majority back by sabotaging its ability to govern–that the majority party will inevitably get the blame for gridlock, no matter how unfair that may be.

The mischief being done by the current iteration of the filibuster has become obvious. It continues to prevent the Senate from functioning properly–for that matter,  as Jettleson documents in his recent book, “Kill Switch,” it pretty much keeps the Senate from functioning at all.

A mountain of evidence suggests that it is long past time to get rid of the filibuster.

The question, then, is why Democratic senators like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema continue to defend it.

Blast From The Past Makes Me Happy!!

On family excursions into nature–admittedly, not my strong suit, but hey! grandkids–I became aware of the lasting contributions of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corp. That program not only offered employment to some three million Americans who had found themselves out of work during the Depression—it also built lasting improvements to the nation’s parks, roads and forests.

Workers enrolled in the CCC planted more than three billion trees. They paved 125,000 miles of highways, and built  3,000 fire lookouts.. Trails and structures from the Grand Canyon and the Pacific Coast Trail to the Smokey Mountains remain in use today.

According to The Guardian, Joe Biden has taken a leaf from the CCC–one of FDR’s most popular and successful efforts.

As part his recent climate policy spree, Biden announced the establishment of a “Civilian Climate Corps Initiative” that could harness the energy of the very generation that must face – and solve – the climate crisis by putting them to work in well-paying conservation jobs.

After Biden’s omnibus executive order, the heads of the Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture and other departments have 90 days to present their plan to “mobilize the next generation of conservation and resilience workers”, a step toward fulfilling Biden’s promise to get the US on track to conserve 30% of lands and oceans by 2030.

This is exactly the sort of effort we need right now. Not only will this Civilian Climate Corp provide gainful and undeniably useful job opportunities at a time when the economy is reeling from COVID, not only will it provide training to young people who participate, not only will it be an important part of America’s response to climate change, but it will offer the demonstrable benefits that attend national public service programs.

This is far removed from “make work” programs. This CCC will work on projects that are clearly and substantively important. The article quotes Mary Ellen Sprenkel, head of the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps, for the range of issues such a Corp can address:

Far beyond just planting trees, a new conservation corps could pour money into tackling a bevy of other environmental problems, too. According to Biden’s website, projects will include working to mitigate wildfire risks, protect watershed health, and improve outdoor recreation access. Sprenkel thinks the effort could also include more activities at the community level, like urban agriculture projects and work retrofitting buildings to be more energy-efficient. And as Sprenkel pointed out, the federal government owns and manages thousands of buildings that need help to become more energy-efficient. The buildings “could even become sources of renewable energy generation with solar or wind power installations”, she added.

This reconstituted and reimagined CCC can and should provide apprenticeships and on-the-job education equipping participants for long-term employment. But even more important, at a time when Americans live in very different realities and occupy informational and residential “bubbles,” it will provide the democratic benefits offered by public service programs by bringing young people from widely different backgrounds together.

Back in 2014, I advocated for a new GI Bill that would require young people to enroll in a year of civil service between high school and college or trade school. Among the many benefits of such service would be an appreciation for the role of government; another benefit would be the experience of working with Americans from diverse backgrounds and communities. The original CCC was segregated by race and gender–realities that detracted from its otherwise positive influence. Biden’s CCC, to the contrary, would build non-corporeal bridges along with the physical ones–and it would do so at a time when the bonds of citizenship have become deeply frayed.

My youngest grandson is currently taking a year with Americorp, and as I watch his progress, I can attest to the maturation and  flourishing–and cross-cultural understanding– that occurs in such programs.

I say three cheers for the three Cs!