Tag Archives: congress

Past Time For These–And Other–Reforms

Americans shouldn’t allow Trump’s COVID diagnosis to become the ultimate distraction from the  electoral choices that face us, or the structural challenges we will face even in the best of electoral circumstances.

The bottom line is that, even If America rids itself of Trump and his GOP enablers, citizens will still have a lot of work to do. We can no longer pretend that our electoral and legal systems are working as intended– for that matter, several are not working at all.

The Democrats, at least, have noticed.

On September 23d, the Washington Post ran an opinion piece authored by several Congressional Democrats, including Adam Schiff and Jerrold Nadler. Noting that Trump was the first President to ignore the reforms passed in the wake of Watergate, they wrote that

With a lawless president in office who acts as if rules are for suckers, political norms for losers and governing for chumps, it is clear we need a new series of reforms to protect our democracy.

On Wednesday, we are introducing such reforms, which we began drafting more than a year ago not only to address the president’s unique abuses, but also to go beyond them to restore accountability, root out corruption and ensure transparency in government for future White House occupants.

The reforms these lawmakers are proposing include amending the pardon power to make it clear that a President cannot pardon himself or his immediate family, adding teeth to the emoluments clause by adding explicit enforcement provisions and enhanced penalties, and increasing financial disclosure rules.

The bill also addresses the need to strengthen accountability and transparency. The op-ed notes that Trump has “obstructed congressional oversight, targeted whistleblowers who speak out against him and fired officials whose responsibility is to objectively investigate wrongdoing in the federal government,” and states the obvious: that  Congress needs access to documents and  the ability to compel testimony from witnesses in order to conduct that oversight. Their bill strengthens Congress’ right to enforce its subpoenas in court, and has other provisions aimed at improving congress’ ability to discharge its duties as  a co-equal branch of government.

The bill also contains measures that are a direct response to Trump’s contempt for the rule of law and for democratic norms:

We must also reclaim Congress’s power of the purse from an overzealous executive branch, increase transparency around government spending and ensure there are consequences to deter the misuse of taxpayer funds. Our bill will prevent the executive branch from using nonpublic documents or secret legal opinions to circumvent Congress and unilaterally enact its agenda behind closed doors. Our bill will impose limits on presidential declarations of emergencies and any powers triggered by such declarations, unless extended by a congressional vote, and require the president to provide all documents regarding presidential emergency actions to Congress.

These and the other reforms enumerated in the bill are welcome and probably overdue. The ability to pass the measure rather obviously depends upon turning the Senate blue on November 3rd.

But here’s my problem.

So long as most Americans don’t understand the rules we already have, or the reasons we have them–so long as they fail to recognize the profound effect legal structure exerts on the mechanics of government, we are ignoring one of the most dangerous threats to ethical and constitutional governance: widespread civic ignorance.

Far too many Americans vote for presidents and governors and mayors without understanding either the skills required for those jobs or–even more importantly–the constraints applicable to those positions. They evidently assume that they are electing temporary kings and queens–people who will take office, issue decrees, and change reality. (Trump’s base, for example, evidently thinks his constant stream of “Executive Orders” all have legal effect, although few do.) Worse, they fail to recognize the ways in which structures that were useful (or at least, less harmful) in the past have distorted the exercise of the franchise and given us a system in which rural minorities and thinly populated states dominate an overwhelmingly urban country.

When you don’t understand how a system works–or why it is no longer working properly–your ability to make informed choices at the ballot box is impaired.

The reforms listed in the linked op-ed are among the many changes we need to make. But a thoughtful discussion of those needed reforms requires a voting public that understands why America’s systems aren’t functioning properly–and what “properly” looks like.

Tomorrow, I will address additional needed reforms.

 

 

 

 

A Cure For Gerrymandering?

I recently received a provocative email from James Allison, a retired Professor of Psychology, suggesting an approach to the elimination of gerrymandering that I had never contemplated.

After noting the Supreme Court’s unconscionable refusal to find extreme gerrymandering a constitutional violation (ruling 5/4 that partisan gerrymandering was a “political question” best left to the political process!), Allison quoted a recent proposal for just such a political solution.

In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Lee Hamilton, William S. Cohen and Alton Frye served notice: Although partisan gerrymanders may lie beyond the reformist reach of federal courts, and beyond the conscience of gerrymandering statehouse legislators, they are well within the grasp of Congress (July 17, 2020). Specifically, the House can “refuse to seat a state delegation achieved through excessive gerrymandering.” They propose to gauge the amount of gerrymandering in terms of the difference between the number of districts won by each party and its share of the statewide popular vote. They take the example of North Carolina’s 2018 elections, where Republicans won 50% of the popular vote for House members, but 77% of the state’s 13 seats. And the gerrymandering authors of those maps came right out and confessed proudly that their motive was to guarantee their party’s supermajority control.

The constitutional basis for direct Congressional oversight is in Article 1, Section 5, which says that “each House shall be the judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members.” It has been used, albeit rarely, to exclude representatives chosen under questionable election procedures. And it was used after the Civil War against state intimidation of black voters and unconstitutional election laws.

There are a couple of obvious problems with this solution. One of those– political abuse of the power to deny delegations a seat–can probably be prevented by carefully crafted legislation. The other, as Allison points out, is how a determination is made that extreme gerrymandering has occurred.

For a number of years, the lack of a reliable “standard”–that is, a tested and dependable method for determining that disproportionate results were attributable to partisan redistricting and not simply to the voting sentiments of constituents–was the Supreme Court’s excuse for not addressing the issue. In the most recent case, however, that excuse no longer applied; in Rucho v. Common Cause, the Court was supplied with statistical tests developed by scholars for just that purpose. One test–called the “efficiency gap” was based on a calculation of “wasted votes.”  Wasted’ votes are those cast for a losing candidate or for a winning candidate beyond what he or she needed — divided by the total number of votes cast.

I personally prefer the tests developed by Sam Wang at Princeton. Be that as it may, there are now indisputably accurate statistical tests available to determine whether the number of votes cast translate fairly into the number of seats won.

Allison cites Robert X. Browning and Gary King, “Seats, Votes and Gerrymandering: Estimating Representation and Bias in State Legislative Redistricting.” Law and Policy, Vol. 9, No. 3, July, 1987 for the proposition that this approach to determining the fairness of electoral results isn’t new. I have personally done a fair amount of research into partisan redistricting, and written a couple of academic articles on the subject, and I can confirm the accuracy of this assertion.

The virtue of this approach, as Allison notes, is that– if adopted by Congress– its potential threat alone could create a powerful incentive toward nationwide redistricting reform.

If America truly cares about fair and equal representation–an open question in a country that makes it hard rather than easy to cast a ballot–this is an approach worth considering. It should be one more agenda item to be taken up by a (fingers crossed!) Democratic House and Senate.

 

 

 

 

My Endorsement

This post is mostly for readers who live in Indiana’s 5th District–or anyone who has friends and/or families who vote in Indiana’s Fifth. The primary election, which was postponed until June 2d, is approaching. (If you haven’t done so, be sure to apply for your absentee ballot by May 21st!)

As Hoosiers know, the district’s incumbent Representative is Susan Brooks, who (wisely) decided not to run again. To say that Brooks has been a huge disappointment to those of us who thought we knew her and expected her to be at least reasonably moderate would be an understatement. (To be a Republican these days is evidently to be a devoted Trump sycophant…)

Christina Hale is one of five Democrats running for the Fifth District seat, and in my admittedly biased opinion, she should be the slam-dunk choice. (There are fourteen candidates in the GOP primary, and– with the exception of Mark Small, who is valiantly trying to save the party from itself– they all seem to be emphasizing how Trumpy they will be if elected.)

I met Christina when she served in the Indiana legislature, where she was a highly effective advocate for women and girls  and small businesses, among other things. (Of the five Democrats running, Christina is the only one with legislative experience.) She’s a Latina  who put herself through school while she was a single mom, and she brings that same determination and capacity for hard work to her campaigns and legislative work.

When Christina ran for the Indiana State House in 2012, she defeated a 20 year Republican incumbent–flipping the seat from red to blue– and when she got to Indiana’s Republican-dominated statehouse, she got things done: during her legislative career, she had over 60 bills passed with bipartisan support.

I got to see more of Christina when she was John Gregg’s running mate in 2016, and I was further impressed with her campaign skills and her ability to communicate what is very clearly her passion for good government.

Can she win in the fall? Yes.

So far in this campaign, and despite the weirdness of running for office during a pandemic, Christina has outraised all of the other candidates– Democrats and Republicans–in every single quarter.  The reason that matters is because no matter which Republican emerges from that primary, you can be sure that person will be very well funded. But it also matters because those donations reflect donors’ excitement for Christina’s candidacy, and their belief that she can win.

I’m not the only person enthusiastic about Christina; so far, she’s been endorsed by Planned Parenthood, Latino Victory Fund, and a number of unions, including United Steelworkers, Sheet Metal Workers, IBEW, AFSCME and, most recently, the Serve America PAC.

You needn’t take my word for any of this. You can read about Christina at the campaign website.

I’m writing about Christina’s campaign because I can’t help her by voting for her–I live in Indiana’s 7th Congressional District, where I have a Congressperson with whom I am supremely happy, Andre Carson. (Andre is effective, intelligent, and responsive, and in our blue city, he is highly likely to be re-elected. He doesn’t need my help.)

The 5th District used to be solidly red, but it includes a significant number of educated professionals and solid, middle-class voters who have given evidence of re-thinking their allegiance to the GOP under Trump. In 2018, for the first time in forever, three Democrats were elected to municipal offices, and the incumbent Democratic Senator– who lost statewide– carried the district.

If the 5th District is ready to turn light blue–and I think it is–a candidate of Christina’s caliber and demonstrable bipartisan skills has the best shot of keeping it that color.

Anyway, that’s my two cents worth. But no matter who, VOTE. And VOTE BLUE.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

One of the unfortunate effects of our corrupt and paralyzed political structure is the “drowning out” effect, sometimes described as Washington “sucking the oxygen out of the room.” While our attention is fixated on the more dramatic consequences of our national government’s “brokenness,” we fail to notice the harms being done by the multitude of problems that government is simply not fixing.

One of those is the way creditworthiness is measured.

There’s no doubt that credit card companies charge excessive rates of interest. But as scholars at the Brookings Institution point out, simply legislating a cap would actually compound the problem.

When does the interest rate a lender charges cross the line from economically justified to immoral? Societies have struggled with this question since biblical times. Last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) took a crack at this puzzle, proposing to cap credit card interest rates at 15 percent. They’re concerned that the U.S. credit system traps working families with unsustainable debt. We share their concern, but their proposal uses a blunt instrument to attack a nuanced problem.

The Loan Shark Prevention Act, as the new legislation is called, is likely to hurt the people it’s designed to help, driving the market away from consumers with low credit scores. Some people may have their interest rates reduced, but many would no longer have access to credit at any price. Banks have been clever in figuring out how to hide credit in fees, as anyone who has paid $35 for an overdraft knows.

Instead, the authors propose making affordable credit accessible to a much larger group, by fixing what they identify as “the flawed scoring system that allocates credit.”

Our current system decides who gets credit and at what price using algorithms that analyze a person’s credit history and calculate a credit score. FICO, the most common credit score, employs a range between 300 and 850. There is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes a prime or subprime credit score but, generally, people with scores above about 680 are rewarded with cheap credit and high borrowing limits. Those classified as either near-prime or subprime, whose scores largely fall below 680, have a tougher time accessing and paying for credit.

The apparent objectivity of the algorithm masks a whole host of issues. A peek behind the credit-scoring curtain reveals that, as in “The Wizard of Oz,” there are humans feeding imperfect information into the machine. You could be the most creditworthy person on the planet, but if you lack a credit history, are a young adult or a recent immigrant, or had financial hardship in the past five years, your score will be low. Credit reports are rife with errors: One out of 5 Americans has a material error on their score.

I recently encountered this precise circumstance with my granddaughter-in-law: she is young and had virtually no credit history. It wasn’t bad credit, it was no credit, because she had been prudent and avoided debt. No credit became a real problem when she and my grandson applied for a mortgage. (Even more maddening, one of the three reporting agencies kept telling the bank her credit was “frozen”–whatever that means–but continued to insist to her, during her multiple calls to correct the issue, that it wasn’t.)

The Brookings scholars write that “Congress should start examining this system and aggressively pushing for its improvement.”

Lawmakers should push for credit-scoring formulas that take a wider range of data into consideration. Paying a mortgage on time improves your credit score, but paying your rent on time does not, because mortgages are tracked and rents generally are not. That’s just not fair…

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau estimates that 45 million Americans lack the data that credit bureaus use to create a credit score. If you don’t have a score, it can be very hard to get a loan, rent an apartment or persuade an employer to hire you. Credit scores have become an essential component of what Princeton sociologist Frederick Wherry calls “financial citizenship” — the ingredients necessary to participate fully in the economy and civil society.

If we had a functioning Congress, this is one of the multiple tasks to which they should attend. But of course, we don’t. Right now, Mitch McConnell (aka the most evil man in America) is preventing the Senate from even considering one hundred bills that have been passed by the House.

We have a legislature that is incapable of doing anything, and an Administration trying its best to undo what was accomplished in the past. We aren’t even a banana republic: we’re a failed state.

Corruption And The Piety Party

Over the past few years, surveys have documented the growth of the so-called “nones”–Americans who have abandoned religion. Some are atheists or agnostics, others simply see religion as irrelevant to their lives. For many, that irrelevancy is the result of distaste for the hypocrisy and amoral behaviors of many self-described “pious” people.

I thought about the distance between ostentatious religiosity and ethical behavior when I read a Dana Milbank column in the Washington Post, titled “The Unimpeachable Integrity of the Republicans.”The GOP, as we all know, has become the piety party–Vice-President Mike Pence is its perfect, smarmy embodiment.

Milbank wasn’t addressing Republican faux religiosity–he was just marveling at the efforts of deeply dishonest Representatives to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein. As he noted, tongue-in-cheek, the charges are serious: inappropriately redacting lines in documents turned over to Congress by the Justice Department, and explaining the legal basis upon which the department is declining to produce others. Horrific behavior! I may swoon…

Redacting the price of a conference table is clearly a far more serious offense than those committed by other members of the Trump Team: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has been accused by former associates of stealing roughly $120 million; former EPA Chief Pruitt got a bargain condo rental from a lobbyist’s wife, used his job to find work for his wife and had taxpayers buy him everything from a soundproof phone booth to  moisturizing lotion.

Who else doesn’t merit impeachment?

Not the former national security adviser who admitted to lying to the FBI,not the former White House staff secretary accused of domestic violence, not the presidential son-in-law who had White House meetings with his family’s lenders, not the housing secretary accused of potentially helping his son’s business, not the many Cabinet secretaries who traveled for pleasure at taxpayer expense, not the former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director who bought tobacco stock while in office.

And certainly not the president, whose most recent emolument bath was poured by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince: Bookings by his highness’s entourage spurred a spike in the quarterly revenue at the Trump International Hotel in Manhattan.

None of these “public servants” generated the indignation being focused on Rosenstein the Redactor.

Milbank helpfully described the pious paragons so determined to expel this scofflaw from governance–the same Republicans “so above reproach” that one of their first votes was an attempt to kill the House ethics office. He began by identifying some who are regretfully  no longer available:

Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), an obvious candidate, resignedover his use of public funds to settle a sexual-harassment lawsuit.

Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.), another ideal choice, resigned after word got out of a sexual-harassment settlement with a staffer the married congressman called his “soul mate.”

Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) also can’t be of use. He resignedover allegations that he urged his mistress to seek an abortion.

Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) likewise won’t be available. He quit when a former aide alleged that he offered her $5 millionto have his child as a surrogate.

But never fear–as Milbank demonstrates, the GOP has a truly impressive bench.

There’s Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), who remains “tentatively available” despite his arrest this week for insider trading, along with the five other House Republicans who invested in the same company but haven’t been charged yet. There’s also Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), “assuming he has free time”–he’s battling allegations that he covered up sexual misconduct when coaching at Ohio State.

Others who could judge Rosenstein: Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.), who pleaded guilty to assault after body-slamming a reporter; Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), who is retiring after a naked photograph of him leaked online; and Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.), who is under investigation by the FBI over the alleged use of campaign funds for his children’s tuition, shopping trips and airfare for a pet rabbit.

Nunes himself is battling allegations that he got favorable terms on a winery investment and used political contributions to pay for basketball tickets and Las Vegas trips.

Eighty-one percent of white Evangelicals voted for Trump, and research suggests their support for him and his band of thugs and thieves remains strong. No wonder people who actually care about ethics and morality are repelled by “faith.”