Tag Archives: congress

Some Very Good Ideas

One of the (depressingly few) public servants I really admire is Adam Schiff, who comported himself with dignity during Trump’s four years of monkey-poo-throwing antics. Schiff is highly intelligent and measured–attributes too few Congresspersons these days seem to share.

For example, rather than focusing solely on accountability for Trump, Schiff is trying to change the flaws in the system that enabled Trump’s authoritarianism and grifting.

According to columnist Jennifer Rubin, Schiff is proposing a bill to address the longtime accretion of executive power at the expense of Congress.

“While Donald Trump is no longer president, the fault lines he exposed in the foundation of our democracy remain — ready for a future unethical president to exploit,” Schiff said in a statement. “These weaknesses continue to erode the American people’s trust in our democratic institutions and the norms that are essential to a functioning democracy.”

The bill is chock-full of very good ideas. For one thing, it addresses the absolute nature of the Presidential pardon power, requiring the Justice Department to “provide materials to Congress concerning any self-serving presidential pardon or commutation in cases involving the President or his/her relatives, contempt of Congress, or obstruction of Congress.” it also makes it clear that pardons are “things of value” for purposes of federal bribery statutes. And it explicitly prohibits self-pardons by the President.

The bill goes well beyond the pardon power, however. It would suspend the statute of limitations for crimes committed by a president in office. In a move I find particularly important,  it clarifies the reach of the Emoluments Clause would specifically allow Congress to enforce its provisions.

The bill also seeks to end the sort of stalling we saw in the last administration that paralyzed congressional investigations, codifying “a cause of action for Congress to enforce its subpoenas, including those issued to government officials.” The bill also “expedites the judicial process for congressional subpoena enforcement actions; empowers courts to levy fines on government officials who willfully fail to comply with congressional subpoenas; and specifies the manner in which subpoena recipients must comply.

In response to such unilateral action as a president withholding previously appropriated aid (in Trump’s case, to extort Ukraine to produce dirt on his political opponent), the bill strengthens the Impoundment Control Act and beefs up disclosure requirements. Efforts to politicize the Justice Department would be limited by a requirement to keep a log of contacts with the White House and a reporting obligation for the inspector general.

Rubin points out that the bill has provisions that address nearly every Trump offense:  it requires both the president and vice president to disclose the last ten years of their tax returns, and  requires presidential campaigns to disclose foreign contacts. Other provisions protect inspectors general and whistleblowers, and increase penalties for Hatch Act violations.

I can only hope this bill passes. The odds of such passage would seem to be much greater with a Democrat in the White House–the spineless Congressional Republicans who enabled Trump would be likely to balk if a Republican was President, but will arguably be happy to vote for constraints that–at least initially–will apply to a member of the other party.

What is particularly positive about Schiff’s proposal isn’t just the obvious merit of the various provisions. It’s the recognition that the danger posed by Trump’s Presidency weren’t all attributable to his personal inadequacies and corruption. The lack of  sufficiently specific legal constraints made it much simpler for him to act in ways that enriched him and his family. Trump, fortunately, was incompetent. If a smoother, smarter version were to come along, that person could do inestimable harm.

Schiff understands the importance of legal clarity and enforceability. In a very real sense, his bill proposes to amend  James Carville’s famous admonition to read: “it’s the system, stupid!”

 

An Inside Assessment

Those of us who are Democrats, ex-Republicans and/or Never Trumpers often encounter allegations of bias. The charge is that our criticisms are unfair to the GOP members of Congress–that we are exaggerating their flaws for political reasons.

John Boehner’s new book rebuts that accusation.

No one can accuse Boehner of being a “lib.” He was–for those who may have forgotten–the Speaker of the House when the Republicans controlled that legislative body, and his scathing description of its members rings true.

In the 2010 midterm election, voters from all over the place gave President Obama what he himself called “a shellacking.” And oh boy, was it ever. You could be a total moron and get elected just by having an R next to your name—and that year, by the way, we did pick up a fair number in that category.

Retaking control of the House of Representatives put me in line to be the next Speaker of the House over the largest freshman Republican class in history: 87 newly elected members of the GOP. Since I was presiding over a large group of people who’d never sat in Congress, I felt I owed them a little tutorial on governing. I had to explain how to actually get things done. A lot of that went straight through the ears of most of them, especially the ones who didn’t have brains that got in the way. Incrementalism? Compromise? That wasn’t their thing. A lot of them wanted to blow up Washington. That’s why they thought they were elected.

 Boehner quotes Ronald Reagan for the sentiment that getting 80 or 90 percent of what he wanted was a win, while the “new guys” wanted 100 percent every time. “In fact, I don’t think that would satisfy them, because they didn’t really want legislative victories. They wanted wedge issues and conspiracies and crusades.” When Boehner tried to get legislation passed, they considered him a sellout, a dupe of the Democrats, a traitor–a “liberal collaborator.”

Boehner pulls no punches when it comes to the hatred House Republicans felt for Obama.

What I also had not anticipated was the extent to which this new crowd hated—and I mean hated—Barack Obama.

By 2011, the right-wing propaganda nuts had managed to turn Obama into a toxic brand for conservatives. When I was first elected to Congress, we didn’t have any propaganda organization for conservatives, except maybe a magazine or two like National Review. The only people who used the internet were some geeks in Palo Alto. There was no Drudge Report. No Breitbart. No kooks on YouTube spreading dangerous nonsense like they did every day about Obama.

He’s a secret Muslim!”

“He hates America!”

“He’s a communist!”

And of course the truly nutty business about his birth certificate. People really had been brainwashed into believing Barack Obama was some Manchurian candidate planning to betray America.

Most of us saw that hatred, and understood the racism that motivated it. What was truly eye-opening, however, was Boehner’s description of Roger Ailes’ metamorphosis from a politically conservative media person to something else entirely.

At some point after the 2008 election, something changed with my friend Roger Ailes. I once met him in New York during the Obama years to plead with him to put a leash on some of the crazies he was putting on the air. It was making my job trying to accomplish anything conservative that much harder. I didn’t expect this meeting to change anything, but I still thought it was bullshit, and I wanted Roger to know it.

When I put it to him like that, he didn’t have much to say. But he did go on and on about the terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, which he thought was part of a grand conspiracy that led back to Hillary Clinton. Then he outlined elaborate plots by which George Soros and the Clintons and Obama (and whoever else came to mind) were trying to destroy him.

“They’re monitoring me,” he assured me about the Obama White House. He told me he had a “safe room” built so he couldn’t be spied on. His mansion was being protected by combat-ready security personnel, he said. There was a lot of conspiratorial talk. It was like he’d been reading whacked-out spy novels all weekend.

And it was clear that he believed all of this crazy stuff. I walked out of that meeting in a daze. I just didn’t believe the entire federal government was so terrified of Roger Ailes that they’d break about a dozen laws to bring him down. I thought I could get him to control the crazies, and instead I found myself talking to the president of the club. One of us was crazy. Maybe it was me.

The excerpt at the link also has juicy stories about Michele Bachmann and Ted Cruz, among others.

This excerpt from Boehner’s book demonstrates two things: (1) there were once sane Republicans who cared about governing (and knew how to spell it), and (2)the degree to which they have been replaced by members of the lunatic caucus.

 

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.