Posts Tagged ‘ government ’

Republicans’ logic on the sequester

The news on our next of many fiscal crises is that the Republicans in the House do not want to make a deal to stop the sequester. The sequester, you will remember, is the law that cuts about $1 trillion in spending over the next 10 years. It was enacted in 2011 in order to get Republicans to agree not to make the US default during the debt limit crisis. The sequester will deeply and indiscriminately cut both domestic programs and defense spending starting in March. Mostly everyone agrees that these untargeted, indiscriminate cuts are a terrible way to reduce spending and will do great damage to the economy. However, Republicans will let them go through because they are better than any likely alternatives.

The important thing to remember here is the Republican caucus’ fiscal priorities. They go something like this:

  1. Lower taxes on the rich as much as possible
  2. Cut spending (primarily on the poor/young) as much as possible
  3. Protect defense spending
  4. Anything else

Many Republican defense hawks do not like the defense cuts in the sequester. Democrats thought that including these cuts in the sequester would bring Republicans to the table to negotiate a reasonable compromise on the debt. It appears they miscalculated.

Even though the majority of Republicans are uneasy with the military cuts, they are not about to negotiate with Democrats and trade the military cuts for getting rid of tax loopholes. Republicans hate revenues even more than they love defense spending. The money to be gained from closing those tax loopholes is reserved (in Republicans’ minds) for reducing tax rates later on down the line. With all the revenue from cleaning out the tax code, President Marco Rubio will be able to pass huge tax cuts for the rich, wiping out all the tax increases Obama passed in the fiscal cliff deal.

Republicans can’t just cancel out the sequester entirely because that would mean they would have to cancel out the domestic cuts as well, and obviously objective #2 is higher than objective #3.

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Immigration reform and amnesty

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer has a column out today about how he wants immigration reform to play out. Through all the immigration debate, conservatives have been carping about not wanting to allow “amnesty” for undocumented migrants, even though the requirements to gain citizenship will likely be quite strict. Krauthammer lays out his case for why this is indeed “amnesty.”

It is true that only after some commission deems the border under control do illegal immigrants become eligible for green cards and, ultimately, citizenship. But this is misleading because on the day the president signs the reform — long before enforcement even begins — the 11 million are immediately subject to instant legalization.

It is cleverly called “probationary” legal status. But the adjective is meaningless. It grants the right to live and work here openly. Once granted, it will never be revoked. Consider:

Imagine that the border-control commission reports at some point that the border is not yet secure. Do you think for a moment that the 11 million will have their “probationary” legalization revoked? These are people who, in good faith, would have come out of the shadows, registered with the feds and disclosed their domicile and place of work. Do you think the authorities will have them fired, arrested and deported?

To which I say: yes Charles, that’s the point. The proposed bill framework is meant to give a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented migrants currently living in the US. Its purpose is not to give a pathway to citizenship to the people who are able to remain hidden between now and 2020 when a panel half-full of Republicans finally certifies that the border is “secure” in their estimation.

Everyone agrees that having 11 million people living and working in the US in a state of legal limbo is not a good situation. It would make no sense to pass a bill that prolongs this untenable situation for years and years for no good reason.

The border is now more secure than its ever been, thanks to President Obama’s strict border-enforcement policies. Deportations are at record highs and the number of undocumented immigrants has even dropped by a million since 2007 and is unlikely to ever resume the pace set in the 2000s or even significantly grow again. How much more border security progress do these people need?

Moreover, while on “probationary legal status” immigrants will still have to show good behavior and remain ineligible for many government programs, such as Medicaid.

Bringing these people out of the shadows is the right thing to do and America shouldn’t have to wait for a commission full of Jan Brewers or Joe Arpaios to say we can. The purpose of comprehensive immigration reform is to solve this problem, not to put it off even longer.

Republicans attempt to rig the next election

After two large back-to-back Presidential losses, Republicans have started looking around to try to find ways to put one of their own in the White House in four years. One way of doing this would be to try to adopt more moderate and popular positions that appeal to America’s median voter. But that would mean…becoming more sensible and moderate, so the GOP isn’t interested. Instead, many plan to go with option two: trying to rig the next election so that even if America doesn’t vote for Marco Rubio in 2016, it won’t matter and he will win anyway.

Reince Priebus

Reince Priebus, Chairman of the RNC

 

They will do this by messing with our arcane Electoral College system in selective states. Right now, the candidate who wins a majority of the votes in Pennsylvania wins all of PA’s 20 electoral votes. Get 270 electoral votes  and you win the Presidency. Yes, this system is weird and cooky and it would be much easier to just give the Presidency to the person who gets the most votes across the country. But Republicans aren’t trying to fix this quirk. They’re trying to make it worse.

 

Reince Priebus, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee has just endorsed a scheme that would instead award an electoral vote to the winner of each congressional district in only Democratic states. This ploy would still ensure that the Republican nominee got all 38 of Texas’ electoral votes, but would only give a Democrat 7 of 16 electoral votes in Michigan, even if they win the state handily, as Obama did this last time. That’s right. Republicans could lose Michigan by 10 points and STILL get a majority (9) of the state’s electoral votes under this vote-stealing technique.

Crucially, Republicans are only proposing to do this in states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Virginia, Ohio and Florida. These are states that Obama won last year but that also have Republicans controlling their state governments. If this proposed system had been in place in 2012, Obama could have lost the Presidency even as he won the national popular vote by 4 points.

Republicans can do this because of the big wins they scored in the all-important 2010 mid-term elections. This win (their only winning cycle since 2004) gave them control of the state governments in most swing states. Crucially, this let them re-draw congressional districts in their states so there are no longer more than a handful of competitive congressional elections in our most closely divided states. And now that Republicans have decided that Pennsylvania, a blue state, will always have 5 Democratic and 13 Republican representatives, they want to make sure that no matter how the people vote, their votes always count for the Republican!

These proposed changes are, quite literally, the greatest threats to democracy in America. These proposals have no redeeming qualities. They are simply to make sure Republicans have a huge advantage when electing the next President.

Yes, Republicans are to blame for the polarization in Congress

Of course since I’m a Democrat I’d think this, right? But hear me out, there is very good evidence showing that Republicans have become radically conservative over the past few decades. Democrats, on the other hand, have remained a centrist party and in many ways also have gotten more conservative. Our current problems with political polarization are almost entirely to blame on a Republican Party that has marched steadily to the right for over three decades. Additionally, anyone who says “both sides have become extreme lately” is clearly wrong.

A new study by two political scientists provides a good visualization of this trend:

Starting roughly in 1976, Republicans started becoming an unprecedentedly conservative party. In good years the GOP becomes more conservative, in bad years it becomes more conservative, without fail. Contrast that to the Democratic Party, which was about the same distance from the political center in the mid 60s as they were in 2009-2011. (Unlike with Republicans, electoral victories tend to move Democrats closer to center, while those representatives left after electoral defeats lend to be more liberal)

This is a nice graph of this trend, but more importantly, here are concrete examples of this phenomenon.

Health Care

The health care plan passed by Democrats in 2010 was much more conservative than the one proposed by Clinton in the early 1990s or any of other earlier Democratic plans. In fact, Obama’s plan was first proposed by Republicans in response to Clinton’s plan and first enacted into law by Republican Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. Today, Republicans say that same health care plan represents the death of liberty in America. Clearly on this issue, Republicans have moved to the right to oppose a plan they once favored and Democrats have moved right by passing a plan that Republicans once favored.

The Environment

You may remember that it was Republican Richard Nixon who first created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Today, it is the Republicans who are talking about repealing the EPA or putting coal and oil executives in charge of the agency. This is clearly a major rightward turn for the party.

In the debate over man-made climate change, Republicans have gone from proposing solutions to the problem to denying that it even exists. A cap-and-trade solution to limiting carbon emissions was (you guessed it) originally a Republican idea. The 2008 Republican Presidential nominee John McCain even went around the country advertising cap-and-trade as his solution to climate change. In 2009-2010 Democrats moved and adopted cap-and-trade instead of their old idea of a carbon tax. Predictably, Republicans now say cap-and-trade is the greatest job-destroyer in America. On this issue (again) both parties have moved right.

Taxes

It used to be, taxes were just the way we paid for the things we wanted government to do. Democrats and Republicans went back and forth over how taxes should be structured and over their levels sometimes, but no party has ever denounced taxes as a moral evil and as antithetical to American values the way the current Republican Party is. Every Republican president up until Bush Sr. raised taxes at some point in his Presidency (to my knowledge). Now to do so would be blasphemy.

Democrats have also moved to the right on the issue of taxes.  Democrats raised taxes under Clinton before Bush Jr. lowered them in 2001  and 2003. Now Democrats don’t even want to raise all of our taxes rates to the place they were under Clinton, they only want to raise taxes on those making more than $200,000/year. On this issue as well, both parties have moved far to the right. Republicans now see taxes as the devil and Democrats refuse to raise taxes on 98% of the population!

Immigration

In the 2000s, some Republicans favored compassionate and fair immigration reform. Now, you’d be hard pressed for a Republican spouting anything less than “round ’em all up,, shove  ’em in jail and post automatic machine guns to mow down anyone trying to cross the border.” Republicans are even against giving citizenship to children who were brought to the US as children have lived here almost their entire lives and agree to go to college or serve in the US military (a bill called the DREAM Act).

Under former President Bush, many Republicans favored an even looser version of the DREAM Act. This version would have only required prospective DREAMers to graduate high school and did not include many other provisions restricting access to this benefit. Democrats still favor the DREAM Act, but Republican support for it has all but disappeared.

Conclusion

Looking only at issues overlooks procedural ways the Republicans have increased polarization, such as how they now filibuster every small issue that gets brought up in the Senate, where before only major issues were seen as deserving of a filibuster.

As should be obvious, Republicans have moved sharply to the right over the past couple decades. I cannot think of any issue where  the Democrats have similarly moved to the left (except on gay rights, I suppose). As studies show and party rhetoric confirms, Republicans are mostly responsible for the polarization and dysfunction in our government today. The solution to these problems involves finding someway to change the Republican Party.

What the filibuster is and why it’s important

In civics class, every child learns that it takes 51 votes to pass something in the Senate, with the Vice President breaking ties if necessary. Of course, those civics lessons no longer apply to today’s Senate. Because of the Senate’s rules surrounding filibusters and cloture, it now takes 60 votes to pass a motion in the Senate. These rules directly contradict of the intentions of the framers of the Constitution and have made the Senate increasingly dysfunctional and ineffective.

I’ve written before that for the good of the country, the filibuster needs to be gotten rid of. Since its in the news again, here is a rundown on what the filibuster is and why you should care.

What, exactly, is the filibuster?

The filibuster is a Senate rule that allows unlimited debate on an issue before the Senate. This unlimited debate can only be ended by the votes of 60 Senators (called invoking “cloture”). From the mid 1800s to the mid 1900s the filibuster was primarily used by lone Senators or small groups of Senators to block or call attention to legislation they disapproved of. Since 2009, the filibuster has been used to block the Senate from voting on any bills or nominations unless they have 60 votes. Predictably, this has result in intense and debilitating gridlock in Congress.

Where did the filibuster come from?

The filibuster is not in the Constitution. It came about (like anything else) by accident. As Ezra Klein writes:

In 1806, the Senate, on the advice of Aaron Burr, tried to clean up its rule book, which was thought to be needlessly complicated and redundant. One change it made was to delete something called “the previous question” motion. That was the motion senators used to end debate on whatever they were talking about and move to the next topic. Burr recommended axing it because it was hardly ever used. Senators were gentlemen. They knew when to stop talking.

That was the moment the Senate created the filibuster. But nobody knew it at the time. It would be three more decades before the first filibuster was mounted — which meant it was five decades after the ratification of the Constitution.

This extremely powerful and controversial rule was created by accident and should never have come into existence.

When did the Filibuster achieve its current form?

As I said, the filibuster didn’t always function like it does today. In the earliest days, it was a tool for a single Senator (or group of Senators) to use to oppose a particular bill that he didn’t like. After Senators tried to block the Treaty of Versailles from being considered, “cloture” was developed. In its early days, cloture allowed 67 Senators to cut off debate on a motion, ending a particular filibuster. Most famously, the filibuster was used by Southerners to block civil rights legislation in the 1950 and 1960s.

Along the way, the filibuster evolved from being something that a single Senator or group of Senators might use to block a single bill and instead because a tool the entire minority party in the Senate would use to block the majority from doing what it wanted. This turned the balance of power in the Senate on its head, giving the minority party a veto over what got done in the Senate. Today, this forces an electorally victorious Senate majority to beg its defeated opponent for the right to pass legislation the minority opposes.

When it seemed that the number of filibusters was getting out of hand in 1975, the Senate lowered the number of votes required for cloture to 60. In that session of Congress, there had been about 40 filibusters.

Via the Washington Post

Now, the minority party in the Senate stages nearly 140 filibusters per session of Congress. Nearly every act of Congress, no matter how minuscule, is subjected to a filibuster. In this environment, its no wonder people complain about Congress not doing anything to help the American people.

Why the filibuster is important

Voters elect a party to power and expect them to govern. If they govern well, voters will reward them at the next election. If they govern poorly, voters will punish them. Republicans figured out in 2009 that if they simply block everything the majority party wants to do, then it starts to look like the majority party is doing a very bad job at governing. Few bills are passed, and the ones that are have to be loaded down with pork in order to scrounge up enough votes to get to 60. Americans’ problems start to go unaddressed and it starts to look like the majority party is doing a very bad job. So who do voters reward? The minority party.

In short, the filibuster allows the minority to sabotage the majority party, and by extension the will of the people and the good of the country, and then reap the rewards from voters’ dissatisfaction. Obviously, this is not how a democracy should work. Since it is nearly impossible to amass 60 votes in the Senate, this dynamic will be near-constant in the years  ahead.

Would the Framers have liked the filibuster?

Obviously no framers were around to see a filibuster, but many of the filibuster’s defenders claim that the framers would have liked having it around.  This claim doesn’t make any logical sense. After all, the framers had the opportunity to create the filibuster and they didn’t. Turns out that this claim doesn’t make any historical sense either. The framers thought about creating a super-majority requirement for the Senate and specifically rejected it. Again, from Ezra:

In Federalist 22, Alexander Hamilton savaged the idea of a supermajority Congress, writing that “its real operation is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of government and to substitute the pleasure, caprice or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent or corrupt junta, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority.”

In Federal 58, James Madison wasn’t much kinder to the concept. “In all cases where justice or the general good might require new laws to be passed, or active measures to be pursued, the fundamental principle of free government would be reversed. It would be no longer the majority that would rule; the power would be transferred to the minority.”

In short, the filibuster was a historical accident that was never intended to exist. It makes it impossible to legislate for our country and should be gotten rid of immediately by changing the rules for the Senate.

Long-term electoral trends in the United States

Its time to take a break from the rough-and-tumble of everyday politics to take a wide look at our political system. This post will tell you what our government is likely to look like for the foreseeable future. There are many factors which determine who makes up our government, and I’ll break down the know-able factors here and tell you which party is likely to control the government over the next decade or so. We’ll look at the Presidency, the US House of Representatives and the US Senate.

The Presidency

The US President is chosen by the Electoral College, which gives roughly proportional votes to the winner in (almost) every state. Importantly, the person who wins the nation-wide popular vote  is almost always the winner of  the Electoral College vote. These votes are close mirrors of each other, so it is important to look at the overall national voting trends when determining how future Presidential elections will play out.

National voting trends favor the Democrats. Democrats are overwhelmingly the party of young and minority voters, while Republicans are the favorite of white and elderly voters. Research shows that voters tend to stick with whatever party they join at their first vote. It also shows that “age cohorts acquire a propensity to vote or not to vote that proves ‘sticky’ over time.” (PDF, page 19) These facts suggest that young voters, whose turnout was especially high and especially Democratic in 2006-2008 (and looks to be close to the same this year), will continue to vote often and vote Democratic in the future. (more after the break) Continue reading

Paul Ryan has a debt-reduction plan like Bush had a plan for post-Saddam Iraq

That is to say, Republican Representative Paul Ryan has no debt-reduction plan. He has a wish list, an outline maybe. There are certainly bullet points. But Paul Ryan and his Republican Party have no plan to make a dent in our debt.

So why isn’t Ryan’s much-discussed budgetary “Roadmap” a “plan”? Because it doesn’t actually say how it will achieve the debt-reduction it promises! Like Bush, Ryan will give you all the good stuff up front: “Saddam’s military will be no match for the US” or “We’re giving out big tax cuts!” but when it comes to the next step, they’re both a bit clueless: “Wait, we have to do something with Iraq after Saddam’s dead?” and “Wait, I have to pay for my tax cuts and then find trillions more to reduce the debt?”

Ryan is very specific about how he will increase the debt. He says that he will vastly lower taxes for the richest Americans. For example, Ryan would reduce Mitt Romney’s tax rate to about 0% by getting rid of the taxes on capital gains. Ryan is very detailed and specific about this how to increase debt and income inequality. But when it comes to getting rid of debt, Ryan’s got nothing. Ryan is the Donald Rumsfeld of budgets.

Ryan promises a total of about $5 trillion in tax cuts for the richest Americans over the next decade (in addition to the Bush tax cuts). He says he will pay for this with……. well, he doesn’t actually say how he would pay for it. He says that his plan “eliminates nearly all existing tax deductions, exclusions, and other special provisions” to pay for itself. Really? Which ones? There are a lot of tax breaks that are very near and dear to voters in the country. But of course Ryan won’t say which ones he will eliminate. Its a long road to eliminating an astounding $5 trillion in tax breaks but Ryan won’t say how he plans to get there. Not even a hint.

The weirdest part of Ryan’s budget is his goal to cut spending. Ryan wants to cut spending by $5.3 trillion more than President Obama over the next decade. Only, whenever anyone tries to figure out what, exactly, Ryan is going to cut, Ryan becomes defensive and extremely ambiguous. You see, the trick in Ryan’s budget is that he never actually names programs that he wants to cut. Like with getting rid of tax breaks, Ryan has a broad goal for spending reduction, but few plans to get there.

Turns out, this technicality is a big advantage for Ryan. He can say the popular thing: “I’ll make massive cuts in spending” and whenever anyone asks: “Well wait, will you get rid of my favorite program?” Ryan can respond: “No! We’ll get rid of another program (but I’m not telling you what it is).”

As comical as this sounds, this is actually how Ryan is framing his budget “plans.” Recently, President Obama gave a speech outlining how Ryan’s plan would affect major federal programs saying,

“If this budget became law and the cuts were applied evenly … over 200,000 children would loose their chance to get an early education in the Head Start program,” Obama said. “There would be 45,000 fewer federal grants at the Department of Justice and the FBI” to combat violent crime.

Obama said hundreds of national parks would close.

Predictably, Republicans responded by saying “Where did Obama get these specifics? He imagined them.” Well, yea, what was he supposed to do when handed a plan that makes radical changes to America but contains no specifics? In fact Obama anticipated this come-back and said:

“Republicans may say, well ‘we’ll avoid some of these cuts,’” Obama said. “But they can only avoid some of these cuts if they cut even deeper in other areas.”

Which is exactly right. Eventually the hammer has to fall somewhere or not at all. And for every program you protect, another gets hit twice as hard. Either you’re cutting spending or you’re not. If you are, then real people are going to be hurt and if not, then then you’re not actually reducing the debt. If Paul Ryan is serious about his budget then he needs specifics. For an example of a serious budget with specifics, here’s a good starting point.

(For a overview of Obama’s a Ryan’s budgets, look here)

(Here’s more on Ryan’s spending cuts conundrum from Ezra Klein)