Friday, May 26, 2017

Budget battles focus on cutting taxes, key programs

Big budget battles are under way now.
In Maine, the Legislature struggles toward a bipartisan compromise, essential for adopting a state budget, with the central issues being tax cuts for the wealthy and education spending.
In Washington, President Trump’s new budget proposal focuses on tax cuts for the wealthy and reduced spending for the most vulnerable Americans. It foresees funding core budget items without boosting national debt by using new tax revenues resulting from a highly optimistic forecast of economic growth.
Republicans argue that government takes too much “hard earned” money away from individuals to fuel a bloated government. In Maine, Gov. LePage opposes voter-approved taxation, which he says will stifle the economy, while the Trump budget would use tax cuts as an economic stimulus and would save money by slashing safety net programs.
In both cases, the GOP plays to its constituency, those who believe taxes are too high, while Democrats support people who need and expect help from government programs like Medicaid, food stamps and student loans.
The only sure way to cut taxes without boosting debt is to reduce spending. The only way to reduce spending is to stop or reduce programs some taxpayers like. Most who seek to reduce the size of government would eliminate services they don’t use.
With so many diverse interests, it’s almost impossible to cut back. Besides, many activities are too small to produce big savings. Safety net programs are defended by some of the most conservative Republicans.
Cutting back on somebody else’s programs probably produces few savings unless the reductions are in major income support or military spending. Trump would not touch Social Security or Medicare and would increase defense outlays. That leaves Medicaid and support for low-income people.
Individuals and employers pay the bills. Individual income taxes and payroll taxes are four-fifths of federal revenue, but don’t cover all spending. Taxes must be supplemented by borrowing.
The GOP “deficit hawks” have derided Democrats for “tax and spend” policies. But, once in control, they look much like the Democrats. For example, to pick up votes for their effort to replace the Affordable Care Act, the House GOP readily added $8 billion in spending without matching revenues.
They once claimed that Congress would not add any spending without paying for it. Now, the GOP asserts that added costs will be covered by tax revenues resulting from almost impossible growth. If such forecasts don’t come true, the deficit will increase.
Trump and congressional Republicans also want to use cuts from health care reform to pay for tax reduction for upper income taxpayers, who would supposedly invest their tax savings, creating jobs and boosting economic growth.
With the prospect of few cuts acceptable to a congressional majority and public resistance to taxes, the federal government is in trouble.
If high economic growth doesn’t materialize and won’t pay for added government spending and tax cuts, the national debt will continue to grow. The bill for higher debt will eventually have to be paid by today’s kids. Eventually, Congress will be faced with the need to raise taxes not cut them.
In the meantime, tax reform would help. Unfortunately, tax reform seems always to be linked with tax reductions. True reform would leave revenues alone, while making the system more simple and fair.
Maine, like other states, must balance its budget, so the debt issue is less important. Like the federal government, the state spends most of its money in a few areas – health, education and transportation. All are difficult to cut, though health care spending mostly reflects national spending priorities.
For revenues, Maine depends mostly on sales taxes, excise taxes, and the individual income tax. But a large part of the budget comes from the federal government.
Last year, the voters dealt with taxes directly. Seeking to boost education funding, voters passed a bill adding a 3 percent tax on income above $200,000. This kind of broad-brush tax policy took the place of serious budget making.
LePage wants to eliminate that tax. Democrats want to keep it and the promise of more state aid for basic education.
The solution probably won’t be an increase in the income tax, already too high, or in pushing costs onto the property tax, also too high. At some point, the list of goods and services subject to the sales tax must be expanded.
The moral of this story is that budget reality will one day force itself on the federal and state governments. Voters don’t really want to cut government. Current tax policy must change.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Independent law enforcement, "check and balance" Trump, LePage dislike

It’s all J. Edgar Hoover’s fault.

Because of him, both Washington and Augusta still grapple with the issue of the independence of law enforcement from the political world.

Hoover, the late, former FBI director, seemed to hold a lifetime position and used his job security to collect intelligence on political figures, including the presidents he worked for, which he could use effectively to blackmail them into toeing his ideological line and keeping him in office.

Everybody, even a president, is subject to the law.  That means a chief executive must accept the authority of law enforcement officials.  Hoover, as a law enforcement official, could use his role not only to make major political figures subject to the law, but also to make them subject to him.

Congress had enough of this abuse of power and after Hoover had finally departed, it passed a law that tried to have it both ways.  The FBI director would have a ten-year term, continuing to enjoy considerable independence.  But a president could remove the director at will, thus preventing Hoover-like blackmail threats.

This formula might allow a president to remove an unethical director or one who abused his powers.  But it squarely posed the issue of the independence of justice and the law from politics.  And the question arose just as the courts themselves were becoming politicized.
President Trump, seeking to avoid potentially embarrassing revelations, wanted an end to inquiries into Russian campaign meddling.   

FBI Director James Comey continued investigating possible Russian contacts with the Trump campaign.  Trump fired Comey.
Then, Trump’s spokesperson said of the investigation, “There’s nothing there.  It’s time to move on.”  That’s wishful thinking at the highest level.

Trump, perhaps based on his business experience, has seemed to believe that winning the presidential race gave him almost unlimited power.  He has been learning, painfully and publicly, that government is unlike business, and he must deal with institutions and agencies independent of his control.

The president sees the Russia investigation as a political maneuver to undermine his legitimacy.  The FBI sees it as a way to determine if there has been a threat to the American political system.  In this conflict, Trump must give way, no matter what he thinks.

But he was so frustrated by both the inquiry and the amount of attention Comey was getting in the media that he removed the FBI director.  Trump has the right to fire him, but acting while his campaign was under FBI investigation was far from the intent of the presidential power of dismissal.

Dumping Comey, after trying to get him to halt an investigation of the campaign, has led to some in Congress to begin talking about dumping Trump as well.

His move and the reaction to it is another sign of the stress being placed on the unwritten understandings of the American system.  Clearly, Trump does not feel bound by them, and it may be reasonable to update some traditions.  And Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton emails was flawed, making his tenure questionable.

One solution may be to make the FBI director safe from firing for anything other than an illegal act.  The term would be reduced to six years, allowing presidents significant appointing authority.  But no president could impulsively dismiss a director, thus reducing the chance of the decision being purely political.

In Augusta, Gov. Paul LePage has been obviously unhappy about the independence of Attorney-General Janet Mills.  He would rather appoint the attorney-general to ensure that she would be under his control.  She angered him by refusing to sign onto to federal suits against Obama policies, opposed by LePage.

Mills has agreed to allow the governor to hire his own counsel with state funds when she will not take up the matter.  He then represents his office, but not the state.

To guarantee the independence of law enforcement from the governor, the attorney-general is elected by the people in 43 states, in Maine by the Legislature and in Tennessee by the state Supreme Court.  In only five states, the governor appoints the attorney-general.
LePage tried to get the Legislature to give him the power of appointment early in his term, but his bill was defeated with votes from both parties. 
Conflicts about the system of checks and balances are almost uniquely part of the American system.  No president, no governor is supposed to have unchecked power.  But, having won a general election, it seems hard for winners these days to accept “checks and balances” on their power.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Trump’s 'downward spiral' may forecast his resignation or removal

Donald Trump’s presidency is troubled. Many, possibly including the man himself, recognize his inability to grasp the scope and meaning of his office.
Will he remain in office for his full term? There are three paths away from this presidency.
First, Trump could resign. He probably never expected to gain the Republican nomination much less the presidency. Running was an ego trip, a way to put “Trump” up in lights nationally. Coming in second would have been enough. If he lost the presidential race, he would save face by blaming a fixed election.
He may well have been as surprised as most Americans that he won. Ready to complain about a loss due to a corrupt election, he wheeled out the same objection to show that he actually won the popular vote, no matter the official count.
Trump highly prizes his electoral victory and attaches more weight to the mandate it gave him than is normal for any president. Lacking knowledge of history, he overestimated his power and authority.
But political reality hit him. He has admitted the job is more difficult than he imagined. He thought he could act like a corporate chief, giving orders to the government, which would be followed unquestioningly. Congress, the courts, and the FBI let him know he could not control others as he had in his own businesses.
Trump is all about winning. But he found winning in government is not easy. Many in Congress and the media won’t be swayed into accepting bluster as success. The House health care bill was not his; he had no proposal. And though he claimed its House passage as a win, that bill will never be enacted.
Bob Corker, the GOP chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, openly stated that Trump’s administration is in a “downward spiral.” The president may be fatigued and frustrated by his disappointed hopes.
Loss after loss may make Trump wish for the good old days when his whim was law. He could figure that his fame was secure and his fortune would grow thanks simply to his having been elected president.
Either the 2018 elections or the contemplation of them could lead him to turn the government over to Vice President Mike Pence, a conventional politician who could pursue the conservative Republican agenda with Congress. Trump could say he had saved the GOP and that was all he had to do.
Second, he could be suspended from office under the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. If the vice president and a majority of the cabinet or a special body created to consider the president’s stability inform Congress that the president “is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office,” the president is suspended.
His preoccupation with the scope of his election victory, unsubstantiated charge that President Obama spied on him, sudden firing of the FBI director, willful blindness to Russian election involvement, and dangerous disclosure to Russians about high-level intelligence could be signs of instability. If it grew worse, suspension might be tempting.
The president may challenge his suspension and ultimately Congress may decide by a two-thirds vote to continue it with the vice president taking over.
Presumably, this amendment is meant to deal with mental disability but the standard for suspension is not stated. That could make possible a judgment that a president’s erratic behavior and attempts to circumvent the law are evidence of a disability making him unfit for his office.
Of course, this could be seen as short-form impeachment, but persistent, irrational actions may not be grounds for an impeachment finding as readily as for an incompetence finding. Such a decision would require the agreement of both major parties.
Finally, there is outright impeachment and conviction for what the Constitution calls “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Once again, there is no precise definition of the terms.
Impeachment would be possible if evidence emerges that the Trump campaign had colluded with the Russian during the 2016 elections and the candidate knew about it. It might also be possible if he resorted to illegal actions to preserve his presidency when he felt challenged on policy or the scope of his powers.
Some outside of Congress believe he is already vulnerable. They seek to get a debate started on his removal without any immediate hope of impeachment. But his actions and the results of the 2018 elections may influence further discussion of this option.
The mere threat of impeachment could send Trump back to the first option – resignation. Richard Nixon did that and salvaged some of his reputation by avoiding conviction.
There’s no certainty any of these options would occur. Trump may persevere. But such an unusual president, so far removed from American political traditions, leads inevitably to speculation about an unusual end to his time in office.

Friday, May 12, 2017

“Populist” voters key in Brexit, Trump, LePen campaigns

The easy explanation for the British vote for Brexit, Trump’s big electoral support and Le Pen’s presidential challenge in France is that the U.S. and Europe are experiencing a growth in “populism.”
These days, populism means the opposition by average, working people to traditional politics, which they see as having been run by an elite group. President Trump called his inauguration, “the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”
It’s not as simple as that. Studies have determined who voted for Britain leaving the European Union, Trump gaining a strong enough popular vote to support an electoral victory, and the French being faced with the possibility of having Marine Le Pen as their extreme right-wing president.
Who supported Brexit, Trump and Le Pen and did they have anything in common? We now have solid, demographic information to answer those questions. A caution: despite the pundits, we will never know with this degree of certainty what was in people’s minds.
Brexit won with 52 percent of the vote last June. Its majority came as a surprise. Who supported Brexit, voting “Leave”? People who did not have post-high school education, older people and those in lower income areas. Older voters, remembering the long-past glory days of the U.K., decades before the EU, preferred the old ways.
Who favored remaining in the European Union? People whose jobs required higher education and people who lived in major cities. In London, 60 percent voted “Remain.”
The single, clearest demographic was education. If voters had gone to school beyond high school, they were more likely to vote for remaining in the EU. Younger voters supported “Remain,” but their turnout was lighter than for the general population.
The U.S. presidential election last November also produced a result that surprised many observers. Unlike the Brexit vote, it did not produce a popular majority for Trump (Clinton 48%, Trump 46%), though he was the Electoral College winner. Still, his popular vote was significant.
Counties where most people had no more than a high school education shifted toward Trump. As with Brexit, education was “the single most important variable,” according to researchers. Also similar to Brexit, Trump gained support from lower income areas and older voters.
Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly carried metropolitan areas of over one million people. She took New York City with 79 percent of the vote. But Trump carried every other municipal category. Many large cities are on the coast in the U.S., helping explain her seaboard domination.
One big difference between the U.K. and the U.S. was race. It was not a factor in the Brexit vote, while Trump carried the white vote and Clinton carried the non-white vote, almost traditional these days between the Republicans and the Democrats.
Finally, there was the French presidential election last Sunday between the centrist Emmanuel Macron and the extreme-right Marine Le Pen. Macron won 66%-34%.
It’s worth looking at the Le Pen vote, because she openly sought support based on the Brexit and Trump surprise results. In France, there was no such surprise, though Le Pen did better than the far right had ever done in a presidential election.
Her supporters looked remarkably similar to the Brexit and Trump voters. London’s Financial Times found, “Education seems to the strongest predictor of the Macron vote.” The more people with a university degree, the more likely the vote where they were concentrated would go to Macron.
A similar election had taken place recently in the Netherlands, where the extreme right candidate won only 13 percent, and the same education factor was at play there.
As with the votes for Brexit and Trump, lower income people were more favorable to Le Pen than the population as a whole. But, as in the earlier votes, Macron overwhelmed Le Pen’s vote in the largest cities. In Paris, she received only 10 percent of the vote as France’s largest city rejected populism.
Another similarity in all three elections, plus the one in the Netherlands, was immigration, an issue that was clearly attractive to many Brexiters, Trump voters and Le Pen backers. In each case, though, the immigrants were widely different people.
Before the Brexit referendum, a pro-EU think tank wondered if the “Leave” supporters might be “Brexiting [themselves] in the foot.” People in areas most dependent on selling to the EU were the most opposed to it.
The same question may be asked in the U.S. Will Trump’s “America First” policies on trade, immigration, and affordable care insurance end up harming his supporters by their impact on prices, jobs and health?

Friday, May 5, 2017

Dems copy GOP, use courts to fight president

President Trump’s moves to control immigration from certain countries have been temporarily blocked by U.S. District Courts in the states of Washington and Hawaii.

The Trump administration reaction to these decisions has revealed a lack of understanding of the role of the courts.  

Attorney General Jeff Sessions criticized the Hawaii court, saying, “I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the president of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and constitutional power.” A Justice Department staffer added: “...There is a problem when a flawed opinion by a single judge can block the president’s lawful exercise of authority to keep the entire country safe.”

Let’s look more closely at their words.

 “An island in the Pacific.”  Hawaii is a state, the only one wholly located on islands. Federal law declares that new states enter the Union on an “equal footing” with the other states.  That means Hawaii, no matter how far from Washington, D.C., enjoys the exact same standing as Texas.  So do federal courts there. 

“A single judge can block the president’s ... authority.”  The Attorney General is “amazed” that a single federal district court judge can issue an order affecting the “entire country.”

It has long been federal judicial practice that when the constitutionality of a law or executive action is questioned to the point that a federal district court judge considers the matter serious enough to require a trial, the judge may suspend the action until there is a judicial determination. 

Because a measure cannot be applied as if it were constitutional in one part of the country but is suspended in another, the single district court judge has the authority to block its application throughout the country. 

Though the federal judiciary has over 700 judges, a single federal court judge, sitting alone in a single judicial district, may make a ruling of national scope.  That is what the judges in Hawaii and Washington did.

That leads to “forum shopping.”  Those bringing the complaint, several Democratic state attorneys general including Maine’s Janet Mills in the Washington case, can look for a judge who is likely to be sympathetic to their viewpoint in the hope he or she will suspend the government action.

It happens.  When opponents of President Obama’s immigration policy actions, GOP state officials including Maine Gov. Paul LePage, wanted to block them, they went to a district court to find a judge who would agree with them. 

The case was brought for the group by the Texas attorney general, whose office in Austin is about a mile away from a federal district court.  But he went 350 miles to a court in Brownsville, where he could get Obama’s action blocked.  It worked. 

Sessions knew that had happened, so it’s surprising he was “amazed” when his opponents went to Hawaii to do the same thing.  LePage was obviously furious that Mills had done in Washington what he had previously done in Texas.  He sued her for not representing his views in Hawaii, raising again the question of the independence of Maine’s attorney general.

“Block the president’s lawful exercise of authority.”  True, but only temporarily.  The criticism made it sound like a single judge had killed the Trump action.  In fact, there would be a trial to see if the action would be a “lawful exercise of authority.”  Then the matter could be appealed through the courts up to the Supreme Court.

The court only put a hold on the Trump action until there could be a full-scale hearing with evidence and argument submitted by all parties.  If the president thought the matter was urgent, he would need to press for swift action by the court.  Apparently, this has not happened, at least not successfully.

“I thought it would be easier,” said Trump about the presidency.  His winning the election, however gratifying that may be, does not guaranty the other two independent and equal branches of the federal government, Congress and the courts, will simply fall in line behind him.

Having found that governing is more difficult than he thought, Trump can benefit from his current, practical civics lessons and recognizing that campaigning and governing are not the same.

John Adams, a leader of the America Revolutionary and the second American president, promised “a government of laws, not of men.”  We still have it.

Under “checks and balances,” whether Trump’s actions are “his statutory and constitutional power” must be decided by an independent branch of government, the courts.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Is the press biased? Editorial views can influence news coverage

A couple of weeks ago, an election was held to fill a vacancy in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. The seat had been held by the Republicans since 1979, and pundits saw this election as a key test of President Trump’s popularity and its effect on GOP candidates.
The election could be settled if a single candidate out of the 18 running received more than 50 percent of the vote. Otherwise, there would be a runoff on June 20 between the top two vote getters.
The Democratic candidate received a bit more than 48 percent, far more than any other candidate, but not enough to avoid a runoff.
For the Democrats, it was a victory, but bittersweet for failing to send a strong message about Trump’s declining popularity. For the Republicans, it was a near miss, but one which could well be reversed in the runoff.
Here are the headlines of news reports, not editorial comment, about this election in several major national media outlets.
Washington Post: “Republicans avoid big loss by forcing runoff in Georgia House race.”
New York Times: “Democrat just misses victory in Georgia House race.”
Wall Street Journal: “Democrats falter in bid for outright win in Georgia House race.”
Associated Press: “Georgia House race to high-stakes runoff as Trump wades in.”
The Washington Post and the New York Times editorial pages strongly oppose Trump and generally support Democrats. In contrast, while the Wall Street Journal seems lukewarm about Trump, it is faithful to GOP conservatism. The Associated Press provides news reports to media of all political stripes.
From these headlines, it seems clear that a newspaper’s editorial stance can influence the slant it puts on a news story.
Readers can get the message. If you support the Republicans, you can easily see the New York Times headline as coming from the opposition. Because of that newspaper’s standing in the media main stream, it becomes ripe for attack by conservatives who believe most such newspapers are biased against them.
This sense of alienation from what some conservatives call the “lame stream” media has helped promote openly conservative and right wing resources like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. They are safe and comfortable havens from what is seen as a biased main stream.
With each side having its own preferred media outlets, while spurning the others, the political gap deepens. Each side believes it has the facts right, while the opposition distorts the truth.
This is not so much a question of so-called “alternative” facts as it is a matter of selective coverage. Of course, there’s a certain amount of downright fabrication on the right and unbalanced consideration of opposition views on the left. The result can lead to the conclusion there’s much “fake news.”
The harm of inherent bias is considerable, because a free and fair media is essential to the American system. If the people rule, they must be informed to make good judgments. They cannot depend on government, which is often not responsible to the public. Instead, they must depend on the media to inform them and convey their views.
Trump dismisses interest in his tax returns and says only the media, apparently a minor player in his view, seeks them. Not only do the polls show he is wrong, but the media represents that public interest. The media is not an end in itself, but is the public’s path to participation in the political process outside of elections.
A recent example, not involving government, demonstrates the power of a free media. The New York Times revealed that Fox and Bill O’Reilly, its star personality, had paid $13 million to settle complaints of sexual harassment by O’Reilly.
Fox had not fired him, despite these payouts. It fired him only when the complaints were made public in the media. The media forced Fox to honor what it called its “consistent commitment to fostering a work environment built on the values of trust and respect.” Where was that “commitment” before the Times’ revelations?
The problems with news bias may explain the relative success of local newspapers compared with some major papers. Local outlets focus mainly on covering local news for people who may have no other reliable source.
Of course, local papers may reveal bias, but they are more likely to recognize their survival depends on fair reporting for all readers, regardless of ideology.
In the end, readers and viewers have their own responsibility to keep open and critical minds when reading or watching the news.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Democrats, depending on Trump's errors, risk overconfidence

The Democrats may be making a serious mistake.

In planning for the 2018 and 2020 campaigns, they could be counting on President Trump's unpopularity to allow the elections to fall into their laps. Good showings in special House elections, like this week in Georgia, might encourage this way of thinking.

Many Democrats and probably Hillary Clinton herself thought that voters' dislike of Trump would be sufficient to hand them victory in 2016.

They suffered from a dangerous kind of political myopia. They thought everybody or at least a majority shared their view of Trump’s values and behavior. A majority of voters did, but they were concentrated in only 20 states, not enough for an electoral vote victory. Have they learned their lesson?

Democrats see Trump as incompetent, with major conflicts of interest, lacking knowledge of government, and beholden to the extreme right. After making extravagant promises on health care, he had no proposal, and the GOP proposal flopped. In foreign policy, he flirts with danger and is highly inconsistent.

His supporters have not melted away because of such concerns, which many do not share. They see him as different from traditional politicians, trying to keep his promises and getting tough with the world. His exaggerations and inaccuracies don't bother them. Their continuing support is a sign that he won't self-destruct.

For many, Washington is still “the swamp.” Trump is struggling against being sucked in. He is slowly learning that he cannot drain it simply by virtue of having won the election, but he hasn't given up.

In their apparent belief that Trump is doomed to fail, congressional Democrats seem content to oppose the GOP and stick to their traditional policy proposals. But voters are now completely jaded by political promises that are not kept. As Bernie Sanders and Trump showed, voters want change.

Next year, the Democrats face a major challenge. They need to pick up 24 seats to control the House. Although the opposition party to the president traditionally gains seats in the next elections, that's a long hill to climb.

Democrats hold 20 of the 33 Senate seats to be contested, meaning they would have keep all of them and pick up three of the GOP's seats for a majority. That would take an almost unprecedented reversal of Democratic fortunes.

In February, the Democrats supposedly started out fresh. They struggled to decide if the Sanders or the Clinton wing would control and finally picked a new chairman. But there are still no signs of a positive, new message from the party, beyond opposing Trump.

Looking at the Democratic Party’s official website, it is about organizational matters and insider issues. There is nothing there for the independent voter or disgruntled Republicans. Next year, there may be nothing more than a decentralized array of candidate proposals.

The alternative to a policy of coasting and hoping would be to draft a clear statement of party policy and get it out to the public. Of course, organizing work needs to be done as well, but with the next elections about 19 months away, the Democrats need to be making their case now. And it needs to be more than anti-Trump.

New party chair Tom Perez should swiftly move to end any rifts between Sanders and Clinton supporters. This is a critical need for a party that, given its fallen status, cannot afford to be divided.

The Republicans found a form of self-discipline was a major factor in their transformation from a minority party to majority control. Their party discipline and the “Contract with America,” which could be written on one side of a piece of paper, were effective tools in communicating a simple message to voters.

Not only do the Democrats need to get on with writing a bold, new statement of their values and goals, but they need to be working hard at all levels to find ways to get more voters to the polls and to identify appealing new candidates.

Merely leaving these tasks to a decentralized and often lackluster effort by the states will not produce the kind of results necessary for a reversal in the course of American politics.

The challenge for the Democrats is to take a leaf from the GOP playbook and abandon business as usual. Depending on Trump alone to create more Democrats won’t work.

The country needs a vigorous two-party system to produce the kind of government based on compromise that people want. From a position of strength, the Democrats have a better chance of forcing such compromise than they have now.