Friday, November 17, 2017

World War I made U.S. world power; now it quits role

Americans now mark the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entry into World War I. As meaningless as that war was, it served notice that the U.S. had become a world power, rivaling the British Empire.
The war ran for more than four years. The massive deployment of American troops in six months in 1918 brought it to an end. Europeans were surprised by the rapid pace of U.S. involvement, but also by the dominant role it expected to play in the post-war world.
Exhibits across the country now remember American involvement. The Maine State Museum in Augusta has an informative and appealing exhibition showing that Mainers supported the Allies even before American entry into the war by sending food to the beleaguered Belgians and others.
Once the war ended, the U.S. pulled back into isolationism, reducing its ability to influence world events. Leaders believed it could act unilaterally and other countries would have to follow. But it would withdraw behind its oceanic moat.
Americans took national pride from events such as the trans-Atlantic solo flight of Charles Lindbergh. He would later see no reason for the U.S. to take on the Nazis from his position at the top of a movement called “America First.”
Of course, the rest is history. The Great Depression spread across the world. Pearl Harbor, the London Blitz, merchant ships torpedoed, and Nazi aggression led to millions dead. Whether a continued American involvement in the world would have yielded a different result is beyond knowing.
It is certain is that the U.S. backed away from global leadership as the world descended into economic crisis and war. As a result, it was less able to take care of its own economy and stay out of a new and bloodier war.
After World War II, the U.S. and other countries showed they had learned their lesson. The U.S. was now the greatest world power. Modern transport and communications meant it could no longer withdraw behind the moat.
More importantly, the U.S. had learned it was part of a world economic and political system and could achieve its objectives only by cooperating with others.
Out of the war came NATO, a mutual defense arrangement designed to discourage aggression against America and its allies. The United Nations, led by the U.S., was to develop peaceful solutions to major issues. Trade agreements were to promote national economies by boosting international efficiency.
And all of that began to work. It did not meet the highest expectations, but it produced some positive results. The world avoided major war and the biggest threat, the Soviet Union, collapsed. Health improved, and poverty and hunger were reduced, though there is still a long way to go.
But progress is uneven and does not benefit all people equally. Some costs are inevitable. Horse-drawn wagons gave way to pick-up trucks. Tough for the wagon makers. Natural gas and renewable resources push back coal. Tough for the coal miners.
Money became the standard of success. Some profited at the expense of others, resulting in the Great Recession that began a decade ago and has just ended. Many people came out of that crisis finding their jobs no longer existed as technology had moved on.
Some voters rebelled against these changes. They longed for their past. Some resented the rise of minorities, who could be falsely blamed for taking their jobs.
They chose as their president a man who promised to revive the past and the wholesale repeal of the policies of the first minority president.
President Trump, a success in the New York real estate business, convinced voters that the art of his deals would work better than the deals of the post-war world. Don’t criticize Russia for tampering with American elections, he implied, but butter up its leader in hopes that he will accommodate Trump administration policies.
Trump chose “America First” as his model, though, like Lindbergh, he meant “America Alone.” In less than a year, America has shed its role as the undisputed world leader. China has moved to the front row as a world power as Trump has focused his policies inward to promote corporate interests and his own standing.
“Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit,” said President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1933 inaugural address.
Trump needs to understand that Roosevelt’s words remain true.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Trump’s falling popularity hurts GOP; Dems search for options

There are two problems with the Trump administration’s tax reform proposal.
First, it’s not Trump’s. It comes from the Republican Congress, just as did all of his claimed health care “repeal and replace” proposals.
It’s not “reform.” The proposal’s main purposes are to cut corporate taxes and taxes paid by the wealthiest investors.
Like almost everything coming out of government – federal and state, Republican or Democratic – it lacks a consistent policy. Voters today see the GOP relentlessly pursuing a reduction in the size of government and Democrats failing to offer any alternative beyond not being Republicans.
President Trump promised an approach to health insurance reform that would be better for all. He said that the focus of tax reform would be better treatment of the middle class. He offered neither.
On health care, he had no proposal of his own, but supported with equal enthusiasm each successive fallback proposal by congressional Republicans. On tax reform, he offered great praise for a bill that had not yet been drafted.
The voters now get it. The latest Washington Post/ABC poll shows, after the same period in office as his predecessors, he is the least popular president since these polls began in 1953 and the only one with a net unfavorable rating.
Even on the economy, he gets an unfavorable response. For a while, he got credit for a rising stock market, but it is reasonably clear that investors boosted share prices in the expectation of corporate tax cuts.
Gov. LePage, a Trump ally, showed up in another poll as one of the most unpopular governors in the country. His lack of compassion and his narrow focus on cutting taxes above all is turning out not to be a substitute for sound management or the ability to work with the Legislature.
In the case of Maine, using the processes of initiative and referendum, the voters took the issue of Medicaid expansion out of the hands of state government. This week, the people, whom government supposedly serves, voted for expansion. LePage vetoed Medicaid, but the voters vetoed LePage.
Here’s what the GOP House tax bill really does. It simplifies some portions of the tax code, but much of that “reform” takes benefits away, even from the middle class. The wealthiest would keep their tax breaks and see the estate tax melt away. The proposal slashes the corporate rate.
Tax reform is supposed to collect taxes differently but with no change in the government’s total take. This “tax plan” would produce a $1.5 trillion deficit over the next six years. Don’t worry, though, its supporters claim it will stimulate the economy and produce new tax revenues to cover that new debt.
If such a bill passes, and it could, it would be a top sales promotion feat, promising much more than it produces. It could create the major campaign issue for 2018.
But there’s the problem for the Democrats. In the same survey giving Trump an unfavorable rating for his job performance, voters said the Democrats mainly criticize Trump rather than offering alternatives. The Dems’ rating was even worse than Trump’s low grade.
Neither party seems to be able to make the process work. If it passes, the tax bill may be the only major piece of legislation enacted this year, possibly without a single Democratic vote.
Admittedly, there are risks for both parties these days. But in the governor’s race in Virginia, a Democrat defeated a pro-Trump Republican and the results were not as close as forecast.
GOP members of Congress announce regularly that they will not run for reelection. Either they want to flee the toxic Washington atmosphere or they are afraid of challenges from the extreme right, supposedly loyal to Trump.
The Democrats are split between moderates and those who want to move the party to the left. If they cannot find compromises, their party could throw away its chance to have a bigger say in government.
The answer for Republicans is to stand on conservative principle, but worry less about keeping their unpopular campaign promises. They may risk losing a GOP primary, but dropping unworkable plans and opposing Trump are worth the risk.
For the Democrats, who have never had a tightly organized party, the solution would seem to be getting under the “big tent.” No Democrat should spurn another simply because they disagree on some policies. And the party needs new leaders from outside Congress.
Both Republicans and Democrats look over their shoulders too much and should face up now to the problems Trump causes nationally and internationally.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Medicaid vote may send national message on populism

A Maine referendum next week may tell a lot about where voters across the country stand on one of the central political issues of the day: whether government should be reduced or expanded to meet public needs.
It may be obvious that the vote will send a message to Washington about public support for one of the key features of the Affordable Care Act – the expansion of Medicaid to cover many uninsured.
But the referendum’s importance may also tell the country much more. Are the populists on the rise, as they maintain? Or does support remain for government action on a matter as controversial as health care coverage?
National polling shows sharp divisions between populists, who want cutbacks and seek to dominate the Republican Party, and Democrats, who send unclear messages but appear to want government to provide more assistance to the public.
The populists believe they can displace traditional Republicans in Congress next year, because their anti-government appeal responds to where the country is moving. They use allegiance to President Trump as their litmus test. Though polls show his popularity falling, they scorn polls and say the only measure is an election.
Some idea about where voters stand may come from the Maine vote on Medicaid expansion. It is the only state thus far where the question will be decided by popular vote. Most states, under control of either party, have accepted expansion.
Maine is a particularly good test case on populism versus the government. In November 2016, by a relatively small margin, it voted for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate. At the same time, by a similar margin, it voted against background checks in private gun sales, supporting a position identified with the GOP.
Medicaid opponents claim its expansion will raise state costs. They reject new costs, which could mean higher taxes in a state with already relatively high rates. They say that the uninsured can continue as charity cases in local hospital emergency rooms.
This view is typical of efforts on a variety of issues to shift costs that would be supported by taxes off the government budget. Charity cases raise hospital costs, recovered from insurance companies, which pass the bill on to those buying coverage. The insured, not the taxpayers, bear the burden.
The same way of looking at taxes comes from members of Congress representing low-tax states. They oppose federal tax deductions for state income taxes, claiming their states subsidize the higher tax states, like Maine. It doesn’t matter that all states pay for disaster damage in Texas, Florida and California, not just the people in those states.
Opponents also see Medicaid expansion as allowing more people to become dependent on the program, ensuring higher government costs out into the future. It’s linked to the broader question of so-called entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. As more people become eligible for such programs, the budget increases.
If the referendum passes, it would place compassion above money, even though 90 percent of the costs would be borne by the federal government. Expansion certainly would be better for the more than 70,000 people who would be affected. But what about the taxpayer?
The vote may answer a question and ask a question. It may reveal that, despite the calls of populists like Gov. LePage, voters want to help their neighbors. At the same time, it raises the issue of when the federal government will stop sweeping entitlement reform under the carpet, and deal with it.
If there might be a single problem with Maine as a test for the country, it will be voter turnout. Some voters say they will stay home because they don’t trust what either side says. That’s easy to understand if a voter relies on television ads about the issue. Some opposition ads are outright misinformation.
Another concern causing voters to consider skipping the referendum is that assistance programs like Medicaid produce cheaters. People resent assistance programs when they can see a neighbor ripping off the government. Yet not a word has been said about what will be done to combat cheating if Medicaid expansion passes.
Maine could overcome these concerns and serve as a good test of populism’s anti-government appeal. The state is usually first or second nationally in election turnout. With the eyes of the country and Congress on the state, Maine could provide a forecast of populism’s effect in the 2018 elections, but only if it has a good turnout.
All we have to do is vote on November 7.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Senate filibuster is dying; time now for majority rule

Last week, an American political institution, aged 100, was placed on its deathbed. Its expected passing was mostly overlooked and unlamented.

It was “filibuster,” the evil twin of the less well-known “cloture,” who survives. Cloture is a vote to end debate and allow a final vote on a bill in the U.S. Senate. It was born in 1917 to allow a vote on a World War I issue.

With cloture, filibuster immediately arrived to prevent final votes. At first, it required endless debate. Eventually, the filibuster would allow debate to be ended only by a supermajority of 60 senators, not the Constitution’s simple majority of 51 senators. Only 41 senators could kill a bill.

Cloture has become a political battlefield. A minority of senators can control the Senate with just enough votes to kill a bill. It’s difficult to get the 60-vote supermajority.

In recent years, the Senate has been reverting to the simple majority. The supermajority is no longer used for major laws and for approving judges, even for the Supreme Court, or top executive branch officials.

To pass the Affordable Care Act, the Democrats developed a way to avoid the filibuster by linking their proposal to a prior bill on taxes and the budget. This year, the Republicans tried to use the same method to repeal the ACA.

In effect, both parties agree the filibuster is a bad idea. At least they do when they are in the majority. When in the Senate minority, their view flips.

With the GOP controlling both Congress and the presidency, they want to prevent the Senate Democratic minority from blocking their major legislation. President Trump encouraged the end of the filibuster.

Last week was the clincher. Senate Republicans voted for what they knew was an impossible budget, just to create a future link for tax legislation, thus avoiding a filibuster. House Republicans had adopted a different budget bill, but this week accepted the Senate version temporarily, to eliminate the chance of a filibuster of the tax bill.

With the simple majority now applying to so much of Senate action, the deathwatch for the filibuster began last week. Any presidential nomination and any major bill that can be made to have something to do with the budget – almost anything works – cannot be filibustered. It will fade, while remaining on political life support, in case of emergency need.
At first look, the end of the filibuster seems to be in line with majority rule, one of the basic elements of democracy. That’s correct, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.

Even without the 60 votes required for passing a bill or approving a nominee, the Senate will still often be controlled by a minority. The 52 GOP senators in the current majority represent less than half of the American population.

It is at least possible that a Senate majority of 51 votes could come from senators representing less than 18 per cent of the total population. That’s true minority rule, which will survive the end of the filibuster.

Perhaps those 51 senators will never unite on a vote. But the likelihood is that, even now, laws are being adopted by senators representing much less than a majority of Americans. The filibuster only made it worse, because a blocking minority could represent a tiny portion of citizens.

The bad news may be that the filibuster, a vote on allowing a final vote on the bill itself, does not violate the Constitution, which authorizes the Senate to make its own rules of procedure. The good news is that a new voting procedure could be adopted in exactly the same way under the Senate rules.

Assume the Senate sticks to the simple majority rule described in the Constitution with no special ability for a minority of senators to block the passage of legislation. How can the U.S. prevent the underlying minority rule?

The Senate could adopt a so-called “qualified” majority rule. Passing a bill or approving a nominee would require the support of not only a majority of senators, as is the case today, but also that they must represent a majority of the population. The result would be a decision made by a true majority.

Each state would retain its two senators with equal voting power. But the need for an underlying majority of the people almost certainly would force more bipartisan cooperation. Today, for example, the only path to a qualified majority would require support from both Republicans and Democrats.

The filibuster fades. It’s time for true majority rule.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

GOP faces possible "blowout," Dems could gain

When Susan Collins was thinking about leaving the U.S. Senate and running for governor next year, she was warned that she would face right-wingers in a bruising Republican primary. She could win a general election easily, but winning the nomination would be tough.

Whether that was a factor in her decision to stick with the Senate, we may never know. She would have had to spend months focused on the primary battle, time she could better use in pushing reasonable solutions to national issues in Washington.

But the question raised by the potential challenge to Collins is being asked all over the country. Will Republican office holders, no matter how conservative, fall to “populist” purity advocates?

The populists are steadfastly anti-immigrant, pro-tax cuts and seek repeal of the Affordable Care Act and much government regulation. Their flag bearer is President Trump, though their real leader may be Steve Bannon, an unelected ideologue backed by the billionaire Mercer family.

Trump’s popularity, whatever it may be, depends on trying to keep his campaign promises. He knows that is more important than any policy. He even asked the Mexican president to hint that Mexico would pay for the border wall, to allow him to appear to keep his promise.

Bannon is riding high because a man, twice removed from the Alabama Supreme Court for what amounted to constitutional violations, defeated an “establishment” conservative Republican for the GOP Senate nomination. Bannon takes the credit for that win and expects more such victories.

Bannon argues that the litmus test must be whether a Republican supports Trump. But Trump’s entire political purpose is about winning and getting the credit. He is willing to exploit populist support, so Bannon can use the president’s personal ambition for his own purposes.

The critical test has been whether the Republicans, in control of the federal government, can kill the ACA. If not, they must have tax reform, really a massive tax cut, by the end of the year. Failing that, Bannon would launch a full-scale attack on Republicans who had failed to support Trump and pass a tax reform bill.

Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas GOP populist, believes that failure to enact tax cuts and ACA repeal could bring an historic “blowout” for his party next November. The GOP risk losing control of Congress if it does not keep its promises, he says.

But one forgotten Republican promise would be cutting the federal deficit, sacrificed for the tax cut. Major Republican backers are ready to pour money into the elections. For them, it is not a matter of populism, just about massive tax cuts for themselves. Whatever their intent, they will help the populists try to seize power.

The result of their efforts and Bannon’s could be a deep split among Republicans. The kind of venom directed at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell by the populists is a possible indicator of events to come.

Or maybe Bannon is wrong about what people want. Having seen what the populists would do if they gain power, voters might return to supporting traditional GOP conservatives. Is populism merely a passing fad?

The Democrats are counting on one of the two outcomes being correct – the GOP splits apart or voters support the ACA, oppose tax cuts for the wealthy and reject populism. Either way, they can return to power.

There are problems with this Democratic dream. The internal divide between their establishment and the Sanders liberals could prevent them from unifying. Or, populism could be more than a fad and turn out to have the support of enough voters to win elections and govern.

Look at Europe. In country after country this year, populists or their equivalent have been winning more seats in national parliaments. Just last Sunday, they moved toward tacking control in Austria.

The leader of the successful Brexit campaign, based on opposition to immigration, showed up in Alabama to support Bannon’s candidate. Opposing immigration in the U.S. or Europe appears to be a political plus.

It is easy to believe polls that show Trump’s support declining or increased backing for the ACA. But they are only polls, not elections. Political dynamics are changing. Campaigns matter and voters may be moved by their momentum.

For the Democrats, the test is to offer innovative policies, find strong and younger leaders to promote them and to be unified, not splintered.

For the Republicans, the test is for moderates and conservatives is not to run scared, but to have the courage of their beliefs and raise the money to run decent campaigns.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Uninsured pay the price for ACA reform failure

On Election Day, Maine holds a popular vote on whether to expand Medicaid. No other state has done that.
The expansion would cover an estimated 70,000 people who don’t have health insurance. The decision embodies two key elements of most government actions: there’s no free lunch and nothing is decided once and for all.
After the Affordable Care Act was passed, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could not force states to cover more people under Medicaid, even when the feds paid about 90 percent of the cost. The ACA would have withdrawn existing federal payments if states did not accept expansion.
That decision left it up to the states to decide on voluntarily accepting expansion. Though 31 states plus D.C accepted, 19 did not. Maine resisted expanding its Medicaid, called MaineCare, the only northeastern state to reject increased coverage.
The Maine Legislature voted six times to accept the expansion, but Gov. LePage vetoed the bill each time. The issue comes to the voters because of a citizen initiative, which could not be vetoed.
LePage not only sees expansion as “welfare,” but dislikes its budget impact. It would cost the state less than $55 million, and each state dollar would bring $9.63 in federal dollars. Under the non-controversial highway referendum, Question 3, each state dollar would bring $1.10 from the feds.
Without the expansion, people who would have been eligible must continue getting haphazard medical care by relying on emergency rooms. The cost of their care is rolled into hospital costs and recovered in higher charges. Insurance premiums rise to handle the increases.
All the money comes out of people’s pockets, but we have little idea how much of the state spending would be offset by lower hospital costs and insurance premiums. LePage looks at the state budget not the individual’s wallet.
But increasing the number of people with health insurance coverage inevitably costs more. That’s why the ACA raised taxes on the wealthy. Still, there’s no way to be sure just what the net cost is.
So the vote comes down to whether Mainers want to risk a higher net cost to help more of their neighbors get better medical care. That is a classic political decision, involved in every budget action in Washington or state capitals.
Does the community, through its government, want to pay more to do more? If keeping the budget down is the highest priority, as it is for LePage, then his answer is “no.” Now it’s up to voters to give their answer.
This kind of decision must be made over and over on everything done by any government, from military spending to medical care. Only rarely do the voters find themselves deciding the answer.
LePage has another concern. Once Medicaid is expanded, how sure can we be that the federal government will keep up its end of the bargain? Perhaps years down the road, it will decide to change the funding formula, leaving states to pick up more Medicaid costs.
To avoid that risk, voters would have to turn down Medicaid expansion. This a reasonable issue to consider.
It’s like current proposals for tax “reform,” with cuts proposed that would reach out at least 10 years. No Congress binds another on most matters, so tax cuts could well be revoked sooner than promised.
In a democracy, people get to change their minds, especially in changed circumstances. If worry about possible change were allowed to control, not much would happen.
Still, it is worth worrying about programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid that weigh heavily in the budget, but whose costs are driven by participant eligibility not budget priorities.
The answer may not be to deny people help they need because of such worries, but to address the underlying problem directly and comprehensively. Touching these programs is considered the fatal “third rail” of politics. Most likely, the only solution will come from a nonpartisan effort.
When benefit payments are guaranteed, providers and insurers may be tempted to use the system to boost their revenues. What decisions need to be made to limit the growth in costs?
Better ways of determining eligibility and improved protection against cheating is essential. But also essential would be some method of regulating costs of quasi-monopoly health care. Now that repealing the ACA has failed, it’s time for reform.
Maybe that’s what critics will now accept. But much-needed health insurance action should not use the ill, lacking insurance and access to affordable medical care, as hostages to force reform.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Free speech under attack from right, left

President Trump and some liberal college students have something important in common.
They don’t like the statements made by others, whether professional football players or conservative writers, and they demand an end to such statements.
The reason that Trump and the students oppose free speech, even to the point of preventing a person from speaking, is fear that what others say may convince somebody of something. Even worse, such opposition may show they want to limit free speech to their viewpoint alone.
Ironically, the more free speech is opposed, the more attention the expression gets. We get to learn about why football players are protesting – government sanctioned racial discrimination - and the positions of campus speakers who are silenced – sometimes extremely conservative.
One of the characteristics of the U.S., distinguishing it from most other countries, is the First Amendment. Elsewhere, government and laws often limit what people may say. While, like any other right, government may apply some limits, the American system favors debate in the sunshine as the best way to oppose views you don’t like.
You cannot fly the Nazi flag in some European countries. Just as the Europeans, millions of Americans engaged in a war against the Nazis. But government here cannot stop you from flying a Nazi flag. You are also free to demonstrate against this display, but government cannot legally tear down the flag or stop demonstrators.
Free speech is part of the American character. Expression has always been bold and outspoken. Belief in the Constitution and our form of government is strong enough to allow Americans to tolerate dissenting or opposing views. Sometimes, over the long term, the unpopular, minority view prevails.
In fact, people take pride in displaying the strength of a system allowing unpopular dissent. One often-quoted sentence embodies the concept: “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.”
What about outright lies? They abuse the right. Individuals affected have the right to legal action. Otherwise, free debate should expose them. For example, the Washington Post Fact Checker does an excellent job keeping tabs on political claims. It is kept quite busy.
Trump’s attacks on NFL players who “take a knee” when the National Anthem is played reflect his natural petulance, playing to his supposed core constituency, trying to deflect attention from other issues by the use of phony patriotism, or all of the above.
The president has a right to express his views. The problem is that he is not acting presidential, breaking another of his campaign promises. How football players behave when the National Anthem is played is unimportant compared with leadership in dealing with the threat of nuclear war or natural disasters.
We expect the president to unify and lead, not always to seek or, worse, create domestic conflict. He needs to use carefully his right of free speech because of his position. If he disturbs the “domestic tranquility” promised by the Constitution, we worry.
College students who try to block campus speakers, whom they believe advocate views and policies that are wrong or dangerous, are undermining their own education. Free discourse allows us all not only to hone our personal values but also to better understand opposing views.
Freedom of speech is not a First Amendment right; it is a natural right. “All people are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and unalienable rights.... Every citizen may freely speak, write and publish sentiments on any subject....”
Those are the words of the Maine Constitution, not the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights, but it does not explicitly reaffirm the natural right of each person to free speech, as does the Maine Constitution. It bans government from passing laws “abridging the freedom of speech” of all, not only citizens.
There may be problems with this “natural right” when the Supreme Court classifies corporate political spending as speech. That means all people get free speech, but some non-people may purchase it. Big money buys big talk, which threatens to drown out opposing views.
We all have to judge what we hear and read. Decisions about matters ranging from whom we support for president to where we choose to live are all based on what we have learned.
If you don’t want to hear a speaker, don’t listen. But don’t try to close the door for others.
Freedom of speech belongs to us, as listeners, writers, readers, and speakers. It’s our natural right.