Friday, January 25, 2013

Does Second Amendment Ban Gun Control?

No other part of the U.S. Constitution is talked about more than the Second Amendment.

Many people boldly assert their rights under that amendment, often while worrying that the amendment is under attack.

If you missed it, the Second Amendment has to do with the right to “keep and bear” firearms.

Before you stop reading, this column is not advocating or opposing gun control.  It is about the Second Amendment, which has become a central part of modern American life.

The Second Amendment is one of the shortest, consisting of a single sentence: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

That seemingly simple sentence has given rise to an almost endless and heated debate about just exactly what right it assures to the people.  Its somewhat unusual grammar, especially the overuse of commas, doesn’t make it any clearer.

Few argue about a couple of reasons for its existence.

First, after domination by the British that clamped down hard on many America colonists, the framers of the Constitution wanted to make sure that the people had firearms readily available to protect their country from such control by their new government.

Second, the right to own a gun was widely recognized, and the amendment meant to preserve that right for the people – individual Americans.

Some argued that the right only meant that a person could keep a gun for the purpose of use in a militia to resist a force that would undermine the exercise of other guaranteed rights.

Others said that the individual right to keep a gun was inherent in being a free citizen of the United States.  For them, the Second Amendment became the hallmark of the American concept of individual freedom.

It took 219 years before the Supreme Court, the body responsible for the last word on what the Constitution means, settled the question.

In 2008, it ruled that the Second Amendment put into the Constitution each person’s right to own guns and carry them.  It overturned a law that effectively banned guns in Washington, D.C.

What about the language on the need for a militia?  In effect, the Court said that people had the right to guns if for no other reason than for use in a militia, but that was not the only basis for the right.

Because the debate over an individual’s right to own a gun had been settled, the decision found favor with opponents of gun control, the National Rifle Association proclaiming: “This is a great moment in American history.”

To those favoring the more limited view, the decision looked partisan and ideological, though they conceded that it is the binding answer.  But it was not the end of the debate.

Some, like the NRA, see almost any gun control law as a move to eliminate the right to gun ownership.  Limiting gun ownership, they believe, may mean that the government will also erode other inherent American liberties.

Some worry that the federal government is becoming as undemocratic as it was under the British in the 1770s.  They seem to believe that taxation is despotism, so guns must be kept ready.

Because the Second Amendment embodies the concept of freedom, they say, it must not be limited. For them, the right to gun ownership is absolute.

While the Court disappointed those who believed in a limited right to gun ownership and pleased opponents of gun control, it did not adopt the absolute position, writing: “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.

It found that history showed that courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”

It said that nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.

After the Newtown school killings, President Obama has proposed new gun controls, but none apparently going beyond the Supreme Court ruling.  His opponents say such proposals erode freedom and, in their view, this one untouchable right.

The debate is now about whether the Second Amendment right is so absolute that there can be no new limits or if the conservative Supreme Court was right in finding that limits are allowed, even necessary.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Politicians Abandon Shared Goals, Historic Practices

Maine Gov. Paul LePage refuses to meet with the newly elected President of the Senate or the Speaker of the House.  He’s a Republican, and they are Democrats.

It is a one-sided war, because the Democrats have even offered to take LePage out to dinner.  He refuses any of their efforts to talk, ostensibly because he does not like the Democratic Party making videos of his public speeches.

This apparently unprecedented breakdown in a basic and necessary working relationship is a symptom of a dangerous development in government, state and federal.

As much as we like to believe that we have a government of laws, we understand that our system works because those who govern have a shared view of how to deal with their disagreements and work for the public interest.

Or at least, they used to have such a shared understanding.

These days, in Maine and in Washington, that sense of common purpose seems to have disappeared.

In his first two years, LePage had GOP majorities in the Legislature and had no trouble talking to its leaders.  Now facing Democrats, he uses a weak excuse for not meeting with them to do the people’s business.  Instead, he says they should be content to meet with his staff.

His position reflects a misunderstanding of the role of the state’s chief executive, who should lead the state not just his party.

LePage has also refused to allow the issuance of state bonds that have been approved by the Legislature and the people.  He imposed his personal policy in a matter that was supposed to be an administrative action not subject to his veto.

The voters expect road repairs and other actions that don’t happen because of his policy.

In Washington, much the same is happening.
Since the early 20th Century, Congress has routinely approved increases in the ceiling on the national debt to cover appropriations of public funds that it has already made.  Any opposition has been mere political grandstanding, not a real attempt to gum up the works.

Now, the Republicans use their ability to prevent an increase in the debt ceiling as a way to repeal previous spending commitments.  That breaks a long-standing way of doing business, recognized over more than a century by both parties.

Democratic leaders have urged President Obama to use a provision of the Fourteenth Amendment to issue debt even if the debt ceiling is not raised.  Obama, who used to teach constitutional law, has said he does not think it allows him to do what they ask.

For the time being, at least, the President wants to preserve the common understanding even if that makes his life more difficult.  He sticks to the idea that the debt ceiling is only a formality.

Recently, Obama has announced some nominations for key positions in his cabinet.  Some Republicans say they will oppose and may even block those nominations, because they disagree with policy positions taken by the nominees many years in the past.

The system used to allow the President, who after all had won the only national election the country has, to pick his own team.  Presumably, his appointees will follow his policy lead and not be able to pursue their own personal agendas.

Some Republicans in Congress seem to believe that the election meant nothing and they should tell the President whom he can choose, thus undermining his ability to carry out his policies.

In fact, some GOP House members argue that their district elections means as much as the election of the President.  The country has not traditionally equated a member of Congress with the President when it comes to governing.

And then there’s the filibuster.  Even if it is somewhat modified this year, it will continue to allow a Senate minority to prevent hundreds of bills from coming to a vote.  That’s plainly contrary to the Constitution.

All of these actions undermine the ability of government to function and to adopt laws to meet public needs.  The fabric of the common commitment to make government function has been badly damaged by those in government who would rather undermine the system than have measures adopted which they oppose.

The proof lies in the work of Congress.  The session that ended early in January produced the fewest pieces of real legislation, excluding the naming of post offices, in decades, even less than the famous “Do-Nothing Congress” of 1948.

What seems to be missing is a sense in either the Congress or the Blaine House that government owes it to the voters to preserve the basic understandings essential to a functioning democracy – and produce results. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Partisanship won’t go away easily or soon

Many people, including me, complain about political partisanship these days. If only the politicians in Washington would put the national interest ahead of partisan wrangling, our government would produce positive results, we say.

In other words, it’s all the fault of the politicians.

Many years ago, Pogo Possum, a famous cartoon character, said, “I have seen the enemy, and he is us.”

The problem is not simply irresponsible politicians; it is mainly the people: Us. If you look at Congress state by state, it becomes evident how well it reflects the electorate. Using a rating system that combines the findings of conservative and liberal organizations, I found that during the last two years, the Senate had 14 conservative state delegations. All had two Republican senators.

On the other side, 18 states came out liberal, all having two Democratic senators.
All but one of the remaining 18 states, with apparently moderate delegations, were balanced with a senator from each party. Maine had moderate representation, with both senators being members of the same party – the GOP. That unique standing has disappeared with the election of independent Angus King.

Maine aside, the moderate label was an illusion, because it was usually an average of one conservative and one liberal. The same is pretty much true of House delegations, though the result was somewhat less clear because the varying mix of parties among states. Maine’s House delegation, composed of two Democrats, came out on the liberal side.

These divisions seem likely to remain for quite a while. Most members of either house of Congress are elected by comfortable margins. Relatively few Senate or House seats are decided in truly close elections.

There are at least two causes for the political purity of most states and congressional districts. In laying out House districts every 10 years, state legislatures manufacture safe seats for the party in control. But that also means that the opposition is packed into as few districts as possible, which makes their seats safe as well.

And people tend to dwell in the same areas as others holding similar political views. The coastal states are mainly Democratic, while the Republicans are concentrated inland.

Not only is that true in Congress, but in last year’s presidential election, the same picture emerges. President Obama carried 26 states plus D.C., and only nine were inland. Mitt Romney carried 24 states, but only seven were on the coast.

The center of the country, less populated than along the coasts, is GOP territory, but the country is increasingly framed by Democratic states.

Safe seats and political geography yield the conclusion that the division in Congress reflects the division in the country as a whole.

That would make ending partisanship seem unlikely. The people we elect will pursue the policies of the people who elect them. They have no incentive to take risky positions to promote compromise, when that would not win them many votes.

Though many voters claim to want compromise, they may mean that all of the concessions have to come from the other side. That’s probably because of living in liberal or conservative areas, where they rarely get to hear much of the opposing view.

More than calls for compromise is needed. Something would have to change in the country and affect the way people vote before the deep political divisions lessen.

Political unity has historically followed a national catastrophe like the Civil War, the Great Depression, or the second World War. In other words, if the economy or some other factor affecting the entire country gets bad enough, either a broad consensus emerges or a single party gains control.

Such a fraught path toward consensus is not to be desired. But it is possible if the federal debt grows too large or the economy heads back into deep recession or the United States finds itself at war.

A less disruptive alternative may be happening. Two factors may be moving the country toward Democratic majority control.

Demographic change – women becoming an even stronger majority of the electorate and the growth of Hispanic voting – appears likely to turn some states from Republican to Democratic.

And the GOP itself may push the Northeast further toward the Democrats by its obvious indifference to the region.

For example, ignoring urgent appeals from members of their own party, House Republicans have delayed aid to areas affected by Hurricane Sandy. And of the 21 GOP committee chairs in the new House, only one comes from the Northeast, but Texas and Michigan have four each.

For the time being, the deep partisan divide persists, and there’s little chance of constructive compromise before the 2014 elections.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Deal on ‘fiscal cliff’ resolved almost nothing

Is the United States going over the fiscal cliff ? No, the possible tax increases for average taxpayers was avoided.

Did the country avoid going over the fiscal cliff ? No, the federal debt still must be cut or there will be disastrous consequences.

If the last-minute deal only put a patch on the problem of cutting the debt by increasing taxes for some and freezing them for others, it yielded some clear conclusions that have little to do with the numbers.

First, we have a remarkable lack of leadership.

President Obama has repeatedly shown himself to be a poor negotiator. While he got an increase in taxes on the most wealthy, though less than he had promised, he failed to take the lead in setting forth the full-scale tax and spending proposal that is needed.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner could not deliver his own party for his alternative “Plan B” approach and was forced out of the serious negotiations.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could not bring himself to negotiate at all and Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had to call the White House and ask for Vice President Joe Biden to negotiate.

In fact, because there was a deal, Biden may be the only person who came out of the fiscal cliff mess looking good.

What about the dwindling group of moderates? Any one of them could have embarrassed the bumbling partisan negotiators by putting forward a reasoned compromise. Even if it did not pass, it might have provided a centrist alternative.

Second, the 2012 elections, which should have strengthened Obama’s position, turn out to have meant nothing. The country sees the same kind of public posturing by both sides without their worrying about keeping their latest campaign promises or responding to the public’s demand for real compromise.

Third, the fiscal cliff was supposed to produce such terrible results that both parties would be forced to make a deal halting the growth of the federal debt.

In the end, the threat was not scary enough to cause anybody to press hard for a significant compromise. In the last two weeks of December, all of the effort went into fashioning a patch to put on the debt problem, just so taxes on the middle class would not increase.

The massive federal debt problem remains virtually unchanged. In coming months, there will be round after round of negotiations to patch over the latest cliff-like crisis, but probably no real solution.

The debt situation requires action on spending cuts, entitlement revisions and tax reform. Increasing the debt limit, which should be routine, will yield yet another confrontation.

One senator proclaimed that the fiscal cliff bill would mean that middle-class tax rates are carved in stone. They aren’t.

To begin reducing the national debt, part of the solution will be tax increases. Raising taxes on the wealthiest alone will not raise enough revenue. Income taxes for all taxpayers will increase, probably back to the levels of the 1990s.

That may not happen until both houses of Congress and the presidency are under the control of the same party and the recession has passed.

Fourth, the partisan deadlock on finances is likely to prevent Washington from dealing with other major national issues. Obama had hoped to use the early years of his second term to deal with other urgent matters that have already been delayed.

Immigration, tax reform, economic, environmental, and farm policy, and regulating some aspects of gun ownership could be the victims of the debt deadlock.

Finally, the worst effect of the endless partisan confrontation in Washington is the harm it has been doing to our national self image and the way the world views the United States.

Some may remember the emphasis that President Ronald Reagan placed on making Americans feel good about being Americans. It was effective politics, and it represented an attempt to recapture the spirit that suffused the country during World War II and immediately afterward.

Today, that spirit seems to have been lost. Many politicians are beholden to well-heeled contributors representing special, not national interests.

Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize after one year in office, not because of great accomplishments, but because his election was seen as a message that the United States would again lead the world to embrace change.

Instead, the United States increasingly risks shedding its leadership role in the world as it focuses inward on the multi-year confrontation over putting its financial house in order.

Perhaps the most surprising effect of the debt crisis is the failure of political leaders to recognize the harm at home and abroad from prolonged deadlock and controversy that goes far beyond money.