Saturday, April 26, 2014

Money wins; campaign finance reform is dead

Perhaps the biggest issue hanging over the American political system has been the role of money.

Reformers fear wealthy individuals and corporations dominate decisions made in Washington and in some state capitols.  They believe such dominance renders powerless average citizens whose only political assets are their votes.

These concerns overlook the long history of money’s major role in American politics.  In George Washington’s time, political opponents created partisan newspapers for the sole purpose of attacking him. 

Throughout U.S. history, money has been spent on issues ranging from banking to agriculture, from taxes to trade.  Recent developments may have given the impression the rich have become more even powerful.

Money in politics appears in two ways.  It can boost the campaign chances of candidates who are likely to support the donors’ interests.  And it can influence how legislators vote.

It is bipartisan.  Republicans may be associated with higher income people and big corporations, but Democrats increasingly have access to wealthy donors and continue to look to labor union support.  Both parties seek and accept big money.     

With greater wealth concentrated in the hands of people with personal political agendas, contributions have reached enormous, possibly counterproductive, levels.  The largest single gift record may be held by former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich whose unsuccessful 2012 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination received $10 million from a one-issue contributor.

For a brief period, change seemed possible.  The 1972 re-election campaign of President Richard M. Nixon backed a break-in at the Democratic National headquarters in Washington’s Watergate complex and followed it with an elaborate cover-up.  An outraged public demanded reforms.

The central change was legislation to control federal campaign spending.  It contained two elements: limits on the amount an eligible entity could contribute and public disclosure of contributors, recipients, and amounts contributed.

The passage of these laws, including the well-known, bipartisan McCain-Feingold Act, created a false sense of comfort that finally the influence on money in politics could be controlled and reduced.

Just as with tax laws, moneyed interests found or created loopholes in the campaign finance laws.  Committees independent of parties and candidates were organized to spend money on campaigns.

To enforce the limits on what parties, candidates and independent committees could do, Congress created a regulatory body, the Federal Election Commission.  But, by establishing a six-member body with three members from each party, Congress produced a deadlocked and completely powerless regulator unable to make decisions.

Most significantly, the Supreme Court has gradually been whittling down campaign spending reforms.  It defines money as speech, meaning that free speech equals free spending.  That means the gradual end of limits on campaign spending.

Two recent decisions by the Supreme Court, where a majority is opposed to spending limits, have killed campaign finance laws.  In 2010, in the Citizens United case, the Court ruled there could be no limits on independent political spending and the identity of donors to huge independent political organizations need not be disclosed.

A few weeks ago, the Court removed limits on the total amount a contributor could give to all campaigns combined.  Though the size of individual campaign contributions is still capped, an individual can give to an unlimited number of campaigns and then contribute an unlimited amount to independent campaign organizations.

Taking all these developments together, the country is just about where it was before Watergate.  Campaign finance reform is dead.  Money is once again free to rule politics.

But money doesn’t vote.  People do.  Money gives candidates power to influence voters.  Lavishly financed television campaigns strongly influence many voters.  Sophisticated and costly vote analysis enables candidates to identify their supporters and get them to the polls.

Campaigns relying on big money tend to pursue easily understood issues, often social concerns, and devote most attention to negative attacks on candidates.  When the ads come from independent groups, the candidates they support can claim to be completely removed from the message.

The Constitution could be amended to say that money is not the same as speech.  This week, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens proposed a targeted amendment allowing Congress to control campaign spending. 

Neither amendment is likely to be adopted, so the only way to counteract money’s influence is to educate voters.

Lawsuits aren’t enough, and they probably won’t work.  Good government advocates, opposed to money’s influence in politics, could do more. 

Civic groups like the League of Women Voters could run their own nonpartisan television ads simply revealing the contributors, the recipients, and the cash flows.  That might help people make more informed voting decisions.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

“Checks and balances” misused, now paralyze government

The checks and balances in the U.S. Constitution and state constitutions are among the most valued and unique features of American government.  But their misuse now causes government gridlock.

The Founding Fathers rejected the British system where power was centrally concentrated.  The American Constitution created a system in which several bodies have some of the power – the balances – and each could exercise influence on the others – the checks.

They called the new system an “experiment,” because a government in which various parts were balanced and had checks on one another was previously unknown.  The experiment could only succeed if the participants acted in good faith.

In making federal laws, power was spread among the House of Representatives reflecting current popular views, the Senate with a longer view, and the president who can veto bills passed by the two houses.  Both houses can overrule the president by a supermajority of two-thirds.

Almost all states, including Maine, followed the same approach, though the distinct role of the Senate in Maine was watered down by making the terms of its members the same as those of House members.

To produce results, government leaders would have to cooperate and compromise, seeking to avoid conflicts that produced no response to public needs.

In practice, the federal legislative process includes conference committees between the two 
houses when they produce incompatible bills on the same subject.  Composed of leaders of both sides in both houses, they are to negotiate compromises.

Historically, the need for compromise to address major public issues, expected by the voters, overcame partisan objections.

These days, “checks” are used to prevent action.  “Balances” no longer exist when branches of government refuse to interact with one another.  Government is paralyzed.
In the House, now under Republican control, members pass bills they know have no chance of becoming law.  GOP leaders avoid conference committees with the Senate.

The purpose of the House votes is to draw a bright line between the positions of the two parties.  Rather than compromise, many members hope their rigid positions will attract enough popular vote support to give them the power to get their way in a future Congress.

Under the Constitution, the Senate sets its own rules.  Its rules include the filibuster, a means of preventing consideration of a bill without the agreement of 60 senators out of 100.  In short, the majority vote foreseen in the Constitution on most matters has been nullified by the filibuster.

The Senate filibuster rule means a proposed bill must get 60 votes for passage.  The majority Democrats must get five GOP votes to pass a bill.  A Republican senator may favor a proposal, but by accepting party discipline requiring 60 votes, that person actually votes to defeat the proposal.

Not all the blame falls on Senate Republicans.  Democrats want to keep the filibuster, so they can block bills if they cede control of the Senate.  They fear losing the supermajority requirement created by Senate rules, allowed by the Constitution but not foreseen when it was written.

Even if the GOP gains control of the Senate in this fall’s elections, this situation in unlikely to change.  While a Republican Senate could eliminate the filibuster, it would almost certainly not take such action for the same reason as the Democrats refrain today.

At the federal level, House unwillingness to compromise and Senate inability to decide has yielded deadlock.

President Obama seems to have stepped back and allowed the parties to struggle against one another in Congress.  His veto threat has been used mainly to let everybody know House-passed bills have no chance of becoming law, because neither house can muster the votes required to override a veto.

The conservative wing of the Republican Party is determined the federal government should shrink.  Political deadlock produces the inability to fund government, which accomplishes its goal.

Add to all this, the Supreme Court.  Making extensive use of the ability of five of its nine members to declare laws unconstitutional, it has become yet another legislative body.  A conservative majority uses its “checks” to overrule laws adopted with broad support in Congress.

In Maine, virtual legislative war exists between Gov. LePage and the Democratic-controlled Legislature.  The governor appears to interpret checks and balances to mean he gets to insist on laws written just his way – even if his objections are minor or peevish.

The Maine Constitution puts the Legislature in a priority position, because legislatures make the laws.  Veto by the governor is meant to force reconsideration and compromise, not to make the executive into a legislator.

Economic links promote negotiation, deter war

A funny thing happened on the way to war.  It didn’t break out.

The Russian takeover of Crimea might have led to war in the last century, but it didn’t this time. 

After Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan, many Americans may be just plain tired of going to war.  President Obama has laid out his policy defining when American forces should be deployed.  Ukraine does not fit, because the United States is not directly threatened.

At the same time, Europe has been reluctant to retaliate against Russia for its Crimean invasion.  Its attitude reflects the prime factor making major wars increasingly unlikely – economic interdependence.

Europe depends for about a third of its energy supply on oil and gas from Russia.  If it clamped down hard on Russian interests in Britain or Germany, it might face sharply reduced energy imports from Russia.  Protecting Crimea could make this spring in Europe pretty chilly.

But, as we often forget, dependence runs both ways.  Russia’s foreign currency earnings, making possible its purchases of essential goods from other countries and it foreign adventures, stem almost completely from its energy sales.  A commentator recently asked if anyone had seen any import stamped “Made in Russia.”

Though it has relatively little trade with Russia, even the U.S. is not completely immune.  While the tough talk and sanctions have shown American rejection of the Crimea caper, two American astronauts have been in the International Space Station, completely dependent on the Russians to return to Earth.

Probably the main reason the Crimean situation has not led to military confrontation also explains why direct big power conflict – World War III – has become so unlikely.  The economies of developed countries and, increasingly, of developing countries are so intertwined the cost of going to war is too high.

Because they can no longer use force without the risk of harming themselves, countries may appear weak by the standards of the past.  But, to some degree, their economic interdependence was planned, and otherwise it has seemed to be inevitable. And it was intended to reduce the risk of war.

After two World Wars grew out of European conflicts, especially between France and Germany, leaders in those countries decided to link their economies to the point where they and their neighbors would be unable to go to war against one another.

Starting with the coal and steel industries and only six countries, European integration now includes 28 countries and virtually all sectors of the economy.  Working with the European Parliament, an international commission now makes the rules governing the regional economy.

The result is today’s European Union.  While Europe is still far from politically unified, with nations retaining sovereignty, the economies of European countries are linked just about as closely as the economy of the United States.  A new war in Europe now seems impossible.

In fact, the recognition war is no longer possible has led Europe to limit military spending.  That frees public funds for more constructive purposes, but it also makes countries less able to use force and more likely to negotiate.

NATO is almost certainly incapable of really defending all of its member countries.
The world has changed a lot since the days of the two World Wars.  A corporation may do business in several countries.  Trade agreements have been negotiated to reduce barriers to the flow of goods.  Foreigners invest in businesses in countries they may never visit.

All of this has come to be called globalization.  It has its opponents, who believe giant corporations end up have more power than governments, resulting in poor labor conditions and few environmental safeguards.  They see the benefits flowing to the developed world with poorer countries left out.

These arguments may have some merit and, when true, call for countries and corporations to step back from policies exploiting others or imposing new costs.  But they miss one of best reasons for increased global interdependence: it makes war less possible.

The creation of bigger markets appears to promote prosperity.  As the poor countries adopt the mechanisms of globalization, they are moving out of the cellar.

The proof is that the Group of Eight, a club of major industrial nations, is giving way to the Group of 20, which includes countries climbing into greater prosperity.

Though Russia tried to belittle its exclusion from the Group of Eight and the prospect of losing energy markets in Europe, these economic measures appear may prove more effective than resorting to force.

Globalization and economic interdependence may not stir the blood like going to war, but they work better.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

GOP moves to cut voter turnout across U.S.

Suppose you are the head of one of the two major American political parties, and elections are giving you a headache.

In five of the last six presidential elections, spanning almost a quarter century, the other party has won a nationwide majority of popular votes.  If you add up all the votes nationally in elections for the U.S. Senate or the House of Representatives, the other party has won a majority.

Perhaps even worse, national polls show that your party is much less popular than the other party and has been the second choice for several years.

To solve these problems, you come up with two possible solutions.  The first is to develop new policies to broaden the party’s appeal among voters.  The other is to find ways to reduce the number of voters who normally support the other party.  That’s called “voter suppression.”

In short, the way to make democracy work, at least for your party, is to have less of it.  Participation in voting in the United States is well below many other countries even without suppression, so the plan would be for an even more dismal voter turnout.

You are the head of the Republican Party.  And you have opted to find ways to make participation harder for some traditional Democratic Party voters – the poor and minorities.

Your policy focuses on those elections having the greatest effect on presidential and congressional outcomes.  You have discovered something the Democrats’ electoral strategy seems to have missed.

The key is not presidential or congressional elections.  The most important elections to control who votes are for the state legislatures and governors.  If you can win control in the states, you can impose the rules governing voting in national elections.

In some states with a pattern of discrimination, especially against African-Americans, the Voting Rights Act used to require them to get approval from the U.S. Department of Justice before changing voting rules.  The Supreme Court threw out that requirement.

The GOP has stepped up its efforts to make voting more difficult for people likely to support the Democrats, the New York Times reports.

In the last decade, the Republicans claimed new measures were need to prevent fraud – ineligible people voting.  The method of choice was better voter identification.

New laws require voters to show photo identification and increasingly a second document like a passport or birth certificate proving American citizenship.  Many poor people, traditional Democratic supporters, do not have either and getting them may be difficult.

When evidence showed virtually no voting fraud, the focus shifted to simply making access to voting more difficult.  Registration and voting on the same day, proven in Maine and elsewhere to produce higher participation, is being eliminated in some states.

States under GOP control have reduced the length of early voting periods.  They have made applying for an absentee ballot more difficult and cut the number of polling places.

There are 23 states with a Republican governor and legislature, meaning they can readily change voting laws.  In 2013, eight tightened voting rules.

Discrimination against minority voters appears to be growing again.  Right after the Supreme Court decision, some states moved to adopt plans previously denied federal approval.

The other piece of GOP election strategy is the redrawing of congressional district lines every ten years.  Republican-controlled state legislatures pack as many Democrats as possible into as few districts as possible to leave the GOP the rest of the seats.

With all the talk about political deadlock and who will run for president in 2016, most of these changes escape public notice.  When people vote for state legislators, they almost never see the national implication of their choices.

The Republicans may be doing nothing illegal.  The Democrats seem to have been too passive at a national level in working against the GOP effort to influence elections by voter suppression.

Nationally, the Democrats could make it more of a campaign issue.  While suppression has not been a problem in Maine, people in any state favoring participation should understand their votes are devalued when other states distort national election results by limiting voting.

There are now 14 states where the Democrats control both the legislature and the governorship.  Perhaps the GOP has already written them off, but the Democrats there could use reverse tactics to increase participation and draw better district boundaries.

Beyond trying to counter voter suppression, if the Democrats fail to develop outreach programs to help the poor and minorities register and vote, the GOP strategy could have the long-lasting effect of protecting its hold onto power.