Friday, January 30, 2015

Partisans mistakenly seek constitutional reform

The American system of government, enshrined in the federal and state constitutions that are two centuries old, is challenged.
Is change needed?  Do Americans want a stronger legislature or more powerful executive?

The federal system, with Congress and the president elected separately, is unlike the British parliamentary system where the prime minister is a member of the legislature.

At the time of the American Revolution, King George III shared political power with parliament.  The United States rebelled against the British system.

The Founding Fathers wanted a chief who was not a legislator, yet not one with royal powers.  Congress, which predated the Declaration of Independence, was meant to play a major role.

Because the trusted George Washington was to be in charge, the new Constitution gave the president some real authority but often subject to congressional oversight – the famous checks and balances.

In the years since then, the president has gained powers, often given by Congress or the courts.  Congress is an equal branch, but usually lacking the party discipline characteristic of the parliamentary system.

Newt Gingrich, when he was GOP Speaker of the House in the 1990s, came the closest to changing the system to a parliamentary regime.  He induced his party to accept a unified and disciplined approach with leaders doling out penalties for non-compliance.  That made Congress a stronger negotiating partner with Bill Clinton, a Democratic president.

What has held the Republicans together in recent years is their common conservatism.  Now, political pragmatism is undermining the GOP try for a parliamentary system.

Ever since the Gingrich quasi-parliamentary system was installed, the popularity of Congress has declined.  Strict partisanship has brought fewer and fewer results, though many voters want results more than ideological purity.

The big GOP win in the 2014 congressional elections brought to Washington many Republican representatives elected from districts that would usually be expected to choose Democrats.  To keep their seats in 2016, some newcomers and even some old-timers will need to become more moderate.

Strict discipline is already slipping.  The GOP House leadership wanted to pass a bill, sure to be vetoed and thus only a political gesture, to outlaw abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.  But GOP women representatives balked, forcing the leadership to back off in a single day.

It is now possible that the all-but-invisible moderate group in Congress will return.  Composed of Republicans from states that could elect Democrats and Democrats from states that could swing to the GOP, this group might be large enough to force Congress to compromise and deal with President Obama.

All of this may reflect the political will of the electorate and not be caused by any constitutional reform.  The country’s most sacred document is general and flexible enough to accommodate the changing political system.  It could be better, though different definitions of what’s “better” would be sure to arise, but it continues to work as the country evolves.

Meanwhile, Maine Gov. Paul LePage would like to move the state constitution away from a parliamentary influence more toward the federal, presidential system. 

The drafters of the Maine Constitution limited the governor’s power and sought to buttress checks and balances.  Gov. LePage does not like living with constitutional officers – Secretary of State, Treasurer and Attorney General – elected by the Legislature, a system involving real sharing of political power.

Because of his frustration in dealing with an attorney general elected by legislative Democrats, he would prefer either to appoint the occupant of that office, removable like any department head, or have the person popularly elected.  An elected attorney general could produce the same conflicts LePage dislikes.

Over the years, there have been many political party splits between Maine governors and attorneys general.  They found ways to work together and rarely required the governor to hire his own lawyer using taxpayer money.   

LePage is also worried that, if a state chief executive left office early, his or her replacement, now the Senate president, could be of a different party, rejecting the elected governor’s program.  He wants a governor to pick his own lieutenant governor.

In 1959, a Democratic governor, who died after less than a year in office, was replaced by a Republican.  Back then, the governor had a two-year term, so the voters soon chose again.  

If LePage’s worry merits concern, Maine could go back to two-year terms, like New Hampshire and Vermont.  Or it could require a new special election for the rest of the governor’s term.

Still, the current system, nationally or in Maine, really isn’t broken, so why fix it?

Friday, January 23, 2015

U.S. “exceptionalism” requires better focus, symbolism

Recently, a French television program, featuring political humor, called on its viewers to inundate Fox News with emails about its obviously false reports, made since 2006, that there were “no-go zones” in Britain and France, where Muslims controlled.

Thousand of emails flooded Fox, and the station apologized, admitting that such zones do not exist.
Meanwhile, the French government took steps to ban the publication on “racist” commentary, a form of government censorship.

All of this came in the wake of the terrorist killing of French cartoonists, whose drawings of the Prophet Mohammed offended Muslims.

The American government cannot censor Fox News if it makes false reports, and virtually nobody believes it should.  But Fox can and, in this case, did react to pressure from thousands of people in the United States, France and Britain, finally retracting and apologizing for its phony news.

The “no-go zone” story proves a point about the U.S.  When it comes to freedom of expression, probably no country in the world comes close to the broad protection against government power provided in the First Amendment to the Constitution.  Of course, there are limits, like “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater,” as the Supreme Court once said.

At home and in many places around the world, people believe in American “exceptionalism” – the special place occupied by the U.S. in the world.  The First Amendment provides support for that belief.

The Obama administration has been criticized, though not by France, for failing to send a high-ranking representative to Paris to march with other world leaders in support of free expression in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  On the scene, that representative would have had to link arms with hypocrites on free speech issues.

But, because of America’s special role, it should have been in the line of march.  Given America’s special standing, the presence of a U.S. representative would have elevated and emphasized the value of free speech.

While the United States continues to play the leading role in the world, it has lost influence because of a lack of understanding of the symbolism of leadership.

President Obama recognizes that limits exist to American power and that the United States does not always live up to its own values.  His beliefs on these points and his laid-back personal style undermine the symbolic role that gives hope and encouragement to people both in the United States and abroad.
Of course, belief in American exceptionalism can go too far.  Sen. John McCain, Obama’s GOP rival for the White House in 2008, seems to propose U.S. military involvement to resolve conflicts just as soon as they pop up.

That suggests the United States is the world’s policeman, responsible to impose order and democratic government, whenever a repressive regime is challenged by some of its own people.

It is true that, almost alone, the United States has the ability to project its power anywhere in the world on short notice.  The American dollar remains the standard world currency, a sign of its economic strength and reliability.  That makes it a powerful symbol.

But limited finances and incomplete understanding of situations on the ground can lead the United States to attempt more than it can reasonably accomplish.

For example, the American response to Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attack was appropriate.  Going into Afghanistan to punish Al Qaeda, its leadership and Taliban supporters made sense.  But trying to impose a unified, democratic government in Afghanistan, a country with no real history as a nation and with a tradition of warlord rule, led to America’s longest war without a clear result.

Invading Iraq and intervening in Libya may have seemed to some as an appropriate use of American power, but, as in Afghanistan, the U.S. had little sense of where events would lead.

These conclusions do not mean the U.S. should abandon its leadership role in the world.  That’s not desirable or practical.  But in projecting its power, it could better define its objectives, ones that would stand a reasonable chance of success.

Instead of attempting to bring about wholesale change abroad, usually by trying to turn every rebellion into revolution, the U.S. might focus more on fixing problems rather than on complete political reform.

For example, in Syria, by jumping to take sides in a conflict in which it could not project much force, the U.S. lost the ability to bring an early halt to bloodshed and destruction.

Defining American goals better plus a more forceful assertion of our values could be the best ways to reflect the country’s exceptional role.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Don't mix tax cuts into tax reform

Tax reform is in the air.

Republicans now have the opportunity, through their legislative control and governors’ chairs, to propose alternatives to a tax system created in 1986 and patched and amended ever since.

In Washington, the talk about comprehensive tax reform is just that – talk – but some changes are possible.  Most of the focus appears to be on the corporate tax rate.

In theory, the federal tax on corporations is 35 percent, a rate higher than in many other industrialized countries.  In fact, loopholes and special interest features lower the effective rate for large corporations to a more competitive level of 12.6 percent.

One of the key purposes of tax reform is to make rates fairer without raising revenues.  That should mean that if the federal rate is cut, some loopholes ought to be closed.

But, if the objective is to reduce government revenues or boost to corporations, the Republican proposal may be limited to cutting the rate.  That could give rise to a battle between President Obama, who would accept corporate tax changes, and the GOP-dominated Congress.

One other area in the corporate tax system is ripe for change.  Right now, corporations find it attractive to move their headquarters abroad, often more in theory than in terms of actual operations, but allowing them to avoid U.S. taxes.  That could be fixed by law with some bipartisan effort.

The federal “tax extender” law will once again have to be reviewed.  Usually left to the last minute and then not changed, this law contains a raft of tax breaks for various industries.  At this stage, it is difficult to know if Congress, taking advantage of a non-election year, will have the courage to cut some of these loopholes.

Finally, the Republicans can be expected to try to repeal the inheritance tax, which they call the “death tax.”  It is intended to make sure that the wealth of the wealthy, who may have evaded taxes, can finally be taxed.  The GOP is unlikely to succeed.

States often simply duplicate the federal tax system, though at lower rates.  But there is room for reform at the state level.

Maine provides a good example.  Gov. Paul LePage has made proposals that, in key respects, are more closely in line with past Democratic ideas than with his own GOP.  But he goes too far.

Maine’s top income tax rate of 7.95 percent is among the highest in the country.  LePage wants it cut to 5.75 percent, but would really like to see it go away entirely.  The cut makes sense; elimination does not.

The income tax requires those with higher incomes to pay higher rates than others down the income scale.  If it were eliminated, the burden would fall almost entirely on sales and property taxes that hit middle-income people more heavily than the wealthy.

A national study published this week supports the point that wealthier people pay a smaller portion of their income in state and local taxes than the rest of the people.

LePage sees the income tax as outmoded.  But government, even if slashed, costs money.  Roads and bridges urgently need repair.  Eliminating the income tax would make it more difficult to meet basic needs. 

To pay for his income tax reduction, LePage properly proposes sales tax increases.  Maine taxes fewer goods and services than most other states, and the governor would expand the list.  He would also raise the rate to 6.5 percent, keeping it well below rates in other states.

The principal obstacles are the need to limit the impact of the sales tax increase on lower-income people and resistance by businesses whose owners believe that the sales tax will keep customers away.

Yet, there is no evidence that sales taxes stifle sales.  Lawmakers need to ask themselves if they have ever refrained from making a purchase because of the tax.

LePage also wants to eliminate the estate tax, which mainly affects the wealthy.  While the federal inheritance tax should be retained, a good case can be made for ending its state counterpart.  The high income tax rate combined with the estate tax drive people from the state who otherwise could continue to contribute to its economy.

LePage’s proposals are not revenue neutral.  He wants to cut state taxes, so the burden would shift to the property tax and to hospitals, schools and other entities now tax-exempt.  By tying reasonable changes to controversial cuts, LePage endangers his own tax reform.

If the GOP will compromise and stick to real reform, this could be the year for change.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Business more efficient than government?

Sometimes it’s easy to see why people think government is too big.  Take a recent news report in Maine papers.

In many towns, to get a license to dig claims commercially, you have to do two things.  You pay the annual fee and you put in some time cleaning up and reseeding the clam flats.  This so-called conservation time is for your own benefit.

This practice has been going on the decades, and it works pretty well.  But then, along comes the Department of Labor – federal, state or both.  They say that when people are required by government to work, they become employees and have to be paid.

We are not talking about a lot of money here, because typically in each year conservation time takes only part of a few days.  Nobody forces people to dig clams, and shellfish harvesters understand the terms set by local government.

Government could spend less time investigating this harmless practice.  Instead, some towns will now raise their license fees and then pay rebates to the diggers in return for their conservation time.  Presumably, the diggers will have to pay taxes on the income, but for some the fee itself may not be a tax deduction.

This looks like government run amok.  The law, undoubtedly drafted by staffers with little real world experience, demands this process rather than exempting such small-scale practices.

Of course, a town could challenge government and face the consequences, but they could find it’s not worth the taxpayers’ money.

This is a small matter, but one that just about anybody can understand and conclude is ridiculous.  And that could cause them to oppose government regulation, even when it is justified, to say nothing of its government inefficiency and cost.

This is raw meat for opponents of government.  They argue that, if matters are left to the private sector, government excess will be avoided and the market, with its competitive forces, will produce sensible results.

For decades, General Motors was the largest automobile company in the world, a symbol of the success of the American way of doing business.  Its shareholders were well rewarded, and it was unionized, ensuring its workers were well paid.

When President Nixon asked the Israeli prime minister what she would want in exchange for a couple of her successful military generals, Golda Meir replied she would accept a couple of American generals, General Motors and General Electric.

GM came to believe that it set the standard and that whatever it did was the right thing to do.

Meanwhile, in Japan, automobile company leaders were listening to W. Edwards Deming, an American engineer, largely ignored in the United States.  He advised on a statistical approach to manufacturing with a heavy emphasis on increasing quality while controlling costs.

As Japanese production grew and its methods took hold, GM and other American carmakers ignored these developments.  More importantly, GM stuck to its own internal business practices as the world around it changed.

In 2009, despite having received federal aid, the company filed for bankruptcy.  To protect jobs and boost the economy, the U.S. and Canadian governments bailed it out.  On the U.S. side, the government put $49.5 billion into GM, but did not recover about $10.5 billion by the time GM ended government support in 2013.

The GM case, involving the pride of American manufacturing, supports the argument that big business can be as inefficient as big government.

But the problems with government may be inevitable, because we resist change.

Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who has just retired from office, asked congressional auditors to review all government programs to identify duplication and overlap.  It took the auditors three years, but they came up with hundreds of duplicate programs.

If these programs were simply merged, the savings would have been enormous.  But nothing happened.  Members of Congress want to bring federal money home, and that prevents efficient operations.  Even the toughest critics of government resist cuts in public spending that hurt their districts.

Of course, advocating smaller government may have nothing to do with efficiency, but simply be a way of lifting regulation from your friends and cutting programs favored by the other party.

Maybe the issue is bigness itself.  Institutions may grow so large that people miss the small mistakes, like the clam issue, that mount up to cause major problems, like a GM bankruptcy.

Whatever the reason, there’s no evidence that the private sector, through competition, would be any better at producing desired public policy results than is the government itself.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Now, the GOP must show if it can govern

This should be the best of years for the Republican Party.

It holds its largest majority since 1928 in the U.S. House of Representatives.It controls the governor’s chair and both houses of the state legislature (there only one in Nebraska) in 24 states.

If you add up the popular vote for House members across the country, the GOP reportedly won 40.1 million votes compared to 35.6 million for the Democrats.

In the U.S. House, its majority of 247-188 gives it control of the agenda, as does its Senate majority of 54-46, though neither has enough Republicans to override a presidential veto.

The Democrats are in bad shape.They control the governorship and both houses of the state legislature in only seven states.They cannot be assured that President Obama’s picks for federal office would be confirmed.

Why have the Republicans been so successful?Among the answers are their efforts to win state legislative races.They have poured far more money into the effort than have the Democrats.

Also, there were far more Senate seats held by Democrats contested in 2014 than those held by the GOP, though the situation will reverse in 2016.

Finally, as in most mid-term congressional elections, the president’s party lost ground. But the losses were deeper than usual, because of Obama’s low popularity.

Both the races for state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives were heavily affected by redistricting moves made after the 2010 census.A party in power can shape the legislative districts for the next ten years, and the GOP made sure to gain as much control as possible in state legislatures carrying out redistricting.

To be sure, in those states where they control or in the 19 divided states, the Democrats can influence legislative decisions.With their House majority, Maine Democrats will be in this position, facing a GOP governor and Senate.

Above all, the political balance will provide Republicans with an excellent chance to demonstrate their capacity to govern.

Many in the GOP had thought the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan as president would open the way to a lengthy conservative era, but the Democrats have won the presidency and legislative control in much of the period since then.

The Republicans have the opportunity in the next two years, by compiling a strong record and paving the way for the party’s 2016 presidential candidate, to resume their effort to install conservatism for the long haul.

The key to its success may depend on being able to shift from opposition to Obama and the Democrats to taking positive steps to govern.In other words, the GOP will have to be more than simply being known as “the party of ‘no’.”

Take just three examples.Republicans have persisted in going through the motions of trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, though they knew they could not succeed.With a Democratic president, they still could not override his veto.

But they could come forward with proposals for revising Obamacare, taking into account its positive elements and the increased coverage for millions of Americans.It is unrealistic and probably bad politics to propose revisions that will strip people of coverage.

In fact, something less than a comprehensive reform might pick up support from Democrats, making it difficult for Obama to veto a bill.And that could show the ability of Republicans to work across the aisle, which many voters say they want above all from the two parties.

Much the same is true for immigration.While some Republicans believe the approximately 11 million undocumented people could all be deported, many, perhaps most, GOP members of Congress recognize this is impossible and politically unwise.

Obama’s unilateral immigration move could open the door to bipartisan legislative solutions, far more desirable than his broad use of presidential power.But his action may stand if Congress fails to agree.

Then, there’s tax reform.The tax extenders bill, the last major piece of legislation signed by the president in 2014, was mostly a collection of big breaks for large corporations.These loopholes reduced the supposedly high corporate tax rate.

The parties ought to be able to agree on eliminating loopholes and lowering the corporate tax rate.According to their rhetoric, they could even try to simplify the increasingly complex tax code.

What about the Democrats?For one thing, they should avoid becoming “the party of ‘no’.”

They need to offer positive policies and not mimic the GOP.And they need to make their case much better than they have in recent years.