Friday, July 31, 2015

Leaders override “checks and balances”

Checks and balances. 

In school, we are taught constitutions create them to prevent any one branch of government – legislative, executive, judicial – from having too much power and to ensure each has its own distinct role.

That’s the theory.  In practice, government looks a lot different.

Take Maine, for example.  The Legislature is supposed to make the laws and the governor is supposed to carry them out.

It has long been recognized that few laws can be put into effect without executive agencies filling in the details of their application.  Almost inevitably, the executive branch becomes involved in legislation.

Governors are also the prime source of legislative proposals.  Major new policy initiatives are often launched by the executive branch, giving it an important role in the lawmaking.

But Gov. Paul LePage has been trying to carry the involvement of the executive into the legislative process to new lengths.  He has a detailed legislative agenda, and he expects the Legislature to adopt it.  It won’t, and the state faces an almost unprecedented legislative war.

LePage’s strategy is to veto just about every bill adopted by the Legislature, even by a veto-proof majority, to send a message to legislators that he will try to block anything from happening unless he gets his way.  In short, the governor does not want to share in the legislative process, in ways customary for executives, but to dominate it.

Because the state constitution almost dictates the need for a two-thirds vote in favor of the state budget, many members are accustomed to seeking compromises and working together for common solutions.

Being a state legislator is not supposed to be a full-time job, and some of them hold office out of a sense of public service rather than to advance an ideology or political party.  Many bills are passed in unanimously or overwhelmingly.  Most vetoes are overridden.  The Legislature has not reached the kind of partisan divide as has Congress.

At the federal level, President Obama has seemed ready to let Congress come up with its own proposals, and he then would decide to approve or disapprove them.  The White House is far from the time when a president would work every day to stroke members of Congress.  

In the rigid legislative process, dominated by partisan gridlock and the wild overuse of the filibuster in the Senate, fewer important bills even make it to the president.

The partisan split, which includes the strong likelihood the Democrats will sustain Obama’s vetoes, has actually served to produce a lower veto rate than for any president since Lincoln.  But this situation can be a recipe for not enacting new laws or fixing obvious faults in old ones.

Faced with the lack of legislative action, Obama has used his power to issue executive orders, most notably one on immigration.  While this tactic riles Republicans, Obama has issued such orders at a lower annual rate than has any president since 1885.

In recent months, some laws have been enacted.  While the trade bill’s passage resulted from an unusual meeting of the minds between the president and Republicans, some bills have been the result of the GOP’s worry about being considered the cause of government inaction.  To avoid that image, senior Republicans have been willing occasionally to compromise.

Obama, an ex-senator, respects the role of Congress, even if it gives him heartburn.  LePage intentionally disrespects the Maine Legislature, because it will not fall in line behind his proposals.  He accepts no modification of them, no compromise.

The divide in Washington is mostly along partisan lines – between a Democratic president and a Republican Congress.  While the party dominating on a specific issue can seem to be in charge, neither side is completely in control.

In Maine, the divide is along institutional lines – governor versus legislature.  LePage is trying to bend the Legislature to his will, not by stroking it, but by crushing it.

Constitutions are surrounded by unwritten understandings.  In recent years, the U.S. Senate filibuster, causing any bill to require 60 votes, has changed an understanding.  Some argue Obama’s use of executive orders does as well.

In Maine, the governor’s veto of every piece of legislation, even those proposed by his own party, eliminates an understanding that the Legislature’s role in lawmaking should be respected, with vetoes part of the legislative process and not an instrument to undermine the Legislature.

At stake is not the fate of any proposal or law. The American system of government itself is under attack when basic understandings and long-standing custom are abandoned.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Trump-McCain ignores war’s heavy cost

When people are invited to make an investment, the person making the offer may put some money into it, to reassure the investors by sharing their risk.  Otherwise, investors may hold back, because the promoter has “no skin in the game.”

The idea of having “skin in the game” can apply more broadly than just to finance.

Take Donald Trump’s criticism of Sen. John McCain.  The Arizona Republican senator had criticized Trump for pursuing reckless campaigning, and Trump retaliated by saying that McCain was not a war hero.

Whatever their politics, most people agree that McCain is an authentic American hero.  He spent more than five years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam war, under the worst conditions, and refused release, supporting his fellow prisoners and not taking advantage of his status as the son of an admiral.

It’s hard to conceive of what McCain went through, and one can only honor him for his strength and valor on behalf of his country.  Trump, by contrast, did not serve a day in the armed forces, having been exempted because of a bone spur on one foot.

In other words, Trump has no skin in the game.  His bone spur did not give him a free pass to attack the wartime heroism of a man with whom he is having a political squabble.  He seems to have no idea of what makes a hero.

This case provides a possible explanation why some members of Congress are inclined toward military solutions of international problems.  The consequences are far removed from their own lives.

The vast majority of members of the U.S. Congress did not perform military service.  They have little idea from direct experience of the risks and rules for service personnel.  They have no sons or daughters in the service.

But many are willing to send American service personnel into harm’s way.  They face no possibility of personal sacrifice as they advocate the deployment of American forces to fight distant wars.  They can readily accept the risk of death or crippling wounds – for somebody else’s son or daughter.

The military draft ended in 1973.  During the 28 years between the end of the Second World War and the end of the draft, five times the U.S. has sent its military into situations where they could be killed or wounded.  That’s an average of once every 5.6 years.

In the 42 years since the draft ended, the U.S. has been involved in 15 conflicts that risked American military lives.  That’s an average of once every 2.8 years, twice as often as when there was a draft.

Presidents and the Congress give the impression of being more willing to deploy the armed forces when they are composed of volunteers than when they were supplied with conscripts.

The lack of the draft is the main reason why the number of people in Congress with direct experience of military conflict has fallen.  The same is true for their voters.  Taking these facts together may serve to make war – or suffering five years as a prisoner of war – seem a distant story about others rather than a real life experience.

With the power and role of the United States, there can be no doubt that the use of American military force, the greatest of any country in the world, must be an option.  The mere existence of that force will influence actions of other countries and perhaps even terrorist organizations.  But having the power and using it are two separate decisions.

In the current debate about whether to approve the Iran nuclear deal or to accept an increased possibility that Iran’s threat would have to be reduced by military force, it is apparently not difficult for some in Congress to accept the risk of war.  For them saber rattling is a preferable option, especially because it is somebody else’s saber.

In deciding on the Iran deal, we have seen instant reactions condemning it, even before it was possible to read the document itself.  Most of those reactions were driven by calculations about the political value of opposing this deal or possibly any deal with Iran, a country for which we have great distrust.

Iran is an obvious case where the costs of military action should be taken into account if the deal is to be disapproved.

Even if the U.S. will not bring back the draft, leaders need to employ the same kind of sensitivity in making decisions to risk war as if they themselves had skin in the game.


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Greece, Puerto Rico – Something in common, U.S. affected

Both Greece and Puerto Rico are in financial trouble.  Each is too deeply in debt.

American taxpayers may pay some of the cost of solving each problem.  The U.S. contributes to the International Monetary Fund, where Greece has defaulted on a big loan payment.  And Congress may have to find a way to bail out Puerto Rico.

Though the two situations are different, they have something else in common.  Both are the result of weak and confused underpinnings.

How did Greece get into trouble?  It lived beyond its means, and financed excessive public spending by loans.  Lenders relied partly on what turned out to be inaccurate information provided by the Greek government about the amount of its debt.

The 18 other European countries using the same currency as Greece – the euro – want it to raise taxes and carry out tough cutbacks on pensions and other public spending before they lend it even more money to make some of its huge upcoming debt payments. 

The Europeans resist Greece’s requests, because the euro is backed only by the actions of its 19 user countries to behave themselves financially.  And few trust Greece to keep its word to carry out reforms now that it really feels the pinch.

Puerto Rico also wants to cut its debt.  It would like to reduce its lenders claims by filing for bankruptcy.  It is a U.S. territory with federal law preventing it from using bankruptcy.  It wants that law changed.  States can seek bankruptcy protection, but they don’t because of their own laws preventing too much debt.

How did Puerto Rico get into so much trouble?  U.S. law encouraged it to borrow big, by offering it lower interest payments.  This was done by making its borrowing tax exempt federally and in all states.  By contrast, bonds issued by a state like Maine are federally tax exempt, but only state tax exempt in the issuing state.  So Maine gets less encouragement than Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, sometimes acts as if it were an independent country and sometimes like a state.  Its residents do not pay American taxes but do receive federal benefits.  This unusual status helps explain how it had the ability to get itself into excessive debt.

The twin crises are real and deep, and they call for measures more than simply patching them over. 

Europe needs to decide if it will accept more unity to back the euro and make it a true currency.  The U.S. is faced with deciding if Puerto Rico should be put on the road to statehood or treated like an independent country that chooses to use the dollar as its currency.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Confederate flag lowered; what does it mean?

Is the Confederate battle flag merely an historical relic or a symbol of racism?  Why do people in northern states, who have no racist history, display this flag?

The recent killings in Charleston, S.C., which led to the lowering of that flag from a prime spot on the state capitol grounds in Columbia, have renewed thinking about the South’s past and race relations.   

The flag’s removal to a museum has also raised questions about symbolism in our lives.
South Carolina was the first southern state to secede from the U.S., acting soon after Lincoln’s election and before he took office.  It ignored his willingness to allow slavery in states where it already existed.  It declared that secession was about slavery, not states’ rights.

But it only put the Confederate flag on its capital grounds in 1961 to mark 100 years since the Civil War began and kept it up to express its opposition to the civil rights movement.

The flag is part of the state’s history, but a disgraceful part of that history.  While it should not be forgotten, it should not be honored, especially when it is recalls the suppression of an entire group of the state’s citizens.

The Charleston killer understood the true meaning of the battle flag and, in his view, carried on the battle.

A recently published study looks at racism in each state based on Google searches for the “N-word.”  It found that South Carolina ranked eighth.  That could be an environment comfortable with the flag.

The election of Barack Obama as president did not mean that racism had disappeared and that showing the flag was a mere nod to history.  In fact, some believe that Obama’s election increased racist sentiment. 

Clearly, the outlook for African Americans has improved.  And changing attitudes toward racially identifiable groups is taking place slowly.

Texas, a former Confederate state, rejected the display of the Confederate flag on its license plates, despite the claim it was merely historic.  The U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld its right to ban the flag plate without the state being guilty of infringing free speech.

While the Supreme Court blocked the system of federal government pre-approval of changes in the election laws of states with racist histories, it did not write those states a blank check.  The federal government is in court trying to prevent changes to North Carolina laws made following the Court’s decision, saying they are an attempt to block voting by African Americans

In the study of racism in the states, Maine ranked 32nd, close to Vermont and New Hampshire.  This was considered to be less racist than average.  Maine has the smallest non-white population of any state.

So why do some Mainers and others across the North continue to display the Confederate battle flag?  While some may have racist attitudes, it is not likely many lament the end of slavery.

Southern soldiers in the Civil War were called “rebels,” people who were willing to fight the authority of their country to tell them or their states what to do.

The notion of being independent, rebelling against authority, still has strong appeal for many.  To some of them, especially in the North, it’s possible the flag says “rebel” more than “racist.”  But the intent matters less than the effect, so the message sent to blacks and many whites relates to the flag’s original use far more than to the beliefs of the person displaying it.

The message finally understood in South Carolina is just that: effect matters more than intent.  Even if the flag means history to some, others see it is as a racist symbol.

One of the most interesting aspects of the flag coming down in Columbia was the change in attitude among many Republican leaders.  The GOP had picked up conservative, white voters in the South after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  It dislodged the almost total Democratic dominance in the old Confederacy.

It would have been natural for the Republicans to accept the flag as they have in recent decades.  But leaders came to support its removal.  Not only did the Charleston killings make inescapable the flag’s real meaning, but the changing American population sent the GOP a clear message.

By 2044, minorities are expected to be the majority of the American population.  The GOP dominance of southern states could erode as the change takes place.  The lowering of the old flag may have had greater political symbolism than it seemed. 

Top arms control expert: Iran agreement “a big deal”

One of the top U.S. experts on arms control says, in an exclusive interview, that the agreement by world powers with Iran to block it from acquiring nuclear weapons is “a big deal.”

John D. Holum, chief of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control under President Bill Clinton, notes there are two paths to nuclear weapons – using either enriched uranium or plutonium – and “the agreement effectively fences off both routes.”

Verification of Iran’s actions means, “there’s no element of trust involved,” he says.  Contrary to the demands of Ayatollah Khamenei, International Atomic Energy Agency “inspectors will have access to all sites, existing and suspected, including military facilities.”

“The IAEA is technically very proficient,” he reports.  It will now be equipped with better tools to carry out inspections.  Iran will be subject to these tougher safeguards.  And the U.S. and others will continue their own intelligence operations to look for violations.

In the event of a violation of its commitment by Iran, all parties, including China, Russia and Iran, have agreed sanctions will “snap back” on.  The decision to restart sanctions cannot be blocked by any or all of the three.  The U.S. and its European allies have a majority vote.  Agreement on a binding majority vote by an international body on such a major issue is quite unusual.   

Answering the claims of some critics, Holum maintains, “it’s a common misperception that after some specific limits expire all bets are off.”  Iran is bound by treaty obligations never to have nuclear weapons and “cheating in the future would be uncovered much more quickly” than in the past.  

It is possible that Iran will try to cheat, but after verifiably giving up the fuel and equipment required for a nuclear weapon, it would need a year to build one, while Holum says it would now need only two months.  “If Iran tries to cheat, we’ll know about it in plenty of time to react.”   

The new agreement gives Iran only “a very short time to get back into full compliance” with its treaty obligations.  Failure to do so brings the almost certain return of sanctions, which can cause real injury to the country’s economy.

One of the major arguments in support of the new deal is that the alternative would be worse.  While he agrees that is true, Holum sees the agreement as having value going well beyond merely maintaining sanctions while allowing Iran to proceed with nuclear weapons development.

“The deal should be implemented,” he says, “because it succeeds in the core purpose of the sanctions and the negotiations – to ensure, with confidence, that Iran will not be able to secretly develop nuclear weapons.”

He implies that trying to press Iran further in negotiations would not have produced a better result than what was already achieved in the agreement.  And as long as the multi-year negotiations continued, the new, tougher controls could not be applied.

Some critics stress that Iran supports terrorism, wants to destroy Israel and is our enemy in the Middle East, a region it would like to dominate.  Without sanctions, it would gain the resources to pursue these goals.  To these critics, the agreement does not go far enough but talks should have been pursued until Iran was disarmed and blocked from using nuclear power even for peaceful purposes.

It is worth noting that these objectives were not part of U.S. policy in dealing with the far more menacing Soviet Union or with North Korea, a country allowed to gain nuclear weapons and the means to use them against countries friendly to the U.S.

The declared purpose of the sanctions, adopted by the U.N., was to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, Holum notes.  “Any U.S. attempt to repurpose them to other issues would certainly fail.”
The announcement of an agreement brought immediate opposition as well as recognition of the accord as an historic accomplishment.  Some observers believe that Republican majorities in the House and Senate will vote to disapprove the agreement President Obama puts before them.

Obama would then veto their disapproval, and it would take two-thirds of both houses to override the veto.  That means all Republicans would have to oppose the deal and pick up a block of Democrats to have enough votes for an override

Would all Republicans want this key deal be treated as a purely partisan matter?  Would enough Democrats, fearful of offending Jewish voters, desert their president?

Holum believes the rest of the world has become so accustomed to partisan efforts in the U.S. to undermine Obama that approval by veto would not reduce confidence in the deal itself.

Right now, what’s needed is a thoughtful and thorough public review of the deal, free of preconceived positions on either side.