Friday, February 26, 2016

British, Americans head for unknown future

Last week the current American debate over the role of the federal government echoed in Europe.
The United Kingdom negotiated a deal allowing it to vote on remaining a member of the European Union (EU).
The EU is a voluntary group of states, like the U.S., but it is not a fully federal. In Europe, no country is forced to join, but, unlike this country, members may secede. Countries can quit the group and go it alone, if they don’t like EU policies.
The European situation recalls the pre-Civil War southern effort to allow individual states the right of “nullification,” blocking the effect of federal laws within their borders. Nullification was rejected, because upon joining the Union, a state had to accept the Constitution as it stood and the laws made under it.
In Europe, states entering the EU negotiate special terms for themselves. For example, even before its new deal, Britain kept its own currency while other members either use or are expected to adopt the euro as their currency.
The difference between the systems on the two sides of the Atlantic may be narrowing. As the power of the U.S. federal government is reduced, more control could be left in the hands of state governments.
If that process is pursued, it could produce much the same result as nullification. For example, some conservatives hope for a situation in which some states could ban same-sex marriage or abortions, while others did not.
Conservatives are the driving force behind the moves to weaken both the EU and the U.S. federal government. They stress national (Europe) or states’ (U.S.) rights over the benefits of common action on a wide range of issues.
In Europe, nationalistic movements are growing in many countries, including France, Poland and Hungary. British Conservatives, the ruling party, are split between pro-Europeans and an element sensitive to the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party. One might almost find their motto to be, “Make Britain Great Again.”
In the U.S., one writer recently suggested, “the nation has become Southernized just as much as the South has become nationalized. Political conservatism, the traditional creed of the white South, went from being presumed dead in 1964 to being a powerful force in national politics.”
The growth in anti-government conservatism, probably fueled somewhat by the election of an African-American president, has paved the way for at least one presidential candidate who is openly anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant. He is positioned so far from the center that, without embarrassment, he can support torture as an instrument of national policy.
Europe cannot come to grips with the problems of worker migration and a flood of refugees, people who have different ethnic or cultural backgrounds. Britain wants to offer fewer benefits to such people. Right-wing parties in many European countries gain support by opposing immigrants.
Similarly, the U.S. cannot resolve the question of undocumented or illegal immigrants who seek a better life and contribute to the economy, but are believed to be seeking welfare benefits or causing crime.
Perhaps more than any other, these problems fuel nationalism, causing people who feel threatened by government to turn against the authorities that allow immigration. This concern has probably become one of the major wedge issues in American politics.
The main question is whether people insist so strongly on their individual or national rights that they are willing to sacrifice benefits they obtain from central governments providing them services that are otherwise impossible or uneconomic.
The question is not easily answered. Both the EU and the U.S. federal government have sometimes gone far in extending their power. Many EU regulations go well beyond what is done federally in the U.S. The Commerce Clause in the U.S. Constitution has been greatly extended. These moves have made people uneasy.
As the 2004 book called “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” showed, many people vote against their own interests when they support conservatives who want to reduce the role of government. These voters believe their taxes are too high and government either is deadlocked or flat wrong on social issues.
European nationalists and many American conservatives share a rejection of strong central government but they do not offer alternatives that would produce the same results for people. Still, even if government action would improve matters, some people rally to the anti-government cause.
This year, the British referendum and the U.S. elections might send a message. On both sides of the Atlantic, voters are making a choice between government, which has greatly disappointed them, and the unknown.

Friday, February 19, 2016

New threat to constitutional tradition

The furor over whether President Obama should be allowed to replace Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia looks like yet another case of today’s partisanship overriding the unwritten understandings that have made government work.
Should Democrat Obama leave the appointment to his successor taking office in 11 months? Should the Senate, controlled by the Republicans, refuse to act on any nomination, forcing the decision into next year?
Donald Trump expressed the view of the GOP candidates when he said the Republican policy should be, “Delay, delay, delay.”
A lot of ink has already been spilt to show that history points toward an early presidential nomination and confirmation. But that’s just the point. In recent years, bitter partisanship has reversed the constitutional practices that have allowed government to function.
Though there are many court confirmations that support the history, one embodies almost all the elements of the current clash.
In October 1956, a month before the presidential election and just as the Supreme Court began its annual session, one justice resigned. The Senate was not in session. GOP President Dwight Eisenhower made an immediate, recess appointment. That meant William Brennan could take his place on the court without confirmation.
The next year, the Democratic-controlled Senate voted on the nomination, allowing Brennan to remain on the Court. He was easily confirmed by a voice vote of the Senate.
Eisenhower was in the closing days of the presidential campaign when he made the recess appointment, far stronger than a nomination, because it allowed Brennan immediately to join the Court. The Democrats, the Senate majority, did not force the president to delay.
A president, having won a national election to a four-year term, was considered to be entitled to select Supreme Court justices who agreed with his political views. Consistent with this understanding, Scalia, a strong conservative later appointed by Republican President Ronald Reagan, had been confirmed by a vote of 98-0, meaning the Democrats also approved.
The current issue results largely from the partisanship affecting how the Constitution functions. It has changed the filibuster and undermined the president’s power of appointment.
The filibuster, historically used rarely for the sole purpose of blocking civil rights legislation, is now used routinely, meaning the Senate acts on bills and appointments only when 60 senators agree.
As a result, a party with 41 senators could prevent any judicial nomination getting to a vote. Republican senators used the filibuster to block Obama’s court appointments. In reaction, the Democrats finally deployed the so-called “nuclear option” and eliminated the 60-vote requirement for federal judges, except for the Supreme Court. The Republicans were furious.
The GOP has stripped presidents of the ability to make appointments to office when the Senate is in recess, as Eisenhower did, by finding ways to making it seem the Senate was in session continuously, even when it is not. Scalia and his court allies approved the move.
The reason for having the president hold off is that his Supreme Court appointee is likely to remain in his or her lifetime job long after Obama has left office. That’s not unusual, but a president in his last year should no longer control the future, opponents say.
If Republicans believe they will capture the presidency, they could want the choice left open for more than year including the approval process, increasing the likelihood of replacing conservative Scalia with another conservative. This plan could backfire if the GOP wins the presidency but loses control of the Senate.
By contrast, Democrats want their president to do the constitutional job for which he was elected, even if that means risking disapproval by the GOP Senate. Either the Republicans accept a reasonable nomination or they might face the political consequences of delay. Win or lose, the Democrats could gain.
Blocking a Scalia successor might happen at the cost of allowing this year some Supreme Court decisions, strongly opposed by conservatives. The conservative wing of the Court is depleted by Scalia’s death, and the result could be some more liberal results on cases relating to immigration, public sector unions, abortion and health care.
The combination of possibly unfavorable decisions, negative voter reaction in this year’s Senate elections and Obama’s firm intention to make a nomination seems to be changing some Republicans’ minds.
Perhaps political reality may block, for the moment at least, the continued dismantling of the understandings that allow constitutional government to function.
The Constitution cannot deal with all the issues that arise in applying it. Without agreement on using historical practices that have worked, long-term deadlock is inevitable.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The 2016 Campaign – the view in February

Nobody faintly interested in politics can ignore the campaigns.  But nobody really knows much, leaving it to a largely inexperienced group of television pundits to state their opinions as fact.  And everybody relies too heavily on polls.

So, for what it’s worth, here are my updated thoughts on the campaigns as they stand in mid-February.

Donald Trump.  His popularity is based on his style and his clear opposition to business as usual.  Amazingly, there is some substance to his ideas, occasionally on foreign policy, but his racism and free-swinging attacks turn many voters off.  He probably can get no more than 40 percent of all Republicans.  Not enough to win.

Ted Cruz. His main appeal is that he is not Trump and is a religious person.  But he is not a compromiser and has no friends in the Senate because of his destructive approach.  He does not offer enough of a viable alternative to win.

John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio.  One of these should emerge as the mainstream GOP alternative to Trump and, unlike Cruz, at least two of them really would be different.  Kasich, the Ohio governor, is a conservative by conviction and can still be pragmatic.  Appeals to Democrats.  Bush, the former Florida governor, seems to be an opportunistic conservative who does not project leadership qualities.  Rubio is a conservative trying to pass himself off as mainstream.  He also obviously lacks experience.

Could come down to Trump v. Kasich or Bush.  Trump loses because he cannot win the general election.

Hillary Clinton.  The most experienced person in the field, but acts as if she is privileged and is thus somewhat exempt from full-scale honesty.  Not really a modern liberal, so probably could work with GOP.  Friendly to big money interests.  Probably would turn out to produce results like Obama and her husband.

Bernie Sanders.  The most authentic candidate and holds the most progressive views.  He favors big change, which others say he could not produce or pay for.  If he won, his victory alone could provide at least some momentum toward changes he proposes.  Appeals to young.  If enough Democrats share his views on big money, he could win, but that’s not likely.

Somebody else.  If Sanders defeats Clinton or comes close in races she should win, the Democrats could turn to an alternative.  Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Kerry, California Gov. Brown come to mind.  All old men.

Likely to come down to Clinton, a pragmatic but not popular choice.

The main event: Clinton facing Bush or Kasich.  The country saved.

U.S. House of Representatives.  Likely to remain Republican thanks to gerrymandered districts dating from 2010 state elections.  But margin likely to be reduced if the Democratic presidential candidate does well or wins.  There are enough close seats to allow the Democrats to close the gap.  Maine’s second district is a good example.

U.S. Senate.  Could swing to Democrats with more GOP-held seats up for grabs.  This would be influenced by presidential race and lack of the ability to gerrymander.  Democrats need a strong coordinated national campaign, which would mean sticking with Sanders if he were nominee.

U.S. Supreme Court.  Beyond Scalia, almost certainly, there will be appointments to be made in the next four years.  Much depends on the presidential and Senate elections to determine the Court’s approach to the domination of campaign finance by big money, attempts to suppress voting, health care and immigration.  This was the hidden element of the 2016 elections, but now could be a focal point.

All national elections are important. This year’s could mark a transition, but to what?  Pragmatism or deeper partisan war?

As for Maine, Republican Gov. LePage helps Democrats gain control of the Senate and hold the House, because he worries people, who will want to limit his power.

Your thoughts?

Friday, February 12, 2016

It’s Washington’s Birthday, not Presidents’ Day

On Monday, we will celebrate Washington's Birthday.
Not Presidents’ Day, but Washington's Birthday, the official U.S.  government designation of the day. This is my annual recognition of Washington.
To remember Abraham Lincoln and other presidents, some outright failures, the holiday honoring Washington has been absorbed by the commercial “Presidents’ Day.” But we should remember our country’s good fortune to have been led by this exceptional man.
During the war for independence, Washington had the heavy responsibility of unifying the United States. Between 1776 and 1789, the United States was composed of a collection of independent and sovereign states.
Washington faced the task of bringing and holding the country together. His experience as the only truly national figure during the war, dependent on voluntary state contributions of money and soldiers, taught him that a strong national government was essential.
Washington was an even better politician than a general. His strengths were his unwavering commitment to the idea of the United States and to civilian control of the military.
When he assumed the presidency, he understood that almost everything he did would set a precedent for history. Each step – from how he was addressed to the creation of a functioning government to his relationship with Congress – required careful thought and preparation and showed deep respect for the popular will. The long-lasting results are a testament to his wisdom.
But there was strong opposition from those who worried that the national government would override states’ rights and individual freedoms. Washington accepted the Bill of Rights as an essential part of the deal to make a new country.
Washington, a southern slave owner, agonized over slavery. He recognized that the two parts of the country had deep differences about its future, and the country might break apart. If it did, a friend reported in 1795, "he had made up his mind to remove and be of the northern."
He believed that slavery would end as the nation's economy developed, though he was overly optimistic about the timing and ease of the transition. He recognized that the future lay in the development of "manufactures" produced by wage labor, as was beginning to happen in the North.
Thus, 70 years before the Lincoln's defense of the Union in the Civil War and his willingness to compromise on slavery, Washington used his national standing to hold the country together, even facing opposition from Virginia, his home state. His will provided for his slaves to be freed after his death, and his widow freed his and hers.
Thomas Jefferson bitterly opposed him about how to deal with the rest of the world. The president subscribed to a view later formulated by a British statesman: "Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests."
For Washington, it made sense to sign a treaty with England rather than France, America's wartime ally, then in the throes of a bloody revolution. Jefferson and his allies disagreed, later launching the disastrous War of 1812 against the British.
He was disappointed at the development of political parties, and he finally split completely with Jefferson, who had formed an opposition party.
Washington had a deep religious belief. While some other Founding Fathers were deists, believing that God's role was limited to creating the universe, Washington was a practicing Christian who often prayed, usually privately.
Yet he did not believe that the United States was a Christian nation, writing, "All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship." He opposed religious "toleration," saying the term implied that "it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights."
Because of Washington's willingness to establish a working relationship with the British, Jefferson’s allies charged that he wanted to create something like a hereditary monarchy in the United States. Yet they could not find any evidence against him, and he had no child who might succeed him.
Washington might easily have taken more power, but he carefully avoided making his position regal and always worked closely with Congress.
He resigned as general and declined to serve more than two terms as president. When Britain’s King George III, America’s old enemy, was told that Washington would walk away from high office, he said, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
Washington has become a symbolic figure, causing us to forget him as a real person. He was a general, a president, a statesman and, above all, a great man. We should not forget that man.

Friday, February 5, 2016

The problem with impeachment: A story from Maine

Maine just experienced the nation’s latest try at impeaching the executive head of government. The matter went nowhere, because the move looked too much like politics.
Federal and state governments have shown just how hard it is to remove a chief executive. Few governors have been impeached and fewer yet removed from office.
The main basis for raising the question about Republican Gov. Paul LePage was his action to force the Good Will-Hinckley School in Fairfield to revoke its appointment of House Speaker Mark Eves, a Democrat, as its head.
While Eves has brought a civil suit against LePage, it is not clear that the governor’s threat to withhold school funding if Eves got the job was a violation of the governor’s oath of office. His action looked like a case of old-style politics.
The two most celebrated impeachments, both of presidents, were obviously more political than based on illegal actions in the performance of their duties.
In 1868, Pres. Andrew Johnson was impeached. He came within one vote of being convicted for violating an obviously unconstitutional law that would have prevented him from removing members of his own cabinet.
In 1998, Pres. Bill Clinton was impeached, but not convicted, for lying in a civil suit involving his sexual activities. The alleged offense did not relate to his official actions.
In both cases, Maine senators, in the opposition party to the presidents, nonetheless voted against conviction. They saw the basis for impeachment as weak or political, not enough to justify removal from office.
Similarly, LePage, who is held in low esteem by many in the Legislature, would have been impeached on what seemed a matter of pure politics. Because this would have been the first impeachment of a Maine governor, legislators were understandably cautious about setting a precedent.
These cases reveal how difficult it is to distinguish between a sound reason to remove a public official from office and plain politics. A few officials, including governors, have been stripped of office for taking bribes or for alcoholism that prevented them from doing their jobs. But some have been ousted as the result of political opposition.
Constitutions and laws do not define the offenses justifying removal. That can make any decision to impeach essentially a partisan move. If the opposition lacks the votes to convict and remove, it may not take the political risk connected with impeachment.
In the LePage case, Republican legislators were unlikely to vote against him, ruling out the possibility of conviction. It seemed pointless to push hard for impeachment, and a weak, face-saving motion was all that could be passed.
If Maine law had said the governor could not refuse to spend funds properly appropriated for a narrowly defined purpose, there might have been a case against LePage for threatening to withhold support for the school. But it is unlikely there are laws that strict or narrow anywhere.
Another issue, not fully pursued, related to the issuance of bonds that had passed the Legislature and been approved by Maine voters. While customarily, the governor may choose the timing of issuing bonds to catch better interest rates, that was not the case, because rates were almost zero.
LePage openly announced he was withholding the bonds, not because of the interest rate, but to pressure the Legislature to accept another of his policies. It refused to yield. And the will of the people – the sovereigns of the state – was overruled by the politics of the governor.
All laws in Maine are deemed to have been passed by the people. For voter-approved bond issues, that is not mere theory. If the Legislature focused on the governor’s refusal to issue bonds, it might have provided an interesting test in defining what constitutes an impeachable offense.
Two points arise from the lack of definition of the grounds for impeaching a governor. First, the Legislature should not simply walk away from the question, now the LePage matter is off the table. Either a legislative committee or a special body should be asked to consider possible definitions, however broad, of impeachable offenses.
Otherwise, as the LePage matter illustrated at the state level and the Clinton case showed on the federal level, impeachment, left undefined by constitutions, can be an almost useless provision or just a political ploy.
The other lesson, especially from the bond issue matter, underlines the gap existing between the people and their government. If popular votes on legislative matters may be freely ignored by elected officials, government is neither responsive nor responsible.