Friday, April 28, 2017

Is the press biased? Editorial views can influence news coverage

A couple of weeks ago, an election was held to fill a vacancy in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. The seat had been held by the Republicans since 1979, and pundits saw this election as a key test of President Trump’s popularity and its effect on GOP candidates.
The election could be settled if a single candidate out of the 18 running received more than 50 percent of the vote. Otherwise, there would be a runoff on June 20 between the top two vote getters.
The Democratic candidate received a bit more than 48 percent, far more than any other candidate, but not enough to avoid a runoff.
For the Democrats, it was a victory, but bittersweet for failing to send a strong message about Trump’s declining popularity. For the Republicans, it was a near miss, but one which could well be reversed in the runoff.
Here are the headlines of news reports, not editorial comment, about this election in several major national media outlets.
Washington Post: “Republicans avoid big loss by forcing runoff in Georgia House race.”
New York Times: “Democrat just misses victory in Georgia House race.”
Wall Street Journal: “Democrats falter in bid for outright win in Georgia House race.”
Associated Press: “Georgia House race to high-stakes runoff as Trump wades in.”
The Washington Post and the New York Times editorial pages strongly oppose Trump and generally support Democrats. In contrast, while the Wall Street Journal seems lukewarm about Trump, it is faithful to GOP conservatism. The Associated Press provides news reports to media of all political stripes.
From these headlines, it seems clear that a newspaper’s editorial stance can influence the slant it puts on a news story.
Readers can get the message. If you support the Republicans, you can easily see the New York Times headline as coming from the opposition. Because of that newspaper’s standing in the media main stream, it becomes ripe for attack by conservatives who believe most such newspapers are biased against them.
This sense of alienation from what some conservatives call the “lame stream” media has helped promote openly conservative and right wing resources like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. They are safe and comfortable havens from what is seen as a biased main stream.
With each side having its own preferred media outlets, while spurning the others, the political gap deepens. Each side believes it has the facts right, while the opposition distorts the truth.
This is not so much a question of so-called “alternative” facts as it is a matter of selective coverage. Of course, there’s a certain amount of downright fabrication on the right and unbalanced consideration of opposition views on the left. The result can lead to the conclusion there’s much “fake news.”
The harm of inherent bias is considerable, because a free and fair media is essential to the American system. If the people rule, they must be informed to make good judgments. They cannot depend on government, which is often not responsible to the public. Instead, they must depend on the media to inform them and convey their views.
Trump dismisses interest in his tax returns and says only the media, apparently a minor player in his view, seeks them. Not only do the polls show he is wrong, but the media represents that public interest. The media is not an end in itself, but is the public’s path to participation in the political process outside of elections.
A recent example, not involving government, demonstrates the power of a free media. The New York Times revealed that Fox and Bill O’Reilly, its star personality, had paid $13 million to settle complaints of sexual harassment by O’Reilly.
Fox had not fired him, despite these payouts. It fired him only when the complaints were made public in the media. The media forced Fox to honor what it called its “consistent commitment to fostering a work environment built on the values of trust and respect.” Where was that “commitment” before the Times’ revelations?
The problems with news bias may explain the relative success of local newspapers compared with some major papers. Local outlets focus mainly on covering local news for people who may have no other reliable source.
Of course, local papers may reveal bias, but they are more likely to recognize their survival depends on fair reporting for all readers, regardless of ideology.
In the end, readers and viewers have their own responsibility to keep open and critical minds when reading or watching the news.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Democrats, depending on Trump's errors, risk overconfidence

The Democrats may be making a serious mistake.

In planning for the 2018 and 2020 campaigns, they could be counting on President Trump's unpopularity to allow the elections to fall into their laps. Good showings in special House elections, like this week in Georgia, might encourage this way of thinking.

Many Democrats and probably Hillary Clinton herself thought that voters' dislike of Trump would be sufficient to hand them victory in 2016.

They suffered from a dangerous kind of political myopia. They thought everybody or at least a majority shared their view of Trump’s values and behavior. A majority of voters did, but they were concentrated in only 20 states, not enough for an electoral vote victory. Have they learned their lesson?

Democrats see Trump as incompetent, with major conflicts of interest, lacking knowledge of government, and beholden to the extreme right. After making extravagant promises on health care, he had no proposal, and the GOP proposal flopped. In foreign policy, he flirts with danger and is highly inconsistent.

His supporters have not melted away because of such concerns, which many do not share. They see him as different from traditional politicians, trying to keep his promises and getting tough with the world. His exaggerations and inaccuracies don't bother them. Their continuing support is a sign that he won't self-destruct.

For many, Washington is still “the swamp.” Trump is struggling against being sucked in. He is slowly learning that he cannot drain it simply by virtue of having won the election, but he hasn't given up.

In their apparent belief that Trump is doomed to fail, congressional Democrats seem content to oppose the GOP and stick to their traditional policy proposals. But voters are now completely jaded by political promises that are not kept. As Bernie Sanders and Trump showed, voters want change.

Next year, the Democrats face a major challenge. They need to pick up 24 seats to control the House. Although the opposition party to the president traditionally gains seats in the next elections, that's a long hill to climb.

Democrats hold 20 of the 33 Senate seats to be contested, meaning they would have keep all of them and pick up three of the GOP's seats for a majority. That would take an almost unprecedented reversal of Democratic fortunes.

In February, the Democrats supposedly started out fresh. They struggled to decide if the Sanders or the Clinton wing would control and finally picked a new chairman. But there are still no signs of a positive, new message from the party, beyond opposing Trump.

Looking at the Democratic Party’s official website, it is about organizational matters and insider issues. There is nothing there for the independent voter or disgruntled Republicans. Next year, there may be nothing more than a decentralized array of candidate proposals.

The alternative to a policy of coasting and hoping would be to draft a clear statement of party policy and get it out to the public. Of course, organizing work needs to be done as well, but with the next elections about 19 months away, the Democrats need to be making their case now. And it needs to be more than anti-Trump.

New party chair Tom Perez should swiftly move to end any rifts between Sanders and Clinton supporters. This is a critical need for a party that, given its fallen status, cannot afford to be divided.

The Republicans found a form of self-discipline was a major factor in their transformation from a minority party to majority control. Their party discipline and the “Contract with America,” which could be written on one side of a piece of paper, were effective tools in communicating a simple message to voters.

Not only do the Democrats need to get on with writing a bold, new statement of their values and goals, but they need to be working hard at all levels to find ways to get more voters to the polls and to identify appealing new candidates.

Merely leaving these tasks to a decentralized and often lackluster effort by the states will not produce the kind of results necessary for a reversal in the course of American politics.

The challenge for the Democrats is to take a leaf from the GOP playbook and abandon business as usual. Depending on Trump alone to create more Democrats won’t work.

The country needs a vigorous two-party system to produce the kind of government based on compromise that people want. From a position of strength, the Democrats have a better chance of forcing such compromise than they have now.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Trump, Maine Dems would use projected revenues to pay real costs

President Trump and Maine Democrats have something in common. Their initial budget proposals count on future revenues to cover current costs.

Trump has not yet unveiled his full budget. But he has announced agency budget cuts and “massive” tax cuts that will not raise the federal debt.

He forecasts four percent economic growth, which will provide sufficient new tax revenues. The strong gains would result from growth prompted by less regulation.

The tax cuts would be permanent, but there’s no way of knowing if his projected revenue boost would materialize or last over time.

The level of economic growth Trump projects may occur in new economies, especially in low-income, resource-rich developing countries. In a huge, mature economy like in the U.S., the added activity to create that amount of growth is not possible, and it has no precedent.

In fact, the U.S. would be doing quite well if it could sustain growth at two percent, half Trump’s forecast, for an extended period. The country may hit that rate in any given quarter, but maintaining it indefinitely may be out of reach.

An economy may boom for a short while, but sustaining long-term high growth cannot be expected. How, then, does a country cover lost revenues or increased spending when the boom tapers off or when the country faces unexpected challenges requiring it to make unexpected expenditures?

In the future, as revenues fail to achieve their forecast levels, some spending, already reduced, would have to be cut even more. The only other alternative is to raise taxes to keep the federal government operating.

Just as more deficits leading to more debt pushes the cost of government into the future to be paid by the children and grandchildren of today’s taxpayers, so does funding current spending and tax cuts by projected future gains in government tax revenues.

Not only is it unlikely those revenue gains will materialize, but it is virtually certain they would not last at a sustained high level. But the spending will have taken place and the tax cuts will have been made permanent.

So Trump can look good now by cutting taxes and promising huge spending on roads, bridges and other infrastructure, but the bill will come due under a later president who will face the unenviable task of raising taxes. It’s paying for today’s costs by smoke that hides the price that others will pay.

Meanwhile, Maine Democrats have issued their budget priorities, not a full budget. They propose to pay the 55 percent of school costs voted by referendum, increase municipal revenue sharing and recover some lost public health nurse positions. Their proposal is being sold as a major property tax break.

Some of the costs would be covered by the tax increase on the wealthy voted by referendum last year. Some funds would come from the sales tax that Amazon will begin collecting in Maine to pay the state. And some will come from a tax on recreational marijuana.

The Democrats also propose bond issues for capital costs. While that may make sense, they do not include the cost of debt service in their proposal, at least as circulated.

But the largest chunk of money to cover proposed costs will come from added tax revenues, a forecast based on the state’s economic growth. While all of the new costs proposed by the Democrats are meant to be permanent, the higher tax take, even if it really happens, offers no certainty of being as permanent.

What happens to the big property tax break when the economy slows down? Either it begins to melt away or revenues have to be found in the form of an income tax increase. So today’s spending would have to be paid in part by tomorrow’s taxpayers.

It’s likely that neither Trump nor the Maine Democrats will succeed. Both would need the support of their political opponents. Both face special interests. The real issue is whether the end result will depend on forecasted revenues, less ambitious spending or higher taxes.

The problem is not Trump or the Democrats. We like what government can do for us, but we dislike paying more taxes. The current proposals shift the “paying” part to an optimistic view of future revenues or to future generations.

Politicians make budget-making look like magic: you get something without paying for it.

It’s not magic. Somebody pays, probably later and more.

Political leadership should make clear that what we want now, we should pay for – now. That would be responsible budgeting, which requires political courage.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Much ado about a filibuster -- the confirmation of Gorsuch

Much anguish has surrounded the Senate vote to confirm Neil Gorsuch as a new Supreme Court justice. Democrats denied the ruling Republicans enough votes to cut off debate. The Republicans were faced with the need to lower the 60-vote debate-ending requirement to a simple majority. By themselves, they have the votes for that.

One Republican senator said that Alexander Hamilton would roll in his grave if he knew that it was becoming easier to end debate on Supreme Court appointments. That’s not true.

The Constitution specifies a few times when a Senate vote by more than a simple majority is required. Confirming people to any federal office is not one of those situations.

A “filibuster” is endless debate. “Cloture” is the vote the end a filibuster, cutting off debate.

Blocking a majority vote by use of the filibuster rule was not foreseen when the Constitution was written. Changing Senate rules to require more than a simple majority for cloture changes the constitutional intent.

From 1789 until 1917, there was no way to break a filibuster. A way to end debate was needed, so first two-thirds and later 60 percent of the senators was required for cloture. The real filibuster talk-a-thon was used only once a year by southern senators opposing a civil rights bill.

In recent years, the Republicans began using cloture for virtually all bills. When in the minority, they could block any legislation by simply denying a 60-vote majority to end debate. A few years ago, the Democrats, then in control, eliminated the supermajority for many of President Obama’s appointments that otherwise were stymied.

Obama was able to get many court vacancies filled, because the GOP could no longer block them. But the filibuster rule was left in place for the Supreme Court.

Without a supermajority requirement, which gives the minority the power to block majority rule, the party controlling the Senate can do whatever it wants. As voters, the people are supposed to be worried about majority rule even if the Founders of the country were not.

Political writers and senators have been anguished over the end of the supermajority for confirming Supreme Court nominees. They prefer the unconstitutional requirement of a special vote. They lose sight entirely of whether the filibuster is wrong and focus more on how its loss might affect their political interests.

The filibuster is a way the Senate can ignore the voters’ decision in an election. The voters picked President Trump, so he gets to make the appointments with a Republican Senate. Should the Democrats be able to block them because they can prevent a supermajority?

It’s possible that, without the supermajority, voters would be more aware that they were choosing not only the president but also judges. Right now, judicial appointments get little attention.

Senate Republicans have been claiming the Democrats are trying to change the system, while GOP senators are guiltless defenders of the proper way of conducting Senate business. But their hands are stained by their own past action, which has stimulated the Democratic response.

Obama nominated Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, a judge every bit as solid as Gorsuch, to fill a vacancy. Controlling the Senate, the Republicans refused to even talk with Garland, much less give him a public hearing.

The GOP senators claimed that, because Obama was in the last year of his term, the appointment should wait until after the elections, That approach has never been used in American history. A president is elected for a full four years and ought to be able to make nominations that are carefully considered, even in the last year of the term.

The Democrats approved a fourth-year nominee of GOP President Reagan. But last year, the Republicans would not even consider – or talk to – Obama’s pick. After the normal hearings, they could have voted against him. They could have even used the filibuster rule to prevent his confirmation.

We also hear that ending the supermajority for appointments will change the American political system “forever.” But, in American history, we have had periods with no cloture, a two-thirds requirement, a 60-vote requirement and, now, the 60-vote rule for only certain matters. That certainly does not suggest that changes last forever.

What some supermajority supporters really mean is that it pastes a patch over the deep divide between the parties in Washington. Without it, partisan warfare will only get worse.

Just how much worse does it have to get? This unconstitutional patch is really a fig leaf over a crisis of partisanship that must come to an end.