Friday, June 30, 2017

Can there be too much democracy? Legislators veto voters.

Is there such a thing as too much democracy?

Voters in many states are more often deciding major issues that have been dodged by state legislatures.  In Maine, three recent questions, decided by popular vote, have come under legislative review this year. 

The clash between the Legislature and voters on boosting taxes to pay for education has led to the state shutdown crisis. Voters adopted a three percent surcharge on the highest incomes to pay for an earlier referendum decision, adopted several years ago but ignored by the Legislature.  That vote set the amount of state payments to school districts for education, but it was never funded.

Republicans favor reversing the voters’ surcharge legislatively, because they oppose the tax increase.  Schools would get less than the voters intended.  Their demand to block the tax increase without making up the funding loss has been the underlying cause of the legislative deadlock.

State Supreme Court justices said that ranked-choice voting, adopted by voters, was not constitutional.  Should it be repealed or should the Constitution be amended?  The Legislature became entangled in how to deal with this complicated mess. 

The voters also set a higher minimum wage and applied it to people who usually receive tips.  After many servers expressed concern that they might receive less total income, the Legislature repealed that part of the voters’ minimum wage law. 

It’s not surprising that the use of direct votes on major issues is becoming more controversial.  Some seek to make it more difficult for citizens to place items on the ballot, the way issues like these were initiated.

In a pure or direct democracy, voters themselves make the laws.  But the U.S. is a republic, a system of representative democracy in which voters choose people who will make the laws.

About half the states allow for some direct democracy.  Voters propose laws, a process known as initiative.  Through referendums, they adopt laws or veto laws passed by state legislatures.  In almost all states, voters must approve constitutional amendments.

The Maine Legislature usually sends to referendum proposals that have been launched by initiative.  Occasionally, it also sends its own bills to voters rather than deciding the issues.

The Legislature can deal with an initiated proposal by sending its own alternative to the voters at the same time.  But it then may risk helping passage of an idea it really opposes, so it often avoids offering an alternative.

A complaint about referendums is that they oversimplify complex issues, making them yes-or-no questions.  The proposal cannot be amended or improved in the legislative process.  With political issues having become so complicated that laws may run hundreds of pages, can they be reduced to “yes” or “no?”

Because legislators may believe voters will hold them responsible for their vote on a controversial issue, their decision may boil down to a simple “yes” or “no.”  That’s easier to explain than getting into a bill’s details.  So a legislative vote may be much like a referendum.

The frequent use of referendums, as is customary in California and increasing in Maine, may strip them of their special place compared with bills passed by the Legislature. 

Questions about the role of legislators themselves may be contributing to the increased use of direct democracy.  Should they represent of the views of citizens or are they selected to exercise their own best judgment?

In famous speech in 1774, British legislator Edmund Burke told voters he would not be their representative but would use his “mature judgment” in Parliament.  He concluded, “Parliament is not a congress.”

In the U.S., some members of Congress, usually conservatives like Burke’s view.  But the U.S. has a congress, not a parliament, with a House of Representatives, which should make the intent clear.

The recent battles over the Affordable Care Act illustrate the point.  Some Republicans oppose the expansion of Medicaid, because they dislike the higher taxes on the wealthy used to support the program.  Other Republicans, notably representatives from states that have increased Medicaid, don’t want to repeal the expansion.

If state voters oppose the “mature judgment” of their representatives, even when they refrain from action, should they be able to act?  And does legislation adopted by the voters rank higher than other laws?

These issues raise the question whether legislatures should give deference to citizen-voted laws, leaving any change to a second popular vote, perhaps in a special election.  That could have avoided this year’s unfortunate legislative wars.

Or legislatures could try to be more representative, while showing the “mature judgment” to tackle tough issues.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Growing gap between rich, middle class as populism flops

The income gap between the rich and everybody else is behind the growth of populism in the U.S. and Europe, according to new political analyses.
On one side are the rich and on the other is the middle class. The poor rarely are mentioned these days, either because it is disgraceful to be poor or because government wants to cut back on helping them.
Deep political divisions are likely to be about money. Many among the rich want to keep it and get more, while everybody else treads water or falls behind. Some who are losing out have become populists, seeking political power in hopes of boosting their incomes.
Here’s an example. Unemployed coal miners support President Trump’s push to revive coal mining. It’s all about recovering jobs for miners who have lost theirs to competing resources. It’s certainly not about anybody’s preference for coal.
Complicating the split is the fact that many people who say they are in the middle class aren’t. “Stop pretending You’re Not Rich” was the title of a recent commentary by Richard Reeves in the New York Times.
Reeves grew up in class-conscious Britain but discovered classes were more firmly established in the U.S. than there. In Britain, the upper economic class flaunts their status, while in the U.S., the rich are in denial.
The wealthy are not only the now-famous top one percent who own more of the economy than the bottom 90 percent. Some high-income people who consider themselves members of the middle class are rich. They may join in blaming the superrich for income inequality, but they have gained more than the much larger, true middle class.
The rich are a self-renewing group. While the American myth is that people succeed based on merit, the rich pass on their privileged opportunity to their children. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it tends to create an upper class. They can gain access to housing and the best schools. And they can benefit from special tax breaks.
Writing in London’s Financial Times, Edward Luce carries the theme further. Somewhat surprisingly, he noted, “France has done a better job at keeping its left-behinds above water than its Anglo-Saxon rivals (U.S. and Britain).”
Working age males are more likely to find jobs in France than in the U.S. And the income gap is smaller there.
Luce’s key point is that not only do the U.S. and the U.K. have a market economy, but they also have a “market society.” We may consider that system promotes “individual freedom,” but it means people must fend for themselves. Some of the wealthy, while opposing big government, have designed it to favor their pocketbooks.
This split has spurred many of the less privileged to turn to movements promising change and the kind of policies they want. For example, they believe immigrants take good jobs, not merely entry-level positions, away from them and want it stopped.
Trump’s surprise electoral victory seemed to send the message that the ignored middle-class was on the path to power and control. The simple idea that Trump would bring change was enough to help him to win.
In Britain, anti-immigration voting led to Brexit, designed to stop immigrants from Eastern Europe. In the Netherlands and France, populists threatened to win the national elections, but failed. The tough British Conservative Party position on Brexit and government spending cost it a parliamentary majority.
Populism has tapped into a belief that government overreaches. In response, the president and the GOP Congress kill Obama’s rules on the environment and consumer protection. But Trump struggles as he finds keeping political promises is much harder than making them, even with his party controlling Congress.
In the Washington Post, Ishaan Tharoor writes that “right-wing populists” are now in retreat. They have created chaos, the columnist says, which is leading to a revival of interest in government action on the economy, aimed at reducing inequality.
In the Netherlands, France, Britain and Germany, right-wing populism has been halted or pushed back. Nowhere has it brought back the middle class, economically or politically.
Meanwhile, social democrats like Bernie Sanders in the U.S. and Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. have been expanding participation. Recently, increased support for Democratic in normally solid Republican congressional districts has raised doubts about the much-heralded populist message of the 2016 elections.
The experiment with a “market society,” with as little government as possible, is not producing the promised result of greater prosperity for all. Will the political reaction against right-wing populism taking place in Europe reach America’s shores?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

What the Georgia congressional election shows about ranked-choice voting

Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District just completed a run-off election for the vacant seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.  The record of that race reveals much relevant to the consideration of ranked-choice voting.

The first round of the election took place on April 18.  In a traditionally solidly Republican district, Democrat Jon Ossoff won 48 percent of the vote in a crowded field.  The second place finisher was Republican Karen Handel with 19 percent. 

Most of the rest of the vote was divided among other Republicans.  That’s not surprising, because they were all vying to be the GOP winner or at least the survivor getting to a run-off in the belief, correct as it turned out, that a Republican would hold the naturally GOP district.

If Georgia used the Maine system, with a plurality winner and no second round, Ossoff might have lost if the GOP had put up just one candidate, probably after holding a primary.  He might have won only if there had been a third candidate.

The total participation in the April round was 192,569.

If Georgia used ranked-choice voting, it’s also possible the Republican candidate would have won.  She might have been the second choice of all of the other Republicans, giving her 98,196 to Ossoff’s Democratic 94,201 votes, composed of his own and the second choice votes of the other Democratic voters.  (There were a handful of independent voters, so numbers don’t exactly add up.)

Handel would have had 51 percent to Ossoff’s 49 percent.

But it is also possible that, with a plethora of GOP hopefuls, Handel might not have picked up enough second choice votes to win or to win by more than a plurality.  The only way she could win a majority if she did not get all the second-choice voters she needed was to simply dump some votes and voters from the count. 

That’s how ranked-choice voting can work.  It can turn a real plurality into a phony majority by eliminating some voters.

But Georgia does not use ranked-choice voting.  In fact, no state does.  Like 10 other states, it uses a run-off.  It was held on June 20.

Handel won 52 percent of the vote and Ossoff held his 48 percent.  She won.
The number of participants was 259,486.  That’s 35 percent more than in the first round.  So much for any claim that run-offs inevitably have lower turnouts.   
Run-offs can do better for participation and democracy than ranked-choice voting.

What does Georgia show that may be relevant to Maine’s consideration of voting?

First, the plurality system may produce a different result from either a run-off or ranked choice voting.  So the threshold question is whether Mainer wants to abandon plurality elections.  That’s probably the first question that ought to be put to voters and that would require a constitutional amendment.

Second, if Maine voters want change, they should consider the widely used run-off as well as the new and untried ranked-choice voting.  After a favorable vote to amend the Constitution, they could make this choice.

Third, nobody is dropped from the voting process by the run-off system, but votes are eliminated in ranked-choice voting.

Fourth, ranked-choice voting is more costly than a run-off, according to the Secretary of State.

Fifth, the winner is selected after a clear contest between candidates by using either the plurality or the run-off, while the computer makes the choice, hidden from voters, in ranked-choice voting.  Plurality and run-offs depend on campaigns designed to convince voters not a short-cut counting system.

Finally, Mainers should avoid seeing the need for ranked-choice voting in terms of the elections of Gov. LePage or Gov. Baldacci.  Any change would last decades or centuries with unknown results.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Well-informed? Not by government, blogs, tweets

The gap between the people and their government continues to grow.  The sense that government exists to serve the people keeps eroding.

Many government leaders don't want a well-informed country, and they are supported by a new artificial media.

Last week, Sen. Angus King asked two top national intelligence officials about their conversations with President Trump.  They refused to answer, not because of legally protected presidential conversations, but because, as one said, he simply felt it would not be “appropriate.” 

King answered, “What you feel isn't relevant, admiral.”  He scolded a public official deciding on his own what was appropriate to disclose to a senator and to the citizens for whom he supposedly works.

What the admiral said was normal in Washington.  What King said was the shocker.  A senator wanting an unclassified answer from a federal employee, but greeted by a self-centered refusal, is what made news.

The exchange shows much of the business of government belongs to insiders. The people who are running the government on behalf of the public appear not to care that the survival of a true democratic system depends on an informed population. 

Nothing shows this better than the fate of “sunshine” laws adopted years ago.  In Maine, requests from the public for information that were supposed to be answered quickly, pile up for months. They should get a higher priority than the work those in charge insist on using as an excuse to delay or block answers.

Like Maine's Freedom of Access Law, the federal Freedom of Information Act is riddled with exceptions that government has given itself.  The broad reach of those laws has been whittled down by the excessive delays and myriad exceptions.

When government keeps as much as it can under wraps, leaks inevitably occur.    

Government officials don't like leaks.   They prefer to act free from public review, which might limit their actions.  They see government as being independent of citizens, and sometimes even as an adversary.

Some leaks are inevitable.  As policy is developed, those whose views are rejected seek a way to get them out to the public.  The occasional whistle blower will take the risk of leaking word of illegal or outright lying by public officials. 

Despite the certainty that there will be some leaks in a country denied much government in the sunshine, some politicians fail to adjust to reality and are ready to pursue leakers with great vigor if few results.

We have seen the curious situation of former FBI Director James Comey giving his own unclassified notes of a conversation with President Trump to a friend to reveal rather than releasing them himself.  Though that's a bit unorthodox, it not really a leak.

Trump has been angered by word filtering out about his in-house statements and activities.  Without leaks, his political vulnerability would be less.  So he attacks leaking, trying to draw attention away from the underlying issue of his policy-making by tweet.

In a way, Trump's daily tweets may be seen to make him the most open president ever.  But he also wants to completely control the discussion and disclose only what he wants public, but that policy only encourages leakers.  Trump uses Twitter, he says, because it's just like owning his own newspaper.

Ultimately, finding out about what government does not want citizens to know and helping citizens control their government depends on the media.

Much is made of the First Amendment.  But it only protects the media from government control.  Freedom of the press depends more broadly on the press itself and the public's use and defense of it.

To promote their views, Trump and friends rely on electronic media, usually blogs, that produce false news, but can easily gain visibility.  Comey's congressional testimony was twisted by one blog supporting Trump and the incorrect version gained worldwide circulation. 

His allies attack what they call the Main Stream Media, meaning newspapers and broadcasters paid to report independently.  They see the MSM as being as biased, justifying the right-wing bloggers creating their own version of the news.

Such attacks can undermine or even discredit the media.  That makes it all the more important for the MSM to do its job undeterred.  The media must find audiences and advertisers who will pay for independence, understanding that sometimes they will like the product and sometimes they won't.

The effort to keep citizens in the dark grows stronger.  In the end, it's people like Angus King or the MSM, on behalf of all citizens, that must press government to be open and responsible.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Collins should stay in Senate, not run for governor

Susan Collins, Maine’s moderate Republican in the U.S. Senate, should not run for governor in 2018. She should continue to serve in the Senate where she plays a major role for Maine and the country.

This is not a political endorsement. Right now, she is running for nothing, but serving a term that extends to 2020.

In the Senate, it often looks like Collins is the only member of the GOP moderate caucus. She represents the Maine view on issues, and her stands on principle can put her in conflict with her party’s leadership. By using old-fashioned “shunning,” they can make her pay a price for her independence.

Neither she nor Olympia Snowe, Maine's former senator and also a moderate, have had the kind of leadership roles, including committee chairs, they deserve. Too unreliably independent.

Of course, Collins must follow party leadership when she can. For example, she is a loyalist on the filibuster.

But her brand of independence and moderation is essential in a deeply polarized Congress. She has kept moderate politics legitimate in a party dominated by relentless conservatives. That has encouraged other Republicans, closet moderates, to stake out their own positions.

As the debate on a possible revision of the Affordable Care Act has shown, congressional Republican moderates have become more willing to differ from the slash-and-burn approach of House Speaker Paul Ryan.

With Bill Cassidy, the new GOP senator from Louisiana and a physician, Collins has sponsored a replacement for the Affordable Care Act that would be less threatening to those who have gained health insurance coverage under Obamacare.

Republican conservatives and Democratic liberals don’t like it. That’s a recipe for the moderates in both parties to ignore their leaders, block any extreme solution, and work together on a compromise.

It only takes a handful of senators, led by Collins and Cassidy, to produce at least some needed reform while blocking extreme solutions. Only a bipartisan deal could yield a durable solution. That has much less chance if Collins has one foot out the door.

Admittedly, the case is also strong for Collins to run for governor. First, let’s admit that if she ran, she would win. She has a formidable standing with the voters and operates at a political level well above any other possible candidate. If she announced, some other hopefuls would rush out the door.

And she may have a strong personal case for wanting to come back to the state. The stresses of being governor, particularly one capable of finding bipartisan solutions even if the Legislature were dominated by Democrats, are much less than those of being what she calls a “militant moderate” in the GOP Senate.

For one thing, she would no longer have to cater to Mitch McConnell, the mediocre GOP leader, who controls the Senate’s business. She must have been frustrated when he put together a Republican group to work on health care reform without a single woman, despite Collins’ seniority and her health care proposal.

Collins might also see the governorship as the political path to retirement. With less stress and a possible eight years in office, being governor could be a graceful departure, leaving the state in better shape than when she started.

Though she did not serve in the Maine Legislature, she knows how state government works. She headed the Department of Business Regulation, the same position as both my wife and I held, each of us under a different governor. She did an excellent job.

Maine has traditionally been a “strong governor state.” The Legislature looks to the governor for policy proposals and he (no women, yet) sets the agenda with the support of his legislative party.

Paul LePage has changed that. He offers take-it-or-leave-it proposals and seldom negotiates with the Legislature. In fact, when he makes the political debate personal, it undermines his influence, occasionally even alienating his own party.

Collins might restore the traditional role of the governor. It’s likely she could forge compromises with both parties and create a sense of good government instead of conflict.

If she stays in the Senate, as she should, the parties should not view the governorship as being so weakened that anybody could do the job. The state needs an articulate, thoughtful leader, not a political opportunist merely seeking to fill a vacuum. LePage will leave the state in need of more than routine leadership.

Collins made a deal with Maine voters to serve a six-year term in the U.S. Senate. As a person of principle, she should keep her commitment.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Trump turns page in world history: U.S. postwar leadership ends

World affairs may seem safely distant from life in a corner of the country, but events last week will affect this country for years to come.
The most powerful democracies met twice, once at a NATO summit and then at the Group of 7 leading economic powers. Among countries that count the most, only Russia and China were absent, because the two organizations consider them as adversaries.
The key event came after those meetings, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with her supporters back home. Her speech recognized a page had turned in world history.
It was a European declaration of independence. “The times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over,” she said.
“I experienced that in the last few days, and therefore I can only say we Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands, of course in friendship with the United States and in friendship with Great Britain and as good neighbors wherever it is possible, also with Russia and also with all the other countries,” she said.
“But we need to know that we have to fight for our own future and destiny as Europeans.”
Her statement reflected two major developments. The first was Brexit, the British vote to quit the European Union. The second was the rude, arrogant and ignorant behavior of President Trump last week on matters ranging from mutual defense to the environment to trade.
It also reflected a new European reality. Merkel showed strong leadership and even the opposing candidate in this fall’s German elections endorsed her position. And Emmanuel Macron, the new French president, revived hope for a recovery of leadership by his own country.
Trump had scolded sovereign nations, and literally elbowed aside the leader of another NATO member to get into his place in the front row. That’s not how one country deals with another. One result was that Macron crunched Trump’s handshake to make a political point.
If you want to receive respect, you have to give it.
Trump seems to believe that Europe and much of the rest of the world depends on the U.S., allowing him to impose his policies. Yet his “America First” approach essentially reduces this country’s influence. Other countries are beginning to realize their own abilities to operate free of U.S. leadership.
That’s a fact, so we should avoid getting defensive about it. It may be tempting to attack Merkel, because of German history six decades ago, but that hardly changes or improves a situation over which the U.S. has diminishing control.
In just four months as president, Trump has managed to bring about the kind of fundamental change he promised. The world after the Second World War, which the U.S. dominated, ended last week, and a new role for the U.S. began.
The U.S. has quit the Trans-Pacific Partnership, aimed at limiting China’s power, but the other participants proceed with it. Canada, snubbed and chided by the American president, will have a major, new trade agreement with the EU. Italy is reportedly increasing contacts with the Russians.
The American trade deficit is treated in isolation from the foreign investment flowing into the country. “Protectionism,” which had become a dirty word, is now being polished. But it is the equivalent of “isolation,” in which the U.S. may find itself adrift in the world economy.
Why should the average American care about this? Isn’t it better to put America first and stop worrying about the rest of the world?
That policy has consequences. Increasing economic isolation, behind a wall of higher trade barriers, will raise prices on most things we buy. In confronting Russia and China, the U.S. may find other countries pursing policies diverging from America’s interests.
Cooperating with allies may have seemed to be a drain on the American taxpayer, but it produced support from countries as far apart as Germany and Australia. Now, they are alienated, reducing our options and our ability to operate across the world.
Perhaps the new style of the American president is causing a needed international realignment of power. The result is already emerging – a world in which America’s dominant role is ending.
Americans believe their country is exceptional, and we are right. It has defeated threats to world peace for more than a century. At the same time, it has stood for values that others hope to achieve.
American exceptionalism depends on our respect for freedom and a system of justice under law. Leadership is not only a result of force, but of moral values. It is threatened.