Friday, February 27, 2015

Clean Bills, Poison Pills

The American public gets it.  The same American voters who replaced spineless Democrats with fire-breathing Republicans get it.  They are faulting the Republicans – the folks they just voted into majority power in both houses of Congress – for bringing government to its knees: with a shutdown of government, with a threatened default on our debt payments, and with the most recent threat not to fund the Dept. of Homeland Security.  And they are doing so even though they voted for those rascals.  Perhaps the American public really likes gridlock or brinksmanship government, perhaps they prefer do-nothing Congresses, perhaps they prefer confrontational government, it makes good theater, it IS exciting after all.

Putting aside the public’s involvement in government by crisis, there is a common denominator in all these cliff-hanger shutdowns and defaults, and that common thread is called “poison pills.”  A “poison pill” is an amendment to a “clean bill” before Congress that a) has nothing to do with the subject matter of the underlying piece of legislation being debated and voted upon and b) forces members to vote up a measure that they do not support (the poison pill amendment) in order to pass a measure that they do support (the clean bill).  A “clean bill” is, of course, a bill before Congress all of whose parts are on the same topic.   And poison pills are invariably attached to bills that have bipartisan support, like funding the military or the government as a whole.

There is an underlying cynicism at work here because the party that introduces the poison pill amendment knows from past experience that it will be blamed for the shutdown or the default, yet they go ahead anyway.  One has the sense that they believe that the American public will forget by the time the next election cycle rolls around.  And since it has been Republicans who have written all the poison pill amendments lately (yes, sure, the Democrats have done the same thing, just not recently), and they keep getting elected, maybe they are right, maybe we forget by the next election cycle.  Or maybe enough Americans think that there are more important issues than shutting down the government or defaulting on our debts.

In the end, in a democracy the people get what they want.  Or deserve.

No New Taxes

No New Taxes is a hard slogan to run an electoral campaign against.  Walter Mondale discovered that when he was honest enough to declare that new taxes were necessary.  George H W Bush, #41, raised taxes after campaigning long and hard on “read my lips, no new taxes.”  His own party fried him in Texas oil and has not forgiven him to this day.  Even without examples, it is hard to imagine anyone running a campaign asking for a tax hike.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Concealed Carry

I am not against the U.S. Constitution, I am not against the 2nd amendment’s right to keep and bear arms, I am not against gun ownership in general, but I am solidly against the push to legalize concealed carry in the country at large.

Here’s what I foresee as the result of concealed carry legislation.  All of a sudden, all those law-abiding folks packing concealed firearms will imagine everyone else with a concealed firearm.  Now I realize that that is part of their argument: no nut case will dare to do anything stupid when he could be cut down by anyone carrying a concealed firearm (of course, many if not most of the mass killings in the last fifteen years have resulted in the gun man killing himself, so it wouldn’t stop THAT kind of nut case, would it?).  But here is another way to look at it.  Every concealed carry person will imagine everyone else as carrying, and they will be at the ready, always.  And, inevitably, someone will make a movement that some concealed carry person interprets as threatening and out will come HIS firearm (or out will come THEIR firearms) and someone (or more than someONE) will get shot, by accident.  Imagine the 2012 Aurora theater shooting where 12 innocent people lost their lives (and 70 more were injured), think of all those concealed carry guys reacting swiftly to the lone gun man and everyone aiming at the original gun man, imagine the cross-fire carnage.  Worse yet, imagine YOU reacting to the gun man closest to you and how many guns will be aimed not at the original gun man but at some concealed carry owner trying to do a good deed.

So, here is what I think: let the states experiment with concealed carry, one by one, and let’s revisit the subject at a federal level in ten or so years when we have a track record of what happened where.  OK?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Citizenship Test

In my book, To My Countrymen, in the last few pages, I write these words: “If you, a native-born American, cannot pass the citizenship test that wanna-be citizens must pass, do you think that you should have the right to vote?”

Monday, February 16, 2015


It has occurred to me once or twice since publishing my book – since declaring for all time that “it is done” – that I made a mistake not to include an essay on gerrymandering.  Gerrymandering, as we all know, is the practice of state legislatures to draw Congressional districts in such a way as to maximize their majority party’s hold on Congressional seats, and on state-level representation too.  Gerrymandered states look really really strange, carving out districts one voter at a time.  Jig-saw puzzle pieces look much more regular than gerrymandered districts do.

But on further reflection, perhaps I was not wrong not to include an essay on gerrymandering.  It is easy to say that gerrymandering bestows an unfair and perhaps illegal advantage on one major party over the other; it is easy to say and it is true.  And that unfair advantage could last a decade or two decades before the other party gets the opportunity to redraw the districts in their favor.

Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution declares that Congressional districting will be drawn up by each state legislature every ten years, every Census.  The reason that our Founding Fathers, in this case the members of the Convention that drew up our U.S. Constitution, did not foresee the possibility of gerrymandering is that they believed that the document that they were producing would inhibit the growth of factions, or political parties in today’s vernacular.  They were overly optimistic, as factions (or parties) sprang up nearly immediately during George Washington’s 1st term, into Federalists (the party of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton) and Democratic Republicans (sic) (Republicans for short) (the party of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison).  They were optimistic and they were wrong.  So we are left with Congressional districts in every state being drawn up by the majority party in each state’s legislatures.  Not a good thing (if you believe that gerrymandering will always advantage YOUR party, maybe you think it is a good thing).

So, why do I now believe that it was NOT a mistake for me NOT to include an essay on gerrymandering in my book?  Because gerrymandering is an artifact of Winner-Take-All voting.  Winner-Take-All voting gives the victory to the candidate with the most votes, a plurality of votes, even if he fails to win a majority of votes.  Thus, a candidate who wins 35% of the total vote, whose opponents win 33% and 32% of the vote, wins a Winner-Take-All election, even though he is far from achieving a majority of the votes cast.  My book’s essay on Instant Runoff Voting addresses that issue.  Substitute Instant Runoff Voting for Winner-Take-All voting and the problem of gerrymandering dies a slow death.

For those who insist on understanding WHY Instant Runoff Voting undercuts gerrymandering, consider.  The technique of gerrymandering is to draw districts of two kinds: you draw districts that are nearly 100% made up of registered voters of the OTHER – the minority – party, and you draw districts that are relatively safe (like 55% - 45%) for your own majority party.  That way you maximize the number of districts that your party will win, even if your party fails to win a majority of the state’s Congressional votes.  Once you add viable third- and fourth-party candidates to the mix with Instant Runoff Voting, even Nate Silver (the most eminent political statistician of our time) would not be able to draw a gerrymandered map that would guarantee majority party rule for a decade.  So, forget gerrymandering, invest your time on instituting Instant Runoff Voting!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

TPP - Trans Pacific Partnership

The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP for short) has been on my mind these past few days and weeks.  It is a “free-trade” agreement that President Obama wants to be part of his legacy.  The reason that I have not written about it before now is that it may be a tempest in a teapot, no big deal.  The immediate problem is that the terms of the agreement are still shrouded in secrecy.  Which may make sense as all its details have not been hammered out yet.  Perhaps it makes no sense to see what an agreement says while it is still being debated and written.  Which means, I guess, that I am not rationally concerned with its secrecy.  That is, as long as what it says is not yet writ in stone.  The U.S. Constitution was a secret until it was ready to be published and ratified.

Nonetheless, the TPP is a real political issue.  Partly because it is secret so far (see above), partly because what has been leaked (and all leaks are “unofficial” and often unreliable) is really really bad, and partly because we DO know that the President wants to “fast track” it when it is ready to be considered by Congress and voted on.  Fast track seems to mean Congress has 90 days in which to debate the agreement and no permission to introduce any amendments.  The no amendment part sounds conspiratorial and downright evil.  But imagine the chaos if Congress amended it: it would have to go back to the trade negotiators who would alter it again and then back to Congress, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.  When the U.S. Constitution was being considered for ratification by the states, no amendments were allowed for the same reason: it would go back and forth between all the states and the Constitutional Convention forever.  In addition, a Yes to ratification did not mean the written Constitution was perfect, but it DID mean that none of it, not one small piece, was a real problem.  Similarly, a Yes to pass TPP will mean that there is nothing in it that does not pass muster.  As to limiting debate to 90 days, that seems long enough to me to debate a bill that won't be bothered by amendments.   So, I guess I have no serious reservations about Fast Track, as 90 days seems slow enough to me.