The Disillusioned Citizen’s Guide to Fixing America

Written by: Michael Baharaeen and Connor Stangler

Too often our statesmen do not act like statesmen. Too often their response to our most pressing questions of life and liberty is to dig the trenches of partisanship even deeper. Though we recognize that politics takes places in the arena of the partisan, we hope for compromise, collaboration, and ideal representativeness. We hope that money wields less sway in elections and voters more. We hope that majorities use political advantage for the citizens’ advantage. We hope that power breeds civil responsibility and not more power. Today, the pointlessness of that hope prevails.

So we offer an antidote. We present a four-part series on practical government reforms: Congressional, electoral, campaign finance, and democratic. We direct this series at those who are most disillusioned, those who no longer believe they live and work in a republic of efficacy but in a republic of discord.  We seek to fix the system, not escape it. We agree with former U.S. Congressmen Mickey Edwards that we want “people, not parties” to run our nation. And we agree with President Franklin D. Roosevelt that “government is ourselves and not an alien power.” Here then are our suggestions to make government less alien and more our own.

Part 1: Congressional and Procedural Reforms

Amendment and Debate 

Current congressional practice gives the minority party little procedural influence, with the majority party controlling the flow of debate and the ability to introduce amendments. This practice is known as using “closed” rules. We would propose allowing any elected official to offer amendments and with rare exceptions put said amendments to a vote. If an amendment has substantial support — i.e. it meets a certain threshold of co-sponsors — it will be given an up-or-down vote on the House floor. Prohibiting closed procedures on the House floor, which preclude any minority amendments, would give the minority a greater chance to have their voices heard. To prevent procedural abuse — i.e. indefinitely offering amendments to stall the advancement of a bill — the House can create its own rules to expedite debate and bring the issue to vote, such as passing a bill with a 2/3 majority.

Leadership Structure of Congressional Committees

Congressional committees currently operate with a chairman from the majority party and a ranking member from the minority party. However, the scope of the ranking member’s position is fairly limited. An easy modification would be to require that each committee have a chairman from the majority and a vice chairman from the minority. The vice chairman would be allowed to bring bills forward and invite expert witnesses to hearings in the same manner as the chairman. In the chairman’s absence, however, another member of his or her party would ascend to the chairmanship, and not the vice chair.

Selecting Committee Staff

When one of the two parties wins a majority, its members fill the committee’s leadership positions. In addition, these new members are allowed to hand-pick their own staff. These individuals are typically from the same party. This practice fosters the proliferation of biased information and heavily partisan reports that are presented to the committee chairman. We recommend that committee staff be chosen solely on the basis of professional qualifications. This change would allow for more equitable and bipartisan fact and report gathering.

Fostering Increased Congressional Camaraderie

Prior to 1994, Congressmen would attend dinners and informal meetings with members of the other party. The subsequent relationships were vital to the process of politics as the art of compromise. Members felt less inclined to attack one another and more willing to work cooperatively with others. With the ascension of Newt Gingrich to the House Speakership in the ’94 midterms, however, members were strongly encouraged to return home to their districts when they did not have Congressional business in Washington. Our recommendation would be to require that legislators remain in Washington when Congress is in session and use their time out of session to interact with constituents. While there is merit in increased contact between the voter and his or her representative, the absence of strong bonds between members of Congress has led to higher rates of character attacks and less room for compromise.

Reforming the Capitol Hill to K Street “Revolving Door” 

Recently, the former notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff wrote a book detailing his actions during his tenure as a lobbyist. He and his colleagues would visit Congressional offices and offer staffers positions in their company after they (the staffers or politicians) were done working on the Hill. At that point, his firm “owned” them. The staffers would not only do everything his firm requested, but they would actively seek out ways to further promote the interests of the firm that lobbyists couldn’t even think of.

The problem is that this practice is completely legal. In fact, K Street lobbying firms have recently developed “rosters” of Congressional officials who will be retiring in 2012. These rosters target officials who would be the most valuable addition to their firms. We recommend that Congress pass a law prohibiting elected officials or staffers from taking lobbyist positions for at least a year upon leaving office. This may give Hill workers less of an incentive to actively seek favors for lobbyists during their tenures.

Congressional Redistricting

Since the 2010 midterms and census, we’ve seen a lot of newly formed Republican state legislatures that are intent on redrawing Congressional districts that favor their party. As former Republican Congressman Edwards indicates, his district was gerrymandered in such a way to favor Democrats in surrounding districts. The problem that arose was that he was not representing a familiar constituency. While he was from the suburbs, his new district encompassed much of the countryside. In contrast, Congressmen who resided in the country were now representing urban districts. What results is that district boundaries are drawn along partisan lines rather than conventional demographic or geographical lines that would be derived from a nonpartisan redistricting process. Our recommendation would be for states to use independent commissions during the redistricting process. Thirteen states have adopted this practice, such as California.

The Filibuster 

Though many of our prescriptions have addressed the potential problems of an overpowering majority, there is one area of Congressional politics regarding the minority party that deserves contemplation. One current Senate practice that has severely inhibited the legislative process is the filibuster. This mechanism was initially intended to give minority voices a chance to forestall a piece of legislation if they had serious concerns. The only way to override a filibuster is with a 60-vote majority.

These rules, while at times used for good intentions, have been unnecessarily abused. The rule is no longer an honorable counter-majoritarian tool; it has transformed the Senate into political theater and rendered Congress impotent in the minds of the voters. For example, today’s Republican Party, which is staunchly opposed to helping the Obama Administration pursue its goals, routinely filibusters appointments, leaving several agencies without key leaders and officials. They have the power, if they don’t want the President’s initiatives to move forward, to block every single piece of proposed legislation. At that point there is little use in paying them for a job that consists of unproductive opposition.

We would propose that the Senate hold hearings and meetings on reforming the rule so that it could still be a valuable tool for the minority and not something that could be so easily abused. The filibuster remains as one of the few options for the minority to have their voice heard. Our goal is simply to ensure that it does not completely stall the legislative process but is rather used to voice serious concerns that a Senator may want to raise.

The foregoing recommendations should be easy fixes or, in the very least, noncontroversial items for discussion. Our ideas know no partisan ideology. As we continue our blog series, it is our hope that individuals of all political stripes will take heed of these suggestions with an open mind and that each proposal will be weighed on its intrinsic merits, without being observed through a veil of preconceived ideological standards.

The Regulation Red Herring

Written by: Matt Seyer

When we check up on our economic progress, we find that the situation still isn’t all that great.  Unemployment is holding steady at around 9%.  Jobs are still not being added at a satisfying rate.  Although President Obama’s policies have made some gains, the recovery has been slow and at times stagnant, while the nation steadily grows more and more impatient.  Conservatives are quick to jump on this, claiming that President Obama’s strategies have failed.  They even go so far as to pinpoint the reason(s) why – they work hard to persuade Americans that government regulation is at fault for the slow pace of domestic job creation. This is clearly a straw man set up to pull our attention away from the fact that they have no credible strategy of their own to boost employment.  This straw man additionally serves to distract us from their opposition to the American Jobs Act, which independent economists say will create as many as 1.9 million jobs.

Thankfully, the more conservatives push this idea, the more it is scrutinized, and the results don’t bode well for them.  Over the past several weeks, numerous reports from official government agencies, nonpartisan think tanks, and even national media outlets expose this antiregulatory agenda for exactly what it is – baseless nonsense

Here’s a quick reading list on the evidence:

U.S. Department of Treasury: “Exposing the uncertainty canard

Bureau of Labor Statistics: “Employers say regulation does not cause job losses

Bloomberg: “Fewer new regulations under Obama than under Bush

The Washington Post: “Economists say regulation doesn’t cause job losses, even in high-polluting industries

The New York Times Economix Blog: “Misrepresentations, Regulations and Jobs

Slate Magazine: “Permission to Pollute

Economic Policy Institute: “Regulatory uncertainty: A phony explanation for our jobs problem

Sources:

http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0911/63069.html

Working Hard or Hardly Working?

Written by: Matt Seyer

[This blog was written last semester, yet the College Democrats still feel it is applicable to current events.]

Not long ago, the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives voted on a bill to reaffirm “In God We Trust” as the official motto of the United States.  Not surprisingly, it passed overwhelmingly (396-9).  It’s puzzling as to why they chose to do this.  The motto has not been in any particular danger; we’re not observing any kind of massive movement to eliminate it.  So far as I know, there is only one non-religious Congressman, and he hasn’t been making much of a fuss over this specific issue.  Furthermore, it was a House Concurrent Resolution, which does not have the force of law, but rather expresses an attitude or opinion of the legislature.  Consequently, regardless of any perceived threat, the entire procedure was completely pointless in a legal sense.

Thankfully, this Resolution comes to us at a time when unemployment is at its lowest in decades, Social Security has been saved for the next hundred years, and the debt crisis has been decidedly solved.  We have plenty of time to devote to renewing the wedding vows between America and God, to paraphrase Jon Stewart.

This really isn’t the case, though, is it?  In reality, there are many problems far more deserving of Congress’s attention.  This Resolution isn’t all that astonishing – frankly, much of what the Republican-controlled House has been doing these last few months has been pretty anti-reality.  It is, however, offensive and irresponsible to devote any time whatsoever to this topic in the midst of all our national concerns.

But while we’re on the subject, let’s be clear.  This law, the law which declares that “In God We Trust” is our national motto, is an absolute violation of the First Amendment.  That amendment states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

There are many instances in which the interpretation of this simple statement is murky, but this is not one of them.  A law stating that the official motto of this country is a religious one is plainly a law about the establishment of religion.  It is putting a religious belief above non-religion, and it is putting a monotheistic belief above polytheism and pantheism.  I’m sure many Americans find non-belief unsettling, polytheism irrelevant, and pantheism silly.  It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that this law violates the Establishment Clause.

Several dissenters in the House echo my sentiments:

“For more than 50 years, the National Motto has been the law of the land.  While some have questioned its constitutionality, none of these challenges has succeeded.  We wonder, therefore, why the Majority believes this precatory intervention by Congress is so necessary.”

“By aggressively pursuing a vehicle that places the government in the position of making an affirmatively religious statement, the Majority has transgressed the clear line between government and religion in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

Beyond the constitutionality of the law, this most recent surge of religious sentiment in politics is bizarre in another sense.  It’s as though Republicans believe that if they slap “In God We Trust” on as many public buildings as possible, the country will be more religious.  This is akin to someone believing that if they say, “I can fly,” to themselves enough times, they will be able to do so.  The only Republican to vote no on the Resolution, Rep. Justin Amash, said this:

“The fear that unless ‘In God We Trust’ is displayed throughout the government, Americans will somehow lose their faith in God is a dim view of the profound religious convictions many citizens have. Trying to score political points with unnecessary resolutions should not be Congress’s priority.”

Rep. Amash gets it.  He understands the danger that mere sloganeering presents to authentic faith and the offensiveness of the political manipulation of religion.  Confusingly, the House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, very much understands the frivolity of such action.  At least, he used to.  It was just about a year ago that Cantor blasted symbolic resolutions as a waste of Congress’s time.

This Resolution was a fool’s errand from the start.  The Republican-controlled House should be putting all its efforts towards coming up with realistic solutions to our problems.  They are instead taking a moment to not only belittle the genuine faith of many Americans by unnecessarily trumpeting religion but also to reaffirm a fundamentally unconstitutional law.  There is simply no justifiable reason to have done this, and the fact that so many thought it was a good expenditure of time, and that so many signed it, is a saddening notion indeed.

Sources:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/in-god-we-trust-house-re-affirms-national-motto–yet-again/2011/11/02/gIQAiZRWfM_story.html?hpid=z4

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-november-3-2011/men-not-at-work?xrs=synd_facebook&fb_source=message

http://firstread.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/11/01/8582914-house-to-vote-on-making-in-god-we-trust-nations-motto

http://www.speaker.gov/Blog/Default.aspx?postid=214712

The Occupy Movement 75 Days Later

Written by: Josh Atchley

The Occupy Wall Street movement which began in mid-September of last year drew international attention for its large number of supporters, message challenging financial institutions, and its influence on creating similar protests in cities around America: DC, Oakland, and even good ol’ Springfield, Missouri.

Two months later, the NYPD cracked down on OWS in a daring night raid on Zucotti Park. Many said that the movement would never die out, and that they would simply move on to another location to restart their movement in earnest.

In reality though, ever since that day, the Occupy movement has faded from the media. With the National Defense Authorization Act, the Stop Online Piracy Act, and the Protection of Intellectual Property Act taking the stage, the woes of the Occupy protestors seemed less pressing and relevant than they once had.

However, smaller satellite movements still exist around the country. The one currently receiving the most attention is Occupy Oakland, where accusations of police brutality have been making headlines. Perhaps more resilient than the original OWS protest, it has survived multiple police raids and attempts at shutting the movement down.

Does this mean that the conservative pundits were right in saying that the Occupy movement was a fleeting, temporary thing? Perhaps. The Occupy protests have not been particularly relevant or active as of late, and the issues they were drawing attention to have not been at the forefront of the public eye. I feel as though by not forming a cohesive movement with structure, leadership and goals, they have doomed themselves to irrelevancy. It may be up to Oakland now to decide the future of Occupy, as it is the most active community.

Even if the movement does fade, I believe that the national political awakening it brought to America will not be soon forgotten. The legislative challenges that we have faced head on and defeated since then, most notably SOPA, probably could not have been achieved without the wake-up call from OWS. It’s heartening to see that we Americans are still willing to fight for our freedoms and personal liberties, despite what the government may think.

Breaking News: New York Is Not On Fire!

Written by: Matt Seyer

“When I first saw everything intact and functional, I must admit I was pretty surprised,” the survivalist tells me. “Don’t get me wrong, the societal chaos that we’ve brought upon ourselves will happen soon enough. I was just surprised that it was taking so long,” he adds before disappearing back into his bunker.

It’s been a few months since New York passed the Marriage Equality Act, which legalized same-sex marriage in that state. Ever since the MEA passed, there have been reports of widespread disappearances in New York. In many cases, whole families have gone missing. This befuddled investigators until recently, when they discovered that nearly all of these people were actually in hiding. The missing folks, now more aptly referred to as survivalists, calmly explained that they were riding out the storm that was bound to occur when gay marriage was legalized. New York police said that this was all they could get out of the survivalists before their wide eyes disappeared behind meter-thick steel doors.

This explanation has puzzled nearly every rational person who has heard it. Lately, survivalists have begun to come out in droves. Granted, the majority of them, like the anonymous one mentioned above, are simply poking their heads out to check the temperature before returning to their secure underground shelters. Others were genuinely shocked to discover that New York wasn’t literally on fire. I spent a day grabbing quick comments from some of them.

“When I heard they legalized ‘gay marriage’,” said one, deliberately making the two-fingered quote sign as he spoke, “I broke down and wept. The terrorists had finally won. After I regained control of my emotions, I made my way to my retrofitted bomb shelter, and that’s where I’m staying until someone tells me the law is overturned. Or, you know, until the next Call of Duty comes out.”

“Just wait, soon locusts and frogs will pour over the state,” said another. “It’s only a matter of time before we receive divine punishment for this travesty. It’ll be worse than the divine punishment we got for eating shrimp and for working on the Sabbath.”

“Have they begun marrying people and pigs?” asked a third, with every indication of being serious. “Trust me, it’ll happen eventually. That’s what you get for letting two consenting adults of the same sex enter a legal agreement: friggin’ pandemonium.”

“Hold up, you mean the stock market didn’t crash?” asked a confused fourth. “I thought for sure that this law would lead to a global financial meltdown. Huh, what do you know?”

“I keep looking through my periscope to see if pigs start flying,” said a fifth. “No luck yet, but my mother always said this law would pass ‘when pigs fly.’ So I’ll just keep checking. By the way, who won the World Series?”

“It’s been pretty rough,” said a haggard sixth. “Angry Birds and Tiny Wings are starting to get a little old. But I’d much rather hang out here where the gays can’t infect me with their gayness.”

“My only comfort is that the sacred institution of marriage is still safe elsewhere,” said a relieved seventh. “Kim Kardashian’s marriage is a perfect example of how precious marriage really is.”

One survivalist even invited me to see the inside of his shelter. It was a sturdy setup, with lots of sandbags and canned food items. On every wall there was a large poster; white, with black quotation marks at the top and bottom. I asked what these posters were.

“They’re my favorite quotes from Jesus about gay marriage and homosexuality,” he replied matter-of-factly. “This one is great for its common sense,” he said, pointing to one of the completely blank posters. “But this one here is a real gem. It’s the whole reason I’m here,” he adds, gesturing toward another completely blank poster on the opposite wall.

Oddly enough, not all of the survivalists I encountered were reacting to the MEA. Some were old-timers who’d been in hiding since 1967. One described for me her decision to go underground:

“I said to them back then, I said, ‘This will lead to legalized bestiality! It’ll corrupt the sacred institution of marriage! It’s unnatural! You can’t have a normal family with it!’ And everyone thought I was crazy for thinking what I think about blacks and whites getting married. Just look at the country now! I told you so!”

I went home that day confused, disoriented, and anxious. What if these people were right? What if people started spontaneously combusting in the streets of New York City? What if I picked up the New York Times to see the headline, “Man-Giraffe Marriage Legalized?” What if New York society truly was on the brink of oblivion? Then Conan came on, and the rabid crazies I met that day quickly slipped from my thoughts. Meanwhile, New York continued to chug along, undeterred.

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An Introduction to Dan Kahan

Written by: Matt Seyer

The ideological split on climate change has long been a point of intense frustration for me.  It bewilders me that in the presence of such overwhelming evidence and widespread scientific consensus, people will still wind up on the wrong side, taking the scientifically inaccurate view.  I’ve usually chalked it up to not being exposed to the right studies or to the proper news sources.  Perhaps these people are being intentionally lied to.  Maybe they’re turning a blind eye to anything that stirs up cognitive dissonance.

It’s very easy to point fingers.  It’s much more difficult to actually try to explain such phenomena.  There is a growing body of work which suggests that ordinary citizens react to scientific evidence on public risks in ways that favor their specific cultural group.  People support whichever position strengthens their ties to others with whom they share important commitments.  As a result, public debate about science is badly polarized.  The same groups who disagree on ‘cultural issues’ – abortion, same-sex marriage and school prayer – also disagree on whether climate change is real and on whether underground disposal of nuclear waste is safe.

Dan Kahan, Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law at Yale Law School, is a leader in the field of cultural cognition (referred to above), a term he coined.  Kahan’s research is fascinating, insightful, and important.  Rather than attempt to summarize it and consequently shortchange his ideas, I’ll let him summarize it for you.  Follow the link to his short piece describing his work and its results, along with his proposed strategy of effective science communication for President Obama.

A quick blurb:

“When our leaders talk about risk, they convey information not only about what the scientific facts are but also what it means, culturally, to take stances on those facts. They must therefore take the utmost care to avoid framing issues in a manner that creates the sort of toxic deliberative environment in which citizens perceive that the positions they adopt are tests of loyalty to one or another side in a contest for cultural dominance.

Where, as is true in the global warming debate, citizens find themselves choking in a climate already polluted with such resonances, then leaders and public spirited citizens must strive to clean things up—by creating an alternative set of cultural meanings that don’t variously affirm and threaten different groups’ identities.”

Science Communication Isn’t Soulcraft (Or Shouldn’t Be)

Thoughts from Matt

Written by: Matt Seyer

Rick Perry’s campaign recently made what I perceive to be a last ditch effort to revitalize the Perry presidential run with his “Strong” video.  Mr. Perry’s bigotry was on full display as he casually bashed homosexuals, and he promised to be our Christian champion in Obama’s war on Christianity (the nonexistent one, that is).  The video has now surpassed Rebecca Black’s “Friday” as the most disliked video ever (percentage-wise) on Youtube.

Rick Perry’s ‘Strong’ Ad Surpasses Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’ With More Dislikes On YouTube

Bernie Sanders is proposing a constitutional amendment that would overturn the Citizens United vs. the Federal Elections Commission.  Sanders’ Saving American Democracy Amendment would make clear that corporations are not entitled to the same constitutional rights as people and that corporations may be regulated by Congress and state legislatures.

The Saving American Democracy Amendment

Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, of whom many are only aware because of his support for controversial (within the GOP, that is) scientific subjects like evolution and climate change, is now backpedaling on the latter.  Huntsman, who has been vilifying Mitt Romney for his flip-flopping on a variety of issues, is now adopting a much more lukewarm stance on climate change.

Huntsman Goes Squishy on Climate Change

Speaking of Republican presidential candidates, Paul Krugman’s latest Op-Ed declares that the GOP is getting exactly the kind of people it deserves.

“There are two crucial things you need to understand about the current state of American politics. First, given the still dire economic situation, 2012 should be a year of Republican triumph. Second, the G.O.P. may nonetheless snatch defeat from the jaws of victory — because Herman Cain was not an accident.”

Send in the Clueless

For a much longer discussion of why Republicans are welcoming intellectually-subpar candidates, check out James Crotty’s article in Forbes.

“Why Do Republicans Gleefully Embrace Idiots as Presidential Candidates?…The question naturally begs a larger question: How can a country, with the world’s highest national GDP, and absurdly complex systems regulating everything from credit default swaps to nuclear missile safety, possibly allow onto its national stage men and women of such transparently inferior intellect?”

Why Republicans Embrace Simpletons and How It Hurts America

Even though most of you have probably already seen this, the LA Times recently published an apology to Obama from a discontented Democrat:

‘Obamacare’ to the Rescue

To wrap up, Bruce Bartlett, former senior official in the Reagan and H.W. Bush administrations, provides a clear, succinct, and convincing case that the question isn’t whether or not we should raise taxes on the rich, but rather how we should do so.

“Republicans like to pretend that cutting spending is economically costless, even stimulative [sic], whereas raising taxes in any way whatsoever is so economically debilitating that it dare not be contemplated. This view is complete nonsense.”

Raising Taxes on the Rich: Not Whether, but How