Sunday, December 11, 2016

#346 / Thinking About The Government

Tip O'Neill, Paul Ryan, Sam Rayburn - Speakers of the House

Johnny’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement
Thinking about the government 
+Bob Dylan, Subterranean Homesick Blues

Our election's past, and now it seems, a lot of people are having bad dreams. A lot of people are asking the question, "What about our Constitution?"

If you are "thinking about the government," and wondering about the Constitution, you could do worse than tracking down a recent article by Christopher DeMuth, published in the November 26-27 edition of The Wall Street Journal. 

DeMuth's article is titled, "A Trump-Ryan Constitutional Revival." Since The Wall Street Journal has a "paywall," blocking out non-subscribers, you may not be able to penetrate to the heart of the text using the link I have provided. Don't despair; I plan to give you the essence of the argument, right here. 

DeMuth is a former president of the American Enterprise Institute, and was a White House and OMB staff person for both Nixon and Reagan. He fully qualifies as a bonafide right-wing pundit. DeMuth is now working for the Hudson Institute, a "conservative think tank" founded by Herman Kahn, who is that Thinking About The Unthinkable guy. If you have been having some bad dreams lately, it could be because that "unthinkable" prospect of a full-fledged nuclear war seems to have become a lot more "thinkable," recently

At any rate, let's move to the point DeMuth makes in his article. He notes that our Constitution has established, as a fundamental governmental principle, a scheme of "checks and balances." The different branches of government are supposed to balance and "check" each other, forcing the government to seek out and find compromises that will be acceptable to the Executive Branch and to the Congress - and that can also pass muster with the Supreme Court.

According to DeMuth (and I agree with him), this basic idea has been subverted in recent times, because Members of Congress have "increasingly acted out of loyalty to party rather than to Congress as an independent constitutional branch. Members of Congress support or obstruct administration initiatives along partisan lines ... Party partisanship is one (not the only) cause of the emergence of unilateral executive government."

Do we like "unilateral executive government?" Well, many Democrats didn't see this as a big problem, when the president exercising executive powers was Barack Obama. Those Democrats are rethinking this idea, given that Donald Trump will soon have his finger on the nuclear codes, and will be deciding how to deal with immigration, education, the environment, and other issues. It appears that members of the Republican Party, who were definitely not Trump supporters during the election season, are now ready for the Republican Party to help the new president utilize Executive Branch powers in the same "unilateral" way that the Republicans were complaining about when the president was a Democrat. 

DeMuth is absolutely correct that this is not the way our Constitutional system of government is supposed to work. Congress is not supposed to be able to pass legislation, and run the country, unless everyone is given some sort of benefit. Some sort of "deal" is supposed to be made, through what DeMuth calls "transactional politics," and every significant interest group is supposed to get something. Those lower-income, non-college-educated white disaffected voters, who voted for president-elect Trump, did so, presumably, because they have been (or have felt, at least) largely ignored by a government responsive to the 1%ers. If our system were working as designed, it should not have been possible to ignore such a significant block of voters, who may be almost half of all voters in the United States, and who form a clear majority in many "heart of America" states that went for Donald Trump.

Why has partisan loyalty usurped the role that Members of Congress are supposed to feel for the institution of Congress as an independent branch of government? Mainly, I suggest, because it will be the "party" that will decide whether or not you keep your job. When there is a working system of partisan control in Congress, those interests with money to spend, to make sure the government advances their special demands, will contribute to the parties that promise them the rewards they are paying for. The corporations, in other words, are making the "deals," and they are making them with a very small number of Congressional leaders - and usually with the leaders of BOTH parties. The leaders can promise the corporate interests that they can make their members vote the way the leadership wants them to, because if the Members don't do what the leaders say, they will not be reelected.

But what about the voters in the Members' districts? Check out where Sam Farr or Jimmy Panetta get their money. It is not, for the most part, from local voters. Members of Congress respond to those who fund their candidacies, and whether or not a Member gets a contribution from one or another of the corporate interests that dominate our politics doesn't depend on any specific individual commitment by the Member of Congress to the donating special interest. The system is brokered through the Party leaders. If you are in Congress, and a vote is coming up, and the Party leader wants your vote, you vote as the leader says, and not in the way that voters in your district might want. Usually, Party leaders seek to insulate Members from the need to vote against what their District wants, but the leaders will make their Members do that if they have to. Again, just to close the circle, the Party leaders, who direct the votes of supposedly independently-elected Members of Congress, take their own direction from the corporate interests that provide the parties (BOTH parties) with campaign cash.

There must be some way out of here. Right? One thing that would help would be organizations of ordinary voters, on a district by district basis, so personally aware of and in touch with what their elected Member of Congress is doing that they could credibly threaten that official with the loss of his or her job, should the local elected official vote against what local voters want. 

The breakdown of our Constitutional system, in other words, has occurred most fundamentally at the grassroots level, and we who care should stop shoveling more money to national campaign committees organized on a partisan basis, in the hope that somehow the party leaders with whom we identify will do what we want. 

We can't out compete the corporations at the national level. We may well be able to outcompete them at the local level. Check out the results of Measure Z in Monterey County, in the November 8th election. The oil companies spent something like $6 million to defeat a community-based campaign to end fracking. The anti-fracking community organizers won. 

We can actually hold our Congressional representatives accountable, too, and we'd better start trying to do that, and to revivify the system that the Founders of our nation put in place, because the state of our government today, accurately described by DeMuth, is definitely taking us right up to the edge of "unthinkable."

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