Virginia’s high court silently joins gerrymandering conversation

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Maps derived from Virginia Public Access Project

Gerrymandering has broken through the din of partisan grenade-throwing to become a top-tier issue of voter concern across the political spectrum. If we cannot fix this party- and incumbent-protection racket, We the People are coming to understand, we will cease to be a representative democracy in which one person/one vote has any meaning.

This term the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing political gerrymandering cases from Wisconsin, Maryland and North Carolina, and one involving Texas’ indefatigable effort to suppress the franchise. This week it received a second appeal from Pennsylvania Republicans of their state’s supreme court rejection of one of the most distorted U.S. House maps in the nation.

Meanwhile, the Virginia Supreme Court is about to decide a narrower question: whether the 2011 maps for the House of Delegates (drawn by Republicans) and Senate (drawn by Democrats) were so gerrymandered as to fail the state constitution’s requirement that districts be compact.

The court heard 40 minutes of oral argument in Vesilind v. Virginia State Board of Elections on March 1, nearly a year after a state district court in Richmond decided against the plaintiffs in 11 districts – five House, six Senate – and for the defendants, who in the case of the House plan had been joined by the House of Delegates and its speaker as intervenors.

“When a statute’s constitutionality depends on fact, the legislature’s factual determination will be set aside if it is clearly erroneous, arbitrary or wholly unwarranted,” wrote Circuit Judge W. Reilly Marchant. Relying on 1992 and 2002 Supreme Court precedents, he wrote that “if the evidence offered in support of those facts would lead reasonable, objective persons to reach different conclusions, then the legislative determination is ‘fairly debatable’ and must be upheld.” Marchant found the constitutional validity of the 2011 maps “fairly debatable.”

On appeal before the Supreme Court, the Vesilind plaintiffs contended that the trial court had erred by failing to shift to the legislature the burden to produce evidence of reasonableness. In fact, wrote A.E. Dick Howard, a University of Virginia law professor who was principal drafter of the current state constitution, the General Assembly submitted no evidence at all. (Judge Marchant had found the Senate in civil contempt for its failure to provide documents in discovery, a finding the Supreme Court vacated on grounds of legislative privilege.)

Howard, who with three other law professors submitted an amicus brief, wrote: “[T]he circuit court did not require the Legislature to identify any standard guiding line-drawing decisions to ensure compliance with the constitutional compactness command before declaring the issue to be ‘fairly debatable.’ The circuit court’s failure to do so permits the Legislature to claim that it satisfied the constitutional requirements without having to demonstrate that it made any bona fide attempt to do so.” [Italics in original.]

In the appellants’ brief, Wyatt B. Durrette, Jr., wrote: “The evidence before the trial court established that the Legislature subordinated the required criterion of compactness to discretionary criteria in violation of the Virginia Constitution. Without correction, the trial court’s erroneous decision allows the Legislature to continue undermining representative democracy and the Virginia Constitution.”

To the layman, the 11 districts, which include the 72nd House (a.k.a. the “toilet bowl”) but not the 73rd, are laughably not compact. The legal question turns on: how compact is compact enough?

For that legislatures and courts (as may be required) turn to Ph.D.s in legislative map-making, who have devised formulas to express deviations from a mathematically pure ideal: the circle. And courts, for their part, grow uncomfortable at the prospect of overturning legislative prerogative.

In the Vesilind trial, both sides presented learned map analysts to walk the court through mathematical tests that go by the names Reock, Polsby-Popper and Schwartzberg, all of which are used to arrive at a deviation from perfection. Said Vesilind, the 2011 maps fail the tests. Said the legislature, no they don’t. Said Judge Marchant, it’s debatable.

Said Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons at the Supreme Court, “Thank you.” There were no questions from the seven justices.

After the argument, Durrette held a briefing before plaintiffs, amicus lawyers and other supporters of OneVirginia2021, the Richmond nonprofit that is leading the state’s grassroots-based, nonpartisan charge against political gerrymandering (and my favorite charity).

Durrette, an eminent figure in the Virginia bar who served three House terms and ran unsuccessfully for attorney general and governor as a Republican, suggested that the high court’s decision will turn on whether to accept the math of the plaintiff’s expert witness, Michael McDonald, whose testimony the defense tried and failed to exclude at trial. McDonald had testified that the “degradation of compactness from ideal” could not be attributed to “required” criteria – the supreme mandates of federal law (equal population and Voting Rights Act compliance) or the state constitution’s “contiguous and compact.” Rather, the maps elevated certain “discretionary” criteria – such as economic, social, cultural, geographic, governmental jurisdictions, and – bingo – political beliefs, voting trends and incumbency.

Alternatively, Durrette said, the court could accept the legislature’s argument: it met the standards of compactness the Supreme Court upheld in Jamerson v. Womack and Wilkins v. West, which grew out of the legislature’s 1991 and 2001 maps. Even so, Durrette said during oral argument, those precedents do not apply in Vesilind. The earlier cases involved compactness standards in the context of Voting Rights Act requirements, which in the Vesilind districts are not applicable.

The Voting Rights Act is at the heart of a separate case involving 11 other House of Delegates districts. In Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections, the plaintiffs unsuccessfully argued before a federal district court in Richmond that the House had unconstitutionally “packed” minority voters into those districts by using a “floor” of 55-percent BVAP (black voting age population), thus diluting their representation across a wider number of districts. But on appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the three-judge panel had used the wrong standard. (It reduced the districts at issue from the original 12 to 11.) On remand, the parties completed post-trial briefs in December, and the district court’s decision is pending.

In both cases, plaintiffs have asked the courts to toss the maps and call elections. At stake are not only the districts under review but of course those that are contiguous – that other word in the constitution’s map-drawing mandate.

 

 

Posted in gerrymandering, Supreme Court, U.S. Constitution, Virginia legislature, Voting, Voting Rights Act | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

That fantasy about the Second Amendment

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Government troops fire on Shays’ Rebellion (cite unknown)

I keep seeing these fairy tales about the origins of the Second Amendment — that its purpose was to guard against the tyranny of the government by enshrining an individual’s right to own a gun.

The Constitution was ratified in reaction to the weakness of the Articles of Confederation. A bunch of ragtag former colonies had somehow managed to wear down the British over five years under a skeletal cooperation agreement, during which the Continental Congress spent much of its time pleading for money from the 13 former colonies.

Then critics managed to convince the states to appoint delegates to a constitutional convention separate from the state legislatures, which were jealous of their sovereignty. They met in secret and came up with a plan that barely achieved ratification. Thus the United States was born.

Virginia and New York were the last of the 11 states that with varying reservations put the Constitution into effect (it required nine but practically could not have succeeded without those two), and Rhode Island and North Carolina were still recalcitrant. So during the First Congress, while Hamilton was constructing the executive branch and Madison was pushing legislation through the House to create a government from scratch, Madison also convinced Congress to take up the Bill of Rights (originally 12 amendments but finally 10).

The First and Fourth through Eighth are a logical piece of poetry about the rights of individuals. The Ninth and Tenth are about the relationship between the states and the federal government. The Second and Third dealt with problems that had confronted the colonies/states.

The Third, which we never talk about anymore, prevented the government from housing soldiers in your home — a cause of the revolution. It’s the forgotten amendment.

The Second was forgotten for more than 150 years. Its purpose was to ensure that the federal government, which barely functioned and was in debt (to Americans, British merchants, the French, etc.), had access to a standing army to confront enemies foreign and domestic. And there were both.

The British, still pissed about their humiliating defeat, continued to foment trouble on the western frontier. Domestically, throughout the post-war period, the states and their people were angry about paying taxes (some things never change).

In 1786-87, Daniel Shays led a band of rebels against the government of Massachusetts over taxes. Shays’ Rebellion drove General Washington out of retirement. The Constitutional Convention followed shortly.

So the Second, in a period while Congress hadn’t even gotten to the argument about whether to have an army, was intended to create an alternative: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The idea was that the states could be called upon to support the feds. It was not so that people would have the right to prosecute an insurrection against the government that THESE LEADERS HAD JUST CREATED.

After The Federalists were dispatched in 1800, Jefferson came to see that a standing army and navy was a good idea, handy for fighting on the shores of Tripoli. His successors found them useful for battling Britain and soon enough Indians. State militias were the backbone of the Civil War.

We went along that way, thinking no more of the Second than of the Third until the 1970s when, after an internal battle at the NRA that coincided with a period of domestic unrest and the truncated reign of a “law and order” president with paranoid tendencies, an argument was conceived that the amendment was about protecting your right to own a gun. That hadn’t been an issue for 350 years in a country whose expansion was forged at the barrel of a gun, individually and collectively.

And now we have a Gun Manufacturers Association whose purpose is to sell guns by stoking fear of your fellow countrymen. Next up: arm teachers. Because the only way to stop a bad man with a gun is to have a good man with a gun.

Tell that to Ronald Reagan’s Secret Service detail.

Posted in Bill of Rights, James Madison, U.S. Constitution, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Anniversary of a call to citizenship

jfkFifty-five years ago this week, I woke up in Arlington for the first time, a four-year-old transplanted from Texas. Upon finishing law school in Austin, my dad had answered Kennedy’s call, “Ask what you can do for your country,” and gone to work for his senator, Ralph Yarborough.

Dad became an expert in his area — the postal service, one of the enumerated powers of Congress, its purpose to knit together a far-flung republic.

The centrifugal forces that have often confronted this union seem especially strong. I know my dad would not have been inspired by this president, whose only consistency seems to be in appealing to the emotions that divide us, as his administration goes about piling comforts on the comfortable and afflictions on the afflicted. Dad, on the other hand, was proudest of the legislative projects that made things a little easier for constituents of neither means nor power.

Kennedy’s inaugural rejoinder was: “My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” I do not hear in Kennedy’s current successor any thought of those under other flags, except as foils he uses to inflame us.

I remain depressed after the carnage in Las Vegas. As FBI agents search for a rationale, I feel certain they will not find one. Nor will they issue a statement that puts mass murder in context: This is a manifestation of a country that says, I need protection from Other. But there is no protection, nor is there Other. There is only Us, and we’re too afraid to see that.

I’d be wrong to assume Dad would no longer recognize this country, as he was a student of American history. He’s probably wearing that sardonic smile, mulling the folly of man, and optimistic that things will, some day, get better. Which is why we get up in the morning and work for it in our own ways, large and small.

Posted in Citizenship, Congress, U.S. Constitution, Uncategorized | Tagged

Denouement of ‘repeal and replace’

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John McCain’s thumb-down; Mitch McConnell’s crossed arms

As societies become more complex, the government (the instrument of our social compact) is called on to do more to arrange commerce – the exchange of goods and services. Market regulation is a necessary component of development, to ensure some transparency for all participants in an otherwise free market.

We regulate commerce to mitigate risk. The FDA weighs the safety and effectiveness of a pharmaceutical against the risk of not taking it. The Department of Transportation regulates every vehicle – cars, trucks, airplanes, trains – to protect the public from the market power of sellers and operators. The EPA regulates the quality of air and water, balancing the risk to people against private activity.

Insurance – a mechanism for the mitigation of risk – is available in nearly every sector of society, all policies in essence reducing personal liability. And every insurer is regulated, to ensure that the issuer can actually pay a claim.

Yet for decades America has been fighting over the provision of insurance for our most vital and personal concerns – having our health problems addressed without going bankrupt – and somehow this market gets caught up in ideology over “free markets.” There are no free markets (except the black market). Health insurance and medical care exist in a regulated free market. Only the VA has government-managed health care.

In the debate over the Affordable Care Act, at stake is whether all citizens can participate in the health insurance market at a price they can afford. The question invokes John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance”: What sort of system would you create if you had no idea where you would fit in it – whether you had money or not, whether you had health or not? Rational people choose a system that allows everyone to participate (rather than adding risk to being born poor and unhealthy). We recognize our self-interest and our moral (or perhaps ultimately selfish) interest in not having to watch people die on the street.

Suppose you are in charge of a hospital’s admissions. A little boy shows up in the ER bleeding from a severed arm. He has no insurance and no money. He’s not even an American citizen. He will die if you don’t admit him. What do you do? As a society we’ve decided: admit him.

Then the question is, who pays for it? The answer, consistent with our social compact and the financing principles of Medicare and Medicaid, is that the healthy and the economically better-off pay more. The ACA, like intermediate programs enacted over the past 30 years (coverage for poor children, the prescription drug benefit), is an attempt to include more people in a risk-sharing market.

For decades the Republican Party has opposed any system that would allocate health care by any means other than one’s personal ability to pay. The GOP opposed Medicare (the most effective poverty-reduction program ever), though 40 years later, in 2003, it sponsored the prescription-drug benefit. For seven years, it has fought to destroy Obamacare by every means available.

Today the party’s effort apparently came to a humiliating end by a single vote on the Senate floor, at 1:30 a.m. After failed attempts to repeal taxes on the wealthiest 5 percent of households by slashing Medicaid, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s final proposal was a bill to pull the legs out of the system, by ending the requirement that employers offer insurance and employees have it. That would have led to the collapse of the individual market, which before Obamacare functioned arbitrarily to suit the need of insurance companies seeking to mitigate their own risks.

With passage, millions of Americans might have risen up against the party, which in all its time in opposition never considered either a replacement or addressed comprehensively the critical question: Who pays for the care for the little boy who arrives at the ER?

It will turn out to be a blessing, provided the party inquires into what ails and acts to fix our dysfunctional health care system, which costs twice as much with less benefit than that of any other industrialized country. Candidate Trump promised better insurance at lower cost. Whether his party will take up that promise remains to be seen.

 

Posted in Congress, Obamacare, Uncategorized | Tagged , ,

Of inclusion and prosperity in a global community

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The High Line in Chelsea, Manhattan’s reclaimed park

Last week I attended commencement exercises at a prestigious university in the nation’s most diverse and creative city. The standard of living between rich and poor is nowhere greater than in New York, and the opportunities for graduates of Columbia University could place them among the most affluent people ever on the planet (if that’s the path they choose). I sat among the next generation of the elite, not only from the United States but all over the world.

In the commencement address he reserved for himself, President Lee Bollinger advocated for everything his university represents: inquiry, discovery, reason, collegiality, inclusion – not for their own sake but in order “to understand and engage our modern, inter-connected world.” Columbia, because of its history, location and mission, Bollinger said, “has embraced the responsibility to be an American university with an international scope . . . We are properly proud of our international students and faculty, and of our research and educational work all over the globe. The free movement of people is vital to this intellectual work.” The purpose, he emphasized, is to improve the common good and address pressing challenges. Among them he cited climate change, food insecurity, global migration, and the potential for medical innovation.

And yet, I thought, this august institution is the sort mistrusted by the 40 percent of voters who make up the base of our ruling political party. The Columbia community is winning the worldwide game. At the separate commencement for the School of Engineering, I spotted handfuls of “white kids”; the vast majority of graduates appeared to be from China, India and elsewhere. Columbia draws the brilliant from the world – and unless we get our immigration policy straightened out, many will continue to go home and help their countries rise rather than stay here to help ours. Either way, they will aid the progress of our one planet.

The ruling base doesn’t seem to care about that. As David Rothkopf, who among other occupations teaches at Columbia, recently wrote in Foreign Policy, “To many of [President Trump’s base], knowledge is not a useful tool but a cunning barrier elites have created to keep power from the average man and woman.”

Well, that base has a point. The creative geniuses who travel through Columbia, one may suppose in an us-and-them view, have done relatively little for Middle America. Maybe they’re more likely to journey down to Wall Street to play arbitrage with other people’s money, or make some other contribution that benefits those who live and work in the blue cities. And the blue cities, I observe, are doing quite well.

Over the four days of my visit that I wasn’t hanging with my graduating daughter, I was exploring the island that was my home in the early 1980s, a grim period in New York history. Back then I would not have dreamed of walking at 10 p.m. the two miles from Columbia to Harlem, where I was staying with a friend. Times Square reeked of insecurity if not danger, any time of day. The city was only a few years from near-bankruptcy, its avenues crumbling and subways covered in graffiti, and the emblematic news story was a white “subway vigilante,” Bernard Goetz, who wounded four black men with five bullets, yet was found guilty of a single unlicensed-weapon charge. I could relate.

But as a journalist covering the nexus of business and government, I reported then on the infrastructure plans that were afoot, as city leaders envisioned some of what has come to pass – cleaned-up subways, huge new developments on both sides of the Hudson, expanded parks, invisible waterworks. New York has historically low crime rates and a growing population thanks to net international migration. The ubiquitous hot dog carts have converted their fare to Middle Eastern lamb/chicken-on-pita. And everywhere: bike lanes. I’m delighted my daughter is staying in the city.

How to bridge the fortunes of our prosperous, service-oriented cities and hollowed-out manufacturing and rural areas is said to be tops on the nation’s economic agenda. Yet our leaders have no program for that. If Congress weren’t distracted by the president’s self-inflicted crises, it would be slashing Medicaid and cutting taxes while blaming the stagnating fortunes of the working class on foreigners. Meanwhile, my daughter faces a student loan debt to be repaid at 6.5 percent, a source of government profit set by Congress.

Until our reigning party quits demonizing that which is foreign – a regular boogeyman in times of fear and scarcity – and focuses on developing a worldwide integrated economy of capital and labor flows to match our potential, we will be stuck between yesterday and tomorrow. But my daughter, I expect, will do just fine.

 

Posted in Congress, education, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 2 Comments

A 100-days report card

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The National Mall, January 20 (left); Independence Avenue, January 21

Any list of President Trump’s accomplishments will reflect the biases of its creator.

Justice/Immigration/Civil Rights

  • Trump signed two executive orders banning immigrants from seven, and then six, countries. The January order was halted by a federal appeals court. The March order was blocked by federal district courts in Hawaii and Maryland. The cases are pending.
  • Trump’s January 25 order on “enhancing public safety” instructed the government to “prioritize for removal those aliens” who in “the judgment of an immigration officer, otherwise pose a risk to public safety or national security” – essentially making any undocumented person subject to deportation.
  • The section of the same order threatening to withhold federal funds from “sanctuary jurisdictions” that limit cooperation with federal immigration enforcement is on hold after a federal judge in San Francisco ruled it exceeded the president’s authority.
  • The Justice Department reversed its position in a long-pending voting rights case in Texas. Federal district and circuit courts had already found Texas discriminated against minorities in enacting a 2013 voter ID law. As the district court prepared to weigh again the state’s intent, the Trump administration on January 20 withdrew the department’s support for the plaintiffs. Nevertheless, the court again found Texas intended to discriminate.
  • The Justice Department reversed an order to phase out the use of private prisons. The Obama Justice Department had concluded that private prisons are less safe and effective than government-run facilities.
  • The Trump administration withdrew guidance to schools on protecting transgender students from discrimination. It also reversed the Justice Department’s position in support of a high school student suing a Virginia school board for its policy that required him to use a separate bathroom. As a result, the Supreme Court canceled the scheduled oral argument in Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board and remanded the case to the Fourth Appeals Court, which had ruled for Grimm, in light of the administration’s new position.
  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a review of consent agreements with troubled police departments, contending they hinder law enforcement. Days later a federal judge in Baltimore rejected delay of an agreement between that city and Justice. Other mayors and police chiefs said they welcomed the federal government’s assistance.

Economy/Labor/Finance

  • HUD reversed a Federal Housing Administration directive lowering mortgage insurance rates. The rule would have reduced premiums a quarter-percentage point. Set to take effect January 27, it would have saved one million owners/refinancers $500 a year, FHA had estimated.
  • The SEC rolled back a 2009 procedure for opening investigations. Acting SEC Chair Michael Piwowar limited the enforcement division’s authority to issue subpoenas. The procedure was developed in the wake of the Bernie Madoff scandal.
  • The administration delayed court proceedings on the update of overtime-pay rules. The rules, which a federal judge suspended in November, revised the definitions of wage and salaried employment, doubling the threshold for hourly workers to $47,000 per year. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta suggested he would attempt to weaken the rule.
  • The Labor Department delayed its “fiduciary rule” that would require retirement financial advisers to act in their clients’ best interests.  The Obama administration said in 2015 that current standards, which allow financial advisers to receive payments from issuers of investment instruments, cost affected savers $17 billion a year.
  • The Labor Department delayed enforcement of a rule to reduce workers’ exposure to silica dust. Forty years after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration began studying a standard to protect workers from inhaling silica – a cause of lung cancer, silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and kidney disease – the administration suspended its implementation until at least September 23.
  • Trump revoked Obama executive orders requiring fair-pay and safe-workplace standards for federal contractors. The orders had required companies applying for government contracts to disclose and fix labor law violations involving wage theft, workplace injuries, and discrimination. Forced arbitration of employees’ discrimination complaints had been banned.
  • Congress repealed internet privacy rules. The FCC rules, set to take effect this year,  would have banned ISPs from collecting, storing, sharing and selling customer information without consent. Trump’s FCC commissioner also intends to do away with net neutrality rules.

 Environment/Energy

  • Trump revoked executive orders setting pollution standards for power plants and oil and gas production. His executive order also targets standards for carbon and methane pollution and sets the menu to undo Obama administration efforts to address climate change.
  • Congress repealed a regulation protecting streams from coal-mine pollution. Trump signed the bill.
  • Congress repealed a rule requiring oil companies to disclose payments to foreign governments. Trump signed the repeal of the 2016 rule, written by the SEC under the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act.
  • The EPA stopped rules that would limit power plants from dumping toxins into public waterways. The rule, finalized in 2015, would have taken effect in 2018.
  • EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt rejected a petition to ban an agricultural pesticide that causes neurological harm in children and farm workers. EPA scientists recommended in 2016 that the agency ban chlorpyrifos after finding unsafe levels of the chemical on a variety of fruits. Pruitt’s action likely banned further action until 2022.
  • Congress repealed protections for bear and wolf families in Alaska refuges. Trump’s signature repealed a rule that had protected black bear mothers and their cubs from being hunted in their dens. The rule also limited baiting, trapping, and using aircraft to track and shoot bears and wolves.
  • The Interior Department repealed a ban on using lead ammunition on wildlife refuges. The Fish and Wildlife Service rule protected water and wildlife.
  • Trump ordered a reconsideration of safety rules and limits on oil drilling in the Atlantic and the Arctic. On day 99, the order continues his promotion of carbon-based fuels.

Health care

  • Though the Affordable Care Act remains the law, the administration has worked to undermine it. Trump signed an executive order “minimizing the economic burden” of Obamacare. As insurance companies try to determine what to charge for policies available on the exchanges for 2018, Congress and the administration are debating whether the government will continue to subsidize certain policies.
  • Congress stripped Title X funding to any provider of abortion services. Trump signed the bill affecting Title X, which funds health care organizations that provide reproductive, educational, and counseling services related to family planning and contraception.
  • Trump reinstated the global gag rule. It prevents recipients of U.S. foreign aid from offering any information, referrals, services or advocacy regarding abortion care, even if they do so with separate funding sources.

Education

  • The Education Department rescinded protections for student-loan borrowers. The rules had limited fees debt collectors could charge and held loan servicing contractors accountable for their treatment of borrowers.
  • Congress repealed Education Department regulations on school accountability under the new Every Student Succeeds Act. The new law bars the department from issuing any guidance to states on implementing the 2015 reauthorization of government aid to K-12 schools.

Gun violence prevention

  • Congress repealed a Social Security regulation that prohibited certain individuals with a serious mental illness from gun possession. The regulation allowed the Social Security Administration to provide to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System the names of beneficiaries who, because of serious mental illness, are prohibited from gun possession under federal law.
  • The Justice Department weakened rules prohibiting fugitives from buying guns. It interpreted a law barring purchases by fugitives to apply only to those who left the state that issued the warrant.

Government Transparency/Russia

  • The White House announced it would not disclose its visitor logs.
  • We still don’t know whether the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia either hurt the integrity of the election or threatened national security. And we have no idea whether the president’s opaque businesses affect his policies.

Civic Engagement

The Trump presidency has aroused people across the political spectrum to engage in a way not seen in generations. Politics does matter. Our renewed awareness is his greatest achievement.

 

Posted in civil rights, climate change, Congress, environment, LGBT rights, Uncategorized, Voting Rights Act | Tagged | 2 Comments

The meaning and the drama of Trump’s budget

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In the glory days, with Bob Dole

Newt Gingrich lives in President Trump’s first pass at a federal budget.

The purpose of a budget – government, corporate or household – is to put vision in numbers. First identify the goals, the strategies to execute them and their projected costs, then set income to a level required to act on whatever priorities are realistic.

When Gingrich became House speaker in 1995, he inverted the formula. Said the speaker, the budget is first a number, then strategies to meet whatever goals can be addressed within that number. He argued that families and businesses operated the same way – apportioning fixed income to needs and desires.

Noble as that may sound, that’s not how households or businesses operate. Families borrow – mortgages, car loans, credit cards – to fulfill a vision. Corporations meet a plan by borrowing from banks, selling stock and issuing bonds.

This week Trump followed Gingrich’s notion in releasing a 53-page outline of the one-fourth of federal spending devoted to discretionary spending: The first principle is the number. The president said he would increase defense spending $54 billion and cut non-defense discretionary spending by the same amount, maintaining a total discretionary budget of $1.065 trillion. (Discretionary is the part of the budget that Congress sets each year covering the goods and services government buys; mandatory, which constitutes nearly two-thirds of the current $3.9 trillion budget, is transfer payments based on criteria: Social Security, Medicare, federal pensions, other income-security programs.)

Perhaps sometime later the administration will outline a vision, but so far Trump’s has only a slogan, to make us great again. How these choices do that he has not articulated. We are left with a number: $54 billion switched from non-defense to defense.

About Trump’s increase for the Pentagon, the budget “blueprint” has 11 bullet points: “accelerate the defeat of ISIS”; address “pressing shortfalls”; build a “more lethal joint force, driven by a new National Defense Strategy.” The defense secretary has released no strategy. That will come later.

The corresponding cut in non-defense programs has even less justification. Budget director Mick Mulvaney, while denying the link between school lunch subsidies and student performance, said agencies would be deciding on the specific cuts. His bullets were illustrative, I suppose.

For example, the Agriculture budget “Provides $6.2 billion to serve all projected participants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).” The amount is a projection of grants to states, which administer the program according to eligibility criteria. Maybe it’s enough to serve “all projected participants.” The House and Senate Appropriations committees last spring allocated $6.35 billion, the same as the year before, asserting that an improved economy led to declining expenditures. This year? We can’t tell, because the blueprint doesn’t include the usual detail, such as underlying macroeconomic assumptions. The White House has hired no economists, the Agriculture Department has no secretary (nominee Sonny Perdue submitted his required ethics paperwork a few days ago), and it’s unclear whether the department, with no political appointees at the helm, participated in Mulvaney’s projection. So $6.2 billion is just a number. Which takes us back to the Gingrich paradigm: set the number, then see what it buys.

It’s not entirely the Trump administration’s doing. The federal budget process has long been broken. Congress used to pass one annual bill covering all mandatory programs – statutory provisions that specified changes in law affecting spending – and 13 appropriations bills covering more or less logically grouped areas of discretionary spending. For years, though, Congress has failed to do so, because it could not square the popularity of programs against an arbitrary number to assemble voting majorities. Instead it has bundled the appropriations that didn’t pass by the start of the fiscal year into a “continuing resolution.” It has passed two CRs for fiscal 2017; the latest expires April 28, leaving five months to go in the fiscal year. If Congress had done its job, the White House could have focused on other issues, perhaps putting a team in place and submitting a supplemental appropriation. But it didn’t, so we have a half-baked proposal out of an amateur White House with no articulated policy behind it.

The unveiling of the president’s budget has always been a pageant, a day of drama for Congress, reporters, and affected interests. The real work came before, when the agencies assembled their requests according to directives from the White House, and after, when Congress got to the business of modifying the previous year’s appropriation according to its priorities.

For this year’s show, the White House’s role was to generate headlines – “NEA to be abolished! EPA budget slashed!” But it only means what Congress decides it means. In the best case, that will be determined as the Appropriations committees weigh the value of programs against a number. The vision of a more or less perfect union will be revealed in the results.

Posted in Congress, federal budget, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments