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.

 

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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.

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Degrading our ‘City Upon a Hill’

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John Winthrop

The phrase “American Exceptionalism” always irritated me, as it was about waving the flag while ignoring a history that, checkered like most countries, began with slavery, our original sin, and continued with Manifest Destiny, the doctrinal foundation for a genocide. In 2012 Mitt Romney wrapped his campaign in exceptionalism, that we are “a great champion of human dignity and human freedom,” sidestepping our manipulation of other countries, often with troops. If the phrase were narrowed to refer to our civic freedom and rule of law, well, that’s the heritage England bequeathed to its colonies in North America and Australia/New Zealand, and we share it with much of the developed world. We aren’t that exceptional.

I’m having second thoughts, thanks to Donald Trump.

If the United States is exceptional, it is because our founders declared it into being, along with certain unalienable rights (in fairness, Romney noted those too). For a century we have been exceptionally powerful. But what has made us unusual if not unique is the way we have grown: with a (mostly) open door to immigrants, who give us their extraordinary ambition; the world’s model of privately and publicly funded universities that draw students from around the globe; and a government that partners with private enterprise to foster discovery and risk-taking while ensuring that the external costs, such as pollution created in pursuit of profit, are not borne solely by the public. The Trump regime threatens all of it.

I am saddened by his disrespect for the rule of law and norms of governing, for the separation of powers, for his predecessors’ legacies. But I am most troubled by his attitude toward and actions on immigration – the executive orders and excessive discretion granted to ICE – and the atmosphere they create.

We know that we are a nation built by immigrants – and that many have resisted waves of immigrants that didn’t conform to their sense of identity. Antipathy birthed the Know Nothing party in the 1850s and led to restrictions climaxing in the 1924 Immigration Act, whose purpose, the State Department concludes in a history of the era, “was to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity.” Impetus for the Immigration Act of 1965 was our recognition that as leader of the free world, we lacked moral authority as long as discriminatory restrictions on country of origin remained. The law barred any preference for or discrimination against “the issuance of an immigrant visa because of . . . race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence.” At the signing on Liberty Island, President Johnson said the law “corrects a cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American nation” counter to the Declaration’s self-evident truths.

The intent of Trump’s two executive orders – to ban Muslims (his campaign promise) from certain countries – is contrary to the spirit and letter of the 1965 act. The orders also are ineffective as counter-terrorism measures, according to a DHS analysis reported February 24; it found that “country of citizenship is unlikely to be a reliable indicator of potential terrorist activity.” Evidence that the ban has nothing to do with national security emerged in a news report this week that the administration would cut Coast Guard and TSA funding to pay for the border wall.

The changes to deportation enforcement are worse. Ripping parents with long-ago misdemeanor convictions – or no convictions at all – from their communities, at incalculable cost and misery for their American-born children, has sown fear and disruption across the country.

The world becomes more interdependent, but we imagine we can spin a cocoon. International business and tourist travel has dropped. Students are reconsidering whether to come to American universities. A trickle of foreign nationals is heading north of the border. Silicon Valley companies are looking to Vancouver, where the foreign-born workers they recruit are welcome.

That we are the “city upon a hill” passed from the Sermon on the Mount to America’s creation myth and on to Paine, Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson, Kennedy, King and Reagan. Still aboard ship en route to Massachusetts Bay in 1630, future governor John Winthrop preached:

We must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our god in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.

What byword are we creating?

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Upon an inauguration, advice from an altar to democracy

8lincolnIf Donald Trump asked me what he should consider in composing his most consequential address yet, I would advise him to go read the two greatest speeches in American history, which are conveniently inscribed on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial, behind an enormous stage that’s been erected there in his honor. I visit often, especially since November, to deepen my perspective on where we are in this continuing experiment.

On the Memorial’s south wall is the Gettysburg Address, which if Steven Spielberg is to be believed every Union soldier memorized. The president delivered it in November 1863, four months after the battle, when Union victories were crystallizing the U.S. government’s overwhelming advantages but also that the war’s course was far from over.

Lincoln’s public objective had been shifting since he wrote Horace Greeley in August 1862 that “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.” The month before, he had shared with his cabinet a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, which he viewed as a military measure (freeing only slaves in rebel territories). Its preliminary issue, after the costly victory at Antietam in September, effectively changed the goal of the war. At Gettysburg 14 months later, his short address transformed its meaning.

The Address is a declaration. The war, Lincoln said, had become a test of the proposition that all men are created equal. He spoke over, and yet answered, South Carolina’s rationale for the Confederacy: the right of one identifiable group of people to determine the lives of Others and have the federal government uphold the Constitution’s Article IV clause that compelled states to return fugitive slaves. At his first inaugural, Lincoln had evoked the mystic chords of memory and the better angels of our nature to argue that he had no intention of interfering with slavery where it existed. At Gettysburg, by contrast, he dedicated the Union to “a new birth of freedom” – from slavery and of democratic government of, by, and for the people.

Where Gettysburg is a declaration of purpose, the Second Inaugural, on the Memorial’s north wall, is a humble inquiry into God and fate, after the president had written thousands more condolence letters. Lincoln never mentions the country by name, as if the inquiry might apply to any people. He identifies “a peculiar and powerful interest” – slavery – as “somehow the cause of the war,” before zeroing in on the contention. “Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish,” he says, before shifting to the passive expression, “and the war came.”

Then come the musings: that neither side anticipated the war’s cost and duration, nor “a result less fundamental and astounding”; that both read the same Bible and prayed to the same God, and invoked His aid against the other; that “it may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.”

Then the proposition: If slavery were ordained, but now God willed to abolish it and so gave us this war as the price of having upheld it, is that not also God’s will? The question sets up Lincoln’s answer, the greatest sentence ever written about the American experience, capped by a fragment of the 19th Psalm: “Yet, if God wills that [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” We have yet to sink that wealth.

The closing is well remembered: a plea to bind up the nation’s wounds. But the power of the speech is in Lincoln’s question and answer: If we are but bit players in God’s design who strive to honor it though we do not know it, perhaps we should be less certain of our judgments and more mindful of our obligations: “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”

What question might the president-elect pose to us in his inaugural? Is he reflecting on his post-election tweets, and how they have exacerbated our division and degraded his standing (as measured by “phony polls”)? We are far more diverse than were our forebears when Lincoln spoke at the Capitol. Americans no longer read from the same Bible nor pray to the same god. Would that this next president be less certain of his judgments and, with malice toward none and charity for all, embody “all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

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The Electoral College: Will no one rid us of this meddlesome relic?

hamiltonOn the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, the Electoral College is expected to demonstrate not only its uselessness but its destructiveness by choosing for president a candidate who lost the national popular vote by more than 2 percent. It never worked as theorized; its relationship to federalism is dubious; and its existence contravenes the 14th Amendment. It is a relic that should be abolished.

The purpose of the electors, according to Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 68, was to buffer the passions and ignorance of common voters – who in 1788 were limited to white male property owners – by allowing “a small number of persons” who would “be most likely to possess the information and discernment” to pick the president. Thus the Constitution empowered the states to “appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct” the electors, who were proscribed from holding any office.

At the time political parties didn’t exist. Hamilton’s Federalist partner, James Madison, hoped they never would. In Federalist 10, Madison warned, “the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man”:

A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.

An Electoral College, the Framers contended, would rise above those divisions. It was a nice argument, but reasoning together was not the elector’s purpose. Of greater concern were the mechanics of conducting a popular vote. (By 1796, when Adams faced Jefferson in the first contested election, only eight states held a popular vote.) But the most important factor was how to account for slavery. The three/fifths compromise (counting three/fifths of a slave for purposes of House apportionment) helped work out the composition of Congress; the Constitutional Convention extended the principle to picking the president.

Hamilton’s rationale for electors fell away as our political parties matured; electors pledged to support the candidate of their respective parties. The parties choose the electors on slates that represent the respective presidential candidates, resulting in the custom (and in 29 states and D.C. the law) that electors follow their state vote, winner-take-all. (Maine and Nebraska require electors representing House districts to follow the popular vote of the district.)

Fifty years ago we experienced momentum for reform in the wake of the adoption of universal suffrage: Poll taxes were prohibited under the 24th Amendment, ratified in 1964; the next year Congress directed the federal government to enforce voting rights denied on account of race. Separately the Supreme Court’s one-person/one-vote decisions, culminating in Reynolds v. Sims (1964), reasoned that under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, states were required to accord citizens equal representation in drawing legislative districts. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote:

Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests . . . [I]f a state should provide that the votes of citizens in one part of the state should be given two times, or five times, or 10 times the weight of votes of citizens in another part of the state, it could hardly be contended that the right to vote of those residing in the disfavored areas had not been effectively diluted.

Two years after Reynolds, in 1966, Delaware petitioned the Supreme Court to sweep away the state laws requiring electors to vote for the candidate who won their states regardless of margin as a violation of due process. In its brief, Delaware noted that the “state unit system” of electing the president is part of an integrated national process, in which each state’s citizens are affected by the methods of all other states. It argued that the system gave a candidate with 49 percent of the vote zero representation in the electoral count, contrary to the Equal Protection Clause. It also argued that small states were overwhelmed by big ones:

A citizen of a small state is in a position to influence fewer electoral votes than a citizen of a larger state, and therefore his popular vote is less sought after by major candidates.

New York State, as the petition’s named defendant (which then had the most electoral votes), responded that the Constitution granted every state the right to set the manner of appointing electors. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Meanwhile members of Congress, the American Bar Association, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were advocating a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College. The Gallup poll found a majority of legislators in 44 states favored it. Beginning in 1966, Senator Birch Bayh led the congressional effort for direct election, including a run-off if no candidate received 40 percent. The Indiana Democrat continued his campaign until he was defeated for reelection in 1980.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s apparent election, defenders of the Electoral College have opined that presidential candidates would ignore small states in favor of big ones. That’s irrelevant because, to paraphrase Chief Justice Warren, presidents represent citizens, not states. The 14th Amendment dispatched the notion that we are citizens of our respective states first, and it granted us equal rights as Americans.

Contrary to every other electoral contest, from U.S. senator to county commissioner, our system of electing the president allows a winner not determined by who gets the most votes. Twice in 16 years, we have countenanced that system. As former senator Bayh wrote: “Direct election is the only system that counts every vote equally and where the voters cast their ballots directly for the candidates of their choice.”

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‘Change’ vs. our ossified process: It’s no contest

birmingham“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Martin Luther King’s distillation of abolitionist Theodore Parker’s sermon is one of his most famous quotations. It resonates with us because we assume the universe is moral and think we have evidence: The images of Birmingham’s police dogs and fire hoses flooded our TV screens, we rose up, and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act; Alabama troopers beat peaceful marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, President Johnson declared “We shall overcome,” and Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.

Here’s another theory: The universe has no morality, it operates on energy. As specks of matter, we too operate on energy, and we invent our morality based on sermons and experience – thus our particulars of morality vary. In this election, Donald Trump was aligned with the energy of the nation, albeit benefitting from an Electoral College that he once called “a disaster for a democracy.”

Trump’s success is evidence for transformational teachings (Werner Erhard, Tony Robbins, Abraham-Hicks): He was singularly focused on the prize, and he let nothing get in the way. When Hillary Clinton or a debate moderator recited his words recorded in videos, he denied them. No space for shame, he maintained the goal.

Studying his face during the first presidential debate, I thought: his words are unimportant, his anger resonates among his supporters. Their energies are aligned. Trump used the wrong word in saying Clinton lacked stamina, but he had the idea: her energy was no match for his, as seen in their rallies. The general, like the primaries, was about him.

We’ve seen this. After the 2008 election of the coolest president ever, we felt awesome to have chosen an African-American. But within months opponents used their outrage to create the tea party and sweep Congress in the midterms, while the president’s supporters stayed home. They roused themselves for him in 2012, and then in 2014 the country experienced historically low turnout. Turnout estimates for 2016 are down again. It’s not morality, it’s energy.

Knocking on doors on election day, I met an Afghan-American, here for 22 years. His entire household (with three grown daughters) had voted Hillary. But he said, assuming her victory, “Nothing will change, and I want change.” After chatting about the nature of presidential power, my friend asserted, “America is blessed by God,” adding, “Everything will be okay.”

Well, that too is a belief. But what if God (assuming He exists) has no investment in a particular outcome? He set up the game and gave us free will to play it as we choose. Our land, like others, is blessed with natural resources, which we have well exploited. But we are entitled to nothing. Each of us has made an infinitesimal contribution to a country that was bequeathed to us, and we have the collective power to build on it or to blow it away. My friend, being from Afghanistan, knows all about that.

Our divided country has had frequent reversals of power over more than two decades. Again we have handed full control to the Republican Party. As in 2000, the presidential “winner” received fewer votes than the “loser.” For 10 years we’ve had wave elections, whipsawing the government about what we want. Presidential candidates pledge to sign orders undoing those of their predecessors and appoint judges to reverse precedents. How fickle of us!

But next year Congress will remain about the same. Trump transition teams feature the same interests that presided under George W. Bush – but with less public-office expertise. And the Supreme Court, whose vacancy Senate Republicans will have held open for a year, will retain the same conservative majority that’s held since the 1980s.

Despite the cries for “change,” particularly from the Rust Belt, we got the same ossified politics we’ve experienced since the fortunes of the working class began shrinking 40 years ago. These seesaw results are likely to continue because our dysfunctional process remains. One may argue for removing some of our checks and balances. I suggest a different tack: Abandon our situational ethics and make every vote count, so that results are not determined by who stays home. How do we do that?

  • Abolish the Electoral College, a relic dreamed up to enroll the 13 states in a federal government. A Wyoming vote has three times the value of a California vote (the ratio of the state’s eligible voters to its Electoral College representation). “Swing state” would be a dead concept.
  • Adopt mandatory voting. All citizens must check in at the polls, though they can still decline to cast a ballot. All the litigation around voter ID would go away because self-interested office-holders wouldn’t be able to suppress the vote. In Australia the system has pushed candidates toward the ideological middle, because the impetus is no longer to energize the base but to go where the votes are.
  • Reduce gerrymandering. Two methods: create non-partisan citizens commissions to draw congressional district lines (Arizona’s survived a Supreme Court challenge in 2015, after its legislature sued because it didn’t like the result); and/or adopt proportional representation, in which an area within a state, or a whole state, is represented by multiple members of the House of Representatives (apply the same concept to state legislatures).
  • Reapportion the U.S. Senate to population, just as state senates were required to do under a series of one person/one vote Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s. Vermont residents have 40 times the Senate representation as do Texans.

How to make it happen? Get energized.

 

 

Posted in Congress, election campaign, Electoral College, gerrymandering, U.S. Constitution, Voting | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment