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Don’t Write Yourselves Off Yet!

With the 113th Congress in recess, and election day rapidly approaching, now seems like a good time to take a look at how this Congress stacks up to its predecessors. Sure, there are four months left for the 113th, but it doesn’t seem likely that they’ll get back to work and crank out hundreds of pieces of legislation, so we’re free to judge them as they are.

As it stands, this Congress has passed 142 bills that have become law. On average, the 103rd-112th each passed 425.5 bills into law. Just because bills are not becoming law at the same rate they have in the past does not mean, as a standalone figure, that there is a problem with Congress. Many people, Republicans most notably, tend to favor the argument that the best course of action when it comes to Federal Laws is to have fewer of them, and that decreasing the rate at which we sign new laws into effect is a positive thing.

However, considering that in order to repeal a law already on the books a new law must be passed, that line of reasoning still speaks to a problem within the current Congress. Fewer laws are being enacted, while people on both sides of the political divide clamor for action on issues like immigration, guns, and the economy. 

Congressional gridlock is occasionally used as a badge of honor, with partisans on both sides of the aisle claiming that stalling tactics used to block legislation is better than what “the other side” would accomplish if allowed to run rampant. That argument, however, ignores the miles and miles of middle ground between the two poles. Liberal Democrats want to pass a law prohibiting the marketing of electronic cigarettes to children, and conservative Republicans want to require parental notification for all unemancipated minors seeking abortions, but there are issues both sides can and should find common ground on. The nuts and bolts issues of running a country – funding transportation, infrastructure, the VA – these are all things where the differences between the two major parties in Congress are not so insurmountable that they can’t be hammered out, and yet members of Congress still prefer to seem “victorious” in pushing back an opposition agenda than working together on anything, even refusing to tackle the smallest issues before them, lest they be labeled “compromisers” and “flip-floppers.”

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Aaaaaand, We’re Back

After a lengthy hiatus, this blog is back in action. 

Thanks for hanging in there.

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Why Can’t Congress Get Anything Done?

You may have heard, over the past few years, that the United States Congress is a mess. This past session of Congress that just ended, the 112th Congress, has been called the most do-nothing Congress in the history of the United States. 220 bills were passed by the 112th Congress, of which 40 dealt with the renaming of post offices, which makes the 112th the most unproductive session of Congress since these sorts of records started being kept, in 1948.

Why is Congress like this, you may ask? Well, it’s both simple and somewhat complex. On the simple side of things, we currently have a divided government. The US Senate is controlled by one party (the Democrats), while the House of Representatives is controlled by another (the Republicans). In order for bills to be signed into law, the bills from both chambers of Congress must match. Unsurprisingly, the two parties have had difficulties in hammering out legislation so that Bill X passes the Senate (presumably requiring more liberal aspects be included in Bill X) while matching the Bill X that passes the House (most likely including conservative elements).

We’ve had divided governments before, however, and never before have we seen this level of impressive nothingness. To paraphrase the Passover Haggadah: “Why is this Congress different from all other Congresses?” In the past, legislators have been able to come together and compromise in order to get past their differences and go about the business of running the country. Take, for example, the 99th Congress, which was basically the same scenario we see today, with the parties flipped. The House was controlled by Democrats, the Senate by Republicans, with a Republican President (Ronald Reagan). However, unlike our most recently expired Congress, the 99th was able to govern the country. To the tune of 664 bills signed into law. You read that right. Divided government, and yet six hundred and sixty-four bills passed both chambers of the United States Congress and were signed into law. What’s different?

Redistricting. Many Congress-watchers make the case, quite convincingly, that the ubiquitous gerrymandering in the political process has thrown a wrench into things. “Gerrymandering” is the method of drawing electoral districts in such a way as to give an advantage to a person, or political party. The term was introduced in response to the way an early 19th century Governor of Massachusetts drew state senate districts in such a way as to give his party a leg up. The resulting districts were said to resemble a salamander, and as a result, every time this topic comes up, political pundits besmirch the good name of salamanders everywhere (and Elbridge Gerry, but let’s forget about that).

That little historical aside… aside, what does gerrymandering mean for Congress? It means that Congress can’t get anything done. The gerrymander creates districts that are much more Democratic- or Republican-leaning than the districts would otherwise be, and as such, these new Congressional districts end up more solidly “red” or “blue” than the surrounding state or nation as a whole. According to famed number-cruncher Nate Silver, the number of districts where the presidential vote margin is at least twenty percentage points different from the nation as a whole has nearly doubled. There were one hundred and twenty-three of these “landslide districts” twenty years ago. Now there are two hundred and forty-two. That means there are 242 Congresspersons who really don’t need to worry about losing their seat to a member of the opposite party. A Democratic landslide district might have voted for Barack Obama 83% to 17%, 32 percentage points more favorable for Obama than the country as a whole. A congresswoman from this district certainly would not need to worry about a Republican winning the seat, and would only need to worry about a challenge from the left.

These gerrymandered districts don’t necessarily mean that Congresspeople are inherently more unproductive than before, but these narrowly-drawn districts mean that these representatives are doing what they were elected to do – but now with a much more partisan base to represent than before.

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Welcome to 2013

Happy New Year, everyone! 

There are going to be some exciting new changes here at Politics for Regular People, some which will be rolled out in the coming months, and some which you will be seeing as soon as tomorrow.

The first big change will be regularity! Remember how this blog is allegedly a weekly (or more often if needed) update on explaining political goings-on? Well, we are recommitting ourselves to that most elusive mistress… scheduling! Weekly updates will be priority numero uno in the New Year.

Secondly, to better reflect on all the “news of the week,” updates will come out on Sunday mornings. Almost as if we’re an e-print version of one of those Sunday political talk shows (Meet the Press, Face the Nation, Impress the Nation, etc.), we will be better able to reflect on what best needs to broken-down from the previous week’s headlines (or things that should have been headlines).

Third, we are aiming for simplicity! This blog was formed as a response to mildly politically informed family members asking questions about the political news events, and we try not to get to caught up in our own excitement for the minutiae details that can be boring to normal, non-junkies. Discussions of “Robert’s Rules of Order”… out. Attempting to explain why it’s called the “Fiscal Cliff” and not “doing our national finances”… in!

We hope you’ll be joining us this year, because we here at PRP sure are excited about the upcoming changes!

See you Sunday.

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Gun-Related Facts

It isn’t easy to decide how to discuss a situation like the one in Newtown, but I thought I’d take this gun-focused moment to summarize some firearm facts and move on from there.

In the wake of a mass shooting like the one we saw last week (although really no two mass shootings are the same) the traditional “two-sides” of the gun debate in this country come out with the well-known talking points. Pro-gun advocates have said that what would prevent shootings like this would be to arm more Americans. Gun control supporters have advocated a ban on assault weapons like the one used in Friday’s shootings.

Here are some quick facts:

  • The rifle used Friday, the AR-15, is, according to the New York Times, the “most popular rifle in America,” the same style of rifle used in a shooting at an Oregon shopping mall, and the shooting at an Aurora, CO, movie theater in July. 
  • AR-15s have “high capacity magazines, which feed 20 or 30 rounds at a fast pace,” and range in price from only $600 to $2,000.
  • According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were more than 32,000 gun-related deaths last year, nearly 20,000 of which were suicides.
  • A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that “the presence of a gun in the home was associated with a nearly fivefold risk of suicide … and an almost threefold risk of homicide.
  • A study published in the peer-reviewed journal BMJ concluded that in the United States, “Guns are used to threaten and intimidate far more often than they are used in self defense” and that “most self reported self defense gun uses may well be illegal and against the interests of society.”
The post-Newtown conversation has been shifting since Friday, hitting on topics like mental illness advocacy and violence in media in addition to the gun-control/public health aspect of the conversation. It’s impossible to deny that when shootings like this occur, there are many causes, and many things worth discussing. However, the idea that guns can prevent gun violence is one that can, and should, be dismissed out of hand.
According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, there are over 12,000 firearm-related homicides per year. Nearly 3,000 people died in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. FOUR 9/11s happen every year as a result of firearms, and we have yet to go to war over that statistic. That’s thirty-six 9/11s since 9/11. 36. This is a seriously troubling issue constantly, not just when a mass shooting occurs.
It’s important to take these facts into account at a time like this, when the media is consumed with the discussion of guns. If you’re interested in reading well-sourced material about this debate, I’d suggest checking out Alex Seitz-Wald’s piece for Salon, “The Answer is Not More Guns.” And possibly Gawker’s interesting take on the state of the gun debate moving forward, “Down With Big Gun“.

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The Constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare” Lives!

At this point, you probably have heard what happened yesterday in the world of politics. The big story: President Obama’s signature accomplishment, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly referred to as “Obamacare,” was held to be constitutional by the United States Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling.

In what was seen by many as a surprising twist ending to the case, Chief Justice John Roberts (a traditionally conservative justice appointed by President George W. Bush) sided with the court’s four “liberal” justices to preserve the ACA in (more or less) its entirety. Anthony Kennedy, often viewed as the “swing” justice on the court, dissented, siding with the more conservative members of the court.

The heart of the question before the justices was whether or not Congress had the authority to enact the cornerstone of the Affordable Care Act, the individual mandate. The individual mandate, when it goes into effect, would require that all Americans be covered by health insurance. The more popular aspects of the legislation (forcing insurers to cover people with preexisting medical conditions, and just generally making insurance more available), ACA proponents argue, would not be feasible without greatly increasing the rolls of the insured. Basically, the idea is this: if you make it so that sick people can get insurance after they are already sick, you have to increase the number of healthy people getting insurance in order to offset the cost. Otherwise, the doomsday argument goes, every sick person in the country would run out to their nearest Health Insurance Mart and purchase policies, and the cost of treating these sick folks would put every insurance company in the country out of business. As I said, doomsday scenario, and doomsday scenarios traditionally sound a little far-fetched. Regardless, the mandate would prevent that sort of thing from happening.

Why was that relatively reasonable measure put through the Supreme Court’s wringer? Because opponents of the ACA argued that while the U.S. Constitution does indeed say that Congress has the power to make laws relating to commerce (which the nation’s massive patchwork of health care systems no doubt is), what Congress did in this instance was to make a law (the ACA) that related to the lack of commerce (the state of not having health insurance). Confused? Totally reasonable, because this is incredibly confusing. Perhaps because, as Ezra Klein of the Washington Post points out, pretty much no one thought that this was actually an issue wayyyy back in 2009-10 when the law was being written (or before that, when the mandate was an idea endorsed by Republicans and conservative think-tanks).

Now that we’ve got all that background, however, we can see what happened with the high court’s decision yesterday. Opponents of the ACA said that Congress had exceeded its power in passing a law that would “force Americans to engage in commerce”, notably using the argument that if the Affordable Care Act was constitutional, what could stop Congress from passing a law that said every American had to go out and buy broccoli. In the opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court decided that the ACA was not constitutional under Congress’s power to regulate commerce. Instead, the Court found that the law was constitutional under the power of Congress to “lay and collect taxes,” since the penalty for failure to purchase health insurance could be viewed as a tax.

 

Well, that was a doozy, but we got through it! To sum up: “Obamacare” is constitutional, in a 5-4 decision, with the court’s four liberals and the conservative Chief Justice in the majority. The individual mandate is a tax, and not a penalty, and Congress cannot make you buy broccoli. The end.

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Blogging from Seattle

I’m away from my usual San Francisco home base this weekend, but being in a different city, in a different state, reminded me that there’s something I’ve been meaning to post about.
National presidential poll numbers. We’ve all seen them. They are bandied about in the media during each and every news cycle. The numbers seem to drive the conversation, which may leave some observers asking “But… why?”
President Obama’s numbers have gone up and down over the past few months, with Gallup’s current numbers (as of 6/9/12) pinning approval of the job Obama is doing as President at 47%, while 45% disapprove. Looking ahead to November, Gallup currently has the race 46-45 Obama over Romney. Those numbers indicate an incredible close election, essentially a toss-up. Who could win is anyone’s guess, really, going by these numbers. However, we don’t hold national elections.
As 2000’s election taught everyone, what really matters is the Electoral College vote count. Basically, this means that candidates are more concerned with winning certain states than just winning overall votes.
According to the political news and poll aggregator site Real Clear Politics, there are thirteen states that are considered to be “battleground states”, meaning that those states could conceivably go to either party, helping to sway the outcome in the Electoral College vote count. Out of those thirteen, RCP has President Barack Obama currently ahead in the polls in Colorado and Ohio by 1.8%, Iowa by 2.6%, Virginia by 3%, Wisconsin by 4.8%, Michigan and Nevada by 6%, New Hampshire by 6.4%, and Pennsylvania by 8.5%. RCP has Mitt Romney ahead in the remaining four states, up 0.2% in Florida, 2.5% in North Carolina, 3% in Missouri, and 6% in Arizona.
It is still quite early days as far as this campaign goes, but those numbers are much more reflective of the on-the-ground political reality than national poll numbers are. If you are only looking at the national polls, as reported by, say Gallup, then you would reasonably expect a tight race,a possible Romney, or the President’s reelection secured by one percent of voters. If you are looking at the Electoral College politics, though, and the RCP averages as they are today hold true in November, President Obama would win a 303-235 victory over Romney in the Electoral College count.
Same polls, same politics, but a very different outcome. This is not to say that President Obama has this election in the bag, but rather that numbers do not always tell the whole story. National polls show an aspect of the political landscape, not a hard-and-fast certainty.

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