Posts Tagged congress

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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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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Mr. Kucinich Goes to Washington?

There are few things that are more difficult to shake than labels. In the political realm especially, when a label seems accurate, or feels like it fits the narrative of a candidate or campaign, labels can be deadly. In the 2004 presidential election, Republicans successfully stuck Democratic nominee John Kerry with the label of “flip-flopper,” and it hurt him in the election. In this presidential election cycle, Texas governor Rick Perry was labeled as, for lack of a better word, unprepared. Everything that Perry did over the course of the campaign began to be viewed through that lens.

One of the most often-used epithets thrown around by politicians is the phrase “carpetbagger,” meaning someone who moves to an area with the idea that the person moved specifically to run for office somewhere that he or she believes is winnable. In 2004, conservative activist Alan Keyes decided to run for the United States senate from Illinois, despite never having lived in the state. Keyes defended himself against these critics due to the strange nature of the race. The Republican nominee dropped out with the race well underway, and Keyes claimed he felt a sense of obligation to run, after being asked to do so by the state GOP. Keyes ended up with 27% of the vote against Democrat Barack Obama. In 2000, Hillary Rodham Clinton ran for the U.S. Senate from the state of New York, and faced similar charges of carpetbagging. Clinton was born and raised in Illinois, attended college in Massachusetts, and was the wife of the governor of Arkansas. While never having lived in NY before 1999, Clinton managed to win 55% of the vote against Republican Rick Lazio.

With all that in mind, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich’s possible move to Washington state is all the more interesting. Kucinich recently lost a primary fight for his recently redistricted seat in Congress, and is mulling over his options. Kucinich supporters believe that his particular brand of aggressive liberalism will draw find a welcome home in Washington. As a result of redistricting following the results of the 2010 U.S. Census, Ohio lost two seats in Congress, while Washington’s growth caused the state to pick up an additional seat.

There have been politicians in the past who have lost their primary battles, only to continue on as “independent” candidates in the general election. Joe Lieberman lost a primary battle in 2006, only to be elected that November as a member of the “Connecticut for Lieberman” party. In 2010, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski lost a primary battle, only to continue on and win in the general election after waging a campaign as a write-in candidate. While these candidates seem to have thrown the typical rules aside in order to stay in office, but moving across the country is not typically something we see. Kucinich’s apparent willingness to uproot and run for office thousands of miles away was used against him by his opponent, Marcy Kaptur (a sitting Congresswoman from Ohio). As members of the House of Representatives are distributed throughout the country on the basis of population, Representatives are supposed to be more available and accessible to their constituents, and represent them more closely. A Senator has to represent the views of everyone in a state (which are typically more varied), while Representatives have to represent the needs of much smaller districts (which tend to be more ideologically polarized).

It is still an open question as to whether or not Kucinich will make the move to the Pacific Northwest, let alone whether or not Washingtonians would choose to send a man currently representing Ohioans to Congress to represent them going forward. As far as political sideshows go, this promises to be an entertaining one if it moves forward.

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Birth Control in the News: A Crash-Course

You may have noticed, over the past couple of weeks, a debate over birth control has become one of the most talked-about issues in the news. Aspects of the “birth control in the news” trend are as follows:

The office of Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, claimed that a woman witness brought to testify by the minority members of the committee was not an “appropriate witness,” saying “the hearing is not about reproductive rights but instead about the administration’s actions as they relate to freedom of religion and conscience…”

While that line of reasoning may seem sound to some, others argue that it makes no sense whatsoever. The “birth control mandate” if that is what it is being called, is what is known as a “generally applicable and neutral law,” which means that is broadly applied, instead of something targeting religious groups (which would, of course, be unconstitutional under the First Amendment). Zach Carter at the Huffington Post makes the point that we already have laws that apply broadly to people in all walks of life that some religious groups are opposed to. Pacifists are required to pay taxes that pay for wars, for example. Other laws that have been objected to on religious grounds include payment of Social Security, payment of unemployment taxes, and paying employees a minimum wage. As Lyle Denniston, who has covered the U.S. Supreme Court for over half a century writes, “laws that apply generally and do not single out religious groups may be upheld even if they intrude on religious practices”.

This issue will, most likely, stay in the headlines for the foreseeable future, as both the subject matter and the debate serve to drive television ratings and rile up both the Democratic and Republican bases. That said, however, it is somewhat difficult to believe that we are watching this conversation on televisions tuned to 2012 news coverage, and that we did not accidentally switch to a Mad Men rerun by mistake.

 

A fun little addition:

Little over a month ago the question of banning contraception was raised at a Republican debate held in New Hampshire, moderated by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. When asked whether or not a state should be able to ban contraception former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, in a fit of short-sightedness replied:

“George… I don’t know whether a state has the right to ban contraception. No state wants to. I mean the idea of you putting forward things that states might want to do that no state wants to do, and asking me whether they can do it or not is kind of a silly thing.”

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Sure, We SAY They’re “Co-Equal,” But…

As August marches on, and things in Washington, D.C. are relatively quiet (Congress is on vacation), this seemed like a good time to address some of the basics of how our political systems work.

Our government is composed of three separate branches. There is the executive branch (of which the President is the head), the legislative (the U.S. Congress), and the judicial (the courts). The legislative branch is made up of two houses, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. Each of the fifty states gets to elect two members to the Senate. The number of representatives elected to the House is based on a state’s population, with each state being guaranteed at least one. Judges in the Federal courts are appointed by the executive branch and are confirmed by the legislative branch.

The American system was designed so that all the branches of the government are equal. Yet, in our media and public discourse, this has been lost. It is natural to understand the inclination to focus on the President of the United States as the focal point of American politics, as the President is only one person, making coverage easier. There are one hundred members of the Senate, and four hundred and thirty-five members of the House of Representatives. Additionally, there are many levels of Federal Courts, making the president easily the most recognizable and covered figure in politics.

However, just because the President is the most talked about does not mean that the American Presidency is above the two other branches of government. Americans often misunderstand the relationship between the three branches, leading to pieces like the New York Times’ “If I Were President” which appeared over the weekend. As others have pointed out before me, articles like “If I Were President” demonstrate the public’s misunderstanding of the nature of having “co-equal” parts of government. Understanding this underlying principle of our government helps to shine a light onto what previously may have seemed like unbelievable positions. One may ask “Why doesn’t the president do this or that,” but understanding what the president does and does not actually have the power to control really can help to make confusing news stories more understandable.

When our nation was founded, devising a way to ensure a weak executive was a high priority for the founding fathers. Preventing a tyrannical king, like the one from whom they were declaring their nation’s independence, was in a sense the entire point of the Constitution. While the presidency has many tools and powers, it is important to realize that there are many more that it does not have, and that the office itself was designed that way from the very beginning.

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What the Heck Was the Debt Ceiling, Anyway?

If you’ve seen a newspaper or had the misfortune to have a television tuned to a news station in your vicinity over the last few weeks, you may have heard that the big topic in Washington, D.C. has been the “debt ceiling” negotiations. What the heck is a “debt ceiling”? I’m glad you asked!

 

It turns out that the United States government spends a lot of money. The House of Representatives, the “people’s house” half of our two-body Congress, has the power to allot money to be spent on, well, anything, really. That means roads, military equipment, social security, schools, law enforcement, all sorts of things get money from the federal government through the House of Representatives “appropriating” the funds for whatever project or program they decide. Over the course of U.S. history, however, the nation has consistently borrowed money in order to pay for these things. Instead of paying for everything the country spends money on through income (taxes, fees, and funds of that nature) some of the money comes from borrowed money, largely from foreign nations.

 

One of the rules that Congress has is that they need to raise the limit of how much money can be borrowed in order to keep up borrowing money, in order to keep spending it on things. Last week, the government was going to reach that limit, on August 2nd, and the government claimed that some payments would not be able to go out, putting further strain on the already suffering economy. Certain members of Congress objected to raising the limit of debt, saying that to do so would further dig the country into an economic hole, and not get federal spending habits under control. These folks weren’t budging, and that led to weeks of uncertain negotiations, with the news media following raptly.

However, the folks in Congress are elected (so they don’t like when people get mad at them), and they came to the decision that it was important for the government to keep sending out money according to schedule, especially when things like Social Security checks and military paychecks were possibly going to be withheld in the event that the limit was not raised in time.

 

The resulting compromise created a committee to study spending and income, and to propose changes to balance the two, in order to reduce the deficit (the gap between how much we spend and how much we take in). The committee won’t reach their conclusion for weeks, so for now, this whole situation will be ignored until it blows up again and takes over everyone’s attention.

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