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The Dorgan Smear

There will be a lot of elephant dust being kicked up to obscure the one-party corruption machine revealed by the Abramoff investigation. A good example of it is this ABC story, unfortunately picked up on the DailyKos, implying that Senator Byron Dorgan is somehow caught up in the Abramoff mess:

New evidence is emerging that the top Democrat on the Senate committee currently investigating Jack Abramoff got political money arranged by the lobbyist back in 2002 shortly after the lawmaker took action favorable to Abramoff"s tribal clients.

A lawyer for the Louisiana Coushatta Indians told The Associated Press that Abramoff instructed the tribe to send $5,000 to Sen. Byron Dorgan"s political group just three weeks after the North Dakota Democrat urged fellow senators to fund a tribal school program Abramoff"s clients wanted to use.

Dorgan represents a state with a lot of Indians. They are also extremely poor, and have few gaming revenues because they don"t live near population centers. (Unlike, say, the Lousiana Coushattas.) Dorgan is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. It"s his job -- both as a Senator from North Dakota and as chair of the Indian Affairs committee -- to send a letter to the appropriations committee asking for funding for the Indian programs he thinks are important. If he didn"t send a letter requesting funding for the tribal school program, that would be significant.

ABC tries to connect Dorgan to Abramoff in the following way:

Dorgan"s letter noted that the Mississippi Choctaw, one of Abramoff"s clients, had successfully used the program and requested lawmakers consider long-term funding for it. It made no mention of Abramoff or any of his other tribes that were interested in the program.

Hmm, you might wonder: Why would Dorgan mention an Abramoff client, the Mississippi Choctaw, if he wasn"t somehow in bed with Abramoff. Why wouldn"t he mention a tribe in his own state? Very suspicious, if not the smoking gun.

Yet there"s a perfectly obvious reason: A letter requesting appropriations goes to the chair of the Appropriations Committee. The chair of the Appropriations Committee is one Senator Thad Cochran -- of Mississippi. First rule of appropriations letters is always show how the funds might benefit the appropriator"s own state.

This is business as usual and its not even mildly corrupt business as usual. Senators should advocate for programs that help their constituents.

But why would Abramoff instruct a tribe to make a donation to Dorgan (one-fifth the size of the donation to Conrad Burns), in return for a letter that Dorgan surely would have signed anyway? One possibility is that this was a long-planned setup, and Abramoff wanted to make sure that some Democrats were implicated when it all came to late. But I think the answer is more banal. There"s a dirty secret about Washington lobbying, which is that half of what lobbyists do is not persuade legislators what to do, but persuade their own clients that they -- the lobbyists -- are indispensable. And that means claiming credit for things that would happen anyway. So one way Abramoff could persuade the Coushatta"s that he was earning his keep was to point to letters like Dorgan"s, take credit for them, and then tell them to send money to Dorgan. It"s a small price to pay to maintain the illusion.

It"s no surprise that a lot of Washington reporters don"t seem to recognize how extraordinary Abramoff"s scam was, because they can"t seem to recognize how ordinary Dorgan"s actions were. If people can"t recognize that distinction, the "everyone does it" defense of Abramoff might be more effective than one would imagine.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 29, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Their Own Democrats

Ed Kilgore makes an incredibly important point, drawing on Ruy Teixera"s analysis that shows the Democrats have an advantage on virtually every issue except for "credibility in fighting terror and the clarity of our overall message."

Ed points out that the "clarity of message" of the recent GOP, while perhaps key to its success, has also been its downfall:

You could make a good case that the current GOP meltdown is partly the result of an "our team" mentality that until recently has thwarted any real intra-party Republican debate, or any honest Republican discussion with the rest of the country. I"m perfectly happy to sacrifice a few points in polls on "message clarity" in order to keep my party from following this authoritarian pattern.

You could make a good case, indeed! This is absolutely true. As the Republican juggernaut of corruption falls apart, here"s my biggest worry: That through all the years of Republican dominance, many liberals/Democrats have taken away the conclusion that the key to political success is lock-step adherence to a single coherent ideological message. That may lead to success -- but becoming a parliamentary party is also, in the U.S., the path to catastrophic failure.

It doesn"t matter so much that voters know what Democrats stand for, writ large, as that they know what their own Democrats -- their congressional candidate, their governor, their Senator -- stands for. People like Tim Kaine win because voters in Virginia see Tim Kaine and like what they see. Bernie Sanders wins because people in Vermont see Bernie Sanders, who he is and the fact that he speaks for himself, and they like that. You could go on. As I pointed out in my recent article on why the Republican success in 1994 election is a bad model for 2006, when progressive Democrats have succeeded, as in 1974, it is because they have been exceptionally skilled individuals, brilliant at understanding their own constituents and not just following a national line. The result may be a congressional majority with some ideological differences, but that"s democracy. Whatever the result, the ideological differences will be far narrower than they were back when the Democratic majority included powerful Southern arch-conservatives. I"d rather have a party of brilliant constituent politicians who work for their states and districts than a bunch of talking-point robots echoing a national message for the sake of a misguided worship of the right-wing"s "message clarity."


Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 29, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

The Return of Doolittle and Delay

By now you probably know the names of the members of Congress under investigation in the Abramoff case:
Prosecutors in the department"s public integrity and fraud divisions...are looking into Mr. Abramoff"s interactions with former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, Rep. Bob Ney (R., Ohio), Rep. John Doolittle (R., Calif.) and Sen. Conrad Burns (R., Mont.)
To a campaign-finance reform wonk like me, this will be a familiar group of names. Back in the late-1990s, and for some time after, as the McCain-Feingold bill limiting soft money contributions gathered momentum, an alternative emerged that would have eliminated all restrictions on campaign contributions, and in return all contributions would be reported immediately on the Internet. Accompanied by the ritual quotation from Justice Brandeis that "sunlight is the best disinfectant," the proposal to replace regulation with disclosure was first introduced by Congressman Doolittle, with DeLay as his lead cosponsor of "Doolittle/DeLay." Ney did not cosponsor, but probably just because he ran the committee that the bill was referred to, where he supported it. Burns took the same position in the Senate, complete with the same quote from everyone"s favorite Massachusetts liberal.
To this day I encounter people from all points on the political spectrum who believe -- or wish -- that the problems of corruption and perceived corruption stemming from campaign contributions can be dealt with simply by empowering voters through disclosure, so that we can all decide for ourelves whether contributions influence official actions, rather than the cumbersome system of regulation and loophole-closing we"ve devised. As the McCain-Feingold law seems to spin down a rabbit-hole of incomprehensible regulatory hair-splitting over whether blogs might be misused as loopholes for big contributions, such a simple, self-correcting and open option seems more and more appealing.
The fact that the principal advocates for the disclosure-only approach are now revealed to be (alleged) crooks does not in itself invalidate the idea or cancel out its merits as policy. But the specific case, even if none of the named legislators is provably guilty of a felony, shows starkly the limits of such an approach.
First, note that it has taken the FBI several years now to even begin to piece together the relationships between campaign contributions and official actions in this case, with indications that the investigation might take several more years. And that"s with all of Abramoff"s boastful e-mails as a roadmap. How would an ordinary citizen be expected to understand whether a campaign contribution from, say, the Tigua tribe, should be a matter of concern?
And then there"s the even more interesting revelation in this case that what we often think of as "official action" might not be found where we think. Most efforts to connect campaign contributions to official actions would tend to look at congressional voting behavior or at legislation introduced or cosponsored. That"s the approach political scientists have traditionally taken, leading most of them until recently to conclude that money had little influence on official actions, and it"s the approach most researchers have taken in trying to make the case that money does distort public responsibilities. But the emerging DeLay/Doolittle/Ney case, based on what we know about it, shows that this might be a case of the proverbial search for the keys where the light is better. As far as I can tell, in the whole web of corruption involving Abramoff, Scanlon, the tribes, David Safavian, etc, there"s not one actual congressional vote or formally introduced piece of legislation to be found. (I"d welcome any corrections on that; my research staff is still on holiday.)
Instead, Ney and his colleagues operated by various methods that traditional approaches would never find, but which are plainly misuses of official power. They would try to slip provisions helping Abramoff"s clients into the conference reports on legislation at the last minute, such as the provision helping the Tigua into the Help America Vote Act in 2002. It"s often impossible to find the fingerprints on such provisions and they may well go unnoticed until after the bill has been signed. Or, they would use letters directed to subcabinet officials such as Interior Dept official Steven Griles. Although Griles seems to have been a cooperative ideological ally, even dispassionate civil servants jump at letters from members of Congress, even those that say no more than, "please look into this." And such letters are rarely public unless the member of Congress chooses to release them. As far as I know, a freedom of information act request to an agency asking for "all correspondence from Congressman X" is the only way to get them.
And then there is the most remarkable tactic of all, something like hiding in plain sight: Ney"s insertion of statements into the Congressional Record attacking the then-owner of the SunCruz gambling boat company when Abramoff and his partners were trying to buy it. No one doing a traditional analysis of congressional power would pay a moment"s notice to statements inserted in the Congressional Record, especially those not read on the floor. The Congressional Record is like a giant group blog, albeit of far less consequence. And yet, for someone relatively new to the U.S., as SunCruz owner Gus Boulis apparently was, the idea that the U.S. Congress seems to have officially condemned your business practices would probably be a hugely intimidating factor.
These appear to be large crimes, under any system of campaign finance regulation, and should be investigated and prosecuted as such. But they show that, even in the absence of large crimes, or especially in their absence, it will never be easy for citizens to make their own judgments about whether members of Congress are responding to citizens or contributors. And thus there is no alternative to some kind of regulatory system involving limits on contributions, and public financing. But we do need some new strategies in that area -- more on that soon.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 28, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Cheney and the Paradox of Executive Power

The manic nature of the Bush/Cheney pushback against its multiplying number of critics is revealed in one aspect of Vice President Cheney"s speech at AEI Monday. Cheney said,

Some of the most irresponsible comments have come from politicians who actually voted in favor of authorizing the use of force against Saddam Hussein. These are elected officials who had access to the intelligence materials. They are known to have a high opinion of their own analytical capabilities. (Laughter.) And they were free to reach their own judgments based upon the evidence. 

Without getting into the details of exactly who had what information when, what makes that sentence so jarring is that the fundamental philosophy of Bush and Cheney -- and to a lesser degree their predecessors in the White House -- is that members of Congress, in their view, should absolutely not be "free to reach their own judgments" on matters of foreign policy and national security. Rather, advocates of executive branch power argue, the president is due substantial deference on all these questions. After all, to quote the cliche of all executive-branch defenders, "we can't have 535 Secretaries of State." The need to act with a uniform national voice, especially in a crisis, together with the fact that members of Congress will have neither complete intelligence information nor the giant organization needed to properly cull, evaluate, and reach a decision about it, is a strong argument in favor of deference to the executive.

And deference to the executive means that, unless their own judgments strongly counsel a different direction, members of Congress generally will vote to give the president the authorization or flexibility to act, even if they would not have made the same decision themselves. And most legislators operate from that principle. For example, there is no doubt that most of the Democrats, and probably many of the Republicans, who voted to authorize force would not themselves have launched the same war in the same way had they been president, but that was not the standard they used.
This White House takes a particularly far-out view of executive power, explained well by David Cole in his recent New York Review of Books article about the theories of John Yoo, now a Berkeley law professor but better known as the White House lawyer who authored the key "torture memo." Yoo believes, for example, that the Constitutional provision giving Congress the power to "declare war" means only that Congress can "declare" -- as in, observe -- that a war seems to have begun. (Cole's important article is reprinted here.)
While Yoo's theories, along with the related "unitary executive" doctrine associated with Cheney's new chief of staff David Addington, are extreme and novel defenses of the "Imperial Presidency," the basic idea that the president deserves substantial deference on foreign policy is not unusual, and not even that controversial. Members of Congress know that, even in the unlikely event that they had access to 90% of the intelligence information available to the president, they don't have the independent capacity to analyze, prioritize and interpret it, and even if they did, how could the country act in a crisis if 535 legislators came to different conclusions? (The Vice President, who demanded and received raw intelligence data, apparently had no such hesitation about his own small staff's ability to analyze and interpret such information more accurately than the entire professional system, but that's neither here nor there.)
The implication of strong executive-branch powers in foreign affairs is that, if the president is entitled to substantial deference, he also bears equivalent responsibility for the choices he or she makes. If Cheney actually believes that the politicians who voted to allow Bush to use force bear equal responsibility because "they were free to reach their own judgments," then he is implicitly accepting a foreign policy regime in which individual members of Congress are co-equal decision-makers with the President. It is obvious from everything Yoo and Addington and others have written and said that they do not believe this. It's an attack line, and the fact that it contradicts Cheney's most basic philosophy is irrelevant to them.
Those who favor strong executive power over foreign policy should recognize that that position is controversial mostly because of presidents who have abused that power. Tonkin Gulf and the secret bombing of Cambodia led to the War Powers Resolution, which even Clinton did not accept as constitutional. At the end of the day -- although it might take years -- the Iraq invasion is likely to cause a similar backlash. Cheney's implicit acceptance of the idea that members of Congress should bear equal responsibility in decision-making will feed that backlash.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 22, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Woodward is Woodward

I"m not sure I have an opinion on Bob Woodward"s culpability for keeping silent about the fact that he"d been a target of the Valerie Plame leak well before other reporters. While courts at all levels concluded that Matt Cooper and Judith Miller were required to testify, nothing would have required them or Woodward to rush forward unbidden. Woodward"s worst offense was joining in the Victoria Toensing/Joe DiGenova chorus of "there"s no crime here," which is only a little more shameful than it already was, now that we know what he knew.

Much more interesting are the obvious strains in his "odd relationship" with his Post colleagues, especially Walter Pincus. I should say that I know nothing about what goes on in the Post newsroom. But for as long as I've been reading the Washington Post regularly, I've found it sort of ironic that the paper has some of the most amazing investigative reporters in history, reporters who really earn that overused modifier. Pincus and now retired George Lardner are the best examples, but Morton Mintz was another and in the younger generation, probably Dana Priest is a fourth. All are the kind of reporters who understand how to break open a federal agency, nurture an unhappy bureaucrat with a story to tell until he's ready to tell it, or read through 10,000 pages of public records to find the connections between two events. And none of them are or were all that well known.

Meanwhile the paper also had someone who was probably the embodiment of the term "investigative reporter" to a generation, but who is actually not that at all. Woodward instead is a stenographer of the narratives of the people at the very highest levels of power, recording their semi-official versions of history. Not that there's anything wrong with that; it's just a different activity. Even Deep Throat turns out to be not a White House underling shocked at what he's witnessing but basically a rival center of power in Washington at the time, the post-Hoover FBI. I've always wondered if that caused a little tension at the paper. (When I say "stenographer," echoing Maureen Dowd's criticism of Judith Miller, I don't mean to associate Woodward with Miller, whose "entanglement" with sources and her role in the story, makes her something other than a journalist.)

I was glad to see that Greg Anrig linked to an old Joan Didion essay about most of Woodward's books. To my mind the most interesting and revealing of those books is the most unlikely: Wired, his out of print 1984 biography of John Belushi. Wired is almost like a French experimental novel of the 60s, like the novel whose name and author I forget right now that is written entirely without the letter "e": It is a book about humor written entirely from the perspective of a person without any sense of humor or irony. It's years since I read it, but I vividly remember the flat earnestness with which Woodward recounts the "Bees" segment from the early Saturday Night Live, and Belushi's dislike of it, the same tone he would later bring to Colin Powell's march to war. He has no idea why people would dress up as bees, laugh at people dressed as bees, or that there are motives and paradoxes underneath the surface. Woodward's mind has a total literalness to it -- as Anrig says, he believes that "what's really going on" is exactly the same as what his sources tell him. That's wired in, not something he can do anything about, and so I've always been a little sympathetic to Woodward. (And before anyone says "Asperger's," let me just say my name's not Bill Frist and I don't do remote medical diagnosis.) And you can get something out of his reporting, if you bring your own sense of irony and skepticism.

p.s.: The book I was thinking of is "Le Disparition," by Georges Perec, which I cannot claim to have read either in French or in its English translation. From Google and Wikipedia, I learn that such texts are called "lipograms" and that "writing this way is impractical." Indeed.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 17, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Factcheck.org Strikes Out (Again!)

I"ve picked on factcheck.org before, because I find it very disturbing that they have assumed the role of ultimate arbiter of truth in political advertising and policy claims, despite being extremely amateurish and easily played by powerful interests. Another good example today:

An e-mail from factcheck.org challenges an ad related to the digital television transition. The underlying topic is is arcane, but stick with me. I happen to know a little about this, going back to the mid-1990s, when I followed it in the Telecom Act of 1996. In a nutshell, Congress long ago decided that we should shift television broadcasting to a new digital format, on a new section of the broadcast spectrum. Existing broadcasters will get new frequencies for free, which will allow them to develop many new ways to make money, but in return, they are expected to give up their old analog channels, which will eventually make that part of the spectrum available for other uses. Complicated as it is, the basic political dynamic here has long been that the broadcasters, by consensus one of if not the most powerful lobby groups in Washington, want the new digital frequencies, but also want to hold onto their old frequencies.

The ad in question focused on one of the new uses for the old analog TV spectrum: The newly available frequencies could be used by police and fire departments that currently don't have enough frequencies for their radios, or for new systems they want to develop. (There's something about the existing analog TV frequencies that makes them "good spectrum," and thus very useful for these purposes, but that's beyond my expertise.)  In the fight against the broadcasters, these "first responders" make an appealing, succinct case for a rapid transition. The ad in question was sponsored by the "High-Tech DTV Coalition" and urges viewers to contact a group called "Support America's First Responders," which apparently is supported by Motorola. Factcheck asserts that the ad might have been paid for by Motorola, which would potentially benefit from the rapid transition by selling new equipment to police and fire departments.

The "first responders" are not quite central to the decade-long fight over digital broadcasting, and so the ad's attempt to compress the issue into something understandable might be considered a little manipulative. And if Motorola paid for the ad, sure, that should be disclosed. But factcheck.org makes only one factual point about the ad: they complain that the ad says that the digital transition "is a 'win-win,' implying that there are no losers." Jeez, "win-win" is one of the half-dozen most overused expressions in business and politics in this country today, and I wish everyone took it so literally -- that would really be a "win-win"! But the ad didn't say there are no losers. It made the perfectly accurate point that consumers are winners if they get the benefits of digital TV, and police and fire departments, among others, would be winners if they got access to new broadcast frequencies.

Factcheck says this about the losers: Consumers "would be forced either to junk their [TV] set and buy a new digital set, or to obtain a new converter that manufacturers estimate will cost about $50...Also not mentioned is that taxpayers will be asked to contribute up to $3 billion to subsidize the conversion. That money would come from the proceeds expected from auctioning off some of the airwaves now used by TV broadcasters."

But the subsidies, if they really reach $3 billion, would be intended to cover the cost of converters. So both these things can't be true. To the extent there are subsidies, consumers aren't losers. And it is only accurate to say that "taxpayers will be asked to contribute" to the subsidies if it would be reasonable to think that you could take back the analog frequencies, auction them off, and give all the proceeds to the Treasury. But you can't. If government takes back the analog frequencies, it could only be as part of a deal whereby the public (which owns the airwaves, by the way) gives the new frequencies to the broadcasters, in exchange for their old frequencies, which are then auctioned to pay for the transition that makes it possible for everyone to get TV on the new frequencies, and thus makes the change worthwhile to broadcasters. That's the "win-win" bargain.  Without that deal, there's no auction, and thus no money for the "taxpayers." It's the rare case of government thinking ahead and trying to structure a good deal that works reasonably well for everyone. And the only obstacle to this sweet deal is that the broadcasters want it all. They want an even sweeter deal, where they get the new frequencies, but don't have to give up their old ones, which they also got for free, and which will have new money-making potential after the transition.

After that excursion, I have two simple questions for factcheck.org, which have to do with their methodology and not the arcana of spectrum policy:

1. This is the first e-mail I've received from factcheck.org in several weeks. Your web site shows that you haven't released any fact checks since October 28. In the two and a half weeks since then, there have been two state gubernatorial elections, a couple of dozen controversial state ballot initiatives, and lots of last minute ads on all of those. The president gave a speech in Pennsylvania making some very specific charges about Iraq war opponents "rewriting history." The congressional majority fell out over issues of tax cuts, oil drilling in ANWR, and spending cuts. The president withdrew a Supreme Court nominee and put forward a new one more amenable to the hard right. Print and broadcast ads were run on these issues and many others.  On what basis did you conclude that this mildly misleading ad that stretched the term "win-win" was the only ad in this entire eventful period that deserved a "fact check"??

2. Did contacts from any of the well-funded lobbyists on the broadcasters' side influence your choice of this topic over the many others available in this period or the substance of your critique? Did you contact advocates on the other side of the issue, or neutral experts, to obtain any perspective on the underlying issue??

And finally, a question for me: "Why do you get so worked up about this?" Answer: It's because I believe there is a real potential for a neutral arbiter of factual claims in ads and speeches. Factcheck.org has occupied that space. There's only room for one. And it is infuriating that they allow themselves to be spun, played and manipulated by some of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington. They must do better, or else their reports should be considered not credible by the national media, and some other organization should take over their role.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 15, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Twilight for Bush and Blair

Dana Millbank in Friday"s Washington Post described the meltdown of the budget reconciliation process on both the House and Senate sides using a metaphor that, back in the day, would have been off limits:

On either end of the Capitol, insurgents brought the legislative process to a halt, forcing GOP leaders in the House and Senate to shelve prized tax and spending cuts. The explosions went off almost simultaneously, as if they had been synchronized -- and authorities blamed both attacks on Republican moderates.

There was a third explosion, almost simultaneous, in another capitol. In London, parliament rejected Tony Blair's proposal to expand police powers to fight terrorism, the first loss for Blair in eight years and apparently something very close to a fatal blow to his government. Blair biographer Philip Stephens notes in today's Financial Times that Blair "has reached, as close allies are now acknowledging, the dusk of his premiership."

It's interesting to look at these two setbacks side-by-side, just as a question of governance.

A standard critique of Blair in the U.K., repeated in Stephens' colunm, is that he has brought a "presidential" style of leadership to the office. That's partly a dig at his alliances with Clinton and Bush, and his American-style press operation, but it really means that he aspired to be a national leader based on his personal vision and charisma rather than the leader of a party with a coherent platform. As Stephens puts it, "in his effort to build a new social democratic settlement, Mr. Blair shows still greater disdain for Labour ideology than [Margaret Thatcher had] for Tory tradition."

Under Bush in the U.S., on the other hand, we have moved toward something that looks a lot more like parliamentary government, in which the ruling party moves with a single voice and when it fails to do so, the whole order is at risk. If Blair is more national leader than party leader, Bush has styled himself as much more the leader of an ideologically unified majority party than any American president in decades, including those such as LBJ who had solid congressional majorities. He is the first president, for example, to handpick the Senate majority leader.

Ironically, something more like parliamentary government was a goal of "reformers" in the U.S. system for decades, especially in the postwar years when members of Congress of the president's own party continually blocked active, progressive leadership, especially on civil rights. Strong and ideologically coherent parties with a strong president at the helm were thought to be preferable for progress than the sclerotic system of four parties (James McGregor Burns broke each party into a conservative congressional wing and a more liberal presidential wing) and deep bias toward inaction.

The budget reconciliation process that broke down yesterday in both Houses is very much a product of that reform impulse. Designed in 1974 to force congressional committees to make big choices about taxes and entitlement spending, it has been used by presidents Reagan in 1981 and Clinton in 1993 to force dramatic reorderings of priorities that would have been impossible earlier. Today the process has been egregiously abused, simply to avoid the rule of unlimited debate and 60 votes for cloture in the Senate. The more that key choices such as oil drilling in ANWR, which go well beyond the budget, are moved through this one-party process, the more "parliamentary" our system becomes.

The phenomenon of parliamentary democracies that surely seems weirdest to an American is the fact that a single loss can bring down a government. We are accustomed to having our "accountability moments" at regularly scheduled intervals, with all sorts of congressional victories and defeats in between. And there's something to be said for that. A president can be daring, can try to push Congress in certain directions, and can win some or lose some, get up off the mat and come right back and try again. Imagine, for example, if Bill Clinton had been prime minister rather than president. Rather than eight consecutive years in office, he would have been like one of those prime ministers who comes in and out of power several times, losing confidence votes, dissolving governments, and then forming new ones on new coalitions.

A great deal of Bush/Rove/DeLay's success over the past five years has come from pushing through party-line votes as if they were confidence votes in a parliamentary system. Many of the votes pushed through with massive arm-twisting and unprecedented procedures, such as the Medicare prescription drug bill and the 2003 tax bill, were sold on the basis that the president needs the victory. You may not think this is good policy, wavering Republicans were told, but if the president wins, he gets reelected and we all win; we lose, and our whole edifice of power collapses.

And just as in a parliamentary system, that works until it stops working. And when it stops working, the government is finished. After reelection, the confidence vote argument lost some steam. Seeing Bush as a burden in 2006 rather than an asset for reelection, it loses still more. Having chosen to govern as a party, rather than national, leader, Bush has few of the resources that other presidents have had to salvage themselves, and the same goes for the Republican leadership in Congress.

And thus, Bush and Blair arrived this week at the same place, moving in opposite directions. The parliamentarian who governed as a president and the president who brought one-party parliamentary government to the U.S. have simultaneously reaced "the dusk" of their governments.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 11, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

The Continuing Relevance of Both Redistricing and Campaign Finance Reform

I promised to comment on Josh"s statement on TPM that he was disappointed in the defeat of nonpartisan redistricting initiatives in California and Ohio because he has come to consider redistricting a reform even more important than campaign finance reform. I"ve moved somewhat in the opposite direction, and I"ll explain why.

When I first got involved in issues of political reform, around 1995, political reform was synonymous with reducing the influence of money on elections. That was the main thing, everything else -- redistricting, election-day voter registration, vote-by-mail -- was an afterthought, which I thought was short-sighted. There were a couple of different ways of getting at money in politics, mainly a choice between limiting contributions, and an emerging movement toward full public financing of elections. After the contested election of 2000, the range of electoral reforms widened out dramatically, including such basic issues as providing reliable voting machines. Then, earlier this year, nonpartisan redistricting emerged as a central focus, almost as campaign finance reform had been a few years earlier.

I get very frustrated with a fight over which reform is "more important" to a working democracy, finance reform, redistricting, or issues such as universal voter registration or voter i.d. requirements. They're important and interrelated, and that's not just a bullshit "everything's connected" kind of statement. Just take the two issues of districting and money. The small number of demographically contested races dramatically increases the arms-race mentality on the few targetted races, and in turn, the financial advantage of incumbents dramatically narrows the field of contested races. It's a loop, and if you could decisively break either factor, you would start to change the system.

So the question is which is easier to break? Districting is going to be a more difficult problem to fix. I say that not just because Tuesday's election results show that nonpartisan redistricting is a tough sell, but because the payoff is relatively small. Nonpartisan redistricting in Arizona and Iowa has had relatively little effect on competition, certainly not for the U.S. House of Representatives and not in the legislatures either. The Ohio initiative would have been a fascinating experiment, taking the state from a system of highly partisan (Republican) gerrymandering to a system that was not only non partisan but that, unlike any other system, put an absolute premium on competitiveness. (Under the failed proposal, anyone could propose a map, and the maps would be scored by computer for the number of competitive districts they would create, competitve defined as a 47-53 range. The nonpartisan commission would have had to choose from the three top-scoring maps.) Even this experiment was likely to produce only a handful of more competitive districts, and its defeat means that such a radical approach is unlikely to be tried anywhere else.

(Nor is it clear to me that this heavy priority on competitiveness would have led to the best representative democracy. I assume that the easiest way to ensure a competitive district would be to attach a heavily Democratic area to a heavily Republican one, so, for example, a district might graft together some African-American neighborhood of Cleveland with Shaker Heights or whatever the Republican exurb is that best illustrates my point. (I know almost nothing about Cleveland!) There might be a spirited competition between candidates from each half of the district, won by the one with the strongest turnout in his half, not necessarily by the one who reaches across the divide. And if a candidate does reach across the divide, the district won't seem as competitive anymore!)

Josh raises and rebuts a kind of straw man argument against redistricting -- the claim that people increasingly move to be with people who are more ideologically like themselves, and therefore that districts are becoming more strongly partisan by nature. There's a little evidence that that's occurring as a side-effect of other economic trends. But that's irrelevant. The fact is that most single-member, winner-take-all districts are going to have some partisan preference or another, at all times, and are not likely to be that competitive. The difference in competitiveness between neutrally drawn districts, a bipartisan gerrymander drawn to protect incumbents (the most common form), and a partisan gerrymander such as Texas or Ohio, is trivial. In fact, the partisan gerrymander might actually create a few more competitive districts, as in Texas last year. The only times when districts reliably seem to be competitive is when they are in transition from one allegiance to another. So, for example, in the late 1980s, districts in the Carolinas and Georgia were competitive as they slowly began to shed their historical attachment to Democrats; today the most competitive districts are likely to be wealthy Northeastern districts whose moderate Republican representatives have worn out their welcome. (A smaller number of districts, as I pointed out earlier this week.)

One good theoretical answer to the limited value of redistricting along is to go even further, and get rid of winner-take-all elections and single-member districts. Imagine, for example, a congressional district around the Cleveland metro area incorporating the city and its suburbs, electing four representatives by some form of preference voting. Most of the seats, and certainly the fourth, would be potentially competitive, and there would be significant incentives for candidates to reach beyond their natural bases to be at least the second and third choices of voters in other areas of the district or with other viewpoints.  (For more on this and related reforms, the best resource is always Fair Vote, formerly the Center for Voting and Democracy. They even have a separate page showing how these multi-member districts might work in any state. (I made up my example before looking at this page.))

Most of these alternatives are constitutionally allowable, but they are just not on the radar screen of people working on redistricting reform. And they are even more radically disruptive to the existing order than the Ohio initiative. (That's the whole point.) So one faces a choice: Do you say that redistricting might be a good idea, if you're willing to go well beyond what anyone's thinking about now and include multi-member districts and preference voting? Or do you try to move those ideas into the mainstream while also pushing hard on campaign finance reform?

I tend toward the second position. Keeping the sphere of democracy separate from the inequalities of the economic sphere is always a fundamental reform, and one that needs constant policing. And money -- or, more accurately, the absence of it -- is at least as formidable a barrier as districting. Emory political scientist Alan Abramowitz and colleagues put out a paper last year trying to measure the relative importance of money, gerrymandering and naturally increased partisanship in reducing competition and concluded that money was the most important factor. I raised some questions about their methodology as it applies to redistricting here, but on the whole, it's a good paper. The kind of campaign finance reform I'm interested in is not just the McCain-Feingold type that sets limits on large corrupting contributions, but initiatives whose principle objective is to make it easier for people who don't have access to those big dollars to run for office. That can be full public financing systems like those in Arizona or Maine, or systems that match small contributions, such as New York City's system that adds a four to one match to every contribution of $250 or less. And we need to find ways for reform to enhance the role that the Internet can play in helping candidates find sympathetic small donors, rather than treating the internet purely as a loophole to be closed. (There's more to say about that as well.)

To sum up, I think that both campaign finance reform and redistricting reform have to be part of opening up American politics. But on both, we need some fresh thinking and new strategies. On neither are we on the verge of big change. But I do think that because of the successful models such as Arizona and New York City, we are closer to a breakthrough on campaign finance reform than on redistricting, and I think that what's achievable now would make a bigger difference.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 10, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Initiatives Lose (and What Else Is New?)

I have no particular insights about the gubernatorial or mayoral elections yesterday, but did follow the ballot initiatives in Ohio and California somewhat closely. Plenty of conclusions have already been drawn: the California results, in which eight initiatives lost, were a rejection of Schwarzenegger and a victory for unions; in Ohio, the defeat of a package of political reform initiatives including nonpartisan redistricting can be ascribed to a well-funded opposition that raised a lot of confusion about the measures. The defeat of an anti-gay measure in Maine is good news on that issue. An initiative in Washington that would have rolled back the state"s gas tax was also defeated, another sign that the anti-tax movement has run out of steam.

But there is a certain amount of over-analysis here. What all these results have in common is that they prove a basic rule: Ballot initiatives lose, most of the time. Complex ballot initiatives like non-partisan redistricting lose more often than relatively simple simple ones like banning same-sex marriage, raising the minimum wage or limiting school class size. The bias toward "No" on complex initiatives is enormous and seems to increase each year. 

And why should that be surprising? The idea of direct democracy is appealing, but faced with complex questions, most voters will react with a sense that they're not quite knowledgeable enough to evaluate all the possible consequences and weigh competing claims that they've only heard vaguely, and so the default option is to vote no, in favor of not messing with the status quo. That's particularly true in states that have "initiative fatigue," like California or Oregon. (In those states, early polling on an initiative needs to show close to 2:1 support before there's any real likelihood of winning.) But it's an easy emotion to invoke, even in Ohio where initiatives are not overused.

For years, liberals have wanted to play the state initiative game with the intensity of Grover Norquist on the right, particularly the ability to put multiple initiatives on multiple state ballots simultaneously -- tax limits, term limits, anti-gay and anti-gay marriage, the "paycheck protection act" which returned as one of Schwarzenegger's initiatives. There have been some liberal (defining that term broadly) successes, such as on minimum wage, on campaign finance reform, on medical marijuana, etc. In most cases, initial successes have been followed by defeats, so that the overall record is almost always mixed. (The best resource on all these results and the use of initiatives for progressive causes remains the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which also has out a nice instant analysis of the 2005 results.) When traditional legislative politics seems deadlocked, static, irrelevant, out of touch, or wholly controlled by one party, the fantasy of going around it to The People remains ever-appealing.

But we don't play the game the same way the right does. We play it literally: We try to win the things we care about because we think they're good policy. The right sometimes does that, but more often they use initiatives as a way to fire up their base, to change the agenda, to force the other side to spend money, to break up liberal coalitions, or to achieve other goals that are incidental to victory. The win-loss record on many of the conservative initiave topics is equally mixed, but they have surely gotten more residual benefit from their losses.

In the future, I'd like to see a lot more creative use of initiatives that go directly to things people care about, that inspire groups of people who don't think politics speaks to them, that can split the right, and/or that are simple and basic assertions of our values, such as that no one should work for less than $5.15 an hour. And there should be much more wariness of strategies that call for using initiatives to achieve complex goals. And the fantasy that initiatives provide some way around the messy, frustrating fights of legislative politics is, sadly, just that.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 9, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (45) | TrackBack

The 1994 Fallacy

I"m on record expressing skepticism over Democratic "Contract With America" nostalgia, and go into some more detail in an article just published in The American Prospect online.  My argument is basically that 1994 is a bad model for Democrats, simply because in that year there were a good number of congressional districts (53) that had been voting Republican in presidential elections for years while not shedding their allegiance to a Democratic member of Congress. We overstate the magic of the Contract and Gingrich"s language. "Nationalizing the election" for Gingrich was just a matter of activating those voters" long-established partisan preference in the congressional election, in which he got some help from the backlash against Clinton.

I argue in the article that a better model for Democrats than 1994 is 1974, when 75 new Democrats won office, but won not with a national message but as individuals, with exceptional political skills and individual passion both about their own districts and the issues of the day, which included corruption/reform and our country's entanglement in an unwinnable war. The class of '74 had much in common but did not operate from a centralized agenda.

One response to the article has been, sure, that's probably true, but polls show that people don't know what Democrats stand for and we need some sort of core message to be shared by all candidates. I think the answer to that is that people will know what Democrats stand for when they see a Democrat, either a national figure like Barack Obama or Hilary Clinton or their own congressional candidate or their governor, say what he or she stands for. I think those national figures are doing a good job of it, and they're not all "on message," and the best thing that can happen next year is to have candidates of similar quality and willingness to speak their mind.

Since there are no comments on the TAP site, I'd welcome any discussion of the article here or at TPM Cafe, where this is cross-posted.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 8, 2005 | Permalink