Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

A Consensus that Doesn’t Seem to Matter

I don’t recall which American humorist first delivered the line, “I’m not a member of an organized political party; I’m a Democrat” but for many years, “disorganized” was one of the kinder descriptions of the Democratic party.

Contemporary Democrats remain ideologically diverse, but these days, the divisions are far deeper in the Republican party, where extremists elected to Congress from some 80 deep-red (often gerrymandered) districts are far, far to the Right of most Republican voters.

Just how much does this fringe depart from the policy preferences of the Republican rank-and-file?  If we are talking about issues of campaign finance reform, a recent poll strongly suggests the answer is “pretty far.

Americans of both parties fundamentally reject the regime of untrammeled money in elections made possible by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and other court decisions and now favor a sweeping overhaul of how political campaigns are financed, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll.

The findings reveal deep support among Republicans and Democrats alike for new measures to restrict the influence of wealthy givers, including limiting the amount of money that can be spent by “super PACs” and forcing more public disclosure on organizations now permitted to intervene in elections without disclosing the names of their donors.

And by a significant margin, they reject the argument that underpins close to four decades of Supreme Court jurisprudence on campaign finance: that political money is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment. Even self-identified Republicans are evenly split on the question.

The poll confirms that most Americans–Republican and Democrat alike–reject the Court’s sunny conclusion that money does not corrupt the process or allow the wealthy to “buy” policies favorable to their interests.

The broader public appears to see things differently: More than four in five Americans say money plays too great a role in political campaigns, the poll found, while two-thirds say that the wealthy have more of a chance to influence the elections process than other Americans.

Those concerns — and the divide between Washington elites and the rest of the country — extend to Republicans.

Three-quarters of self-identified Republicans support requiring more disclosure by outside spending organizations, for example, but Republican leaders in Congress have blocked legislation to require more disclosure by political nonprofit groups, which do not reveal the names of their donors.

Republicans in the poll were almost as likely as Democrats to favor further restrictions on campaign donations, even as some prominent Republicans call for legislation to eliminate existing caps on contributions.

Perhaps if the more extreme partisans sent to Washington from safe, deep-red districts had to answer to more moderate–and more representative–Republican voters, their legislative behavior would be different.

Perhaps if a couple of the eminent scholars on the Court had ever run for or held political office, their lofty abstractions might be tempered with, and informed by, real-world experience.

And perhaps, if pigs could fly…..

Voter Apathy?

Today, I’m participating in an event on partisan redistricting hosted by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause. Following are the remarks I will share:

——————————-

Indiana had the lowest turnout rate in the nation in the last midterm elections. There are a number of reasons for that depressing statistic.

First of all, although Hoosiers are rarely in the vanguard of anything, we do remain on the cutting edge when it comes to voter suppression tactics—to begin with, we were among the very first states to pass a so-called “voter ID” law, and ours remains one of the nation’s strictest. For example, it isn’t enough to have a government issued picture ID; it must also have an expiration date.(Unlike, for example, student IDs.)

The legal challenge to that law was unsuccessful largely because its actual operation was speculative at that point; since the Seventh Circuit rejected that challenge, it has become clear even to Judge Posner, who voted to uphold the law, that its sole purpose was to discourage voting by poor and minority voters who might be expected to vote for Democrats. Voter ID laws were a “remedy” for a non-existent problem—in-person voter fraud.

But the lawmakers in what Harrison Ullmann used to call the World’s Worst Legislature haven’t rested on their laurels: this last session, lawmakers voted down an effort to keep the polls open until 8:00—Indiana’s polls close at 6:00, much earlier than most states. This makes it much more difficult for non-professional working people to vote. Lawmakers have also left in place the ability of a single member of a county election board to prevent the establishment of a voting center. Here in Marion County, the Republican member of the election board has persistently blocked efforts to do so. Wouldn’t want to make voting more convenient!

Laws making voting more onerous are only one reason among many for low voter turnout and disappointing citizen engagement. I am going to suggest three others that combine to depress interest in government and the electoral process: gerrrymandering, widespread distrust of government, and low levels of civic literacy. Today, our focus is on gerrymandering.

Every ten years, the Indiana General Assembly engages in what individual legislators will call redistricting, and what the rest of us will call gerrymandering, after former Vice-President Elbridge Gerry. It will be an intensely partisan endeavor—and that’s true no matter which party is in charge—and it will be viewed by most Hoosiers as highly technical and profoundly boring.

That redistricting, however, will have a much greater effect on how Indiana is governed for the ensuing decade than most, if not all, of the votes cast in the elections that will follow. Whichever party wins a majority in the November elections preceding redistricting wins the privilege of drawing the new maps—and those maps will have an outsized influence over the political agenda for the state.

The goal, of course, is to draw as many “safe” seats as possible–more for the party in charge, of course, but also for the minority party, because in order to retain control, the winners need to cram as many of the losers into as few districts as possible, which makes those districts safe as well. While we have engaged in this effort since Vice-President Gerry’s time (and he signed the Declaration of Independence!), the advent of computers has made the process far, far more efficient—and arguably, far more damaging.

Neighborhoods, cities, towns, townships–even precincts–are evaluated solely on the basis of their voting history, and then broken up to meet the political needs of mapmakers. Numbers are what drive the results–not compactness of districts, not communities of interest, and certainly not democratic competitiveness.

Let’s tick off some of the more obvious results of this process:

1) The interests of cities, neighborhoods, etc., are less likely to be represented.

2) Safe districts enable sloppy legislation and dubious ethics: if you are guaranteed victory every election, it is hard to be motivated and interested, easy to become lazy and arrogant. (Eric Turner was a recent example. There are many others.)

3) Party preoccupation with gerrymandering consumes an enormous amount of money and energy that could arguably be better directed.

4) Safe seats allow politicians to scuttle popular measures without fear of retribution: at the federal level, campaign finance reform is just one example.

5) Lack of competitiveness also makes it impossible to trace campaign donations, since unopposed candidates send their unneeded money to those running in competitive districts. So when the folks with “Family Friendly Libraries” send a check to Rep. Censor, who is unopposed, he then sends it to Sen. MeToo, who is in a hot race; but Sen. MeToo’s campaign report shows only a contribution from Rep. Censor.

These are just a few of the more obvious effects of gerrymandering; there are plenty of others. Two of those other consequences that may be less obvious deserve special attention and concern.

First, the lack of competitiveness breeds voter apathy and reduced political participation. Why get involved when the result is foreordained. Why donate to a sure loser? For that matter, unless you are trying to buy political influence for some reason, why donate to a sure winner? Why volunteer or vote, when those efforts are pointless? Not only do voters lack incentives for participation: it becomes increasingly difficult to recruit credible candidates to run on the ticket of the “sure loser” party. The result is that in many of these races, voters are left with a choice between the anointed and the annoying–marginal candidates who offer no new ideas, no energy, and no genuine challenge of any sort. Such contests simply exacerbate voter apathy.

You may think I am exaggerating–after all, how many “safe” districts can there be? Well, let me tell you–our legislators may not be the swiftest when it comes to a lot of issues, but they have self-perpetuation down to a science. In 2014, there were 25 state Senate districts up for election. In 11 of them, there was only one major party candidate running. A total of 2 Democrats and 9 Republicans were guaranteed election barring unforeseen circumstances.

Two major party candidates faced off in the general election in only 14 of the 25 districts up for election that year. And that’s not an anomaly.

As a friend of mine has aptly put it, “Almost half of our representatives and senators did not have to conduct a pesky campaign that required a defense of past service or a dialogue over local issues.”

We hear a lot about voter apathy, as if it were a moral deficiency of the voters. Allow me to suggest that it may be a highly rational response to noncompetitive politics. Watch those same “apathetic” folks at the local zoning hearing when a liquor store is applying for permission to locate down the street! I would suggest that people save their efforts for places where those efforts count, and thanks to the increasing lack of competitiveness, those places may NOT include the voting booth.

Second, gerrymandering has contributed to the polarization of politics, and the gridlock it causes. How? Because when a safe district effectively disenfranchises voters in one party, the only way to oppose an incumbent is in the primary–and that generally means that the challenge will come from the “flank” or extreme. In competitive districts, nominees know that they have to run to the middle in order to win a general election. When the primary is, in effect, the general election, the battle takes place among the base voters, the party faithful– who also tend to be the most ideological. So Republican incumbents will be challenged from the Right and Democratic incumbents will be attacked from the Left. Even where those challenges fail, they leave a powerful incentive for the incumbent to toe the line– to placate the most rigid and ideological elements of each party. Instead of the system working as intended, with both parties nominating folks they think will be most likely to win among the broader constituency, we get nominees who represent the most extreme voters on each side of the philosophical divide. Then we wonder why the winners can’t compromise and get the people’s business accomplished!

There are significant policy implications of a victory for the Republicans or Democrats: to the extent that the parties represent different philosophies—and these days, they unquestionably do– a victory in November means getting the “edge” for ten years in imposing one of those philosophies on Indiana government, and effectively disenfranchising not only those who vote for the other party, but also the more moderate voters in their own ranks.

Perhaps the worst consequence of all this is that reduced participation in the political process, and the well-founded belief that large numbers of citizens have been rendered voiceless and politically impotent, has significant implications for the legitimacy of government.

Is a Representative truly representative when he/she is elected by 10% or 20% of the eligible voters in the district?

Of course, there are reasons other than partisan redistricting for the growth of safe seats. In “The Big Sort,” Bill Bishop detailed the increasing tendency of Americans to live in areas where others share their values. We can’t eliminate such residential “self-sorting,” a phenomenon that has given us bright blue cities in very red states, but we can and should eliminate the intentional gerrymandering that exacerbates it. If we don’t, it really won’t matter who wins election, because the winner will encounter the intransigence and gridlock that is such a vivid consequence of the current system, especially at the federal level. That gridlock just adds to the pervasive cynicism about government, a cynicism that further reduces participation.

It is really time for the citizens of Indiana to rise up and demand changes to this system. The other speakers at this forum are far more expert than I am in the politics and laws governing redistricting, but I would suggest a few obvious elements that a fairer system should include:

1) areas of common economic interest and existing government boundaries should be respected to the greatest possible extent;

2) districts should be compact and rational in shape;

3) oddly-shaped districts clearly drawn for partisan advantage should be subject to the same standards courts now apply to districts that have been intentionally drawn to dilute the votes of racial minorities.

If political operatives can draw maps to create political advantage, they can also draw maps that are consistent with the premises of democracy.

Reaping What We’ve Sowed

According to a recent article in Time Magazine, political science professors Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox asked more than 4,000 high school and college students if they would be interested in running for political office in America someday: 89% of them said “no.”

Think about that.

This aversion to public office certainly isn’t because young Americans don’t care about their communities or about the common good. Their generation volunteers at rates higher than preceding age cohorts. Their Facebook posts and tweets focus significantly on issues of justice and “fair play.” They are demonstrably concerned about the environment. Surveys confirm that they are less bigoted and more inclusive than previous generations, and that they feel an obligation “give back” to their communities.

But they’ve written off the political process. Whatever “public service” may mean to them, it doesn’t mean participating in government.

Evidently, they’ve looked at the current, toxic political environment–where SuperPacs and billionaires evidence the disproportionate influence of money, where pundits and politicians alike flaunt anti-intellectualism and tribalism and engage in the politics of personal destruction; where electoral success requires pandering to rabid and uniformed “base” voters–and they’ve decided to put their time and effort elsewhere.

I wonder what sort of students are in the remaining 11%–those who do express an interest in running for public office, who haven’t been turned off and disillusioned. Are they the idealistic ones? Or do they find the current cesspool attractive–and if so, why?

What We Do and What We Say

My friend Morton Marcus has a good column in the recent issue of NUVO.

He reflects upon the most recent legislative session, and on Indiana politics generally, and in a make-believe conversation with one “Victor Van Nutt,” he makes a point my father used to emphasize: if you want to know what people really believe, what they really value, you’ll look at what they do–not at what they say.

“If we wanted local control of schools, we never would have allowed the state to take over financing education. If we wanted strong communities, we would not have voted for property tax controls starting with Otis Bowen and ended up supporting a constitutional amendment capping those taxes.

“On the other hand,” he continued, “if we wanted economy in government, we would have eliminated township governments, merged adjacent cities and towns, and merged under-populated counties.

“Then,” he went on, “if we truly believed in the virtues of small business, we wouldn’t yield our tax policies to the imagined desires of out-of-state corporations, hoping they will bring any kind of jobs to Indiana.

“We would stop shifting taxes to households and away from the big corporations. Remember, many small businesses are basically households not paying corporate taxes. We would not be anti-union since small businesses are not likely to be unionized.”

Until and unless Hoosiers start following what our government is actually doing–until we stop taking political figures at their word, and ignoring what they actually do once in office–nothing will change.

And of course, that advice also applies to us. If we just criticize those in power, content to complain about the “World’s Worst Legislature” while finding excuses not to vote–if we bitch and moan at cocktail parties while doing nothing to help change the system that keeps returning these same people to office–well, that says something about We the People and what we really value.

Infrastructure, Part Two

Yesterday, I shared Adam Gopnik’s “take” on Republican objections to infrastructure investments. But it turns out that he is not the only one considering the ideological roots of the Right’s disinclination to invest tax dollars in public goods like  roads, bridges, and railroads.

A lengthy post at Daily Kos ticked off some specifics.

Over and above the general animus toward government, manifested in a desire to “starve the beast,” the post pointed to the Right’s continuing romance with privatization.

More than anything else, this privatization fetish explains Republicans’ efforts to gut and discredit public infrastructure, and it runs the gamut from disastrous instances of privatizing parking meters to plans to privatize the federal highway system.

There has been a good deal written about these and other efforts to outsource what we used to consider public functions, but there has been much less information available about a financing mechanism that makes these privatization deals much more lucrative–private activity bonds.

As the New York Times recently explained,

These deals involve so-called “qualified private activity bonds,” which state and local governments issue on behalf of corporations. The bonds allow companies to borrow at low rates, while the bondholder doesn’t owe federal tax on interest. (If a corporation issued its own bond, it would pay a higher rate and the bondholder would owe tax on interest.) As an article in today’s Times explains, the justification for this sort of treatment is that a private project will fulfill a public need. In practice, it often looks like pork by another name, worth roughly $5 billion a year to corporations that could afford to invest without a subsidy, or to vanity projects — like a winery in North Carolina, a golf resort in Puerto Rico and a Corvette museum in Kentucky.

Meanwhile, across the board spending cuts threaten needless hardship and real suffering, and congressional Republicans won’t even talk about ending or trimming private-activity bond subsidies — or, for that matter, any individual or corporate tax breaks, which total $1.1 trillion annually. $1.1 trillion. That’s more than Medicare and Medicaid combined. It’s more than Social Security. It’s nearly two thirds more than the total cost of all non-defense discretionary spending, the category that includes infant formula for poor mothers and infants. Corporate welfare has never been so costly.

I have a friend who lobbies for socially-responsible organizations–environmental groups, human services nonprofits and the like. When I ask him why the legislature has done thus-and-so he just smiles and tells me to “follow the money.”

These days, greed–masquerading as “creative financing” or “economic development”– consistently trumps the common good.