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Congress and the Lost Art of Compromise (Forbes.com) January 24, 2018

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds, Politics.
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It is not difficult to identify “lost arts”—things we used to do but do not do any longer—in Washington, DC:  civility, bipartisanship, courage, just to name a few.  But one lost art underlies the others and has led to the inability of Congress to carry out its most basic responsibilities–pass a budget or keep the government open.  The most fundamental lost art of all is the lost art of compromise.

It is ironic that at the same time Congress was conferring its highest civilian honor on former Senator Bob Dole, a principled conservative who nevertheless practiced the art of compromise, we were preparing to shut down the federal government again (the 5th time since 1990) because we do not know how to compromise.  Even the author of “The Art of the Deal,” Donald Trump, apparently does not do deals any more.

But first let’s go back—to the dictionary and American history—before we come back to today.  Compromise includes the root “com” which means together and “promise.”  The idea is that we learn to make promises based upon agreement, or coming together.   Starting at the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787, our entire government is based on compromise.  We had the Connecticut compromise, for example, which was based on the novel idea that the government could be partly federal and partly state-based.  James Madison, recognized as the author of the Constitution, introduced several ideas that he could not get through the Convention, but which he compromised into something else.

Otto van Bismarck famously said, “Politics is the art of the possible.”  And so compromise seeks the “best possible” solution.  Not a perfect union but, as the preamble to the Constitution states, “a more perfect union.”  It is sometimes said that the enemy of the good is the best, but that is not our problem with compromise today.  No, we are unable to find the “best possible” solution because members of Congress have become almost entirely focused on positioning themselves and their party for the next election.  That has become the enemy of compromise.

So the Democrats would shut down the entire federal government over the Republicans’ failure to properly address DACA and dreamer immigrants.  And Trump would see the government shut down because he is not getting funding for his wall.  And so it goes—politicians stand firm on one relatively small principle, which they believe will get them reelected, and let the whole of the federal government be held hostage to that.  Senators who wanted to find a way out of the impasse had to gather in one tiny office because the whole apparatus of the Senate was lined up against the very idea of compromise.

Like most arts, it will not be easy to find compromise again.  At the most fundamental level, both voters and politicians alike will have to recover a commitment to governing, not just making statements.  Any so-called debate these days could be reduced to one-word positions:  The “Wall,” says Trump; yes but “DACA’ say Democrats.  But who is saying, “keep the government open,” “settle some issues,” “solve some problems?”  Just a few senators hidden away in an office.  We have to stop making statements and digging in on single issues and be committed to running a proper government.

Then we need leaders who will say, as President Ronald Reagan said to House Speaker Tip O’Neill of the other political party:  “I will take half a loaf today but, I will come back for the other half tomorrow.”  Everyone wants the whole loaf or nothing—if I can’t get my way, shut it down.  It seems like something leaders should have learned in kindergarten—you don’t get everything you want.  Yes, a very short-term compromise was finally struck, but it should have been long-term and done by leaders or in committees, not by a small group of self-selected senators crammed into a private office.

I, for one, plan to stop voting for candidates who are more committed to their reelection, their party, and their one-word litmus tests than they are to making the government work.  Does anyone care to join me?

To view the column at Forbes.com:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddavenport/2018/01/24/congress-and-the-lost-art-of-compromise/#782422f9d597

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What Kind of Country Wants Oprah vs. The Donald for President? (Forbes.com) January 9, 2018

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds, Politics.
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As social media blows up over the possibility of Oprah Winfrey running for president in 2020, the words of 1950s presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson come to mind:  “In America anyone can be president.  That’s one of the risks you take.”

Anyone indeed.  Now we face the specter of a billionaire businessman and media star who had never held or run for political office against a billionaire businesswoman and media star who has never held or run for political office.  And people are excited about this.  Of course Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has said he’s interested in running also, so we cannot be certain how this might sort out.

The serious question this poses is what kind of country we have become that such a presidential field seems desirable to voters.  For one thing, we are becoming a country that uses politics and elective office to make statements more than actually govern.  We have no idea what kind of policies Oprah stands for and, even after a year of Trump’s presidency, his policy approach is at best scattered.  Apparently people prefer to “say something” with their vote rather than “do something” about policy and governing.  We have long seen this in California where we adopt ballot propositions that make a statement—such as Proposition 13 about high property taxes—but are deeply flawed as a tool of governing.

A related problem is that we are making the presidency into all bully pulpit and no real leadership, all hat and no cattle as they say in Texas.  When President Theodore Roosevelt spoke of the president having a bully pulpit, he meant a platform from which leadership could be projected and work could get done.  Now, with Trump’s Twitter account and Oprah’s television shows, we want all platform and no agenda.  We want to elect the candidate with the biggest megaphone, not with the most extensive political experience or ideas.  We are becoming, as theologian Elton Trueblood put it, “a cut-flower civilization” with no real roots or beliefs.  We want media stars who speak in sound bites and solve problems in one-hour TV episodes:  “Look, up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, no it’s Superman!”  Indeed, Norman Mailer described media-friendly John F. Kennedy’s appeal in an article titled, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket.”  But at least Kennedy had some real political experience and ideas.  Surely we have learned by now that a great speech, like Oprah’s at the Golden Globes, does not make a great president.

I would add that we seem to be a country that is more interested in instant gratification from our leaders than actual deliberation.  The greatest deliberative body in the world, the US Senate, doesn’t really deliberate anymore.  Bills are introduced by one party and they are only brought to a vote when that party has enough votes to pass it.  Much of what passes for action in Washington now is by way of executive orders or agency regulations, not deliberation.  As Franklin Roosevelt said in his first inaugural address as president during the Great Depression, “The American people want action, and action now.”  Well that’s what presidents and Congress are still offering us—partisan action, not bipartisan deliberation.

We must remember that citizens have duties in the electoral process as well as the candidates.  We read that the great populist wave in America is frustrated that the politicians and elites don’t get it.  Well, the citizens need to get it also.  They need to get that elections and governing are about more than just expressing frustration and making statements.  They are about deciding the policy direction the country will follow.  We need to see the pendulum swing from elite-bashing to serious and mature judgments about the kind of candidates, experience and bipartisanship that would actually make America work again.

Maybe author Cormac McCarthy was right that this is “no country for old men.”  But the old ideas from the founders about how government works are not all bad.  They have endured longer than any other government in history in large part because they are good ideas that actually work.  Maybe we should try them.

 

To view the column at Forbes.com:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddavenport/2018/01/09/what-kind-of-country-wants-oprah-versus-the-donald-for-president/#941a33b70777

A Growing Cancer on Congress: The Curse of Party-Line Voting (Forbes.com) December 13, 2017

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds, Politics.
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Just as White House Counsel John Dean famously proclaimed the Watergate cover-up of the 1970s a “cancer on the presidency,” there is now a growing cancer on Congress.  The rapid and pervasive rise of party-line voting is a cancer that is eating at the effectiveness of both the House of Representatives and the Senate.  As a consequence, what was once the world’s most deliberative body, the US Senate, hardly deliberates at all, and what little is accomplished in Washington is done through party-line votes and executive orders, with devastating consequences.

The recent tax reform bill is Exhibit A, with zero Democrats voting for it in either the House or the Senate.  One Republican in the Senate and 13 in the House broke ranks to vote against it, largely out of a concern over its predicted increase in the federal debt.  With only one party at the table working on the bill, its provisions were developed last minute, with handwritten edits presented on the floor.  Deliberation, if it happened at all, was limited to one side of the aisle and a very narrow range of choices were considered in a short time frame.

Unfortunately party-line voting has become the new normal.  As recently as the early 1970s, party unity voting was around 60% but today it is closer to 90% in both the House and Senate.  If you think about the major legislative accomplishments of recent presidents, beginning with George W. Bush, you can see the problem.  Campaigning for the presidency by touting his work across the aisle as governor of Texas, Bush found that more difficult in Washington.  In his first year as president, Congress passed his No Child Left Behind education bill with strong bipartisan support, 384-45 in the House and 91-8 in the Senate.  But his next major legislation, prescription drugs for seniors, was hotly debated and the vote came largely on party lines, at least in the House, with only 8 Democrats supporting it and 8 Republicans against.

Part of Barack Obama’s “hope and change” message as a candidate included making Washington work in a bipartisan way, but that got little traction.  The Affordable Care Act, perhaps the most important piece of domestic legislation in 50 years, was passed on a straight party-line vote of Democrats.  Bipartisanship completely fell apart when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Republicans’ “single most important thing” was making sure Obama was a one-term president, and Obama announced that he had “a pen and a phone” and would just take executive action to get things done.

Now we are shocked when Senator John McCain flies back to the Capitol from cancer treatments to announce he would not vote to repeal and replace Obamacare without a bipartisan conversation involving both parties to find the best solution.  An opinion piece in the conservative Washington Times called him “a traitor to the conservative cause.”  Apparently party discipline is more important than finding the right solution to the complex set of health care issues.

One unfortunate consequence of all this party-line voting and executive action is that policy swings back and forth or is held in the balance.  Obamacare is passed on a party-line vote and nearly repealed on one.  The same is true for Dodd-Frank.  Obama’s executive orders are simply overturned by his successor Donald Trump.  Is this any way to run a government?

One underlying problem is that the two major parties are now better sorted than before.  Whereas both the Republican and Democratic parties had some liberals, moderates and conservatives in an earlier day, now Republicans are predictably conservative and Democrats are liberal.  But another problem is that all politicians seem to care about in Washington is how a vote will best position them and their party for the next election, rather than what will make for a great piece of legislation.  Congress has devolved to marketing and winning, not deliberation and great policy.

Only when a few statesmen and the American voters stand up against party-line voting will anything change.

To view the column at Forbes.com:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddavenport/2017/12/13/a-growing-cancer-on-congress-the-curse-of-party-line-voting/#5ff0b67f6139

Potomac Fever Seizes Republican Leaders Over Federal Spending And Debt (Forbes.com) November 29, 2017

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds, Politics.
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A funny thing happened to Republicans on their way to controlling both houses of Congress and the White House:  They can’t remember what they believe in, especially about federal spending and debt.  Perhaps it’s a case of early onset Alzheimer’s, unable to recall what got you there or what your core principles are, but more likely it’s a bad case of Potomac Fever as power and politics overtake principle.

Historically Republicans have been the party of fiscal discipline, at least rhetorically.   But now Washington, DC has become about marketing and positioning yourself and your party for the next election, not deliberating over the best policies for the country.  So, in the age of Trump, the self-proclaimed “king of debt” in his business career, Republicans no longer worry about the federal debt.  As Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said recently on “Face the Nation,” government spending is “not an issue we’re focused on right now.”

Reports suggest it’s time to be focused on it since the proposed new tax plan is projected to produce around $1.5 trillion of new debt over the next decade, even taking economic growth into account.  To paraphrase a quotation attributed to the late Senator Everett Dirksen (R-IL): a trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.  But even the very conservative Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives seems unconcerned.  One of its members, Congressman Scott Perry (R-PA) said, “Somehow, apparently, you can’t do tax reform and save money at the same time,” concluding he’d rather achieve one of those than neither.

Let me propose, however, that there is still a powerful case for reducing federal spending and the national debt.  For starters there remains a strong moral case for limiting debt.  Admittedly we’re not in the 1920s when President Calvin Coolidge called “carelessness” in the “expenditure of public money” a “condition characteristic of undeveloped people, or of a decadent generation.”  But there is an inherent unfairness and lack of discipline in the Baby Boomer generation transferring trillions of dollars of debt to its children and grandchildren to pay for their own entitlements.  Sadly we have come to view government deficits as just another tool of economic policy, detached from any moral underpinnings.   But as former President Herbert Hoover reminded us:  “Blessed are the young for they shall inherit the national debt.”

The economic case for growing the debt is predictive, with experts on both sides.  A group of noted economists sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Mnuchin this week saying that the corporate tax cuts should lead to significant economic growth.  On the other hand, a survey of 42 economists by the University Of Chicago Booth School Of Business was more pessimistic, with most responding that they were uncertain or that it was unlikely that the proposed tax cuts would lead to significant growth.  The problem is that other forces are in play:  will there be spending reductions, will entitlement reform be undertaken, will the economy be otherwise robust?  Even Ronald Reagan, who championed supply side economics and tax cuts, produced disappointing growth in the federal debt, explained in part because a Democratic Congress would not cut spending.

There is even a national security case for shrinking the national debt, with China and other nations holding huge inventories of US debt instruments.  As former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, pointed out:  “The single biggest threat to our national security is our debt.”

But in the end, it appears that the political case will carry the day.  It is far easier to vote to cut taxes and put money back into voters’ pockets than it is to insist on the sort of spending cuts that should accompany tax relief.  Even the chair of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, Representative Mark Meadows (R-NC) acknowledges that the “need to put up some major legislative victories…certainly factors into how flexible…a number of us are going to be.”  Flexibility to win victories in the face of principle is a classic symptom of Potomac Fever.

To view the column at Forbes.com:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddavenport/2017/11/29/potomac-fever-epidemic-seizes-republican-leaders-over-federal-spending-and-debt/#f4071e865f77

Donald Trump’s Constitution (Forbes.com) September 15, 2017

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds, Politics.
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Happy Birthday to the Constitution, which celebrates the 230th anniversary of its signing on September 17.     From time to time presidents have made a speech on Constitution Day explaining the founding document’s meaning in its contemporary context.

For example, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered an address on the Constitution’s 150th birthday.  With the Supreme Court turning back some of his most important domestic legislation as unconstitutional, Roosevelt spoke about presidential power, referring to the Constitution as a people’s document, not a lawyer’s contract, and arguing that the President had the power to do what “We the people” wanted.  Former President Herbert Hoover delivered an address on Constitution Day two years later, arguing that the Constitution was more of a restraining document, protecting individual liberty from government intrusion, especially in the Bill of Rights.

In 1987, on the Constitution’s 200th birthday, President Ronald Reagan delivered an address celebrating how human freedom had been guaranteed by the Constitution and the system of government it created.  Reagan emphasized that the Constitution did not come because of some golden age, but because free men fought to overcome problems and establish democracy, a battle that continues today.

We do not expect President Donald Trump to deliver an homage to the Constitution in the coming days.  In fact, from what little he has said explicitly about the Constitution, one would surmise that he has a love/hate relationship with it.   When a Muslim father whose American military son died in a battle in Iraq spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 2016, he pulled out a Constitution and expressed doubt that Donald Trump had read it.  Trump later confirmed that he had read it and, like all presidents, he pledged in his oath “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  But since then, Trump and the Constitution have had a bit of an uneasy relationship.

Trump’s primary problem with the Constitution is not unlike Franklin Roosevelt’s:  It limits presidential power.  He said in an interview with Fox News marking the first 100 days of his presidency that the whole American system of government is “a very rough system, an archaic system,” adding that “it’s a really bad thing for the country.”  The context of Trump’s remarks came when he said, “I get things done, I’ve always been a closer.”  However, on the tough issues—immigration, debt, the tax system—he can’t “close” because he heads only one of the three branches, with both Congress and the courts having their say.  Trump believes that a dangerous and complex world requires that America have a “closer” president but, alas, the Constitution instead built walls.  It is both a restraining and an empowering document.

We all know that when President Trump becomes frustrated, he takes to Twitter to express his anger.  A federal judge who halted his immigration travel ban was referred to as “this so-called judge.”  Moreover, Trump said that a federal court striking down his travel ban “makes us look weak.”  He attacked the filibuster rules in the other branch, Congress, as “archaic.”  So obviously, Trump does not appreciate the value of the checks and balances and the separations of power that the Constitution designed and implemented.

Trump has expressed interest in the First Amendment to the Constitution and its protection of free speech.  Both candidate Trump and his presidential advisers have said that the libel laws under the First Amendment that protect “fake news” and attacks on the president should be reviewed.  Trump has said that the president’s pardoning power is unlimited, although Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution does state certain limitations.  Beyond that, he has said relatively little about the Constitution.

As always, it is tricky to sort out what Donald Trump says and what he does.  His primary action regarding the Constitution was to nominate Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, someone who, Trump said, would “interpret the law as written” and would “insure the rule of law.”  Will Donald Trump light a candle for the birthday of the Constitution or would he really prefer to be free from its restraints?

To view the column at Forbes.com:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddavenport/2017/09/15/donald-trumps-constitution/#4e0e804b7620

The Unintended Good Consequences of Donald Trump’s Presidency (Forbes.com) August 21, 2017

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds, Politics.
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With much of the country wringing its hands over Donald Trump, allow me to be the bearer of some good news:  Several good things are happening to the American system of government as a result of his presidency.  Admittedly, I am turning to the somewhat perverse law of unintended consequences to find these, but systems are retooling to protect themselves from President Trump and the result could be very healthy, both now and in the long run.

First, Congress is reawakening to its leadership role in policy-making and legislating.  The founders understood Congress to be the “first” of the three branches, worrying whether there would be sufficient “energy” in the executive, while acknowledging that the judiciary, as Alexander Hamilton put it, would be “the least dangerous branch.”  All of that has been turned on its head, with the modern presidency since Franklin Roosevelt vying with the courts for first place, while Congress keeps giving up its powers and is now a distant third in federal importance.

However, that seems to be changing.  Congress is actually debating and making policy now, since President Trump does not seem interested in that.  In health care, for example, Trump has made it clear that he cares less which version of health care replacement we get than getting one, notching a win on his presidential belt.  So Congress has actively debated, now even in bipartisan discussions, key issues such as preexisting conditions, individual mandates, the extent of coverage, and the like.  The president has left a sufficient policy vacuum that Congress has had to step up.

War powers are also bestirring our Congress.  Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) has long been a lone voice questioning the extensive war powers delegated to the president following 9/11.  Now, perhaps more nervous with President Trump as commander in chief, the House Appropriations Committee surprisingly put forward a defense spending bill that removed the extensive war powers.  Then House Speaker Paul Ryan had a surprise of his own, deleting the war powers limitation, but acknowledging that there was some way to have this debate.  In addition, another amendment was added requiring that the president provide a report to Congress on his strategy vis-à-vis ISIS.  So at least Congress is moving, again in a bipartisan fashion, to restore its constitutional power over war.

A second bright spot is a resurgence of federalism, a rebirth of action and authority at the state and local level.   California is leading the way, opposing Trump policies on immigration and the environment with its own aggressive plans.  Attorneys general in several states have joined to challenge Trump’s executive orders on immigration.  Governors have risen up to point out to Congress how repeal of the Affordable Care Act could affect Medicaid and the opioid problem in their states.  With government power traveling a one-way street to Washington, DC for decades, this reawakening of state power swings the pendulum back in a constitutional manner.

We could also say that the Trump presidency has changed the debate about checks and balances and separations of power in our constitutional republic.  For years now, progressives have argued that these mechanisms built into the Constitution by the founders are archaic and prevent progress, stopping the implementation of the democratic voice of the people.  Now people are friendlier toward these power-balancing mechanisms.  Donald Trump has expressed frustration with the Constitution, calling it “a relic” and “very bad for America” because it encumbers action.  Now many who were critical of checks and balances only months ago find them a comfort.

History swings like a pendulum, going too far in one direction but then shifting back toward an equilibrium.  Several forces—Congress, state and local governments—are gathering energy to push back against the president.  These welcome forces would not only counteract this president but also, in the larger picture, rebalance a federal government and presidency that have grown too powerful over the last century.

To view the column at Forbes.com:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddavenport/2017/08/21/the-unintended-good-consequences-of-donald-trumps-presidency/#4ae2d87f63a4

One Small Step for a Man, One Giant Leap for the Senate: McCain The Statesman Over Trump The Closer (Forbes.com) August 1, 2017

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds, Politics.
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The drama was palpable.  Senator John McCain, long known as a maverick, was flying to Washington, D.C. with his recently diagnosed cancer to cast what could be the deciding vote in the Republicans’ effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, this time with a scaled-down “skinny repeal.”  The vote would be close and it was 1:30 AM when it finally played out, when McCain surprised most with his visible thumb down.  As shock waves rolled across the Senate floor to the White House, McCain said simply, “I thought it was the right thing to do.”

Of great interest was the statement McCain’s office released shortly afterward, saying it was time to “return to the correct way of legislating and send the bill back to committee, hold hearings, receive input from both sides of the aisle, heed the recommendations of the nation’s governors and produce a bill that finally delivers health care for the American people.”  What?  You mean he did this to stand up for democratic deliberation, for bipartisanship, for proper processes?  Yes, he did, which is what statesmen occasionally must do.

In the Senate, we haven’t seen much of that lately.  Instead we see major legislation prepared in secret, sprung on colleagues at the last minute, and passed on narrow party-line votes in order to win.  Winning, taking action, satisfying our political base–this is what the U.S. Congress is about now.  Not deliberation, bipartisanship, finding the right policies for the country.  McCain took one small step for a man, but we hope one giant leap for the Senate.

Actually, this whole business of action over deliberation started with President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s.  In Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural address, he famously declared that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  But the phrase in that speech that most accurately pointed the way he would take as president was:  “This nation asks for action and action now.”  A key member of Roosevelt’s brain trust, Columbia University professor Rexford Tugwell said:  “He did not very much care what kind of farm relief, or how the principle of cheap and universally available power was arrived at.  Banking regulations might be of any practicable sort…but he was committed to some action in all these matters.”

Roosevelt’s “action and action now” paradigm might have made more sense in the wake of the Great Depression, but it has never gone away.  Since then presidents have declared “wars” on poverty, crime, drugs and all manner of domestic policy problems.  Presidents have demanded “action and action now.”  If the Senate ever was the greatest deliberative body in the world, as some have claimed, it isn’t anymore.  It hardly deliberates at all.  Bills come to the floor from secret chambers, time for debate is limited, amendments are not allowed, and party-line up and down votes are taken.

Unfortunately Donald Trump has very much followed Roosevelt’s lead.  He obviously does not care which version of health care we end up with, he simply wants some kind of repeal and replacement so he can put a notch on his presidential legacy belt and tell his constituents he did it.  Trump says that the Constitution is a “relic” and “very bad for America?”  Why?  Because he says he’s “a closer,” obviously not a deliberator, and the American people want action, not talk.

So, finally a statesman stood up to that and said no.  In the past, an occasional “gang” of senators might do that:  a bipartisan gang of six on health care in 2009, another gang of six on the national debt in 2011, a gang of eight on immigration in 2013.  But this time there was no gang, there was just the maverick, the statesman, John McCain.  But it was enough.

The political system does not so much need a lot of fancy reforms—dealing with the filibuster or the nuclear option or whatever—it needs a few wise and courageous leaders to stand up and do the right thing.  And, at least in this round, The Statesman stood up to The Closer and America won.

 

To view the column at Forbes.com:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddavenport/2017/08/01/one-small-step-for-a-man-one-giant-leap-for-the-senate-mccain-the-statesman-over-trump-the-closer/#224896a03f4c

New Legislative Virus Spreads: Hide The Bill, Don’t Read It, Fill In The Blanks Later (Forbes.com) June 20, 2017

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds, Politics.
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A dangerous legislative virus is spreading from one health care bill to the next.  Call it “hide the ball” or “spare us the details.”  A legislative contagion by any other name would smell as foul.

The disease was first detected when former Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi famously said of the 2000+ page Obamacare bill:  “But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it.”  Of course few members of Congress bothered to read it, and President Obama signed it two weeks later.  By now Obamacare also includes some 10,000-20,000 pages of rules and regulations, depending on who’s counting, that no one in Congress, perhaps no one anywhere, has bothered to read either.

Next the virus popped up across the country in Sacramento when the California Senate recently passed a single-payer health care bill with very few details and absolutely no funding plan.  Call it Medicare for everyone but paid for by no one.  Most estimates suggest a cost of some $400 billion, roughly twice the size of the state’s annual budget.  Even some senators felt a little badly about this neglect of legislative duty.  “Rather than rushing to pass it before it’s complete, we should keep it here and finish the work,” said Senator Steve Glazer (D-Contra Costa).  “This is the Senate kicking the can down the road to the Assembly and asking the Assembly to fill in all the blanks,” added Senator Ben Hueso (D-San Diego).

Finally, the disease has come full circle back to Washington, this time infecting Senate Republicans who are crafting their own repeal and replace health care bill.  For some reason, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to craft this legislation in secret—no one has even seen it, except a dozen or so Republicans, even though it is expected to be voted on in the next couple of weeks.  And when it does come out from under lock and key into the light of the Senate, McConnell has planned only 10 hours to debate and amend one of the most important bills of its time.  Ironically Nancy Pelosi, who supported speed and obfuscation last time, now says, “The American people and Members have a right to know the full impact of this legislation before any vote…”

So why all the secrecy?  I suppose it’s easier to craft and pass a bill if your opponents don’t have much time to study and attack it.  But that assumes that the point is to pass important legislation on narrow party-line votes.  Isn’t the point of a deliberative body like the U.S. Senate to deliberate?  Aren’t we looking to both sides to study and debate major policy proposals and reach some kind of agreement?  Otherwise, we have unsustainable policies, with the Democrats passing their version of health care on a party-line vote, only to have Republicans repeal and replace it on their party-line vote a few years later.  This is no way to legislate.

And what about not reading and understanding the details of a bill or, worse in the case of California, passing bills that don’t even include the details?  What that essentially says is that legislatures are now making conceptual statements in their bills, leaving the details to be filled in later, either by another legislative chamber or, worse, by administrative agencies.  It’s more like making speeches than crafting legislation.  Frankly it’s a kind of legislative laziness that we the people should not stand for.

Otto van Bismarck warned that “laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”  By now you have to wonder if that’s disrespectful to sausages.  Now we are not allowed to see the laws being made and, in many cases, neither are the legislatures that are making them.  It’s a long way back, but legislators need to find their way back to deliberation, leaving obfuscation and party-line roller coaster votes behind.

 

To view the column at Forbes.com:  https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddavenport/2017/06/20/new-legislative-virus-spreads-hide-the-bill-dont-read-it-fill-in-the-blanks-later/#2f6268e257f3

Climate Change Reversal Reminds Us: We Live In A Roller Coaster Executive Order World (Forbes.com) June 2, 2017

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds, Politics.
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One reason the Trump era seems a bit disorienting is that Washington, DC has become a roller coaster executive order world.  With Congress unable to accomplish much of anything, presidents simply forge ahead on their own.  A frustrated President Barack Obama, who could not get the legislation he wanted through Congress, set the tone for this when he said, “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone, and I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions and administrative actions that move the ball forward…”  Well good for you Mr. President—but the problem is that the next president also has a pen and can move the ball in a different direction overnight, as President Donald Trump has been doing.

The latest example of this is President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change.  For starters, we need to understand that the United States never officially joined the Paris Agreement.  In order to join a treaty, Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution requires that two-thirds of the Senate approve and that never happened in the case of the Paris Agreement.  Instead, President Obama decided to “adopt” it by means of an executive order, which only had the effect of saying the president likes the goals and will work toward them, but there was no legal U.S. commitment to the treaty.  Some proponents argue that the Paris Agreement is not technically a treaty, allowing a president to sign it without approval by the Senate.  But if that flimsy argument turns out to be true, it would simply mean the next president could undo it with his own executive order.

Either way the point is the same:  when presidents choose to act unilaterally, without Congress, their actions are very weak and subject to being undone by the next president’s own executive order.  The roller coaster of policy changes in these opening months of the Trump administration were really all set in motion by Obama’s failure to involve Congress in most of his key actions.  Obama’s executive orders on environmental regulations, climate change, immigration—which were themselves stretches of a president’s constitutional powers—were all left vulnerable to Trump’s policy reversals.

A president’s action with regard to international treaties is doubly weak because of the nature of international law itself.  Even a treaty such as the Paris Agreement on climate change is better understood as a set of international norms or goals to which the signatories aspire rather than a matter of firm law.  Laws have enforcement and penalties, consequences for people or nations that violate them.  None of this is present in the Paris Agreement—if a nation does not meet its goals on emissions, there is simply a report, nothing more.

In a sense, the drama of Trump’s policy reversals is the second act of a two-act play.  Act one was President Obama’s series of executive orders setting new policy in a variety of fields:  gun control, immigration, the environment.  Act two is primarily defensive on Trump’s part, undoing this set of Obama policies.

What this means, then, is that we have a systemic problem, not just a political one.  We have presidents acting unilaterally, with Congress watching from the sidelines.  We spend too little time on the front end building any kind of policy consensus and, therefore, we end up with a dizzying ride of ups and downs as different presidents simply sign bold but weak executive orders implementing their ideas.

Even Franklin Roosevelt, who built the modern and powerful presidency, realized his need to work through the Congress.  Other presidents who built lasting legacies—Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society or Ronald Reagan’s revolution—did the hard work of persuading and compromising with Congress.  Now the flimsy Obama record is reversed the same way it was enacted, by executive order of the president.  No wonder we’re disoriented and dissatisfied with Washington.

To view the column at Forbes.com:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddavenport/2017/06/02/climate-change-reversal-reminds-us-we-live-in-a-roller-coaster-executive-order-world/#22b9169c5bf2

Trump Is Captaining A Federal Ghost Ship–But Is That Good News Or Bad News? (Forbes.com) May 26, 2017

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds, Politics.
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Four months into the new Trump administration, I decided to pick one department I know reasonably well and see what kind of people are being appointed to senior staff positions at the US Department of Education:  deputy secretary, undersecretary and assistant secretaries.  We know that Secretary Betsy DeVos stands for charter schools and choice, but sometimes it’s useful to look a level deeper and see what kind of leaders will be overseeing policy and implementation closer to the trenches.

What I learned was truly surprising and I am still not sure what to make of it.  Essentially no one has been appointed to fill any of those positions— deputy secretary, undersecretary, and all 11 assistant secretary jobs have the same listing:  “vacant.”  If the lights are on, nobody is home.  What can I tell about the quality and direction of the senior staff at the Department of Education?  Absolutely nothing.

I thought perhaps this was an aberration.  With Secretary DeVos coming from outside the professional education field, maybe she needs more time than other cabinet secretaries who can hit the ground running.  But then came another surprise:  this same pattern stretches across federal departments.  Four months in, we have a cabinet, but little or no senior staff.    In fact, Trump has not even named a permanent director of the federal Office of Personnel Management to oversee the staffing process.

 The Presidential Transition Tracker (yes, there is such a thing) tells us that of 559 senior leadership positions in the executive branch requiring Senate confirmation, there has been no nominee for 444 of them, or roughly 80%.  And only 36 have been confirmed.  No other president in the last 30 years had fewer than 60 nominations confirmed by this point in his term and the median of those five presidents is 94.  Yes, Senate confirmations are taking somewhat longer, but the real story is the low number of nominations.

 

But the plot thickens as we look for motives and effects.  When I mentioned this to a conservative scholar friend, he responded, “That’s the best thing Trump has done so far,” leaving the federal bureaucracy relatively leaderless.  I suppose this explanation takes a page from Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address when he said, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”  If we leave the government bereft of staff leadership, it can do less harm, I suppose.  Maybe this is part of draining the swamp.

Trump must recognize, however, that though he has no senior staff, he still has a bureaucracy grinding out regulations and policies without his political leadership in place.  If he wants to leave federal agencies drifting, the problem is that they will continue to drift left.  The tendency of regulators is to regulate and the agencies are full of Obama-era people.  So this strategy of leaving the leadership positions empty is more likely to hurt the Trump agenda than to help.

Trump has said a number of times that the constituency he wants to help as president is the “forgotten men and women.”  Who are those people?  President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to help his “forgotten man,” someone Roosevelt thought needed government protection from the vagaries of free markets and the greed of economic royalists.  Trump’s forgotten men and women are being ignored and harmed by the government itself.  They pay taxes but don’t get what they want:  good schools, communities without violence, roads without potholes.  Veterans aren’t receiving decent medical care.   Unfortunately, none of those things will be fixed without Trump’s own appointees installed in the federal bureaucracy.

Whatever his motive, Trump is making a mistake by not gaining control of the vast federal bureaucracy through the appointment process.  The key to effective leadership is picking good people and supporting them.  That needs to happen in Washington very soon.  Without that, no swamps will be drained and no forgotten men and women will be served.

To view the column at Forbes.com:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddavenport/2017/05/26/trump-is-captaining-a-federal-ghost-ship-but-is-that-good-news-or-bad-news/#2941389df33f