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John Nichols

John Nichols

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A ‘Fast Track’ to Less Democracy and More Economic Dislocation

US Capitol

The Capitol building in Washington, DC (AP Photo/Khue Bui)

The framers of the Constitution were wise to include Congress in the process of framing and approving trade agreements made by presidents. That authority to provide advice and consent should, the wisest legislators have always argued, be zealously guarded.

Unfortunately, in recent decades, Congress has frequently surrendered its authority when it comes to the shaping of trade agreements. By granting so-called “fast-track authority” to the White House, Congress opts itself out of the process at the critical stage when an agreement is being struck and retains only the ability to say “yes” or “no” to a done deal.

The result has been a framing of US trade agreements that is great for multinational corporations but lousy for workers, communities and the environment. Instead of benefitting the great mass of people in the United States and countries with which it trades, deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the permanent normalization of trade relations agreement with China de-emphasize worker rights, human rights, environmental and democracy concerns and clear the way for a race to the bottom.

Candidate Barack Obama recognized this. In 2008, he told Pennsylvania labor activists, “The current Fast Track process does not mandate that agreements include binding labor and environmental protections nor does it give an adequate role to Congress in the selection and design of agreements. I will work with Congressional leaders to ensure that any new TPA authority fix these basic failings and open up the process to the American people for their participation and scrutiny.”

That reference to opening up the process to the American people is key. When members of the House and Senate are engaged with the negotiation process, they can bring the concerns of citizens—not just those of corporations with powerful lobbyists and connections—to the fore. That’s how representative democracy is supposed to work, and this is especially vital when it comes to debates about economic policy.

Now, however, President Obama is seeking “fast-track” authority that activists and trade specialists say does not guarantee the sort of congressional oversight and citizen involvement that candidate Obama recognized as essential. And on Thursday, Obama’s choice to become the US ambassador to China, Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, D-Montana, joined with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Michigan, to introduced legislation to clear the way for the president and his aides to negotiate sweeping new trade deals, such as the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, with limited congressional oversight.

Baucus and Camp are claiming that they have addressed past concerns and improved the fast-track model. They haven’t, and savvy members of Congress recognize the problem.

“Blindly approving or disapproving agreements that have largely been negotiated in secret would represent a derelict [sic] of duty for Congress,” says Congressman Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin. “If there is nothing to hide in these agreements, we should be allowed to debate and amend these deals in the open. I am committed to doing all that I can to prevent the inappropriate use of fast track in Congress.”

Even members of Congress who have backed trade deals in the past, such as Michigan Democrat Sander Levin, say this fast-track proposal “falls far short” when it comes to outlining an appropriate level of congressional involvement in the process.

Congressman Mike Michaud, the Maine Democrat who chairs the House Trade Working Group, argues: “This bill misses an opportunity to raise the standards established by Congress that our trade negotiators must meet, and it neglects to include real enforcement of these standards. It also fails to improve transparency and enhance congressional consultations by the Administration, both of which are critical for Congress to maintain its constitutional authority over trade policy.”

Michaud says: “The Baucus-Camp bill is a disappointing repeat of failed trade policy from 2002 that will continue the trends of growing trade deficits, a declining manufacturing sector, and the offshoring of American jobs. This bill may represent the ideas of the two committee chairmen, but it does not reflect Americans’ views on trade and falls far short of being a truly bipartisan bill. That’s why I will oppose it.”

In fact, there will be significant opposition, from Democrats and Republicans. Last year, more than 150 House Democrats signed a letter arguing that “a new trade agreement negotiation and approval process that restores a robust role for Congress is essential to achieving US trade agreements that can secure prosperity for the greatest number of Americans, while preserving the vital tenets of American democracy in the era of globalization.”

Dozens of House Republicans have also expressed reservations about the traditional fast-track model. This is an appropriate bipartisanship.

There are deep partisan and ideological divisions in US House and the US Senate. But there should be broad acceptance of the necessity of congressional involvement in negotiations have the potential to define the economy of the United States in the twenty-first century.

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As Lori Wallach, the director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, notes: “It’s rare these days that across the aisle, Congress agrees on anything, so it’s notable that a large bipartisan bloc insists on maintaining the exclusive constitutional authority over trade that the Founding Fathers wisely granted to Congress.”

Maintaining the role of Congress in trade negotiations is not just a matter of respecting the system of checks and balances.

It is about fundamental economic issues, issues that will—in particular—define the futures of manufacturing communities.

“Given how previous trade agreements have devastated local manufacturing sectors and shipped American jobs overseas, it would be unwise for Congress to ram through new trade deals without offering proper oversight,” says Pocan. “Massive trade deals—such as the Trans Pacific Partnership—now affect everything from America’s economy, to consumer and food safety, to labor standards and our environment.”

Read Next: George Zornick on congressional efforts to make federal settlements more transparent.

Christie’s Access Lane Onto the Presidential Trail Gets Gridlocked

Chris Christie

New Jersey governor Chris Christie (AP Photo/Christopher Barth)

Despite the fantasies of the pundits and political operatives who imagine Chris Christie as some kind of moderate, he is more than sufficiently conservative to secure the Republican presidential nomination. By most reasonable measures, Christie is a strikingly consistent social and economic conservative. So it is not ideology that is most likely to trip up Christie in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

It is his style. The New Jersey governor’s take-no-prisoners approach to politics has always been his greatest strength and his greatest weakness.

Christie’s style helped him get traction in New Jersey. His brash pronouncements and bold gestures made him a national media darling. That’s a big deal in a state that is sandwiched between the New York and Philadelphia media markets. A politician who can make himself heard, even if he might be edgier than many voters prefer, has an advantage. The governor’s style has also had appeal in the upper echelons of a Republican Party that hungers for standard-bearers with a little more dynamism than Mitch McConnell.

But in order to bid for the presidency, Christie must connect with Republicans in small-town Iowa and suburban New Hampshire. And what got Christie to Trenton won’t necessarily get him through Des Moines and Concord.

Even when they criticize public education unions, conservatives in Iowa don’t usually yell at teachers. And New Hampshire politicians are not often linked to schemes to punish political foes that create massive headaches for people who just want to get to work.

So it is that Chris Christie’s “traffic problem” extends well beyond North Jersey.

What started as a bizarre story of access lanes, gridlock and alleged political retribution has grown into a very serious political concern for the governor. The tale began to unfold in September, when access lanes to the heavily trafficked George Washington Bridge were closed—supposedly for a traffic study. The closures created massive gridlock in Fort Lee, New Jersey, a community where the Democratic mayor had refused to join a number of other Democrats in backing Christie’s 2013 re-election bid.

Christie was well ahead in that bid, so it was hard to believe that he or his aides and allies would have even considered punishing the mayor—and by extension New Jersey commuters—to make a crude political point.

But now the Bergen Record is reporting:

Private messages between Governor’s Christie’s deputy chief of staff and two of his top executives at the Port Authority reveal a vindictive effort to create “traffic problems in Fort Lee” by shutting lanes to the George Washington Bridge and apparent pleasure at the resulting gridlock.

The messages are replete with references and insults to Fort Lee’s mayor—who had failed to endorse Christie for re-election—and they chronicle how he tried to reach Port Authority officials in a vain effort to eliminate the paralyzing gridlock that overwhelmed his town of 35,000, which sits in the shadow of the world’s busiest bridge.

The messages also include references to supporters of Christie’s Democratic challenger in 2013, state Senator Barbara Buono, that seem to suggest it is okay to play rough not just with rival candidates but with anyone who might vote for them.

After Wednesday’s revelations, Buono said: “The Governor has created a culture where cavalierly endangering citizens’ lives to exact political retribution is an acceptable form of governance. It’s beneath the dignity of his office and a breach of New Jerseyans’ trust.”

The New York Daily News was even blunter: "In the best possible light, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie built a top staff of lying thugs who threatened lives and safety to serve his political ends," editorialized the paper, which circulates in New Jersey. "If not, Christie is a lying thug himself."

It remains to be seen whether The Daily News is right when it argues that: "Christie’s presidential ambitions are all but kaput, as he will be lambasted and lampooned as a man of low character and horrible judgment—again viewing him in the most favorable way."

But Wednesday's revelations about the emails circulated by the governor's aides and allies won't just hurt Christie in New Jersey. They are quite likely to hurt him in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

The usually unapologetic Christie recognizes the threat—in his home state and nationally—that is posed by the suggestion that his office engaged in the politics of retribution.

The governor has always dismissed suggestions that he was involved in the targeting of a local official who did not do his bidding. And he now says he is “outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge.“

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Until now, Christie has been cut a remarkable level of slack, despite detailed reports of multiple incidents in which the governor and his aides allegedly engaged in the bullying of political foes.

But the barrage of headlines on Wednesday went to the heart of the questions about how Christie and those around him operate.

Politico declared: “Scandal imperils Chris Christie’s no-nonsense image.”

“Road Rage,” shouted The Wall Street Journal.

And Businessweek nailed it: “Bridge Scandal Destroys Christie’s ‘Nice Jerk’ Image.”

This is not playing well in New Jersey.

This is not playing well nationally.

And it has the potential to make it a lot harder for Christie to appeal to the Republicans who vet presidential candidates.

Republican caucus participants and primary voters in states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are not naïve. They know that politicians have egos, and that election campaigns can turn ugly. They don’t reject toughness. They don’t expect presidential candidates to arrive on their doorsteps as pristine political figures who have never been touched by controversy. They can handle the sharp wit of a Bob Dole or the tart tongue of a John McCain.

But there is a reason former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who works hard to present himself as an amiable figure, continues after all these years to poll well in so many states where the Republican nomination fights of 2016 will play out. Even as Christie led many national surveys late last year, a December PPP survey found that while 47 percent of Republicans viewed Christie favorably, Huckabee’s favorable number was 65 percent. That’s significant. The sort of activists who take the lead in choosing nominees want to pick a viable candidate. But they also like to like the candidate they nominate. They have expectations rooted in the experience of the politics and politicians they know—standards that have been established over time. And, yes, they do draw lines that candidates ought not cross if they want to be contenders.

Christie has always straddled those lines. Yelling at teachers is not considered good form. But what’s playing out now is far more serious.

If the “road rage” scandal entangles Christie personally, it is reasonable to suggest that he would be done irreparable political damage.

But even if he can explain away the e-mails of his closest aides and allies, the latest developments reinforce concerns about Christie, and that’s going to make it a good deal harder for him to connect with the Republicans he must appeal to in order to remain a serious presidential prospect.

Read Next: New York governor Andrew Cuomo finally proposes the legalization of medical marijuana.

Seattle Swears In a Socialist

Kshama Sawant

Kshama Sawant (AP Photo/Ted Warren)

Across the United States this week, new mayors and city council members are being sworn in as the leaders of the cities that elected them in November. The inaugurations of mayors draw local attention—and, in cases like that of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a good measure of national attention—but there is generally less focus on the city council members.

Except in Seattle.

Monday afternoon’s inauguration of City Council member Kshama Sawant, arguably the most prominent socialist elected to local office since Bernie Sanders became mayor of Burlington, Vermont, thirty-three years ago, has inspired a striking level of excitement. Officials moved the swearing in for Sawant and Mayor Ed Murray—Seattle’s first openly gay mayor—from the city council chambers to the much larger lobby of the city hall, and local media described “the largest turnout ever for a Seattle inauguration ceremony.”

Reporters from around the country and around the world were interviewing Sawant, who in November upset a veteran council member with a campaign that promise to fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage. They also interviewed other socialists, including Irish parliamentarian Joe Higgins, who was in Seattle to celebrate the event and to tell reporters, “Kshama’s election has been a major event internationally. This has been a huge encouragement because the United States is the citadel of world capitalism.”

It’s a heady circumstance for Sawant, who embraced her new position with a declaration that: "I wear the badge of socialist with honor."

"Here in Seattle, political pundits are asking about me: will she compromise? Can she work with others? Of course, I will meet and discuss with representatives of the establishment. But when I do, I will bring the needs and aspirations of working-class people to every table I sit at, no matter who is seated across from me," she said in her inaugural address. "And let me make one thing absolutely clear: There will be no backroom deals with corporations or their political servants. There will be no rotten sell-out of the people I represent."

The crowd roared its approval.

Yet, for all the intensity of the moment, the community college economics instructor and Occupy Seattle activist who turned to electoral politics as part of a broader commitment to movement building, kept her victory in perspective. She recognizes the need to respond to immediate demands and the possibility of a broader "teaching moment," and she is confident that the balance can be struck.

“We’re going to be focusing on Seattle politics, obviously, because that’s going to be our job for the next two years,” Sawant explained in an interview before taking her oath. “We will be focusing on city politics: we will be in many ways initiating, in many ways participating in the struggle for $15-an-hour; and other issues like housing and transit. But the media attention gives us the opportunity to show the people that there’s nothing unique about Seattle.”

Sawant argues that “the social conditions that have meant that people are living in a circumstance of enormous inequality in the wealthiest country in the world” are not distinct to Seattle. At a time when “poverty is skyrocketing, housing is basically unaffordable” and unemployment and under-employment are serious issues in communities across the country, Sawant says it should not be surprising that “nearly 100,000 people voted for a socialist in Seattle.”

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Because of the strength of the vote she received, and the excitement about her election, Sawant was able to influence Seattle politics even before she took office. Last week, Mayor Murray ordered city administrators to develop plans to pay all municipal employees at least $15 per hour—a move that will lead to wage hikes for at least 600 Seattle workers. And Sawant will be working, on the council and if necessary via a referendum push, to establish a city-wide $15-an-hour base for workers.

She has no doubt the momentum will spread.

“I would say that this is simply the first wave in a storm that is about to be coming to the United States in [the form] of a demand for social change,” argues the new council member. “When salon.com named me one of the five political heroes of 2013, my first reaction was: ‘Why am I there…?’ Why aren’t the fast-food workers who went out courageously on one-day strikes all over the nation? They are the real political heroes as far as I am concerned. And it is important to mention them because they are signs that we are heading into a period of political change.”

That period of political change has roots, Sawant suggests.

“This didn’t come out of nowhere. The conditions have been building up for decades. They have been much worsened because of the recession,” she says. “We saw Occupy happening, which broke the silence on inequality. And I don’t think we should lose sight of [mass mobilizations of workers in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states]…. It shows you that there have been a series of events that tell us people are getting fed up with accepting the status quo and want something different.”

Read Next: John Nichols on the inauguration of Tish James as New York City public advocate

Darrell Issa’s Cruelest Cut: A Seriously Cynical Attack on the Postal Service

Postal Service

(AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-California, has made no secret of his desire to diminish and dismantle the United States Postal Service.

Issa has for some time now peddled plans to end Saturday deliveries by the USPS—which continues to perform with more agility than private firms, as holiday delivery patterns illustrated—in ways that are all but certain to make the postal service vulnerable to privatization.

Issa has a right to his opinion.

But the cynical determination with which he is now advancing it is jarring.

Issa has proposed legislation to address one of the many flaws in the budget agreement that was cobbled together in December by House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and Senate Budget Committee chair Patty Murray, D-Washington: a cut to military retirement benefits for veterans under the age of 62. 

Eliminating the benefit cut is a good idea, as it is part of an austerity agreement that seeks to balance budgets by placing more of the burden on government workers and military personnel—rather than multimillionaires like Issa.

But Issa is not proposing to offset the restoration of benefits by taxing the wealthy or closing loopholes.

Rather, he wants to do so by ending Saturday mail delivery.

Ending mail delivery on the weekend would dramatically undermine the ability of the postal service to meet the demands of modern shipping and communications. The likely result would be a rapid shift of traffic to private firms, which contribute heavily to politicians but which do not provide the universal, low-cost service that is the hallmark of the postal service.

And it has the potential to do something else: harm the employment prospects of veterans.

The USPS has historically been one of the nation’s largest employers of veterans—second only to the US Department of Defense, according to USPS figures. Roughly 120,000 postal service employees—more than 20 percent of the total workforce—have records of service in the military. Roughly a third of those employees are rated as 30 percent or more disabled, a reflection of the fact that the postal service goes out of its way to provide an array of employment services and options for veterans.

Cuts to the postal service threaten an institution that provides jobs to veterans and that—thanks to its own practices and strong commitments from postal unions—respects them once they are in those jobs.

Instead of embracing Issa’s latest and most cynical assault on a necessary service, Congress should do right by veterans. It can move to strengthen the USPS, along lines proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, Congressmen Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, and Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin. And it can address the benefits issue by enacting the Military Retirement Restoration Act, which has been introduced by Senator Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire.

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Shaheen’s legislation would repeal the provision in the budget agreement that cuts benefits for military retirees, including disabled veterans who are eligible for retirement benefits. It would offset the estimated $6 billion cost of doing so by ending the abuse of so-called “tax havens” by US-controlled corporations that incorporate offshore and claim “foreign” status in order to avoid paying taxes in the United States.

As US Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat who is a key co-sponsor of the legislation, notes, this provision is identical to Section 103 of the Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act and is expected to raise over $6.6 billion over ten years.

“This is a common sense measure built on the idea that everyone needs to pay their fair share,” explains Baldwin. “By closing this one corporate tax loophole, we can ensure our military veterans receive the benefits they’ve earned and deserve.”

Read Next: how our economy lost $400 million last week

The Democratic Vistas of 2014: Five Reforms to Make Our Politics Matter

Marchers carry signs urging action on jobs, voting rights and gun violence during the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington. (Reuters/James Lawler Duggan)

“We have frequently printed the word Democracy. Yet I cannot too often repeat, that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawakened,” wrote Walt Whitman in Democratic Vistas. “It is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.”

Whitman penned his essay on the American experiment in 1871. And there has been much progress since. Yet, there is much history yet to be enacted.

So why not make 2014 historic?

Why not assert a progressive politics that is more vital and determined than what has been known to this point?

Why not stop reacting and start asserting a real reform agenda?

Here are five steps in that direction:

1. Demand a Right to Vote for all Americans.

The last decade has seen a steady assault on voting rights in the United States, with restrictive Voter ID laws, changes in early-voting and same-day registration rules and, in 2013, a US Supreme Court ruling that Congressman John Lewis, D-Georgia, said “stuck a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” The Department of Justice and key members of the House and Senate have taken steps to counter the assault at the federal level, and state-based efforts such as North Carolina’s “Moral Monday” movement are pushing back. These efforts are vital.

But voting rights are too precious to be left to chance. They need to be defined and defended permanently. That’s why Congressmen Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, and Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, have proposed a constitutional amendment to explicitly guarantee that every American has a right to vote and a right to have that vote counted. “The right to vote is too important to be left unprotected,” says Pocan.

Groups such as Color of Change and FairVote agree. They’re campaigning to get co-sponsors for the proposal by Ellison and Pocan. So far, 20 members have joined their effort. In 2014, it’s important to pressure sitting members of Congress to sign on, and to make candidates for Congress take a stand on whether they believe Americans have a right to vote.

2. Get More States on Record for Real Reform of Elections.

Sixteen states have formally petitioned Congress to enact a constitutional amendment to overturn the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling—which frees corporations to spend as much as they choose to influence elections, and which continued a process of striking down federal, state and local campaign-finance reforms. These states have formally recognized that votes should define the electoral process, not dollars. Groups such as Free Speech for People, Move to Amend, Public Citizen, Common Cause and People for the American Way have made tremendous progress at the local and state levels—working with limited resources and shamefully scant media coverage. They’ve won support from Democrats, Republicans and independents in state legislatures across the country, and they’ve organized and won statewide and local referendum votes. “In just three years since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, we have come one third of the way to amending the US Constitution to reclaim our democracy and to ensure that people, not corporations, shall govern in America,” says John Bonifaz, co-founder and executive director of Free Speech For People.

But there is still much work to do. The real “critical mass” moment will not come until current numbers double and the movement is in range of the number of states that would be required to approve an amendment: thirty-eight. Roughly 100 House members have sponsored or cosponsored amendment proposals, as have key senators such as Vermont independent Bernie Sanders and Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown. Getting more states to formally demand action will cause more congressional buy-in for this necessary reform.

“Amending our country’s constitution should be difficult,” says Marge Baker, executive vice president of People For the American Way. “But this isn’t the first time Americans have encountered a serious problem that needs a serious solution. Citizens United and other cases that paved the way for big money to flood our elections have given us one of those moments. As more states and elected officials go on record in support of an amendment, the clearer it becomes that the American people will not stand to have their voices overpowered by wealthy special interests.”

3. Vote for a Raise

Senator Bernie Sanders is right when he says of the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, “Most people understand that is a starvation wage. Individuals can’t live on it, families can’t live on it.” Working with the ranking Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, California Democrat George Miller, and Senate Education, Health, Labor and Pensions Committee chair Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Sanders is pushing for Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and index future increases to the rate of inflation. That’s a good start, but it’s a tall order in the face of determined opposition in the Republican-controlled US House.

But the circumstances of millions of American workers can be improved even if Congress fails to act in 2014. In November 2013, New Jersey voters hiked that state’s minimum wage to $9 an hour and indexed future increases to the inflation rate. And in Sea-Tac, Washington, voters took the local minimum wage to $15 an hour. With the election of Kshama Sawant, a socialist who ran on the $15 wage issue, to the Seattle city council, there is now a major push in that city for a significant wage hike. If Seattle votes on a $15-an-hour wage referendum this fall, it will be as part of a pattern of critical state and local initiatives—from Alaska to Arkansas to New Mexico to South Dakota—that are designed to allow Americans to vote themselves a raise.

4. Vote for Equal Rights

The Equal Rights Amendment struggle of the 1970s and early 1980s was an intense, inspiring and heartbreaking fight to finally guarantee equal rights for women. A massive right-wing pushback prevented the project from succeeding at the time—although it opened up debates that would lead to significant progress on a number of legislative fronts. In recent years, there has been something of an ERA renaissance. Three years ago, on the 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day, then-Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, proposed legislation to eliminate the congressionally imposed deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. And in February 2013, the New Mexico state House of Representatives formally asked Congress to lift the deadline for ERA ratification. At the same time, new versions of the amendment have been introduced.

Beyond Washington, twenty-one state constitutions embrace ERA-like equal rights provisions And the state of Oregon is likely to see a test in 2014. Late in December, the group VoteERA.org won approval to start gathering 116,284 valid signatures to place a state ERA proposal on the November ballot. “Shouldn’t women be explicitly equal in every Constitution?” Leanne Littrell DiLorenzo, the president of VoteERA.org, told reporters. “To me, the answer is an absolute ‘Yes, of course.’”

5. Work to Make Every Election Matter.

America has woefully low voter turnout, as compared with other major democracies around the world. Restrictive laws get some of the blame. So, too, does a money-drenched process that makes elections a spectator sport. But there is also the reality that this country’s electoral systems have too many structural flaws that make it hard to vote. That needs to change. The Brennan Center has a “How to Fix the Voting System” plan that it’s pushing in states across the country: 1. Modernize Voter Registration, 2. Expand Early Voting, 3. Improve Polling Place Resource Management, 4. Simplify Ballots and Voting Machines. And Brennan Center Democracy Program director Wendy Weiser notes that, amid all the frustrating talk about restrictions and suppression in 2013, “many states expanded voting access. In 2014, there is a real opportunity to find common ground and enact vital fixes to modernize our outdated election system.”

Common Cause and other groups are working in states across the country to end the absurd practice of gerrymandering local, state and federal election districts—which makes too many elections for too many important offices uncompetitive. The Working Families Party in New York and Connecticut, the Vermont Progressive Party and other third-party and independent groupings are drawing the rough outlines of multi-party and ideologically diverse politics from New England to the Northwest. And Fair Vote: The Center for Voting and Democracy is pushing for a wide range of reforms, while noting successes in communities that have adopted more democratic models for voting. For instance, FairVote notes, “Minneapolis uses ranked choice voting, so voters were able to express not only which candidate was their favorite, but also which second-choice and third-choice candidates they thought should win if their first choice did not qualify for an instant runoff. Ranked choice voting meant that candidates competed seriously but also positively, and Minneapolis ultimately elected a candidate who reflected a broad consensus—Betsy Hodges skipped spending money on television ads in favor of grassroots campaigning. She broke from the field by earning more than a third of first-choice rankings and more than 60% among voters who expressed a preference for either her or her strongest opponent. Altogether, she was the first, second or third choice of two-thirds of the voters.”

The Minneapolis election results provided an example of what happens when democracy is awakened. Americans need to explore this country’s democratic vistas in 2014, breaking beyond narrow partisan and ideological lines of division to develop the vibrant politics that realizes the promise Whitman imagined when he wrote that he considered the American experiment “far less important for what it has done, or what it is, than for results to come.”

Read Next: John Nichols' picks for the 2013 Progressive Honor Roll.

Holiday in Austerity Land: 1.3 Million Americans Lose Jobless Benefits

Paul Ryan and Patty Murphy

House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) at a Congressional Budget Conference. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

When initially discussed as a rude repercussion of a bungled budget deal, the prospect that 1.3 million Americans would lose long-term unemployment benefits just days after Christmas was bad enough.

Now that the day has come, however, it stands as a stark reminder of the extent to which the United States has regressed from the days when Franklin Delano Roosevelt greeted the holiday season with a celebration of the fact that “today neighborliness no longer can be confined to one’s little neighborhood. Life has become too complex for that. In our country neighborliness has gradually spread its boundaries—from town, to county, to State and now at last to the whole Nation.”

Imagine a country that during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day abandons those hit hardest by economic turbulence, and you have a sense of what the United States has become under the cruel hand of House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan—who refused to agree to any budget deal that included an extension of benefits—and those members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, who compromised with the failed Republican vice presidential candidate’s austerity agenda.

Because Congress accepted Ryan’s crude calculus, 1.3 million jobless Americans were abandoned on December 28 by a government that could, and should, have assisted them. And if Ryan continues to get his way, unemployment benefits will end in coming months for an additional 1.9 million Americans.

“It is not only immoral to cut off help for workers struggling to find jobs, it is also bad economics,” argues Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. “At a time when long-term unemployment is near a record level, cutting benefits will hurt the rest of the economy and cause even more jobs to disappear.”

Ryan claimed that extending jobless benefits “would have blown a hole in our deficits” and “prolonged unemployment.”

He is off the mark, morally and economically.

Sanders correctly points out that there is no sound economic argument for adopting the Ryan approach. A continuing refusal by Congress to extend benefits has the potential, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, to cause a $25 billion blow to the economy in 2014. The CBO projects a 0.2 percent drop in the nation’s gross domestic product—and the loss of 200,000 additional jobs—unless the benefits are extended.

In other words, this is cruelty for the sake of cruelty.

That’s what adds a decidedly Dickensian twist to the bipartisan budget deal that National Nurses United correctly characterized as “an endorsement of austerity at the expense of all of us.”

There is little debate that Ryan defined the scope and character of the budget negotiations that played out in November and early December. Yes, he would have gone further if Senate Budget Committee chair Patty Murray (D-WA) and other Democrats had not been in positions to constrain his ambitions. But Ryan bragged that the deal reflected his bottom line: no new taxes on the extraordinarily wealthy, no closing of loopholes for corporations, no economic stimulus, continuation of many of the worst of the sequester cuts and an austerity calculus that unburdened billionaires.

Though Murray and many of the leading lights of the Republican and Democratic caucuses in the House and Senate were involved in the budget negotiations, Ryan was the definitional player. And he shaped a plan that embraces his fiscal ethic of erring consistently on the side of Wall Street speculators, “golden parachute” CEOs and million-dollar campaign donors.

When Ryan is done delivering for his core constituencies, there’s little left for working Americans—and even less for out-of-work Americans.

Explaining his opposition to the budget deal, Congressman Mark Pocan (D-WI) said: “At the end of the day, the bill abandons 1.3 million Americans who desperately need unemployment insurance, and does nothing to promote economic growth or job creation. Furthermore, the legislation is paid for on the backs of the middle class and military families, while not touching the wealthiest amongst us and allowing corporations to continue to benefit from tax loopholes.”

Pocan, a former co-chair of the Wisconsin Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee and a member with Ryan of the House Budget Committee, is recognizing reality.

The budget deal fails to demand that the primary beneficiaries of the federal policies that Ryan has helped shape for more than a decade—bailed-out banks, border-hopping multinational corporations and billionaires seeking tax shelters—do anything more to reduce deficits and debts. Instead, it shifts the burden to federal workers and military personnel, who were hit with a demand that they pay more for basic benefits.

That’s how Ryan’s austerity works: CEOs get to keep their golden parachutes because the government is making the clerks and park rangers and soldiers and sailors do all the sacrificing. It’s the redistribution of wealth upward, in the grand tradition of the Charles Dickens character Ebenezer Scrooge, who griped that his clerk’s request for a Christmas holiday was “a poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every 25th of December.”

The cruelest calculus comes now, after December 25, as 1.3 million Americans are denied assistance that they need to pay for shelter, food and the transportation they use in searching for jobs that in many parts of the country just aren’t available. Roughly 28,000 Wisconsin families, including many residing in Janesville, Ryan’s hard-hit hometown, are among those slated to lose benefits.

Paul Ryan and Patty Murray had every opportunity to include an extension in the agreement. Democrats were angling for it, and Republicans were unlikely to balk at a proposal to help the needy in the holiday season. Yet when the plan was presented, no provision was made for the long-term unemployed. Despite Democratic objections prior to the House and Senate votes, the measure advanced with overwhelming support from compromise-prone members of both parties. And it was signed by the president on December 26.

Then they hightailed it home for the holidays.

So it was that a Congress that could easily have cared for the poor took actions that resembled those of old Scrooge, who replied to a request for a donation for the destitute, with a growl of “It’s not my business.”

Politicians are rarely so crass in their language. Yet the budget deal Paul Ryan did so much to shape, and that too many Republicans and Democrats endorsed, contains precisely nothing for those whose want is keenly felt.

The question now is whether Congress will be shamed sufficiently to act.

There are certainly those who are ready to respond.

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On January 6, when the Senate reconvenes, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) says the first measure up for consideration will be a plan to restore long-term unemployment benefits. The measure is backed by Nevada Republican Dean Heller and twenty-one members of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

Give Heller credit. He is doing the right thing—for his constituents and for the national economy—by breaking with Ryan and the austerity agenda.

But there must be a bigger break—in the Senate and, especially, in the Republican-controlled House. As Sanders says, “The critical question is how many Republicans are prepared to stand with unemployed workers.”

Put another way: How many Republicans will join Heller in recognizing that the circumstance of the long-term jobless is their business? Indeed, it is all of our business.

Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on the flawed budget deal

Thank a Postal Worker

Postal workers are giving it their all this holiday season, as cards and packages and returns must be collected and delivered amidst ice storms, snowstorms and wild temperature drops.

They deserve our thanks in 2013.

And our support in 2014.

Postal workers are still under assault from political slackers in Washington—like House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-California, and the wrecking crew he has assembled to diminish the United States Postal Service to such an extent that it can be bartered off to the highest bidder.

That assault has made this holiday season even tougher. Under pressure from USPS executives and privatization-prone members of Congress, the service has implemented closures and forced reductions in hours. That’s led to delays in some regions. “Much of the delayed mail is in areas where plants and post offices have been consolidated or closed or where hours at post offices have been reduced,” explains Debby Szeredy, the executive vice president of the American Postal Workers Union.

True, the Postal Service had a significantly better Holiday season than FedEx and UPS, both of which were on the naughty list amid reports on how "packages that were supposed to be delivered in time for Christmas didn't make it to their destinations."

But the Postal Service can't maintain universal, high quality service if closures, consolidations and cuts continue.

The assault on this Constitutionally-mandated service service must end in 2014.

It is true that the Postal Service faces challenges. But is wrong—and, frankly, absurd—to suggest that the only fix is downsizing. That’s precisely the wrong route. Schemes to cut services and sell off parts of the service begin with the false premise that its current financial challenges are evidence of fundamental flaws.

In fact, the Postal Service reported an operating profit of $600 million for the 2013 fiscal year.

Unfortunately, despite the operating profit, the Postal Service balance sheet showed a $5 billion “loss” for the 2013 fiscal year.

Why? “Only because of an unprecedented and onerous requirement imposed by Congress that it pre-fund 75 years of future retiree health benefits in just 10 years," as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders notes. “No other business or government agency is burdened with this mandate."

Ending the mandate and requiring the Postal Service to operate along the lines of the most responsible private businesses would make the USPS viable.

Indeed, the service could thrive if members of the House and Senate were to embrace the proposals of Sanders and Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon.

Sanders recognizes what the rest of Congress should: “The way to save the Postal Service is not to dismantle it piece by piece, but to allow it to generate more revenue by offering new and innovative products and services that the American people want.”

Those reforms embrace many of the proposals advanced by National Association of Letter Carriers President Fredric Rolando in a July letter to Congressman Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the Government Oversight and Reform Committee. In it, Rolando writes that comprehensive postal reform must:

1. Stabilize the Postal Service’s finances by reforming or eliminating unwise and unfair pension and retiree health financing policies that have crippled the Postal Service’s finances since 2006.

2. Strengthen and protect the Postal Service’s invaluable first-mile and last-mile networks that together comprise a crucial part of the nation’s infrastructure.

3. Overhaul the basic governance structure of the agency to attract first-class executive talent and a private-sector style board of directors with the demonstrated business expertise needed to implement a strategy that will allow the Postal Service to innovate and take advantage of growth opportunities even as it adjusts to declining traditional mail volume.

4. Free the Postal Service to meet the evolving needs of the American economy and to set its prices in a way that reflects the cost structure of the delivery industry while assuring affordable universal service and protecting against anti-competitive abuses.

There is a future for the United States Postal Service. And for the letter carriers and other postal workers who are hustling to deliver cards and packages this week.

In this holiday season, thank a postal worker. In 2014, tell Congress that it is not just possible but necessary for the United States to have a strong Postal Service.

FDR’s ‘Christmas Carol’ is the Antidote to Lump-of-Coal Austerity

Each Christmas Eve in the 1930s and 1940s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt would deliver a radio address to the people of the United States.

For the thirty-second president, it was an opportunity to mark the holiday. But Roosevelt also used these addresses to speak about the advance of economic and social justice. This, he argued, was cause for celebration, and for a renewed commitment to do even more in the year to come.

Roosevelt often read to his listeners from the Bible and newspaper columns and, invariably, “A Christmas Carol.” In the social commentary of Charles Dickens on the London of a century earlier, the president found a call to contemporary action.

“A Christmas rite for me is always to reread that immortal little story by Charles Dickens, ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Reading between the lines and thinking as I always do of Bob Cratchit’s humble home as a counterpart of millions of our own American homes, the story takes on a stirring significance to me,” Roosevelt recalled in his 1939 address. “Old Scrooge found that Christmas wasn’t a humbug. He took to himself the spirit of neighborliness. But today neighborliness no longer can be confined to one’s little neighborhood. Life has become too complex for that. In our country neighborliness has gradually spread its boundaries—from town, to county, to state and now at last to the whole nation.

“For instance,” Roosevelt marveled, as he spoke just days before the first Social Security checks would be dispatched, “who a generation ago would have thought that a week from tomorrow—January 1, 1940—tens of thousands of elderly men and women in every state and every county and every city of the nation would begin to receive checks every month for old age retirement insurance—and not only that but that there would be also insurance benefits for the wife, the widow, the orphan children and even dependent parents? Who would have thought a generation ago that people who lost their jobs would, for an appreciable period, receive unemployment insurance—that the needy, the blind and the crippled children would receive some measure of protection which will reach down to the millions of Bob Cratchits, the Marthas and the Tiny Tims of our own ‘four-room homes’?”

Today, with Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid under threat not just from House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, but from Democrats who would compromise with Ryan, with food stamps being slashed, with Congress refusing to extend unemployment insurance, we have drifted far from the moorings Roosevelt provided for America.

But not too far.

Each year brings an opportunity to recognize that poverty did not end with Dickens, or Roosevelt. There is still a need for “some measure of protection which will reach down to the millions of Bob Cratchits, the Marthas and the Tiny Tims of our own ‘four-room homes.’ ” And we can still muster the energy and resources to meet it—just as we did in the days when a generous nation listened to FDR on the radio.

Scott Walker Goes All ‘Duck Dynasty’ on the First Amendment

Scott Walker will never be accused of displaying a high regard for the First Amendment.

The Wisconsin governor who tried to close the state Capitol to mass protests against his anti-labor policies, and who then engineered a rewrite of rules so that veterans, grandmothers, teachers and firefighters were arrested for singing, has offered ample evidence of his disregard for the rights to speak freely, to assemble, to petition for the redress of grievances

So it came as a surprise when Walker suddenly announced that First Amendment concerns had led him to sign a new Wisconsin law that makes it significantly harder to get schools to drop Indian logos, mascots and team names that Native Americans, educators and community members have identified as objectionable. Indeed, Walker has adopted a position that reinterprets the US Constitution’s free speech protection in a far more adventurous way than the folks who are currently arguing about the controversial statements of Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson.

Walker readily admits that many Wisconsinites view the school nicknames as “seriously offensive.” And he says he personally supports “moving away” from the use of them.

In a letter to Wisconsin’s tribal leaders, the governor wrote: “I share many of your concerns about some of the mascots and nicknames used in Wisconsin and across America. If it were up to me personally, I would seek viable alternatives that were not offensive to Native Americans.”

So why didn’t Walker veto the measure—which Wisconsin Indian Education Association spokeswoman Barbara Munson decried as “institutionalized racism”—and just let existing law stand?

Walker says it has something to do with the First Amendment.

“If the state bans speech that is offensive to some, where does it stop?” asked Walker. “A person or persons’ right to speak does not end just because what they say or how they say it is offensive.”

But a school district is not a person, like Duck Dynasty’s Robertson, who was suspended from the A&E program after making statements that drew loud objections from civil rights groups. Robertson’s supporters have countered criticisms from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Human Rights Campaign, among others, by arguing that, as an individual citizen, Robertson has every right to say what he thinks.

Nor is a school district a private enterprise, like A&E, which has faced threats of boycotts from Americans who are uncomfortable with Robertson’s statements.

A school district is a public entity, which is supposed to serve all the people in a community.

“School districts are creatures of the state, bound to abide by state standards,” Milwaukee attorney Brian Pierson. who had helped defend the existing state law in court, explained to The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.“A school district doesn’t have a First Amendment right to adopt an Indian mascot any more than it has a First Amendment right to adopt the swastika as school symbol or ‘white supremacy’ as school slogan

The issue never was—and is not now— “a person or persons’ right to speak.”

In fact, when Walker signaled he would make a First Amendment argument for his decision to sign the legislation, the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin objected.

“This is a bogus appropriation of the First Amendment,” explained executive director Chris Ahmuty. “The governor apparently does not understand that the First Amendment protects citizens from government censorship. Government programs are not allowed to offend, harm or otherwise discriminate against citizens on the basis of the First Amendment. The First Amendment simply doesn’t apply when it’s the government taking action.”

Noting that “school team names, mascots, logos and all that go along with them are the responsibility of the public school district,” Ahmuty explained that it was entirely appropriate for a public school district or the state Department of Public Instruction to take steps to address offensive names.

“Why would a public school district want to harm some of its students?” asked Ahmuty, who added, “Free speech is no justification.”

Liz Cheney’s Husband Registers to Vote in Two States? Is That ‘Voter Fraud’?

Liz Cheney

(AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Voter fraud is quite uncommon. In fact, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of law, which has conducted an ongoing examination of voter fraud claims, refers to the supposed “problem” as a “myth.”

However, if we employ the standard of those who claim that there really is a voter fraud crisis in America, then there is a case that is worthy of note. And it involves Liz Cheney’s husband.

Liz Cheney is running for the US Senate in a 2014 Republican primary. But she is not running in her long-time home state, Virginia.

Rather, she is running in distant Wyoming—which her father, permanent Washington fixture Dick Cheney, used as a political redoubt for congressional service to the Reagan administration in the 1980s.

The Wyoming run has been an inconvenient one for Liz Cheney. She has been forced to uproot herself from a comfortable life in suburban Washington, and to buy an expensive new home in the one reliably Democratic county in Wyoming. She has struggled to figure out how to obtain a fishing license, after initially overstating her history in the state—and paying a fine for “[failing] to meet residency requirements as required.” And she has had to declare her opposition to her sister’s right to marry.

But it hasn’t just been tough on Liz Cheney.

Her husband, Philip Perry, who practices law with a major Washington firm, has had to claim that he, too, is a resident of Wyoming.

In March, he obtained a driver’s license. And he has gone so far as to register to vote there

Unfortunately, he is also registered to vote in McLean, Virginia, where he voted in 2012.

When Perry registered to vote in Wyoming’s Teton County, he did not indicate that he was on the voter roll elsewhere. Indeed, says Teton County Clerk Sherry Daigle, “He signed an oath saying he was not currently registered anywhere else.”

Oops.

So we have a glaring case of double registration.

Sound the alarm!

Or not.

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Perry can fix the problem by asking Virginia to remove him from the rolls in the Old Dominion. Officials generally allow for such clarifications, recognizing that mistakes are made. Despite the headline in the local paper—“Cheney Husband in False Oath Kerfuffle”—it is unlikely that the double-registration mess will result in anything more than a slight case of embarrassment for a prominent lawyer.

So this does not appear to be a particularly big deal—just like most cases of supposed “voter fraud.”

Indeed, as the Brennan Center reminds us, “Voter fraud is very rare, voter impersonation is nearly non-existent and much of the problems associated with alleged fraud in elections relates to unintentional mistakes by voters or election administrators.”

Read Next: George Zornick on Senator Tom Harkin.

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