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The proposal by the US Postal Service to end Saturday mail delivery—which can and should be blocked by Congress—poses a dramatic threat to the economic and social viability of rural communities and inner cities. The move endangers small businesses that rely on affordable, universal and regular service. And it threatens the elderly, the disabled and vulnerable Americans who count on the connections made through the mail—and with the letter carriers who deliver it.
But there is another threat contained in this wrongheaded plan to put the Postal Service out of commission from Friday to Monday. Cutting mail delivery would undermine democracy by making it harder for the tens of millions of Americans who vote by mail to continue to do so.
Though the numbers vary from state to state, it is now generally accepted that 20 percent of American voters—including First Lady Michelle Obama—are casting ballots by mail. The numbers have increased at an exponential rate in recent years. Most mail voters do so via traditional absentee ballots, although roughly 5 percent live in states that formally conduct elections using a vote-by-mail system. And the practice is expanding; next week in California, 44,000 vote-by-mail ballots will be mailed to voters in advance of a March special election for the State Senate.
In the weeks before presidential and congressional elections, tens of millions of ballots will move through the postal system, with the final period before an election seeing many days when the volume of mailed ballots exceeds a million. Weekend days are especially busy because that’s when working people can find the time to apply for, fill out and send in absentee ballots. It is also, election officials say, when family members of the elderly and the disabled are most free to help them access and complete ballots. Only those who do not understand the stresses on already over-taxed election systems would suggest that it does not matter to reduce the number of days when tens of millions of voters can obtain ballots and cast them.
This is not a matter of Democrats versus Republicans, or liberals versus conservatives. While Democrats have made significant inroads, there are still regions where Republicans maintain absentee-voting advantages.
This threat goes deeper, to democracy itself..
Taking Saturdays out of the rotation deals a serious blow to existing absentee and vote-by-mail operations, and reduces the likelihood that this voter-friendly approach will be expanded. One of the top election experts in the nation, Cook County Clerk David Orr, who runs elections in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, has predicted that “mail [voting] will dramatically grow over a period of time.” But that will happen only if the postal service is reliable. That’s what is maddening about the proposed cut in Saturday delivery: with election officials looking to expand voting by mail as a response to long lines and other Election Day challenges, the reduction in service threatens the growth potential of the USPS at precisely the time when the postal service needs new volume and revenue.
In Oregon, a pioneering vote-by-mail state, Secretary of State Kate Brown has been an outspoken critic of moves to cut postal services, arguing that eliminating Saturday delivery threatens to create delays, increase burdens of election workers and, ultimately, to “disenfranchise voters in Oregon.”
In Washington state, which has also moved to a vote-by-mail system, Secretary of State Kim Wyman has expressed disappointment in USPS for proposing the cut delivery days. Wyman is hustling to develop contingency plans that will have to be implemented if the cuts go through.
But in communities across the country, local election officials are worried that it will be difficult to address the gap that would be created by the elimination of mail service on key weekends before local, state and national elections.
“Forget the ‘future of voting,’ as many want to discuss. The present is drying up…” argues Johnson County, Kansas, Election Commissioner Brian Newby. “Without Saturday postal delivery, Johnson County voters who get ballots issued on the last day allowed by law [the Friday before the election] will have no way to turn them around and know they were delivered by Tuesday. There likely will be others who will find they need the Saturday delivery 10 days before the election to get their ballot before going out of town the following Monday morning and now otherwise will be unable to vote in an election.”
Doug Chapin, the director of the Program for Excellence in Election Administration at the Hubert Humphrey School of Public Affairs speculates that election administrators may have to develop their own systems of secure drop boxes to manage the masses of mailed ballots. That will cause more expense, and raise the prospect of disenfranchisement—especially in Northern and Western states that have placed an emphasis on making it easier to vote. Notably, vote-by-mail states Oregon and Washington consistently rank among in the top five for turnout, along with states that have high levels of absentee voting, such as Wisconsin.
This is an issue where policy makers need to put the pieces together. Congress is addressing the issue of long lines at polling places. Eliminating postal services will not reduce lines on Election Day, it will increase them. And that’s a step in the wrong direction.
The austerity agenda that would cut services for working Americans in order to maintain tax breaks for the wealthy—and promote the privatization of public services—has many faces.
Most Americans recognize the threats to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as pieces of the austerity plan advanced by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), and the rest of the Ayn Rand–reading wrecking crew that has taken over the Republican Party. But it is important to recognize that the austerity agenda extends in every direction: from threats to Food Stamps and Pell Grants, to education cuts, to the squeezing of transportation funding.
But the current frontline of the austerity agenda is the assault on the US Postal Service, a vital public service that is older than the country. And it is advancing rapidly. On Wednesday, the Postal Service announced that Saturday first-class mail delivery is scheduled for elimination at the beginning of August—the latest and deepest in a series of cuts that threatens to so undermine the service that it will be ripe for bartering off to the private delivery corporations that have long coveted its high-end components.
“USPS executives cannot save the Postal Service by tearing it apart. These across-the-board cutbacks will weaken the nation’s mail system and put it on a path to privatization," declares American Postal Workers Union president Cliff Guffey.
“The postmaster general cannot save the Postal Service by ending one of its major competitive advantages. Cutting six-day delivery is not a viable plan for the future. It will lead to a death spiral that will harm rural America while doing very little to improve the financial condition of the Postal Service,” says US Senator Bernie Sanders, who has had some success in promoting Senate efforts to avert deep cuts to the Postal Service. “Providing fewer services and less quality will cause more customers to seek other options. Rural Americans, businesses, senior citizens and veterans will be hurt by ending Saturday mail."
There is no question that Congress can save Saturday service.
Unfortunately, while the Senate has endorsed smart reforms that benefit the service and its customers, the House has resisted action.
The House will act only if Americans raise an outcry.
And they should. Because if this austerity fight is lost, it will not be the last defeat for public services and public workers.
The damage associated with the curtailing of Saturday delivery will be most severe in rural areas and inner cities, where small businesses and working families rely on local post offices that are already targeted for shuttering. It will, as well, be particularly harmful to the elderly, the disabled and others who rely on regular delivery and the human connection provided by letter carriers and rural delivery drivers.
The plan to end key Saturday services, which has been correctly described by the National Association of Letter Carriers as “a disastrous idea that would have a profoundly negative effect on the Postal Service and on millions of customers,” is not necessary. Ryan and his fellow proponents of austerity manufactured the current crisis in USPS funding, when they enacted the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 (PAEA). The PAEA forced the Postal Service to prefund its future healthcare benefit payments to retirees for the next seventy-five years. That’s something no major corporation could or would do, as it required the service to divert more than $5 billion annually to prepay the health benefits of retirees who have not yet been hired.
“Slowing mail service and degrading our unmatchable last-mile delivery network are not the answers to the Postal Service’s financial problems,” says National Association of Letter Carriers President Fredric Rolando. “If the Postmaster General is unwilling or unable to develop a smart growth strategy that serves the nearly 50 percent of business mailers that want to keep six-day service, and if he arrogantly thinks he is above the law or has the right to decide policy matters that should be left to Congress, it is time for him to step down.”
Rolando is right. Congress can and should intervene to preserve Saturday delivery, to provide bridge funding for the service and to develop a plan that undoes the damage done by the PAEA and reforms rules so that the Postal Service can compete in the digital era.
This is doable. The Postal Service needs to make changes. No one argues with that. But the changes should—along the lines outlined by Sanders and his allies in the Senate—allow the service to compete with private delivery firms, and they should capitalize on a rural infrastructure that can play an key role in broadband buildout and the development of new financial and community services.
The current leadership of the Postal Service will not save it; they have bought into the austerity lie. Indeed, with the Saturday delivery cut, they are promoting austerity on steroids.
Any move to save the Postal Service requires members of Congress, not just Democrats but responsible Republicans, to reject austerity and get serious about maintaining vital public services.
This is not an option. It is a constitutional responsibility.
If Congress will not follow a constitutional charge to protect the Postal Service, should we really expect that it will defend Social Secuity, Medicare, Medicaid and other public services? The question should tell us that the work of preserving and expanding the Postal Service is an essential battle in the fight against the austerity lie.
Read Allison Kilkenny’s take on the slashing and burning of Philadelphia’s public school system.
The Pennsylvania state capitol building. (Flickr/Paul Vasiliades)
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus has been blunt about his determination to rig the Electoral College. So it should come as no surprise that, even after his partisan minions were "named and shamed" into distancing themselves from an initial strategy for gaming presidential politics, key Republicans have returned with another plan to make it possible for a GOP loser to "win" the 2016 presidential race.
Thwarted in an effort to assign electoral votes based on the results from gerrymandered congressional districts, Republicans are now proposing a "proportional representation" plan that offers another avenue to assign substantial numbers of electoral votes to Republican nominees who lose key swing states such as Pennsylvania.
The proportional proposal—which Pennsylvania state Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, a top Republican closely allied with Governor Tom Corbett, says he will introduce in short order—sounds on the surface like a somewhat fairer approach. But, if implemented, it would put the “fix” in just as surely as the previous plan.
Indeed, a Pileggi spokesman admits, "The major goal remains the same..."
It is the goal of rigging the rules to benefit future Republican presidential nominess that has always mattered most to Priebus and his allies.
The RNC chair and those aligned with him have never evidenced any great concern regarding specifics. They're concerned with gaining an illicit advantage for Republican presidential candidates who Priebus has essentially admitted are unlikely to win a fair fight under the existing rules.
In the arcane language of the permanent political insider, Priebus says: "states that have been consistently blue that are controlled red ought to be looking at" ways to alter rules for distributing electoral votes. Translation: In states where Democrats regularly win presidential races, Republicans should use their transitory control of governorships and state legislative chambers to grab as many electoral votes as they can.
Priebus initially talked up the idea of to having Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania abandon the current model of assigning electoral votes to the winner of the state and instead implement a model where the allotment would be based on the winners of congressional districts. That plan, which would have allowed the loser of the popular vote in many states to "win" most of the electoral votes, was such a blatant rip-off that shamed Republicans in Virginia, Florida, Wisconsin and other states abandoned it.
But they did not abandon the basic premise laid out by Priebus—that states that are "controlled red" by the Republicans should game the rules so that they are less "consistently blue" in presidential politics. They've just shifted strategy.
Under the plan now being entertained by Pennsylvania Republicans, electoral votes would be distributed based on the percentage of the vote received by the contenders. Had the plan been in place in 2012, President Obama, who won 52 percent of the Pennsylvania popular vote, would have gotten 11 or 12 electoral votes, while Republican Mitt Romney would have gotten 8 or 9.
That looks like a more reasonable result than under the plan for allocating by congressional district results, which would have given Romney most of Pennsylvania's electoral votes despite Obama's popular vote win.
But here's where things get tricky. If Pennsylvania and other swing states that tend to back Democrats move to the proportional model, while big states such as Texas and Georgia that have been voting Republican stick with a winner-take-all plan, they will lock in a national advantage for the Republicans.
The Pennsylvania initiative may not be quite as "sweet" for Republicans as the initial Priebus plan. But if states that vote Democratic assign substantial numbers of their electoral votes to the Republican loser, while states that vote Republican make no such concession, it will be a lot easier to chart a course where a Republican nominee who is trounced in the national popular vote might still "win" the electoral vote and the presidency.
The necessary response from democracy advocates to the latest plan to rig the Electoral College is essentially the same as the response to the last scheme.
The very fact that the rules for distributing electoral votes can be so easily rewritten to thwart the will of the people regarding the election of the president of the United States “should give us all pause,” explains FairVote's Rob Richie.
“The Election of the president should be a fair process where all American voters should have an equal ability to hold their president accountable,” says Richie. “It’s time for the nation to embrace one-person, one-vote elections and the ‘fair fight’ represented by a national popular vote. Let’s forever dismiss the potential of such electoral hooliganism and finally do what the overwhelming majorities of Americans have consistently preferred: make every vote equal with a national popular vote for president.”
That—not the Priebus plan, or the Pennsylvania variation—is what the people want.
Indeed, a Gallup poll taken January 8-9, 2013, found that 63 percent of Americans would support “doing away with the Electoral College and basing the election of the president on the total vote cast throughout the nation.”
The people are right.
Priebus and his pal in Pennsylvania are wrong.
Read John Nichols's takedown of Reince Priebus.
Obama the skeet-shooter. (Flickr/White House)
Forget the “birthers.”
The tin-foil hat crowd demand that President Obama produce evidence of his American birth is so 2011.
The whacked-out fantasists of the moment are “skeeters”—Obama critics so unhinged that they have trouble imagining that a president who promotes gun safety would ever actually touch a gun.
When Obama mentioned in a recent interview that, like millions of responsible gun owners, he enjoys skeet shooting, it was open season for the skeeters. So incredulous were they about the notion that the president might actually enjoy shooting clays that a Republican congresswoman, Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), went on national television to join what was referred to as “a chorus of skeptics who questioned President Barack Obama’s recent comments about his hobby of skeet shooting, a sport where participants fire shotguns to break airborne clay disks.”
“If he is a skeet shooter, why have we not heard of this?” grumbled Blackburn in a CNN appearance that mocked the president. “Why have we not seen photos? Why hasn’t he referenced this at any point in time?”
So the White House released a photo of the president firing what looks to be a 12-gauge Browning.
Obama’s stance may not meet Olympic skeet competition standards. But he looks comfortable enough with the gun. So comfortable that the photo might ease the concerns of a lot of gun-owning Americans who—like most National Rifle Association members—appreciate their firearms but are coming to accept that some regulations are necessary to protect against illicit trafficking in weapons and gun violence.
That’s got the gun lobby rattled. If they can’t portray the president as reflexively anti-gun, it gets a lot harder to oppose background checks and other simple gun-safety measures.
So now the skeeters, no longer in complete denial, are claiming that the skeet-shooting picture’s are “a ploy” to advance the cause of gun control.
“One picture does not erase a lifetime of supporting every gun ban and every gun-control scheme imaginable,” griped Andrew Arulanandam, spokesman for the National Rifle Association. NRA executive director Wayne LaPierre rushed to the nearest Fox News camera to declare: “During the campaign, when he said to people, ‘I will not take away your rifle, shotgun, handgun,’ they leafleted the country with flyers like this, ‘Obama’s not gonna take your gun,’ ‘Obama will protect gun rights,’ And now he’s trying to take away all three.”
But, just as the skeeter skeptics were wrong to question the president’s shooting claim, so they are wrong to lie about his gun-safety agenda. It’s not anti–Second Amendment, and its not anti-gun. It’s the response of a leader who understands that “we can respect the Second Amendment while keeping an irresponsible, law-breaking few from inflicting harm on a massive scale.”
That’s what’s got the NRA leadership scared.
The gun lobby just got bit by its skeeter fantasy.
And LaPierre knows, though he will never admit it, that one picture might yet speak a thousand words about Obama’s balanced stance.
The NRA's political power is a myth. Read John Nichols's takedown.
Tom Harkin. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Tom Harkin’s decision to retire from the Senate at the end of his current term will create an immeasurable void in the chamber where he has served for more than a quarter-century. A progressive populist with a history of defending organized labor, working farmers, public education and public services, the Iowan arrived in the Senate as a fighting FDR Democrat and he will leave as one.
As The Des Moines Register well recognized in its editorial on the Iowa Democrat’s decision to retire:
A variety of terms have been used to describe Harkin’s politics. He has been called a progressive or a populist from the prairie school. He is that but more: He was a close friend of the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone who used to say he belonged to the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, meaning he was not ashamed to be called a liberal. That’s the same wing of the party Harkin has represented without apology.
Actually, Harkin’s politics and his philosophy of government are rooted in the age of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which swept in a historic change in the role of government in the affairs of the nation.
On a national political landscape that could use a good deal more of FDR’s ideological and political determination—especially in the updated and extended form that Harkin employed it—this is a retirement that will be felt by every American who recognizes that formation of a more perfect union requires the forging of a truly national, urban and rural progressive politics.
Harkin has for almost forty years, first as a member of the House and then as a senator, represented a swing state with a Republican governor, a Republican senator and a competitive streak in presidential politics. Yet, he has won, again and again, and by ever-expanding margins. Elected to the Senate in the same year that Ronald Reagan won his second term by a landslide both nationally and in Iowa, Harkin has repeatedly bucked Republican tides and prevailed when more moderate Democrats have been defeated. His electoral success confirms the progressive premise that voters are more likely to back a determined Democrat than a compromising centrist.
But there has always been more to Harkin than populist rhetoric and ideological clarity. He came to Congress to get things done: to end secret wars in Latin America, to keep family farmers on the land, to make workplaces safer and to enact the groundbreaking civil rights protections contained in the Americans With Disabilities Act. Many of his greatest legislative victories came when Republicans sat in the White House, most were enacted with Republican co-sponsorship.
Harkin has always understood something that only a few other progressives—Wellstone, Russ Feingold, Bernie Sanders—have ever really “got”: that it is not necessary to sacrifice principles when organizing coalitions of conscience across lines of party and ideology.
For Harkin, the key word has been “conscience.”
Harkin has consistently clung to an old faith in what politics could and should be. He speaks of morality, of right and wrong. And his colleagues know he is serious; so serious that they often put aside cynicism and cooperate to accomplish that which—and the ADA is a classic example of this—few thought possible.
Harkin could compromise. He was proud if those compromises advanced the common good. If they went awry, he was usually the first talk about it. When Harkin cast a wrong vote—and he did sometimes—it tore at him. But he has rarely suffered in silence. He voted for the 2002 resolution that became President Bush’s excuse for a war of whim in Iraq, but by 2003 he was declaring: “I made a mistake, and I wouldn’t do it again.” He bluntly said that Bush “misled Congress and got his war…a pre-emptive war that has ended in disaster.”
By 2004, Harkin was an enthusiastic, and because of his Iowa prominence, essential backer of Howard Dean’s anti-war campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Harkin would eventually become one of the loudest congressional critics of the war, and of the Bush administration’s abuses of power, joining with Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold in a lonely effort to censure the president. When Bush nominated the noxious John Negroponte to serve as US ambassador to Iraq, the Iowan broke not just with the administration but with fellow Democrats to vote against a man who had been linked to human rights abuses in Honduras two decades earlier. Harkin battled, essentially alone, to hold Negroponte to account.
The senator came full circle in the 2004 debate over Negroponte’s nomination.
Harkin’s first big fight on Capitol Hill, as a young congressman from a competitive district representing rural Iowa, was to demand that the entire thrust of US foreign policy be altered.
As a young congressional aide in 1970, Harkin had played a critical role in exposing South Vietnam’s abusive treatment of prisoners, who were held in so-called “tiger cages.” Horrified by mounting evidence of US support for right-wing coups, murderous dictators and torture states in southern Asia and Latin America, Harkin in 1975 proposed an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act that prohibited the United States from providing economic aid to any country determined to be engaged gross human rights violations unless. The only exception was a provision that permitted allocation of US funds if could be proved that the money who directly benefit the most impoverished citizens.
The amendment, which passed with relative ease, became Section 116 of the Foreign Assistance Act, which declared: “No assistance may be provided under this part to the government of any country which engages in consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights, including torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, and the security of person, unless such assistance will directly benefit the needy people in such country.”
Presidents and their congressional allies invariably circumvented human rights responsibilities, to Harkin’s great frustration. As a new US senator in the mid-1980s, he joined another new senator, John Kerry of Massachusetts, in seeking to expose and end the Reagan administration’s support for right-wing dictators and death squads in Latin America. Others softened in their stances, but not Harkin. When Bush nominated Negroponte for the Iraqi ambassadorship, the senator from Iowa took to the floor of the chamber and recounted the dark history of the nominee’s “service” as Ronald Reagan’s administration gave lawless support to death squads and paramilitary murderers. Harkin accused the nominee of lying to Congress and the American people about circumstances on the ground in Honduras in the early 1980s—where 184 people, including an American priest, “disappeared” while Negroponte was ambassador to Honduras.
“Ambassador Negroponte turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the human rights abuses in Honduras,” Harkin thundered. “To send Mr. Negroponte to Iraq would send entirely the wrong message at this time.”
For Tom Harkin, it was not enough to amend the laws of the land to defend human rights. It was necessary to hold to account those who circumvented those laws.
It was a conscience call. A moral duty. And for Tom Harkin, this has always been the point of being a senator.
For those of us who know Harkin, and his record, this is our source of regret at the news of his decision to retire. He has surely given a full measure of service. But his kind is rare, too rare, in a Congress that will be deeply diminished by his departure.
Chuck Hagel is also no favorite of foreign policy hawks, John Nichols writes.
Chuck Hagel. (AP Photos/Nati Harnik)
There is no worse place than a Senate confirmation hearing to get a sense of whether a nominee for a critical cabinet post is up to the job.
Chuck Hagel proved that Thursday, delivering a predictably cautious opening statement at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to serve as President Obama’s secretary of defense. The questioning—from Republicans who now appear to despise the former Republican senator from Nebraska (including the ungrateful recipient of Hagel’s 2000 presidential endorsement: Arizona Senator John McCain) and from Democrats who are still wrapping their head around the idea of Hagel as a member of the Obama cabinet—was only slightly more illuminating.
But there is nothing drab or predictable about Hagel. There’s a reason neocons and military contractors are so determined to block his confirmation. Hagel’s shown an independent streak that is not just rare in Washington; it explains why leaders of both parties are so frequently unsettled by the former senator, and why it is really quite remarkable that Obama has nominated this Vietnam veteran to serve as the first-ever “enlisted man” secretary of defense.
I don’t count myself as an enthusiast for Hagel on every front; I’ve still got troubles with his 2002 vote to authorize George W. Bush to take the country to war with Iraq, for instance. I know he will not be an ideal secretary of defense. I know he will disappoint at some point if he is confirmed. Probably at some point sooner than later.
But Hagel is a rare political figure who evolves, and who admits his errors. And he is not afraid to call out those who lied to him along the way, and those who continue to lie to themselves. It bugs the John McCains of the world that, in a town where few prominent politicians ever come clean, Hagel went honest on them.
And he did it at a point when a good many Democrats were still wrestling with the truth.
I spent a good deal of time following Hagel in the period from 2003 to 2007, when he emerged as the Republican Republicans loved to hate, and as the Republican who showed Democrats that they could—and should—be much more critical of the Bush-Cheney administration and the Pentagon.
Here is a piece I wrote back in those days that, I suspect, tells us a lot more than anything we’ll hear from an Armed Services Committee hearing about where Chuck Hagel is coming from, and why he stirs such anger among the guardians of the neocon fantasy and the keys to the military-industrial complex:
Chuck Hagel: Opposition Senator
Originally published on August 2, 2006
Who is the most outspoken and through-provoking Senate critic of the Bush administration’s misguided foreign policies?
Hint: The boldest opposition voice is not that of a Democrat.
Over the course of the past week, Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, a maverick conservative Republican from Nebraska, has scoured the administration for its misguided approaches in language far wiser and bolder than the empty stream of rhetoric that continues to pass the lips of his Democratic colleagues.
Here’s Hagel on Iraq: “[The occupation’s] an absolute replay of Vietnam.” The Vietnam veteran deplored the fact that U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq had become “easy targets” in a country that he told the Omaha World Herald had descended into “absolute anarchy.” Hagel condemned the decision of the Bush administration and its rubberstamping Pentagon to suspend military rotations and add new troops in Iraq—increasing the size of the occupation force from 130,000 to 135,000. “That isn’t going to do any good. It’s going to have a worse effect,” argues Hagel. “They’re destroying the United States Army.”
More significantly, here’s Hagel on the failure of the United States to use its influence with Israel to end the killing of innocent Lebanese men, women and children and the destruction of that country’s civilian infrastructure: “How do we realistically believe that a continuation of the systematic destruction of an American friend—the country and people of Lebanon—is going to enhance America’s image and give us the trust and credibility to lead a lasting and sustained peace effort in the Middle East? The sickening slaughter on both sides must end now,” Hagel said on the Senate floor. Delivering the message that should be coming from the opposition party, the senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee declared: “President Bush must call for an immediate cease fire. This madness must stop.”
Most significantly of all, here’s Hagel making the connection between the occupation of Iraq and the broader Middle East crisis: “America is bogged down in Iraq, and this is limiting our diplomatic and military options.” Because the Bush administration deals in unreasonable “absolutes” when it approaches disputes in the region, the senator said, the United States in no longer seen as the “wellspring of consensus” that might be able to develop multi-national support for peace initiatives.
Finally, here’s Hagel on what the U.S. should be doing in the Middle East: “We know that without engaged and active American leadership, the world is more dangerous,” explains the senator, who has been talked about as a possible 2008 presidential contender. So, he says, the US must engage. Instead of Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s hands-off approach, Hagel argues, US diplomats should be working with Arab governments, including governments that leaders in Washington may not like. Rejecting Bush’s ranting about Syria and Iran, Hagel says the US should be in direct negotiations with those countries. The senator characterized the administration’s decision to pull the US ambassador out of Damascus as “mindless.” Paraphrasing the advice of a retired senior US intelligence officer, Hagel said, “Even superpowers have to talk to bad guys. We ought to be able to communicate in a way that signals our strength and self-confidence.”
To those who would suggest that the US must choose between supporting Israel and engaging with its Arab neighbors, even those neighbors that Washington may consider to be “bad guys,” Hagel offered one of the sanest statements heard on the floor of the Senate in the whole debate over the Middle East crisis: “Our relationship with Israel is special and historic,” the Nebraskan said. “But it need not and cannot be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships. That is an irresponsible and dangerous false choice.”
Hagel is far from a perfect player. He doesn’t have all the answers. He’s not even proposing bold responses to the current crisis, and not all that he suggests is wise or responsible. The senator’s simply a throwback to the old bipartisan consensus that said diplomacy and common sense ought to guide US foreign policy, as opposed to messianic ranting and kneejerk reaction. Bush and his neoconservative colleagues are so out of touch with global realities and traditional American values with regard to diplomacy that they don’t even understand where Hagel is coming from. Unfortunately, the Democrats are so lacking in spine and vision that, while they may recognize that Hagel is right about the failures and false choices that are the byproducts of this president’s policies, they lack the guts to borrow enough pages from Republican senator’s playbook to make themselves an effective opposition party.
Read John Nichols’s primer on Chuck Hagel’s candidacy for secretary of defense.
Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. (Flickr/Rappaport Center)
Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has rejected former Congressman Barney Frank’s request that he be appointed to fill the vacancy created by Senator John Kerry’s resignation to serve as secretary of state. Despite the fact that progressive groups urged the Frank pick for the temporary slot—arguing that the former congressman could play a critical, perhaps definitional, role in budget fights over cutting Pentagon waste and taxing speculators—the governor instead picked his former chief of staff.
The new senator, William “Mo” Cowan, has long been close to the governor, having formerly served as Patrick’s legal counsel. He’s experienced, capable and politically connected, a well-regarded lawyer who has worked not just with Patrick but also with former Governor Mitt Romney (whom Cowan helped identify judicial picks). He’ll be the state’s second African-American senator, after liberal Republican Ed Brooke, who served in the 1960s and 1970s. As a lawyer, Cowan has been active with the American Constitution Society—joining in the society’s “work to advance the progressive values and principles of the U.S. Constitution”—which counts for a lot with Americans who seek to challenge right-wing judicial activism.
But, as with his selection of former Democratic National Committee Paul Kirk to fill the interim vacancy created by the death of Senator Edward Kennedy, Patrick has gone with a connected insider rather than someone who is likely to shake things up in the Senate.
Patrick says he’s now got “a valued ally” in the Senate.
And there is no reason to doubt that this is the case.
But, of course, this is the problem with letting governors, be they Republicans or Democrats, appoint US senators. The Massachusetts circumstance is less troublesome than in states such as Hawaii and South Carolina, which will be represented for more than two years by recently appointed senators. A special election in June will replace Cowan with a senator chosen by the voters.
But gubernatorial appointments of senators, be they for a few months, or for a few years, make the United States Senate, never a perfectly representative body, a good deal less representative.
Cowan will join three appointed senators in the chamber during what Barney Frank correctly identified as a particularly critical period in the chamber.
Another new senator, Tim Scott, has been appointed by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, rather than elected by the people of that state. The same goes for Brian Schatz, Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie’s pick to fill the vacancy created by the death of Senator Dan Inouye.
Cowan, Schatz and Scott come from different parties and different ideological backgrounds. There is every reason to believe they will serve honorably, and ably. Progressives are already excited by some of what Schatz has done, while conservatives are enthusiastic about Scott.
But none of these details change the fact that a trio of unelected senators will be powerful, perhaps even definitional, figures in what is supposed to be a representative body. They will play critical roles in deciding whether to approve or reject cabinet nominees and Supreme Court selections, they will vote on tax policies and budget measures and they will decide whether to crack the “debt ceiling”—or send young men and women off to war. But they will do so without democratic legitimacy.
No member of Congress should serve without having been elected by the people of the district or state they represent.
Unfortunately, the new Senate will have at least three members who serve not as representatives but as mandarins—appointees assigned to positions by governors who have assumed dubious authority.
The point here ought not be to do disparage Cowan, Shatz or Scott.
The point is to raise a concern about the fact that more laws will be proposed, more filibusters will be sustained, more critical votes will be tipped in one direction or another by “senators” who never earned a single vote for the positions they are holding.
Because of a deliberate misreading of the vague 1913 amendment to the US Constitution that replaced the old system of appointing senators with one that said they were all supposed to be directly elected.
The Seventeenth Amendment sought to end the corrupt, and corrupting, process of appointing senators. But a loophole was included to give governors the authority to make temporary appointments. That meant that, while no one has ever been allowed to serve in the US House of Representatives without having first been elected, dozens of men and women have served in the Senate without having been elected. And those appointed senators often serve for two full years, as will South Carolina’s Scott and Hawaii’s Senator Schatz, both of whom will serve until at least 2015. To the end of the 113th Congress, senators chosen by individual governor in South Carolina and Hawaii will have the same authority as a senator elected by 7,748,994 voters (California Democrat Dianne Feinstein).
Former House Judiciacy Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-MI), rightly points out that this is a fundamental voting-rights issue. It is, as well, a question of “basic consistency in how our Representatives in Congress are elected.” Says Conyers: “The Constitution has always required that House vacancies be filled by election. The Senate should not be subject to a different standard. Americans should always have a direct say in who represents them in Congress—in both Houses, all of the time.”
Conyers was a key House backer of former US Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), when the then-chairman of the Senate Judiciacy Committee’s subcommittee on the Constitution tried to amend the Constitution to address the problem.
Feingold’s proposal, which would have required special elections to fill all Senate vacancies, got a little bit of traction when Feingold was still serving in the Senate. In 2009, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution approved Feingold’s proposed amendment to end gubernatorial appointments to vacant Senate seats.
Recalling a series of appointments following the 2008 election, Feingold said: “I applaud my colleagues on the subcommittee for passing the Senate Vacancies Amendment, which will end an anti-democratic process that denies voters the opportunity to determine who represents them in the US Senate. The nation witnessed four gubernatorial appointments to Senate seats earlier this year, some mired in controversy, and we will soon see another one in Texas. This will leave more than 20 percent of Americans represented by a senator whom they did not elect.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), was not enthusiastic about the amendment. He defended the appointment of senators, saying, “In the state of Nevada the governor appoints. Even though we have a Republican governor now I think that’s the way it should be so I don’t support his legislation.”
No one with a taste for democracy can possibly respect the majority leader’s position on appointed senators.
More thoughtful senators, including the number-two Democrat in the chamber, Illinoisan Dick Durbin, co-sponsored Feingold’s amendment.
Reid got that one wrong. Feingold got it right.
“It is time to finish the job started by the great progressive Bob La Follette of Wisconsin to require the direct election of senators,” the former senator from Wisconsin said in 2009. “No one can represent the American people in the House of Representatives without the approval of the voters. The same should be true for the Senate. I hope the full Senate Judiciary Committee will soon get the chance to consider this important constitutional amendment to entrust the people, not state governors, with the power to select U.S. senators.”
The worst deficit facing America is the democracy deficit.
It can be addressed, at least in part, by making the Senate a representative chamber.
Feingold can’t complete the process he began. But his former colleagues, led by Dick Durbin, should do so. As Durbin said several years ago when he chaired a hearing on the issue: “Over a half century ago, Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said: ‘No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’ The same might be said of special elections to fill vacant U.S. Senate seats—they are the worst way to fill such seats, except for all the others.”
Read John Nichols’s primer on Barney Frank’s Senate candidacy that was.
Senator Ron Johnson speaks to reporters in 2011. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
There is ample evidence to suggest that leading Republican members of the House and Senate are a good deal more familiar with the fiction of Ayn Rand than with the self-evident truths of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison or Abraham Lincoln.
While the movers and shakers in the party’s congressional caucuses may struggle with the meaning of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution or the essential premises of the first Republican president, they can quote chapter and verse from the Russian-born writer who William F. Buckley once decried as a purveyor of “ideological fabulism” with a “scorn for charity.”
Rand’s books serve as an ideological touchstone for a new generation of Republican politicians who have built their politics around the writer’s cold delineation of distinctions between idealized “makers” and disdained “takers.”
House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, the party’s 2012 vice-presidential nominee, peppers his remarks with Randian references and once admitted, “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.”
Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann employed the Rand lexicon during her 2012 presidential run. California Congressman John Campbell gives interns copies of Rand’s opus, Atlas Shrugged, while House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), tweets: “Still reading Atlas Shrugged—it’s quite the read.”
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul says he’s really a “Randy”—not a namesake of the author. “But,” he adds, “I am a big fan of Ayn Rand. I’ve read all of her novels.”
But it is now safe to say that no congressional Republican is more in the thrall of Rand than Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson. The Tea Party favorite who came into the limelight last week, first with his convoluted questioning of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the tragic killings of Americans at Benghazi in Libya, and then with his acknowledgement after a dressing down from secretary of state nominee John Kerry that he had not actually been a member of the committee when some of the basic briefings on Benghazi were presented.
While Johnson may not be prepared for Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings, he’s entirely up to speed on Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged.
Never mind that Whittaker Chambers—no liberal he—famously dismissed the book with an assessment for The National Review that declared: "Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal." As far as Ron Johnson is concerned, Atlas Shrugged contains 1,168 pages of life lessons.
Before his election to the Senate, Johnson helped purchase and erect a statue honoring the book. And in a newly produced video he tells an interviewer that he thinks we’re living in an Ayn Rand moment and that he’s a lot like one of the characters from Atlas Shrugged.
“Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged in 1957, partly as a warning against the growth of government. Do you see parallels between the plot of Atlas Shrugged and current events?” asks Laurie Rice of the Rand-focused Atlas Society in the interview.
“Absolutely,” replies Johnson, while discoursing on how he thinks “we’re all suffering collectively from the Stockholm Syndrome. That’s where people who have been kidnapped are grateful to their captors when they just show them a little bit of mercy. And collectively, we just don’t understand the freedoms we’re really losing.”
The highlight of the interview comes when Rice asks the senator: “What do you see as the differences between your ideas and the ideas of Ayn Rand?”
“I’m not sure there are too many differences,” he says with regard to the writings of the author who decried “the appalling disgrace” of Ronald Reagan’s administration because of its deference to ideas emanating from what she referred to as “the God, family, tradition swamp.”
Then Johnson goes all in, finding something of himself in a favorite Ayn Rand novel.
“I guess when you take a look at the book Atlas Shrugged, I think most people always like to identify with the main character—that would be John Galt,” chirped Johnson. “I guess I identify with Hank Rearden, the fella that just refused until the very end to give up. And I guess I’d like to think of myself more as a Hank Rearden—I’m not going to give up.”
That’s the sort of confidence you’d expect from a senator who boldly interrogated the Secretary of State without bothering to prepare.
It may also be why Paul Krugman reminds us, “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”
Rick Perlstein criticizes another Ayn Rand–inspired Republican fantasy: turning Detroit’s main park into a sovereign nation with a $300,000 citizenship fee.
Reince Priebus. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
Even as he accepted his new term, Priebus acknowledged that he and his minions have led their party far from the American mainstream. “We have to build better relationships in minority communities, urban centers and college towns,” he admitted in his acceptence speech.
Addressing the tens of millions of Americans—women, African-Americans, Hispanics, gays and lesbians, young people, union members—who by wide margins reject the Republican “brand,” Priebus said, “We want to earn your trust again.”
But those are just carefully chosen words for public consumption.
Priebus was not reelected to build a multiracial, multiethnic party that embraces diversity and seeks to deliver a message of opportunity for all. The whole point of his chairmanship has been to combat the politics of inclusion that Republicans decry Barack Obama for practicing.
That has placed the once honorable Republican Party on the wrong side of history, and of American progress.
Priebus has seen the numbers. He understands the demographics. He knows the GOP, as it is currently organized and focused, is unlikely to win the “trust” he spoke of. Indeed, he is so sure that the party will fail to do so that he has devoted himself and his party to advancing restrictive “Voter ID” laws, placing limits on early voting and Election Day registration and, most recently, restructuring the Electoral College so that the party can remain competitive even if it lacks popular appeal.
It is that scheming—not a promise of Republican renewal—that explains why Priebus retained the chairmanship in spite of the electoral failures that occurred on his watch.
RNC members certainly did not retain Priebus because of his track record.
The RNC’s top priority in 2012 was beating Barack Obama. Yet, they lost the popular vote by 5 million ballots, lost the Electoral College 332 to 206, lost two seats in the US Senate and fell 1.4 behind in the nationwide vote for the US House. They also lost seven of eleven gubernatorial races.
Only gerrymandering of congressional and legislative district lines prevented a complete wipeout for the Grand Old Party.
So why keep Priebus?
Because the former chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, and veteran party fixer, has a plan for a party on a losing streak.
Priebus wants to make it possible for losers to “win.” To that end, he’s urging Republican governors and legislators to change the rules for distribution of Electoral College votes so that a Republican presidential candidate might lose a state and still gain most of its electoral votes. Responsible Republicans in key states have objected to the chairman’s scheming to have those states end the practice of awarding electoral votes to the winner and instead allot them based on the results from gerrymandered congressional districts.
Unfortunately for the Republicans who would like their party to stand for something more noble than gaming the system, Priebus is what happens when the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower loses its way—and its self respect.
Read John Nichols’s proposals for fighting back against the GOP’s voter exclusion schemes.
Reince Priebus speaks at the 2011 Republican Leadership Conference. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
As Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus promotes one of the most blatant assaults on democracy in modern times—a scheme to gerrymander the Electoral College so that the loser of the popular vote could win key states and the presidency—the number-one question from frustrated citizens is: What can we do about it?
After so many assaults on voting rights and the electoral process itself have been advanced, it is easy to imagine that Priebus, Karl Rove and their team could get away even with so audacious an initiative as the rigging of presidential elections.
Priebus is counting on precisely that cynicism, as well as the neglect of the story by major media, to enable the plan to have Republican legislatures and governors in key swing states—Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin—arrange for the distribution of electoral votes not to winners of the popular vote statewide but to the winners of individual congressional districts. Because of the gerrymandering of congressional district lines, the scheme would in 2012 have shifted the circumstance so that, in Pennsylvania for instance, the losing candidate, Republican Mitt Romney, would have won the overwhelming majority of the state’s electoral votes.
Under at least one scenario entertained by Priebus and his minions, Romney’s 5 million–vote loss of the popular vote nationally still would not have prevented him from assuming the presidency.
Impossible? Hardly. Because of gerrymandering and the concentration of Democratic votes in urban areas and college towns, a 1.4-million vote majority for Democrats in congressional races nationwide in 2012 was converted into Republican control of the US House and gridlocked government.
So can Priebus be stopped? It’s possible. But democracy advocates need to move fast, and smart.
What to do?
1. “NAME AND SHAME” THOSE WHO WOULD RIG ELECTIONS
Because election rules are often arcane, those who write them have an advantage. If they move quickly and quietly, they can “fix” the system to their advantage.
Priebus made a mistake several weeks ago when he spoke openly about the Electoral College scheme, announcing: “I think it’s something that a lot of states that have been consistently blue [Democratic in presidential politics] that are fully controlled red [in the statehouse] ought to be considering.”
When The Nation began writing several weeks ago about the Priebus plan, and specific efforts in swing states, the stories went viral. Social media matters in this struggle. So, too, does the attention coming from television and radio hosts such as MSNBC’s Ed Schultz, Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman and Thom Hartmann.
The attention “names and shames” Republicans who are implementing the Priebus plan in states such as Virginia. But it also puts pressure on Republicans who are considering doing so. Significantly, when Florida legislative leaders were asked by The Miami Herald about the proposal, the biggest swing state’s most powerful Republicans scrambled to distance themselves from the anti-democratic initiative. Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford said, “To me, that’s like saying in a football game, ‘We should have only three quarters, because we were winning after three quarters and the beat us in the fourth. I don’t think we need to change the rules of the game, I think we need to get better.”
Florida Senate President Don Gaetz was similarly dismissive. “I think we should abolish the Electoral College but nobody in Washington has called to ask for my opinion,” said Gaetz. “If James Madison had asked me, and I had been there, I would have said a popular vote is a better way to do it.”
2. ENGAGE IN THE DEBATE AND OFFER A POPULAR-VOTE ALTERNATIVE
Priebus and his allies will claim that assigning electoral votes via gerrymandered congressional districts gives more Americans a voice in the process—even though that “voice” could allow a minority to claim a state and the presidency.
The right response is to highlight the anti-democratic character of the Electoral College and to push for a national popular vote. This will require a constitutional amendment. That takes work. But the process is in play. States across the country have endorsed plans to respect the popular vote that are advanced by FairVote: The Center for Voting and Democracy.
“The very fact that a scenario [in which a rigged Electoral College allows a popular-vote loser to become president] is even legally possible should give us all pause,” argues FairVote’s Rob Richie. “Election of the president should be a fair process where all American voters should have an equal ability to hold their president accountable. It’s time for the nation to embrace one-person, one-vote elections and the ‘fair fight’ represented by a national popular vote. Let’s forever dismiss the potential of such electoral hooliganism and finally do what the overwhelming majorities of Americans have consistently preferred: make every vote equal with a national popular vote for president.”
Understanding, talking about and promoting the National Popular Vote campaign is an essential response to every proposal to rig the Electoral College. It pulls the debate out of the weeds of partisanship and appeals to a sense of fairness in Democrats, independents and responsible Republicans.
3. MAKE GERRYMANDERING AN ISSUE
The assignment of electoral votes based on congressional district lines is not unheard of. Two smaller states—Nebraska and Maine—have done it for years. But this approach with gerrymandering schemes that draw district lines to favor one party has the potential to dismantle democracy at the national level.
The courts have criticized gerrymandering, and even suggested that there may be instances where it is unconstitutional. But they have been shamefully lax in their approach to the issue—at least in part out of deference to the authority extended to individual states when it comes to drawing district lines. But when gerrymandering threatens the integrity of national elections and the governing of the country, this opens a new avenue for challenging what remains the most common tool for rigging elections.
It is time for state attorneys general who have track records of supporting democracy initiatives, such as New York’s Eric Schneiderman, and state elections officials, such as Minnesota’s Mark Ritchie, to start looking at legal strategies to challenging the Priebus plan in particular and gerrymandering as it influences national elections. This really is an assault on the one-person, one-vote premise of the American experiment. And retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, among others, is advocating for a renewed push on behalf of fair elections.
“[It] goes back to the fundamental equal protection principle that government has the duty to be impartial. When it’s engaged in districting it should be impartial,” Stevens explained in a recent interview. “Nowadays, the political parties acknowledge that they are deliberately trying to gerrymander the districts in a way that will help the majority.”
This, argues Stevens, is “outrageously unconstitutional in my judgment. The government cannot gerrymander for the purpose of helping the majority party; the government should be redistricting for the purpose of creating appropriate legislative districts. And the government ought to start with the notion that districts should be compact and contiguous as statutes used to require.”
Stevens says the courts, which often intervene on voting rights cases involving minority representation, and in cases where states with divided government cannot settle on new district lines, should engage with the purpose of countering gerrymandering.
“If the Court followed neutral principles in whatever rules they adopted, the rules would apply equally to the Republicans and Democrats,” says the retired Justice, a key player on voting and democracy issues during his thirty-five-year tenure on the High Court. “I think that line of cases would generate a body of law such as the one-person, one-vote cases that would be administered in a neutral way. This is one of my major disappointments in my entire career: that I was so totally unsuccessful in persuading the Court on something so obviously correct. Indeed, I think that the Court’s failure to act in this area is one of the things that has contributed to the much greater partisanship in legislative bodies…”
Justice Stevens is right. That partisanship has moved from gerrymandering the state lines and US House lines to gerrymandering the presidential vote. The moment is ripe for a constitutional intervention.
Read John Nichols’s primer on the GOP’s vote-rigging shenanigans, “GOP Version2013.”