Saturday, April 24, 2010

Senate reform

I tied my bow tie to look particularly professorial and went on CSPAN's Washington Journal today to talk about Senate reform. I echoed points made earlier here and elsewhere about the need to look beyond the filibuster to the broader range of reforms that could make the Senate more collegial and more productive. I remain hopeful that public pressure and Senatorial disgust with recent proceedings may produce the votes needed for reform.

Friday, April 23, 2010

confidence in U.S. foreign policy

A new survey by Public Agenda finds Americans more confident in the nation's foreign policy. While half the respondents say that relations with the rest of the world are "off on the wrong track," that's a 15% drop from the levels of 2007-8. Increases in confidence were, not surprisingly, greatest among Democrats and independents.

These attitude polls strike me as better indicators of public feelings than issue-specific polls, where the level of public information and the wording of the question can make big differences.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

illegitimate presidents

One reason for the deep polarization of American politics in recent years, in my view, is the widespread view that the winning presidential candidate has been viewed as fundamentally illegitimate by the losing party. Democrats cite Al Gore's half-million vote lead over George W. Bush and the 5-4 vote by the Supreme Court in favor of the Republican. Republicans note that Bill Clinton received only 43% of the popular vote in 1992 and then argue that he should have been thrown out of office for lying. Now comes new evidence of how deeply rooted these beliefs were.

Jonathan Chait in The New Republic, in an article currently behind a subscription firewall that may be opened to all later, reports an interview a decade ago with "a very high-ranking Republican member of Congress" who asserted that Bill Clinton stole the 1996 election with ballot stuffing and other dirty tricks. In fact, of course, Clinton won 8.2 million more popular votes than Bob Dole and 70% of the electoral college votes.

In 2004, of course, Democrats complained that Bush won a second term only because of voting irregularities in Ohio that should have been resolved in favor of John Kerry.

If these hard feelings didn't do enough to poison our politics, the 2008 election, convincingly won by Barack Obama with 52.9% of the popular vote, now is doubted by the "birthers" who dispute his U.S. citizenship. This has got to stop. The "birthers" are wrong factually and legally, and responsible officials should stop lending sympathy to those charges.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

where the money goes

When people are protesting taxes, as they always are, it's useful to remember just where those tax dollars go. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has two great charts showing federal and aggregate state expenditures. Note how much of the federal money goes for old people, sick people, and national security [2/3] and thus how little goes for all federal activities. With state governments, note how much goes for education [39%] and how little for public assistance [1%].

Where does the money come from? For the federal government, OMB has a table [see 2.2]that shows that this year 43.7% of receipts come from income taxes, 11.6% from corporate taxes, 36.4% from social insurance and retirement receipts, and 2.9% from excise taxes. All other federal receipts, including customs duties and estate taxes, amount to 5.4%.

I know that there's waste and inefficiency in government. Trouble is, it's not in a single, separate line item.

Monday, April 19, 2010

unanimous consent

Why does the Senate do so much business using unanimous consent agreements? In the House of Representatives, the Rules Committee reports a rule governing each measure to be debated, including limits on time and number of amendments. Passage of the rule by majority vote establishes those terms for debate.

In the Senate, prior agreement on the terms and conditions for considering a measure reduces uncertainty and allows more efficient scheduling. But it also empowers any Senator who wants to object for whatever reason -- and often the reason is to get a political side payment on an unrelated matter.

In a piece in the Capitol Hill paper Rollcall [sorry, subscription firewall] , I suggest a rules change that would reduce the number of filibusters, eliminate holds on legislation and nominations, and reduce the need for unanimous consent agreements. That can be accomplished by making the motion to proceed to any measure non-debatable.

As of now, that procedural motion can be filibustered, and over 1/4 of the filibusters in recent decades have been on such motions. The motion is necessary because, under the basic Senate rules, going to the legislative or executive calendars means taking up the oldest item first and disposing of each measure in order. That rule could also be changed, but I think the motion to proceed reform could be a middle ground compromise that allows filibusters on substance but not procedures. The Senate Rules Committee is supposed to be having hearings on the broad question of rules reform later this spring.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

tax expenditures

Why talk about taxes in a blog on the politics of U.S. foreign policy? Because I believe that economic weakness hurts foreign policy both at home and abroad, and that record high deficits can lead to such weakness. Also because I'm interested in the topic and find it largely neglected.

The history of the concept is interesting politically. When Congress developed its budget process in 1973-4, liberals pressed for information on tax loopholes -- that is, the revenue foregone because of various provisions in the tax code. As part of its budget submissions every year, OMB has to provide data on these "tax expenditures." Here's the latest table.

Some "loopholes" are widely loved -- such as the $92 billion for the deduction for home mortgage interest and the $12.6 billion for excluding benefits and allowances for military personnel. But when lawmakers consider how to reduce the deficit, they should not limit themselves to cuts in programs, services, and benefits and to increases in existing taxes. They should also consider the $1.3 trillion in tax expenditures, some of which could be eliminated in order to gain some of the revenue lost. The Center for American Progress has a good overview report.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

don't tax you, don't tax me, tax the fellow behind the tree

That was the principle that Senator Russell Long [D-La] thought the voters wanted his Senate Finance Committee to use in its decisions on raising revenue.

I guess I'm a budget hawk, or maybe an eagle, who watches for weak prey to devour in order to sustain the monetary ecosystem. While I recognize that Congress doesn't like to raise taxes or cut programs, I also know that it can be responsible --as I observed during the deliberations leading up to the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990, which for the first time set real limits on federal spending.

Nevertheless, I was dismayed but not surprised by a new Economist/YouGov poll which showed the inconsistent views of American respondents. They are concerned about federal deficits. They do support some tax increases, at least on the rich. But when it comes to cutting federal programs, only our meager expenditures on foreign aid [1% of the total] generates much enthusiasm. That has been the case for decades, and it shows the challenge lawmakers face in trying to balance budgets and reduce federal deficits.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

shifting borders

As a student of American history, I didn't have to learn much about changes in territorial sovereignty. There was the Louisiana purchase from France, the war with Mexico, the dispute over our northern border with the British, the purchase of Alaska, and the annexation of Hawaii. Maybe there had been six flags over Texas, but it didn't mean much to the Texans I met.

Then I began to learn about Europe, where centuries of conquests and re-conquests have redrawn borders, often with killings and expulsions of the losers. In spite of my impressive academic credentials, I only recently began to understand, for example, the enormous disruptions that accompanied the fall of the Ottoman empire. For a longer time, I had been aware of some of the changes that occurred in Central and Eastern Europe. But they are still astonishing to contemplate.

One of the best illustrations of what happened is the story of Lviv, formerly Lvov and formerly Lemberg. On a visit there a few years ago, I noted that my students could encounter a person my mother's age [she was then in her mid-80s] who had been born in Austria-Hungary, went to school in Poland, got married in Germany, retired in the Soviet Union and now lives in Ukraine -- all while living in the same house on the same street.

Similar tales could be told of other towns, but Lviv reinforced for me the important lesson that people may harbor historic memories and loyalties that may run counter to their current sovereigns.