Wednesday, November 28, 2012

filibuster reform Republicans can't refuse

Right now the rhetoric is heated and the threats of legislative chaos abundant. Senate majority leader Harry Reid [D-NV] is warning that he will propose filibuster reforms at the start of the new Congress and minority leader Mitch McConnell [R-KY] is threatening massive retaliation. That's why a somewhat similar idea was called the "nuclear option."

No need to duck and cover. This is the way the Senate does business. In 2005 the Republican majority leader threatened to force a rules change allowing majority votes to confirm Bush judicial nominees, but he backed off when a bipartisan "Gang of 14" proposed deescalation. A promise of better behavior left the rules unchanged but more nominees confirmed. Two years ago, Reid opposed filibuster reforms because of a better behavior promise by McConnell. Now he's a changed man.

History shows that the Senate often changes its rules a little only when faced with a threat that the rules will be changed a lot. That's what happened in 1957 and again in 1975. With the prospect of a total end to the filibuster overhanging urgent negotiations, Senators agreed to modifications in the filibuster rule.

I think that's what will happen this time. Democrats aren't proposing an end to filibuster, just restrictions on their use and with a greater burden on the obstructionists to hold the floor and debate. TPM's Brian Beutler laid out the confusing sequence of parliamentary moves two years ago; this is the likely scenario for next January.

consensus on defense cuts

Despite Republican campaign proposals for even higher defense spending, there is now a growing consensus among Washington think tanks that deeper cuts will and should be made. [After all, elections have consequences.]  Gordon Adams of American University and the Stimson Center notes that recent reports from several organizations across the political spectrum are suggesting smarter ways to achieve the inevitable reductions. He links to five of the recent reports, so you can read and judge for yourself.

In public discussions of defense spending, too much attention, in my opinion, is paid to big ticket weapons programs. While dollars can be saved there, even more money can be squeezed out of force structure -- military and civilian -- and from the burgeoning military entitlement programs. It just doesn't seem right that recipients of military health care benefits who are not on active duty haven't had to pay more  as costs have risen. It just doesn't seem right that retirement benefits are so generous but only one veteran in six ever receives them. We need rebalancing in these programs.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

schmoozing to victory

Andrew Rudalevige of Bowdoin College has an excellent post on The Monkey Cage marshaling the evidence against the latest pundit argument that the President needs to cultivate better personal relations with Republican members of Congress in order to succeed in his deficit reduction talks and other policy priorities. The title sums it well" "Dinner won't do it."

Yes, good personal relations can help somewhat, but structural and megapolitical factors matter more. Republican leaders are constrained by their own colleagues who in turn are constrained by their home voters and the promises they made to them in their campaigns. Sharing a beer is not the same as sharing an ideology. A willingness to talk civilly is not the same as a willingness to compromise.

While better personal relations can't bridge the partisan divide between Congress and the White House, I still believe that more civility and social interaction could still improve the situation within Congress, where most members spend little time in Washington except Tuesday-Thursday, when they are insanely busy with legislative business and fundraising. Members of Congress still have an incentive to make the institution work, and to achieve legislative accomplishments -- and those goals require cooperation beyond party lines. Thus in Congress, habits of breaking bread together and getting to know other members as human beings can still help.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

One justification for filibuster abuse

Use of the filibuster by Senators has surged in recent years for many reasons: hyperpartisanship, ideological separation of the parties, a loss of civility, and the lure of publicity for radical obstructionists. Defenders of the filibuster,after citing  "Senate traditions" and the dangers of tyranny by the majority, have one practical and little noticed argument in their favor -- the increased use of "filling the amendment tree."

This practice, by the majority leader, prevents the minority from offering their own alternatives to pending legislation. As a New York Times article today shows, this tactic has also surged in recent years. Of course, some of the frustrated amendments were politically embarrassing or designed to split the majority, but the minority still felt that its power had been thwarted, thus making use of the filibuster feel more reasonable.

Both sides need to back down. The filibuster should be preserved but its use limited; the minority should be given opportunities to offer a few genuine alternatives; and obstructionists should have to bear the discomforts of prolonged debate.

Churchill and alcohol

In my experience, the bulk of the wittiest quotations come from just three men -- Mark Twain, Yogi Berra, and Winston Churchill. Regrettably, many of the most cited lines are impossible to document. But we use them anyway, perhaps softening the attribution with a note of doubt. Too good to check is a bad standard, but too good not to use at all is even worse.

I had these thoughts while reading a recent book on Churchill's life as a writer, his declared profession. British historian Peter Clarke cites evidence of Churchill's bills from wine merchants in the 1930s and concludes that he spent about 6% of his average disposable income on wines and spirits -- as much each week as three times the earnings of a male manual worker. He averaged three bottles of brandy and whiskey each week and one bottle of champagne each day.

Given his other accomplishments, I can see why Churchill, when criticized for drinking too much, is said to have replied, "I've got more out of alcohol than it has out of me."

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

21st century politics

Years ago I had some experience door-knocking and phone-banking in political campaigns. But I was amazed to learn of some of the 21st century techniques used this year by the Obama campaign.

From Politico:

JIM MESSINA, Obama for America campaign manager, gave his first on-camera interview before a standing-room-only crowd at Playbook Breakfast: “What Targeted Sharing was -- and I think it's one of the most important things we did -- was a Facebook app that allowed you to go and match your Facebook world with our lists, and we say to you, ‘Mike, here are five friends of yours that we think are undecided in this race. Click here to send them a piece of viral content. Click here to send them a factsheet. Click here to ask them to support the President.’ … [I]t took us a year of some amazing work of our talented technology team to figure out how to do it. But we were able to contact over 5 million people directly through their Facebook worlds, and people that they knew. So, they're going to look if their friend … sends them something. They're going to look at it because they know that person. …

“What campaigns are evolving into, actually, in many ways, is a return to the past. Door-knocking is going to be even more important in the future … [H]ere's why … [T]he diffusion of American media makes it harder to get your message out and there's so much television … Citizens United created this huge cacophony of television in the final months of that campaign. And people got so much of it, a simple door-knock from a trusted neighbor really mattered more than anything else -- to say, ‘Hey, let me tell you why I'm supporting Barack Obama. I live down the street. Let me talk to an issue you care about.’ And that, we found, became incredibly important to how people were going to vote. …

“A friend of mine was door-knocking for us in Wisconsin a week before the election and he called and said, ‘Let me tell you the story about why I think you guys are running a smarter campaign. I was told to knock on two doors on one block. One was to chase an absentee ballot, and I watched the person fill it out and we mailed it together, and the second one was an undecided voter who I was given a very specific persuasion script … I had a great conversation, and I'm pretty sure that that person is going to vote for us on Election Day.’ He said, ‘One block, two doors, and only two doors.’ That is using volunteers' time more wisely. It's saying to them, ‘Every contact you're going to make is going to matter to us.’ And I think it allowed us to hit more doors and more effective doors than the Romney campaign.’ …

“We used data for everything, we modeled everything, trying to figure out how to use our time wisely. … We modeled every person who supported the President about whether or not they would volunteer. … [W]e had a whole bunch of data points: … your voting history, your giving history. Everything we knew about [you] allowed us to figure out whether or not you were going to volunteer. We even modeled whether or not people were going to be a better direct mail giver or an online giver. We did a test about a year ago with a piece of Michelle Obama mail that we split the universe in half and we did half the old way that direct mail consultants have been talking about for a very long time, and half using our data analytics world. … [T]he data analytics world over-performed by 14 percent -- which, in our world, is a bunch of money.” Story and video clips Full video

We have seen the future, and it works.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

pampered officials

The journalistic carrion birds are now picking over General Petraeus and General Allen and suggesting that senior officers work in a bubble of sycophants and live in a world of billionaire-style perks. Writers in the Washington Post even quote the former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates complaining about the personal support provided to his neighbor, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:
“I was often jealous because he had four enlisted people helping him all the time,” Gates said in response to a question after a speech Thursday. He wryly complained to his wife that [Admiral] “Mullen’s got guys over there who are fixing meals for him, and I’m shoving something into the microwave. And I’m his boss.”
I know all the justifications. Busy officials shouldn't have to iron their own shirts. Those overseeing national security need to be protected at all times from bad guys.

And yet... State Department officials usually have to fly commercial to do their vital business. CIA analysts are encouraged to disagree with their superiors if they believe the facts warrant it. It's also troubling that military officers can retire after 20 years, take another government job at full salary and full pension, and have the most socialized medicine system in the world for life, while the rest of us hope we don't lose our jobs and with it our health care, much less our pensions.

A partial remedy is for those officers, and senior civilians as well, to have to experience some of the daily facts of life their subordinates endure. Make them commute by public transit one day a month. Make them go through a TSA inspection every tenth flight. Make them do their own grocery shopping once in a while. Make them handle their own phone calls and office equipment for just one hour a week.  You get the idea.

How dysfunctional is Congress?

Well, compared to what? It's more open and transparent than in the early years, when the Senate met in secret until 1795. There's much less personal corruption than people witnessed in the 19th century. Members are better informed now that they have larger staffs and support institutions like the Congressional Research Service and the Congressional Budget Office. [Full disclosure: I was one of those staffers for 22 years.]

On the other hand, partisan divisions and gridlock on vital national policies is higher than ever before, or at least higher than at the start of the 20th century.

I like to give my students this quotation from the president of the American Political Science Association:

“The indictment against the existing system of congressional control is impressive. It is basically control over details, not over essentials. It is negative and repressive rather than positive and constructive. It reflects fear rather than confidence. It is sometimes irresponsible. It is based on no rational plan, but is an accumulation of particulars whose consequences are seldom seen in perspective. Congress has done both too much and too little in trying to discharge this phase of its responsibilities. … The Statues at Large and the annual appropriations acts are cluttered with a mass of detailed prohibitions and limitations upon administrative action. They represent in part a process of legislation by exasperation. Unfortunately, these often petty restrictions tend to continue and to accumulate. They hamper good administration and miss the mark as a means of control.”
Sounds pretty damning. And it was -- in 1945, when Leonard White wrote those words.

Since then, Congress has instituted major reforms -- in its procedures, in its committee system, in campaign laws.  But there's still a long way to go. So I agree with the analysis and recommendations of Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein, who say it is even worse than it looks.

I especially hope that the incoming Senate changes its rules to minimize use of the filibuster. But more on that later.

a Nation of immigrants

Many years ago, I won the equivalent of over $800 in today's dollars in a contest based on knowledge of the life and ideas of Alexander Hamilton.  I've been a Hamilton fan ever since.

The more I study Hamilton, the more impressed I am with his understanding of economic forces and his prescient vision for American greatness.  Yes, he wrote that "a national debt is a national blessing," but only because federal assumption and financing of the debt would bind the former colonies together. The key word there is "national," not "debt." But he also wrote the 1971 Report on Manufactures that advocated government support for research and development as well as a few protective tariffs for certain infant industries.  This was encouraging entrepreneurs, not picking winners and losers.

I'm currently reading a fine by by Thomas McCraw, an emeritus professor at the Harvard Business School who died shortly after the book was published in October. McCraw has dual biographies of Hamilton and Albert Gallatin, the longest serving Secretary of the Treasury, that argue for their superior understanding of economic policy compared to their early American contemporaries.

McCraw has an important repetitive point I hadn't thought about before -- that men like Hamilton and Gallatin were able to take a national perspective on policy matters precisely because they were immigrants. They identified with the new nation while many of the other founders had their strongest loyalties to their home states.

He notes this of participants in the Constitutional Convention in 1787:
"Of the fifty-five delegates who had assembled in Philadelphia,. thirty-nine signed the Constitution.  Seven of the eight immigrant delegates signed and one did not. By contrast, of the forty-seven native-born delegates, thirty-two signed and fifteen did not -- including two of the three from New York and four of the seven from Virginia."
Among those non-signers were George Mason and Patrick Henry.

I think he's right. America is a nation of immigrants and more of a nation because of immigrants.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

diplomatic security

Read how it was in the good(?) old days, when U.S. ambassadors packed heat and drove themselves around turbulent countries. Robert Worth has an article in next Sunday's New York Times magazine, released today, raising the question of whether diplomats can really do their jobs in shielded against all risks.

It's a very difficult judgment, but I share the view of those who think we've gone too far.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

conservative realism

Kori Schake is an experienced national security professional with strong conservative views. I've worked with her and have the highest respect for her. As a regular contributor to the Shadow Government blog at Foreign Policy magazine, she has offered telling critique's of the Obama Administration's foreign policy.

Now she has written a post-election warning to conservatives to listen to the voters.

Conservatives need to face it squarely: We lost the argument. Voters gave us a hearing, gave us the opportunity to make our case, then decided they didn't trust us to solve their problems any more than they did a president who passed legislation they didn't like, by means they didn't approve of, behaved recklessly with the nation's finances, and seemed uninterested in working with the opposition. We need to take ownership of losing the argument rather than taking refuge in excuses or despairing for the future.

On the deficit/defense dilemma, she says:
But we were implausible in our policies. We insisted defense must increase and emphasized growing dangers that will demand more wars. We railed about the Obama administration's defense cuts when our alternative in the House included the same reductions. We criticized the president for not embracing Bowles-Simpson but didn't vote for it ourselves. After arguing debt's centrality, we flatly rejected deals that would have a ten to one cuts to spending ratio. 
Schake also makes a plea to limit the use of policy by executive orders and use the legislative process to build national consensus on security policies. I agree.

Monday, November 12, 2012

plan B

Another reason for the Obama victory is that the campaign had a Plan B, a fallback for a possibly crashing computer system that the Romney campaign, despite its management experience and expertise, failed to have.  The story is here.

John Dickerson also explains why the Romney numbers and expectations never matched up with reality.

we don't need a draft

Every so often, a prominent public figure calls for a return to a draft for the U.S. armed forces.  They usually argue that military service is a civic obligation that shouldn't be contracted out to mercenaries, however patriotic they may be, or that a draft would make it less likely that America would get involved  in unwise wars.

While I agree that public service, in uniform or as a civilian, is virtuous and ennobling and ought to be generously rewarded, I don't think that conscription would solve either of the problems cited by proponents.

Any draft would be unfair to many of the people conscripted. There is no way to fashion a fair draft. Include women? At all stages of education, marriage and motherhood? Allow no exemptions for education or parental care or child care? Require remedial action to meet mental or fitness standards? Include or exclude green card holders? You see what I mean. And a draft widely seen as unfair would weaken our patriotic cohesion, not strengthen it. Another point is that, if you take all volunteers before you take any draftees, you may end up with a less qualified force demographically.

To avoid unwise wars, we already have a system in place -- under the Constitution. Congress is supposed to act to authorize the use of force in major military operations, but it hasn't been very diligent about upholding its rightful role.

Now we have retired lieutenant general David Barno with his interesting but still flawed proposal:
One policy to better connect our wars to our people might be to determine that every use of military force over 60 days would automatically trigger an annual draft lottery to call up 10,000 men and women. They would serve in every branch of service for the duration of the conflict, replaced by future draft tranches in limited, like-sized numbers. Ten thousand draftees would comprise only about 5 percent of the number of new recruits the military takes in each year, but they would signify a symbolic commitment of the entire nation. Every family in the country would now be exposed to the potential consequences of our wars and come to recognize in a personal way that they had a stake in the outcome. The national calculus on go-to-war decisions subtly changes when all families can be called upon to answer the call to arms.
Besides the fact that we don't want 10,000 newly inducted but barely trained soldiers being plunged into combat, this proposal would make military service a drastic punishment by lottery  -- as if we used a lottery to decide which presumed pot smokers among 18-22 year olds should be sent to jail without a trial, as a warning to others. Or if we took away the driver's license of one person by lottery in response to every traffic death.

Lincoln led from behind

I don't see many movies in a real cinema anymore, but I think I should do for Spielberg's "Lincoln." Daniel Day Lewis is a superb actor -- and who couldn't be excited by a movie about the legislative process [passing the 13th amendment]?

Among the articles discussing the Civil War as we commemorate its sesquicentennial is this piece in The American Scholar by Professor Louis P. Masur of Rutgers.

I knew from my own research and writing that Lincoln was slow to accept abolition f slavery as a war aim and that he withheld the emancipation proclamation until Union forces won the bloody battle of Antietam.

I was especially struck by Masur's citation of some white soldiers' letters admitting that they had changed their own views as a result of the war and of seeing black soldiers fighting for the Union.
The Emancipation Proclamation and black military participation transformed the  thinking of many white soldiers. Charles Wills, who enlisted as a private with the 8th Illinois and rose to be a lieutenant colonel with the 103rd Illinois, marveled at his own transformation. In summer 1863, Wills confessed, “I never thought I would, but I am getting strongly in favor of arming them [blacks], and am becoming so blind that I can’t see why they will not make soldiers. How queer. A year ago last January I didn’t like to hear anything of emancipation. Last fall accepted confiscation of rebel’s negroes quietly. In January took to emancipation readily, and now believe in arming the negroes.” Another soldier, Silas Shearer of the 23rd Iowa, had a similar experience. “My principles have changed since I last saw you,” he informed his wife. “When I was at home I was opposed to the medling of Slavery where it then Existed but since the Rebls got to such a pitch and it became us as a Military needsisity … to abolish Slavery and I say Amen to it and I believe the Best thing that has been done Since the War broke out is the Emancipation Proclimation.”
This is further proof that Lincoln led the country not by jumping into the radical forefront but by pushing it from behind until it reached the conclusions that he held.

post mortems

“There were just too many damn Democrats,” the pollster said.  This anonymous statement from a Republican pollster is part of a lengthy analysis by Politico of why so many polls were wrong, anticipating a Romney win over Obama. The consensus seems to be that the adjustments made to the raw polling data assumed a whiter and older and more Republican electorate than what actually showed up at ballot time.

Another Republican regretted that his team just didn't believe the openly declared Obama strategy:

Another Republican fumed at the party’s unwillingness to heed the Obama campaign’s publicly broadcast intentions to expand the 2012 electorate and keep minority and youth turnout high.
“For a year, they were saying in their YouTube videos and memos, ‘This is what we’re going to do, we’re going to turn all these people out,’ ” the Republican said. “They told us exactly what they were going to do and we just didn’t believe it.
Still another explanation is that Republicans were caught in their own "media cocoon."


Friday, November 9, 2012

winds of change in Florida

Cuban-Americans are becoming more divided politically, a less solid Republican bloc, according to this year's voting in Florida. That is newsworthy.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

return on investment

Never mind my previous post. The Sunlight Foundation reports the amazingly low return on investment for some of the Super PACs. It notes that Karl Rove's groups spent over $200 million and supported no winning candidates.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Money and results

So what did the $6 billion spent on the various campaigns actually buy?  I have a hypothesis that I hope some energetic researcher will test: that the strong showing by Republican House candidates came in part from advertising by Super PACs and other unaffiliated groups.  It's surprising to me that so many Tea Party radicals won reelection. Redistricting helped, of course, but I wonder whether many incumbents were saved by the outside money.

quants win

After so many weeks of efforts to find holes in the polls, the pundits now need to acknowledge that the geeky guys who analyzed and aggregated the opinion surveys were right, not just close, but right on the money with their estimates.

The election also showed that the sophisticated Democratic ground game, propelled by extensive quantitative analysis, allowed them to get their people to vote in large numbers.

The Obama team knew how to win allt he states they won in 2008 and wound up winning all but two [or three if Florida ends up in Romney's column].  The future of campaigning is with the quants.

mandate for more of the same

Rarely do presidential elections represent a mandate to do particular things. Most of the time, including this year, they merely show that one team got more of its supporters to the polls than the other team. Although there was ticket splitting in some states -- Indiana, Montana, North Dakota -- I don't think voters were deliberately choosing divided government.

But that's what we'll have for the next two years. I'm sure that the renewed Republican majority in the House will feel vindicated in victory, as will the Democrats in the Senate and White House.  I hope, however, that instead of thinking that the voters said "hang tough" they will act as if the voters said "work something out."