Addressing some of the partisan politics: considering some new ideas.

An Opinion piece in the Washington Post today written by Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institute and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute is an exercise in patience for those reading it. There are some interesting ideas buried within so long as you can endure the naked partisan politics these 2 dish up. The point of this post is to talk about those interesting ideas but, frankly, the jaw-dropping cluelessness of the accusations so blithely made in the article is a perfect example of why we don’t have more dialog and compromise these days. And yes, I am most certainly going to make comments about them.

Titled, “Want to end partisan politics? Here’s what won’t work – and what will,” you get a sense of the tenor these authors are about to take. They first take on 5 of the most often-suggested fixes for what ails our political system and discuss why, in their words, they are “misguided, sometimes even worse than the disease.” The first up is the notion that we need a “3rd party” in our political system. Now, we actually have more than 2 parties out there but they’re talking about having a 3rd party that stands in equal power and stature to the 2 majors, the Democrats and Republicans. What’s being proposed is that somehow, someone should stand up a set of candidates who espouse a set of initiatives the proponents of this solution find compelling and the massive center of the country, suddenly given a credible outlet, would elect them in a surge of non-partisan relief. As these authors put it:

The third-party fantasy is of a courageous political leader who could persuade Americans to support enlightened policies to tax carbon; reform entitlements; make critical investments in education, energy and infrastructure; and eliminate tax loopholes to raise needed revenue. But there is simply no evidence that voters would flock to a straight-talking, independent, centrist third-party candidate espousing the ideas favored by most third-party enthusiasts. Consensus is not easily built around such issues, and differences in values and interests would not simply disappear in a nonpartisan, centrist haze.

The problem is it’s been tried. Repeatedly. Americans Elect is the latest example and they completely failed to find a candidate even after spending millions of dollars in the effort. Even though Americans express disgust at the elected members of Congress and government everywhere, even those from the party they most closely identify with, it’s the party leadership and the electeds themselves that are the target of that anger, not the values expressed by the membership of the party. If you’re a small-government, low-taxes, strong military, secure-borders, constitutional originalist who, frankly, doesn’t care one way or the other whether gay people get married, then you identify with the Republican Party on most of your concerns. Standing up a 3rd party that only supports your views on half of those issues isn’t an improvement so why would you support them? In this, I agree with the authors.

They make the case that term limits are no good and, to one degree or another, I concur. If the people of a given region in the country are happy with how they are being represented by their Congress critter then why should they not be allowed to elect them more than, say, twice? Here in Virgina, our Constitution says that the sitting Governor may not run for re-election to that office. He’s in, he serves 4 years, and he’s out. Gov. Bob McDonnell has done a stellar job in office. He refused to pass a budget handed to him by his predecessor, Tim Kaine, that called for massive tax increases and, instead, has balanced the budget with creative, selective cuts that did not significantly reduce services to the Commonwealth. He implemented changes that saw our revenues increase at the same time and Virginia’s unemployment rate has dropped 3 years in a row, now at 5.6% and well below the national average. He’s done what he said he’d do in office and we are all better off since his taking on the Governorship. I’d love to give him 4 more years to keep making it better, but I can’t. The limit says no. So now we have to take our best choice from those available and hope they’ll perform as well as McDonnell, a man with a now-proven record.

At the same time, I understand the concerns of those suggesting limits. Too many examples exist of the slow (and sometimes not so slow) corruption that overtakes the people we send to Washington. We’ve all seen how some of these people get increasingly unresponsive to their constituents and focus more on raising money for their party and simply getting re-elected. You can always vote them out, yes, or simply not vote for them the next time, but that puts you in the position of having to elect someone whose positions on things you generally oppose. How is that helping? Term limits would force the party to keep searching for qualified candidates and keep those we do elect a little more connected to us. While it’s true that it can also create an incentive for the elected official to pretty much ignore his job as his term limitation comes up, I think a balance can be achieved by allowing a reasonable number of re-election cycles. I’m not giving up on that one just yet.

I am all for requiring a balanced budget, in spite of what the authors have to say on the matter. But they raise a legitimate point. As it stand right now, government revenues are 15% of the GDP. Spending is 24% of GDP. As it stands right now, today, you’d have cut out all government functions entirely just to keep Social Security and Medicare active. Clearly we can’t do that, so it’s just as clear that we can’t simply pass a law and require the budget to be balanced tomorrow. The math doesn’t work. However, that’s not an excuse to simply dismiss the notion, as Mann and Ornstein have done. Make the concession to the notion that we aren’t going to balance the budget for fiscal 2013 or 2014 or possibly even in 2017, but get started in that direction now so we can get it done in the near future. We won’t ever get it fixed if we don’t start.

Next up, they address the concept of public financing of campaigns. Here, they immediately descend into what amounts to little more than whining over the Citizens United case and the clear implication that it’s just too bad that the Supreme Court ruled that people expressing themselves politically by donating money is protected by the 1st Amendment. For an article that purports to be concerned with finding ways to fix the partisan politics in our body politic they pretty much just roll out veiled partisan political slogans. The issue with campaign financing isn’t the fact that citizens are allowed to donate money to candidates they feel best suited to carry their concerns forward into the Legislature, either as individuals or as collective groups. The issue is transparency and accountability. Before such efforts at “reform” such as the BCRA, people donated to candiate campaigns and those campaigns reported the donations. When McCain and Feingold did their thing and made such activities illegal, it put us on the road to Super PAC’s and now we don’t have any transparency.

So, what to do? With a final snide remark about having to figure out some other way so long as we’re stuck with a Supreme Court that actually upholds the Constitution, they recommend some real campaign finance reform:

Passage of straightforward disclosure legislation requiring the timely identification of all significant donors to independent campaign ads (say, of $5,000 or more) would be a big step. Combine that with real efforts by the Internal Revenue Service to simply enforce its own regulations on nonprofit 501(c)4 entities to keep sham organizations from exploiting the law to hide political donors, and we would be on a path to real disclosure.

Congress could also pass a measure to sharply tighten the anti-coordination provisions that require unlimited donations to be totally independent of candidates and their campaigns. Even absent such legislation, the Justice Department could prosecute those who violate the coordination bans in cases where the brazen behavior has been most evident.

They make a quick reference to a Santorum supporter as evidence of that last point’s applicability. I’m curious where their vaunted non-partisan references to Jon Corzine and Timothy Broas went. And see, this is exactly what one my main points in this post is about. It’s damned hard to focus on compromise and common ground when constant little barbs and unfairly skewed accusations are peppered within every thing that’s said. Was it really necessary to make the “Look! Look! Those damned Republicans!” comment when suggesting this stuff? I mean, this is a fair suggestion, to make disclosure a more uniform and timely thing. And it’s certainly fine to suggest that the DoJ actually do their job and enforce the law. But there are many, many examples of misbehavior on both sides. You want to start suggesting fixes? Do it without the accusations or be prepared to admit to the contributions of your side in this mess, and with equal emphasis.

Suggestion 2 deals with elections and districts. They suggest that redistricting be done with independent commissions rather than by whichever set of lawmakers happened to win the elections last. I’m generally ok with that but how, then, are these commissions chosen? By the current administration? How does that help? Still, it’s been done in several states so there’s no reason it can’t be done on a wider scale. The elections suggestion called for a concept called “instant runoff” voting. I have to admit, I’ve not heard of this before and, if I understand it, it’s a fascinating concept. The idea is that when you cast your vote, you actually rank the candidates running for the given office, your preferred candidate as #1, the next-preferred as #2 and so on. Then

In the initial count, the first preference of each voter is counted and used to order the candidates. Each first preference counts as one vote for the appropriate candidate. Once all the first preferences are counted, if one candidate holds a majority, that candidate wins. Otherwise the candidate who holds the fewest first preferences is eliminated. If there is an exact tie for last place in numbers of votes, tie-breaking rules determine which candidate to eliminate. Some jurisdictions eliminate all low-ranking candidates simultaneously whose combined number of votes is fewer than the number of votes received by the lowest remaining candidates.

Ballots assigned to eliminated candidates are recounted and assigned to one of the remaining candidates based on the next preference on each ballot. The process repeats until one candidate achieves a majority of votes cast for continuing candidates. Ballots that ‘exhaust’ all their preferences (all its ranked candidates are eliminated) are set aside.

So, basically, there’s never a possibilty that someone can win the office without getting a majority of the votes. Case in point, here in Virgina, we have 4 candidates in the GOP running for the Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Jim Webb, former Senator George Allen, VA Delegate Bob Marshall, Bishop Jackson, and Jamie Radtke. If we had instant runoff voting (IRV), then I could mark my ballot – as a example, only – such that my order of voting would be Radtke, Allen, Marshall, and Jackson. Let’s say no one gets over 50% but, bad luck for me, Radtke actually comes in last. All of us who voted for her would have our ballots re-examined and now, since I put Allen as my 2nd choice, my ballot gets cast for him. We keep that up until someone gets a majority and that someone goes on to the general election.

This process is actually in use in a few localities in the US but it’s used in other countries as the general election method. This would actually make it easier for candidates of off-parties to run for office. As it stands right now, a voter has a decision to make in the general election. Do they cast their ballot for a candidate they really like, but who they don’t really believe can actually win the election (which is basically referred to as “wasting your vote”) or do they vote for the candidate they can tolerate to avoid handing a victory over to one they could not tolerate? With IVR they can do both. So the voter who espouses a socialist stance and wants to vote for the socialist candidate can do so and place their 2nd choice with, say, the Democrat to both provide support for the socialist (on the longshot chance they’ll actually win) and to avoid allowing the Republican to win because the Democrat had to “split their vote” with the socialist candidate. I am inclined to say we should give this kind of thing a try.

Mann and Ornstein then talk about “restoring majority rule” in the Senate, talking about how the filibuster has been abused.

Restoring the filibuster to its traditional role of allowing an intense minority to temporarily hold up action on issues of great national import — and away from its new use as a regular weapon for obstruction — should be a top priority. Senate rules should allow only one filibuster on any bill (now there can be two or more). Currently, the burden is on the majority to provide the 60 votes to break a filibuster; instead, the minority party should have to take the floor and hold it via debate, and provide the 41 votes needed to maintain the filibuster.

Senate rules should guarantee an up-or-down vote on executive and judicial nominations reported out of the relevant committees, with a time limit for holds on the nominations.

In return for allowing true majorities to ultimately prevail, finding a way to allow a minority to offer a respectable number of relevant amendments on most bills is a reasonable trade-off.

Which, interestingly enough, was a suggestion that elicited howls of anger and predictions of the collapse of American society from the Democrats when it was suggested. Fascinating, isn’t it, when the Democrats are the majority how the filibuster is being so abused, hmmm? I’m all for requiring up-or-down votes on nominees, as I’ve said here before. Otherwise, the Democrats have fostered an attitude where the minority party basically opposes anything the majority says and forces supermajority procedural votes on every little thing so they should get to enjoy the fruits of their labors.

Finally, there’s a suggestion I’ve heard before to make voting a legal requirement in this country as it is in Australia. The authors suggest a $15 fine for not voting which might be more trouble than it’s worth to track down and collect. In a modifaction of that suggestion, they offer something quite interesting:

Finally, if we can’t persuade more Americans to vote with the threat of a fine, how about the promise of untold riches? Millions lined up — sometimes wasting all night — for a shot at the Mega Millions lottery in March. How about another lottery, where your vote stub is a ticket, and where the prize is the money collected from the fines of those who didn’t vote? The odds of the mega-jackpot were about 1 in 176 million — we’d like to believe that the chances of fixing American politics are a bit better than that.

I admit I had to laugh at that one. But, hey, I can’t say I have a real problem with it, either. Sign me up!

We need dialog like this, suggestions that can be discussed and perhaps refined. But we need to have it without the sneering that goes on. I’m sure people on the opposite side of me, politically, feel they’re justified in making the comments. Well, so do I. I feel like I’ve been nothing but provoked these past several years and I’m done apologizing about it. So since neither side is going to fess up, how about we just decide that, for the purposes of this discussion, we just shut up about it. Leave your attacks at home and let’s discuss what to do about things now.