Yay - 2022 is in the rear view mirror and we’re on to 2023 - hopefully a welcome change. As previously threatened - it’s my one, and absolutely only, blog entry on the state of US politics. In a nutshell I find them dismal - I can’t believe what we have allowed to happen to ourselves.
Finally it seems safe to emerge after the midterm elections - all seems to be settled - very few allegations of wrong-doing (well - except in Arizona) - and we saw the Republicans take control of the U.S. House of Representatives on January 3rd.
Such interesting results in the midterms. Once again the polls did not really reflect what would actually occur, The predicted Red Wave wasn’t even a red splash. The Republicans won the House but with an incredibly thin margin. Good luck Speaker McCarthy - in your 15 ballots before finally winning you gave up pretty much everything except the gavel and the title. I fear you could so easily meet the same fate as Paul Ryan and John Boehner - have a far-right caucus that will effectively torpedo any real legislative work. I do hope I’m wrong about that - neither party should play that old tune again. Perhaps once again when it comes to this election, recent history may not be a predictor of the eventual outcomes at all.
We’re now far enough past the election that all the granular analysis of the vote becomes available - just how the vote broke in certain places - who got the suburban educated women vote! How did the Hispanic and Black vote come in - blah, blah, blah. You have to be a bigger political wonk than I am to spend much time digging into the details.
While not a complete wonk when it comes to politics I have always been a keen student of them - that’s how you make informed choices in a representative democracy. My father, a lifelong Republican followed politics closely - especially at the local and state level. My maternal grandfather was a dyed in the wool FDR Democrat. From both of them I inherited my interest in watching what “we the people” do in the political arena.
I remember well my first visit to Washington, D.C. as a kid - I think was in 6th or 7th grade. I remember entering the Senate chambers for the first time - it floored me. The grandeur and majesty of that room that I has seen countless times on television news. Seeing lawmakers that I recognized going about the business of the day - it was astounding to this kid from Puget Sound country and the feeling never left me. During my career I spent a fair amount of time in and near Washington and whenever I found myself with free time I would slip on to observe Congress - other than when the Park Service budget was being debated I could almost always get a visitor pass from the Congressional Affairs office. Others would flock to the various Smithsonian museums - me - I just wanted to watch Congress - whether in full session or in committee meetings.
Okay - I don’t want to become too partisan in this - most of you who know me know where my sentiments lie. I think Donald Trump will eventually go down as a giant stain in our history but there are millions who vehemently disagree with me. I do understand how he won the election in 2016 - he spoke to the frustrations of voters who felt completely forgotten. I also understand how he lost the election in 2020, and he did lose the election - it was not stolen from him.
I actually still have a great deal of faith in our electoral system - that’s it’s far from perfect is a given - but it has, and it remains, a hallmark of our representative democracy - heretofore it has been a banner of hope throughout the world. Our ability to transfer electoral power from one party to another without bloodshed or at the end of a gun sets us apart in the world
So what did we learn from the 2022 midterms? If anything was historic about the election it is the surprising strength of the Democrats to lose so few seats in the House in a midterm during the first term of a President. The only time we had a similar result was with George W. Bush right after 9/11. History was certainly against the Democrats in 2022 - loss of 40 or more seats most often occurs in an Administration’s first midterm election - not to forget that President Biden’s approval rating had tanked, inflation had kicked all of us in the ass, and we were still paying too damn much at the gas pump. Wow - it should have been brutal.
Was this some reignited love for the policies of either the President or the Democratic party? Hardly. Did the Democrats deserve their little victory dance afterwards? I suppose everyone deserves a victory lap now and then but they best not be thinking that all is well. They will be second-fiddle in a House hell-bent on revenge investigations and reducing Federal spending by taking sloppy whacks at at all social programs.
The theory that I favor - so it’s likely not true and just wishful thinking on my part, is that a whole bunch of us - regardless of political affiliation just sort of said a collective Enough! Enough with the campaigns based on party power and not candidate quality. Enough with this bullshit of trying to govern from the far sides of either party - we need to return to centrist approaches. Like I said - wishful thinking on my part. In fact this election is not as unlike others as we might think - many of the results were preordained by massive dark money, gerrymandered districts that guarantee a victory for one party or the other - and an often disengaged electorate. Congressional approval ratings have actually increased a bit, some polls show it at almost 20% and yet approve or not we reelect Congress at rates well above 90% - and somehow we expect meaningful change.
Okay - before I get tugged into what will appear to be partisan/tribal politics (I’m a registered independent) - I will give you a few “truisms” from Hendo’s Twisted Mind followed by the three things I think most important to restoring a functional representative democracy - I pray that it’s not too late.
The Rules According to Hendo (you know their solid) - presented in no particular order….
Parties have too much power - we have allowed them to basically usurp the entire electoral and legislative processes. Congress was clearly given the authority in the Constitution to organize as they saw fit and they chose the party process. In and of itself that’s likely as good a way to organize as any other but we have allowed it to get completely out of control. Party politics and the accrual of power have become the only goal of the parties. Witness some of the pathetic candidates that parties are willing to nominate - it is not important if they are even at room temperature anymore - only that they represent and will blindly support the party.
Congress has too much power and as voters we have allowed this to occur. The Executive Branch has deferred far too much power to Congress - the original concept of three separate but equal branches of government has become a joke. The parties function under their own rules and they have both consolidated far too much power in the positions of Speaker of the House and Senate Majority leader - those individuals pretty much control everything in their respective chambers - what comes to a vote and when - if there will be a floor debate and/or if amendments may be offered in the process - the rest of the members are left with very little role in the legislative process.
Term limits many of us cry - that’s what will fix everything. Well, I’ve got bad news for you - not only would they likely not fix everything but they are also likely never going to happen. The good news…we have term limits and we always have - it’s called the voting booth - we just have to learn to use it more effectively. To implement term limits would require an amendment to the Constitution - so would an age limit which is something I would support whole-heartedly (are you listening Senators Feinstein and Grassley?). To pass an amendment in Congress, and before it is ever submitted to the states for approval) would require a two-thirds vote by both chambers (and remember that we have a Congress that struggles to name a damn post office). And of course it’s not just the super-majority but it’s also the fact that you are asking members to limit themselves - let me know how that works.
So how could longevity and seniority actually help? If we continue to organize Congress by parties - and for much of our history that approach has served us well - seniority is important in making the committees run (I know - I’m looking through rose-colored glasses again) - but many of the committees deal with incredibly complex issues - a member in the House may need at least 3 terms to really be a valuable player - in the Senate it is likely two terms. To eliminate longevity in the committees means legislation is left to unelected committee staffers and paid lobbyists even more so than it already is. I am not so naive to believe that much legislation is actually drafted by the members anymore - so vigorous, intelligent and thorough hearings are essential to bring all ideas forward for debate - and the best solutions always come from a place where all of the ideas are in play.
We must make Congress actually do their job. One of the most basic responsibilities of Congress is to fund the Federal government. There are 12 separate appropriation bills that must be passed and signed into law - otherwise the ability for government to operate ceases at midnight on September 30 each year. 1996 was the last time that we actually began a new fiscal year with a budget in place. Rather - we end up up with gigantic omnibus spending bills that serve hardly anyone - it’s a chickenshit way to do business - nobody is voting on individual spending items so they really don’t have to justify their votes to their constituents . We need to demand regular order with the individual appropriation bills.
Our electoral system is sound despite all the constant clamoring about voting fraud and stolen elections. To be certain there will always be a few dead people that somehow voted, there will be people who receive multiple ballots, etc. but in numbers that could actually change a Federal election it just doesn’t happen. Far more worrisome are attempts to suppress voting by reducing the number of precincts and hours to vote. Attempts to eliminate mail or absentee ballots are absurd.
We made a conscious (I think) choice during the Reagan administration to shift our economy to a mostly supply side basis - of course a few of the tenets got tweaked and we said hello to the trickle down theories of wealth distribution. For almost a half-Century we have continually done two things - prove the theory wrong as it really only achieved the largest wealth imbalances that we ever seen. Simply put - we have seen the concept fail over and over again. The other thing we have consistently done…..we have given it another chance on several occasions by further tax cuts and more favorable treatment to those at the top. We were told that every one of these tax decreases would pay for themselves - not a single one of them ever has with perhaps the exception being the tax cut that JFK got through the Senate. Trickle down does not work and even its chief architects freely admit that now.
We have never had a strong and growing economy in the US without s strong middle class which we likewise began disassembling during the Reagan era, first by attacking organized labor. Unions built this country into what is was - good paying middle class wages with job security, health benefits and pensions - mostly gone now. We were sold a bill of goods that said as companies and individuals at the top prospered they would provide for those less successful. Yeah, right. Remember the Trump tax cuts? Of course they were going to pay for themselves (not by a long shot), companies would bring both jobs and dollars back into the U.S. (yeah - not so much). The biggest slice of those tax benefits to corporate America went to stock buy-backs and CEO bonuses - that we all paid for.
Cheap political side shots….
Mitch McConnell is about the biggest waste of human skin alive. He not only took it upon himself to deny even a hearing for Merrrick Garland when nominated by President Obama for the supreme court as we certainly can’t let a selection take place during the last year of a presidential administration. However Amy Barrett’s nomination was approved and hustled through during the lame duck portion of Donald Trump’s administration. About the only positive thing I can say about McConnell is that he is consistent - as in consistently being the biggest asshole on Capitol Hill. Mitch needs to go.
Lyndsey Graham - from John McCain’s colleague to Donald Trump’s lapdog. He’s a disgusting human.
Matt Gaetz, Lauren Boebert, George Santos, Marjorie Taylor Greene, etc. - who are these people and where did they come from? Are they really the best candidates we could field?
Okay - okay -okay - I promised my three solutions that we could work on to make our system better - again - in no particular order and none of these are, or should be partisan issues - neither party can take the high road here.
Dark Money - we have got to limit the amount of dark money flowing into Super Pacs. They have purchased our electoral system. Citizen’s United is one of the worst court decisions of my life and we need to seek meaningful election finance reform. That corporations can donate hundreds of millions of dollars into the process is obscene. Even here in Utah the spending on our most recent Senate campaign was over $30 million - that’s beyond absurd and we’re small fry - in Georgia the tally is over $181 million - Pennsylvania over $133 million and Florida, Arizona and Ohio were all over $100 million. There are far better places for that money to go.
This is not going to be easy as we’ll be going after the money that fuels the whores in Congress - but it’s not impossible. Carefully crafted campaign finance laws can actually pass when they are written in a way that to vote against them exposes you as just a money-grubbing whore. Our last meaningful campaign finance reform was the McCain-Feingold bill in 1999 - the world has changed enormously since then and it is beyond time to reign in the spending. Personally I would rather see all elections at the national level publicly funded with strict spending limits but that’s not likely to ever happen and as long as party politics demand allegiance to the party above all other values, it should’t happen.
We can also be effective at the state level - work to implement laws that demand disclosure and transparency for all “out of state” money pouring into elections. Several states have made huge headway in this respect and we need to keep the push going. A representative democracy will never survive it elections are bought and sold. You should not have to be a multi-millionaire (or have access to them) to be elected in this country.
Gerrymandering - get rid of it and get rid of it now. Both parties are guilty as hell with gerrymandering although I will give the Republicans credit for making it an art form. Gerrymandering is completely controlled at the state level - we have got to engage with our legislators and demand that it comes to a halt. Any high school kid with access to a good GIS database could easily determine equitable districts that are not based on political parties. Utah has made more than one run at this and we’ll just keep trying. In 2018 we passed a reform initiative to eliminate gerrymandering and it easily passed - sadly - the legislature decided to pretty much ignore the demands of the people and made the initiative only advisory - nobody had to actually pay any attention to it (yes - a lovely little section of Utah law allows the legislature to just blow off what the public has demanded - stay classy Utah!) Whomever thought it was a good idea to allow the politicians to select who gets to vote for them is about as absurd as it gets. Districts should be “owned” by neither party.
Voting - the best and potentially the most effective tool we have at our disposal as we try to craft a better political process, the special space where we fully engage in our responsibilities as citizens, is the voting booth. Being an engaged voter at all levels is crucial - make an investment in your future. Nobody has more control over your day-to-day lives than local, county, and state government. Engage in the process and know that every local election - from the school board to the council to the mayor is important. Educate yourselves on every candidate - find the ones who best represent your views and if you can set aside the tribalism long enough to make an informed decision you might be surprised at who that candidate is.
Engage with the candidates and keep engaged once they are in office. My wife has both of our Senators and our Congressman on speed dial and she calls each of their offices at least once a week. Yes - these calls are effective even if you are just letting the office holder know that you disagree with their position (oddly enough that happens a great deal in Utah). While it seems that it is always easiest to disagree with one of your elected representatives, be sure to praise them for those actions that you agree with. Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the House from 1977-1987, reminded all of us that “all politics is local”. While outside dark money now challenges that position and tries to make all politics national - for the most part it remains true.
Be an engaged voter and an engaged citizen - I completely understand why some just throw up their hands and feel like their votes don’t count or that the system is so screwed up now there’s no use trying, but don’t go there. To do so just makes you part of the problem. And here’s a thought - bitching about something on Facebook does not make you an engaged citizen.
As we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King this weekend I still believe in the day that his dreams will come true. For all out worts we remain the best country on Earth but it will take all of us to effect the changes that need to occur.
Legend has it that when leaving the Constitutional Convention Benjamin Franklin was asked about what type of government we would have to which he replied “we’ve given you a republic - if you can keep it.” While it’s likely not true that Franklin ever said that - the warning in none-the-less every bit as important today as it was in 1787 - perhaps even more so.
We’ve a tall order in front of us - but we’re worth it!
peace be with you - Hendo