Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Gun Speech for Obama

"It has become painfully obvious that we have a problem with gun violence in this country. Guns are a very divisive and polarized issue, with strong opinions on both sides. That's OK. In a democracy, what we do is talk to people on the other side, and try to find areas of agreement.

"And in fact, I think there are substantial areas of agreement between the two sides. Unfortunately, it's been difficult to find those areas of agreement, because some people benefit from polarization. Foremost among them is the National Rifle Association.

"The NRA gets its power because many gun-owning voters assume that someone who gets an "A" rating from the NRA must be better than someone who gets a "B"  rating. They assume this because they think the NRA must be serving the interests of its members.

"Actually, it's the other way around: the members are serving the interests of the NRA. The NRA is an extremist organization, and its opinions are far more extreme than those of most of its members.

"A recent survey showed, for example, that 74 percent of current and former NRA members support background checks for anyone buying a gun, and 79 percent favor background checks for employees of gun retailers. Not the NRA. What about denying guns to people on the terrorist watch list? Seems like a no-brainer, right?  If you think that, then 71 percent of current and former NRA members agree with you. Not the NRA.

"The NRA has in fact been doing it best to scare gun owners into thinking that any politician who disagrees with any of their extreme positions is "anti-gun," "anti-Second-Amendment," and waiting for the opportunity to take away all guns. Here's the fact: Guns are dangerous. Like all dangerous things, they need to be regulated to make sure they don't fall into the wrong hands. Most gun owners know that.

"I haven't seen a poll on the attitude of NRA members toward a ban on assault weapons, but the NRA's attitude toward it borders on hysteria. Yet until 2004 we were getting along fine without assault weapons. These are weapons for which there is no plausible need other than killing large numbers of people. You don't need an assault weapon to defend your home, except in some some adolescent fantasy involving black helicopters or zombies. But it's proven to be very popular among mass murderers. I know that, now these weapons have been legal for a while, people have tried them and find that shooting them is fun. Sorry. If you're going to live among other people, you can't do everything that might be fun.

"Finally, aside from keeping guns out of the hands of dangerously unstable people, we have to try to reduce the number of dangerously unstable people. That means we have to do something to make sure mental health services are available, particularly for adolescent boys and young men. That means-- let's be clear about this-- spending more. Can we do that, with our deficit problems ? Of course we can. Here's the first thing we owe our children and grandchildren: to keep them safe."

Note: I didn't start out intending to say so much about the NRA. But as I was writing, it became apparent that the politics of this issue does not work without confronting head-on the belief of many gun owners that the NRA speaks for them.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

What Do We Call the 200 Million People Who Aren't "Job Creators"?

My suggestion: "Job Doers."

American Spring? Time for a Democracy Agenda

There are a lot of policy issues that we can expect to be politically hot over the next couple of years. There is the deficit, of course, and jobs. There will probably be (in fact, probably already is, and should be) a resurgence of interest in global warming. And so on.

But I can't help feeling that the most important issues ahead are what we might call "meta-policy" issues. Specifically, how can we hope to solve all these pressing problems with American democracy as ramshackle as it is today? We need to start talking in a more focused way about how to make democracy work better in the US.

Is this just boring "process stuff" that most voters don't care about? I don't think so. Americans feel increasingly alienated from government. There seems to be an untapped political market for changes that make things work better. What is needed now is to connect a lot of fragmented problems into a democracy agenda. For example:

Once again, we have seen the folly of having national elections run by partisan state officials. (Remember 2000, when the chief elections official in Florida was the state co-chair of the Bush campaign?)  This year we  had a sudden efflorescence of photo ID requirements, attempts to purge the electoral rolls, attempts to reduce early voting, and, finally, voting lines of up to eight hours. This happened almost exclusively in states controlled by Republicans, and certainly invites the conjecture that Republicans were trying to reduce voting by groups that lean Democratic, such as the poor and students.

That we cannot do a better job on something so simple and fundamental should be a national embarrassment. Other countries can do this; why can't we? The Constitution permits (though it does not require) Congress to oversee Federal elections. National elections should be run by a non-partisan Federal agency, which would set uniform voting days and hours and uniform registration requirements. Oh, and it would make sure there are enough working voting machines. Not rocket science.

Obviously, this will become a partisan issue, and Republicans will paint it as a Federal power grab. But with the striking level of incompetence or worse by state officials in the last election, it is time to put this issue on the table. If nothing else, that will motivate states to do a better job.

You may have heard that Republicans got a minority of the votes for the House of Representatives, even though they won a majority of the seats. The difference is attributable to the venerable institution of the gerrymander, in which state legislators redraw the boundaries of Congressional districts to make sure that favored Congressmen get reelected. After the 2010 election there were a lot of Republican-dominated state legislatures, hence today a lot of Republican safe seats. But this is a bipartisan tradition, which Democrats practice as assiduously as Republicans.

Therefore, changing it need not be a partisan issue, especially since it won't affect Congressional districts until 2022. (Redistricting is only done after the decennial census.) Congress's Constitutional authority surely extends to using a nonpartisan agency to draw districts, and to writing rules for how to go about it. In the long run, I imagine, everyone in Congress would prefer to minimize the chances of being shafted by the opposite party.

The Filibuster
In 1975, the Senate rules were changed to allow a filibuster to be broken with a vote of three-fifths rather two-thirds of the Senate, but three-fifths of all Senators, not just those present. So staying home counted as vote against stopping the filibuster. In addition, the new rules permitted other legislation to go forward while a bill was being filibustered, so a filibuster no longer required actual talking.

Over time, these rules have reduced the cost of filibustering to the point where virtually everything requires sixty votes in the Senate to  pass. It has been a sort of stealth Constitutional amendment, turning the Senate into a body where any legislation requires a supermajority. This, together with an unprecedented degree of party discipline, has made the Senate, and hence Congress, virtually unworkable, contributing to a loss of faith in political institutions.

There is a good chance, I'd guess better than 50%, that this situation will end next January, and that we will go back to what is now called the "talking filibuster," what I earlier called the "honest filibuster." (I intended a touch of irony, like George Washington Plunkitt's "honest graft.")

Campaign Finance
I was as surprised as Karl Rove and Sheldon Adelson must have been to discover that huge pots of dark money did not have discernible influence on the 2012 election. Nonetheless, our present campaign finance system is hugely corrupting, making elected officials the servants of a vast lobbying industry. If there's anything that gives voters the feeling that the game is rigged, that's it. And the public remains interested in reform.

I credit myself with discovering a key fact about campaign finance reform: if you get small contributions from a lot people, you get enough money to swamp the money from big contributors. So you can simply disregard big money, thereby avoiding all the legal and logistical problems of keeping money out.

I suggested one possible approach a few months ago: Give everyone a $100 refundable tax credit for political donations. In order words, political contributions up to $100 are, from the donor's perspective, free. If we assume that half of all tax-filers take advantage of this opportunity, that raises $7 billion a year, which is $28 billion over four years.

(This turns out to be quite similar to the proposal of Lawrence Lessig to give every voting-age citizen a $50 voucher usable for political contributions. That plan is slightly more expensive, about $12 billion a year, but I'm not clear on whether sees this as being every year-- presumably at least every other year, since it's aimed at Congress. He proposes requiring candidates to decline large contributions if they are accepting vouchers, but, as I noted above, I doubt the necessity of that.)

Imagine a world where members of Congress didn't have to be anxious about money.


That's a first stab at a democracy agenda. Is it politically feasible? If political feasibility is determined by elected officials and opinion-makers probably not. If by voter support, probably so. The problem, as always, is to coalesce individual opinions into popular opinion.