Mara Liasson, a longtime political correspondent and analyst on NPR, told listeners on Tuesday morning, January 30, hours before Trump’s State of the Union address, that Americans in the present era are both more tribal in their approach to politics and more engaged. By tribal, she means a greater concern with being and feeling in power than with the principles and the specific issues involved. It also means each political party regarding the other as not just wrong but sinister. But she also finds that more people are getting involved, including those who are deciding to run for office in their states and towns. Here’s her report: https://www.npr.org/2018/01/30/581778754/examining-the-state-of-the-nations-politics
There are, at this time, two different pictures of what’s going on in Washington and in the country. To many Republicans–including most vocal Republicans in Congress–President Trump is the victim of a witch hunt by vengeful liberals who don’t want him to have a chance to make America great again. In the Republican narrative, special counsel Robert Mueller and many who work for the FBI are looking for ways to discredit Trump because they are against him politically. To Democrats, Trump is trying to obstruct justice and undoubtedly has much to hide.
There is, as we speak, a memo circulating around Congress. It was drafted by Republicans. Because it draws upon “classified” sources that members of Congress had access to, the memo itself is classified. But the whole point of the memo is that the special counsel and the FBI agents who are investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion by the Trump campaign are out to get Trump for political reasons. To Democrats in Congress who have seen the memo, it’s just a case of Republicans seeing what they want to see and ignoring the rest.
This New York Times story (January 28, 2018) fits in with all this. (The Times is “fake news” in the view of Trump and his supporters, and it’s no secret that its editors and publishers are not fans of Trump.) The name Rod Rosenstein comes up in it: Early last year, after Trump fired FBI director James Comey and after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, his second-in-command, Rod Rosenstein, used his own discretionary power to appoint a special counsel, Robert Mueller, to run the investigation. Trump was furious, but obviously listened to his lawyers about how bad he would make himself look if he were to go on a firing rampage.
Where will things go from here? I have no idea, but again, an important element of this to pay attention to is the way that the two parties have their own narratives of what’s going on here.
The Constitution, written at a time when states with large and small populations were in rivalry for fair representation in their new national government, provides that every state will have exactly two Senators, while a state’s representation in the House of Representatives will be reasonably proportional to its population size. But it leaves it up to the individual states to draw the district lines. The Supreme Court ruled in the 1960s that the districts of a state must be reasonably equal to each other in population size, and more recently it ruled that district lines can’t be drawn especially to water down the influence of non-white votes, that is, racial gerrymandering. But until now, partisan gerrymandering has been fairly safe. Until now.
Partisan gerrymandering, in a nutshell, means that the party that is in control of drawing the district lines draws those line in such a way as to secure a majority for itself in the legislature (which could be either state or national) even when it is only a minority of the voters. On page 239 of the Sidlow text, it’s illustrated this way:
Consider Pennsylvania, which went for Barack Obama by 5.4 percentage points in 2012. Pennsylvania voters cast 2.72 million votes for Democratic House candidates and 2.65 million votes for Republicans. These votes elected five Democratic representatives and thirteen Republicans—even though more votes were cast for Democrats. The Republicans look set to enjoy the fruits of their 2010 redistricting for years to come.
If that seems unfair to you, the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court agrees. On Monday, January 22, 2018 (which is yesterday as I write this post), the court issued a 5-2 ruling that it violated the state’s own constitution. The legislature has until February 9 to redraw the lines, or else the court itself will do it. (Story in Reuters, January 22, 2018.)
It needs to be clear that, because this is only a state court ruling based on a state’s constitution (each state has one, it should be remembered), it does not set any precedents for the courts of any other state or for the U.S. Supreme Court. However, for advocacy groups that are challenging partisan gerrymandering at the state level, it is an encouraging victory. On the question of whether this has any potential to be appealed to the federal courts, my own simple answer is that I do not know, but I will say that, in order for such a challenge to be made, it would require Republicans to betray their usual states’ rights ideology, since such a case would involve calling on the federal courts to expand national power at the expense of a state’s own court system and a state’s own constitution.
Meanwhile, though, it needs to be remembered that the Supreme Court heard arguments in the fall of 2017 about the partisan gerrymandering of Wisconsin’s state legislature, and will be ruling on whether Wisconsin’s scheme violates the 14th Amendment (equal protection) of the national Constitution. That ruling will be much more far-reaching.
With politics in this country at such a high point of partisanism, it needs to be remembered that it makes a huge difference which party has a majority in both Congress and the state legislatures. It therefore makes a huge difference whether a party can prop up its control by drawing the maps in such a way that the party in the majority in the legislature represents a minority of persons who cast votes for that legislature. Make no mistake: This is personally relevant to you.
It needs to be remembered that there’s a huge network of agencies called the Executive Office of the President (EOP), also called the “White House Staff,” whose sole purpose is to serve the president. Because they’re there for the president, most of these staffers don’t have to be confirmed by the Senate. (The main exception to that is the Budget Director.) And sitting atop all of them, serving as the gatekeeper between the agencies of the EOP and the president, is the White House chief of staff.
In the beginning of his administration, of course, Trump had Steve Bannon and some other of his “alt-right” cronies in White House staff positions, with former Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus in the chief-of-staff position. Priebus got drummed out in July and replaced by General John Kelly. Now, I have never called Trump a responsible public servant–I’d feel foolish saying such a thing–but Kelly is one. Kelly has attempted to apply the sense of order that being a military officer inevitably gives someone in the White House, trying to improve morale and make the whole atmosphere less dysfunctional. At times, when the president is Donald Trump, being chief-of-staff involves running damage control, trying to blunt the impact of the president’s extreme positions and his insane tweets.
Well…it looks as if the relationship between Trump and Kelly is hitting some bumps, and it also looks as if dysfunction is still going strong in Trump’s EOP.
Vanity Fair article, January 22, 2018
When things are normal, there are tensions among the people advising the president, and it’s not unheard of for the president and the chief-of-staff to come to blows. During the Reagan years, first lady Nancy Reagan took a dislike to chief-of-staff Donald Regan and demanded his ouster; Regan retaliated by writing a book letting the world know that Nancy Reagan was heavily into astrology and had insisted that the president’s meetings with world leaders be scheduled according to horoscope readings. So dysfunctionality happens from time to time.
But not like this. We are not living in normal times, by any standards. And while I might well find it entertaining if I were watching it in a movie, I’m not enjoying it one bit in real life. But, what I am very much looking forward to is meeting the new roomfuls of esteemed associates who will be talking these bizarre abnormalities over with me on Monday and Friday nights this semester at City Tech.
I’ve added some material; the next-to-last paragraph below is new.
Three basic facts need to be noted up top. First, it takes an act of Congress to keep the government running (though somehow the “essential” functions have an automatic mechanism that keeps them going even when there’s a shutdown). Second, all it takes for Congress to avoid a shutdown is an agreement to pass a “continuing resolution” to renew the current levels of spending while negotiations over the actual budget continue. And third, this kind of resolution is in the category of legislation that can be filibustered in the Senate, and, because it takes 60 votes in the Senate to shut down a filibuster, it takes 60 Senators to agree that the bill should be passed.
With that in mind, government shutdowns happen every so often, sometimes once in a decade and sometimes twice, and they happen when the two parties are trying to force each other to agree on certain measures that they and their loyal support bases care deeply about. And, making the passage of one act conditional on the acceptance of another is the standard way that parties exert leverage. Because it takes 60 votes to pass a bill in the Senate, and because the Republicans only have 51 seats, both parties are able to make demands of each other. In a nutshell, the party positions that are causing this shutdown can be summed up thusly:
- The Democrats want to tie the spending act together with legislation to protect “dreamers,” undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. Obama gave them protection from deportation with the executive order Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), but Trump just rescinded that. Making things more complicated is the fact that a federal court has put a temporary stay on Trump’s order, but that’s no permanent guarantee of anything.
- Many of the Republicans agree that dreamers should be allowed to stay, but they are not willing to enact the spirit of DACA into law without some other changes in immigration policy, including making it harder for immigrants to bring family members in automatically, ending lottery systems (which are not as random as the word might imply), and tightening border security, though at this point few people think there’s going to be a long literal wall built all along the Mexican border (which would actually be an engineering impossibility for some parts of it). On a side note, when Trump said during the campaigns, “I’m gonna build a wall, and I’m gonna have Mexico pay for it,” I don’t think he was expecting to win the election.
Anyway, because the Democrats won’t pass a spending bill without DACA, and because the Republicans won’t pass a DACA bill without these other changes, it appears that the latest government shutdown has begun. And each party is doing its utmost to spin it as being the other party’s fault.
Article in Politico Magazine, January 20, 2018
New paragraph, added here a couple of days later: I forgot to mention a couple of things. First, the Republicans tried to induce Democrats to come on board with their continuing resolution by including a provision that would renew the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) for six years. This is actually important. It’s one of those programs that the federal government funds through the states, and most states simply don’t have the money to keep it going by themselves. It’s not a program that anybody ever intended to abolish, but renewal of it fell by the wayside in the fall. The other thing I wanted to say is that, when commentators refer to the Republicans as controlling both chambers of Congress, they are speaking inaccurately. The Republicans have a majority in both chambers, but they do not have 60 seats in the Senate, and 60 seats is what it takes to have true control there, because that’s how many votes it takes to shut down a filibuster and pass a bill.
And, here on this OpenLab site, you should see a long string of links to other news updates on Politico, thehill.com, the New York Times, and NPR. On a computer, it’s on the right side of this page; I’m not sure how it appears on smartphones, but it’s there for your convenience. Please also remember that you are always invited to post on the Discussion Board, whether you are a past, present, or future member of my government class.