Mike Kueber's Blog

November 16, 2011

The Good Government Caucus

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 2:05 pm
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When I use the term Good Government, I am referring to reforms that are intended to help a democratic government function more effectively.  Examples include eliminating gerrymandering for the redistricting process and establishing term limits for legislators.  Good Government reforms often have a difficult time gaining traction because there is a tendency to accept the status quo, but more significantly the reforms take away perquisites from the incumbents.  Many incumbents will give lip service to favoring a Good Government reform, but then silently resist its enactment.  Another example of this is the Balance Budget Amendment, which nearly 70 senators are on record as supporting, but yet it has never been able to get past the Senate.

Good Government reforms made the news twice this week.  The first occurred on Sunday with a 60 Minutes article on insider trading by congressmen.  Apparently, there is no law against a congressmen engaging in stock trading based on private information that they have obtained through their congressional work.  The article revealed a congressman who has been trying to outlaw the practice for years, but his bill, called the Stock Act, has met silent resistance.  When 60 Minutes asked various congressmen for their position on the bill, they uniformly said they would have no objection to the law, but they weren’t familiar with it.

Local politician Joaquin Castro, who is running for Congress in San Antonio, posted a comment and a link on his Facebook account about this 60 Minutes article, and made the simple argument that insider trading for congressmen must stop.  I post a comment suggesting that when he gets to Congress, he should consider establishing a Good Government caucus consisting of Republicans and Democrats who are interested in pushing for nonpartisan ideas that will help government function more effectively.  With the support of a Good Government caucus, the enactment of the Stock Act would be more achievable.

The second instance of Good Government in the news occurred on Tuesday when Rick Perry proposed major reforms.  According to an article in the NY Times, Perry’s proposal consisted of the following:

  • Cutting congressional pay in half
  • Shorten the time that Congress is in session
  • Ending lifetime tenure for federal judges

The Washington Post reports that Perry wants to cut congressional pay in half again in 2020 if the federal budget remains out of balance.  That proposed motivation sounds similar to an idea that I proposed several months ago – i.e., every two years, voters in  America should decide whether the performance of Congress justifies a 10% pay raise, a 10% pay cut, or no change.  More than any idea I have heard of, this would change the way Congress operates.

Not surprisingly, Perry’s proposals were received with scorn and condescension.  Senator Conrad of ND, who has been working for a congressional pay freeze for years, suggested that Perry’s 50% pay cut was “kind of a silly idea.”  A Florida law professor said, “… it’s kind of crazy and will likely only play well to the Republican base.”

But I am encouraged.  Although the best chance for permanent, broad reform is the development of a Good Government caucus, perhaps this reform can be jump-started via the bully pulpit of the presidency.  Perry is not likely to be the Republican nominee, but perhaps Romney will pick up on this issue as something that will give him a competitive advantage against Obama next fall.

Keep your fingers crossed.

October 15, 2011

Swearing off Wall Street money

Filed under: Politics — Mike Kueber @ 6:43 pm
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Shortly after my congressman, Quico Canseco, was swept into office last November, he caught a flight to Washington, D.C.  The purpose of the flight was to begin retiring the immense debt that his campaign incurred.  You see, Canseco is a rich man, and to defeat his entrenched Democratic opponent Ciro Rodrigues, he had loaned his campaign half a million dollars.  (Actually, he was doubling down because he was still owed half a million dollars from an unsuccessful primary election two years earlier.)

According to news reports, Canseco was being shown around town by Texas congressional power broker Jeb Hensarling, who would shortly defeat Michele Bachmann for the #4 Republican leadership position in the House.  Hensarling said it was important for the freshmen to quickly eliminate their debt so that they could focus on defending themselves in a mere two years.

The item on Canseco’s Washington agenda that caught my eye was a fundraiser hosted by Hensarling that resulted, among other things, in a $5,000 contribution to Canseco from Goldman Sachs.  Yes, the Goldman Sachs that was one of the most notorious villains in the financial meltdown.  And yes, Canseco was a TEA Party partisan who initially backed the bailout, but then backed away from it as it became unpopular.  This sort of financial shenanigans is a perfect example of why many people are disgusted with politicians.

Since Canseco’s first Washington foray, I’ve lost track of his fundraising toward his debt and the next election.  But the issue was brought to mind yesterday when a columnist for the Washington Post suggested that, in response to the Occupied Wall Street movement, Democratic politicians should publicize a pledge against accepting campaign money from Wall Street.

In his column, Harold Myerson acknowledged that taking a pledge against Wall Street money could be as dangerous as unilateral disarmament.  The danger of walking away from millions of dollars, however, could be ameliorated by:

  • Good-Government groups like No Labels could attempt to raise some money for the pledgees to offset the absence of Wall Street money.
  • The voters could make the signing of the pledge an important component of a candidate’s values – sort of like Grover Norquist’s No New Taxes pledge that is obligatory for any serious conservative.

Myerson contemplates that the pledge against Wall Street money will only be attractive to Democrats.  I disagree.  I can’t understand how a TEA Party partisan could accept money from Goldman Sachs.  Yes, I know that Canseco did, but that suggests Canseco is not a genuine TEA Party person.

The Democratic Party by no means has a monopoly in trying to minimize the role of money in politics.  Although they posture for regulation of campaign financing, the Party’s current head Barack Obama famously became the first presidential candidate to reject public financing because he was unwilling to give up the huge financial advantage that he could achieve through private financing.

And Obama is not an anomaly.  My previous blog posting was about a Politico article that profiled ten up-and-coming politicians who were showing tremendous skill at fundraising.  Of the ten profiled politicians, seven were Democrats.

And finally, according to a Good Government group that is concerned about the corrupting effect of money in politics (the Center for Responsibility in Politics):

  • The financial sector is far and away the largest source of campaign contributions to federal candidates and parties….  The sector contributes generous sums to both parties, with Republicans traditionally collecting more than Democrats. Yet in the past two election cycles, bankers have suddenly shifted their cash toward Democrats.”

This doesn’t have to be a partisan issue.  It’s a Good Government issue.

September 24, 2011

Good government

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 2:19 pm
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In Texas there is an old saying that there is nothing in the middle of the road but a yellow stripe and dead armadillos.  In addition to coining that saying, former Ag Commissioner Jim Hightower also said, “The opposite for courage is not cowardice, it is conformity.  Even a dead fish can go with the flow.”  Hightower was our state’s colorful Ag Commissioner until some nondescript, obscure state rep defeated him in 1990 – Rick Perry.

Unfortunately, Hightower’s comments reflect the state of politics in America today, where government has become dysfunctional because of excessive partisanship and a refusal to look to look for common ground.  Instead of trying to achieve progress, too many politicians are focused on their side winning or the other side losing.  “Good government,” which traditionally has meant one that is functional and fair, has become a quaint notion.

A few weeks ago I blogged about a movement called No Labels that is trying to provide a counter-balance to the excessive partisanship  that currently afflicts America, but based on recent news reports, they face a difficult fight.

Earlier this week, Harold Meyerson’s column in Washington Post described a Republican effort in Pennsylvania to rig the Electoral College in favor of Republicans.  They would accomplish this by awarding electoral votes to the winner of each congressional district instead of awarding all of the state’s electoral votes to the winner of the state.  Although this may be a good idea from the perspective of good government, it is being analyzed, and will succeed or fail, on the basis of crass partisanship.

As Meyerson’s column mentions, these machinations with the Electoral College will amplify the significance of gerrymandered redistricting, which is already a travesty of good government.  As reported in the San Antonio Express-News today, the redistricting of congressional districts 23 and 27 is being litigated because it allegedly violates the Voting Rights Act.  Another recent article in the E-N described how Ron Paul’s  congressional district was carved up to punish him and provide a good opportunity for an ambitious state rep to challenge him.  Instead of fighting, Paul decided to retire.

And finally, a recent article in USA Today described how state legislators were employing a variety of techniques to feather their retirement nest.  Unfortunately, Texas was one of the worst violators.  Although its legislators make only $7,200 a year, they passed a law in 1981 that entitles them to a state pension based on the constructive fiction that their salary was actually equal to the salary of a state district judge, which is currently $125,000 a year.  By employing this sleight-of-hand, they have converted a part-time volunteer job into a lucrative career.

Although these examples have significant differences, they all fit in a discussion of “good government.”  Good government has a proud tradition going back to Thomas Jefferson, and then it enjoyed a revival due to NYC’s Tammany Hall.  But it will not magically reappear unless the voters insist on it.

August 10, 2011

Good-government reforms

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 4:51 pm
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A recent article in The Daily Beast/Newsweek listed eight good-government reforms that supposedly would fix our dysfunctional government in Washington, D.C.  Actually, the article merely promised a pathway to less partisanship and more problem solving.  The succinct list is by far the best and most comprehensive that I have ever read, even though my conservative friends will cavil that it contains neither term limits nor a balanced-budget amendment.  The list, with my brief comments:

  1. Redistricting should be conducted by nonpartisan people.  I know of no reasonable argument for partisan
    redistricting.
  2. Public financing of elections.  Private money is highly corrupting, and public financing will reduce the
    extent that legislators prostitute themselves.
  3. Top-two primaries.  Instead of separate primaries that gravitate toward extremists, a single primary will enable the moderate middle to have more influence.
  4. Popular election of presidents.  Candidates will look for votes in every state, not just swing states.
  5. Committee assignment by lottery.  Denying the power of committee assignment from the party leadership will
    enable individual legislators to resist party disciplinarians.   
  6. Eliminate secret holds.  I haven’t heard a lot about secret holds, but it sounds like an antiquated concept that no longer serves a useful purpose.
  7. Filibusters must involve actual talking.  Super-majorities should be discouraged unless constitutionally required.  I would go further than this proposal and entirely eliminate filibusters.
  8. Eliminate the debt ceiling.  The debt ceiling is an arcane concept that facilitates mischief when the President does not control both houses of Congress.  It should be eliminated.

I have previously blogged about these items except for #5 and #6.  Although I have thought about the problem described in #5 – i.e., party discipline – I didn’t know how to ameliorate it.  The solution put forward by The Daily Beast is, I think, a good one.  And, as mentioned above in #6, I didn’t know that secret holds were a problem, but The Daily Beast solution certainly seems appropriate.

The next step, however, is to find enough legislators who believe in good government.  I have no idea how many of them reside in Washington, D.C.