Can we cure Congressional dysfunction?

The pundits are dissecting the results of the local and state elections and speculating on what, if any, effect they will have on the 2014 mid-terms and the 2016 Presidential election.  There is plenty of time for that.  I want to talk about the current dysfunction in Congress.

George Packer posted an interesting comment in the New Yorker yesterday.  His Daily Comment began

Going to cast a vote Tuesday, less than three weeks after the government shutdown and the near-default, put me in a sour mood. Usually, I exercise the franchise in a state of embarrassing, heart-swelling affection for the imperfect republic, my under-informed fellow-citizens, confused poll workers, even the dubious names on the ballot. But yesterday, with the gross malpractice of elected officials in Washington still fresh in mind, I walked to the local polling place thinking about some of the stupidities of our democracy, grouping them into two categories: necessary and unnecessary.

His list of unnecessary traditions includes the filibuster.  While the Senate is slightly more functional than the House, the idea that every piece of legislations needs 60 votes to pass needs to be changed before that morphs into a new “tradition”.

The filibuster is an unnecessary stupidity. Senators speak reverently of the filibuster as if it were inscribed in the Preamble to the Constitution, but it’s nowhere in our founding documents. The Senate created the rule almost by accident, in 1806, and for around the next hundred and seventy years used it sparingly, until self-restraint began to disappear from the upper chamber. It has almost no positive effect—try to think of the last time a truly terrible bill was prevented from being stampeded into law by the Senate’s failure to pass a cloture vote. Rampant abuse has exposed the filibuster as an anti-democratic tool of the defeated minority to thwart the will of the elected majority.

Some senators keep making noises about reforming, if not abolishing, the filibuster—most recently last month, when two Obama Administration nominees were blocked by Senate Republicans. But it never happens, and I don’t think it ever will happen, which only shows the profound conservatism of our democratic system. We’re stuck with necessary stupidities because trying to eliminate them would do more damage than it’s worth, but why are we stuck with so many unnecessary stupidities?

While we are talking about traditions, what about the tradition that an president’s nominees get approved absent clear evidence of criminal past, lack of qualifications, or some moral issue.  The putting a “hold” on a nominee, sometimes almost at random, because the Senator wants something else to happen, is an other tradition we don’t need.  At least the Senate has managed to pass Immigration Reform, a non-sequester budget, and the Employment Non-discrimination Act (ENDA).  There seems to be little hope for ENDA or Immigration Reform in the House.

IVoted

Packer goes on to cite the New York Times columnist, Joe Nocera on what we might do to fix some of the dysfunction.  Nocera’s suggestions include moving election day to the weekend, term limits for the Supreme Court, and an end to gerrymandering.

Move elections to the weekend. Do you know why elections fall on a Tuesday in early November? I didn’t either. According to a group called Why Tuesday?, it goes back to the 1840s, when “farmers needed a day to get to the county seat, a day to vote, and a day to get back, without interfering with the three days of worship.” Today, of course, casting your ballot on a Tuesday is an impediment: lines in urban areas are long, people have to get to work, etc. It is especially difficult for blue-collar workers — a k a Democratic voters — who don’t have the same wiggle room as white-collar employees.

Chris Rock — yes, Chris Rock — has been quoted as saying that this is the reason Election Day remains on Tuesday. “They don’t want you to vote,” he said in 2008. “If they did, they wouldn’t have it on a Tuesday.” Even if you aren’t conspiratorially minded, you have to admit that moving elections to the weekend makes a ridiculous amount of sense.

Moving election day is a solution, but we could also expand early voting and explore voting by computer and mail.  Most of all we need to do away with the absurd new ID laws where there is no evidence of widespread fraud which so far no one in Florida, Texas, North Carolina and other states has produced.  Why have ID laws when we could just prosecute anyone who tries to vote illegally?

Nocera also proposes terms limits for the Supreme Court.

 Somewhat to my surprise, most of the experts I spoke to were against Congressional term limits. Norman Ornstein, the resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, believes that the unintended consequences of term limits would outweigh the benefits. (He cited, among other things, the likelihood that “they come to office thinking about their next job.”)

Instead, Ornstein proposes term limits for Supreme Court justices. If he could wave his magic wand, he would give the justices one 18-year term, and he would stagger them, so that a new justice joined the court — while another departed — every two years. Ornstein likes this idea, in part, because presidents would be willing to nominate older justices; now, the emphasis is on younger nominees who can remain on the court, and influence American society, for decades. I like the idea because nothing fuels partisan politics like a Supreme Court nomination. If the parties knew there would be a new nominee every two years, it might lessen the stakes just a bit, and bleed some of the anger out of politics.

I’m not sure about this, but it is interesting to contemplate.

The next suggestion, open primaries, is something we have in Boston for municipal elections.  I should note that very few candidates here identify as Republicans (I think there was one running for Mayor), but that shouldn’t hold true for most places.

Why are so many extremist Republicans being elected to Congress? A large part of the reason is that highly motivated, extremist voters dominate the current Republican primary system. Mickey Edwards, the former congressman who is now at the Aspen Institute, wrote a book last year called “The Parties Versus The People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans.” At the top of his list of reforms is open primaries — which would allow anybody to vote for any candidate. Indeed, California has already adopted an open primary system, in which the top two vote-getters run against each other in the general election — even if they are from the same party. As Adam Nagourney wrote in The Times a few weeks ago, this reform is one of the reasons California’s Legislature has become less partisan and more productive. Chances are good that the same reform at the federal level would produce the same result.

California also provides an example that could reduce, if not end, gerrymandering.

As a tool to entrench the party in power, few maneuvers can beat gerrymandering. It’s another reason that the Tea Party Republicans can pursue an agenda that most citizens disagree with: thanks to gerrymandering, their districts could not be safer. Here, again, California offers a better model. It has a 14-person commission made up of five Democrats, five Republicans and four people unaffiliated with either party. In 2011, the new commission redrew lines in a way that broadened the diversity of many districts. That is exactly what should happen everywhere.

Nocera talks about bringing back small donors.  I think this will take a Congressional change to modify or repeal Citizens United.

Many of these suggestions have to be implemented on the state/local level, but we should start talking about them now.  Change comes slowly because of “tradition” and people wanting to retain power, but unless something changes we are going to sink further and further into dysfunction.

If you have a gun…

If you decided to own a gun, you may be certain that you are someone who will store and use it safely, that it will not be used except for (hunting, self-defense, target shooting).  But we are realizing what has probably always been true:  If you own a gun, you really don’t have control over how or when it is used.

We can begin with Columbine.  The weapons used were in a locked gun cabinet broken into by the two teenaged shooters.  I’m sure that the grandfather thought they were safe.  I haven’t seen any stories yet about the Newtown shooter and how he and his mother stored their many guns.  I imagine that she thought they were safe until she was shot with one of them.  Reading the column in the New York Times yesterday by Joe Nocera and listening to the speeches at the NRA convention made me realize that there are parallel worlds here and maybe they will never meet.

Nocera writes about two incidents.  The first happened last year.

On the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2012, Greg Imhoff — a big, friendly 61-year-old construction superintendent from Madison, Wis., who had moved to Florida with his partner, Shari Telvick — went to check on the home of a neighbor.

The neighbor, Richard Detlor, was a friend, someone Imhoff had known back in Madison, where the Detlors still lived for part of the year. Whenever the Detlors went back to Wisconsin, Imhoff would look in on their house, something he did for many of his neighbors.

It is impossible to know whether, on that August afternoon, Imhoff ever saw the stranger in the house with the .22 caliber revolver; all we know for sure is that Imhoff was shot in the head. When Telvick and a friend found him that evening, he was lying in a pool of blood, dead.

The killer turned out to be a man named Billy Ray Retherford, who was on the lam after killing a woman two weeks earlier and was hiding in the Detlors’ empty home. The next day, Retherford was killed in a shootout with the police. He was using the same .22 handgun.

The gun, however, was not his. It belonged to Richard Detlor, who, according to the police report, had left it, loaded, in the nightstand by his bed before departing for Wisconsin several months earlier.

Gregory Imhoff (Photograph from online obituary)

Gregory Imhoff
(Photograph from online obituary)

OK.  So Detlor probably thought the gun was safe even though he didn’t unload it and lock it up.  I know the argument:  If the gun isn’t loaded then it really isn’t any good for self-defense in the case of a home invasion.  Same with trigger locks.  But what about the various technologies that could prevent anyone by Detlor from firing it?  How can one be opposed to that?  Want your wife to be able to use it if you aren’t around?  I don’t know for sure, but I imagine there is technology to allow that, too.  In Florida, safe storage laws apply only when there is a minor in the household so leaving a loaded, unsecured weapon in an empty house is not illegal.  But it is stupid.

And you have the two year old killed by her five year old brother.

Just the other day, in Burkesville, Ky., a 5-year-old boy shot and killed his 2-year-old sister with a small rifle that had been given to him as a present. Who gives a 5-year-old a gun? (The rifle is called a Crickett; incredibly, it is marketed specifically to children.) Who leaves the room where their children are playing without checking whether the rifle in the corner is loaded? For that matter, who puts a shotgun within such easy reach of a child?

Gary White, the county coroner, was quick to say that no charges would be brought because it was an accident — and, after all, “accidents happen.” But it was a completely preventable accident. When a passenger dies in a car accident that is the result of negligence, there are usually serious legal consequences for the driver. If we really want to reduce gun violence, there must be consequences for negligent gun owners, too. The entire culture of gun ownership has to begin emphasizing safety in a way it doesn’t now. It is as important as universal background checks, or limits on magazine rounds.

And her family says that it was an accident and that she is with God.  Gun deaths and hunting accidents may be part of rural life, but does that mean things can never be different?

We are clearly living in a parallel universe and I’m not sure what we can do to make the lines meet.  Perhaps beginning with changes in the laws relating to negligence would be a place to start.