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Mad Scientists In The Lab Of Democracy…Experimentation Going Awry

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said that states are the “laboratories of democracy.” Oft repeated over time, the aphorism has helped impart legitimacy to the rough and tumble of state lawmaking. We’ve heard “laboratory” and we’ve imagined staid scientists in white coats rigorously testing forward-thinking theories of societal advancement. It’s certainly a reassuring picture – but there is a darker side of the metaphor. States are indeed laboratories. The problem is that today, those laboratories are increasingly run by mad scientists.

We’re not talking about the usual Dr. Frankensteins trying to bring alive new corporate giveaways through harebrained cuts to social services (though there are those, too). We’re talking about true legislative sadists looking to go medieval on America. Behold just five of the most telling examples:

The Anti-Life Pro-Life Act: After anti-abortion Republicans in Congress tried to narrow the legal definition of rape, Nebraska Republican State Sen. Mark Christensen took the assault on women’s rights one step further with a bill to legitimize the murder of abortion providers by classifying such homicides as “justified.”

The Let Them Eat Corporate Tax Cuts Act: As poverty rates and hunger have risen, so too have corporate profits. The Georgia legislature’s response? Intensify the inequity with a bill to create a regressive sales tax on food that would then finance a brand new corporate tax cut.

The Demoralize the Workforce Act: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker didn’t just threaten to deploy the National Guard against state workers unless they accept big pay and pension cuts. Apparently, that was too Kent State and not enough Ludlow Massacre for him. So he pressed to statutorily bar those workers from ever again collectively bargaining.

The Child Labor Act: Missouri State Sen. Jane Cunningham’s proposal to eliminate child labor laws would allow corporations to employ any kid under 14 and would terminate restrictions on the number of hours that kid can be forced to work. The legislation is proof that when Tea Party ideologues refer to “the ’50s,” some of them aren’t referring to the 1950s – they are referring to the 1850s.

The Endorsing Your Own Demise Act: Between trying to legalize hunting with hand-thrown spears and pressing to eliminate education requirements for those seeking the office of State Superintendent of Schools, Montana’s Republican lawmakers are also considering legislation to officially endorse catastrophic global climate change. That’s right, in the face of a Harvard study showing that climate change could destroy Montana’s water supplies, agriculture industries and forests, State Rep. Joe Read’s bill would declare that “global warming is beneficial to the welfare and business climate of Montana.”

If you don’t live in one of these states, it’s easy to tell yourself that these bills don’t affect you. But history suggests that what happens in one “laboratory” is quite often replicated in others – and ultimately, in the nation’s capital. That’s why we should all hope saner minds cut short these experiments before they get even more out of control.

March 18, 2011 Posted by | Abortion, Climate Change, Collective Bargaining, Democracy, Education, Ideologues, Politics, State Legislatures, States, Unions, Womens Rights | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stop The World, I Want To Get Off: Boehner Agonistes

Suzy Khimm on the dilemma facing House Speaker John Boehner:

The House passed yet another short-term extension of the budget on Tuesday. But John Boehner faced a revolt by 54 Republicans who voted against the bill for not going far enough to slash spending, effectively forcing the GOP Speaker to rely on Democratic votes for the stop-gap measure to pass. As Talking Points Memo’s Brian Beutler explains, the vote now puts Boehner between a rock and a hard place: either he makes concessions to Democrats to pass a final budget, risking provoking greater fury from the tea party right, or he gives in to the GOP’s right flank—risking a government shutdown, as the Democratic Senate is unlikely to pass any bill that guts spending to satisfy hard-line conservatives.

I think Boehner’s problem here is pretty obvious, so there’s no point in belaboring it. The more interesting question is: which way does he jump?

My guess is that he sides with the tea partiers and forces a government shutdown. I don’t have any special insight here, just a feeling that, in the end, the hardcore right holds the whip hand in the Republican Party these days. If this is correct, though, it leads to a second question: how does this end? Obviously Republicans can’t keep the government shut down forever, and eventually this means that Obama will win some kind of compromise and it will get passed by a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans. The tea partiers will lose.

Given that this almost has to be the case, wouldn’t it make more sense for Boehner to compromise in the first place and avoid the humiliation of giving in down the road? In a rational world, sure. But in the tea party universe, he can’t. The forces working here will force Boehner into the worst of both worlds: he won’t assert control over the tea party faction from the start, which is bad, and then he’ll end up caving in to Democrats a few weeks or months down the road, which is worse.

But maybe I’m missing something here. Is there some other scenario for Boehner that works out better for him?

By: Kevin Drum, Mother Jones, March 16, 2011

March 18, 2011 Posted by | Economy, Federal Budget, Government Shut Down, Ideologues, Politics, Right Wing, Tea Party | , , , | Leave a comment

On (and On and On) Wisconsin, As Judge Stays New Union Law

Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin, including Gov. Scott Walker, have yet another decision to make in the wake of a state trial judge’s ruling Friday that temporarily blocked enforcement of Wisconsin’s controversial new public union law. And none of their paths are certain to bring them back to where they want to be.

Dane County Judge Maryann Sumi created the headache for Walker and company when she ruled that Wisconsin’s “open meetings” law required more public notice of a legislative vote than was given by Republican lawmakers on the evening of March 9th. That was the night GOP lawmakers took their surprise vote, in the absence of their still-in-hiding Democratic counterparts, and passed the divisive measure which undercuts collective bargaining rights in the state.

Gov. Walker subsequently signed the law and it was scheduled to be published — a requirement for implementation — on March 25th. But because the measure was enacted in violation of the 30-year-old transparency law, Judge Sumi ruled, it could not yet go into effect. The Wisconsin State Journal quoted her as saying: “This was something that would and did catch the public unaware… what ended up being a closed session of a body in propelling legislation forward.”

Her procedural decision had nothing to do with the legal or political merits of the fight over collective bargaining rights. But it will likely affect those merits anyway, in whole or in part. Here’s part of what the state statute says about how other state statutes are to be lawfully enacted:

“Public notice of every meeting of a governmental body shall be given at least 24 hours prior to the commencement of such meeting unless for good cause such notice is impossible or impractical, in which case shorter notice may be given, but in no case may the notice be provided less than 2 hours in advance of the meeting.”

After a brief hearing on the matter, Judge Sumi said Friday in court: “It seems to me the public policy behind effective enforcement of the open meeting  law is so strong that it does outweigh the interest, at least at this time, which may exist in favor of sustaining the validity of the (law).”

So the GOP in Wisconsin now has a few options. The GOP can go back to the start of the legislative process and seek to enact the measure in more traditional circumstances. This could mean more Democratic walkouts. It could mean more protests at the State House in Madison. It could mean some sort of political compromise. Or it could mean the passage of an exact but newer version of the new collective bargaining law. And there’s no point in betting on which option is more likely because no reasonable person would lay odds on any of it given Wisconsin’s recent political history.

The GOP can slug it out in court and hope that a majority of the justices on the Wisconsin Supreme Court have a different view of the open meetings law (and what happened on March 9th) than did Judge Sumi. The problem with that option is that it requires the state’s appellate judiciary to undercut the open meetings law not just in these circumstances — which everyone concedes were unusual — but in more conventional scenarios as well. No one (yet) is claiming the law itself is unconstitutional or otherwise beyond the power of state legislators. The state supreme court could require a do-over at the Statehouse while promising its ruling has nothing to do with the politics of the law.

Or, the GOP can pursue both paths at the same time and hope for success in either one. The problem with that scenario is that it would require politicians to spend more time and energy in pitched legislative battle over an issue — new collective-bargaining legislation, properly noticed — which may subsequently be rendered moot by an appellate ruling that recognizes the legitimacy of the existing collective-bargaining law. I suspect few politicians in Wisconsin would want to go through the ordeal again even if they were assured that it would mean something in the end. But to ask them to do so when the existing law may ultimately be revived may be a bit much.

There are other lawsuits pending against the legislation. Judge Sumi herself is involved in another one of those. What emerged from political chaos looks now to be heading toward a period of legal chaos.

By: Andrew Cohen, The Atlantic, March 18, 2011

March 18, 2011 Posted by | Class Warfare, Collective Bargaining, Politics, Republicans, State Legislatures, States, Unions | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tea Party Extremism Run Amok

The success of the Tea Party movement and legitimate concern over the size of the deficit raise a serious question: What does it mean to promote small government?

The pious commitment to keeping big government out of people’s lives—or championing local control—was a common theme among Republican candidates last election season, particularly among those who professed sympathies for the Tea Party element. But local control and small government sound remarkably like pure lawlessness, as Dana Milbank brilliantly reports in Wednesday’s Washington Post.

Milbank—often amusing, always readable—with this most recent and very well-reported column, an absolute must-read, chronicles some of the anti-federal-authority efforts by state legislators:

When Louis Brandeis called state legislatures “laboratories of democracy,” he couldn’t have imagined the curious formulas the Tea Party chemists would be mixing in 2011, including: a bill just passed by the Utah legislature requiring the state to recognize gold and silver as legal tender; a Montana bill declaring global warming “beneficial to the welfare and business climate of Montana”; a plan in Georgia to abolish driver’s licenses because licensing violates the “inalienable right” to drive; legislation in South Dakota that would require every adult to buy a gun; and the Kentucky legislature’s effort to create a “sanctuary state” for coal, safe from environmental laws.

U.S. News’s own Robert Schlesinger also recently questioned the mental stability of some of these local lawmakers.

Setting aside the pure absurdity of some of those ideas, the philosophical underpinnings are pretty disturbing. Where did these local officials get the idea that any community standard—be it a proven ability to make a left turn (if not parallel park) or to avoid poisoning the environment for generations who might come after us—is some egregious infringement on their own rights?

If the anti-big-government, local-control camp wants to prove its sincerity, it can help out right here in the District of Columbia. Still the last place in the country where citizens are denied the right to full representation in Congress, the nation’s capital is again experiencing attempts by members of Congress to make decisions about school vouchers and other matters. The same lawmakers who say they want the federal government to have less control over people’s lives are using Washington as Congress’s personal lab rat. If they really believe in local control, the lawmakers will let the city of Washington alone.

By: Susan Milligan, U.S. News and World Report, March 16, 2011

March 18, 2011 Posted by | Deficits, Democracy, Liberty, Politics, Republicans, State Legislatures, Teaparty | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Republican Budget Cuts Will Come Back to Bite Them

Something about the Republican dance with populism these days reminds me of one of those classic Twilight Zone episodes: Aliens come down to earth. They want to help us! (They even have a book called To Serve Man!) Wait a minute … they want to eat us! (It’s a cookbook.) From there things take a decidedly downward turn.

One suspects that Republicans may be in for a similarly demoralizing experience. Here’s why:

When NPR asked Sen. Jim DeMint this week why Republicans were pressing to reduce Social Security benefits (a subject that had long been considered off limits for politicians interested in re-election), he answered, “It is politically dangerous, but I think the mood of the country is different than it has been [at] any time in my lifetime.” The “mood” he’s talking about is the so-called “new populism,” the voter anger expressed everywhere from Tea Party rallies to voting booths in 2010.

When you think of traditional populism, it evokes images of regular people rising up against a remote, usually corporate, elite that’s run roughshod over their rights. Farmers and working people taking on runaway industrialists and robber barons. Traditionally, Democrats have been most receptive to these kinds of appeals. In response, they’ve pushed government to enact programs aimed at protecting those most vulnerable to the predations of more powerful interests.

For the new populists, government is the remote elite. Instead of unsafe working conditions or unfair lending practices, they’re protesting the ills of government spending and overreach, the wasting of taxpayer dollars. And if their efforts undo the kinds of programs that a more traditional brand of populism might embrace—those aimed at helping the less advantaged make their way—so be it. It’s populism Republican style. And Republicans look like they’re going to ride it for all its worth.

But what happens when you start cutting programs that are in and of themselves something of a check on potential populist anger? That’s one way to look at government programs: There’s a need that’s not being addressed, and rather than let it ferment, government, however clumsily, tries to fill the gap. Sometimes the proposed gap filler is ridiculous (Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s “Department of Peace” springs to mind). Other times, it becomes part of the very fabric of our country.

Take public schooling. Public schools reflect a societal judgment that children should have a chance to succeed without regards to wealth or socioeconomic background. To help get them there, we don’t give every kid a million dollars and say “have at it,” we offer them a tuition-free classroom with a curriculum designed to put them on an equal footing with everyone else when they enter the workforce. What they do from there is up to them.

It doesn’t always work out, of course. Some schools are better than others. So are some teachers. But wherever our various debates about education reform end up, public schools reflect a deeply held American value: that there are some public goods (like an educated workforce) that we, as a society, believe are worth individual (taxpayer) costs. That seems to have become lost in the current debate.

Take another look at what’s underway in Wisconsin. A centerpiece of Gov. Scott Walker’s budget is a $1 billion cut in education funding. That’s a big number that may sound appealing to people worked up about government spending today, but in September when they send their kids to schools with classroom sizes twice as big as a year before, they may begin to remember why they thought it was a good idea to fund education in the first place. Presto! New populists transformed into traditional populists. Only now their target has shifted from Democrats to Republicans. And you can imagine the same phenomenon playing out across a whole host of issues, from Social Security to shared revenue.

Republicans may have momentum on their side at the moment, but there’s a long way to go in the various budget battles playing out across the country. To be sure, Democrats can overplay their hand, too, by opposing any kind of spending restraint.

But one way or the other, populism is sure to play a role in determining how it all turns out. Which strain of populism wins? For Republicans, the answer is kind of like the difference between To Serve Man (they’re helping us!) and To Serve Man (oh wait, they’re eating us). And they had better hope they’ve got it right.

By: Anson Kaye, U.S. News and World Report, March 17, 2011

March 18, 2011 Posted by | Economy, Federal Budget, Politics, Populism, Republicans, Social Security, Tea Party | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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