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“The People’s Republic Of Nebraska?”: Nebraska’s No-Stalemate, Commie Legislature

Forget everything you know about Nebraska. Placidity, Midwestern aw-shucks-ness, red-meat exports and red-state politics? Nope, nope, nope, nope. In the past few days, the Cornhusker State’s legislature has astonished the nation with the kind of legislative assertiveness that could make Congressional Tea Partiers sputter in rage.

On May 27, the state legislature voted to override Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of legislation that repealed the death penalty, making it the first red state in decades to bar executions. The next day, the state overrode the governor’s veto of legislation letting DREAMers—immigrants whose parents brought them into the country illegally when they were young—get driver’s licenses. And if that doesn’t have conservatives diving for the smelling salts, get this: These moves came just two weeks after the legislature overrode a veto of a hike on the gas tax.

So in the last few whirlwind weeks, a state mostly known for its corn products and youth football players has banned the death penalty, started giving driver’s licenses to ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS!!, and—take a deep breath—raised taxes. But, despite appearances, this isn’t because carpetbagging liberal interlopers have launched a subversively successful campaign to turn the state into Vermont for college football fans. Rather, the structure of the state’s legislature makes weird alliances and inter-party strategizing the norm, not the exception. And people troubled by the partisanship that dominates national politics would be well-served to take note.

Instead of having a house and senate like the other 49 states, Nebraska has a single, unicameral legislative chamber. On top of that, party distinctions are invisible there: No majority and minority leaders, no whips, no partisan caucusing, none of that. State Sen. Colby Coash said that gives lawmakers significantly more latitude to vote their consciences than legislators in other states have. He said that delegations from other states sometimes visit their Capitol and look on with envy. Those lawmakers, he added, sometimes fear that if they break party lines, party whips will threaten to take away their office space, their staff budgets, and even their parking spots.

“When you don’t have a party boss on either side, I think it frees you to use your mind and to make decisions that you think are right,” the senator said.

On top of that, every bill that legislators introduce gets an open, public committee hearing, so legislators don’t worry that their bills will get shelved indefinitely, and they don’t feel the same pressure to suck up to any party leadership.

“In most states you can introduce anything you want—but if you aren’t in the right party or don’t know the right person, you don’t even get a hearing on your bill,” Coash said. Nebraska’s political culture is very different, he added.

This unique independence played a huge role in the passage of the death penalty repeal, he said. Though the governor has been an adamant, vocal, and dogged advocate of keeping the death penalty, a critical mass of Republican lawmakers didn’t fear bucking him.

“My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical tool to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families,” Ricketts said in a statement after the override vote, USA Today reported. The unicameral was “out of touch” with the state’s voters, he added.

Lawmakers, obviously, didn’t share those qualms.

“The Nebraska structure fosters a culture of people voting on their conscience rather than by politics,” said Shari Silberstein, executive director of Equal Justice USA, who helped organize the anti-death-penalty push that unified conservatives and progressives.

Stopping executions was just the start. The legislature’s decision to override the governor and implement a gas tax might be even more surprising, given the pressure national anti-tax groups put on state legislators to resist these kind of hikes. The state currently taxes gas at 26.5 cents per gallon, and it hasn’t raised that number in years. Advocates of the tax hike argued that the state needed to spend more on road and bridge maintenance, and that their options for finding the funds were slim.

“There’s just potholes everywhere here,” said Perry Pirsch, a prominent Lincoln attorney and spokesman for Citizens for a Better Lincoln PAC. “And there’s bridges that are in rough shape and potentially could crumble if they’re not worked on in the years to come, and we were overdue for an increase.”

And Jim Vokal, CEO of the Platte Institute for Economic Research, said his typically anti-tax group favored the hike, but wished it had been part of a broad tax reform bill.

“Typically the unicameral has operated with an independent mindset and that was certainly evident this year,” he added.

The fact that Nebraska decided to raise taxes to pay for infrastructure funding puts it in stark contrast with Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker proposed issuing bonds to fund road improvement projects.

And who’s going to be paying higher gas taxes to drive on hopefully improved roads and bridges in the People’s Republic of Nebraska? Undocumented immigrants are going to be paying (some of) those taxes, thanks to even more bipartisan leadership-bucking. When the legislature overrode Ricketts’ veto, Nebraska became the last state in the country to let undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children get driver’s licenses.

So depending on your perspective, Nebraska is either a corn-fed, post-partisan Utopia or an anarchic pit of death-penalty-free chaos. Nebraskans seem inclined to think the former.

“There’s a lot of people in Nebraska who feel very strongly about their independent-mindedness,” said Ari Kohen, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “And to see it play out this way and have the nation see it play out this way, there’s a pride in that.”

 

By: Betsy Woodruff, The Daily Beast, May 30, 2015

May 31, 2015 Posted by | Death Penalty, Nebraska Legislature, Pete Ricketts | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“The Issues Be Damned”: The Hillary-Carly ‘Cat Fight’ That Men, The Media, And Fiorina Want

If Carly Fiorina gains any traction from her barbed attacks on Hillary Clinton, the rightwing cartoons will practically draw themselves: Carly and Hillary in a teeth-baring cat fight, Carly’s claws like a tiger’s, HRC’s eyes as red as a Demon Sheep’s, their hair seriously mussed, and Benghazi burning in the background.

As one man tweeted, “Let the Cat Fight begin!! Fiorina will tear Hillary to shreds.”

“Fiorina vs Hillary in 2016,” someone else raved. Why? “Because men love a cat fight.”

It is indeed a male dream, especially males who are Republican presidential candidates (and who isn’t?). If Carly handles the edgy, personal attacks on Hillary, they figure, we won’t get Rick Lazio-ed off the stage.

But at the press conference-ambush that Fiorina held outside a South Carolina hotel where Clinton was speaking, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO bristled at suggestions that she was doing the male Republicans’ dirty work. Fiorina, Maggie Haberman wrote,

quickly grew discomfited when the questions seemed to treat her more as a heckler pulling a stunt than as a formidable candidate making an otherwise significant campaign stop.

One reporter asked if Ms. Fiorina was being used by the men in the Republican field to harass Mrs. Clinton.

Ms. Fiorina insisted she had planned her trip here “many, many weeks ago, so perhaps she’s following me.”

The first female CEO of a Fortune 20 company has had to deny that she’s a tool of the GOP boys—the poisoned-tip of their spear—for a while now. “The party is not leaning on me to do anything, and I didn’t ask the party’s permission,” she said in March.

She’s her own woman, independent, thinks for herself. But in her self-appointed role as Hillary’s foil, there’s a fascinating tension between the politics of cat-fighting and her feminist-tinged complaints about just those sort of stereotypes. “I think the media hold women to different standards,” she said at the same press conference. “[The press] scrutinizes women differently, criticizes women different, caricatures women differently.”

But even as Fiorina wants everyone to know that’s she’s more than Hillary’s would-be bête noir (“the vast majority of my speeches in front of anyone are about a host of issues,” she told reporters), in many ways she is also Hillary’s doppelganger. They have much in common:

1) Most obviously, both are women vying for power in a man’s world. They are considered “demographically symbolic” (as the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre sneered about Obama’s entire presidency), and they each have a deck of “gender cards” to draw from. It’s perfectly legit, since women have been largely banned from the card games. But while Hillary is playing pinochle, Fiorina is playing something closer to three-card monte. As Amanda Marcotte writes:

In recent months, Fiorina has shown that the only thing she loves more than deriding those who play the “gender card” is playing the gender card….

“If Hillary Clinton were to face a female nominee, there are a whole set of things that she won’t be able to talk about,” Fiorina told reporters in April. “She won’t be able to talk about being the first woman president. She won’t be able to talk about a war on women without being challenged. She won’t be able to play the gender card.” No she won’t, because I, Carly Fiorina, will play it for her!

2) They are so much alike that Fiorina claims Hillary stole the title of her recent memoir, “Hard Choices,” from Fiorina’s account of her widely criticized tenure at HP, “Tough Choices,” which was published in 2006.

“And last month,” Amy Chozick writes, “after Mrs. Clinton urged 5,000 female tech professionals in Silicon Valley to ‘unlock our full potential,’ Ms. Fiorina again accused Mrs. Clinton of stealing: Her leadership political action committee, an aide to Ms. Fiorina noted, is called the Unlocking Potential Project.”

3) That could be a case of bad-faith borrowing, or it could all be a coincidence. As Jason Linkins points out, “’unlock your potential’ may actually be the most banal phrase these Thought Leader types employ.” Fiorina seems to think she owns this sort of MEGO boilerplate because she comes from big biz, but the truth is that both women are corporatist, business-friendly politicians, supported by industry and Wall Street.

4) Both women have worked very hard to please powerful peers who are almost without exception white males—at HP, Fiorina laid off more than 30,000 people (see CarlyFiorina.org); and Hillary voted for the Iraq War as she was preparing to run in 2008.

Fiorina has to be aggressive, of course, because she’s the newbie—never won an election, while Clinton was a two-term senator from New York, not to mention Secretary of State. But one interesting difference between the two is that Hillary has refrained from attacking other women politicians—even, in 2008, Sarah Palin. “You know, I don’t want to be the chick police,” says Nicole Wallace, who famously quit the Palin campaign, but Fiorina’s focus on Hillary, she says, “runs the risk of having it look personal.”

It wouldn’t be Fiorina’s first foray into the too-personal: when she thought she was off mic during her 2010 race against California senator Barbara Boxer, Fiorina said she had seen her opponent on TV and wondered, “God, what is that hair? So yesterday.”

Naturally, the Democratic Clinton and the Republican Fiorina differ on issue after issue—immigration reform, abortion, equal pay, foreign policy. But let me acknowledge that in writing about these two women, I have, like so much of the media, completely stayed away from any mention of any issue.

Because… CAT FIGHT!

 

By: Leslie Savan, The Nation, May 29, 2015

May 30, 2015 Posted by | Carly Fiorina, Hillary Clinton, Media | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Goal Is To Limit Representation”: The Conservatives Who Gutted The Voting Rights Act Are Now Challenging ‘One Person, One Vote’

Ed Blum, who brought the case that led to the gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, is now going after the historic principle of “one person, one vote.” The Supreme Court decided on Tuesday to hear Evenwel v. Abbott, Blum’s latest case, which challenges the drawing of state Senate districts in Texas. The obscure case could have major ramifications for political representation.

Blum first began attacking the Voting Rights Act after losing a Houston congressional race to a black Democrat in 1992 and founded the Project on Fair Representation in 2005 to challenge the constitutionality of the VRA. The Evenwel case doesn’t deal directly with the VRA but on how districts should be calculated. Since the Supreme Court’s 1964 Reynolds v. Sims decision, districts have been drawn based on the total population of an area. Blum instead wants lines to be drawn based only on eligible voters—excluding children, inmates, non-citizens, etc. from counting toward representation.

If that happened, legislative districts would become older, whiter, more rural, and more conservative, rather than younger, more diverse, more urban, and more liberal. “It would be a power shift almost perfectly calibrated to benefit the Republican party,” explains University of Texas law professor Joey Fishkin. “The losers would be urban areas with lots of children and lots of racially diverse immigrants. The winners would be older, whiter, more suburban, and rural areas. It would be a power shift on a scale American redistricting law has not seen since the 1960s. While not nearly as dramatic as the original reapportionment revolution, it would require every map in every state to be redrawn, with the same general pattern of winners and losers.”

Demographically, the gap between Republicans and Democrats is wider than it has ever been. “House Republicans are still 87 percent white male, compared to 43 percent of House Democrats—the widest gap we’ve ever seen,” explains Dave Wasserman, House editor of the Cook Political Report. “In terms of composition of districts, the median GOP district is 76% white, while the median Dem district is 49% white—again, the widest gap we’ve ever seen. Overall, the median House district is 68% white, compared to 63% for the nation as a whole.”

This representation gap explains why Republican officials are pushing new voting restrictions like voter ID laws and cuts to early voting, which disproportionately impact minority voters and seek to make the electorate smaller and whiter. A victory for Blum’s side in Evenwel would make districts across the country even less representative of the country as a whole.

Blum claims to be fighting for race neutrality but he’s often done the bidding of the most powerful figures in the conservative movement and Republican Party. As I reported in 2013:

His Project on Fair Representation is exclusively funded by Donors Trust, a consortium of conservative funders that might be the most influential organization you’ve never heard of. Donors Trust doled out $22 million to a Who’s Who of influential conservative groups in 2010, including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which drafted mock voter ID laws and a raft of controversial state-based legislation; the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, the Koch brothers’ main public policy arm…Donors Trust has received seven-figure donations from virtually every top conservative donor, including $5.2 million since 2005 from Charles Koch’s Knowledge and Progress Fund. (The structure of Donors Trust allows wealthy conservative donors like Koch to disguise much of their giving.)

From 2006 to 2011, Blum received $1.2 million from Donors Trust, which allowed him to retain the services of Wiley Rein, the firm that unsuccessfully defended Ohio’s and Florida’s attempts to restrict early voting in federal court last year. As a “special program fund” of the tax-exempt Donors Trust, Blum’s group does not have to disclose which funders of Donors Trust are giving him money, but he has identified two of them: the Bradley Foundation and the Searle Freedom Trust. The Wisconsin-based Bradley Foundation paid for billboards in minority communities in Milwaukee during the 2010 election with the ominous message “Voter Fraud Is a Felony!”, which voting rights groups denounced as voter suppression. Both Bradley and Searle have given six-figure donations to ALEC in recent years, and Bradley funded a think tank in Wisconsin, the MacIver Institute, that hyped discredited claims of voter fraud to justify the state’s voter ID law.

The challenge in Evenwel isn’t so different from the gutting of the VRA or new laws restricting voting rights. The goal is to limit representation, make it harder for some to participate in the political process and to widen the gap between the haves and have-nots.

CORRECTION: Blum says, “The Project on Fair Representation hasn’t been affiliated with Donors Trust for nearly 6 months; we are now a 501 (c) (3) so our donors will be disclosed according to the regulations that apply to all public charities.”

 

By: Ari Berman, The Nation, May 28, 2015

May 30, 2015 Posted by | Congress, Ed Blum, Evenwel v Abott, Redistricting | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Political Consequences?: Will Republicans Suffer Politically If The Supreme Court Strikes Down ObamaCare? Don’t Count On It

Next month, the Supreme Court might rule in King v. Burwell that the Affordable Care Act does not make subsidies available on insurance exchanges established by the federal government. In a rational world, this argument would be laughed out of court, as even former Republican politicians and congressional staffers have suggested. But that’s not the world we live in.

So it’s worth considering the political fallout if the Supreme Court’s Republican nominees throw the U.S.’s health care market into chaos. The short answer is that, with some notable exceptions, Republicans could very well get away with it.

The policy consequences of such a ruling are much clearer: It would be a disaster. Without subsidies, the vast majority of people would not be able to afford insurance, and therefore would not be subject to the mandate to carry insurance. As a result, younger and healthier people would drop out of the insurance market, creating an actuarial death spiral in which more and more expensive policies are offered to fewer and fewer customers — until the exchanges collapse. Millions of people stand to lose their insurance as a result.

This, of course, is why Congress did make subsidies available on the federally established exchanges. It certainly didn’t go to the trouble of creating a federal backstop that was designed to fail. And until a few libertarian fanatics willfully misread the law as a Hail Mary in their legal war on the ACA, nobody on either side of the aisle involved in the bill thought otherwise.

Should Republicans be careful what they wish for? Possibly. “Fear of change has been the right’s most powerful weapon in the health-care wars since they began under Harry Truman,” writes New York‘s Jonathan Chait. “Seeing their weapon turned against them is a frightening sensation, one they are likely to experience many times again.” The GOP “might be better off if the court just left the law as is,” agrees The Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent. Even The Wall Street Journal editorial page is worried.

The idea that destroying ObamaCare would be politically counterproductive is superficially plausible. Any such decision would be a 5-4 opinion with only Republican-nominated judges in the majority, over at least one lengthy dissent. The Republican-controlled Congress could restore the subsidies by passing a one-paragraph bill, as President Obama will surely emphasize repeatedly.

Congress could try to pass the buck to Obama by passing a “fix” loaded with poison pills that the president would have to veto, but I agree with Chait and Sargent that the Republican conference is too dysfunctional to pull this off. And when Congress fails to act, overwhelmingly Republican-controlled statehouses could solve the problem by establishing their own exchanges — could, but in most cases won’t.

So a Republican Supreme Court takes health insurance away from millions of people, and Republican-controlled governments fail to take simple steps to solve the problem. That has to be a political disaster for the GOP, right?

Not necessarily. “If the Obama Administration loses in the Supreme Court,” argues New Yorker legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, “the political pain will fall almost exclusively on the president and his party.” And counterintuitive as it might seem, political science favors Toobin.

The problem is that a separation-of-powers system dilutes accountability, and voters generally lack the information that will allow them to sort out the blame for a given disaster. Presidents generally get both more credit and more blame for what happens under their watch than is justified by their power.

This is reflected in the fact that the ACA — a statute that required immense congressional skill on the part of Democrats to pass — is commonly known as ObamaCare. To voters who aren’t Democratic partisans, Republican assertions that Obama is at fault for any bad outcomes that arise from ObamaCare will carry a lot of weight. The media, which tends to give credence to even hare-brained Republican notions out of a misguided effort to remain balanced, is unlikely to make it much clearer.

It may also seem as if Republicans would take the rap for a decision written by a bare majority of Republican-nominated justices, but this overlooks how little the public knows about the Supreme Court. Only a little more than a quarter of the public can name the chief justice. The vast majority of voters will have no idea whether the decision was 5-4 or unanimous, let alone the partisan details of the split. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg might write her greatest dissent, but it’s hard to imagine it changing many minds, given that only a tiny minority reads Supreme Court opinions and almost all of them know what they think about the case beforehand.

So in general, I do think Toobin is right. Republicans in Congress and in deep red states can probably avoid any consequences. But there is one twist. Republicans are most vulnerable in states with federally established exchanges that are led by the GOP, but tend to swing to the Democrats in presidential elections. Voters in those states are more likely to blame Republicans for not establishing a state exchange.

As it happens, one such state is Wisconsin, whose governor is a frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 2016. The Republican primary electorate will prevent Scott Walker from signing a bill establishing a state exchange, but his refusal will make it harder for the GOP to duck the issue. In this instance, it might be harder for Republicans to deflect responsibility to Obama than it would be otherwise.

Ultimately, the political consequences of a Supreme Court ruling against the government are difficult to predict. But what we know for sure is that it would be best for the Supreme Court to uphold ObamaCare — so we don’t have to find out.

 

By: Scott Lemieux, The Week, May 27, 2015

May 30, 2015 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, King v Burwell, Republicans | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“An Insurgency By Any Other Name”: Republicans Only Believe In Democracy Insofar As It Achieves Their Desired Ends

In my very first post here at Political Animal, I described the possible threat from a Confederate insurgency. In his review of Charles Murray’s latest book, By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission, Ian Millhiser basically describes it as an insurgency by another name.

Before he gets to the book, Millhiser reminds us of a couple of things. First of all, he points to the fact that it was not that long ago that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested that democracy wasn’t working.

At the height of 2011’s debt ceiling crisis, then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) offered a candid explanation of why his party was willing to threaten permanent harm to the U.S. economy unless Congress agreed to change our founding document. “The Constitution must be amended to keep the government in check,” McConnell alleged. “We’ve tried persuasion. We’ve tried negotiations. We’ve tried elections. Nothing has worked.”…

Few politicians are willing to admit what McConnell admitted when he confessed that elections have not “worked” to bring about the policy Republicans tried to impose on the nation in 2011. Elected officials, after all, only hold their jobs at the sufferance of the voters, and a politician who openly admits that they only believe in democracy insofar as it achieves their desired ends gives the middle finger to those voters and to the very process that allows those voters to have a say in how they are governed.

Secondly, he reminds us that, even though an entire industry has risen to debunk Murray, he is still revered by powerful Republicans.

Dr. Murray’s pre-Bell Curve work shaped the welfare reforms enacted in the 1990s. Former Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan cited Murray in 2014 to claim that there is a culture of laziness “in our inner cities in particular.” Last April, when Jeb Bush was asked what he liked to read, he replied “I like Charles Murray books to be honest with you, which means I’m a total nerd I guess.”

So when Murray speaks, powerful and influential men (and his acolytes are, almost invariably, men) listen, including men who shape our nation’s fiscal policy and men who could be president someday.

Millhiser then does a thorough job of explaining what Murray proposes in this book. It’s important to note that it’s title “By the People” is the exact opposite of what he recommends. Basically what Murray wants to see is an ultra-rich benefactor who would be willing to pay for a legal defense fund that would subvert the work of the federal government.

To impose these limits on society, Murray claims that his Madison Fund can essentially harass the government into compliance. The federal government, Murray claims, cannot enforce the entirety of federal law “without voluntary public compliance.” Federal resources are limited, and only a small fraction of these limited resources have been directed towards enforcement. Thus, Murray argues, by simply refusing to comply with the law and contesting every enforcement action in court, regulated entities can effectively drain the government’s resources and prevent it from engaging in meaningful enforcement.

These are not merely the ravings of a lunatic right-winger. I was immediately reminded of the fact that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has advised states to disregard the recent EPA rulings on coal plant emissions while various entities challenge them in court.

For a while now I have been suggesting that this form of Republicanism is best described as a beast in it’s final death throes. That beast is now a minority in this country and as it lashes out, one of the only remaining possibilities for survival is to subvert our democratic process.

I hope that by now you know that I am not one given to hyperbole and conspiracy theories. I don’t say all this to ramp up a fevered reaction. But it’s important to see what is happening here with clear eyes and name it for what it is…a call to insurgency.

 

By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, May 27, 2015

May 30, 2015 Posted by | Democracy, Mitch Mc Connell, Republicans | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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