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“Marco Rubio’s Terrible New Idea”: Pandering To Voters’ Most Simplistic And Uninformed Impulses

Campaigning for president requires one to come up with policy proposals, a need that from time to time produces innovative and promising ideas. But it also produces some extraordinarily dumb ones, as Marco Rubio is now demonstrating. Here’s his latest plan to fix what’s wrong with Washington:

Shortly after 11 a.m. on the East Coast, Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign alerted the media to their candidate’s latest position, inspired by the Founding Fathers and by Congress’s seeming inability to pass conservative legislation.

“One of the things I’m going to do on my first day in office is I will put the prestige and power of the presidency behind a constitutional convention of the states,” Rubio said as he campaigned in Iowa. “You know why? Because that is the only way that we are ever going to get term limits on members of Congress or the judiciary and that is the only way we are ever going to get a balanced-budget amendment.”

With this, Rubio manages to combine a promise for something that will never happen with a spectacularly terrible idea.

We’ll start with the constitutional convention. There are two ways an amendment to the Constitution can be proposed: when two-thirds of both houses of Congress vote to do so, or when two-thirds of the states call for a convention to propose amendments. Rubio is saying that because you couldn’t get super-majorities in Congress to support his three ideas, he wants to push for the states to assemble a convention to offer these amendments.

The first thing to understand is that the president has nothing to do with this process. What Rubio is promising is that in between trying to pass his tax cuts and outlaw abortion and repeal Obamacare and wage war on the Islamic State, he’ll use the bully pulpit to advocate for a constitutional convention. So President Rubio will give a speech or two about it? Mention it in the State of the Union? That’s fine, but at best it might bring the chances of getting two-thirds of the states to sign on from approximately zero to ever slightly more than zero. Getting a constitutional convention might be a bit easier than assembling two-thirds majorities in Congress, but not by much.

So he can’t make these constitutional amendments happen. But what about the amendments themselves? Term limits for judges is the only one that might not be all that problematic, but it’s a little hard to tell what the problem is that Rubio is trying to solve. Lifetime tenure for judges is supposed to insulate them from momentary political concerns, but in practice it turns out that there’s plenty of politics on the bench. Presidents pick nominees they hope will reflect their own political values, and most of the time they’re right, with an occasional exception here and there. Some have suggested that the Supreme Court could use more turnover, so there should be a limit of some long but not endless stretch for justices (18 years is one common number). That might be fine, but it’s hard to see what kind of transformation in American justice would result from limiting all federal judges’ terms. If anything, the nominating and confirmation process would become even more political, since you’d need more judges.

But that’s the least bad of these ideas. The next is term limits for Congress, an idea that fell out of favor for a while and Rubio now wants to bring back. But what is it supposed to accomplish? Is Washington going to run more smoothly with more members who don’t know how to pass legislation? We’ve seen a huge influx of new members (mostly Republicans) in the last few congressional elections, and they haven’t exactly been committed to making government work. To the contrary, they’re the ones who care least about having a functioning government and are more likely to be nihilistic extremists who want to shut down the government, default on the national debt and govern by crisis.

Rubio is smart enough to know that the myth of the citizen legislator unsullied by contact with sinister lobbyists, who comes to Washington armed with nothing but common sense and a strong moral fiber and cleans up government, is just that — a myth. But he also knows that saying “Kick all the bums out!” is an easy way to pander to voters’ most simplistic and uninformed impulses.

I’ve saved the worst for last: a balanced-budget amendment. It has long been a popular item on the conservative wish list, but if you put it into practice, it would be an absolute disaster.

The childish way of thinking about it is that a requirement that the government spend no more than it takes in every year would impose fiscal discipline and make government live within its means. But in truth it would require radical cutbacks in everything government does — which means not only the programs Republicans don’t like anyway, but also the ones they do like. In the last half century, through Republican and Democratic presidencies and Republican and Democratic Congresses, we’ve had only five years when the government’s budget was balanced (four of which came during the boom of the Clinton years). Without the ability to issue bonds to cover each year’s shortfall, we’d be left without the ability to do what’s necessary to serve all of our many public needs.

Consider what would happen during an economic downturn if we had a balanced-budget amendment. What you want in that situation is for government to step in and help people — by providing things like food stamps and unemployment compensation to keep people from falling into truly desperate situations of hunger and homelessness, and also to do what it can to spur job creation and keep the recession from being worse than it would otherwise be.

But in a recession, tax revenue also falls, because people are losing jobs and incomes are plummeting; as an example, between 2008 and 2009, the federal government’s revenues declined by more than $400 billion. With a balanced-budget requirement in place, just at the moment when government’s help is needed most, not only would it be powerless to do anything to mitigate the toll of the recession, it also would be required to impose brutal budget cuts, pulling money out of the economy and making things even worse. If Rubio got his way, every recession the country experienced would be deeper, longer and more punishing.

Some conservatives say, “Nearly every state has a balanced-budget amendment, so why can’t the federal government have one too?” But that’s actually another reason why a federal balanced-budget amendment would be so dangerous. When a recession hits, states have no choice but to cut back, slashing needed services and firing workers just when their economies are suffering. At those times, the federal government can step in to limit the damage, boosting the hundreds of billions of dollars it already provides in aid to the states. As it happens, many of the states run by Republicans are the ones most dependent on federal government aid. In 2012, according to the Tax Foundation, the federal government picked up 31.5 percent of all state budgets, including 44 percent of Louisiana’s, 45 percent of Mississippi’s and 41 percent of Tennessee’s. So in places where Republicans are denouncing the federal government in the loudest terms, without the federal government’s help their state finances would utterly collapse.

The good news is that none of what Rubio is advocating for will ever happen. But advocating for constitutional amendments is what you do when you don’t have the stomach for actual governing. It’s certainly seductive — we’ll just change the Constitution, and that will sweep away all the messiness that comes with politics. But it’s a fantasy. Unfortunately, there are still plenty of presidential candidates who don’t respect the voters enough to tell them that passing laws and solving problems is difficult and complicated, and to get what you want to you have to slog your way through it. That’s not an inspiring campaign message, but it’s the truth.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, December 31, 2015

January 1, 2016 Posted by | Congress, Constitution, Governing, Marco Rubio | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Our Constitution Neither Knows Nor Tolerates Classes”: Ben Carson Thinks Islam Isn’t Consistent With The Constitution. He’s Dead Wrong

Dr. Ben Carson excels in addled interpretations of America’s founding principles. In May, the Republican presidential candidate claimed that the president has the power to ignore the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling. And last month, when asked by Meet the Press’ Chuck Todd whether the Bible has “authority” over the Constitution, said, “That is not a simple question.” He extended this streak of misinterpretation on Sunday when Todd asked him whether he thought “Islam is consistent with the Constitution.” Carson replied, “No, I don’t, I do not,” and then added, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.”

In fact, Islam is neither consistent nor inconsistent with the Constitution; Islam is irrelevant to any discussion of the Constitution or rules of our governance. The same is true of Catholicism, Judaism, Buddhism, and every Protestant sect—even atheism, as the document does not once mention God. There is no religious test, preference, predilection, or, for that matter, even mention of any particular religion in the document itself and, with the exception of one line in the first amendment, in which “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” no mention of religion is made at all.

At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, other than an opening prayer, which was non-denominational, and one plea by Benjamin Franklin on June 28 to appoint a chaplain to help break what had descended into an acrimonious logjam—a proposal that was ignored—religion was the last thing the delegates were thinking about. The one instance in which religious preference did arise was after the Convention ended, and John Jay, who had not been present but who would later become the Supreme Court’s first chief justice, wanted to restrict participation in government by Catholics. Jay, descended from Huguenots who had been oppressed by the Catholic majority in France, was quickly persuaded to drop his objections.

The larger issue, however, is the tendency of many Americans these days, both in and out of politics but especially conservatives, to evoke the Constitution without having any idea what it says or does not say. Even worse, they use a document whose sole purpose was to guarantee freedoms to attempt to try to limit the freedoms of those with whom they disagree. The Constitution is imperfect, of course, and in practice has been used to validate some terrible injustices—slavery, the deportation of Japanese-Americans, or speech that some found politically offensive. But past sins in no way means that we should condescend to our worst instincts. The Constitution can also be a tool to create a society where any American can grow up to be president, even a former neurosurgeon who seems to have little respect for its spirit.

Which brings us to Carson’s second assertion on Sunday: that no follower of Islam should sit in the White House. The only possible justification he could have for such a sentiment is the belief that followers of Islam are inherently a security risk, because their first loyalty is to … what? The Islamic State, Saudi Arabia, some radical imam? Deportation of Japanese-Americans during World War II was undertaken for the same reason—that they would somehow be more loyal to the emperor than to the United States. It proved tragically and hideously inaccurate. No one fought with more valor than young Japanese-Americans in Italy whose families had been shunted off to concentration camps.

In the end, the argument is about whether the United States is everyone’s country or just certain people’s country. Dr. Carson once again raises the specter that, despite all evidence and jurisprudence to the contrary, America is a “Christian nation.” Those who take this stance seem to do so only on the basis that most, if not all, of the Founders were Christian, somewhat ironic because overwhelmingly they were, at best, lax in their beliefs. And it is no more accurate to say America is “Christian” because it happens to have a Christian majority than it is to say that America is “white” for the same reason.

“[I]n the view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens,” Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote in his stinging dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). “There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.” This is also true of religion, as everyone in America—and especially its political leaders—should understand by now. If candidates like Carson can’t be bothered to read and understand the 4,500 words that comprise our founding document, they should not be considered fit for the job that requires they defend it.

 

By: Lawrence Goldstone, Author of The Activist: John Marshall, Marbury v. Madison and the Myth of Judicial Review and Inherently Unequal; The New Republic, September 20, 2015

September 21, 2015 Posted by | Ben Carson, Muslims, U. S. Constitution | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Commemorations Of The Lost Cause”: A More Perfect Union Comes From Accounting For The Past

The Confederate markers continue to tumble — flags, statues, monuments. After Dylann Roof associated his alleged atrocity with the Confederacy, politicians fell over themselves getting away from its symbols.

While a few supporters of the Old Dixie are resolute, most leading public figures want nothing to do with commemorations of the Lost Cause. Indeed, once NASCAR declared that the St. Andrew’s cross and stars was not a fit emblem for its franchise — where that flag has been always been revered — the earth shook.

So after decades of protests over the Rebel flag and other Confederate insignia, which enjoyed prominent display in public spaces for much too long, that battle appears over. Progressives won in a rout.

But the war has only just begun. America has yet to come to terms with its original sin: slavery. Until we do, the removal of flags and statues remains a small gesture, a harbinger of a reckoning not yet come. Some 239 years after that awe-inspiring Declaration of Independence — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” — we are still in denial about the foundations upon which this republic was built.

Most high-school graduates can probably recite the bare outlines of the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise that allowed the delegates to the Constitutional Convention to adopt a founding document. That agreement counted each enslaved human being as three-fifths of a person.

(It remains a testament to the complex nature of the human enterprise that one of the greatest thinkers on liberty, Thomas Jefferson, owned slaves. When we speak of Jeffersonian democracy, what, exactly, do we mean?)

Some high-school grads may also be aware of the Dred Scott decision, rendered by the Supreme Court in 1857. It stated that even free black men had no rights that white men were bound to respect.

But here’s a fact you probably didn’t learn in your high-school history classes: Much of the wealth that the United States acquired early on was built on slavery, that ignominious institution in which one human being may own — own — another. As historian Eric Foner has put it: “The growth and prosperity of the emerging society of free colonial British America … were achieved as a result of slave labor.”

That wealth was not confined to the slave-owning South, either. Although the planters certainly owed most of their money to their unpaid laborers, Northern institutions also profited. Northern banks, insurance companies, and manufacturers all benefited — some more directly than others — from slave labor.

This is a great country, but it has a complicated history. The building of America was a violent, oppressive, and racist undertaking, not simply a virtuous tale of brave men breaking away from the overweening British Empire. The story of Colonists who were tired of paying high taxes on their imported tea is a well-told anecdote, but it neither begins nor ends a rather more painful narrative.

And enslaved Africans were not the only ones who suffered. Following the practices established by the European conquerors, the new government stole the best land from the Native Americans, consigning them to isolated corners of the country when it did not kill them outright.

Yet, our mythology and folklore acknowledge very little of that. That’s not in the stories we tell, the songs we sing, the poems we recite. It’s not only that history classes are haphazard and superficial, but also that our common tales are woven from misrepresentations, if not outright lies. Land of the free? Not at first.

Truth be told, history is a hard sell in these United States, no matter how it’s presented. We’re a moving-on people, hustling forward, closing the books, looking ahead. That has helped us in so many ways. Unlike, say, the Sunnis and Shiites in the Middle East, we don’t consume ourselves with arguments more than a millennium in the making.

Yet our failure to acknowledge a turbulent and cruel history is a hindrance, a barrier to a richer future. We can continue to perfect our union only through a full accounting of the past.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker, Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2007; The National Memo, July 4, 2015

July 7, 2015 Posted by | American History, Confederate Flag, Slavery | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Supreme Court’s Ruling Be Damned”: Ted Cruz Isn’t Taking The Marriage Ruling Well

At an event over the weekend, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) was asked about last week’s Supreme Court rulings on the Affordable Care Act and marriage equality. The right-wing Iowan, not surprisingly, wasn’t pleased, calling the court decisions “the heaviest one-two punch delivered against the Constitution and the American people that we’ve ever seen in the history of this country.”

Of course, Steve King is expected to say things like this. When presidential candidates go over the top in the same way, it’s a little more alarming. MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin reported:

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) went so far as to call for a constitutional convention to overturn the court’s decision while campaigning in Iowa, according to CNN. In an interview with Sean Hannity he called the back-to-back rulings on health care and gay marriage “some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history.”

Hannity, incidentally, found Cruz’s rhetoric quite compelling, responding, “I couldn’t say it more eloquently.”

For what it’s worth, it’s not hard to think of some genuinely tragic 24-hour periods in American history. The Lincoln assassination comes to mind. So does the time British troops burned the White House. There were days during the Civil War in which tens of thousands of Americans died on the battlefield. Just in the last century, we witnessed the JFK assassination, Pearl Harbor, and a corrupt president resign in disgrace.

For the Republican presidential hopeful, learning that Americans will have health benefits and loving couples will get married belongs on the same list.

To be sure, while much of the country will probably find that odd, it’s equally important to appreciate what Cruz intends to do with his outrage.

On the Affordable Care Act, the Texas senator will, naturally, continue to push a pointless repeal crusade. On marriage rights, Cruz intends to “focus on defending religious liberty by protecting those who act on their conscience and appointing judges who understand the limits placed on them by the Constitution.”

But it’s the Republican’s plans for the high court itself that stand out. The Huffington Post reported:

To challenge that “judicial activism,” Cruz said he is proposing a constitutional amendment to require Supreme Court justices to face retention elections every eight years. […]

Under Cruz’s proposed amendment, justices would have to be approved by a majority of American voters as well as by the majority of voters in least half of the states. If they failed to reach the required approval rating, they would be removed from office and barred from serving on the Supreme Court in the future.

Soon after, the senator said he “absolutely” believes county clerks in Texas should freely refuse marriage licenses to couples who wish to marry, the Supreme Court’s ruling be damned.

As ridiculous as Cruz’s posturing seems, it’s important to remember the broader context: national GOP candidates have a built-in incentive to be as hysterical as possible right now, in the hopes of currying favor with the party’s base. Mild, reasoned disappointment with the court doesn’t impress far-right activists; unrestrained, hair-on-fire apoplexy does.

Ted Cruz appears to understand this dynamic all too well.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, June 29, 2015

June 30, 2015 Posted by | Marriage Equality, SCOTUS, Ted Cruz | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Gun Laws And What The Second Amendment Intended”: When The NRA Didn’t Support Everything That Goes ‘Bang’!

As school shootings erupt with sickening regularity, Americans once again are debating gun laws. Quickly talk turns to the Second Amendment.

But what does it mean? History offers some surprises: It turns out in each era, the meaning is set not by some pristine constitutional text, but by the push and pull, the rough and tumble of public debate and political activism. And gun rights have always coexisted with responsibility.

At 27 words long, the provision is the shortest sentence in the U.S. Constitution. It reads: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

Modern readers squint at its stray commas and confusing wording. The framers believed in freedom to punctuate.

It turns out that to the framers, the amendment principally focused on those “well regulated militias.” These militias were not like anything we know now: Every adult man (eventually, every white man) served through their entire lifetime. They were actually required to own a gun, and bring it from home.

Think of the minutemen at Lexington and Concord, who did battle with the British army. These squads of citizen soldiers were seen as a bulwark against tyranny. When the Constitution was being debated, many Americans feared the new central government could crush the 13 state militias. Hence, the Second Amendment. It protected an individual right – to fulfill the public responsibility of militia service.

What about today’s gun-rights debates? Surprisingly, there is not a single word about an individual right to a gun for self-defense in the notes from the Constitutional Convention; nor with scattered exceptions in the transcripts of the ratification debates in the states; nor on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives as it marked up the Second Amendment, where every single speaker talked about the militia. James Madison’s original proposal even included a conscientious objector clause: “No person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.”

To be clear, there were plenty of guns in the founding era. Americans felt they had the right to protect themselves, especially in the home, a right passed down from England through common law. But there were plenty of gun laws, too. Boston made it illegal to keep a loaded gun in a home, due to safety concerns. Laws governed the location of guns and gunpowder storage. New York, Boston and all cities in Pennsylvania prohibited the firing of guns within city limits. States imposed curbs on gun ownership. People deemed dangerous were barred from owning weapons. Pennsylvania disarmed Tory sympathizers.

That balance continued throughout our history, even in the Wild West. A historic photo of Dodge City, Kansas, the legendary frontier town, shows a sign planted in the middle of its main street: “The Carrying of Fire Arms Strictly Prohibited.” Few thought the Constitution had much to say about it.

Through much of history, this balance evoked little controversy. Even the National Rifle Association embraced it. Today the NRA is known for harsh anti-government rhetoric, but it was started to train former Union soldiers in marksmanship. In the 1930s, the group testified for the first federal gun law. In 1968, its American Rifleman magazine told its readers the NRA “does not necessarily approve of everything that goes ‘Bang!’”

Of course, over the past three decades, the NRA shifted sharply. At the group’s 1977 annual meeting, still remembered as the “Revolt at Cincinnati,” moderate leaders were voted out and the organization was recast as a constitutional crusade.

Together with even more intense advocates, such as the Second Amendment Foundation, of Bellevue, Washington, they are quick to decry any gun laws as an assault on a core, sacred constitutional right. They waged a relentless constitutional campaign to change the way we see the amendment.

Remarkably, the first time the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment recognizes an individual right to gun ownership was in 2008. The decision, District of Columbia v. Heller, rang loudly. But a close read shows that Justice Antonin Scalia and his colleagues make the familiar point that gun rights and responsibilities go together. The court said that, like all constitutional rights, there could be limits. “Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms,” Scalia wrote.

That’s how judges have interpreted this constitutional right. Dozens of courts have examined gun laws since 2008. Overwhelmingly they have upheld them, despite the claims of gun-rights attorneys. Yes, there is an individual right to gun ownership — but with rights come responsibilities. Society, too, has a right to safety, and there is a compelling public interest in laws to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.

To be sure, the final scope of the constitutional provision has not been determined. The Supreme Court has not spoken again. It is infallible because it is final, as Justice Robert Jackson once wrote, not final because it is infallible. But the greatest controversy revolves around issues such as the rules for carrying a gun outside the home.

So what does the Second Amendment really mean? From the debate over the Constitution to today’s gun fights, the answer is really up to us, to the people. That answer changes over time. But one thing has remained surprisingly constant: Americans cherish freedom, but believe passionately that rights demand responsibilities. It’s hard to think of an area where that insight matters more than when it comes to ensuring that lethal weapons do not fall into the wrong hands.

 

By: Michael Waldman, President of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law; The National Memo, July 14, 2014

July 15, 2014 Posted by | Constitution, Gun Control, National Rifle Association | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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