Political Reform First

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Bernie Sanders has probably done more to promote social democracy in the U.S. than anyone since FDR. Or at least he has done more to develop an organized constituency in favor of a more equitable economy. On July 1 the Democratic Party released a draft 2016 platform that shows Sander’s influence in its call for a $15 minimum wage, expanded Social Security, universal health care, a financial transactions tax, breaking apart large banks, greater antitrust enforcement, a multimillionaire surtax, an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, free tuition at community colleges–and a desire to “create a financial system and an economy that works for all Americans, not just a handful of billionaires.”

But if there is any hope that the Sanders economic reform agenda will succeed, we first need political reform.

Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton and Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, shakes hands as they greet the audience before the audience before a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by MSNBC at the University of New Hampshire Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016, in Durham, N.H. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton and Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, shakes hands as they greet the audience before the audience before a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by MSNBC at the University of New Hampshire Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016, in Durham, N.H. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Critics contend that even if elected Sanders would not be able to enact his ambitious reform program. But the same is true for Hillary Clinton. In fact President Obama has had enormous difficulties enacting his more centrist agenda — even though he was twice elected with a majority of the vote.

That’s because Obama was fully in control of policy–in the sense of having a filibuster-proof majority in Congress–for only 60 days.  Obama’s major legislative achievement of his eight years in office, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, was a product of this narrow window. Bill Clinton never had a filibuster-proof majority, although Republicans were somewhat less obstructionist in that era. Both Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson had working Democratic majorities in Congress, but only when counting the votes of conservative Southern Democrats who frequently did not agree with the politics of the President (and who have since been completely replaced by conservative Southern Republicans).

Moreover, the Republicans in recent years have not been content to merely block legislation and appointments through filibusters and holds, but have also sought to extract concessions based on threats to send the government into default by withholding approval of a debt ceiling increase or by closing down the government by failing to enact appropriation bills.

Further, until Justice Scalia’s death in February 2016, Obama’s legislation was subject to veto by the 5-vote conservative majority in the Supreme Court, which has become a de facto super-legislature.

And if Hillary Clinton is President in 2017, she will likely confront the same problems. It should be apparent by now that even if Republicans cannot win a national majority at the polls they will use all available tools to thwart the majority. Thus the Democrats must focus on removing as many levers of minority rule as possible.

First, if the Democrats win a majority of the Senate in 2016, the very first action of the new Senate must be to eliminate Rule XX, which requires 60 votes to end any debate and thus to pass legislation. The filibuster, which only dates to 1917 and only from 1975 in its current form, has become so routine that the media routinely refers to the “required 60 votes” as if this super-majority were enshrined in the Constitution. It’s not.

Having eliminated the filibuster, the Democrats will be able to fill Scalia’s vacant seat on the Supreme Court, as well as other vacancies that may occur. Further, this will enable Clinton to promptly fill her executive appointments that are subject to Senate confirmation, and also to fill the many vacancies in the Federal judiciary below the Supreme Court.

Even if the Trump campaign proves to be a disaster for other Republicans candidates, it is unlikely that the Democrats will regain a majority in the U.S. House. On its face this is odd because all House members will be elected this year, compared to only 1/3 of the Senate. However, because of the way district lines are drawn, Democrats would need nearly 57% of the national vote in order to capture a majority of House seats. In fact, in the 2012 elections, Democrats received a million more votes than Republicans but captured only 46% of seats.

In 2008, with the onset of the Great Recession under the watch of Republican George W. Bush, Democrats received 53% of the vote–and 53.5% of the seats, under the previous district boundaries. The last time the Democrats received 57% of the popular vote in House elections was in 1974, following the Watergate scandal that brought down Republican President Nixon. Ten years earlier, in 1964, the Democrats matched this percent as Republicans ran the overwhelmingly unpopular Barry Goldwater for President.

With a working majority in Congress, Democrats should take the opportunity to eliminate the debt ceiling, so Republicans will never again be able to use that wholly obsolete and unnecessary provision as a club to win concessions.

Even if the Democrats are able to take control of the government (Presidency, House, Senate, Supreme Court) in 2017, they may not be able to hold it long. Unlike virtually all other democracies, we hold national legislative elections every two years. But most people don’t vote in midterm elections: 1914 was the last time at least 50% of the electorate voted in a non-Presidential year. Turnout in 2012 was only 36%, the lowest since the war year of 1942.  The drop-off in turnout in midyear elections is not random, but systematically works to the Republican’s advantage. Turnout increases with voter age and income. One reason is that young people move more often and are less likely to own a house–and are therefore less likely to remember to register to vote (at a new address) at least three weeks prior to the election (as is required except in the 8 states that permit election day registration, and which as a result have significantly higher turnout). Thanks to favorable Supreme Court rulings, Republicans are pursuing an agenda of providing additional barriers to vote such as voter ID requirements and reducing options for early voting.

The draft Democratic Party platform has this to say about voting rights:

Our democracy suffers when nearly two thirds of our citizens do not or cannot participate, as in the last midterm elections. Democrats believe we must make it easier to vote not harder. We must restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. We will bring our democracy into the 21st century by expanding early voting and vote-by-mail, implementing universal automatic voter registration, same day voting, ending partisan and racial gerrymandering, and making Election Day a national holiday. We will restore voting rights for those who have served their sentences. And we will continue to fight against discriminatory voter identification laws, which disproportionately burden young voters, diverse communities, people of color, low-income families, people with disabilities, the elderly, and women. Republicans have enacted various voter suppression tactics from Ohio to Florida, and while some Federal Courts have found that these measures go too far, Democrats will continue to fight these laws to preserve the fundamental right to vote. As Democrats, we support efforts to defeat ill-motivated voter suppression tactics. We support Ohio’s proposed Voters Bill of Rights amendment, North Carolina’s Moral Monday movement, and similar initiatives to permanently safeguard this inalienable right.

If the Democrats have the ability to pass legislation in 2017, they really need to both promote democracy and secure their own political future by passing a Federal Elections Act, which would for the first time create uniform national electoral rules for Federal elections. Although such a move would be denounced as radical and revolutionary by the Republicans, Congress has the necessary authority: according to the Supreme Court, the Constitution “invests the States with responsibility for the mechanics of congressional elections, but only so far as Congress declines to pre-empt state legislative choices. Thus it is well settled that the Elections Clause grants Congress ‘the power to override state regulations’ by establishing uniform rules for federal elections, binding on the States.” (Foster v. Love, emphasis added).

My proposed Federal Elections Act would create a non-partisan, professional Federal Elections Agency (to replace the bipartisan, dysfunctional Federal Elections Commission) that would:

  • create a national voter registry, with names to be placed automatically on the list via Postal Service records and IRS lists;
  • create a website where citizens can check and correct their registration status;
  • make voting easier by moving election day to a weekend, or providing national early voting, or postal voting;
  • provide national same-day registration (in the form of a provisional ballot, as is currently required by Federal law when registration cannot be located)
  • draw fair district boundaries;
  • eliminate arbitrary identification requirements (although a national voter ID card could be provided, without charge, to all citizens to expedite, but not prevent, voting);
  • provide equal ballot access to all political parties, both existing and new, using the same criteria (such as a deposit refundable if 1% percent of the vote is achieved);
  • require ranked choice voting so that winning will require majority support and having more than two candidates on the ballot will not “spoil” the election;
  • eliminate state-run primary elections, which will be made superfluous by the previous reform.

All of these measures will be discussed in future blog posts. Some of them are already on the progressive agenda, but many are not (yet). If all are implemented, we could see a dramatically changed political environment where Sanders supporters will have candidates to vote for — candidates who have a real chance of winning — in every election, and where issues of economic democracy (or any other concern of large groups of voters, for that matter) will not be ignored.

If the Democrats are able to put in place uniform, fair national voting rules in time for the 2018 midterm elections, they might be able to prevent turnout from dropping so much that they lose their majority.

Democrats also face structural obstacles in the Senate, which gives representation to rocks and trees rather than people. Following the 2014 elections, Democrats in the Senate represent 53% of the population, but only have 48% of the Senators (including the two independents who caucus with the Democrats). Changing the Senate to follow the “one person one vote rule” (which the Supreme Court made part of the Constitution in 1964) is impossible since the Constitution states that “no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate” (this is the only part of the document that cannot be amended). However, it is possible to create new states. The draft 2016 Democratic Platform calls for D.C. statehood (however this would probably require a Constitutional amendment, which makes is a non-starter). The platform also calls for self-determination for Puerto Rico, which could also mean statehood–and likely more members of the Democratic caucus in both the Senate and the House.

Another way to change the political composition of the Senate is to subdivide existing states (which has previously occurred in the cases of Kentucky, Maine, and West Virginia). The most obvious candidate is California, which with almost 39 million people is the most populous state by a wide margin (the next largest is Texas, with 26 million). With 22 million people in the 10 southern counties, Southern California would rank as the second largest state while the remaining 48 counties of Northern California would rank as the 5th largest state. Dividing California was seriously considered in the decade after statehood, and recently a proposal was introduced to divide it into six states. With full Democratic control of Congress, subdivision of California is politically feasible, since it requires approval only of the state (under solid Democratic control) and Congress. It is likely that both halves of a divided California would have safe Democratic majorities, this electing two more Democratic senators, which would not only be a boon for the Democrats but also for democracy.

So, Sanderistas, this year, voting for all Democratic candidates in November is an essential prerequisite for restarting the much-delayed progressive agenda, establishing majority rule in Congress, and avoiding a Supreme Court dominated by Trump appointees that could thwart majority rule for the next 30 years (as it has done in the past).

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