Congressional Drug Pricing Strategy Begins to Emerge

Polls indicate high prescription drug prices are a top congressional priority for a majority of Americans. The Senate Finance Committee held a high-profile hearing to pummel pharmaceutical executives for price gouging. Now the House Energy and Commerce Committee is expected to advance two bills aimed at anticompetitive actions that block or delay the introduction of lower-cost generic drugs, which will be a prelude to a later, more controversial effort to allow Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices.

Polls indicate high prescription drug prices are a top congressional priority for a majority of Americans. The Senate Finance Committee held a high-profile hearing to pummel pharmaceutical executives for price gouging. Now the House Energy and Commerce Committee is expected to advance two bills aimed at anticompetitive actions that block or delay the introduction of lower-cost generic drugs, which will be a prelude to a later, more controversial effort to allow Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices.

The Senate Finance Committee pummeled seven pharmaceutical executives a week ago about price gouging. Next week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee begins considering two bills to lower drug prices that may attract bipartisan and bicameral support.

The House bills are the CREATES Act and “pay for delay” legislation. Both aim to limit anticompetitive actions by pharmaceutical companies to block or delay introduction of lower-cost generic versions of their brand name drugs.

A version of the CREATES (Creating and Restoring Equal Access to Equivalent Samples) Act passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last summer on a solid bipartisan vote. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the legislation, if passed into law, could save consumers and private insurers billions of dollars, while also contributing to reduce the federal budget deficit.

“The bipartisan CREATES Act is a free-market solution that respects intellectual property rights and encourages greater competition that will inevitably lower the price of prescription medications for the American patient,” Iowa GOP Senator Charles Grassley said. 

The “pay for delay” legislation also has a Senate counterpart introduced last December by Grassley and Minnesota Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar, who is a 2020 presidential candidate. The measure seeks to limit pharmaceutical companies from striking deals to prevent or delay biosimilar and interchangeable biologics to generic versions.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has made the issue of high-cost drugs a legislative priority, believes it is smart strategy to get a couple of wins before tackling the more controversial issue of allowing Medicare to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies. Her strategy of starting small is a reflection of the political clout drug companies have on Capitol Hill.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, the Ranking Democrat on Senate Finance, took the lead last week in lambasting pharmaceutical company executives as “morally repugnant” for their inability to explain why prescription drugs are more expensive in the United States than overseas. “You’re willing to sit by and hose the American consumer while giving price breaks to consumers overseas,” Wyden said. 

Independent healthcare analyst Joshua Cohen, writing for Forbes, said drug companies aren’t entirely to blame. He explained that health plans, pharmacy benefit managers and employer health insurance sponsors negotiate sizable rebates on listed drug prices. Insureds don’t always see the benefits of those rebates, Cohen added, because their coinsurance is based on the list price, not the lower rebate price. The result, he said, is a “public outcry aimed at the drug companies for high prices.”

“To be constructive, [Congress] should not only probe the pricing of prescription drugs by pharmaceutical manufacturers, it should also investigate the billing and pricing practices of hospitals, physicians, and insurers. Ultimately the problems related to the relentless rise of overall healthcare costs are not going to be solved by putting blinders on and solely targeting the pharmaceutical industry,” Cohen concluded.

While high drug prices may be the result of a complex set of circumstances, Bloomberg says the underlying truth is that Americans pay more per capita for prescription drugs than anyone else in the world.

While high drug prices may be the result of a complex set of circumstances, Bloomberg says the underlying truth is that Americans pay more per capita for prescription drugs than anyone else in the world.

Bloomberg story last month summarized the issue simply. “Americans spend more on prescription drugs – average costs are about $1,200 per person per year – than anyone else in the world. It’s true that they take a lot of pills. But what really sets the United States apart from most other countries is high prices. Cancer drugs in the United States routinely cost $10,000 a month. Even prices for old drugs have spiked, as companies have bought up medicines that face no competition and boosted charges.” 

Sensing congressional action is at hand, pharmaceutical companies are taking actions or expressing a willingness to do so. Eli Lilly announced it will sell a cheaper generic version of its rapid-action Humalog insulin.

"We don't want anyone to ration or skip doses of insulin due to affordability. And no one should pay the full Humalog retail price," Eli Lilly Chairman and CEO Dave Ricks said. He described the generic drug as "a bridge that addresses gaps in the current system until we have a more sustainable model."

Senate Breaks Century-Old Precedent in Approving Seattle Judge

Seattle attorney Eric Miller was confirmed this week to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals over the objections of Washington’s two Democratic senators, breaking a precedent dating back a century and foreshadowing a continuing attempt by President Trump to place more conservative judges on the federal bench. [Photo Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo]

Seattle attorney Eric Miller was confirmed this week to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals over the objections of Washington’s two Democratic senators, breaking a precedent dating back a century and foreshadowing a continuing attempt by President Trump to place more conservative judges on the federal bench. [Photo Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo]

A Seattle-based Assistant US Attorney was confirmed this week by the Senate to a lifetime appointment on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. It was the first time in a century that a federal judge was confirmed without the endorsement of at least one US senator from the nominee’s home state.

Eric Miller, 43, a presidential nominee who formerly clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, was confirmed on a party-line vote over the objections of Washington Democratic Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell. They declined to return “blue slips” indicating support for Miller because of what they called his “hostility toward tribal rights.” Murray and Cantwell also complained Miller’s confirmation hearing was a sham because it was scheduled during a Senate recess and only two Republican senators attended.

Last summer, the White House withdrew a similar nomination of Assistant US Attorney for Oregon Ryan Bounds over objections by Oregon’s Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley. The Bounds’ nomination to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was withdrawn after Republican Senators Tim Scott and Marco Rubio refused to vote for his confirmation. 

Placing conservatives on federal courts, especially the liberal-leaning 23-judge Ninth Circuit, has been a political goal of President Trump’s administration. Trump has often complained about unfriendly, liberal and “Obama” judges that have imposed legal impediments to his policy initiatives such as a Muslim travel ban and family separation on the US-Mexican border.

Ironically, Republican senators used the “blue-slip” prerogative to veto Obama judicial nominees. Under Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate rules on judicial appointments were changed to allow simple majorities, instead of the previous 60-vote threshold, to confirm federal judges. Ignoring the absence of “blue slips” is another step down a slippery path of politicizing federal judicial confirmations.

Murray called the confirmation of Miller a “dangerous first.” Cantwell said it set a “damaging precedent.” California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told The Washington Post, “It is regrettable and likely will result in more ideological nominees who don’t reflect the values of their home states. It’s hard to not see this action coming back to bite Republicans when they’re no longer in power in the Senate.”

On the Senate floor, Murray charged, “Abandoning the blue slip process and instead, bending to the will of a president who has demonstrated time and time again his ignorance and disdain for the Constitution and the rule of law is a mistake.” She noted Miller’s confirmation hearing included less than five minutes of questioning – “less questioning for a lifetime appointment than most students face for a book report.” 

According to Roll Call, more nominees are in the wings that lack endorsement by home-state senators in New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island. “I think it’s going to be very hard for folks who allowed the blue slip to evaporate to complain if wonderful New York judges start getting appointed into South Carolina, or Nebraska, or Louisiana or other places, because you’ve disarmed the one thing that gives you the ability to do something about that,” Rhode Island Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse told Roll Call.

McConnell praised Miller, who holds undergraduate degree from Harvard and a law degree from the University of Chicago. During his abbreviated confirmation hearing, Miller said as a US solicitor general he has argued a case before the Supreme Court defending tribal lands. Subsequently in private practice, he said he represented a client that opposed tribal interests. He described his previous roles as an advocate “not to advance my own views but to advance my client’s views.”  

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham said the blue slip tradition is more of a courtesy than a veto. Graham did say it was his intention to retain the blue slip process for US District Court judicial appointments.

 

Wyden Comments on Green New Deal, China Trade and Tax Breaks

In an expansive interview with the  Portland Business Journal , Oregon Senator Ron Wyden defended the Green New Deal, questioned the effectiveness of tariffs to influence China trade policy and urged the IRS to waive penalties for federal income taxpayers who failed to withhold enough for their 2018 taxes.

In an expansive interview with the Portland Business Journal, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden defended the Green New Deal, questioned the effectiveness of tariffs to influence China trade policy and urged the IRS to waive penalties for federal income taxpayers who failed to withhold enough for their 2018 taxes.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden defended the Green New Deal, questioned tariffs on China trade and touted legislation to unmask shell company ownership in an expansive interview with the Portland Business Journal published this week.

Oregon’s senior senator also urged the Trump administration to waive IRS penalties on taxpayers who failed to withhold enough money to cover their 2018 income tax and called for a review to determine if opportunity zones are being used as intended to encourage investment in impoverished areas.

Wyden called criticism of the Green New Deal “nonsense.” “It is a resolution. It is aspirational, not a legislative text,” he said. Wyden, who is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said he is looking at “throwing more than 40 separate tax breaks for energy…, which are basically dirty energy relics that cost billions of dollars a year, into the trashcan and substituting three new ones: one for clear energy, one for clean transportation and one for energy efficiency.”

On trade with China, Wyden said there is agreement “tariffs should be part of the trade toolbox, but we don’t share the view that every time there’s an issue, you drop another tariff. It has not worked particularly well with China.” He said strong measures are necessary to stop China from “ripping off our technology.”

Wyden said bipartisan support is growing for legislation he and Florida GOP Senator Marco Rubio have introduced to require shell companies to disclose their beneficial owners. Failing to require ownership disclosure, he explained, would mean “you’re playing catch-up ball.”

Taxpayers who face penalties for their 2018 federal income taxes deserve a break, Wyden said, because the IRS didn’t properly update its withholding tables and forced taxpayers to deal with “complicated online calculator, which had its own problems.” He added that multinational corporations “are not sweating it today [because] they’ve got their tax breaks locked in.”

Wyden agreed a review is needed to see if opportunity zone tax incentives are being mis-applied. PBJ reporter Matthew Kish noted Oregon has used an expansive definition for opportunity zones, which include Portland’s downtown area, prompting Bloomberg  Businessweek to call it “Tax Breaklandia

Wyden said the goal of his Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act is to “promote innovation and focus on small guys.” He also touted his ELEVATE Act that aims to “connect the dots” between training dislocated workers for thousands of available jobs.

In upcoming days, Wyden said the Senate Finance Committee will invite seven CEOs from major pharmaceutical companies at a hearing to “get an agreement to stop some price-gouging.” “What I want to know is whether they're going to get beyond the blame game. Everything they always do with respect to pharmaceutical prices and health care costs generally is blaming the other guy,” he said.

 

Green New Deal is More of a Signal Than a Statute

The optics were unmistakable. A 29-year-old freshman member of Congress was a leading voice at the introduction of the Green New Deal resolution, which has little chance of passage, but presages an important political moment when the fears and wishes of a younger generation push up against the pessimism and patronization of an older generation in politics.

The optics were unmistakable. A 29-year-old freshman member of Congress was a leading voice at the introduction of the Green New Deal resolution, which has little chance of passage, but presages an important political moment when the fears and wishes of a younger generation push up against the pessimism and patronization of an older generation in politics.

The Green New Deal resolution just introduced in Congress is less a plan of action and more a barometer of a new political wind.

The incoming Democratic majority in the House radiates the energy and activism of younger voters who will face the perils of climate change and are demanding bold action now. The Green New Deal is the Democratic response.

The incoming Democratic majority in the House radiates the energy and activism of younger voters who will face the perils of climate change and are demanding bold action now.

Because the Senate remains in Republican control and the White House is occupied by someone who denies the science of climate change, Democrats can only point to policies that wean America off fossil fuels and accelerate a renewable energy future. It will be up to states such as Oregon, where Democrats are in solid control, to advance specific climate change legislation, whether in the form of a carbon tax or cap-and-trade regime.

The optics of the Green New Deal nonbinding resolution’s introduction were unmistakable. Long-time environmental crusader Ed Markey, D-Mass, shared the platform with freshman phenom Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Markey said, “Our energy future will not be found in the dark of a mine, but in the light of the sun.” Ocasio-Cortez added, “All great American programs, everything from The Great Society to the New Deal, started with a vision for our future.”

Critics called the plan unrealistic, lacking in specifics and too costly. They said advocates of the Green New Deal need to do a “whole lot more homework.” To youthful supporters, the criticism sounds a lot like patronizing parental pessimism.

Ocasio-Cortez shot back: “For 40 years we have tried to let the private sector take care of this. They said, 'We got this, we can do this, the forces of the market are going to force us to innovate.' Except for the fact that there’s a little thing in economics called externalities. And what that means is that a corporation can dump pollution in the river and they don’t have to pay, but taxpayers have to pay."

To be sure, there would be huge technical and significant economic challenges to reach a zero-carbon target in 10 years. For example, cars are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, but many people hold onto their cars as long as 10 years. One of the biggest sources of methane emissions are cows.

"Even the solutions that we have considered big and bold are nowhere near the scale of the actual problem that climate change presents to us," Ocasio-Cortez told NPR's Steve Inskeep.

Youthful supporters are undaunted by those challenges. Sunrise Movement held a web meeting with supporters from all over the country and pledged to amp up lobbying for the Green New Deal during February. One of the group’s leaders said sit-ins may occur in the offices of Members of Congress who don’t endorse the Green New Deal.

But “old-timers” chimed in, too. “The Green New Deal resolution is essential in building and sustaining momentum to deal with the climate crisis,” Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer wrote his constituents. “Its message is one of ambitious, achievable and necessary hope. That’s why I’m excited to partner with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to help write this resolution and define its goals for this Congress.”

Congressional insiders recognize the Green New Deal won’t move in any significant way in this Congress. What they miss is that Ocasio-Cortez is a Member of Congress with a voting card and someone with an outsized following on Twitter who is driving the progressive political agenda. The only US political figure with more Twitter interactions if President Trump.

“When a 29-year-old former bartender of Puerto Rican descent beats a senior Democratic leader of the House, and then proceeds to set the political agenda during her first week in office, it’s more than a cute social media story," wrote Antonio Garcia Martinez in Wired. “She’s a harbinger of a new American political reality.”

This is what separates the Green New Deal from other legislative initiatives. It has become a generational anthem, not just a piece of legislation.

 

State of the Union or Start of the 2020 Campaign?

President Trump delivered his State of the Union speech with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi peering over his shoulder. The speech offered a few olive branches to Democrats, but had the feel of a Trump campaign rally with applause and chants, making it seem like the official start of the 2020 presidential campaign.

President Trump delivered his State of the Union speech with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi peering over his shoulder. The speech offered a few olive branches to Democrats, but had the feel of a Trump campaign rally with applause and chants, making it seem like the official start of the 2020 presidential campaign.

Was President Trump’s speech Tuesday night the state of the union or the start of the 2020 presidential campaign? Most observers think it was the latter.

Trump opened the speech with a rosy rendition of the US economy and declared the state of the nation as good. From there, he spent more than an hour hitting his favorite campaign themes – a border wall, limits on abortion, bringing troops home and preventing the spread of socialism.

He offered some olive branches to Democrats for bipartisan cooperation on an infrastructure investment package, steps to reduce prescription drug prices, ending HIV, fighting childhood cancer and protecting people with pre-existing health conditions. But the largest chunk of his 80-minute speech was devoted to immigration, once more stoking fear about caravans careening their way to the vulnerable US-Mexico border. Trump described the trail of sexual abuse women and children endure in their asylum-seeking journey and implied a border wall would prevent that abuse by discouraging them from taking the trip. And he introduced family members of victims allegedly killed by illegal immigrants and announced he was sending more US troops to the border.

The new divided-government dynamic was on full display as Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s facial expressions, which included a few eye rolls and head shakes, loomed over Trump’s shoulder as he spoke. He drew the most disapproving look when he complained about “ridiculous partisan investigations.” Pelosi gave Trump what may be described as sarcastic hand clap when he mentioned pre-existing conditions. In comments the day after of the speech, Pelosi said Trump’s reference to investigations was an “all-out threat.” A presidential historian noted President Nixon called for an end of the Watergate investigation in his state of the union speech just months before his resignation in the face of almost-certain impeachment.

Unlike his previous state of the union speech, the House chamber was filled with a lot more Democrats. A significant chunk of the Democratic caucus seated immediately in front of the podium were newly elected congresswomen wearing white in honor of suffragettes. Trump drew a hearty round of applause when he noted there was a historic number of women seated in Congress this term. The white-clad and highly diverse group stood and chanted “USA,” in a not-so-subtle rejoinder to an earlier GOP caucus chant when Trump talked about his border wall.

The evening had the feel of a one-sided political debate with an audience teeming with declared or soon-to-declare Democratic presidential candidates. Cameras repeatedly panned the room to capture reactions to the speech by Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker who have declared their 2020 candidacies and Senators Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar who are expected to enter the race. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, also a declared candidate, witnessed the speech. 

The campaign rally feel was underscored by repeated standing ovations, mostly by Republicans. The campaign-leaning focus of the speech could be measured in what Trump didn’t talk about, including the 35-day partial federal government shutdown that polls indicate voters hold him largely accountable. He also didn’t mention his administration’s controversial policies about separating families seeking asylum at the border or his cross-wise relationship with his own US intelligence officials. There were relatively few specific proposals.

Trump’s biggest stretch of the truth was his claim that his election was all that stood between a major war with North Korea. He took credit for improved relations and said he and Kim Jong-un would hold a second summit in late February in Vietnam. The results from the first summit remain in doubt. 

The lengthy Trump speech pushed the Democratic response, given by former Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, into the late hours of the evening. Abrams gave a spirited 10-minute rebuttal that touched on Democratic priorities – support for families, economic security and ballot fairness. Sanders, Harris and potential presidential candidate Joe Biden gave their own responses to Trump’s speech, reinforcing the picture of an early 2020 political face-off. 

Another clue to the political backdrop of the presidential speech and Democratic rebuttal was the specter of fact-checking. NPR fact-checked both – Trump and Abrams.

 

Historically Significant Leaders Guide Senate, House

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have already cemented their congressional legacies. Now those legacies may be tested as they face another deadline to forge a border security compromise that can pass Congress and President Trump will accept, avoiding another potential government shutdown.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have already cemented their congressional legacies. Now those legacies may be tested as they face another deadline to forge a border security compromise that can pass Congress and President Trump will accept, avoiding another potential government shutdown.

We may be witnessing historically significant congressional leaders in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. What they do next in response to continuing demands by President Trump to fund his controversial border wall may affect their legacies.

History-making by McConnell, the Republican, and Pelosi, the Democrat, is as different as night-and-day and as the Senate and the House. Pelosi is known for muscling major legislation on health care and consumer protection through Congress. McConnell’s legacy is laying the groundwork for a GOP agenda outside Congress in the scores of conservative judges he has ushered through the Senate. 

The New York Times Magazine featured McConnell over the weekend, noting he recognized the parliamentary obstacles in the Senate to passing any kind of major legislation, so he turned his focus on federal judgeships. He has steered through two new Supreme Court justices and 83 lower-court judges. And he famously blocked the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland during President Obama’s last year in office.

“When Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court on October 6, after McConnell played a key role in ushering him through a month of arguments over and investigations into allegations of sexual assault, the scope of the majority leader’s influence on American governance snapped into focus.”

A similar epiphany occurred when Pelosi stared down Trump over his demand for funding for his border wall that led to a record-shattering five-week partial federal government shutdown. Pelosi was hailed by supporters and critics alike as the most powerful female elected official in America.

McConnell is following in the tracks of legendary Senate majority leaders such as Lyndon Johnson, who passed the first modern-day civil rights bills in 1957 and 1960 and Mike Mansfield, the longest-serving majority leader who steered through the more famous Voting Rights and Civil Rights legislation, as well creation of Medicare and Medicaid as part of Johnson’s Great Society.

While McConnell admires Mansfield, NYT magazine says, “McConnell is the first majority leader whose career has been built on the assumption that the Senate could produce the great legislative works of his predecessors is a thing of the past.” 

He is partially responsible for his own view. As minority leader and then majority leader during the Obama presidency, McConnell was a fortress of obstruction. Or as NYT Magazine described it, “He fashioned himself as the essential impediment to Obama’s vision of a sequel to the Great Society, using tactics that were once the province of Senate factions as a strategic blueprint for the entire Republican caucus.” 

McConnell admits to being an obstructionist. “Far be it from me to complain about obstruction when I’ve been involved in it,” he said. McConnell justifies his obstruction by adding, “There was a point to it.”

His obstruction stretched beyond Obama-backed legislation to include blocking a pre-2016 election warning about Russian interference. Armed with US intelligence about Russian meddling, Obama said he would only release the information if all four of the Senate and House caucus leaders agreed to avoid any appearance of politicizing the intelligence data. House Speaker Paul Ryan, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer agreed. McConnell said no. 

McConnell may seem an unlikely obstructionist-in-chief. Not especially photogenic or charismatic, McConnell has used “this blankness to his advantage, made it a carrier for designs greater than himself.” NYT Magazine reports McConnell was willing to take positions viewed as politically distasteful such as opposing campaign finance reform with a “shrugging willingness to play a villain when a villain was required.”

Pelosi is a more electric figure. She is the first woman elected House Speaker, the first woman to lead a party in Congress and the first Speaker to lose, then win back the position since Sam Rayburn in 1955. Her leadership in the 2018 midterm election resulted in a record-setting number of women winning election to Congress. All that cements her legacy as a historical congressional figure.

She is best known – and most often demonized – by her leadership in passing the Affordable Care Act without a single Republican vote. A Republican congressional observed her effort “as masterful a piece of legislating as I have ever seen.”

Her relentless drive to push a progressive agenda, which included a climate change bill, gets part of the blame for the GOP congressional takeover in the 2010 midterm election. 

Pelosi became Speaker in 2007 toward the end of President George W. Bush’s second term and growing public frustration with the Iraq war, which she opposed, and deepening economic recession. In the face of potential economic collapse, Pelosi mustered the needed votes for a Wall Street bailout plan in the House. 

Her steadfast opposition has posed an insurmountable obstacle, at least so far, to Trump’s border wall. Her hardball tactic of denying Trump a congressional stage during the prolonged government shutdown underscored her image as a “force of nature.” Or as Pelosi herself observed about Trump that he may unfamiliar dealing with “women in power.” [After the shutdown ended, Pelosi extended an invitation to Trump to give his State of the Union speech on February 5.]

Congress faces a three-week deadline to resolve the border security issue. Trump has resumed his demand for $5.7 for the border wall, threatening to block any legislation without it and declaring a national emergency. 

There is a bipartisan consensus in the congressional shadows that would agree to $5.7 billion or more for border technology, additional border agents, modernized ports of entry and increased Coast Guard drug interdictions. A sliver of money might even be included for physical barriers where appropriate, but not the full-fledged border wall Trump wants. 

That presages another showdown and potential shutdown, even though the one that just ended cost the nation an estimated $11 billion in lost economic activity and $3 billion in federal revenue, not to mention stress and loss of morale for federal workers who went without pay for a month. 

The odds in the showdown may be in favor of Pelosi whose approval rate has soared while Trump’s have sagged.

This time around, the fate of border security and heading off another punishing government shutdown may revolve around the historically significant figures who lead the Senate and the House. It could boil down to a battle between a skilled obstructionist and an equally skilled legislative tactician with their legacies on the line. Or, it could blossom improbably into a bicameral, bipartisan push-back for a troubled President. That certainly would be history-making for both.

 

Brexit, Border Wall Throttle Leading Democracies, Delighting Putin

Britain’s inability to negotiate an exit from the European Union and President Trump’s inability to win funding for his promised border wall have left the world’s two largest democracies in political limbo, to the apparent delight of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Despite enormous economic consequences, a smooth Brexit and an early end of the partial US government shutdown seem out of reach.

Britain’s inability to negotiate an exit from the European Union and President Trump’s inability to win funding for his promised border wall have left the world’s two largest democracies in political limbo, to the apparent delight of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Despite enormous economic consequences, a smooth Brexit and an early end of the partial US government shutdown seem out of reach.

Maybe it is coincidence or a case of bad karma extending across the pond as the United States and United Kingdom find themselves in shutdown mode – with seemingly no clue how to escape, despite enormous economic consequences.

The partial federal government shutdown is simple to understand. President Trump wants $5.7 billion for a border barrier and Democrats refuse, calling it wasteful spending on an ineffective deterrent to illegal immigration.

Trump has said the budget stalemate could be resolved in 15 minutes, which is true. The Democrat-led House has passed a nearly identical spending bill to what the Senate approved unanimously last year after Trump signaled his support. Then Trump changed his mind and demanded border wall money. He has refused to budge, other than to acquiesce to a steel instead of concrete barrier.

Federal employees and contractors caught in the cross-hairs of the border wall fight have been furloughed, forced to work without pay, not paid or encouraged to find new jobs. National parks have closed, airport security lines have lengthened and farmers haven’t gotten their subsidies to compensate for losses they incurred from the Trump trade war. Pre-season forest thinning and hurricane forecasting has been disrupted. A workplace training session for Oregon lawmakers was postponed. Federal income tax refunds could be delayed. 

As bad as all that is, it may pale in comparison to Britain’s predicament. The British Parliament on Tuesday rejected the Brexit deal that took Prime Minister Theresa May two years to negotiate with her reticent European Union counterparts. The 432-202 parliamentary defeat of the May Brexit plan is the most lopsided loss for a sitting government in British history.

Britain faces a March 29 deadline to withdraw from the EU. May, who survived a no-confidence vote by her own Conservative Party last year and faces another one by an opposition party, was given until next Monday to come up with a plan.

Unlike the US government shutdown that is stuck on a single issue, the UK is trying to disengage from an alliance. It is similar to a state like California trying to secede from the United States.

May faces a Rubix Cube of options, none of which is very promising. EU leaders have shown little inclination to grant further concessions to Britain. Asking the British people to vote a second time on Brexit risks having a second vote in favor of the pullout, with no more clarity on how to achieve it. Extending the deadline for the EU exit without a consensus game plan would be like a prisoner asking for more torture.  

That leaves Britain with the somber prospect of slipping out of the EU without a deal and without substitute bilateral trade deals with key trading partners such as the United States. The plan-less exit also would pose serious internal problems, such as how to manage the border between Ireland, which would still be in the EU, and Northern Ireland, which wouldn’t. This is a border that has a troubled history as a true humanitarian crisis. Many worry it could return to that troubled history.

From a wider angle, this is an awkward time for the world’s two leading democracies to indulge in self-inflicted combat. As one veteran traveler told a news reporter, this is bad time to visit either the United States or Britain because both appear to be in the middle of civil wars. Add to that the yellow vest protests that have rocked France and what you see is not a pretty picture of economic, social or political stability.

British unrest stems from a nationalist drive to maintain Britain’s sovereignty. French discontent pivots on restive attitudes about persistent income inequality. The US stand-off centers on an unmet campaign promise.

The US political stalemate would seem the easiest to resolve, but has been elevated to a larger political battlefield. Supporters have warned Trump, who brags about his deal-making prowess, that his presidency could effectively end if he fails to get money for the border wall. The newly elected Democratic majority in the House is disinclined to toll over to Trump demands. Trump’s threat of a presidential declaration of emergency that would go around Congress to find the money to build the border wall could trigger a constitutional crisis.

What seems missing in the United States and Britain is a sense of the bigger picture – a more aggressive Russia, China’s ascendancy as a world power and the rise of right-wing authoritarian governments. Any one of these could be the tinder box that sparks a major conflict engulfing the bickering and compromised democratic powers. It has happened before when there have been voids in international leadership.

Commentators are beginning to point to Russia as a culprit in both seasons of discontent. Sowing division among the major world democracies is a much cheaper foreign policy than a military build-up, and perhaps a defter strategy to undermine NATO, a major objective for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The shadow of Russia will grow longer as Special Counsel Robert Mueller moves to wrap up his investigation into Russian election meddling and potential collusion with the Trump campaign in 2016.

Whatever the reasons, there is no doubt Brexit and the border wall stalemates are causing economic pain, with little relief in sight.

 

Carter Offers New Year Advice on China Relationship

Former President Jimmy Carter offers advice on how to avoid a cold war with China based on his experience 40 years ago normalizing diplomatic relations with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping that led the two countries to “become engines of global prosperity.”

Former President Jimmy Carter offers advice on how to avoid a cold war with China based on his experience 40 years ago normalizing diplomatic relations with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping that led the two countries to “become engines of global prosperity.”

With all the division in Washington, DC, former President Jimmy Carter offered some useful historical perspective on how to find common ground with China, as opposed to putting a “critical relationship in jeopardy.”

Drawing on his own experience of normalizing diplomatic relations with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping 40 years ago in an op-ed published by the Washington Post, Carter says the key is to identify common goals to address intractable global problems that require leadership by the world’s two largest economic powerhouses.

“While today’s leaders face a different world [than 1979], the cause of peace remains just as important,” Carter says. “Leaders must bring new vision, courage and ingenuity to new challenges and opportunities…. They also must accept our conviction that the United States and China need to build their futures together, for themselves and for humanity at large.”

Carter’s retrospective of his own dealings with China comes with a backdrop of President Trump engaging in a trade war with China. The negotiated 90-day pause in further escalation of the trade war affords an opportunity, Carter says, to recalibrate the relationship and the means to resolve disputes.

“The U.S. imposition of tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese good and China’s retaliatory tariffs contribute to the deteriorating relationship, hurting both countries,” he says, which could descend into a Cold War over the Pacific.

Carter recalls that establishing a normalized relationship with China put an end to three decades of hostility and “led to an era distinguished by peace in East Asia and in the pacific Region.” “China’s spectacular economic growth, in conjunction with its continuing integration with the much larger US economy, has enabled the two countries to become engines of global prosperity.”

Political and economic concerns over Chinese economic ascendancy, growing military power and resistance to full democratization can overshadow the opportunities the two nations could pursue together, Carter insists. “The 40thanniversary of this relationship is a testament to the ability of countries with different histories, cultures and political systems to work together for the greater good.”

He urges quick resolution of trade issues, including “trade imbalances, intellectual property theft, forced technology transfers and unfair barriers to US investments.”  Carter dismisses use of “national security” as a reason to obstruct to commercial relationships and claims, “China needs competition for its economy to innovate and grow. Pursuing a fair and reciprocal relationship is the only way for both countries to remain economically strong.”

While he doesn’t say as much in his op-ed, Carter implies that US negotiators must approach their Chinese counterparts differently than, say, European officials. The Chinese view themselves as the oldest nation on earth and the cradle of many of the world’s most important inventions. As such, they bridle at direct criticism and resist confrontational tactics. Cultural sensitivity is a must to get anywhere. Much of the debate over access to the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea can be traced to historical dominance by China of major trading lanes in Southeast Asia and Eastern Africa.

The current government in China is a post-WWII product and the winner of a civil war. While communist in name, China’s ruling party has moved from communal to a form of market-oriented economics, with a strong role for state-sponsored policies. Those policies can be very effective because of Chinese acquiescence to collective goals. However, Chinese officials are mindful that their way of doing business can rub the rest of the world the wrong way. The secret is to find approaches and compromises that don’t offend the Chinese, offer concrete resolutions to legitimate disputes and restore a level of comity between the two nations that will be major competitors and collaborators for the foreseeable future.

For its part, Carter says, the United States should return to the Paris climate accord to strike a collaboration with China on how to decrease greenhouse gas emissions in both the developed and undeveloped world. The US should continue to invite China to play an intermediary role in reducing, if not eliminating, the nuclear threat on the Korean Peninsula. And, the two countries should work hand in hand to develop Africa economically in ways that enrich its citizens, not dictators.

Other forms of collaboration might include joint space research. The Chinese currently have a robotic space probe on the dark side of the moon, the first such probe by any nation. Current US policy forbids exchange of space technology with China. A new space race would be costly and counter-productive, while collaborative efforts may advance knowledge and eventually colonization of the moon and Mars much faster. They might even have a benefit on earth, as the Chinese have announced plans to launch a man-made moon, which is actually a gigantic mirror designed to provide lunar lighting that cuts heating bills.

The two nations also could team up to deal with cyber-terrorism. Intelligence suggests there are state-sponsored cyber-hackers in China. An improved relationship with China may turn hacking into common defense against hackers and disinformation agents. While China still has censorship, its citizens are increasingly exposed to foreign ideas and ideals. Its economic aspirations lie closer to the United States than Russia, which could be persuasive for Chinese officials to join US efforts to combat Russian interference designed to create division and dysfunction.

As has often been the case in his post-presidency, Carter offers plenty to chew on in the new year. One of his signal achievements as President serves as a useful, timely reminder that the harder road to take can be the most productive – and peaceful.

 

A ‘Fringe Idea’ to Apply Term Limits to the Supreme Court

A ‘new’ debate is emerging on reforming the Supreme Court, including imposing term limits on justices. What has been a fringe issue may be moving into the mainstream and even the 2020 presidential race. Debating the size and composition of the Court could be a refreshing dip into a rich part of American history that has occurred when the nation was founded, grappled with nationhood, recovered from civil war and addressed the ravages of the Great Depression.

A ‘new’ debate is emerging on reforming the Supreme Court, including imposing term limits on justices. What has been a fringe issue may be moving into the mainstream and even the 2020 presidential race. Debating the size and composition of the Court could be a refreshing dip into a rich part of American history that has occurred when the nation was founded, grappled with nationhood, recovered from civil war and addressed the ravages of the Great Depression.

While the Capitol is buzzing with news about averting a government shutdown, criminal justice reform and a resolution to exit the Yemeni civil war, a new debate is quietly entering the stage that could radically change the US Supreme Court.

With two new conservative justices appointed by President Trump sitting on the high court, liberals are talking about ideas to apply term limits to justices, restrict when presidents can appoint new justices and add more justices to the court. Fivethirtyeight calls the conversation a “fringe idea” that is gaining mainstream attention.

As Fivethirtyeight recalls, court-packing isn’t new or novel. The Supreme Court’s size was shrunk by outgoing Federalists from six to five to prevent incoming President Thomas Jefferson from making an early appointment. Republicans quickly returned the Court to its original size and later added a seventh justice so another Republican could be named.

The Court was increased to nine justices to give President Andrew Jackson two additional seats to fill as part of his battle to end the national bank. Following President Lincoln’s assassination, a Republican Congress reduced the Court to seven to deny his successor, Democrat Andrew Johnson, any nominations that could interfere with their reconstruction plans. Franklin Roosevelt tried court-packing to remove judicial obstacles to his New Deal, but his transparent objective sank his attempt.   

The impetus for the latest spasm of interest in Supreme Court “reform” was the decision by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to deny a hearing or confirmation vote for President Obama nominee Merrick Garland in 2016. The spectacle surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings earlier this year didn’t squelch interest in reforms.

“The whole idea was born out of bleakness,” says David Faris who wrote “It’s Time to Fight Dirty,” which Fivethirtyeight describes as a “highbrow manual” to achieve institutional change. His book includes a chapter on changing the trajectory of the Supreme Court, with ideas Faris credits to Fix the Court, a group that says it is dedicated “to open up the most powerful, least accountable part of government.”

One of the group’s main ideas is to end lifetime appointments for Supreme Court justices and impose 18-year term limits. It says that idea was originally suggested by none other than current Chief Justice John Roberts, who has served on the court since 2005.

“To paraphrase a John Roberts' 1983 memo, term limits would restore an important check on the most powerful, least accountable branch of American government, would increase the rotation of justices serving and would broaden the pool of potential nominees – all positive outcomes no matter where you stand politically.” He wrote the memo while working as associate counsel to White House counsel Fred Fielding during the Reagan administration.

According to Fivethirtyeight, the only elected official to express vocal support for Supreme Court justice term limits is freshman California Congressman Ro Khanna, who took his law degree from Yale University, has taught law and co-authored an amicus brief to the Supreme Court to allow race discrimination suits under the Fair Housing Act. Khanna, who worked in the Obama administration, doubts his former boss would favor the idea, but he thinks American voters might. “Americans love term limits,” he says.

For the idea to have any political legs, Khanna explains, it must be bipartisan. He and others who are intrigued by the idea of court reforms expect the issue to rise up in the 2020 presidential election as part of a broader debate over rehabilitating American democracy.

“Every presidential candidate should talk about their relationship to the Supreme Court, what they would do to reform the court, if anything, how they would go about selecting justices, and what they would do if there was a constitutional crisis,” Khanna told Fivethirtyeight. Polling has shown that candidate Donald Trump’s promises to appoint conservative justices was a factor in securing critical support, including from evangelical religious groups.

One of the other ideas being tossed around is limiting Supreme Court nominations to the first and third year of a presidential term, an idea ironically spawned by McConnell’s defense of ignoring Garland’s nomination in Obama’s final year in office. It also has been suggested to increase the size of the Supreme Court from nine to 11 or 13 justices – “depending on how many justices Trump winds up appointing.”

Term limits can cut both ways. Political conservatives might be thrilled to see Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who joined the Court in 1993 and the subject of a new film, gone. Political liberals would feel likewise about Justice Clarence Thomas, who took his seat in 1991 following a contentious confirmation hearing that featured Anita Hill and charges of sexual harassment.

A current-day debate over the Supreme Court would be like a refreshing dip into American history. The reforms would be newly expressed, but bound to the nation’s ever-evolving democracy over issues such as judicial review, racial discrimination and gender equality.

 

GOP Faces Unexpected Complications in Lame Duck Session

GOP congressional leaders were already struggling to meet a Friday deadline on a spending bill to avoid a partial federal government shutdown. The death of President George H.W. Bush, who will lie in state at the Capitol until a memorial service Wednesday, may extend negotiations a week or more.

GOP congressional leaders were already struggling to meet a Friday deadline on a spending bill to avoid a partial federal government shutdown. The death of President George H.W. Bush, who will lie in state at the Capitol until a memorial service Wednesday, may extend negotiations a week or more.

Congressional lawmakers have important work left to do before they head home for the holidays later this month, most notably completing the Fiscal Year 2019 spending legislation needed to avoid a government shutdown. 

Congress faces a Friday deadline to resolve disputes that include border wall funding in a spending package, but that date might be extended following the passing of former President George H.W. Bush. 

Bush 41 will lie in state at the Capitol before a memorial service is held Wednesday at the National Cathedral, complicating any efforts to hammer out a large-scale funding deal before Friday. GOP leaders, who remain in control of the lame duck session, are considering extending government funding for a week or two.

President Trump has said he is open to a short-term extension of spending talks if congressional leaders request one. But nevertheless, leaders will still need to reach an agreement to avoid a partial government shutdown of the agencies funded under seven out of 12 spending bills that haven’t been finalized.

Back in September, Congress approved five bills providing funding for defense, energy and water, labor, health and human services, the legislative branch and veterans affairs. Trump signed those measures, marking the first time in more than 20 years that Congress has passed a labor/health/human services funding bill prior to the end of the fiscal year, and the first time in more than 10 years it has passed a defense funding bill prior to the end of the fiscal year 

But Congress punted on the seven other spending bills with passage of a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the remaining federal government sectors open until December 7. Those bills include funding for the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Homeland Security, Interior, State, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, as well as several smaller agencies. If Congress is unable to avoid a government shutdown this month, those are the departments and agencies that would be affected.

The main issue at hand is whether or not to include $5 billion in border wall funding requested by Trump. House Republicans have backed Trump's call for $5 billion – the House Appropriations Committee approved the spending in July, but the Senate’s bill earmarked only $1.6 billion for the wall with bipartisan support.

Democrats have signaled that they’re not budging, arguing they already have reached bipartisan agreement in the Senate’s bill. But Trump has ratcheted up shutdown talk indicating he would “totally be willing” to shut down the federal government if Congress does not approve the full $5 billion for construction of a U.S.-Mexico border wall. In response, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has blamed Trump for intransigence on the issue.

Meanwhile, Republicans are also looking to pass another tax package before they cede power to Democrats in January when the next Congress convenes. Last week, House Republicans offered a bill that would combine corrections to their 2017 tax bill along with extensions of more than two dozen expired tax breaks and a revamp of the IRS.

Republican leaders had planned a vote on the tax bill last week, but pulled it to shore up support within the Republican caucus after hearing concerns over some provisions within the bill and its overall price tag. Getting the measure through the House now appears to be in question. And Senate Republicans have been lukewarm at best toward the measure, with some suggesting it may need to get scaled back. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not yet named a tax bill as part of his year-end agenda. 

Congressional leaders also are working to wrap up work on a “Farm Bill,” which authorizes various Department of Agriculture programs including welfare (SNAP and WIC), crop insurance and federal forest management policies that House leaders have been trying to expand.

Senate and House leaders reportedly reached an agreement last week, several months after authority expired at the end of September. No text or details have been released yet, but indications are that it will largely pare back additional work requirements for receiving food benefits and forest management reforms that House Republicans had pushed in their version of the bill.

Dark Corners, New Lights Loom for Nation’s Capital

As the new year nears, darker economic possibilities lurk as a result of President Trump’s trade war with China, his threats to shut down the US-Mexican border and his kneecapping of Prime Minister Theresa May’s attempt to negotiate an exit from the European Union. The new year means Democrats regain control of the House, but a new bright light from Queens is already causing a stir in the nation’s capital as she pushes her agenda, fends off critics and waits for the keys to her congressional office.

As the new year nears, darker economic possibilities lurk as a result of President Trump’s trade war with China, his threats to shut down the US-Mexican border and his kneecapping of Prime Minister Theresa May’s attempt to negotiate an exit from the European Union. The new year means Democrats regain control of the House, but a new bright light from Queens is already causing a stir in the nation’s capital as she pushes her agenda, fends off critics and waits for the keys to her congressional office.

Congress returned for its lame duck session and faces a December 7 deadline to pass a spending bill to avoid a partial federal government shutdown. However, deeper economic rumblings presage more difficult times ahead, and there is a new tweeter in town.

General Motors stunned its workforce – and the White House – with a pre-holiday announcement that more than 14,000 employees will be laid off and five factories (four in the United States and one in Canada) will be shuttered. The news undermines President Trump’s boast that his economic policies will bring manufacturing jobs back to America. GM said it was restructuring as Americans abandon passenger cars and Trump’s tariffs eat into profitability.

Trump is threatening to shut down the US-Mexican border over continuing attempts by thousands of migrants to enter the United States and seek asylum. Even though US law permits migrants to enter the nation legally at ports of entry and apply for asylum, Trump is trying to prevent them from gaining entry, including use of force such as tear gas. A complete shutdown of the border would have severe economic consequences on the daily $1.7 billion movement of goods between the two countries.

A longer-term threat involves the United Kingdom’s unexecuted exit from the European Union. Prime Minister Theresa May has negotiated a complex pull-out deal that still must be approved next month by the British Parliament, which is not a foregone conclusion. Trump weighed in and undercut May’s bargaining position by raising doubt the agreement with the EU would permit a US-British bilateral trade deal, something the prime minister has touted as a positive payoff for Brexit. British officials deny the EU-exit agreement bars Britain from entering into bilateral trade deals.

Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t waited for the keys to her congressional office to stir the waters in DC with forceful advocacy of her progressive agenda and a savvy pushback to conservatives who seem mesmerized by her growing national prominence as a symbol of the new wave of women and more diverse political representatives.

Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t waited for the keys to her congressional office to stir the waters in DC with forceful advocacy of her progressive agenda and a savvy pushback to conservatives who seem mesmerized by her growing national prominence as a symbol of the new wave of women and more diverse political representatives.

The United States is still on a glide path to impose even more tariffs on Chinese goods on January 1, which would likely result in reciprocal tariffs on US exports to China. Trump trade officials insist China must act to end what amounts to an escalating trade war. Ahead of a summit this week, Trump’s officials also poured cold water on a suggestion that the G20 group of industrialized nations could play a role in resolving the dispute. For its part, China says it is opening up key markets such as banks, automobiles, aircraft, telecommunications and medical. It calls many US demands “unrealistic.”

While no one is exactly predicting an economic downturn, there are some cracks surfacing in the current economic boom. The US stock market has plunged from its dizzying record heights. There has been a slight uptick in unemployment filing. Interest rates continue to inch up, which could cool hot housing markets. Millennial trends away from car and homebuying are beginning to disrupt traditional industries and their extensive supply chains. In addition, China’s economy may be weaker than most economists thought. All of which suggests the international economy may be fragile and capable of slowing US economic growth.

Another drag on the US economy is higher-than-promised national deficits, mostly attributable to the GOP-backed tax cut. The beneficial effects of the tax cut may be mostly used up as the country heads into a new year.

In January, Democrats regain control of the House, which may add more complications to charting an economic path to avoid a downturn.

Then there is Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who as the youngest member of the new Congress is already stirring the DC pot with Twitter posts about Medicare-for-All, a Green New Deal, immigration and reducing student college loan debt. She has fended off criticism from conservatives, who have singled her out because of her potential political stardom. She has tried to avoid irking Democratic leaders while still extoling her more left-leaning positions (she announced she will vote for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker). She has traded tweets with Senator Lindsey Graham and the tweeter-in-chief. 

Ocasio-Cortez, who started the year working bar in New York, is part of a wave of more diverse congressional newcomers, but her quick rise to political prominence – matched by her quick wit and knowledge of social media – make her a force beyond her years, experience or congressional seniority.

 

Political Discourse from Dog Whistles to Intersectionality

Democrats poised to run for President in 2020 are embracing language and concepts from the racial justice movement in part as a response to what they view as racial dog whistles and attacks on political correctness. At issue is whether blunter racial language will attract or repel white working-class voters in states that can give a candidate an Electoral College edge. [Illustration Credit: Melissa Joskow/Media Matters]

Democrats poised to run for President in 2020 are embracing language and concepts from the racial justice movement in part as a response to what they view as racial dog whistles and attacks on political correctness. At issue is whether blunter racial language will attract or repel white working-class voters in states that can give a candidate an Electoral College edge. [Illustration Credit: Melissa Joskow/Media Matters]

Racial dog whistles, criticism of ‘political correctness’ and eyerolling at identity politics have become election staples in our hyper-partisan political environment dominated by President Trump. Despite that – or because of that, Democrats poised to run for President in 2020 are embracing a blunter lexicon borrowed from the racial justice movement.

An example reported by Politico from a Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren speech earlier this year: “Let’s just start with the hard truth about our criminal justice system: It’s racist.”

Trump’s presidential campaign and his ‘Hail Mary’ stumping on the eve of the midterm election have pushed racially charged issues to the forefront, in a fairly naked attempt to drive a wedge between traditionally Democratic black voters and up-for-grabs white working-class voters.

The backlash started immediately after Trump’s inauguration with a women’s march in Washington, DC that emphasized unified resistance, inclusiveness and “intersectionality” – the concept that America faces overlapping prejudices against races, religions, genders, sexual orientations and citizenship status.

While Trump and his GOP supporters have seen the path to victory as black and white, Democrats see a rainbow opening that not only appeals to minority voters, but also to suburban women and younger progressive voters. 

“Intersectionality feels obvious to younger progressives in the way that LGBTQ rights do,” Amanda Litman, co-founder and executive director of Run For Something, which recruited thousands of young progressives to run for local and state office in the aftermath of the 2016 election.

Not everyone in the Democratic Party is on board with the shift. Democratic moderates, including some newly elected House members who unseated GOP incumbents in swing districts, want to focus on bread-and-butter issues. Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown is toying with a presidential run based on what he calls a “pro worker” message.

However, the horses may already have left the corral. Warren publicly dismissed the idea that “Democrats have to choose between being the party of the white working class and the party of Black Lives Matter.” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, in his aptly named new book titled “Where We Go From Here,” credits Black Lives Matter and the ACLU with raising awareness about the racial inequities of the US criminal justice system. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand told her supporters “Resistance is female, intersectional and powered by our belief in one another.”

Politico reported, “Many progressive grassroots organizations are instituting new training and programs to improve their approach to race. Indivisible, the largest ‘resistance’ group of the Trump era, recently held its first mandatory virtual training; more than 300 group leaders across the country tuned in. The topic: ‘Direct Voter Contact through a Racial Equity Lens.’”

Maria Urbina, Indivisible’s national political director, said, “We expect candidates in 2020 to commit to an inclusive and motivating message that addresses both economic and racial inequality.”

A message of inclusiveness and intersectionality may appear incongruous with polling results showing three white men leading the way in the 2020 Democratic presidential sweepstakes – Joe Biden, Sanders and Beto O’Rourke, who lost a high-profile bid to unseat Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Other potential candidates include Warren, Gillibrand, California Senator Kamala Harris and New Jersey Senator Corey Booker.

There is a pragmatic reason for identity politics. African-Americans are a critical voting bloc in southern states, Latinos are turning Texas and Arizona purple and Asians are transforming red parts of California such as Orange County into Democratic enclaves. Young Democratic voters also gravitate to younger candidates with more progressive views on sexual orientation, reproductive rights and income equality. Minorities and young people are among Americans most concerned about access to affordable health care.

Pundits might sum up this trend as Culture Wars 2.0 with Democrats advocating an agenda with the equivalent emotion of GOP policies on immigration, abortion and gun rights. It is a trend unlikely to lower the temperature of political debate.

However, that doesn’t mean common ground is impossible. Trump has signaled a willingness to support criminal justice reforms proposed by a bipartisan group on Capitol Hill. Reform legislation could pass Congress in the lame duck session when Republicans are still in control.

 

Divided Government Could Lead to Infrastructure Collaboration

There has been lots of talk and even more anticipation over the last two years of a mammoth infrastructure initiative. The ascendancy of Democrats in control of the House will put Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio back in charge of the committee that deals with transportation and infrastructure. He wants a $500 billion package with “real money” sewed up in the first six months of 2019.

There has been lots of talk and even more anticipation over the last two years of a mammoth infrastructure initiative. The ascendancy of Democrats in control of the House will put Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio back in charge of the committee that deals with transportation and infrastructure. He wants a $500 billion package with “real money” sewed up in the first six months of 2019.

Infrastructure investment is one of the most promising areas of bipartisan collaboration in the new Congress. Oregon Democratic Congressman Peter DeFazio is poised to explore the boundaries of that possibility.

With the Democratic takeover of the House, DeFazio is expected to assume the chairmanship of the House Transportation and infrastructure Committee. In that pending role, DeFazio is touting a $500 billion measure to fund highways, transit, airports and marine projects.

Unlike President Trump’s $1.5 billion infrastructure initiative that relied heavily on private investment, DeFazio is contemplating a measure backed by actual federal funding. Under DeFazio’s plan, Treasury would issue $500 billion in a new type of 30-year bonds that would be repaid by increased federal gasoline and diesel taxes to account for highway construction cost inflation and from lower fuel usage because of federal fuel-economy standards.

In 2017, the 30+year veteran on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee introduced a “Penny for Progress” bill that would pay for a $500 billion infrastructure package over 13 years. DeFazio says he isn’t wedded to that idea, but insists he wants to move an infrastructure investment bill before the middle of 2019. “I’m open to any and all options on how we get real funds for infrastructure. But it has to be real money.”

“Infrastructure has been delayed too long,” DeFazio says. “We’ve got to get it done. We’ve got to maintain it. We’ve got to modernize it and we’ve got to move people and goods more efficiently.”

DeFazio suggests airport improvements could be paid for by an increased passenger facility charge. The charge has been pegged at $4.50 per flight since 2000. He wants Congress to mandate spending the balance that exists in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to maintain harbors and shipping channels.

There has been a lot of post-election commentary favoring bipartisan collaboration. Infrastructure investment has the support of mainstream Republicans and Trump, so could be an early test case for finding common ground to pass meaningful legislation in a divided government.

Congressman Sam Graves, a Missouri Republican who could become the Ranking Member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has expressed interest in “presenting my vision for our transportation network” and might emerge as a partner to DeFazio in fashioning bipartisan legislation.

A wide array of transportation advocacy groups, including the US Chamber of Commerce, have applauded the idea of a bipartisan infrastructure measure and federal funding to pay for it. 

“We see this as good timing if Congress and the President can come together,” said Bill Sullivan, American Trucking Association’s executive vice president of advocacy. “Everybody knows that we need to invest in infrastructure, but they just haven’t hit that magic moment that Congress is willing to do it.” Maybe that time has arrived.

DeFazio’s position should be the good break needed to revive conversations to replace the I-5 Columbia River Bridge as part of the 2020 reauthorization of the Surface Transportation Act, which his committee will oversee.

Dems Manage Only Blue Ripple in Midterm Election

The projected blue wave was reduced to a blue ripple as Democrats regained control of the House, but Republicans retained their hold on the Senate, setting the stage for split government and potentially more partisan bickering.

The projected blue wave was reduced to a blue ripple as Democrats regained control of the House, but Republicans retained their hold on the Senate, setting the stage for split government and potentially more partisan bickering.

What was perhaps the most anticipated midterm election in recent memory went largely as polls and pundits predicted it would – a sharp contrast from two years ago. Democrats leveraged their fury over President Trump to recapture the House, while Republicans expanded their majority in the Senate, a split verdict presaging divided government and partisan conflicts for the rest of Trump’s first term.

The campaign efforts of Trump and GOP members mobilized enough Republican voters to reduce a projected Democratic blue wave to something closer to a blue ripple. Presidential campaigning helped Republicans win hotly contested Senate races in Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Tennessee and Texas. Trump proclaimed the election outcome a “tremendous success” as Republicans held their grip throughout the South and in rural and exurban areas.

But Democrats – propelled by a rejection of Trumpism in the nation’s suburbs, and especially from women and minority voters – notched victories in areas that just two years ago helped Trump reach the White House. Incumbent Republicans fell in an array of suburban House districts, including one held by House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions in the Dallas area. And in West Virginia – where Trump is wildly popular and campaigned heavily for Republicans – the reelection of Democratic Senator Joe Manchin delivered a personal blow to the president.

In Washington’s 3rd District, 4-term GOP Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler squeaked out a victory over Democratic challenger Carolyn Long, who mounted a serious, well-funded challenge and sounded like she will try again in 2020.

Democrat Kim Schrier, a pediatrician making her first political run, defeated two-time GOP gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi in Washington’s open 8th District. Republican Congressman Dave Reichert chose not to seek re-election. The Schrier-Rossi contest was one of the most expensive House races in the nation. Her victory bumps up the double-digit Democratic margin in the House and further increases the number of women who will serve in the 116th Congress. The 8th District has never sent a Democrat to Congress before Schrier.

In the high-turnout election, Democrats picked up at least seven governorships, performing well across much of the upper Midwest and even in ruby-red Kansas, where Laura Kelly was elected governor over the President’s handpicked candidate, Kris Kobach.

In Wisconsin, Democrat Tony Evers bested Governor Scott Walker, once a Republican star who ran for president in 2016. Walker survived a hard-fought recall vote in 2012 and was reelected in 2014. Democrats failed to take over the Florida governorship left open by Rick Scott, who challenged incumbent Democrat Senator Bill Nelson and held a slight edge in a tight race that may be headed for a recount. Trump-backed Ron DeSantis narrowly defeated progressive Democrat Andrew Gillum in a race that might be a preview of the 2020 presidential election if Trump faces one of the more left-leaning challengers eying the race. 

House of Representatives 

As expected, Democrats regained control of the House for the first time since Republicans took the majority in 2010. Returns early Wednesday show Democrats poised to pick up more than the 23 House seats they needed to gain a foothold in Congress from which to counter Trump.

Democrats were projected to flip at least 29 districts currently held by the GOP, while they were on track to surrender only a few seats in the chamber. As of now, Democrats have taken 220 seats (enough for the majority) and Republicans have 194 seats. That leaves 21 seats still on the board, including the two close races in Washington. 

With Democrats in charge, Trump will face a different set of committee chairmen who seem poised to investigate alleged administrative corruption and will have subpoena power to push their investigations. Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff will ascend to the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee, which will translate into more discerning oversight into the potential of Trump team collaboration with Russian operatives in the 2016 presidential election, a sharp turn from the sycophantic role of GOP Congressman Devin Nunes. The Mueller investigation also will have a solid firewall.

Maybe the biggest irony of the 2018 midterm election was that defending Obamacare may have propelled Democrats back into control of the House after costing them their majority in 2010 following its passage.

Senate 

In the Senate, the GOP was able to take advantage of a favorable map heavily tilted toward Republican-friendly states where Trump remains popular. The GOP scored a series of wins in those states, with only a few setbacks. Incumbent GOP Senator Dean Heller of Nevada was unseated by Jacky Rosen. And in West Virginia, a state Trump carried by 42 points in 2016, incumbent Democrat Senator Joe Manchin retained his seat. 

But with GOP pickups in Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota, and likely Florida, the GOP expanded its grip on the Senate for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, increasing the GOP’s narrow 51-49 seat majority. We can expect McConnell’s Senate to retain a focus on confirming Trump’s appointments to the judiciary over the next two years and ignore legislation sent over from the Democratic House that would undermine the Trump agenda.

It’s important to note that in 2020, the Senate map is nearly the exact opposite of this year with 21 Republican-held seats up for election compared to just nine Democratic seats.

Oregon and Washington Elections

There were no shockers in Oregon. The state’s five incumbent members of Congress were swept back into office. Suzanne Bonamici, Earl Blumenauer, Peter DeFazio, Kurt Schrader and Greg Walden, who have served a collective 69 years in the House, will return for another two years, but in a House chamber markedly different than in the previous eight years.

Perhaps the most interesting result was in Oregon’s 2nd District where Republican Greg Walden won his 11th term by defeating Jamie McLeod-Skinner 57.5 percent to 38.06 percent. Though he still won comfortably, the tally was a sharp decrease from the 69.9 percent Walden posted in 2016.

Senator Maria Cantwell cruised to victory as did GOP Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers and the remainder of Washington’s Democratic congressmen.

Congresswoman Jaime Herrera-Beutler is expected to eke out a victory in the 3rd District, while Democrat Kim Schrier leads Dino Rossi by 53 to 47 percent margin.

Legislative Prospects in the Next Congress 

With little chance of getting major legislation through the Senate, congressional Democrats will remain on the sidelines for federal judicial confirmations in the Senate, play the role as pesky thorn in the side of Trump in the House and, in turn, serve as a predictable foil in Trump’s anticipated 2020 re-election bid. 

Democrats may get an early start on their fall-guy role with a vote to restore Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House, who has become a familiar political piñata at Trump campaign rallies.

Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio is on track to become chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which raises hope of a more serious effort to push a major infrastructure package in the next Congress – one of the few possible bipartisan legislative projects in a split Congress. 

Strong voter interest in health care expressed in the midterm elections might prompt bipartisan efforts to shore up popular provisions of the Affordable Care Act. 

It seems less likely bipartisan common ground can be found in the next two years on Medicare and Medicaid and on immigration reform, which may be headed for the 2020 presidential election as political wedge issues.

Walden will lose his chairmanship of the influential House Energy and Commerce Committee, but will continue as the Ranking Member. Walden has a track record of advancing legislation in divided government and may look for bipartisan wins to shore up support back home. 

With the GOP retaining control of the Senate, Washington Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley aren’t expected to take on any new committee assignments. But they will enjoy increased bargaining positions over appropriations and other legislation where they have a Democratic partner to dance with on the House side. 

The “lame duck” Congress now becomes very important to Republicans who will try to accomplish some political objectives before the 116th Congress convenes in January. An aggressive GOP push on contentious issues in the lame duck session could poison the well for any possible collaboration in the next Congress, but it could bolster Republican efforts to satisfy their political base.

  

Washington House Races Could Punctuate Blue Wave – Or Not

fivethirtyeight.com  indicates a high probability of Democrats regaining control of the US House in next Tuesday’s midterm election. Three tightly contested House seats in Washington now held by Republicans could punctuate a Democratic blue wave or sustain GOP control.

fivethirtyeight.com indicates a high probability of Democrats regaining control of the US House in next Tuesday’s midterm election. Three tightly contested House seats in Washington now held by Republicans could punctuate a Democratic blue wave or sustain GOP control.

Three contested US House races in Washington that will be decided on Tuesday could punctuate a national Democratic blue wave or confirm continuing control of Congress by Republicans.

Flipping control of the House has emerged as a major storyline of the 2018 midterm election. Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats to regain control. More than half of the midterm elections since 1994 have featured a 24+ seat swing. In the 2010 midterm election that produced the current run of Republican control, 64 House seats went from blue to red.

Fivethirtyeight.com gives Democrats an 85.5 percent chance to win back control of the House with the highest probability gain of 39 seats. A Washington Post poll shows projected Democratic voters slightly outnumber Republicans in key House races.

However, elections are like football games. It matters who comes out to play. Voter turnout remains the key, especially in roughly 30 or so swing districts that either a Democrat or Republican has a chance to win. 

The three House races in Washington are all in Republican hands.

  • Four-term Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler faces a stiff challenge from Carolyn Long in the 3rd District, which includes Vancouver and Southwest Washington.

  • Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rogers is being tested in the GOP-dominated 5th District in Eastern Washington by a well-funded Democratic challenger, Lisa Brown.

  • In the open 8th District seat in the Seattle suburbs, former GOP candidate Dino Rossi is trying to hold onto the seat held for seven terms by fellow Republican Dave Reichert, but is being significantly outspent by Democrat Kim Schrier.

Herrera Beutler and McMorris Rogers won election in 2016 with decisive margins in their respective districts, but aggressive Democratic challengers have amassed sizable war chests to contest their re-election this year. As of October 17, Long had reeled in $2.7 million in mostly individual contributions while Brown secured $4.6 million against an entrenched incumbent. In the open House seat race, Schrier has raised $6.1 million compared to Republican Rossi’s $3.9 million.

What makes individual House races – and to a lesser degree Senate races – more competitive this year is the national character of the midterm elections, largely turning on the oversized personality of President Trump. In many ways, the midterm election in toss-up districts and states is being viewed as a referendum on Trump. Trump is campaigning in states and congressional districts where he hopes his popularity and political agenda persuade voters to retain Republicans.

Democratic control of the Senate is possible, but not likely. Of the 35 Senate seats up this year, 26 are held by Democrats or Independents who caucus with the Democrats. Democrats hold Senate seats in Montana, Indiana, West Virginia and Missouri, which are states Trump carried in the 2016 presidential election. Incumbent Democrats in Montana, Missouri and Indiana are trailing or are running neck-and-neck with their GOP challengers. Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson also is in a close race with his Republican challenger, current Governor Rick Scott. 

Democrats have mounted spirited Senate campaigns against GOP incumbents in Texas and Nevada and they are hopeful to pick up the Arizona Senate seat held by Jeff Flake who isn’t seeking re-election.

If Democrats manage to take control of one or both chambers, the lame duck Congress becomes very important to Republicans. The GOP will likely try to accomplish as much as possible between November and next January when the 116th Congress is sworn in and its majority dissolves.

After January, Democrats would likely exercise their newfound power to halt the Republican legislative agenda and initiate oversight investigations into Trump and his administration. There is some hope a Democratic House and the Trump administration could work together on one big major legislative item – an infrastructure package.

What If?

If Republicans retain majorities in the House and Senate, it will be full speed ahead. A new speaker of the House to replace the outgoing Paul Ryan will join Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in tackling several remaining legislative initiatives Republicans weren’t able to accomplish in the last two years.

What About Earmarks?

We’ve heard for months of certain prominent House Democrats intentions to bring back earmarks if they regain the majority in the House. It’s unclear what it would look like, especially with a Republican Senate and Democratic House. Senate Republicans could resist a return to earmarks, but it’s entirely possible for the House to go it alone and Senate Republicans may be forced to go along. 

The new earmark system will likely be limited in scope compared to the old process, featuring stricter guidelines and requiring committed local match funding for any earmark project. Several popular grant programs would likely remain, but a return to earmarks would open up federal funding for an array of municipal and public-sector projects that don’t fit the guidelines of existing federal grant programs.

The Internet of Political Things

The digital world undeniably has swamped the political world, resulting in what you might call the internet of political things – email hacks, Twitter feed, Facebook fundraising and unfiltered outreach to a political base.

The digital world undeniably has swamped the political world, resulting in what you might call the internet of political things – email hacks, Twitter feed, Facebook fundraising and unfiltered outreach to a political base.

Private email servers. Unsecured personal smartphones. Cyber-hacking. Online campaign fundraising. Streaming townhall meetings. Fake Twitter accounts. Fake Facebook accounts. No denying the digital world has swamped the political world and we now have an internet of political things.

That fact resurfaced this week with news reports President Trump persists in using his personal smartphone, despite US intelligence warnings that Russians and Chinese are listening in on his conversations. Trump has denied the report, but also has confirmed it.

The crack in confidential, sensitive information by Trump is ironic in light of his continuing attacks on Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and the chants of crowds at his political rallies of “Lock her up!”

For Trump, the digital world is his oyster. His Twitter account, he says, is his “megaphone” to speak, unfiltered, to his political base. Trump has more than 100 million Twitter followers. Newsweek points out as many as 15 million of his followers may be fake. Trump complained Twitter is trying to suppress the number of people following him. His complaint came in a tweet.

Barack Obama perfected the art of social media engagement and fundraising in his presidential campaigns. Now social media is a standard, integral part of campaigns for the presidency all the way down to local school board races. One of the top positions in big-time campaigns is digital director. Social media is a perfect vehicle to mobilize supporters, recruit new followers and disseminate a campaign’s key talking points. Social media also is a platform that can be used to test messages to see how they play with the political base.

Campaign budgets tell the story. Prior to the 2016 presidential election, major campaigns spent between 10 and 20 percent of the budget on digital. The Trump campaign spent 50 percent of its budget on digital. Big data, which can pinpoint people’s behavioral tendencies, has largely replaced paper voter registration lists that connect a Democrat or a Republican to a house address.

Based on US intelligence accounts, hacking into emails, setting up fake social media accounts, spinning conspiracy theories and conducting cyber dirty tricks are now common campaign practices. We have been led to believe Russia, China, Iran and North Korea have launched digital attacks aimed at US political figures, political parties and news media. There is less revealed knowledge about whether the United States engages in similar digital disruption in foreign countries.

Members of Congress who are stuck in Washington, DC – or want to avoid live appearances – have taken to virtual townhalls, often using live streaming as the medium.

Political polarization has lapped over to “news,” resulting in clusters of online outlets that cater to the views of people on the far opposite sides of the political spectrum. Some pose as news media even though they are principally political provocateurs. They would stick out on a TV channel guide, but they blend in as part of the vaster, unregulated cybersphere. 

Whereas people in the past conversed about political events of the day over coffee, they now engage in more highly caffeinated social media exchanges, sharing articles and trading insults in real time. You don’t have to wait for a daily newspaper to read your favorite (or most hated) commentator and offer your own follow-up comments. You can troll friends and foes alike online. You can associate with your political tribe and saber-rattle at your opposing political tribe. You can get – and give – political feedback on your smartphone virtually anywhere, anytime.

Like the internet of things, the internet of political things has created greater connectivity. In your home, you can remotely control your temperature and monitor your doorstep. In your political home, you can dial up whatever temperature you want and kick anyone to the gutter.

The internet of things can do a lot of good. You can monitor elderly parents living at home, reduce your energy bill and work without commuting. The internet of political things does good, too. You have more direct access to what political figures say and think. You have a wider range of political commentary at your fingertips. You can engage in political movements without leaving your own house.

For better or worse, the internet of political things is a reality. It is likely to become even more prevalent, though probably not to the point where you engage your refrigerator in a political debate. In Italy and other places, the internet of political things has evolved to electing representatives and giving them legislative direction via online direct democracy. That’s like inviting the legislative process for a sleepover on your computer. 

The good news is digital change occurs fast. You won’t have to wait long for the next big internet of political things.

A Peek at Midterm Election, World Series Probabilities

News headlines follow waves while Nate Silver hunts for probabilities in elections – and sports. Silver likes the chances of Democrats recapturing the US House, Kate Brown remaining as governor of Oregon and the Boston Red Sox taking home another World Series trophy.

News headlines follow waves while Nate Silver hunts for probabilities in elections – and sports. Silver likes the chances of Democrats recapturing the US House, Kate Brown remaining as governor of Oregon and the Boston Red Sox taking home another World Series trophy.

If you want a sneak peek at how the 2018 midterm election will turn out, Nate Silver has a white board full of numbers, percentages and probabilities. Notably absent are any predictions.

Silver, founder of fivethirtyeight.com, is famous for looking at the bigger picture and blending a bunch of polls to reach a probability. His website is chocked full of probability. For example, he says, “Odds are, your next governor will be a Democrat” and “Democrats’ prospects worsen in Nevada and Arizona.”

His probabilities are more than hunches with percentages. He has closely followed the US Senate race in Texas in which incumbent Republican Ted Cruz is trying to fend off a determined challenge by Democrat Beto O’Rourke. Earlier, Silver forecast O’Rourke had a 35 percent chance of upsetting Cruz. Now he has reduced that forecast to around 25 percent. By this time in an election cycle, probabilities start baking into reality. 

Cutting to the chase, Silver says there is an 83.9 percent chance Democrats will regain control of the US House, while Republicans have an 80 percent probability of retaining control of the US Senate.

On governor’s races, Silver says a Democratic victory is likely in Oregon where incumbent Kate Brown is facing Republican Knute Buehler. He gives Brown nearly an 85 percent chance of winning with just slightly more than 50 percent of the vote.

Some political pundits believe midterm elections foreshadow who will run for president in the next election. Silver and his team show there is no clear evidence midterm elections presage anything in a subsequent presidential election year. Nothing exactly predicted Donald Trump would run in 2016 and few, including Trump, believed he would actually win. Few imagined Barack Obama would outshine Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic nomination and the 2008 election. His keynote address in the 2004 Democratic National Convention was more telling than the outcome of the 2006 midterms.

For those weary of politics, fivethirtyeight.com also offers probabilities in sports. Boston has the best chance to win the World Series and Clemson and Alabama have a 65 percent chance to win a ticket to the NCAA National Football Championship.

Populism, Youth Stoke Moves Toward Direct Democracy

With a contentious confirmation process just ended, it’s time to take a break and consider experiments around the globe with direct democracy and citizen engagement using online platforms to define public problems, suggest legislation and elect political leaders.

With a contentious confirmation process just ended, it’s time to take a break and consider experiments around the globe with direct democracy and citizen engagement using online platforms to define public problems, suggest legislation and elect political leaders.

With Brett Kavanaugh sitting on the Supreme Court and political ads flooding the airwaves before the November 6 midterm election, it’s time to take a deep breath and consider innovation in government, including the direct democracy experiment underway in Italy. It could be the next disruptive idea to invade our own political landscape.

Understanding the Italian political scene is not easy or obvious. At the moment, Italy’s ruling coalition government is led by a group of parliamentarians nominated and elected online under the political slogan, “Participate, don’t delegate.”  They are members of the Five-Star Movement (M5S), a political party started in 2009 by a comedian, a blogger and a web strategist.

In March elections this year, M5S won the largest share of votes (38 percent) because of its populist appeal and attraction to young voters. It is reportedly the first time an Internet-based movement has gained political power. Its success wouldn’t have been conceivable without the advance of technology

One of the new government’s first moves was to appoint Riccardo Fraccaro as perhaps the world’s first minister of direct democracy. As reported in the Washington Post, Fraccaro said, “Citizens must be granted the same possibility to actively intervene in the process of managing and administrating public goods as normally carried out by their elected representatives.” In a partyocracy, he added, elected officials hoard decision-making at the expense of the “public will.” 

Through referenda, public petitions and initiatives, Fraccaro sees direct democracy guiding policymaking alongside representative government “to give real, authentic sovereignty to the citizens.” The Five-Star Movement exists on an online platform called Rousseau, an Enlightenment-era philosopher who influenced the French Revolution and believed in citizen involvement in politics as a wedge against tyranny.

The Five-Star Movement appears to be more than a protest of governmental process, as reflected by its coalition partner, the right-wing League party, best known for its anti-immigration positions. The Five-Star Movement leader is Luigi Di Maio, who is 32 years old and the son of a member of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement.

The early months of the coalition’s time in power have unsettled more traditional political players with calls for both a tax cut and universal basic income for Italians, despite Italy’s long-term debt that stands at 130 percent of its GDP. However, the direct democracy experiment has spurred the European Union to reduce the signature threshold for citizen-proposed legislation. The next step would be to institutionalize a role for citizen engagement, possibly a Citizens’ Assembly with a role in reviewing what is passed by the European Parliament.

Nathan Gardels, editor of The World Post, notes other direct democracy experiments around the world. One is crowdlaw, an intelligence gathering platform intended to help government officials engage with citizens in use in diverse countries such as Iceland and India.

Taiwan has employed an online platform to form citizen working groups that define public problems and identify possible solutions. “In more than 80 percent of cases, publicly defined issues have led to government action. So far, 26 national issues, including the regulation of Uber, telemedicine and online education, have been discussed with more than 200,000 participants.”

Steps toward direct democracy would undoubtedly alarm another Enlightenment-era political thinker, James Madison. He believed populist passions could overwhelm the cool restraint of deliberative reason. “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason,” Madison wrote in one of the Federalist Papers. “A pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction.”

Madison and other Founding Fathers lived in a time before telecommunications, jet airplanes and the internet, which have altered perceptions about representative government and direct democracy. The hot-plate Kavanaugh confirmation process, whether you view it as a circus or a sham, is likely to kindle more thoughts about the role of citizens in a government, of which George Washington once described the “senatorial saucer” to cool the passions of the directly elected members of the House. 

 

NAFTA with a New Name

The Trump administration successfully negotiated an updated North American Free Trade Agreement with modernized provisions, concessions of value to farmers and automakers and, of course, a new name. However, politics could still undermine the deal when it goes to Congress and consternation remains among trading partners with continuing Trump tariffs on steel and aluminum.

The Trump administration successfully negotiated an updated North American Free Trade Agreement with modernized provisions, concessions of value to farmers and automakers and, of course, a new name. However, politics could still undermine the deal when it goes to Congress and consternation remains among trading partners with continuing Trump tariffs on steel and aluminum.

The Canadians agreed to final terms for a $1.2 trillion North American free trade agreement that gave President Trump a political triumph and NAFTA a new name. However, the deal doesn’t end a simmering trade war sparked by US tariffs on steel and aluminum and still faces a treacherous political road to passage.

Trade experts gave credit to the Trump administration for completing a three-way deal to update the 25-year-old trade that candidate Trump derided as terrible. Trump critics note the new trade pact is largely the same car with a rebranded nameplate to appease Trump. Peter Navarro, Trump’s trade adviser, said the foundation remains, but the superstructure is superior. 

The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) still must be approved by Congress, which seems more likely after cliffhanger negotiations with Canada prevented Trump from submitting just a bilateral agreement with Mexico. The agreement also must be ratified by the respective legislative bodies in Canada and Mexico.

Most everybody agreed NAFTA needed a refresher, if for no other reason to account for a phalanx of digital industries and e-commerce that didn’t exist when it was signed. There also was a push to strengthen intellectual property protections, the underlying issue that has sparked a Trump-inspired trade war with China. There are reportedly 63 pages worth of provisions that address patents and trademarks, including two additional years of protection for biologic drugs, which Trump hailed as a key to US medical innovation.

A major sticking point was Canada’s barrier that prevents US dairy farmers from penetrating their market. The Canadians traded some of that protection to retain a trade dispute resolution provision that Trump wanted to scrap. Somewhat ironically, Canadians had agreed to a similar sized dairy concession in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump abandoned when he took office.

Domestic car manufacturing was a core reason why Trump pushed for a better North American trade agreement. The agreement reached earlier with Mexico increases the North American auto content requirements and requires more content from higher paid autoworkers to qualify for duty-free treatment. AFL-CIO leaders withheld their support for the change, saying they doubted the higher wages and better working conditions in Mexico can be enforced. The USMCA effectively requires unionization of Mexican autoworkers, which runs counter to state-level right-to-work laws, which political conservatives have pushed for in the United States.

Economists fret that higher wages will make North American vehicles more expensive and less competitive against vehicles imported from overseas, which face a nominal tariff. Trump is pledging to address the import tariff and potentially replace it with quotas. There also is a side letter to the agreement that preserves Trump’s ability to impose tariffs on automobiles assembled in Mexico or Canada. 

Trump sought a 5-year sunset clause on the deal. In the final agreement, the USMCA has a 16-year life span, with a review after six years.

A key element of the deal for the incoming Mexican president is a clause that restates Mexico’s claim of ownership of all hydrocarbons in its subsoil. The provision doesn’t prevent foreign companies from producing oil in Mexico.

While agreement on NAFTA modernization brought sighs of relief, there is still consternation over steel and aluminum tariffs – and their rationale: protecting US national security. The pretense for the tariffs has irked Canadians who don’t view themselves as security risks to the United States.

Looming elections that could flip control of the House to Democrats might complicate approval of the USMCA. Democrats may not want to bless a Trump achievement before the 2020 presidential election and Republicans may decide to poke the eye of unions, which have been a major force behind revamping NAFTA. That could leave the USMCA an agreement without a country and further muddy the waters on US trade policy.

 

Constitutional Patriotism and the Threat of Tribalism

Examples of political tribalism abound in today’s America, raising the question of whether our democracy can survive. Two law professors say it can if we return to ‘constitutional patriotism’ and defend the principles that united us as a country in the first place.

Examples of political tribalism abound in today’s America, raising the question of whether our democracy can survive. Two law professors say it can if we return to ‘constitutional patriotism’ and defend the principles that united us as a country in the first place.

As a contentious confirmation hearing for a US Supreme Court nominee grabs the national spotlight, a more serious question looms about the state of American democracy. Is it fading? Does anyone care? Can democracy survive?

A pair of Yale law professors say the way for democracy to survive is to return to “constitutional patriotism.” “We have to remain united by and through the Constitution, regardless of our ideological disagreements,” they write in an article published in the October 2018 issue of The Atlantic.

The challenge, according to Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, is that “Americans have come to view the Constitution not as a statement of shared principles, but as a cudgel with which to attack their enemies.”

That’s regrettable, they argue, because the Constitution was the vehicle that created a nation out of colonies, a mix of nationalities and diverse, often warring religions.

“The Constitution managed to overcome these divisions,” Chua and Rubenfeld said. “The way it dealt with religion is illustrative. Colonial America had not embraced tolerance; on the contrary, the dissenters had become persecutors. Virginia imprisoned Quakers. Massachusetts whipped Baptists. Government-established churches were common, and nonbelievers were denied basic civil and political rights.

“But in a radical act, the Constitution not only guaranteed religious freedom; it also declared that the United States would have no national church and no religious tests for national office. These foundational guarantees helped America avoid the religious wars that for centuries had torn apart the nations of Europe.” 

The Constitution created a republic, in large part because founding father James Madison feared “rule by mob” as much as rule by tyrant. The Constitution reflected the viewpoint of the Enlightenment that wise men (they were all men in those days), separated from “local passions,” would make wise decisions. That’s how we got the Electoral College.

Madison and other founding fathers also loathed partisanship, but the Constitution they created did little to prevent the formation of political parties and factions. The founders themselves became ardent partisans.

Many of the same animating issues of those days persist today: racial divisions, farm versus factory, South versus North, the elite versus working class. Tribalism seems more intense now, Chua and Rosenfeld say, because a white majority is coming to an end, income inequality is growing and the news media is omnipresent.

“In these conditions,” the authors explain, “democracy devolves into a zero-sum competition, one in which parties succeed by stoking voters’ fears and appealing to their ugliest us-versus-them instincts.”

Instead of serving as a uniting set of principles, the Constitution has become its own punching bag. Progressives attack it as “irredeemably stained” by its initial compromise over slavery. Martin Luther King Jr. demanded racial justice promised in the Constitution. Now, constitutional protections such as freedom of speech, religious liberty and property rights are dismissed as dehumanizing, discriminatory and structurally unjust.

Political conservatives are “beginning to reject core constitutional principles,” Chua and Rubenfeld note, pointing to President Trump’s declaration that the news media is the “enemy of the people.”

Even the concept of “being American” is up for debate. Some see national identity in racial, ethnic or religious terms, Chua and Rubenfeld observe. Birthright citizenship has been questioned. Being of European descent or being Christian are offered as marks of being American. Chua and Rosenfeld strongly disagree:

“This trend runs counter to the Constitution’s foundational ideal: an America where citizens are citizens, regardless of race or religion; an America whose national identity belongs to no one tribe.

“America is not an ethnic nation. Its citizens don’t have to choose between a national identity and multiculturalism. Americans can have both. But the key is constitutional patriotism. We have to remain united by and through the Constitution, regardless of our ideological disagreements.”

Chua and Rubenfeld say there are lessons for both the tribal right and tribal left. Defending the Constitution requires more than “flag-waving” by the right; it requires dedication to constitutional principles of equality. The Constitution can’t simply be dismissed by the left as a “smokescreen for oppression;” it must be seen as the “most inclusive form of governance in world history,” even if many of the Founding Fathers were also slaveowners.

The constitutional challenges facing the nation at this time are serious. But democracy’s only route to survival, Chua and Rubenfeld contend, may be through rededication to the constitutional principles that got us this far.

“For all its flaws, the United States is uniquely equipped to unite a diverse and divided society. Alone among the world powers, America has succeeded in forging a strong group-transcending national identity without requiring its citizens to shed or suppress their subgroup identities.”

You can be Irish American, Syrian American or Japanese American, but if you live in France or Germany, you can only be French or German. That’s a lot more than a semantic difference.