Make peace, not war, easier in Congress

The anti-Iran hawks will get to vote against the nuclear deal, without sinking it – The Globalist:

To nix the deal, the Senate must ultimately be able to vote through a resolution against it by a veto-proof majority. And that would require 67 out of the 100 US senators coming out to vote against it (along with 290 U.S. House members).
As a general principle, of course, this is probably not a strategy to be recommended. The people’s representatives should, after all, be taking meaningful votes on most international agreements.

But for a particularly delicate multilateral negotiation involving war and peace, it is an ideal setup to stack the deck against the former and in favor of the latter.

Remarkably, even the United States Constitution did not set a two-thirds threshold for Congress in making declarations of war – a feature seemingly rendered moot since World War II. A mere majority in each chamber could plunge the country into war.

It has been far too easy for the United States to choose the path of war casually. The structure of the Congressional role on the Iran Deal fortunately makes it much harder in this one instance – while still letting the “bomb bomb bomb” caucus formally register its hawkish preferences.

It might not look it to the rest of the world, but by U.S. political standards in 2015, that’s a win-win.


I wonder where the “Obamacare repeal” bills went this year?

Remember how Republicans held the House for four years without the holding the Senate and managed to vote more than 50 times in the House to repeal “Obamacare” only to have it die in the Senate?

Anybody else notice it’s now half a year into Republican control of both chambers of Congress and they have yet to send any Affordable Care Act repeal bill to the White House?

Flashback to my December 2013 forecast:

The one good thing about the crushing strength of the American private health insurance industry’s Washington lobby is that they will never allow through these idiotic Republican proposals to replace the Affordable Care Act. That lobby understands two key truths:
1. this law benefits their industry as currently written by providing lots of healthy new customers and,
2. the replacement proposals keep the most popular but most expensive parts in place, while stripping out the money-making purchase mandate that makes it financially feasible to keep the costly parts going.
Those firms benefiting from this law donate a lot of political money. If you’re a Republican in Congress right now, you don’t want to get into a political gunfight with the health insurance lobby, unless you’re a self-funding candidate.

Even the tea party wing is still dependent upon big business. They can’t afford to cross private health insurers at the moment.

Maybe they were all just waiting for the Supreme Court to strike it down for them? Too bad (for them) about that as well.


8 years late, Congress ready to revisit No Child Left Behind

When the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was signed into law in 2002, it was intended to last only until 2007, when lawmakers would revisit and improve the law. Instead, our country’s lawmakers allowed the bill to expire, forcing states to continue to abide by it until another law replaces it (or, after 2011, seek a conditional waiver from the Obama Administration).

Finally, with both sides of the aisle dissatisfied with NCLB, Congress has decided to take note of the lessons learned in the past 13 years and begin debates to replace the law. Meaningful changes in the law are far from a slam dunk; those on the left are calling for reforms as progressive as universal pre-kindergarten and those on the right wish to see more decision-making power reside in the states. If an agreement is to be struck, it will surely come at the end of impassioned and tumultuous debate.

The bill that has been brought to the Senate floor is sponsored by Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) — both of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, where the bill passed unanimously in April. The proposed bill calls for the continued use of mandated math and reading tests, but would allow states to decide what to do with their results. Furthermore, in direct response to the debate over Common Core, the bill would prohibit the federal government from requiring, or even encouraging, a nationwide set of academic standards.

The House of Representatives is set to debate their own version of the bill, sponsored by John Kline (R-MN), which includes giving states control over school accountability and a controversial school choice provision. This bill was set to be voted upon in February, but that vote was withdrawn because there was not enough support, even within the Republican majority, for it to pass — and the White House announced that it would be vetoed, should it reach the President.

Here’s a primer on some of the key issues set to unfold during the debate:

Veto Power. The White House has announced that it does not support either the House or Senate bills in their current form due to a lack of accountability. While they haven’t said that they would veto the Senate’s bill, they have made it clear that they hope to see improvements. Namely, they would like to see a plan for failing schools. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, pointed out, “To simply label a school as failing, that doesn’t change a kid’s life.”

It’s a civil rights issue. Although a school and its students are far more than a number, testing has allowed for a quantitative way to highlight the differences in quality of our country’s schools and has been particularly effective in bringing the black/white achievement gap out of the shadows. When the President and his Secretary of Education refer to accountability, they are, in many ways, referring to the federal government’s responsibility to figure out which of its citizens it is failing and fix it.

Testing, testing, and, oh wait, more testing. The country’s largest teacher’s union, The National Education Association, has long been calling for the elimination or severe reduction of standardized tests. Banking on a renewed anti-testing fervor stemming from frustration with the Common Core, their voice is sure to be heard in this debate. While testing is disruptive, wildly unpopular, and known to distract school systems from the true mission of educating children, another viable accountability option would have to be brought forward to see the elimination of testing. In the meantime, there’s a real chance the testing could be limited and the scores used in a different way.

Wish lists. It is impossible to overstate the importance of public education, and everyone wants to leave their mark on the issue. Bob Casey (D-PA) seeks to provide universal pre-kindergarten and believes he can fund it by closing a corporate loophole allowing US companies to move part of their business overseas in order to become foreign corporations for tax purposes. Pat Toomey (R-PA) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va) will ask for more detailed background checks of all school personnel. Other lawmakers are sure to add their opinions and addendums to the bill.

In the words of John F Kennedy, “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.” Nothing short of the fate of our country rests upon the education we provide to its children. Let us insist that our lawmakers take this opportunity to make sound, effective, and significant improvements to our education system.

May 20, 2015 – Arsenal For Democracy 128

Posted by Bill on behalf of the team.


Big Ideas for Reforming American Governance (and Economics): The Baja wage subsidy experiment, Expanding the House of Representatives. People: Bill, Nate. Produced: May 19th, 2015.

Correction: The number of residents in the UK was significantly misstated during this episode. The correct number is 64.5 million. We apologize for misspeaking.

Discussion Points:

– Should governments subsidize the difference between the minimum wage and a livable wage?
– Should the U.S. House be expanded to make districts smaller? What would happen if the there were 3,000 U.S. Representatives representing 106,000 people each?

Episode 128 (48 min):
AFD 128
(If you are unable to stream it in your browser on this page, try one of the subscription links below.)

Related Links/Stats

AFD: “Mexican state of Baja California to test government wage support”
Democracy Journal: House of Representatives ratios, 2008
London School of Economics: UK House of Commons ratios, 2011


RSS Feed: Arsenal for Democracy Feedburner
iTunes Store Link: “Arsenal for Democracy by Bill Humphrey”

And don’t forget to check out The Digitized Ramblings of an 8-Bit Animal, the video blog of our announcer, Justin.


It never ceases to amaze me how many current analyses of “polarization” between the parties in Congress skip over the multiple waves of party-switchers and solid-partisan district flips in the Solid South (and to a less noticeable extent the northeast in the opposite direction) from the late 1960s into the late 1990s.

Instead, the story is framed along the lines of “Oh my, where did this polarization come from? It just magically appeared! Why don’t they work together like they used to!”

Well, it was pretty easy to work across party lines when the Segregationist Pro-Corporate-Welfare Anti-Communist Democrats could vote together with the Ultra-Conservative Anti-Regulation Anti-Communist Republicans, while the liberal Democrats voted with the progressive Republicans.

Chart 2 at this link shows a pretty clear peak in party overlap on votes between the 1965 Civil Rights Act and the formal 1968 launch of the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy in Nixon’s first successful presidential campaign, which started to break and convert the Solid South from the Democrats to the Republicans.


In other words, before then, there was a phase where large sections of each party’s members of Congress actually probably belonged in the opposite party but were grouped for historical and geographical reasons (usually Civil War related) in the “wrong” party…and then that phase came to a crashing halt when Democrat Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and Republican Richard Nixon explicitly appealed to the angry southerners to leave the Democratic Party and join him. Voters and their Congressmen began switching in droves. As the Goldwater-Reagan wing gained control of the Republican Party from 1964 to 1980, in part on the strength of this reactionary influx in the Deep South, they in turn purged the moderate and liberal Republicans who represented the northern Lakes and New England states in the Senate and the northern cities in the House.

To explain shifts in voting behavior in Congress over the past 50 years, we need some way of visualizing ideological grouping distributions, not just separation of party affiliations, which in the past were often arbitrarily based in historic-geographic allegiances until more recently. (There are also geographic allegiances now, but it’s a very different kind.) It’s pretty hard to talk about “polarization” without acknowledging that the ideologies didn’t line up well with the party labels for quite a while in American history.

After all, cousins Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt more or less supported similar agendas as president, despite being from different parties, and they were each both warmly supported and deeply opposed by rival factions within their own parties. Conversely, progressive Governor Thomas E. Dewey and hardline conservative Senator Robert A. Taft both theoretically represented the Republican Party at the same time period but had almost polar opposite ideologies and issue positions.

There are no longer cross-party conservative coalitions and cross-party progressive coalitions in Congress. They have sorted almost entirely into their respective parties. Technically, that by definition means there’s “more” polarization in Congress, but only in a superficial sense. A more serious analysis would have to take into account whether moderate, conservative, and liberal members are voting less frequently together — or at least in combinations of two of the three — than they used to do, regardless of party label.

The bigger thing to worry about is not so much whether the parties have sorted themselves ideologically but how that development changes the role of rules and procedural hurdles in each chamber of Congress (and between chambers). If it’s now harder or easier for one particular ideological coalition to gain control of all power points in Congress by being in one party, instead of two, that changes what kind of proposed legislation makes it through to law.

In particular, I think it’s far more likely now that there will be no ideological overlap between the majority leadership and minority leadership — the people controlling the levers and valves on legislation — because the odds are more in favor of a liberal Democratic leadership facing off against a conservative Republican leadership, instead of liberals controlling both parties at the same time or conservatives controlling both parties at the same time, which was often a feature of mid-20th century Congress.