Signed, Sealed, Diminished: Postal Service Cuts Are Another Blow to the Public Good

Feb 11, 2013Tim Price

Policy choices drove the Postal Service into debt, but we can still choose to save it.

Policy choices drove the Postal Service into debt, but we can still choose to save it.

The news last week that the U.S. Postal Service plans to end Saturday delivery of regular mail provoked a wide range of reactions: anger from those who hope to prevent the cuts, praise from those who see it as a bold and necessary move, sadness from those mourning the end of an era, and denial from lawmakers who noted that it’s not entirely legal. Whatever their take, the fact that nearly everyone has an opinion on this policy shift shows how thoroughly the Postal Service has become woven into the fabric of American society. Many government agencies are facing cutbacks, but few have an influence as personal or as pervasive as the mailbox outside the front door. And when we check that mailbox by force of habit and remember why it’s empty, it may make us think twice about letting yet another pillar of public life in the U.S. be knocked down.

The blame for the Postal Service’s downward spiral is usually split between the Internet (you can’t include a funny video of a cat in a physical letter, so what good is it compared to e-mail?), private competition, and the most usual suspect of all, the United States Congress. The first two have some merit, but Congress, which has lately become the Kevin Bacon of looming disasters, never more than a few degrees removed from a crisis, is the biggest culprit here. In 2006, it imposed a wholly unique mandate that required the USPS to prefund health benefits for future retirees for 75 years, to the tune of about $5.5 billion a year. So far it’s placed $44 billion into that account while running losing about $30 billion. Now it’s planning service cuts that will save about $2 billion a year. You can work out the math on that one, even if our lawmakers can’t.

While contemplating the costs of the Postal Service, it’s also important to consider what we’re paying for. As of 2011, there were 35,119 postal facilities across the country processing 554 million pieces of mail every day. It may not be as polished as FedEx, but then again, FedEx couldn’t be as polished as FedEx without the help of the Postal Service, which delivers 30.4 percent of FedEx Ground shipments thanks to its presence in rural areas where private carriers fear to tread. To do all this, the Postal Service currently has 546,000 career employees, about 20 percent of whom are black. Further layoffs and service cuts will take a significant toll on communities that have already been disproportionately affected by the recession, from economically devastated towns that can’t sustain private carrier routes to minority groups suffering sky-high unemployment.

The USPS also has value beyond the daily churn of correspondence, commerce, and junk mail. Historian Gray Brechin notes that the New Deal’s public works projects included the construction of more than 1,100 post offices “designed…to elevate and inspire the public” and “distinguished by fine architecture, materials and detailing, as well as by a lavish programme of public art that, for the first time, reflected back to patrons and workers their regional identity.” FDR, himself an avid stamp collector, understood the value of public spaces and oversaw the construction of a vast network of facilities that would bind disparate communities together while serving as a vital supply line. It was also meant as a reminder of what Americans can achieve when united by common purpose. And now some people are ready to give up on it because the lines are too long.

In this light, attacks on the Postal Service look like another symptom of the general anti-government sentiment that has been undermining FDR’s legacy and the strength of our public institutions for decades. Like any service, public or private, the USPS should look to trim costs and adapt to customer demands if it can do so without compromising its quality of service or labor standards. But that’s a big “if,” and it’s hard to blame the agency for the fiscal hole it’s in when Congress has opted to micromanage it to death. Indeed, the prefunding mandate that’s driving the USPS into debt is a classic example of the conservative governing philosophy: come in, break stuff, then complain that it never worked in the first place. Some private firm must be able to do it better, even if it depends on publicly funded resources to get it done. And of course the object of their fixation would be postal workers’ future health benefits. As we’ve been taught from the endless attacks on Social Security and Medicare, the essence of greed in the modern workforce is the desire for a comfortable retirement.

We don’t have to let this narrative play out this way. With this and other public services on the chopping block, it’s time for Americans to have a serious debate about what we want from government and what it’s worth to us, in terms of both our budget and our national identity. Through its sheer omnipresence, the Postal Service and the cuts it’s facing may help Americans to grasp the full scope of what we stand to lose if we buy into the mantra that nothing that costs something is worth anything. It’s up to all of us to decide that the mail must go through.

Tim Price is Deputy Editor of Next New Deal. Follow him on Twitter @txprice.

Share This

In New Report, Millennials Envision a Government That Works for Them

Feb 7, 2013

The last election proved that the Millennial movement that helped elect Barack Obama in 2008 was no fluke, but it also highlighted the ways our system of government has grown outdated and unresponsive to the needs and values of young Americans. That's why the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network brought together more than 1,000 young people and 40 student writers from across the country to envision what a 21st century democracy should look like.

The last election proved that the Millennial movement that helped elect Barack Obama in 2008 was no fluke, but it also highlighted the ways our system of government has grown outdated and unresponsive to the needs and values of young Americans. That's why the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network brought together more than 1,000 young people and 40 student writers from across the country to envision what a 21st century democracy should look like. The result, Government By and For Millennial America, builds on past Campus Network projects including the Blueprint for Millennial America and the Budget for Millennial America. It reflects the ideals of a generation that believes strongly in the potential of government as a force for good while laying out a clear plan for how that potential can be reached.

Watch a video introduction to #GBAF and read the full report below. And for more, check out this post at The Nation by Campus Network student Erik Lampmann.

Government by and for Millennial America

Share This

No Pay, No Problem: Why Congress Doesn't Need Our Money

Jan 25, 2013Tim Price

One reason Congress is so dysfunctional is that wealthy lawmakers are insulated from everyday concerns like getting paid.

One reason Congress is so dysfunctional is that wealthy lawmakers are insulated from everyday concerns like getting paid.

This week, as part of a compromise to ward off a debt ceiling showdown and potential default, the House approved the No Budget, No Pay Act, which would withhold lawmakers’ paychecks starting April 15 unless they pass a budget. If you haven’t been keeping up with GOP talking points, this is the latest attempt to pressure Senate Democrats into producing a budget resolution, which they haven’t done in the last four years for various inane parliamentary reasons. But whatever you think of its intent, it’s an empty gesture and one that highlights the troubling disconnect between average Americans and their elected officials.

Despite its gimmicky origins, No Budget, No Pay has a certain intuitive appeal. As centrist commentator John Avlon writes, “If you don't get the job done at work, you won't get paid.” Sure, you or I would probably just get fired, but we don’t have gerrymandering to save us. Still, why should we reward Harry Reid and his crew for shirking their responsibilities while House Republicans have been keeping their noses to the grindstone and dutifully passing Paul Ryan’s Ayn Rand fan fiction?

For one thing, it’s unconstitutional. Not “unconstitutional” in the wingnut sense that cutting the crusts off your sandwich is unconstitutional if there’s a photo of Barack Obama doing it, but unconstitutional in the sense that the 27th Amendment specifically prohibits Congress from mucking around with its own pay unless there’s an intervening election. To get around this little detail, the act is designed so that the members’ checks get deposited into an escrow account until a) they pass a budget or b) the term ends in 2014, at which point they get paid in full either way. In other words, it’s less of a threat to their livelihood and more of an experiment in delayed gratification.

But a more significant problem is that most legislators probably couldn’t care less if their pay was withheld indefinitely. As of 2011, the average estimated wealth of members of Congress was $6.5 million in the House and $13.9 million in the Senate. And unlike many of their constituents, they haven’t exactly been struggling through lean times recently. While average American households saw their median net worth drop 39 percent from 2007 to 2010, lawmakers’ rose 5 percent during the same period. That’s not to say that every member of Congress is set for life; some are deep in debt like true red-blooded Americans. But threats to withhold pay are ineffective when most of our representatives have enough money in their rainy day funds to last them through monsoon season. And if worst comes to worst, they can always exit through the revolving door and join a few corporate boards to replenish their bank accounts.

This points to a larger problem with our political system, which is just how far removed our policymakers are from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans. In a 2005 study, Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels found that:

[S]enators appear to be considerably more responsive to the opinions of affluent constituents than to the opinions of middle-class constituents, while the opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent statistical effect on their senators’ roll call votes.

Read that again: if you’re a low-income voter, you and your policy preferences might as well not exist as far as your senators are concerned. While Bartels doesn’t provide a definitive explanation for these findings, he notes that “the fact that senators are themselves affluent, and in many cases extremely wealthy, hardly seems irrelevant.” Being rich frames the way our elected officials see the world, shapes their social circles, and determines their legislative priorities. In that sense, wealth is the incubator that hatches Washington’s deficit hawks.

Of course, wealth alone doesn’t determine a person’s politics. FDR was no pauper, but he fought for the common good and was labeled a class traitor for his efforts. But noblesse oblige isn’t what it used to be, and today’s well-heeled lawmakers seem more interested in scoring political points than addressing mass unemployment and soaring inequality. No Budget, No Pay won’t do anything to change that, and any consensus budget that it did produce would undoubtedly be laden with more unnecessary cuts to domestic spending and the social safety net. It’s a fair point that lawmakers shouldn’t get paid for a job they’re not doing, but they’re so insulated from reality that no amount of negative reinforcement short of voting them out of office is likely to have a significant impact. And until that happens, we don’t need more gimmicks to make them fall in line and pass an austerity budget. What we could use is a lot more traitors.

Tim Price is Deputy Editor of Next New Deal. Follow him on Twitter @txprice.

Share This

Obama's Other Message: Times Change and Government Changes With Them

Jan 23, 2013Jeff Madrick

The president didn't just make a case for big government; he argued that the government must adapt to meet its citizens' needs.

The president didn't just make a case for big government; he argued that the government must adapt to meet its citizens' needs.

Almost hidden in President Obama’s second inaugural address was a key idea that received little if any attention. The focus has been on the president's eloquent defense of collective government, and who couldn't be gratified by that? Time and again, he used the world “together” to describe the nation’s purpose. Government is about working together, and Obama very nicely made the case for it in the face of 40 years of pronouncements by those who disparage government and want to cut it down, if not out. Democrats, not just Republicans, have been leaders in this quest.

But for me, what was most interesting about Obama’s speech was the emphasis on how we must change with the times. I was interested because I wrote a book about this. I take no credit for Obama’s point, because my book was titled The Case for Big GovernmentI doubt he would be caught even in the privacy of his own bedroom reading a book with that title.

Seeing the title, many presumed I was writing about Keynesian policy. In fact, my argument was that the size of government is not the issue, the need for government is. I cited the work of economists who show that size and high taxes have not automatically deterred growth. But when I published this before the crash, Republicans in particular, but also some Democrats, kept talking about the original intentions of the Founders and were urging us not to go beyond the early purposes of government. That is where I focused my attention: the needs of government change as society, science, social thought,  technology, and expectations advance.

To say government must be small is nonsense. Government must be the size necessary to make a society and economy work, and that is not fixed -- nor could it possibly have been known by farmers in the late 1700s.

Here is what Obama said about change on Monday:

[W]e have always understood that when times change, so must we, that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges, that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. For the American people can no more meet the demands of today's world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias.

Let me reemphasize that this has been said before but not often enough. Surely it is not part of the media discourse and it is not part of the thinking of those budget writers in Washington who claim the federal government should be a fixed proportion of GDP. I refer of course to the Bowles-Simpson budget balancing plan that so many think is the height of good sense. They’d like to limit federal spending to 21 percent of GDP -- no matter that our society ages, that health care is more costly, that we need to educate preschool children and better educate those in higher grades as the world gets more competitive, that our poverty rate is still high, that our ability to create jobs is under severe challenge, and so on.  

There are no fixed rules for what government should do because we can’t anticipate the future. The colonial writers of America’s Constitution did not know we’d need high schools or highways, electricity or polio vaccines, MRI machines or antibiotics, fertilizers or pollution restraints, gasoline or wind power, or computer chips. They didn’t even know we’d need railroads.

Our view of human rights also changes. Slavery is now abhorrent to almost all, women are equal, those with birth defects require help, and very young children, we have learned, benefit greatly from educationally nourishing environments.

Most of this requires government, and President Obama recognizes this. His agenda, what we must now do “together,” includes climate change, equal rights for women and gays, gun control, and a sensible international policy for the times. He goes on, “So we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work hard or learn more, reach higher. But while the means will change, our purpose endures.”

The means will indeed change, and the nation would do well to accept that truth, or it will not rise to the challenges of this new century. I originally titled my book The Purpose of Government. Maybe that would have been better. But the point remains the same. Shed ideology about government and fixed ideas and turn our attention to what must be done. Yes, my guess is it would mean bigger government. But so what?

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick is the Director of the Roosevelt Institute’s Rediscovering Government initiative and author of Age of Greed.

Share This

Two Inaugurals, Two Messages: From Mushiness to a Clear, Progressive Vision

Jan 22, 2013Richard Kirsch

President Obama's second inaugural moved past a vague message of compromise and charted a progressive course toward the future.

Four years ago, I stood in the cold listening to President Obama’s first inaugural address. I remember it leaving me cold. This year, in the warmth of my den, the president’s clear projection of progressive values as core American values warmed my heart.

President Obama's second inaugural moved past a vague message of compromise and charted a progressive course toward the future.

Four years ago, I stood in the cold listening to President Obama’s first inaugural address. I remember it leaving me cold. This year, in the warmth of my den, the president’s clear projection of progressive values as core American values warmed my heart.

I just looked back at Obama’s first inaugural address to see why I found it so disappointing. The speech starts by acknowledging the crisis of 2008, with the economy collapsing and war raging. As required, the president says that America is up to the challenge. The address includes a short list of progressive points on the economy, climate change, and the role of government. But these are interspersed with acknowledgments of the validity of conservative arguments. There is no unifying, values-based narrative or vision.

What a difference from yesterday's address, which starts with the promise of the Declaration of Independence – we are created equal in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness – and then unabashedly extends that to the struggle for civil rights, which Obama has often shied away from being seen as championing. He grounds our 200-year history “through blood drawn by lash, and blood drawn by sword," reminding us that "no union…could survive half-slave, and half-free.”

From there, the president charges directly to the historic role of government in building our physical and human capital. And unlike four years ago – when he first trumpeted the role of free markets and then noted the need for regulation – he says unambiguously, “Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play” and that “a great nation must care for the vulnerable and protect people from life’s worst hazards and misfortunes.”

Even when the president recognizes values shared by progressives and conservatives – skepticism that about central authority and the importance of initiative and personal responsibility – he quickly affirms that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.” To meet the future, the president says, will take the kind of things government does – educate children, invest in infrastructure – declaring, “Now more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation and one people.”

From there he makes it clear that our economic success is undermined when “a few do very well and growing many barely make it.” Instead, "America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work, when the wages of honest labor will liberate families from the brink of hardship.”

Obama then begins to build a bridge linking the dignity of the individual with the collective, which he expands as his address progresses. The first span of the bridge is to connect the prospects of a “little girl born into the bleakest poverty” with freedom and equality “not just in the eyes of God, but also in our own.” He continues to build the bridge, insisting that in updating government programs, we should aim to “reward the effort and determination of every single American.” He then makes it clear that this includes keeping the “commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security,” which “strengthen us” and “do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this nation great.”

The president then puts forth a values-based linkage of government's role in tackling climate change, refuting climate deniers and linking addressing climate change to our “economic vitality” and natural “national treasure.”

Reaching to a preacher’s eloquence, the president affirms that he is not leaving anyone behind in our national journey. The cadences of “our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts," “our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” “no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote,” “immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity,” and “children from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown” resound with the voice and spirit of Dr. King. The president has built a bridge that links individual initiative and responsibility to oneself and each other with a values-driven role of government that unites our diversity on the American journey.

Progressives need to pay close attention to another bridge Barack Obama has built here. He has integrated often separate strains: identity politics and the politics of government playing a key role in building an economy based on equal opportunity. The more we link those, the more we will create a story about America that commands a lasting majority.

No progressive story of America would be complete without putting movement at its core, which the president does forcefully in his alliterative embracing of “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.” Notably, these reminders come at the end of his discussion of our role in the world, as he links American movements to Dr. King’s proclamation that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth.

He doesn’t leave the call for action in the past. His concluding paragraphs clarify that “You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course.”

The president will need lots of help setting that course over the next four years; surely he’ll be tested to keep to it himself. Our job is to do everything we can to assist him.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

 

Sign post image via Shutterstock.com.

Share This

Leading from Behind is No Way to Lead: What a Second-Term Obama Can Learn from FDR

Jan 17, 2013David B. Woolner

To achieve progress in his second term, President Obama must recognize that his opponents aren't really interested in a "grand bargain."

To achieve progress in his second term, President Obama must recognize that his opponents aren't really interested in a "grand bargain."

My fellow countrymen. When four years ago we met to inaugurate a President, the Republic, single-minded in anxiety, stood in spirit here. We dedicated ourselves to the fulfillment of a vision—to speed the time when there would be for all the people that security and peace essential to the pursuit of happiness. We of the Republic pledged ourselves to drive from the temple of our ancient faith those who had profaned it; to end by action, tireless and unafraid, the stagnation and despair of that day. We did those first things first.

Our covenant with ourselves did not stop there. Instinctively we recognized a deeper need—the need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization… To do this we knew that we must find practical controls over blind economic forces and blindly selfish men. —Franklin D. Roosevelt, Second Inaugural Address, January 20, 1937

Just over three-quarters of a century ago, in his second inaugural address, Franklin Roosevelt, reflecting on the accomplishments of the New Deal in mitigating the worst effects of the Great Depression, noted that “the greatest change we have witnessed [over the past four years] has been the change in the moral climate in America.” Among “men of goodwill,” he went on, “science and democracy together offer an ever-richer life and ever-larger satisfaction to the individual. With this change in our moral climate and our rediscovered ability to improve our economic order, we have set our feet upon the road of enduring progress.”

FDR based this assumption on the idea that what had transpired over the course of his first term—a first term which brought us, among other things, Social Security, unemployment insurance, the right of workers to engage in collective bargaining, the separation of commercial and investment banking, the establishment of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the establishment of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the largest single drop in the unemployment rate in the nation’s history to date, and an average annual economic growth rate of 14 percent—was directly tied to a new understanding of the role of government. This new understanding, he noted, was based on the “fulfillment of a [collective] vision…to speed the time when there would be for all the people that security and peace essential to the pursuit of happiness.”

Equally important, however, was FDR’s assertion that in arriving at this new vision of government the people understood that it was critical to find “practical controls over blind economic forces and blindly selfish men,” to recognize the “need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization.”

In essence, what FDR offered the American people was a new vision for the future. This new vision was based the fundamental idea that it was only the power of democratic government that could provide the means to counter “the blind economic forces” and “blindly selfish men” who had profaned democracy and brought the country to ruin in the dark days of the early 1930s.

There is much in this speech that still holds relevance for Americans today. In the massive loss of manufacturing jobs and the globalization of the world’s economy in the last few decades, we can see at work “the blind economic forces” of which FDR spoke. And in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the power of the “blindly selfish men” on Wall Street is all too familiar. So too—thanks to the onset of the Great Recession—is the anxiety, fear, and bewilderment that he noted plagued the American people on the eve of his first inaugural. What is missing, sadly, is the contravening narrative, the covenant that FDR made with the American people, the understanding that the reforms achieved in his first term had made the exercise of all power more democratic by bringing:

…private autocratic powers into their proper subordination to the public’s government. The legend that they were invincible—above and beyond the processes of a democracy—has been shattered. They have been challenged and beaten.

President Obama has for the most part shied away from the idea that the real challenge to our democracy stems not from the dysfunctional nature of Congress, but rather from the forces of wealth and privilege who see themselves as “above and beyond the process of democracy.” Rather than take on these forces directly, he speaks instead of asking the wealthy to “pay their fair share in taxes,” of building a consensus, of taking a “balanced approach,” of striking a “grand bargain” that would make sure that middle-class folks aren’t bearing the entire burden and sacrifice when it comes to some of these big challenges.” In taking this approach, the president argues that he is following the will of the American people, who made it clear through his re-election that they want compromise and action. These may be noble sentiments, but they fall far short of expressing what the American people truly want from their president, which above all else is leadership.

The sad fact is that we now live in a society where the income disparity between the rich and the rest of us now stands at its worst level since the late 1920s—just before the onset of the Great Depression. The Congressional Budget Office, for example, recently reported that between 1979 and 2007 the top 1 percent of households doubled their share of pretax income while the bottom 80 percent of American households actually saw their share of income decline. In a similar study, a recent Census Bureau report notes that the average white male worker earns roughly the same hourly wage that he would have made in 1978, adjusted for inflation, while the average CEO’s pay has increased by roughly 600 percent.

As was the case in the 1920s, such a drastic mal-distribution of wealth is clearly not sustainable, as it makes it very hard for the average worker to sustain the level of purchases necessary to maintain our largely consumer-based economy. Hence, if we truly want to find a way to grow our economy—as the president insists he does—then we must find a way to address this critical structural imbalance in our economy. And this means real reform, the type of reforms we saw in the New Deal, reforms that brought about the birth of the post-1945 modern American middle class that now seems to be so rapidly disappearing.

So rather than beat about the bushes, President Obama might do well to recognize—as FDR did—that the forces of wealth and privilege weighted against him are not really interested in a compromise or a “grand bargain.” What they want is to maintain the economic and political status quo in what FDR once rightly called the “false belief” that happiness can only be achieved “in the mad chase of evanescent profits.”

To overcome these entrenched forces, President Obama will need to provide the country with much more than his somewhat vague efforts to meet the other side halfway. He must learn to recognize that above all else it is his responsibility to give voice to the common aspiration of the people and provide them with a vision for the future -- a vision that recognizes government’s fundamental responsibility to fashion a more just and equitable society, a vision based on the truism, as FDR said in his second inaugural, that:

We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics. Out of the collapse of a prosperity whose builders boasted their practicality has come the conviction that in the long run economic morality pays. We are beginning to wipe out the line that divides the practical from the ideal; and in so doing we are fashioning an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world.

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

Share This

We Could Use More Public Servants Like Jack Lew

Jan 16, 2013Bo Cutter

Despite criticism from the left, Jack Lew has a commitment to public service and a deep understanding of public finance.

I've already been fairly widely quoted in support of Jack Lew's nomination as Treasury Secretary. And for full disclosure, I supported his appointment as head of OMB and Chief of Staff of the White House, and he's been a longtime friend.

Despite criticism from the left, Jack Lew has a commitment to public service and a deep understanding of public finance.

I've already been fairly widely quoted in support of Jack Lew's nomination as Treasury Secretary. And for full disclosure, I supported his appointment as head of OMB and Chief of Staff of the White House, and he's been a longtime friend.

I don't much care what the hard right thinks about Jack Lew, but it is irritating to see the left instantly take up again its incessant twin rituals of circular firing squads and endogenous cannibalism -- dining on one's allies. Thus, Jack Lew is a dangerous budget hawk, responsible for Clinton administration financial regulatory mistakes, a "gofer" rather than an idea man, and nowhere near as good as the people on some other list someone can dredge up.

So just to restate the points, Jack Lew has spent essentially his entire career in public life -- on the Hill, in the executive branch, and with universities --  though he did spend about 18 months with Citigroup, which I suspect he'll never live down. He has succeeded in every role he has taken on. He is not spectacular -- from my fairly close observations, as they used to say in my high school, he brings his lunch and does an all-day job. He believes deeply in the value of the public sector, and as deeply in the importance of a high-quality public sector, in the importance of getting it right. 

He hasn't spent a lifetime in the financial private sector -- I'm personally delighted President Obama did not go that way -- but there is no one who knows and understands the complexities of our public finance better than Jack Lew. People always dismiss that as a green eye shade, low order kind of quality. Understanding budgets and public finance is for people who wear breast pocket pen protectors, not for the higher order idea men and women.  

But this is a very good nomination, and the odds are high that Jack Lew will be a very good Treasury Secretary. Much more importantly, Jack Lew is the kind of person we all would like to see in public life. 

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.

Share This

Using the "Nuclear Option" for Filibuster Reform Endangers Cooperation

Jan 7, 2013Joe Swanson

Filibuster reform is increasingly important, but just as important is the way it's achieved.

Filibuster reform is increasingly important, but just as important is the way it's achieved.

In recent years, Congress has achieved several unprecedented failures. Since 2007, an estimated 391 filibusters forced cloture votes. Compare that to only 49 cloture votes between 1919 and 1970. In the 112th congress alone, members of Congress have accomplished the passage of a mere 219 bills, many of which were housekeeping measures such as naming post office buildings or extending existing laws. This output has set the record as the least productive Congress in record keeping history, including the 80th congress in 1947, infamously known as the “Do Nothing Congress.” In addition, they have won the reproach of the people with a 10 percent approval rating earlier in the year, the lowest approval rating Gallup has reported in its history. These statistics not only document the abuse of the filibuster and its consequences, but also demonstrate that the reasons behind our legislative gridlock reach beyond the filibuster or even Senate rules.

Our lawmakers have lost the ability to compromise. While the filibuster was once a tool designed to increase the space for debate, it now has the polar opposite effect. However, changing the rules may only exacerbate the inability to compromise. If done through fundamentally uncompromising partisan political tools, the very goal of reforming the filibuster to increase debate and the functionality of the Senate will both be at risk.

Filibuster reformers have so far offered three solutions. First, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid proposed eliminating the filibuster on the steps necessary to go to House-Senate conference and has given his support to Senator Tom Udall’s proposal to eliminate the filibuster on the motion to proceed. Senator Jeff Merkley has also authored the “talking filibuster” proposal, which requires senators seeking to filibuster to debate the issue they are blocking.

If our goal is to center the Senate’s focus on debate rather than mindless obstruction, the first two proposals are common sense and moderate changes that get us there. They neither seek the destruction of the filibuster nor obstructionism. Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University, notes that eliminating the filibuster on the motion to proceed would make it easier for the majority to set the legislative agenda and bring bills to the floor for debate. But it wouldn’t stop the minority from filibustering a bill’s final passage. Rather than eliminate obstructionism, “it might shift it and put focus elsewhere.” This change in focus would be a shift toward debate, thus cultivating the Senate’s true purpose.

Though the “talking filibuster” proposal’s attempts to return the filibuster to the days of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is intuitively appealing, it comes with several pitfalls that would need to be resolved in the final proposal. For example, one of the fundamental problems in the proposal is that it does not take into account the possibility of the existence of a minority greater than two or three senators. Today, our senate has become subject to such partisanship that most filibustering minorities carry around 40 votes, if not more. Therefore, under the current provisions of the “talking filibuster,” filibusters would, as Richard A. Arenberg puts it, “become merely a scheduling exercise.”

Though reforms are absolutely necessary given the unsupportable gridlock currently choking our legislative process, and the reforms suggested by Senators Reid and Udall are moderate and viable, the manner in which these reforms will be enacted should be the focus of any reform efforts.

Unfortunately, there is talk from the leadership in the reform movement of the use of the constitutional/nuclear option. The use of this option would eliminate the need to speak to, or compromise with, any senators in opposition to the reform, because the nuclear option would only need 51 votes to change the rules (as opposed to the two-thirds majority vote that would be needed to change Senate rules on any other day than the day the Senate opens in the new year). According to Udall, reformers already have the 51 votes needed to impose the nuclear option. Not only will the neglect of nearly half of the Senate further aggravate partisan tension, many in opposition fear where the nuclear option may lead the Senate.

If the nuclear option is used at the beginning of the 113th congress, it will stand as a dangerous new precedent. Many claim the move could fundamentally change the Senate, an institution designed to protect the rights of the minority, into a body annually altered to create the roads necessary for majorities to pass legislation while minimizing any need to compromise with minority parties, thus creating a tyranny of the majority.

If the nuclear option is not used, then reformers must find a 67-vote majority to change Senate rules. However, many would ask how they could possibly find the 67 votes if a majority often cannot even scrape together 60 votes to file cloture. The answer is simple: senators would learn to compromise as they have in the past.

In 2005, former President George W. Bush’s presidential nominations were subject to heavy filibustering and, just as today, obstructionism became so damaging it came to the point that Republicans were threatening to reform the filibuster via the nuclear option. To avoid setting this dangerous precedent, senators created the “Gang of 14,” seven Democrats and seven Republicans who came together to negotiate. They produced a signed agreement whereby the seven Democrats would no longer filibuster judicial nominees except in “extraordinary circumstances.” In return, the seven Republicans would not vote to enact the “nuclear option.”

It is worth noting that in 2005, many of the statements surrounding the argument seemed to have flip-flopped as the minority in 2005 now stands as the majority in 2012 and vice versa. Therefore, reformers threatening to utilize the nuclear option should understand that they will be playing by the same precedent when they become the safeguards of minority rights.

The obstruction in 2005 may be the closest example we can cite of a debilitating gridlock that nearly resulted in the utilization of the nuclear option to reform the filibuster. However, the current state of uncompromising politics that has plagued our legislative branch is unprecedented. As David Waldman points out at Daily Kos, the entire argument surrounding filibuster reform in 2005 addresses an entirely different aspect. Moreover, in January 2011 an attempt to curb abuse of the filibuster and avoid the nuclear option through a “Gentleman’s Agreement” between Senate majority and minority leaders Reid and McConnell quickly fell apart. This all demonstrates that the chances of any compromise, and especially one that will amount to a 67-majority vote, are very slim. Nonetheless, the Senate must take that chance.

We must begin to reward senators belonging to the minority who maintain the ability to compromise, even if they are few. There are currently no proposals that suggest the complete elimination of the filibuster, so even if reform is enacted, Democrats are still going to have to work with Republicans, even if only to achieve a successful cloture vote. Therefore, reformers cannot burn bridges as they would with the nuclear option. Breaking a filibuster can be a matter of persuading only one or two senators. With Democrats on the brink of a 55-vote control of the 113th Senate, only five Republican votes are necessary. Perhaps refusing to use the nuclear option would lead to the political capital necessary to persuade these Republicans and set a precedent of compromise and cooperation.

Thankfully, talks have already begun between Senate reformers and opposition leaders to avoid the nuclear option. Senators from both sides, led by McCain and Levin, have recently offered a counter proposal that would last two years and give the majority leader two new methods to block a filibuster on starting debates, going to conference with the House, and some presidential nominations.

Though Senator Merkley is not satisfied with the counter proposal, claiming, “The heart of the current paralysis, the silent, secret filibuster, is not addressed by the Levin-McCain proposal,” the offer demonstrates the signs of bipartisan support and openness to reform needed to render the nuclear option unnecessary. In exchange for not going nuclear, both sides should agree to work together to make formal, reasonable, and viable rule changes that will curb filibuster abuse and reestablish our Senate’s paramount ability to compromise.

Joe Swanson is a junior at Wake Forest University where he is co-president of the Wake Forest Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network and a member of the chapter's Equal Justice Policy Center.

Share This

New Inquiry's Drive; Twilight of the Bureaucratic Elite

Dec 3, 2012Mike Konczal

The New Inquiry is running a subscription drive for their $2/month pdf magazine and for keeping the site running and free. Given that their project is very different than this blog, I'm not sure how to recommend them. So here are some of my favorite 2012 items from them, which should give you a sense of whether or not you'd enjoy subscribing yourself.

Given that the project emphasizes younger voices outside institutions currently circling their wagons, a lot of their writing is more interesting and closer to the issues at hand than what you'd normally read. Atossa Abrahamian's piece on Going Lebron and Malcolm Harris' review of Julia Leigh’s film Sleeping Beauty are two of the more interesting pieces on youth unemployment I've read, particularly since they approach it from a much different angle than the normal stories. David Noriega's piece on serving as a Civilian Complaint Review Board investigator for the NYPD is again another way of understanding NYPD abuses outside the regular critique of abuses. I found Kate Redburn's piece on the GLBTQ case against hate crimes laws convincing and well-argued. Molly Knefel's piece reflecting on teaching and her brother's arrest was a fascinating look into dealing with the realities of policing and privilege. Freddie DeBoer's review of Twilight of the Elites was an aggressive, left-wing review unlikely to be seen at other venues. This excerpt (and interview) from Kate Zambreno's Heroines on the role of madness, gender and genius is brilliant. And Lili Loofbourow's review of the movie Brave was the best read of it I've seen.

There's a blogging sabermetrics element to the site, either publishing writers who are up-and-coming, giving talented people in other fields a space to write with good editing, or providing a more prominent home for some of the Internet's better bloggers. Aaron Bady, who had the best take on the Mike Daisey flap, found a new home for his zunguzungu blog there, as did other blogs I enjoy like those of Rob Horning and Austerity Kitchen. If you find this or other articles by them interesting, and are looking for new places to read, consider subscribing.

====

While going through those New Inquiry articles, I re-read Freddie DeBoer's review of Chris Hayes's Twilight of the Elites. One of the challenges of the book is that Hayes doesn't actually want to tear down the meritocracy period or wage war against all institutions -- there's no "and good riddance" subtitle. I noticed that this is a postiive tension in my review of the book for Dissent, because it allows the book to come up with a model of how the meritocratic elite function in society and ways in which it fails, pointing to possible better ways.

But why the ambivalence? Freddie argues that mainstream liberals can't cope with the implications. They are used to proposing "a moderate, capitalism-sustaining set of policy proposals" because, either professionally or ideologically, "alternatives to capitalism are beyond the realms of acceptable discussion."

Maybe. Post-Dworkin, there's been a lot of energy in fleshing out a liberal project that is, to use the jargon, "ambition-sensitive and endowment-insensitive," so I don't think it is a complete blindspot. The book argues, following Robert Michels' arguments in Political Parties, that some level of stratification and power is inevitable to any sufficiently large and important enterprise. The important part is to have that stratification best embody democratic principles, particularly by resisting ossification, and keep the project as a search for and a process of democracy.

But I think the book gives a very clear and specific reason I haven't seen emphasized on why it thinks a meritocratic elite is necessary - we need it to combat global warming. From Twilight:

Certain political issues do not require elite mediation...that doesn't hold for global warming, which I would argue is the single most pressing challenge our civilization faces...Here, we need elites and experts to tell us it's happening and that we have to take steps to prevent it. Implementing corrective policy on the scale necessary requires, as a precondition, a robust and widely shared level of pubic trust that climate scientists and the political leaders who favor a carbon policy are telling us the truth. But the crisis of authority makes that impossible...

Progress is dependent upon a productive and dynamic tension between institutionalism and insurrectionism. Insurrectionists keep our institutions honest. Institutionalists are stewards of our collective public life...without the social cohesion that trusted institutions provide, we cannot produce the level of consensus necessary to confront our greatest challenges. I believe the most important of these is climate change.

Without functioning institutions, trustworthy because some ideal of merit is guiding credentials and access, we can't tackle global warming. We can't trust the scientists to diagnosis the problem, or the bureaucrats to carry out the policy solutions.

Abstracting away from the specifics of the book, I wonder how much a meritocratic elite is necessary for social democratic liberalism generally. If you are going to have a bureaucratic system determining access and pricing of health insurance, projecting the costs of old age pensions, determining what kinds of activities count as market-making for financial regulations, figuring out the costs of pollution, etc., you'll need some way of ensuring that this system is accountable and competent.

But, and here I think the book misses the opportunity to discuss this, does that require a meritocracy as we understand it? How does the need for good government policy carried out well square with, or contrast against, the winner-take-all form of meritocracy, where everything is collapsable into a combination of wealth and IQ? Competence, accountability, a spirit of public service, and dependability are missing from our elite, though they are values that are, or should be, prized in a bureaucracy.

I think I'm going to have to spend some time in 2013 coming up with a better working theory of the bureaucracy, especially how we want it to be. What features does it take from our meritocracy and, more importantly, in what ways can it serve as a corrective? Several people noted to me that the ethos of public service is one of the things missing from the paper I just wrote on the general case for public options, as a public service ethic is exactly what you don't get from private provisioning. What should I be reading?

 

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
  

The New Inquiry is running a subscription drive for their $2/month pdf magazine and for keeping the site running and free. Given that their project is very different than this blog, I'm not sure how to recommend them. So here are some of my favorite 2012 items from them, which should give you a sense of whether or not you'd enjoy subscribing yourself.

Given that the project emphasizes younger voices outside institutions currently circling their wagons, a lot of their writing is more interesting and closer to the issues at hand than what you'd normally read. Atossa Abrahamian's piece on Going Lebron and Malcolm Harris' review of Julia Leigh’s film Sleeping Beauty are two of the more interesting pieces on youth unemployment I've read, particularly since they approach it from a much different angle than the normal stories. David Noriega's piece on serving as a Civilian Complaint Review Board investigator for the NYPD is again another way of understanding NYPD abuses outside the regular critique of abuses. I found Kate Redburn's piece on the GLBTQ case against hate crimes laws convincing and well-argued. Molly Knefel's piece reflecting on teaching and her brother's arrest was a fascinating look into dealing with the realities of policing and privilege. Freddie DeBoer's review of Twilight of the Elites was an aggressive, left-wing review unlikely to be seen at other venues. This excerpt (and interview) from Kate Zambreno's Heroines on the role of madness, gender and genius is brilliant. And Lili Loofbourow's review of the movie Brave was the best read of it I've seen.

There's a blogging sabermetrics element to the site, either publishing writers who are up-and-coming, giving talented people in other fields a space to write with good editing, or providing a more prominent home for some of the Internet's better bloggers. Aaron Bady, who had the best take on the Mike Daisey flap, found a new home for his zunguzungu blog there, as did other blogs I enjoy like those of Rob Horning and Austerity Kitchen. If you find this or other articles by them interesting, and are looking for new places to read, consider subscribing.

====

While going through those New Inquiry articles, I re-read Freddie DeBoer's review of Chris Hayes's Twilight of the Elites. One of the challenges of the book is that Hayes doesn't actually want to tear down the meritocracy period or wage war against all institutions -- there's no "and good riddance" subtitle. I noticed that this is a postiive tension in my review of the book for Dissent, because it allows the book to come up with a model of how the meritocratic elite function in society and ways in which it fails, pointing to possible better ways.

But why the ambivalence? Freddie argues that mainstream liberals can't cope with the implications. They are used to proposing "a moderate, capitalism-sustaining set of policy proposals" because, either professionally or ideologically, "alternatives to capitalism are beyond the realms of acceptable discussion."

Maybe. Post-Dworkin, there's been a lot of energy in fleshing out a liberal project that is, to use the jargon, "ambition-sensitive and endowment-insensitive," so I don't think it is a complete blindspot. The book argues, following Robert Michels' arguments in Political Parties, that some level of stratification and power is inevitable to any sufficiently large and important enterprise. The important part is to have that stratification best embody democratic principles, particularly by resisting ossification, and keep the project as a search for and a process of democracy.

But I think the book gives a very clear and specific reason I haven't seen emphasized on why it thinks a meritocratic elite is necessary - we need it to combat global warming. From Twilight:

Certain political issues do not require elite mediation...that doesn't hold for global warming, which I would argue is the single most pressing challenge our civilization faces...Here, we need elites and experts to tell us it's happening and that we have to take steps to prevent it. Implementing corrective policy on the scale necessary requires, as a precondition, a robust and widely shared level of pubic trust that climate scientists and the political leaders who favor a carbon policy are telling us the truth. But the crisis of authority makes that impossible...

Progress is dependent upon a productive and dynamic tension between institutionalism and insurrectionism. Insurrectionists keep our institutions honest. Institutionalists are stewards of our collective public life...without the social cohesion that trusted institutions provide, we cannot produce the level of consensus necessary to confront our greatest challenges. I believe the most important of these is climate change.

Without functioning institutions, trustworthy because some ideal of merit is guiding credentials and access, we can't tackle global warming. We can't trust the scientists to diagnosis the problem, or the bureaucrats to carry out the policy solutions.

Abstracting away from the specifics of the book, I wonder how much a meritocratic elite is necessary for social democratic liberalism generally. If you are going to have a bureaucratic system determining access and pricing of health insurance, projecting the costs of old age pensions, determining what kinds of activities count as market-making for financial regulations, figuring out the costs of pollution, etc., you'll need some way of ensuring that this system is accountable and competent.

But, and here I think the book misses the opportunity to discuss this, does that require a meritocracy as we understand it? How does the need for good government policy carried out well square with, or contrast against, the winner-take-all form of meritocracy, where everything is collapsable into a combination of wealth and IQ? Competence, accountability, a spirit of public service, and dependability are missing from our elite, though they are values that are, or should be, prized in a bureaucracy.

I think I'm going to have to spend some time in 2013 coming up with a better working theory of the bureaucracy, especially how we want it to be. What features does it take from our meritocracy and, more importantly, in what ways can it serve as a corrective? Several people noted to me that the ethos of public service is one of the things missing from the paper I just wrote on the general case for public options, as a public service ethic is exactly what you don't get from private provisioning. What should I be reading?

 

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
  

Share This

Mike Konczal: Is Occupy a Small Government Movement?

Nov 29, 2012

In the latest episode of the Roosevelt Institute's Bloggingheads series, Fireside Chats, Fellow Mike Konczal talks to Yale JD/PhD candidate Jeremy Kessler about the intersection of the law and the left and about

In the latest episode of the Roosevelt Institute's Bloggingheads series, Fireside Chats, Fellow Mike Konczal talks to Yale JD/PhD candidate Jeremy Kessler about the intersection of the law and the left and about leftists who dissent from mainstream progressivism. In the clip below, they discuss whether the Occupy movement, which Mike says has "made a comeback recently" with Strike Debt and Occupy Sandy, represents a libertarian rejection of the state rather than a progressive revolution.

Mike notes that despite Occupy's renewed vigor, some progressives continue to write "quasi-obituaries" that paint it as an aimless anarchist movement. Critics argue that "when you think of them creating a whole new world in Zuccotti Park" it sounds like "the gulches of Ayn Rand novels," and that "a lot of this focus on mutual aid essentially fills in for a rapidly receding government presence under neoliberalism." Mike says this can be seen with Occupy Sandy, which essentially serves as a replacement for FEMA, or the push for homeschooling, which is "just amplifying the way the state is privatizing and dismantling public education." But while Jeremy admits "there is a lot of allergy to the idea of centralized power" in the movement, he and Mike agree that it advances the left's cause by highlighting the failure of the neoliberal state and the "zones of privation" that the shrinking of government has created.

For more, including their discussion of the changing politics of the Supreme Court and the conservative police state, check out the full video below:

Share This

Pages