Thursday, May 31, 2012

An American in Moscow: Reporting on the American Elections from Russia

Moscow State University
Arbat street (Арба́т) Moscow

I file this blog from Moscow, Russia. I am attending a conference entitled “Public Administration in the XXI Century: Traditions and Innovations,” sponsored by the School of Public Administration, Moscow State University, May 29-31 (2012). The conference theme was advice to the new Russian authorities after the election of President Putin. I was asked to give a paper about the American elections and US-Russian elections. My paper was entitled: “The 2012 American Elections and Beyond: Explaining the United States to Russian Authorities.” I have provided an excerpt of the paper below which describes the context of paper along with some of my conclusions.

The conference was very high profile this year. The opening session featured several Russian officials and the US Ambassador to the Russian Federation Michael McFaul. I had a chance to meet him on Tuesday. My talk was the first paper of the conference on Wednesday morning and it was well received with significant discussion. Russians are keenly interested in the USA and out elections.

In case you are wondering, I speak very little Russian and rely on my student interpreters.

This was my fourth trip to Moscow and my third to this conference. I have grown to love the city and its people. I have many former students here and enjoy simply walking the streets, sitting in cafes, or walking the streets with them. I have been to the Kremlin, Red Square, the Bolshoi Theater, and many more places.  I returned yesterday to Arbat street (Арба́т) located in the historic center of Moscow. It is a wonderful street of shops, sidewalk cafes, artists, and just fun.  This is a definite recommendation for anyone. Whatever stereotypes you have of Russia, let me say the people are warm and dear.

Here are my remarks from my paper.

The 2012 American Elections and Beyond: Explaining the United States to Russian Authorities
  1. Introduction
    Changing domestic conditions within the Russian Federation present a challenge to its newly elected leaders. These challenges include economic growth and development and responding to changing national demographics and political demands from various constituencies, both old and young. The elections of March 4, 2012 sent important signals to the Russian government regarding the peoples’ expectations for the future, and interpreting and reacting to these electoral demands will be an important task for the authorities.

    But the Russian Federation does not live in isolation. It exists in a global economic-political system where it has to react and interact with other international actors such as other states. These states can have a significant impact upon both the international behavior of Russia but also upon domestic politics. For example, a renewed global recession, a decision by Israel to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, or a fluctuation in global energy prices, could impact the domestic Russian economy.

    Thus, the 2012 Russian elections are not the only ones the authorities should be concerned about. On 6 November 2012 the United States will be holding national elections. In that election voters will select a new president as well members of it national legislature or Congress. The results of these elections could have a significant impact upon Russia. But for many Russians, the American elections are perplexing (the same may be said for many Americans too!). Even though they do not take place until November 2012, many may wonder who will challenge Barack Obama for president, or what political party will control the Congress, or simply more generally, what the election will mean for the future of the United States and with that, the Russian Federation?

    This article briefly describes the current state of American politics and what the 2012 elections may signal for the future of the United States. It seeks to explain the way the American elections operate, the political and economic factors affecting party politics and the elections, and describe possible electoral scenarios and what this might mean for the United States and Russia in 2013 and beyond.  The basic thesis is twofold. First, regardless of the election results in November 2012 there will be significant continuity in American foreign policy, but different election scenarios could produce important changes in American domestic policy that have international consequences, even for Russia. Second, regardless of the election, the United States faces certain long term challenges that will impact it internationally.

  2. Possible Political Scenarios
    Barack Obama will not have an easy election. However, polls again suggest that if he were to run against one of the four current Republican presidential candidates, he would win.  But because the economy or gas prices could change quickly, these factors could affect his reelection. The same is true were Israel to bomb Iran. The best prediction right now is the Obama wins reelection.

    It seems unlikely at this time that the Democrats will be able to win enough seats to regain control of the House of Representatives. It will probably remain Republican. The partisan or party control of the Senate could rest with either the Republicans or Democrats.

    The most likely prediction is that Obama remains president of the United States with Republicans controlling both houses of Congress. This would be divided government. Other scenarios are that Obama wins and the Democrats control one house of Congress and the Republicans the other. The third scenario is Republicans win the presidency and take control of one or both houses of Congress. The least likely scenario is that the Democrats control the presidency and both houses of Congress.

    Regardless of whichever of these scenarios occurs, there will be minimal changes in U.S. foreign policy toward Russia. Moreover, unless Republicans win the presidency and both houses of Congress, there will be minimal change in defense and international policy. If Republicans did take control of Congress and the presidency, there might be more willingness to use military options against Syria or to support Israel. Most of the major changes that might occur after the 2012 elections have an impact more on domestic as opposed to foreign policy. However, failure to agree on budget reductions might also impact the US military budget.

  3. Conclusion:  America in 2013 and Beyond
    It is impossible to predict the outcome of the 2012 American elections. Yet regardless of the results, there will be more continuity than change in American foreign policy. There is no expectation that the United States will change its commitments to Israel or Europe. Relations with Russia will not experience a significant change, although with both the Russian and American elections over and campaign rhetoric done, the two countries may be able to work more constructively on common interests, perhaps including Syria and missile defense in Europe. However, if the Republicans do take control of the presidency and Congress, the United States might increase its military budget and take a more militaristic stand on terrorism and reaffirm military commitments in Afghanistan and take a tougher line against Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The United States might also take a more aggressive stance on missile defense in Europe.

    But the biggest challenges facing the United States are economic. As noted, the country has a very large national debt and budget deficit that needs to be addressed. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the highest ranking military officer in the United States, describes the national debt of the United States as its “biggest security threat”. Reaching agreement on solutions to address this problem may lead to significant budget and spending cuts, including to the military budget. Moreover, America’s relative economic decline in the world and the potential for China to outpace it as the largest economy in the world may compromise the country’s hegemonic political, military and economic status. In short, whoever takes political power in the United States after the 2012 elections; they will face many challenges to the ability of the country in the long term maintaining its military and political status. Yet despite these challenges, the United States will still remain a major geo-political player that the Russian Federation must address for the foreseeable future.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

How Stupid are They? Are You Smarter than Your Congressional Representative?

Are you smarter than your elected member of Congress? You just might be. It appears that by the words Congress uses, they are getting dumber and there also appears to be a partisan basis to this dumbing down.

The non-partisan Sunlight Foundation recently released a great study that examines the words and syntax used by members of Congress in their addresses and speeches. Specifically, these are their official comments as found in the Congressional Record–the official account of the proceedings on Congress. What they found is that current Congress speaks at a 10.6 grade level, down from 11.5 in 2005. 

Put this in comparison. The average American reads between an 8th and 9th grade level. Television news is generally at about a 9th or 10 grade level. The King James Bible at 11.0 level, the U.S. Constitution at 17.8, and To Kill a Mockingbird at a 6.0 level. The New York Times is 14 and the Wall Street Journal is at 11.

Historically (1996-2005) Republicans spoke two-tenths of a grade higher than Democrats but the diction of both parties has declined in the last few years with Republicans moving from a 11.6 grade level to a 10.3 grade level and Democrats sliding from 11.4 to 10.6 in 2011.

Perhaps members of Congress are not dumber than before. Maybe the shift in language reflects better communication skills and efforts to use words that their audience will understand. But remember this study does not look at speeches to the public where presumably members of Congress may be speaking to a wide ranging audience of adults and children. Instead they are speaking to one another dumbing down their language to communicate to their peers.

Maybe there is no correlation between language and intelligence. Although research tells us the contrary, and the entire standardized testing industry that includes the SATs would beg to differ. However, looking at the current Congress, it does not appear that there are too many Einsteins there, and instead, given some of the ideas and proposals being cooked up, it increasingly seems more populated by Forrest Gumps.
So how does the Minnesota congressional delegation pan out?

Official Rank Party Speaking Level
Keith Ellison 25 DFL 9.3
Michele Bachmann 44 GOP 9.52
Al Franken 73 DFL 9.98
Tim Walz 76 DFL 10.06
Amy Klobuchar 89 DFL 10.24
Collin Peterson 97 DFL 10.41
John Klein 181 GOP 11.09
Chip Cravaack 197 GOP 11.17
Erik Paulsen 339 GOP 11.93
Betty McCollum 470 DFL 12.71
Minnesota Avg.


Overall, Minnesota’s delegation speaks at a 10.6 grade-level. In very Lake Wobegonism fashion, we are average for Congress. Representative Ellison comes in at the bottom at a 9.3 grade-level, closely followed by Bachmann at 9.5. They are overall 25th and 44th in Congress (out of 535 members). Both place in the bottom 10th percentile. Conversely, Representative McCollum is at 12.7, ranked 470, locating her near the 90th percentile. Minnesota Democrats came in at 10.45, Republicans at 10.9.

What does all this mean? Perhaps nothing, or perhaps it is indicative of something broader about who is serving in Congress and their intelligence and capacity to address the major problems of the day. You decide whether this tells us if Congress is getting dumb and dumber?

Many years ago when Fritz Hollings was running for re-election to the Senate in South Carolina his opponent took a drug test, released the results, and called up the senator to take a drug test and also release the results. Senator Hollings responded: “I will take a drug test and release the results when my opponent takes an IQ test and releases the results.” I support this idea–individuals running for Congress should be required to disclose their IQ score.

How to Read Polling Data

Confused by all the polls and surveys taking place?  Who is ahead or behind?  I was interviewed by Profnet for this article on doing polls and it is worth reprinting here.

Dear Gracie,

With elections approaching, I've seen a lot of polls in the news recently. How do we know if the polls are accurate or biased?

Puzzled by Polls

Dear Puzzled by Polls,

Three ProfNet experts provide some insight: What You Need to Understand About Polls

"Creating and fielding a poll is not something that just anyone can do at the drop of a hat," says Jason Reineke, associate director of the Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) Poll, which is a statewide, biannual poll of Tennesseans; as well as the university's assistant professor of journalism.

"It is both an art and a science, and the people who do it well usually have extensive training and expertise," continues Reineke. "Like a journalist, lawyer or medical doctor, being a pollster is a profession."

Polls are snapshots in time and not predictive tools, explains David Schultz, law and graduate school professor at Hamline University's School of Law, and editor of the Journal of Public Affairs Education. For example, polls conducted today about the presidential elections are not necessarily indicative of what will happen in November.

"A common problem with political polls is that they are often fielded by one party to support its agenda," adds Bob Clark, president of 24K Marketing.

Some polls are better than others, but the value of a poll can be better determined by the goals that it was designed to address, rather than one-size-fits-all rules, says Reineke. "Nonetheless, there are some standards that can be applied across most polls."

Pollsters should freely and honestly report information about the poll's funding, affiliation, methodology, data and analysis, explains Reineke.

"If the source of a poll can't or won't tell you how they sampled respondents, how they interviewed them, what the questions and response options were, what the response rate was, or other details about the poll, then the results should be taken with a commensurate grain of salt," he advises.

Also, be skeptical of a poll if it was designed and conducted by someone without recognized credentials, experience and reputation, says Reineke. Just you'd be skeptical about a doctor without a degree or a journalist without any bylines.

Reineke suggests checking out the website of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR). "If a pollster is not a member of AAPOR, or is dismissive of the organization -- or worse yet has never heard it of -- that should be cause for concern."

Poll Questions
One indicator of bias in surveys are leading questions, says Clark. For example: Are you better off now under the Obama administration than you were four years ago?

This question is biased because it ties Obama to the issue, says Clark.

"A poll is only as good as the questions asked," agrees Reineke. Questions should not encourage or discourage respondents to provide a particular response over others, and should only ask about one thing at a time.

Conversely, answers to questions should not include biased or politically charged words, says Clark. For example, phrases like "tax breaks for the rich" (instead of "tax reduction/reform"), "Obamacare" (rather than "healthcare reform") and "War on Terrorism" (instead of "War in Afghanistan") are all political labels with divisive meanings.

"Answers to questions that include these terms are more likely to be used by one party to validate their agendas," Clark explains. Thus, this is not a projectable measurement of public sentiment on issues.

Reineke also suggests considering these three guidelines regarding poll answers:

Response options should be exhaustive, meaning that any possible response is represented by a response option.

Response options should be mutually exclusive, meaning that participants will need one and only one response to indicate their answer.

Pollsters, and consumers of their results, should also pay attention to potential order effects, meaning the ways in which a previous question, or a participant's response to it, might affect interpretation or response to following questions.

Population Sampling
"Polls work by contacting a sample of the population of interest," says Reineke. That sample should be representative, meaning it should have the same proportion of all important characteristics as the population.

Representative samples are often achieved through random sampling, which means every member of the population has an equal chance of being selected, he says. "Pollsters should be prepared to explain how their sampling is random if they claim it is so."

"In cases where sampling is not random, pollsters should be able to explain how their sample is representative of the population, and provide appropriate cautions about the extension of results to groups who were not adequately represented in the sample," continues Reineke.

Population Size
"The size required for a random sample to be representative of the population in question is dependent on the size of the population," says Reineke. "The larger the sample, the smaller the margin of error."

In the simplest terms, "margin of error" is a statistic that shows how well the selected sample predicts things about the entire population.

Look at margins of errors when evaluating polls, suggests Schultz. "I would say any poll with margins of errors greater than +/- 4 are meaningless, since that means the results could be off by as much as eight points."

Interestingly, there is not much difference between the margin of error for a sample of 5,000 Americans vs. a sample of a million Americans, says Reineke. However, there is a significant difference in margin of error for a sample of 500 Americans vs. 2,500 Americans.

Statistical formulas aside, as a rule of thumb, you should look for a sample between 500 or 1,000 for state polls; and 1,000 or 2,000 for national polls, says Reineke.

"For presidential polls, I am suspect of any poll with survey samples of much less than 1,000 people," agrees Schultz. "They probably need about 1,200 to 1,500 people to be accurate, especially if one wants to tap into swing voters or the views of particular subgroups."

Also, ignore any poll that does not have a confidence level of at least 95 percent, says Schultz. Some polls have confidence levels of only 90 percent, which means they are only 90 percent confident that responses were within their margin of error. In other words, 10 percent of the time they are not sure if sample answers were indicative of the true population (not good).

Furthermore, polls are only as good as the underlying assumptions that go into them, continues Schultz. For example, a poll that lists 50 percent of those who responded as Democrats is skewed in terms of over-representing Democrats.

That's why samples are sometimes weighted to better represent the population of interest, says Reineke. For example, if African-American males ages 18-35 are 1 percent of the sample, but 2 percent of the population, a pollster might mathematically adjust the sample so that responses of individuals in that demographic actually count as two responses each, thus better reflecting the population.

Regardless, pollsters should report their sample size and their margin of error, and provide information about how they sampled so that others can evaluate their claims and methods, Reineke stresses.


Friday, May 18, 2012

The Lesson of the Vikings Stadium—Democracy Failed

Please note: This piece originally appeared in Politics in Minnesota on May 16, 2012.

The duties of elected officials are never easy. But in the case of the Minnesota Legislature, the deliberations and final votes on the Vikings Stadium reveal a travesty for political accountability, open government, and questionable politics.

The eighteenth century Irish statesman and political writer Edmund Burke is famous for his 1774 campaign speech to Bristol electors where he described two duties for elected officials. He suggested that members of parliament either served as delegates–voting to ratify the exact views of the constituents–or to exercise their best judgment and vote for what they considered to be in the best interests of the people or country. Burke opted for the latter, contending that the deliberative nature of governing meant that a legislator should use “his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, [and] he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living.”  It is not the job of legislators to follow popular will, but instead to vote based on what they know is best, regardless of the will of the constituents. Burke lost his election with this speech.

In light of significant public opposition to public funding for the new Vikings Stadium, many are wondering if those who voted in favor of it will be punished this November. The simple answer is no. Back in 2006 when the State Legislature authorized a new Twins stadium that November no House or Senate member defeats could be attributed to their votes for or against the stadium. The same will probably be true again this year in the general election. The economy, the government shutdown, constitutional amendments on voter ID and same-sex marriage, as well as national issues and a presidential election are sure to loom as larger issues on the voters mind than the stadium.

Yet just because the stadium will probably not be a general election issue (it may be a problem in primaries or nominating conventions especially for Republicans who supported it) does not mean that there were no problems with how the deliberations occurred. Instead, the Vikings Stadium debate reveals both bad process and politics.

First, there is the problem with open government. Almost from the start the Vikings debate was done behind closed doors. Governor Dayton conducted the debate as if he were a CEO in a private company. Critical meetings, such as with Zygi Wilf and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell took place behind closed doors. In fact, the Vikings deal seemed dead until the Commissioner visited and then suddenly the Senate took a vote. Who knows what was said or promised at that meeting? But the point is that numerous open meetings laws were probably broken by the Governor and Legislature in securing the deal. This continued the contempt for open government first demonstrated last year.

Second, consider who voted for the stadium. Of the 201 legislators, 199 cast votes. Of that 199, 112 or 56% of the legislators voted yes. Among those seeking re-election to their seat again this fall, 88 of 158 or 56% voted for the stadium. For the 31 legislators indicating that they were not running for reelection to the Legislature, 20 or 65% voted for the stadium. There were another ten legislators not running for their seats but seeking another office and only 4 or 40% of them voted for the deal. Put another way, for those seeking election this fall, 55% voted for the stadium, for those not seeking office, 65% did.

Voters will not have an opportunity to hold 31 legislators responsible for their votes. Perhaps not seeking reelection freed that latter up to vote for what they thought was best, or perhaps to let voters be damned. Or perhaps it was the product of money well spent by the Vikings.

Last year the Vikings spent $800,000 to lobby for a new stadium. Since 2002, the Minnesota Vikings have spent $5.66 million lobbying the legislature, governors, and local metropolitan governments to secure a stadium. This sum is garnered from reports on file with the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. This is in addition to political contributions to the candidates and the legislative caucuses. In 2010, the Zygi Wilf and the Vikings gave $27,600 to all four legislative caucuses. We will not know until next year how much they spent in lobbying and political contributions this session to buy a stadium but their investment was worth it. The role of money and the failure of the public to know in real time how much money the Vikings spent to buy influence is a crisis in transparency for Minnesota government and one of the reasons why the state earned a D grade from the Center for Public Integrity for ethics and openness in government.

Third, consider the odd alignment that the Vikings vote yielded. Overall, DFLers produced 55% of the votes for the stadium. Additionally, of the 90 Democrats voting on the stadium 62 or 69% voted for it, while 50 of 109 or 46% of the Republicans supported it.

Given that a DFL governor pushed the bill, the DFL produced the majority of the votes for the stadium, and over two-thirds of them supported the Vikings proposal, the Democrats own the stadium. In backing it, the DFL squandered its political advantage in November. Republicans steal $2 billion from K-12 and borrow $700 million from the state tobacco settlement to produce a gimmick-riddled budget in 2011 to end the government shutdown.

Now the DFL give corporate welfare to a billionaire. Moreover, in doing the Vikings deal the DFL overrode the charter amendment in Minneapolis requiring voter ascent for any stadium bonding over $10 million. They do that with the support of a DFL mayor and city council. So much for taking the moral highroad when it comes to priorities. So much for support for democracy. The Democrats practically make the Republicans look fiscally responsible and it becomes almost impossible for DFLers to criticize them in the November elections when it comes to the budget and spending. The Democrats now look more corporate and pro-business than the Republicans they want to criticize.

The Legislature, especially the Democrats, had a choice—follow their constituents or ignore them. They chose the latter and will probably get away with it, unlike Edmund Burke.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Bachmann, Obama, and Vikings Oh My!

Bachmann is a Swiss Miss

In 2009 23% of the population did not believe Obama was a U.S. citizen. In 2011 Fox News poll, still a quarter of the population held this view with fully 40% thinking there is “cause to wonder” about his citizenship. Birthers remain unconvinced that Obama is an American citizen. Yet there is no debate–Michele Bachmann is a Swiss citizen.

Bachmann became a Swiss citizen by virtue of her husband Marcus who was able to claim citizenship by virtue of his parents. Congresswoman Bachmann automatically became Swiss by marriage. Normally no would care about this issue. But there is something ironic with Bachmann having dual citizenship.

First, many countries recognize dual citizenship, although the United States does not. Who knows how many Americans also have dual citizenship but it is not uncommon. Second, Bachmann’s dual citizenship does not render her ineligible to serve in the House of Representatives. Article I of the Constitution states that a House member must be 25 years old and a citizen of the United States for seven years. Bachmann meets these requirements so there is no problem.

In most cases perhaps no one would care if a member of Congress had dual citizenship. Some Jewish members have had dual citizenship with Israel. No one has criticized them for this. But Bachmann is different. Her entire political career has been about patriotism and wrapping the flag around her (remember her attempt to use “An American Girl” as her presidential campaign song). She also appealed to the Birther controversy to challenge Obama and she has hinted if not outright questioned his loyalty and patriotism.   Think about if Obama had dual citizenship with Kenya. His patriotism would have been roundly questioned by Bachmann and the conservative media. One wonders if the same conservatives will blog about her and questions her loyalty to the USA.

Obama Comes Out
Obama is finally out–he supports same-sex marriage. He joins radicals such as Dick Cheney and Joe Biden in support of same-sex marriage. No one can really be surprised that Obama has “evolved” to this position. The question is why now and what are the political implications.

The now and why are about presidential politics. Think about his 2008 political coalition that included young people (under 30), progressives, and liberals. Since 08 he has disappointed all three and there is a concern that there is an enthusiasm gap among his base. Announcing support for gay marriage is meant to arouse excitement among these three constituencies, making the election in part a referendum on same-sex marriage. A vote for Obama is a vote for gay marriage.

Additionally, public opinion has shifted and now a majority support gay marriage. I think Obama waited cautiously to come out until public opinion was on his side. Thus, not a bold move. Moreover, Joe Biden’s announcement Sunday that he was comfortable with gay marriage was perhaps a trial balloon. He announced it, the White House watched and waited for reaction (perhaps they even did some polls in the last 48 hours), nothing bad happened, and therefore it made sense to endorse gay marriage.

Politically, Obama may be gambling that his decision will excite his base, women (who are more supportive of gay rights than men), and perhaps socially moderate swing voters. Yes social conservatives are angry about this but did any of them seriously not think he supported same sex marriage. Moreover I doubt it will mobilize or anger them any more than they are. They already dislike Obama and this just confirms their fears.

Obama and the Minnesota Connection
How does Obama’s announcement play in Minnesota? His announcement directly fuses his reelection to the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. This is not good news for supporters of the amendment.

Obama is popular in Minnesota and the state is pretty much his in the 2012 election. However Obama needed to motivate people to the polls. If the DFL are smart they pitch a vote for Obama as a vote for gay marriage and use that to drive young people to the poll. If they show up in droves they should also vote against the amendment. But just as good? If they vote for Obama but do not vote on the amendment then under Minnesota’s constitutional amending process, a non-vote is the same as a no vote. The same would happen with voter ID.

Minnesota and the Vikings

The Vikings got their stadium. The political lineup is interesting. The conservative Republicans–supposedly the party of corporations and rich–voted against the stadium handout and the DFL backed it.

Dayton made this his signature legislative agenda this year. Moreover, the DFL supplied 56% of the votes for the stadium. If we analyze more tightly it may be that many who voted for it were retiring and therefore did not fear voter retribution. However, it is unlikely the voters will care. They did not in 2006 when the legislature caved in to the Twins. In 2012 voters will care more about the economy, the government shutdown, and a host of other issues than they will necessarily care about this give away. And in districts where voters do care incumbents may be retiring.

The most unsettling part of the vote was what it says about the DFL. They look even more like the corporate Democrats they really are. It gets harder for them in November to criticize GOP priorities about cutting K-12 and borrowing against the tobacco endowment when they supplied the votes needed to give public money to a billionaire.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Mismanaging the Legislature. . .and the State

A quick note to an really interesting article in the Star Tribune pointing out that the Minnesota House of Representatives is over budget on its per diem.

The per diem is the daily expenses the legislature gives itself beyond the salary. Yes, the per diem seems legitimate so members can pay for room and board. However few of us get a salary and then room and board expenses, but our legislators do. Yes, the salary of $31,500 is not much but that is their salary and way back to the days when I was with Common Cause I advocated eliminating the per diem and raising the salary instead. Per diems are relatively hidden  and hard for the public to track. Some legislators take them, others do not, and when they were raised a few years ago by Larry Pogemiller they were done as an underhanded way to get around a real vote and accountability on really raising a salary.

What is bad here with the House going over on per diem is that they are being rewarded for bad management. Billions are cut from the state budget, we had a shutdown last year, employees were laid off at the state, and there is little progress now on resolving the issues in the current session. Yet the House still gets rewarded for bad behavior.

Note also who is at the top of the list for per diems--the leadership. It also looks like the GOP are higher on the list this time than the DFL.

The moral of the story: The House cannot manage either itself or the State. This story reinforces my point that the Legislature and the leadership deserve a failing grade.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Failing Grade for a Failing Legislature

I am an educator. Were I to assign my students three projects and they failed to complete them by the appointed time their grade would be an F. The same goes with the Minnesota state legislature.

The single most important task they are supposed to do in even number years is pass the bonding bill, They have yet to do that, putting them on mark to join 2004 as the only other year in recent memory when they failed in that task. When that happened the Senate was DFL, the House GOP, and because only the House came up for election, the GOP paid dearly and lost a lot of seats.

This year there are three major tasks before the legislature now–the bonding bill, a GOP plan to zero out property taxes for the businesses, and the Vikings stadium. Two of the three ideas are bad. The Vikings stadium is welfare for a billionaire and as I have pointed out scores of times, public subsidies for pro sports teams is a bad economic investment. Yet Dayton and Ted Mondale persist in spinning this fiction. Zeroing out taxes for businesses will–as the GOP concede–create future budget shortfalls yet they claim that the cuts will be made up with future economic growth. Welcome to supply side economics again. Only the bonding bill makes sense as a task to accomplish.

However, while these are the three items on the legislative agenda now, don’t forget that earlier in the year there was talk of reforming government as an agenda item. Where is it? Instead, this legislature has passed bills on abortion, guns (Stand Your Ground), and fireworks. In the 20+ years I have observed the legislature this is about the least productive and worst performing one I have ever seen. They might as well adjourn now. But they will not.

The bonding bill, which Dayton wants, is being held hostage. The GOP really want the tax cut and are indifferent to the Vikings stadium, at least the leadership is. They have announced that the three issues are linked and a global agreement has to be reached on all three before any of them will be brought up. This is a great game of chicken here.

In theory the GOP Legislature should have the upper hand. Dayton has two items he wants and the GOP only one. They are relying on Dayton caving on taxes in the same way he caved last year to end the government shutdown. They are assuming he will blink first. However, the legislature is up for election in 2012 and Dayton is not, giving him some advantages which so far he seems unwilling to use. Instead, Dayton says more negotiations will occur. These negotiations, it should be noted, are behind the scenes, sacrificing again in this year open and transparent government.

What is preventing agreement on these items? I put the blame first on leadership on the part of the governor and the GOP leadership. They seem so inexperienced even in their second year on the job. Second, the GOP leaders have little control over their rank and file and cannot seem to corral them. They are very divided on many issues but still united on the social issues and those which seem to matter very little. Finally, the DFL minorities seem to be giving away what little advantage they have by seemingly going along with a willingness to deliver votes for the Vikings stadium when their best tactic is vote against it and them blame the GOP either for giving millions to a billionaire while defunding K-12 or letting the Vikings go if no bill is passed.

Overall, this is a dismal session deserving of an F grade no matter what happens.