Saturday, May 24, 2014

Potholes, Infrastructure, and Jim Oberstar

Among the notable shortcomings of the 2014 Minnesota legislative session was its bipartisan failure to tackle the serious infrastructure problems the state faces.
    “Infrastructure” is not a normally a sexy word. Nor is it the type of word that most of us use in everyday conversation, until a bridge in Minneapolis collapsed. Yet infrastructure—a short hand way of referring to America’s bridges, roads, highways and sewer and water pipes—is important to our every day lives.  Without the basic infrastructure of roads we would never get to work, to school, or go shopping.  Without it we could not cross rivers, drink water, or flush our toilets.  For the most part we take our infrastructure for granted, until something goes seriously wrong, as it did in Minneapolis on August 1, 2007.  There, in the middle of rush hour a major bridge—one carrying over 100,000 cars per day—fell into the Mississippi River, killing and injuring scores of people. Suddenly infrastructure became the word of the day.
    You know there is an infrastructure problem in the state.  Think of all the potholes you drive over everyday–and they are getting worse.  But don’t rely just upon you own personal experiences, the problem is real.
    Historically Minnesota’s  quality of life was due in part to its infrastructure investment, but that too has lapsed over a generation.  The 2013 American Society for Civil Engineers’ report on infrastructure lists more than $10 billion is needed in this state over the next 20 years to upgrade the fresh and wastewater treatment facilities.  The state has nearly 1,200 structurally deficit bridges along with another 423 considered structurally obsolete.  The ASCE finds 52% of the highways are rated as poor or mediocre in quality.  This does not even  include all the new potholes this spring!  Schools have nearly $3.7 billion in needed capital repairs and our park system needs $375 million in investments.  All of this is just for repairs and maintenance and it does not include  new infrastructure needs, such as bringing high speed internet access to all of Minnesota.  Those who live in the Twin Cities forget that in many parts of the state dial-up is still the only option for the internet.
    But long before a bridge collapsed in Minneapolis infrastructure was a sexy word at least to one person–Jim Oberstar who served his entire congressional career on the US House Transportation Committee .  His passing should have been a wake up call to the need to invest more in infrastructure, and to also thank him for all that he did for Minnesota and the country.
    From the days when Adam Smith first wrote the Wealth of Nations in 1776, infrastructure has been described as the skeleton that holds a country and its commerce together.  From the roads we drive on to the water we drink, a safe, secure, and reliable infrastructure is not only something we count on for convenience, but a must for national defense, commerce, industry, and entertainment.    America’s infrastructure did not just happen; it was built under the planning and leadership of the government and by enlightened political and civic leaders.  From the days of Alexander Hamilton as America’s first Secretary of Treasury, the national and state governments invested heavily in infrastructure to encourage American economic growth.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that the spectacular growth of the country was made possible by a partnership between the government and private sector, with the former making investments in infrastructure that made business development possible.  The WPA and New Deal investments in parks and the highways under FDR and bridges under Eisenhower, as well as the creation of the water systems and other parts of the infrastructure under other presidents and leaders, constitutes the greatest gift that our parents and grandparents left to  America.
    But we squandered that gift. While engineers will look to the structural reasons for the Minneapolis bridge collapse, the real causes of its demise lie in the massive political failure in Minnesota and across the nation to reinvest in our infrastructure.  The American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) does a periodic report on the state of American infrastructure.  For the last generation the results have not been pretty.  In its 2013 report the ASCE notes a needed investment of $3.6 trillion by 2020 to repair the decaying public infrastructure in America.  This compares to the $2.2 trillion price tag the ASCE estimated in 2009  that needed to be done by 2014. With estimates in the trillions of dollars, America’s aging roads, highways, bridges, and water systems are crumbling, airport runways are overcrowded, and mines are caving in on individuals. This is not new or something that just happened. 
    For at least twenty if not more years policy experts have documented the decaying infrastructure and our failure to reinvest in it.  Instead, we continue to live off the investments of previous eras, enjoying parks built by the New Deal, bridges and highways from the Cold War and Great Society, and other investments made by smart political leaders in the past who were willing to invest in the future documenting the cost and scope of the problem.  The anti-government, anti-tax politics that emerged in the 1970s and which blossomed during the Reagan era ushered in a policy of living off of yesterday and ignoring tomorrow, all in the interest greed and saving taxes.
    But while a nation was neglecting its infrastructure, public officials such as Jim Oberstar and to a lesser but still important extent Martin Sabo were in Congress fighting to get more money spent  on infrastructure and across the county.  Oberstar’s most famous accomplishments are the 2005 SAFETEA-LU act, a $295 billion program that funds transportation infrastructure, and the 2007 $250 million funding to replace the Minneapolis bridge.  Governor Pawlenty should thank Oberstar for the later for it might have saved his governorship.  But Oberstar’s accomplishments go beyond these two bills.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that there is not a piece of asphalt in the state of Minnesota that does not have his name on it, and nationally he is probably responsible for hundreds of billions if not more than a trillion dollars in transportation infrastructure funding over the last quarter century.
    To some, their efforts to get more money for bridges and highways reeked of pork barrel politics.  Many think of bridges to nowhere, earmarks, and old style politics when it comes to infrastructure spending.  But while it is pork to some, to others it is bringing home the bacon and it is all about jobs and economic development.  It is also about quality of life.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Making Sense of the 2014 Minnesota Legislative Session–A Tale in Four Parts

Legislative sessions in Minnesota produce defining themes.  These narratives allow observers to make sense out the political debates and the policies that emerge. Often times these narratives also influence the legislators themselves, acting almost as invisible hands that move participants in ways that look as if they are serving broader goals.  The 2014 legislative session too had its defining themes; in this case four stand out.

The DFL Delivered the Goods
    For good or bad, the DFL delivered on their promises because they were in charge.  This is the result of unified government.  When all is told the Democrats largely did what they promised.  They raised the minimum wage, passed anti-bullying legislation, cut taxes, passed a massive bonding bill, and also did more.  The DFL acted like, well, Democrats are expected to act and they made no real missteps or mistakes in the process.  They did fail to address the constitutional problems with the civil commitment process for sexual offenders, but no one seriously thought they would do that in an election year.  They also failed miserably to pass new disclosure laws for campaigns and elections, but outside Representative Winker and Senator Marty DFLers seem to have little appetite  for government ethics issues.  But come November they will tell the voters that they did what the aimed to do, that it bettered Minnesota, and that because of that they deserve to retain single party control.
    But for all that they did, the Republicans will use it against them.  All of the accomplishments or victories that the DFL will triumph the Republicans will say is the reason why they should be elected.  They will argue that the DFL damaged the economy with a higher minimum wage, that the tax cuts are illusionary given the massive increases the year before, that  the Democrats overreached into social issues, and that the bonding bill was simply an example of wasteful pork to buy votes. They will also try to talk about the botched rollout of MNSURE and excess spending on a new Senate office building.  Republicans will say the DFL acted like Democrats–as tax and spend liberals–and that their party has a better or different vision on state government.  Republicans and Democrats will offer contrasting views on the role of the state in Minnesota, with both parties making the election a referendum on the DFL’s performance. 

Dayton is in Charge
    What became clear here is the extent to which Dayton is in charge–not only as governor but also in terms of the legislative session.  His agenda largely defined what happened.  He wanted tax cuts and got them despite the desire of Tom Baak to save more of the surplus.  Dayton wanted a larger bonding bill, he got it.  Dayton was originally opposed to medical marijuana and the bill was dead until late in the session when he changed his mind and the policy got a second wind.  Dayton also used the bully pulpit effectively to structure what would go into many of the other laws that were passed–sprinklers for high end homes–and he generally imposed line of the legislature to act and the generally followed.  The governor in his first two years often took a passive roll in the legislative process.  Think about the law legalizing same-sex marriage.   For much of that debate he simply said that if the legislature passes the law he would sign it.  Dayton took that position on many bills.  But this session he went from being a passive participant to an active force in the legislature.

Suburban Soccer Moms Win (sort of)
    Suburbs are the battle ground for political power and control in Minnesota and the votes that drive who wins there are the soccer moms.  The suburban soccer mom is the single most important  swing voter in the state, and whoever wins or controls their vote wins statewide office and control of the legislature.
    Women in general, but especially the soccer mom, are central to Democrat and DFL success. Nationally there is a huge gender gap, with women far more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans.  Suburban women have left the Republican party for many reasons–reproductive rights, health care, and other family security issues, even while their male counterparts stay with the GOP.  Women are a larger percentage of the electorate than men and inn presidential election years they show up to vote.  But in now presidential years, they do not.  In part that is why Democrats do so badly in midterm elections.  This was the case in 2010 when Democrats nationally and in Minnesota were routed, but Dayton managed to capture enough female voters to win.  Come November 2014  what women will do–vote or stay home–will determine the fate of the Democrats.
    It should not come as a surprise then that in 2014 the DFL did what it could to reach out to female voters, giving them a reason to vote Democrat.  For the most part, women did well this session and one could say that the soccer mom in Edina with three kids was the winner.  Consider  four pieces of legislation.
    First, the passage of the anti-bulling legislation addressed an issue of core concern to mothers–their children being bullied.  No parent wants their children bullied, but this is an issue that resonates with moms more than dads.  Second, the Women’s Economic Security Act was a high profile bill aimed to eliminate employment and economic barriers facing women such as child care, discrimination, and sexual harassment issues.  Third, legalization of  medical marijuana was entirely an issue driven by women.  The so called “mommy lobby” was instrumental in overcoming the Governor’s reluctance in opposing the law enforcement community (one of his biggest supporters).  In fact, not until after Dayton was confronted with women telling stories about how their children needed medical marijuana did he move.  The mommy lobby gave the DFL cover on this issue.  The one surprise?  The DFL did not pass the Toxic Chemicals bill, a law that would have given parents more information about children's products to disclose presence of chemicals of concern in them.  This should have been a no-brainer, but it failed, perhaps due the lobbying presence of Minnesota’s  powerful food industry.  But on balance, suburban women did well by the DFL.

Evidence-Based Policy
    Ronald Reagan once said facts were stubborn things.  Facts can empower but often times facts have little impact on decisions, or at least certain kinds of facts.  Many of us hope that legislators will make policy based on evidence, but as I have written in American Politics in the Age of Ignorance: Why Lawmakers Choose Belief Over Research, there are many reasons why this is often not the case.  Alternatively, what lawmakers consider as facts is different from what social scientists or scientists consider as facts.  Consider again the medical marijuana bill.
    The medical profession is absolutely correct–there is no evidence substantiating the therapeutic effects of medical marijuana.  The type of evidence they are looking for is the classic controlled experiment, perhaps a double-blind test involving placebos.  But this type of evidence is seldom what moves policy makers.  For them, personal stories from constituents, often anecdotal, is seen as compelling and powerful.   Moms testifying before the legislature with children in hand, telling personal stories about how medical marijuana helped their children, is hard to resist.  These political facts are more likely to move  public officials than the kind that sway doctors and scientists and they were enough to move the governor and legislature this term on a host of issues that might otherwise lack real evidentiary support.   It is these kind of political facts that also move voters.
    Thus when it comes time to spin the story of the 2014 Minnesota legislative session the above four narratives define what happened.  How compelling these stories are, what they mean, and how the parties will frame them, will determine to a large extent who wins the 2014 elections.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Lessons of Town of Greece v. Galloway for Campaign Finance Laws

    The Supreme Court’s recent Town of Greece v. Galloway ruling upholding invocation of a prayer before the start of a local town board meeting is not a decision that one would think would be of significance to election law, but it is.  Specifically, the Court’s discussion about coercion and religious beliefs has potential importance to those arguing against campaign finance laws, especially rules mandating disclosure of political contributions.
    At issue in Galloway was a practice of town board to begin its monthly board meetings with a prayer delivered by a local clergy member.  Clergy were selected by local congregations listed in a local directory.  It so happened, according to the Court, that most of the local congregations were Christian and therefore most of the prayers were Christian.  Citizens attending the board meeting objected, claiming such prayers constituted an endorsement of Christianity, in violation of the First Amendment Establishment clause.  The Supreme Court disagreed.  In ruling against them the Court offered several reasons, including the fact that starting legislative deliberations with a prayer is a long-standing practice that goes back to the first Congress.  But more importantly, the Court keyed in on the notion of coercion.
    One of the arguments made by those objecting to the prayer was that it “coerces participation by nonadherents”–in effect, it forces those who do not wish to participate in the prayer to go along with it in order to please board members from whom they are asking a favorable ruling on a particular matter.  Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, acknowledged that the First Amendment bars the government from forcing individuals to participate in any religious exercise.  But nonetheless, Kennedy disagreed. Noting that the issue of coercion is fact-intensive, Kennedy  stated first that the prayer was not directed at the public but it was for the board members to help guide them in their duties.  Moreover Kennedy said there was no evidence that the town board had singled out any member of the public because it refused to participate in the prayer.  Requests to stand for prayer came not from the board members (the government) but from local clergy.
    But more significantly while some objected that prayers made them feel unwanted, Kennedy  distinguished that feeling from coercion.

    [R]espondents stated that the prayers gave them offense and made them feel excluded and disrespected. Offense, however, does not equate to coercion. Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable; and an Establishment Clause violation is not made out any time a person experiences a sense of affront from the expression of contrary religious views in a legislative forum, especially where, as here, any member of the public is welcome in turn to offer an invocation reflecting his or her own convictions.

Exposing individuals to ideas that they would rather not hear is not coercion, especially when those ideas a brought up are not by the government but private citizens, in this case, members of the local  clergy.  For the Court, it is not coercion to be exposed to ideas one objects to unless in some way the government (my emphasis) does something more, such as retaliates.  Justice Thomas and Scalia in their concurrence reinforce this notion, stating that coercion only occurs when religious orthodoxy is enforced “by force of law and threat of penalty.”
    So how and why is all of this significant to campaign finance laws?  Central to a host of recent decisions, such as McCutcheon v. F.E.C, Davis v. Federal Election Commission, Citizens United v. F.E.C, and  Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc is the concept  that particular laws “chill political” speech.  The existence of some type of campaign finance laws, especially in the case of Davis, where candidate contribution limits would be raised to offset spending by wealthy donors, were seen to chill or discourage individuals from spending or contributing money because of fear that others would be able to contribute more to offset their spending.  In McCutcheon, aggregate contribution limits were seen as chilling free speech, in Citizens United bans on corporate independent expenditures were deemed censorship.  In all these case laws were viewed as coercive, either directly or indirectly discouraging individuals from donating.
    Now one can have a serious debate regarding whether all of these regulations really chilled or intimidated individuals from giving money.  In many of these cases the issue was not really not be able to give, but how much or how, but to read these cases one would think that the challenges came from a bunch of political wallflowers, fearful of what others may think about them.
    The best example of this comes in Doe v Reed where challenges came to an Oregon law arguing that the disclosure of the names of individuals who signed ballot petitions chilled their speech.  The Court rejected the claims, noting no record of real intimidation or retaliation.  The Court–with Chief Justice Roberts writing–rejected assertions that the mere posting on the Internet of the names of the petitioners along with maps indicating their locations is not enough of a showing of intimidation and harassment to void on First Amendment grounds their disclosure.  Scalia, pushes the issue even further, declaring that we should have the courage of our convictions.

    Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed. For my part, I do not look forward to a society which, thanks to the Supreme Court, campaigns anonymously and even exercises the direct democracy of initiative and referendum hidden from public scrutiny and protected from the accountability of criticism. This does not resemble the Home of the Brave.

     The First Amendment protect us from the government, but not the dirty looks and approbation of others.  The government cannot persecute individuals who hold minority or dissenting positions, but nothing in the First Amendment protects dissidents from what John Stuart Mill described in book IV of On Liberty calls the “unfavorable judgment of others.”  Taking unpopular positions comes with criticism and no one should expect that the people relinquish their right to criticize.
    Thus what Greece v. Galloway states when it comes to religion is that the First Amendment does not protect individuals from being shunned or criticized by the public.  Feeling offended is different from being coerced.  And it when it comes to campaign finance laws, especially disclosure, Galloway declares that short of real proven harassment and intimidation, being shunned, criticized, given dirty looks, or being subject to public judgment is not chilling but part of what should be expected when one takes political positions.  The standard regarding what constitutes coercion in Galloway has precedential implications for disclosure laws, suggesting that more than mere offense or unpopularity of a viewpoint is necessary to implicate First Amendment concerns.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Weltanschauungen of Obama and Dayton

    The German word “Weltanschauung” refers to a world view. The power of an Weltanschauung was on display last week in two events–one involving President Obama responding to critics of his presidency and specifically his foreign policy, the other in Minnesota Governor  Mark Dayton delivering his State of the State address.  While the media largely covered these stories as political or campaign speeches, they missed the deeper meaning or world views that both contained. 
    First, consider a New York Times article this week where President Obama responds to his critics, especially John McCain, who assail him for his reluctance to use military force to respond to political crises across the world.  McCain and others have criticized Obama for being indecisive in Syria, Iran (and nuclear weapons), the China-Japan dispute, and now again in Ukraine and Russia.  Obama declared: “Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force,” Mr. Obama said, “after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous cost to our troops and to our budget. And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?”
    Obama and McCain, as I argued back in 2008 during their presidential contest, are generational politicians, affected by events that helped shape their generation’s view of foreign policy.  For McCain the image of him and his generation is that of 1938–It is British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returning from Munich with an agreement to concede Czechoslovakia to Hitler.  Chamberlain’s speech is infamous, with him declaring “I believe it is peace for our time...”  Soon after this speech Hitler invaded Poland and WW II commenced.
    Chamberlain’s speech is mocked as naivete.  It is a message that many of McCain’s generation took as a message that we should never appease dictators since they cannot be trusted.  All that they understand is force and power.  The message of WW II is that American Military might  succeeded, the failure of Vietnam is that we did not use enough military might, and that the Cold War was won because of American military superiority.  This is the Weltanschauung of McCain.
    Conversely, there is a second video clip–that of US helicopters evacuating the US Embassy  in Saigon in 1975 after the fall of Vietnam.  It is a video about the limits and failures of US military power and about why war and force is not always the answer.  This is the video clip that affected many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, including Obama.
    To Understand Obama and McCain one needs to understand how appeasement and Saigon  affect their thinking and that of their generation.  Both events are world views, paradigms that define how many people of each of their generations define and interpret the world.    McCain sees Assad  and Putin as Hitlers, negotiation is only appeasement and the only message either of them understand is force.  Obama is thus foolish to think that negotiation with them will solve anything.  Conversely, Obama reacts against war and force, especially unilateral action, seeing it potentially as backfiring.  Obama’s world view is reinforced by Afghanistan and Iraq.
    Both Obama and McCain are blinded by their Weltanschauungen.  Neither can see beyond  their video clips to see when and how negotiation and force (or at least its threat) combine together  to form an effective foreign policy.  Moreover, Obama’s faith in talks and not threats also defines his domestic policy of dealing with Congress–an infinite faith in negotiation and talk.  Obama bristles when negatively compared to Lyndon Johnson, the master president when it comes to strong arming both friends and foes into deals.  Obama is no LBJ and he cannot be one–that is just not his  Weltanschauung about how politics and the world operates.

Mark Dayton’s Minnesota
    Mark Dayton’s State of the State address was widely reported as a campaign speech.  It described what he promised as candidate, what he has done, and what he hopes to do if re-elected.  But reporters missed a deeper meaning.  It was the Weltanschauung of Dayton, a view that defends the role of the state in improving the quality of life of Minnesotans.  To me the most important line in the whole speech came near the beginning.  After describing some of the policies of his administration and the role he sees that they had in job creation, Dayton declares: “
Some people believe there is no role for government in private sector expansion and job creation.  To see that they’re mistaken, just look around Minnesota.”
    Dayton’s speech presented the case for government.  It is the case for how government can make a positive impact in our lives.  It is an ideology that once brought us the Minnesota Miracle, the Good Life of the 1970s that put the state and Governor Anderson on the cover of Time magazine.  His view stands on contrast to his Republican rivals who have a different view.  Kurt Zellers stated his view well: So, that would be my vision, getting government out of the way, off the backs and out of the pockets of all Minnesotans.”  Government does not create jobs, the private sector does.
    Dayton’s speech set up not just a contrast between himself and his opponents but also a contrast between rival views of Minnesota and government.  He sees his Weltanschauung as having state government critical to Minnesota’s good life, while the opponent’s view will not produce the  quality of life Minnesota once knew and which it can have again.  It is a retrospective world view that takes us back in time before Reagan.  For the Republicans, their world view is also retrospective, echoing the spirit of Reagan while perhaps in reality taking us even further back to a pre New Deal era.  Dayton and his Republican opponents have world views that capture their generations, speaking to their visions and beliefs about the worlds they experienced and the one’s they would like to see.
    Weltanschauungen are powerful lenses that define our worlds.  In Obama and Dayton we see great examples of both and how they define their performances and views of the world and state.