Sunday, December 24, 2017

Trump, Taxes, and the Triumph of Ideology: Why the tax plan may cost Republicans Congress and why it may be worth it to them

Emerging conventional wisdom among Democrats, pundits, and political scientists is that the Republican tax bill is a potential political disaster for the Republicans, threatening their control of Congress in 2018.  This wisdom may be correct but it may also be besides the point.  Conventional wisdom assumes the goal of the Republicans is to win re-election in 2018, but what if that is not true?  What if, instead, the vote was ideological not strategic, and that the longer term plan was simply to dismantle the welfare state?  If that is the case, then losing the battle for Congress to win the ideological war on government is worth it for Republicans.
It is beyond received wisdom that political scientists and pundits think that the most important value motivating members of Congress is reelection.  David Mayhew’s 1974 Congress: The Electoral Connection, best articulates this argument.  Congressional members are rational actors, motivated by re-election, and therefore will act in ways that maximize that goal.  Similarly in a representative democracy the assumption is that unpopular acts by Congress will be electorally punished and therefore congressional members will act in ways that serve constituent interests.  This is the logic of Richard Fenno’s Home Style and of former House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s quip that “all politics is local.”  Yet this claim assume that voters are rational and informed and that representatives are solely motivated by the electoral connection.  But what if all is not true, what if voters are not rational and informed and that ideology trumps the electoral connection, what then?
First, there is significant evidence that the tax bill was bad politics.  An NBC/Wall Street Journal polls suggests nearly two-thirds of Americans see the tax plan as benefiting the wealthy and corporations.  Various polls see about half the public disapproving of it.  Other polls point the public seeing Trump bad for the economy, or give him or Congress low approvals.  And in a generic congressional poll as reported by the Washington Post and New York Times, Democratic control of Congress is preferred over Republicans by a 56%-38% or an 18% lead. This lead is greater than in 2006 when Democrats took control of Congress or in 2010 when Republicans regained majorities. Such a lead in consistent with the makings of a wave election in 2018.
Republicans will counter that once people start getting their checks support for the tax plan will grow.  Yes the tax plan may grow more popular but the 1981 and 1986 Reagan tax plans did little for the GOP, as was the case with the Bush’s in 2001 (although 9/11 makes it hard to sort out its effect), and Obama got little credit for the Affordable Care Act or even the 2009 stimulus bill.  Tax cuts, no matter how bad or popular, have more measured impacts on voting behavior.  Republicans should not count on it as their 2016 electoral savior, nor should Democrats see it as their pathway to congressional majorities.
Politically there are also other reasons to question how damaging the tax cuts will be to Republicans.  With political geographic sorting, gerrymandering, and the high percentage of safe seats, chances of a major wave are less than in 2006 and 2010.  There is powerful political science evidence that indicates that the 2010 Census and redistricting has produced far more gerrymandered seats now than in previous decades, diminishing the chances of a significant number of flipped seats.  America is also far more polarized today that in 2006 and 2010, suggesting also that even if Trump’s base is hurt by the tax cuts, they might stick with him in 2018, even if the Democrats come up with a credible counter-narrative about what they would do if elected (they have yet to do that).  Finally,  it is simply wrong to extrapolate from generic congressional disapproval to the concept that voters dislike their member of Congress.  Political scientists call this the ecological fallacy.  We see a variation of that daily in that voters give Congress low approval ratings but love their member.
Let’s ignore the politics of the tax plan.  Concede for the sake of argument that it is a bad tax policy.  What then?  For it to have electoral significance requires voters to be informed about the plan and that they act rationally based on their pocketbooks.  But neither may be true.  Voters may be misinformed or vote ideologically, or Republicans might be able to frame the tax cuts in ways that convince their base and swings to support Republican candidates nonetheless.  This is the “What’s the matter with Kansas?” thesis.
But more powerfully, what if Republicans know the tax plan will hurt them in 2018, What then?  Much of the polarization and partisanship is over the most basic question in politics–Why government?  Here the dispute is over whether government should exist at all, with a secondary question being what should government do.  It is at these two levels that the political debate today is centered.  It is over whether the government or market should make basic decisions about who has health care or who is rich or poor.  It is a debate about the merits of the welfare state and whether  it is the job of the government to intervene beyond the most basic aspects of market fundamentalism  or Social Darwinism. 
Today’s polarization is far different than political disagreement ten, twenty, or thirty years ago when the basic premises of why government or the welfare state were not questioned.  Debates then were about lower-ordered questions regarding the best way to make government work to eliminate poverty or homelessness.  This is where Democrats still want to debate, but this is not the case for the Steve Bannon’s of the world, Donald Trump, and perhaps many Republicans.  They are  questioning the very purpose of the state, and for whose benefit it should serve.
Was it the tax vote worth it?  Maybe yes.  Even if they lose majorities the Democrats will have limited ability to reverse much of what was done.  Trump or Pence will still be president and simple reversal of the Trump-GOP tax plan and other policies are not enough.  Lacking a grand plan or narrative, what just happened will have larger, longer-term structural impact on the United States and the world.  If in fact that is the case, the vote was worth it.  This suggests then that when it comes to ideology, Mayhew may have it wrong.  More importantly, Mayhew and the electoral connection thesis may be dated.  It was perhaps a product of an era of consensus in the 1970s that no longer exists, suggesting that perhaps it is the ideological connection that drives much of contemporary politics, thereby rendering it besides the point whether the tax bill costs Republicans their majorities.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Tax, Class, and the Limits of Identity Politics

Identity politics fiddled while America burned.
The passage of the Trump-Republican tax plan–along with the 40 years of increasing economic inequality in the United States–speaks to the failures and limits of identity politics in America.
Final passage of the Trump-Reagan  tax plan will be among the most economically regressive policies ever passed by the American government.  The combination of permanent tax cuts for corporations and temporary  tax cuts for wealthy individuals (along with small temporary tax cuts for the middle class and poor), as well as the elimination of the Affordable Care Act individual mandate, the increase in the standard deduction (which will hurt non-profits), exacerbates an economic trend that has been building since the 1970s in America and which was documented by the likes of economist Thomas Piketty, the Congressional Budget Office, and a host of other agencies.
The tax plan does nothing to repatriate corporate money to the US or to repeal the laws (criticized at least since Bill Clinton)  that incentivize companies to offshore jobs.   It will do nothing to help the white working class who voted for Trump, instead, benefitting the top 1% and people like Trump.  It is simply class warfare against the poor and middle class, but the latter are not fighting back.  Why?  The reason is the turn to identity politics among progressives in the last 40 years that has all but eclipsed class as a rallying and unifying principle of liberal and left politics.
Historian Louis Hartz wrote once that the weakness of class politics in America stemmed from the fact that the country lacked a feudal past.  We were all born Lockean-liberal individualists with a belief that America was the land of opportunity and we could all become millionaires. Paraphrasing historian Daniel Boorstin, the genius of American politics was in creating political structures that transformed class into interest politics.  While James Madison in Federalist number 10 declared that the most “common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property,” many such as historian Charles Beard and political scientist Michael Parenti see the resulting constitution devised by the framers as insulting the minority wealthy against the tyranny of the poor majority.
Despite this class bias, traditional liberal if not real progressive politics was class-based.  What was once called the Old Left drew some of its inspiration from socialist theories of class struggle.  Politics was about social justice, the battle between rich and poor, and it involved labor unions, the working class,  and workers.   It was about fighting for economic equality and democracy, seeing political unity in the shared struggle of class.  In contrast, the New Left was the politics of the 1960s.  It was born in the student campus movement against the Vietnam War, and for civil rights.  The New Left was less about class than about identity politics, and it had stronger middle class roots than did the Old Left.  The Old Left and New Left both sought to transform American politics, yet their visions of what a revolution would look like and what would emerge were different.  The Old Left saw political progress rooted in class struggle and transformation that would eventually achieve liberation for oppressed groups, the New Left focused directly on the liberation of groups because of their social identity.
The Old left produced the New Deal and the Great Society programs.  The New Left produced the civil rights revolution.  Yes, the Old Left ignored racism, sexism, and homophobia, but it did help produce a politics that reduced the inequalities of the 1920s to their most egalitarian by the early 1970s.  If the Old Left politics was unity in a shared class struggle to transform political economic power relations, the New Left  is coalitional interest group politics.  Political change is about empowering individual groups, the daily grind of groups using the official institutions of power to achieve change.  America is less fundamentally corrupted and can be incrementally reformed.
Identity politics and the New Left helped kill class politics and the Old Left.  It unwittingly  cooperated  with conservatism to kill progressive politics.  It helped divert attention away from labor unions which pushed for economic security, it drove a wedge between white working class and people of color by making the latter the bearers of white privilege.  Fostering leftist identity politics produced the counter-movement of identity politics of the right, along with the resurgence of White Supremacy.  While the New Left correctly pointed to the failures of the Old Left, it was willing to support political candidates such as Bill and Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama who embraced Neo-Liberal policies that did very little to address the politics of the rich and poor.  In the case of Bill Clinton, he presided over “ending welfare as we know it” and supporting regressive racial criminal justice policies that did more to hurt class and identify politics that perhaps any other politician. 
Obama did get modest health care reform based, but did little if anything to help out the homeowners after the economic crash of 2008.  He continued the Bush-era policies of bailing out the banks, ignoring the demands of labor unions and workers to make it easier organize or get better wages.  Obama also did little to address the role of money in politics, and, at the end of the day, his advocacy for the Trans-Pacific Partnership did little to rectify the inequities that many free trade agreements such as Clinton’s NAFTA have in terms of disproportionately burdening the working class.  Overall, identity politics and the New Left singularly came to be identified with the Democratic Party, a party complicate in the erosion of economic equality over the last 40 years.   The New Left and the Old Left–identity and class politics–failed to synthesize to produce a meaningful alternative to conservatism.
No wonder Democrats have lost the support of working class America.  No wonder why the Trump-Reagan tax bill is about to pass. Progressivism, as it came to embrace identity politics, fiddled while America burned.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Tina Smith, Michelle Fischbach, and Minnesota Constitutional Politics

The selection of Tina Smith by Governor Mark Dayton to replace Al Franken as US Senator is degenerating  into a political fight that ultimately may require the Minnesota Supreme Court to decide whether Senator Michele Fischbach gets to keep her seat in the Senate.
Here is the issue.  Al Franken’s resignation from the US Senate, triggering Minnesota Statutes  §204D.28, allowing Governor Dayton (DFL) to replace Franken.   Dayton picked his Lieutenant-Governor to replace Franken, thereby creating a vacancy in that office.  According to Article V, Section 5, of the Minnesota Constitution: “The last elected presiding officer of the senate shall become lieutenant governor in case a vacancy occurs in that office.”  That would make it Senator Michelle L. Fischbach (GOP)  who would become Lieutenant-Governor, creating a vacancy in her position and necessitating a special election for her senate seat under Article IV, Section 4, of the Constitution. 
Except, does Fischbach have to vacate her Senate seat?  Democrats argue yes, pointing to two clauses in the State Constitution.  The first is Article III, Section 1 stating that:

The powers of government shall be divided into three distinct departments: legislative, executive and judicial. No person or persons belonging to or constituting one of these departments shall exercise any of the powers properly belonging to either of the others except in the instances expressly provided in this constitution.

The second is Article IV, Section 5, declaring that:

No senator or representative shall hold any other office under the authority of the United States or the state of Minnesota, except that of postmaster or of notary public. If elected or appointed to another office, a legislator may resign from the legislature by tendering his resignation to the governor.

Taking a plain language reading of the Minnesota Constitution, DFLers contend that Fischbach  must  assume the position of Lieutenant-Governor and vacate her position as state senator.  It seems open and shut, except Republicans say it is not.  They contend first that the reason Dayton picked Smith was to force a Republican vacancy in the Senate, hoping in a special election to flip the 34-33 GOP majority into DFL control.  Republicans are conjuring up images of DFL political chicanery in hopes of repeating the Minnesota Massacre sweep of the 1978 two US Senate, governorship, and legislative races again in 2018. 
But Republicans also claim law is on their side, citing to the Minnesota Supreme Court’s State ex rel. Marr v. Stearns, 72 Minn. 200 (1898).  In that case the legal issue was a challenge to a decision by an Aitkin County auditor to tax three railroad-owned properties, pursuant to a state law.  In challenging their taxation, one argument was that the state senate did not adopt the legislation by the required majority vote as required by the State Constitution.  Specifically, Honorable Frank A. Day, who voted for the bill, and whose vote was necessary to pass it, was not then a senator, and his vote thereon was void.
  According to the Court, Day was elected as a senator from the Sixth senatorial district of this state for the term of four years, commencing January, 1895, and on January 25, 1895, became president pro tempore of the senate. Six days thereafter, Gov. Nelson resigned, and Lieut. Gov. Clough became governor; and thereafter, and until the close of the Twenty–Ninth session of the senate, Mr. Day performed the duties of, and acted as, lieutenant governor. He also, until the close of the session, continued to act and vote as senator, with the tacit approval, at least, of the Senate.
In rejecting the claim that he had left the Senate and became Lieutenant-Governor the Court rejected arguments that either Article III, Section 1 or Article IV, Section 5 forced Day out of the Senate.  The Court argued that in interpreting all of the state constitutional provisions as a whole, there was no explicit or clear language that said the senator must resign.  Additionally, the Court also noted how Article VIII which discusses impeachment excludes the lieutenant-governor from being impeached as an officer, suggesting that this person remains a senator.  Finally, the Court noted that the impeachment clause specifically excluded the Lieutenant-governor from serving or voting when the governor is impeached.  Providing for this specific exclusion is proof for the State ex rel. Marr v. Stearns that the Constitution, taken as a whole, means that the presiding officer of the senate of vacates that seat when becoming lieutenant-governor.
State ex rel. Marr v. Stearns is an interesting precedent, but is not convincing.  First, the Court’s real holding in the case was about taxation and not on the matter of whether the president pro tempore of the senate loses his senate seat when becoming Lieutenant-governor.  The latter issue was collateral to main issue.  Second, in the nineteenth century Minnesota and other states court applied the “enrolled bill” doctrine, a presumption that the judiciary would not second guess how the legislature did its business or count its votes.  That doctrine is mostly dead now.  Third, the decision in State ex rel. Marr v. Stearns was overturned by the US Supreme Court in Stearns v. State of Minnesota, 179 U.S. 223 (1900).  While the US Supreme Court cannot overturn the Minnesota Supreme Court’s own interpretation of our Constitution, the former’s decision clearly erodes the authority of State ex rel. Marr v. Stearns as precedent.
But the strongest reason to why State ex rel. Marr v. Stearns is not good law is that the Minnesota Constitution has been significantly amended since that decision.  For example, back in the original Constitution (Article V, Section 6), the Lieutenant-Governor was named ex-officio president of the senate.  This is no longer the case as a result of constitutional amendment.    Back in State ex rel. Marr v. Stearns one could argue that the specific language of the Constitution blended the Lieutenant-Governor into a position that stood as an exception to Article III, Section 1 or Article IV, Section 5.  That is no longer the rule or the case today.  Yes the current Constitution fails to subject the Lieutenant-Governor to impeachment, but that is an oversight in the amending process.
Thus, the current constitutional basis for the Court’s decision in State ex rel. Marr v. Stearns is questionable on many fronts.  If the GOP were to bring their case to the Minnesota Supreme Court there are many reasons to doubt the validity of this old decision.  Finally, given that a majority of the Minnesota Supreme Court is now Dayton appointees, and given how they ruled in the line-item veto case, the prospects of the Republicans winning and allowing Fischbach to stay in the Senate are bleak.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A Tale of Two Senate Seats: What We Learned from Alabama and Minnesota

Doug Jones defeats Roy Moore in Alabama and Mark Dayton picks his Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith to replace Al Franken in Minnesota.  What should we infer or conclude from both?  Far less than the national and local media and most pundits will assert.

On one level Roy Moore’s loss is about one seat in one state.  It is about a twice-removed state Supreme Court Justice accused of child molestation, repudiated by much of the Republican
establishment including Richard Shelby, losing to a moderate Democrat in a close special election.  The Democratic Party and then media will proclaim this is a repudiation of Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, and that it is a referendum on both that portends well for the Democrats in 2018.  Don’t bet on it.  Every time there is a special election everyone wants to generalize or argue that it has broader significance.  Remember at the end of the day Tip O’Neill was right–“all politics is local.”
In so many ways the Jones-Moore race was atypical.  There are not too many times Democrats are going to run in 2018 against an accused child molester with crank views about religion and the Bill of Rights.  Given all his liabilities, the race should have been a blow out.  It took such a horrible candidate repudiated by his own state Republican Party for a Democrat to win barely.  Take little solace in that. 
Next year there will be 35 senate races when Democrats having to defend  25 seats and the GOP nine.  Democrats will need to hold all their seats and win two Republican ones to control the seat.  They also need a perfect storm to win back a gerrymandered controlled House and to make significant inroads into recapturing the governorships and state legislatures lost over the last few years.  Yes opinion polls favor generic Democrats for Congress, Trump’s approvals are low, and the opposition party to the president in off-year elections historically does badly.  But Democrats often  do not show up in midterm elections and as of yet the Democratic Party has not constructed an alternative narrative to Trump’s to why they should be elected.  In defeating Moore their rationale for winning is that he is a creep.  Hardly a winning message for 2018 even against Trump.
Potentially what is significant is that the Democrats did crack the solid Republican South and elected their first Alabama senator in 25 years.  Maybe–just maybe–Jones offers the type of candidate that Democrats can win in the South.  Maybe we saw with Black turnout what the Voting Rights Act can really do.  Maybe the South, especially the urban areas and the changing demographics, suggest  changes that a longer term and more structural.  But determining all that is too soon to tell and Democrats should not get their hopes up too soon.  Demographics are not destiny, and local races against bad candidates cannot be exemplars for other local races across the country.

After a week of drama Dayton selects Tina Smith to replace Al Franken.  Dayton could have done something bold and build for the future of the Democratic Party in Minnesota but he opted for predictability and loyalty in selecting Smith.  This is who he was rumored to want a week ago,
perhaps or not turning his back on pressures from various constituencies both local and national to  select someone else.
But besides picking Smith out of predictability and loyalty, perhaps he also selected her for another value–competence.  Rarely do we discuss competence as a trait among candidates for office, but in Smith we get someone who is a real public policy person.  She is less about politics, campaigns, and elections, and more about tax policy, governance, and legislation.  She is all that Hillary Clinton was without the baggage.  Whether in a Trump era competence is the type of trait that is electable in 2018 is a matter of speculation and one will see if she faces challenges from within the DFL.  But even if she does not, her 2018 special election will attract millions of dollars and outside national interest.  It would be nice if she could simply run on being competent and smart but too few candidates–and especially women–can do that.  Our pop culture dislikes intellectualism–historian Richard Hofstadter told us that years ago–and smart women are threatening to many.  Smith in running for reelection will need to figure out how to run without making the mistakes Clinton made, simply being competent and smart it not enough, and she will also need to provide a narrative why she deserves to fill out the remaining two years of Franken’s term.
Finally, she needs to address a growing parochialism setting in among many Minnesotans and especially DFLers.  There is a growing resentment that Chuck Schumer told Minnesotans that Franken had to go and therefore they were telling the state who our senator should be.  There is some truth to that, but in the end, Franken had to go.  Six to eight allegations of sexual impropriety, collapsing poll numbers for his support in the state, his inability even in his resignation speech to appreciate what he might have done all suggest that Franken had lost the ability to legislate.  We should worry about how “accusation equals guilt” is creating a new Salem witch hunt, and yes what he was accused of doing is different from that of what brought Roy Moore down. 
But character does matter and Franken’s brought him down, for good or for bad.  The issue is not a lack of due process, the issue was his inability to provide a reasonable accuse or account for his behavior. The court of public opinion is not a real court. For those who said he deserved his day in court (or before the Senate Ethics Committee), the same could have been said about Roy Moore.  Insisting on full due process for Franken would have required the same for Moore and everyone else  charged with anything else on the campaign trail. 
         Good or bad, in a representative democracy voters and public opinion rule.  Elected officials compete in the marketplace of ideas for vote and it should not usually if at all be that courts and trials decide the truth or veracity of claims.  Maybe that is the lesson that should be generalized from Minnesota and perhaps Alabama.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

And the winner is: Why Mark Dayton should pick Melisa Franzen to replace Al Franken

Speculation is at a fever pitch regarding who Governor Dayton should select to replace Al Franken as US Senator.  There are many contending interest groups, constituencies, and factors that are being articulated.  But at the end of the day if the goal of Dayton and the Minnesota DFL is to pick someone who can win and hold the set in 2018, then State Senator Melisa Franzen is his best choice.
There is no correct criteria or criterion that should drive or determine Dayton’s choice to replace Franken.  There are many competing factors.  Should it be someone who will be able to win in 2018, or should it be a caretaker, someone not interested in running for fear that if Dayton politicizes the choice it runs the risk of a rerun of the 1978 Minnesota Massacre when Governor Anderson effectively chose himself to replace Senator Mondale who resigned to become vice-president.  That decision 40 years ago led to both US senate races being won by Republicans, as well as the Governor’s race and the loss of the state legislature.  It is unlikely that such a scenario will reoccur, unless the DFL is so self-serving that it backfires.
Others are arguing that given the reasons why Franken is stepping down (allegations of sexual impropriety), the choice has to be a woman.  Others say it is not just a woman, but a woman of color.  Or perhaps it should be someone of color, regardless of gender.  Or maybe it should be someone who can raise the millions of dollars it will require to win.  Or maybe it requires someone who can hit the ground running when taking office so that the person can dive into the complex policies issues he or she will face.  Or maybe it should be someone who represents the future of the DFL in the state, or someone who will satisfy other state political criteria.
Conversely, there are some in Washington, D.C., who are pressing perhaps for other national factors to be considered.  Listening to Chuck Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee would be a mistake.  For Speaker of the US House Tip O’Neill once said: “All politics is local.”  Never forget that.  The Democrats nationally and the DFL in Minnesota err in going with cookie-cutter approaches to politics and that is why they lose.  Those in Washington are clueless to what drives Minnesota politics.
I still remember back in 2002 when Wellstone died.  I did a ton of interviews and was asked who the DFL should pick to replace him and I said Judy Dutcher.  She had run for governor and was pushed away with an appeal to seniority and that it was Roger Moe who deserved it.  That worked out well.  However in one interview with the Wall Street Journal a reporter–less than an hour after Wellstone died–told me the Washington consensus was it had to be  Walter Mondale.  That worked out well–picking an aging politician who represented that Minnesota of the past.
So who should Dayton pick?  Assume first that you want someone who can win in 2018.  Second, pick someone who is young and represents the future of the party.  Third, pick someone who  has come from a swing district and proven to be able to raise money and appeal to swing voters.   Fourth, pick someone who is not white, acknowledging that the future of Minnesota is multi-cultural.  Finally, pick someone who is a good speaker, who appeals to suburban women (a critical swing demographic), and who is a smart and quick study.  Put them all together and the choice is State Senator Melisa Franzen. 
I am not endorsing anyone and have no influence in the DFL or with Mark Dayton in terms of who should be selected.  However Senator Franzen is a two-term Minnesota Senator who is from Puerto Rico.  She is young, comes from an affluent swing district in Minnesota, and who meets all the criteria above.  I have been at several forums (such as the Edina League of Women Voters) where both of us were speakers.  She is personable, a terrific speaker, and smart.  In my opinion, she would  be a great selection for Dayton and should be given serious consideration.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Curse: Law and Politics of Senate Vacancies in Minnesota

The Minnesota Senate seat held by Al Franken appears to be cursed.
With his resignation over sexual harassment allegations and Governor Dayton soon to announce his replacement, the seat held by Franken continues its troubled history, both legally and politically.

The 1978 Elections
The stored history of the seat goes back to 1976.  Then Senator Walter Mondale, tapped to be with Jimmy Carters running mate, resigns to become vice-president of the United States.  With the senate seat open, then Governor Wendell Anderson resigns, his Lieutenant Governor Rudy Perpich  becomes governor, and then names the former as senator.  This apparent quid pro quo looked sufficiently bad enough that voters in Minnesota threw out all the major Democrats (Dflers) in the state, replacing them with Republicans in 1978.  Wendell Anderson was replaced with Rudy Boschwitz.  Muriel Humphrey, who replaced her husband Hubert when he died in 1978, was replaced by Republican David Durenberger, and Governor Perpich was defeated by Republican Al Quie.  The DFL also lost control of the state legislature.
Voters were so angry about the way Anderson apparently acted to make himself governor that the law regarding filling of US Senate vacancies was changed, codified now in Minnesota Statutes  §204D.28.  It allows for the governor to appoint to fill a temporary vacancy (Subd. 11.) until a special election can be held at the next regular election in November (Subd. 6) (except in cases where the vacancy occurs close to another election), with the winner then serving out the remainder of the regular term.

1990 Elections
Boschwitz served two terms, losing to Paul Wellstone in 1990.  The 1990 election was odd for several reasons.   There was a gubernatorial election that year pitting incumbent Rudy Perpich (who won back his seat in 1982) against Republican State Auditor Arne Carlson.  Originally the GOP had nominated John Grunseth as their candidate but several weeks before the election stories regarding sexual improprieties against him emerged, and there was pressure for him to quit.  Pressure came from Boscwwitz who offered to pay his expenses to quit.  Such an offer was illegal under state law and when later Grunseth sued in court for a breach of contract the suit was dismissed.  A legal battle then ensued by Democrats over replacing Grunseth with Carlson as the GOP nomination, culminating in a Minnesota Supreme Court decision allowing for that to occur.  Carlson went on to win the election.
At the same time Wellstone, outspent by more than 6:1 by Boschwitz, beats the latter to win the Senate seat.  In part Wellstone’s victory was attributed to a letter Boschwitz ( who was Jewish) sent out to the Jewish community accusing Wellstone (also Jewish) of not being a good Jew.  The letter was written by two of Mr. Boschwitz's Jewish supporters and signed by them and 70 others, and it was printed on Boschwitz campaign stationery and mailed at campaign expense on November 1, 1990, just days before the election.

2002 Election
Wellstone served in the senate for two terms, and then was running for a third term in 2002 when on October 25,  less than two weeks before the election, he died in a plane crash.    At that point in a race against Republican Norm Coleman more than 25,000 absentee ballots had already been cast.  In a special DFL Executive Committee meeting former Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale was picked to replace Wellstone.  Democrats wanted absentee votes cast for Wellstone automatically transferred to Mondale or in the alternative, the absentee ballots thrown out.   State law did not appear to allow for absentee voters to request a new ballot to vote A major legal battle ensued where eventually in Erlandson v. Kiffmeyer, 659 N.W. 2d 724 (2003), the Minnesota Supreme Court allowed for voters to request new ballots if they had already voted.
In addition, the Mondale-Coleman race was also marred by another controversy.  Just days before the election there was a televised memorial service for Wellstone which attracted national celebrities to pay their respects.  It was supposed to be a non-partisan event but when it turned partisan (at least this was the impression by some) through a speech by Rick Kahn (a friend of Wellstone’s) who more than a dozen times said let’s "win this election for Paul Wellstone."  Governor Jesse Ventura  walked out in disgust, the media and the public came to view the service as a political pep rally, and that shifted the momentum to Norm Coleman who won the election.  On November 4, Governor Ventura named Dean Barkley senator until Coleman was sworn in.

2008 Election
In 2008 Coleman was running for re-election, challenged by Al Franken who returned to the state to run for election.  It was an expensive election, culminating in what appeared to be less than a 1,000 vote victory for Coleman on election day.  After the Canvassing Board meet it declared Coleman the victor by a 206 margin.  A mandatory recount took place resulting in fights over absentee ballots.  Specifically, during the recount, local election officials and the candidates reviewed the absentee ballot return envelopes that had been rejected on or before election day and agreed that some of them had been improperly rejected.
On January 3, 2009, the Secretary of State's Office opened and counted the 933 ballots identified during this process. On January 5, 2009, the State Canvassing Board certified the results of the election as 1,212,431 votes for Franken and 1,212,206 votes for Coleman, a margin of 225.  Coleman sued and eventually in Coleman v. Franken, 767 N.W.2d 453 (Minn. 2009), the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled for Franken and on July 7, 2009–after the seat had been vacant for more than six months–he was seated.

2017 and Beyond
And now it appears that Franken is resigning, kicking in Minnesota Statutes  §204D.28, allowing Governor Dayton (DFL) to replace Franken.  There is a lot of speculation surrounding who it will be but assume as one choice that it will be his Lieutenant-Governor Tina Smith (although there are many other possible picks to replace Franken).  If so, this means there will be a vacancy in that position.  Article V, section 5 declares that: “The last elected presiding officer of the senate shall become lieutenant governor in case a vacancy occurs in that office.”  That would make it Senator Michelle L. Fischbach (GOP)  who would become Lieutenant-Governor, creating a vacancy in her position and necessitating a special election for her senate seat under Article IV, Section 4, of the Constitution. 
Why is all this important?  Until recently the GOP held a one vote majority (34-33) in the Minnesota Senate.  But effective December 15, 2017, DFL Dan Schoen will resign, coincidently also because of sexual harassment allegations.  Assume that the DFL will hold his seat (which is not guaranteed but possible with him having won 53.13% in 2016) and that the DFL picks up Fischbach’s seat (not likely since she won with 68.6% in 2016 in a strong Republican area), the DFL could then flip party control of the Minnesota Senate in DFL Governor Mark Dayton’s last year in office.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Entirely Unsurprising New Minnesota Budget Deficit

So yet again the Minnesota State budget is in the red.  The fiscal forecast projects a $186 million
deficit for the remainder  of the biennium, exploding to $586 million for the 2020-21 cycle. If the state is lucky it will only be that amount, but the possibility is far more.  How did this happen again that Minnesota is facing a deficit.
There are three forces driving the new deficit in Minnesota: state policy, the state and national economy, and federal policy.  Only the first is within control of the state, the other–to use the language of economics–are exogenous.
State policy is the first problem.  Simply stated, there has been bipartisan fiscal irresponsibility.  When the budget surplus grew to well in excess of a $1.65 billion earlier this year the Republicans thought the solution was to cut taxes, the Democrats to increase spending.  We did  both.  What was ignored were all the structural problems in the budget and budget process such as counting inflation for revenues for revenues and not obligations.  There was ignoring commitments to K-12, to pensions, and local governments.  There was funny number budgeting when it came to  infrastructure and other projects.  The budget was simply not honest.  But in addition, when there was a surplus no one wanted to say “Save for a rainy day,” thinking that the economy would continue to grow and perform well (generating continued and growing tax revenues) and that the federal government would continue to subsidize the state’s programs.  Instead, the political horizon was the next election cycle and not the long-term fiscal health of the state.
But all good things come to an end.  Since 2009 the US has been in an economic recovery and growth.  Economic fortunes have improved for many but no economic expansion lasts forever and there are signs of a slowing US economy.  A slower state or federal (or even international in a global economy) means less tax revenues for the state.  Uneven growth in Minnesota may mean 2.3% unemployment for the Twin Cities but it is not so good in greater Minnesota.    Minnesota’s politicians premised spending on an infinitely growing economy and that is not happening and the fiscal forecast notes that.  The economic slowdown is largely beyond control of state policy makers, and it is the second driver of the deficit.
Third, the big imponderable is whether Congress and the president agree to a tax reform bill.  Depending on what is in it, it could have huge implications for the state.  One proposal would reduce or eliminate the federal for state and local taxes.  For big spending and social welfare states like Minnesota that could be a big hit.  Elimination of the Obamacare individual mandate, or elimination of health and medical deductions, or doubling the standard deductions (which affect non-profits) could impact the state.  Additionally, while a few tooth-fairy believing supply-side trickle down economists believe the tax cuts will boost the economy, most disagree and thing it is more possible that it throws the economy into reverse and slows it down more.  On top of which, if the federal government needs to make more  cuts to make up for the projected budget hemorrhage, they may come from federal health care spending and money transferred to states such as Minnesota.
What most people and many legislators fail to grasp is that nearly $46 billion budget for Minnesota only represents the State’s part of its fiscal obligations.  Minnesota is actually obligated to spend billions more than that, with that money coming from the federal government.  Cut federal government spending and Minnesota will still have the obligations but not the revenues.
Thus, a slowing economy and federal tax reform and budget cuts could thus transform the not so rosy Minnesota  budget deficit into an ever greater one.  Had the governor and legislature thought through this when they rushed to spend and cut taxes they might have been able to plan and cushion for it.  But alas, they did not do this...yet again, leading to the entirely unsurprising new Minnesota budget deficit.

Addendum:  Recently someone questioned my expertise on budgets and economics and asserted  I was "merely a dumb political scientist."  Perhaps I am but lets think about this.  In graduate school I amassed nearly enough credits to have a masters in economics.  At Hamline for 15 years I taught in the business school, teaching graduate (masters and doctoral level) classes in economic policy, and I taught local economic development at the HHH school at the UMN.  Oh, and I worked as a housing and economic planner for several years and also was a researcher at the UMN Institute on Race and Poverty doing work on racial and economic segregation and policy.

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Expendables: Donald Trump versus the US Congress

Donald Trump is increasingly expendable to the Republicans in Congress.  Assuming the tax plan is
signed into law, Trump will be increasingly expendable and a liability to Congress as they head into the 2018 midterm elections and beyond.  Simply put: With the passage of the tax and the increased problems the Mueller investigation will pose to Trump and the Republicans, the latter will have less and less need for the former while finding him more and more an electoral problem.

Few if any see the connection between the tax overhaul and the fate of Donald Trump with the GOP Congress.  Yet if there is anything the Republican Congress wanted more than anything else was the tax cuts and overhaul.  Since Reagan the issue that has defined the party has been tax cuts.  It is the answer to everything.  If the economy is doing badly cut taxes. If the economy is doing well and the government is taking in too much money, cut taxes.  If we need to produce more jobs, cut taxes.  If there is tax cheating by businesses hoarding money in off-shore accounts, cut taxes.  Cutting taxes is like the classic cure-all nostrums sold by traveling salesmen in the 19th century.  One  bottle will cure anything that ails you.

Preaching tax cuts for all social ills is what the Elmer Gantrys of the GOP have preached for years.
Yes a few Republicans talked once of fiscal restraint and worried about deficits.  Yet those old Concord Coalition folks are gone.  So many seem shocked–shocked as Captain Renault was in Casablanca–that the likes of Susan Collins and John McCain would support this tax cut bill even though its regressive nature and impact will be to hurt the very people Trump and Republicans say they want to help.  Neither Collins not McCain were progressives; they are Republicans defined by  tax cuts über alles.  With this tax plan the Republicans get so much of what they have wanted for the last quarter century.

Depending on the version that finally passes, the Obama health mandate is gone, the estate tax is effectively gone, corporations pay less taxes and the rich pay less taxes.  In addition, the doubling of the standard deduction will help some but hurt non-profits, the poor will not be able to take advantage of the child care tax credit, the loss of medical deductions will do more to push many into debt, and the loss of the deductions for state and local taxes will penalize Democratic high tax and social welfare states such as Minnesota.  One should not infer that the GOP plan is intentionally cruel but its regressive nature to help the rich will have this impact.  Further, since there was concern that the tax cuts will not live up to the mythical trickle down magic, there are requirements to make further cuts to balance the budget in the future–this will pressure cuts in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.  All of this is reminiscent of what David Stockman talked about in terms of the logic of the Reagan tax cuts back in the 80s–blown up the budget with large deficits into to pressure cuts to the welfare state.

Assuming the GOP gets all of this, they have gotten most of their agenda and what they want from Trump.  Of course this is a big if.  The outcome of an Alabama Senate election, the fate of Al Franken, and the ability of the House and Senate to reach agreement with one another and Trump  might still wreck all this.  But assume not...what value is there in keeping Trump around?  His agenda is largely over with the tax plan.  There will be no wall, there will be no major infrastructure  package, and abandoning NAFTA and the other trade agreements are either superfluous, icing on the cake, or something the Republicans do not really care about.  For most Republicans, the Trump presidency largely ends with his signature on the tax plan.

It will not be too much to assume that with Michael Flynn cooperating with Mueller, Jared  Kushner, Donald Trump, Jr., or Jeff Sessions might not be next.  How they too might implicate the president if at all is only a question of time.  But if polls suggest that Trump is already a problem for the GOP into 2018, he will become more so next year as more indictments and trials mount.  One can also speculate on whether the swirling sexual harassment controversies will finally ensnare the president next year.  If all that happens, the Congressional Republicans might be better off without him than with.

No this does not mean he will be impeached by Republicans.  This is still a Democratic Party fantasy.  Nor should the Democrats count on an unpopular president guaranteeing their path back to power.  Yet if Trump has already succeeded in getting the congressional Republicans most of what they want, the president will become expendable to them in 2018 and beyond.