Tuesday, December 30, 2008

New Senator, Maybe

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has surprised the political world by announcing an appointment to the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by Barack Obama. You can find more details in this post on The Caucus blog on the website of The New York Times.

Blagojevich's choice, former state Attorney General Roland Burris, strikes me as someone who, in more ordinary circumstances, would be a logical candidate to be a caretaker senator to serve until the 2010 election. Burris is 71 years old, and a veteran of state politics. Therefore, it seems as though he could handle the job, but would not seek a lengthy tenure.

But in the wake of accusations that Blagojevich had attempted to profit financially from an appointment, we'll see whether Senate leaders stick to their guns, and exercise their constitutional power to reject the appointment.

Monday, December 29, 2008

"OK, guys, come on ..."

This article in Politico describes some apparent irritation on the part of the president-elect, as he experiences some of the less desirable aspects of the job he's taking on.

As Carol Lee describes in that article, it's likely only to get worse as time goes on.

It happens to every president. Although the needs of the New Media create stresses greater than the ones that faced long-ago presidents.

Of course, part of us feels sorry for him. But it's not as though we in the electorate forced the office on him. He gave every indication that he very much wanted it.

Can you imagine what the scene would be like, around the Cabinet table, if his frustrations were to escalate? If he ever decides that he's had enough, and wants to go back to a normal life, we know he could find a willing successor among the vice president, and the secretaries of state, commerce and agriculture (and maybe a few more secretaries of whatever).

But my prediction is that he will get used to it, and only have the usual level of presidential frustration with the restrictions that go with the job.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Coalition Government: Partner and Opponent

This BBC report of Israeli military action against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, points up an interesting aspect of coalition government in a parliamentary system.

The Israeli parties continue their campaign for the general election that is scheduled for February 10, 2009. But, in the meantime, two of the major parties, Kadima and Labor, are partners in a coalition government.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, of Kadima, is a caretaker prime minister who is not leading his party in the campaign. But that party's new leader, Tzipi Livni, is very much involved in this situation, as foreign minister. One of her rivals, although not her principal rival, is Ehud Barak, the defense minister, who is leader of the Labor Party.

Livni and Barak need to perform a delicate balancing act. They need to get the message across to Hamas that together they form a united front that will take all necessary action to protect Israel. Simultaneously, each leader's message to the Israeli electorate is that their party, and not any other, deserves their votes.

In theory that's a difficult passage to navigate. But, Israeli politicians have a lot of practice at it, because in the six-decade history of the State of Israeli, they have constantly had both security threats and coalition governments.

Numbers and States

Politico addresses a process that happens in each decade, and is coming up soon: reapportioning congressional seats among the states based on population data from the decennial census.

For many decades now, the American population, and therefore political power, has been shifting to the south and west. And the study described in that article indicates that that trend will continue.

There are a couple of anomalies, though. Two Sunbelt states, Louisiana and California, could each lose one seat. I assume the Louisiana situation is tied in to population loss in New Orleans resulting from Hurricane Katrina. California has gone into a relative decline, which I think can be traced in large part to an exodus to neighboring states to seek a lower cost of living, and cutbacks among defense contractors in Southern California.

But, if that happens, it won't put too much of a dent in California's dominance. If you compare it to my current home state of Pennsylvania, California's numbers have skyrocketed over the past century. Based on the 1910 census, California was allocated 11 House seats, while Pennsylvania had 36. After the most recent census, that of 2000, California had jumped to 53, and Pennsylvania had slumped to 19. (If you're interested in more detail on that, the House publishes the historical data here.)

There are at least two major political implications of all this:

All of the states that are large enough to have more than one House seat, redraw their congressional district boundaries after each census. Court decisions from the 1960s onward put stringent requirements on that process, which had been a bit more lax at other times in American history. That always entails a difficult battle in each state legislature, but it's even more of a knock-down-drag-out fight when a state loses representation.

A loss of congressional representation entails a reduction of a state's number of electors in the Electoral College that votes for president and vice president. Therefore, it results in a reduction of a state's clout at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Friday, December 26, 2008

We All Have To Go Sometime


A bit of a downer during the Christmas season? Maybe. Today is one of three dates on the calendar that is the anniversary of the death of more than one president.

Harry Truman died on December 26, 1972. At the age of 88, he had fallen short of the record up to that time for presidential longevity. The record was then held by John Adams, who lived to the age of 90.

34 years to the day after Truman's death, Gerald Ford, who had just recently broken the presidential longevity record, died at the age of 93. The record had briefly been held by Ronald Reagan, who passed Adams in 2001, and then died at 93, in 2004.

Ford lived only 45 days longer than Reagan. Is it too far-fetched to think that Ford, who had been Reagan's political rival, having fought a bitter battle against him for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination, forced himself to hang on, until he had barely passed Reagan's mark?

One of the other dates is March 8. Millard Fillmore's 1874 death, and that of William Howard Taft, in 1930, were both on that date.

And what is the only date that is the anniversary of three presidential deaths? The Fourth of July, of course.

The latest of those three July 4 deaths was that of James Monroe, in 1831. But the other two form one of the great coincidences of American history.

Two members of the committee that was formed by the Continental Congress to draft the Declaration of Independence, in 1776, both died on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration. The aforementioned John Adams died in Massachusetts on July 4, 1826, supposedly declaring that "Thomas Jefferson survives." But, unbeknownst to Adams, Jefferson had died earlier that day, in Virginia.

Seeing them pictured next to each other in the painting shown above, drives home the historical significance of the coincidence. That painting of the presentation of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress, hangs in the U.S. Capitol building.

As with Reagan and Ford, Jefferson and Adams became bitter rivals. In their case, the rivalry came to a head in the 1800 general election for president, in which Jefferson prevailed. That nasty campaign has been cited by historians to counter suggestions that modern campaigns, including the one recently concluded, are fought at a lower level of civility than those of a supposed golden age of American politics, that only ever existed in some people's imaginations.
Jefferson and Adams later reconciled. During their last few years, they carried on a correspondence that has since been published.
Image: Architect of the Capitol

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas and George Washington

Two major events in George Washington's military career, which happened seven years apart, are associated with Christmas.

Taking those two events in reverse chronological order, the second one did not occur on Christmas Day, but rather on December 23, 1783. That was his announcement, about which I wrote here, that he resigned his commission as commander of the American army, in order to return to Mount Vernon. Due to the timing, it is sometimes called his "Christmas Farewell".

As many historians see it, Washington thereby gave up the opportunity to rule as a military dictator. His action established the principle of civilian supremacy over the military.

The earlier event was his Crossing of the Delaware on December 25, 1776. That set up a surprise attack on the British forces' mercenaries from Hesse, who were encamped at Trenton, New Jersey.

Washington's forces crossed over from Pennsylvania; the Delaware River forms the boundary between Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Most of us associate that event with a painting by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, that is currently in the collection of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Of course, as has been said over and over, the image in the painting cannot be historically accurate. Had they struck such a pose, the boat would have capsized, sending our hero and his soldiers into the icy river. But the heroic pose has cemented this image of the event into our collective national memory.

The victory at Trenton is credited with keeping the American cause alive, at a critical time in the early days of the Revolution.

PBS's website has a page that sets up the background of the battle. And here, a local historical society adds a further description.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Hawk Hawk

Israel's general election campaign continues.

This Reuters report indicates that the two party leaders who are best placed to become prime minister are trying to out-hawk each other on the issue of control of the Gaza Strip by Hamas.

There is a full spectrum of opinion in Israel on issues of war and peace. But reports generally indicate that the Kadima and Likud parties, whose leaders, Tzipi Livni and Benjamin Netanyahu respectively, issued the hard-line statements about Gaza, are vying for the lead role in forming the next coalition government. Likud is ahead, with Kadima within striking distance. Ehud Barak's Labor Party trails a significant distance behind.

That seems to indicate that the Israeli electorate is leaning toward the more militant side of that spectrum. Perhaps the thunder of both the Lebanon War of 2006 and attacks on Israel from Gaza has drowned out the cooing of the doves.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Pro Tem

After I wrote this post about the seniority system in the Senate, I noticed that that body had published a book about the only leadership job in the full Senate that is assigned strictly on the basis of seniority, that of president pro tempore.

The Senate's description of that book, to which I've linked above, clarifies that the seniority rule for choosing the president pro tem dates only from 1949. I find it ironic that that happened shortly after the president pro tem was moved into the number three position in the order of presidential succession.

In other words, only when the position could potentially matter, was it assigned to the most senior senator. In a national emergency, the ailing 91-year-old West Virginia
Senator Robert Byrd, who has, as I do, the medical condition of essential tremor, could be called on to assume the presidency. His condition has rendered him unable to continue to chair the Committee on Appropriations. How would be handle being put in charge of the entire Executive Branch?

It seems to me that, if the Senate is going to act as though president pro tem is an honorary position, which it is in most respects, they should remove any real power, or potential power, from the president pro tem.

Counting, counting, counting ...

Remember the Al Franken decade? It seems that it's taking that long to count the votes in his ever-so-close election against Norm Coleman for a U.S. Senate seat in Minnesota.

Here is an update from the Pioneer Press, a St. Paul newspaper. Minnesota authorities have apparently conceded that they won't be able to finish their recount by the time the new Senate convenes next month.

According to this Minnesota Public Radio report, Governor Tim Pawlenty could appoint a senator, if the result remains undecided after Coleman's current term ends. Pawlenty is a Republican, and it seems likely that he would appoint his fellow Republican Coleman.

I'm not sure of all the legalities involved but, in this New Hampshire case to which the Minnesota election has been compared, the Senate seat remained vacant for some months. The governor did not make an interim appointment until the candidates had agreed to hold a new election. Does state law govern that, and is there a statutory difference that would allow a Minnesota governor to go further than that New Hampshire governor did, and make an interim appointment at the beginning of the congressional session? Any comments that could shed light on that would be appreciated.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Eggheads

Some days back, President-elect Obama chose Steven Chu, a physics professor at University of California, Berkeley, as his secretary of energy. Chu won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1997.

Some American presidents and secretaries of state (and one almost-but-not-quite president) have won the Nobel Peace Prize. But, unless I miss my guess, Chu must be the first Cabinet nominee to have won a Nobel science prize.

Republican administrations have certainly had some personnel with academic backgrounds, such as Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Greg Mankiw and Martin Feldstein. But the Democrats have been the party that has been more closely identified with academic intellectuals.

President Kennedy famously said to assembled Nobel laureates at a 1962 White House dinner: "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

Since his death, the notion of Kennedy himself being intellectual has been largely debunked. (Not that being intellectual is necessarily a good quality in someone with a job like that.) All of the appreciation of high culture in the family was on the part of the First Lady. The president made a reasonably good show of appreciating it, both to burnish his public image, and to placate his long-suffering wife.

And many believe that the book for which Kennedy won a Pulitzer Prize, Profiles in Courage, was ghost-written by Ted Sorensen.

But the point is that Kennedy, like many modern Democrats, played to an intellectual constituency.

That seems to be just fine with some Republicans. They sometimes delight in referring to intellectual Democrats as "eggheads". There are indications that that term predates Adlai Stevenson, the Illinois governor, who was the Democratic presidential nominee in 1952 and 1956. But if you look at a picture of Stevenson, the name seems to fit. And the word was popularized through its use against Stevenson by Republicans, during those campaigns.

George Will, in this column from 2000, challenged Stevenson's intellectual credentials. But I suppose the Eisenhower campaign was fine with their opponent's intellectual image. They probably wanted to portray Ike as the friendly man of action, in contrast to the brooding egghead, paralyzed by his thoughts. On the other hand, some Democrats considered Eisenhower a smiling airhead, who replaced the Cabinet of new dealers with one filled with car dealers.

These days, when the culture wars, which were arguably in their infancy during the Eisenhower years, are in full bloom, those competing images still come into play in presidential campaigns. McCain and Palin were accused of running an anti-intellectual campaign. Also, before McCain was nominated, three Republican presidential candidates expressed disbelief in the theory of evolution, during a debate.


No one seems to want to come right out and say it, but I think one driver of the Obamacon phenomenon, i.e., those of us toward the right-hand side of the political spectrum who supported Obama in the recent election, is in part a rejection of this anti-intellectual trend. Was that a good enough reason? Maybe, maybe not. But what's done is the done, and now we'll see the results.

Friday, December 19, 2008

He Speaks No More

America marks the death of a man with an interesting niche in its political history. Mark Felt, who, as associate director of the FBI, leaked details of the Watergate Cover-up to reporters from The Washington Post, has died at the age of 95.

While his role in the Nixon case was a significant one, he perhaps would not have captured the national imagination to quite the degree he did, had he not been given the moniker "Deep Throat", by one of the reporters. His anonymity over the years added to the aura of mystery about him, until he revealed the secret three years ago.

It's one of those "what ifs" of history that can be fruitlessly debated forever: would the cover-up have succeeded, had Felt not done what he did?

This also reminds those of us old enough to remember the time during which the scandal played out, in 1972, 1973 and 1974 (including this politics-obsessed teenager), of how much time has passed. I quickly threw together a not-necessarily-exhaustive list of 16 major players (other than Felt) on all sides of Watergate.

11 of them are dead by now: Leon Jaworski (1982), Sam Ervin (1985), John Sirica (1992), H.R. Haldeman (1993), Richard Nixon (1994), Spiro Agnew (1996), John Ehrlichman (1999), Archibald Cox (2004), Peter Rodino (2005), Gerald Ford (2006) and Howard Hunt (2007).

Five who are still around are all rather mature by now, including: Howard Baker, 83; Gordon Liddy, 78; John Dean, 70; Bob Woodward, 65; and Carl Bernstein, 64.

There must be some supernatural explanation. It can't be that I'm getting old!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Oh no! Another Senate appointment?

President-elect Obama has selected Senator Ken Salazar, Democrat of Colorado, to be secretary of the interior.

Despite the huge controversy regarding the process of filling Obama's own Senate seat in Illinois, and the lesser controversies surrounding members of famous families who are potentially in line to become senators, now or at a future special election, in Delaware and New York, Obama is willing to create another Senate vacancy, this time in Colorado.

Governor Bill Ritter, a Democrat, will appoint Salazar's successor, assuming the Senate confirms his nomination to the interior job. The interim appointment will be effective until the regular election for that seat, in 2010.

Chris Cillizza, in The Fix blog on the Washington Post website, handicaps the field.

Speculation about Salazar's brother John, a congressman, has added fuel to the fire, for those commentators discussing the degree to which family connections have come into play in filling these Senate vacancies.

It stands to reason that Obama's Senate colleagues would be uppermost in his mind, when considering appointments. In a similar manner, George W. Bush chose a few fellow governors for top jobs.

Cillizza mentions that the Colorado situation could make it difficult for the Democrats to hold on to that Senate seat. And I think he underestimates the possibility of trouble for the Democrats in other states. The Illinois situation could create a backlash in favor of Republicans, especially if a quick special election is held. And that blast from the past, Rudy Giuliani, is said to be considering a Senate run in New York.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Shadow Cabinet: Don't Try This At Home

Don't misinterpret my recent posts on the idea of the U.S. adopting a shadow cabinet system. I'm not advocating that.

I'm skeptical of any proposal to mix and match elements of a parliamentary system and a U.S.-style presidential system. That can lead to unintended consequences, as was the case when Israel tried to graft the concept of direct election of the head of government onto their parliamentary structure, as I wrote about in this post.

Also, some C-SPAN viewers, after watching Prime Minister's Questions from the British House of Commons, want our president to face similar questioning in Congress. But I don't think that fits with our separation-of-powers concept. The American president is not a part of, and answerable to, the legislative branch, in the way the British prime minister is.

Additionally, I think it would be difficult to introduce some or all of the aspects of a parliamentary system in a country such as ours, whose political system did not evolve that way. American political culture evolved around the elements of our constitutional structure. A similar process happened in Britain, over the centuries during which their parliamentary system developed.

There has been some convergence. For instance, some U.K. commentators lament the degree to which the office of prime minister has taken on presidential trappings. Their view is that the prime minister has gone from being first-among-equals in the Cabinet, to governing from 10 Downing Street with his or her equivalent of the White House staff.

But to decide that, as of such-and-such a date, either one of us would suddenly change over to the other country's way of doing things, as Sweden did when it changed from driving on the left to driving on the right on September 3, 1967, would probably be chaotic with who knows what consequences.

Dynasty

Politico finds dynastic politics operating in America. I'm shocked! Oh, wait a minute. Actually, I'm not shocked at all, because I already wrote about that, five months ago.

Shadow Cabinet: Bye-bye bipartisanship?

Lately I've been speculating in this and other posts about how a U.S. shadow cabinet might work.

One complication, as I see it, is that it would be difficult or impossible for presidential candidates to carry on the common practice of naming at least one member of the opposition party to the Cabinet.

It seems to me that it would be much more difficult for a potential Cabinet member to accept an appointment from the other party's nominee in August of the election year, than it is to take a job from a president-elect of the other party after the election.

In a rare case, such as that of Senator Joe Lieberman, an "Independent Democrat" who had already come out in support of Republican nominee John McCain before the party conventions, a politician from the other party might feel free to accept a shadow cabinet role. But, for the most part, that would be seen as an act of disloyalty, and most politicians would probably shrink from it.

Also, some bipartisan tokens in recent times were already a Cabinet member under a president of one party, before being appointed by a president-elect of the other party. Norman Mineta was secretary of commerce during the last few months of Bill Clinton's presidency, and was subsequently named secretary of transportation, as the only Democratic member of George W. Bush's Cabinet. And Robert Gates, who has been secretary of defense during Bush's last two years, is Barack Obama's choice to continue in that job in his administration.

One could certainly not simultaneously be a member of a Cabinet of one party, and a shadow cabinet of the other party. If a Cabinet member disagreed with administration policy strongly enough, he or she could resign, and then go over to the other party. Such was not the case with Mineta and Gates. However, Colin Powell, who was secretary of state during Bush's first term, endorsed Obama before the election, apparently though, not with the intent on either side that he would take a job in the Obama Administration.

I've previously written that I'm not a big fan of the bipartisan Cabinet idea. But, anyone advocating implementation of a shadow cabinet system in the U.S. would need to take into account the difficulty of reconciling that with the bipartisan concept.

Restoration?

The upcoming New York Senate vacancy is being viewed differently than it was when I wrote this post last month. Lately, all the talk has been about Caroline Kennedy. She recently got the word out that she's interested in the job.

She appears to be the front runner, if one can use that term for a position that, for an interim period at least, is not up for election. The New York Times sure seems to like her.

I don't remember seeing anyone put up this public a campaign for a gubernatorial appointment. I wonder whether it could backfire on her, if Governor David Paterson feels as though he's being railroaded into choosing her. But a dose of the Kennedy magic could help him with what is reportedly his major concern, which is putting together a strong Democratic ticket around himself, when he seeks a full gubernatorial term in 2010.

Am I reading too much into the Times story? They write that she's "trying to begin her political career near the top of the ladder", and that statewide New York politics "might prove a good training ground". For what? Higher office? Are they suggesting that she could achieve the "Camelot Restoration", i.e., her family's return to the White House, that none of her male relatives have been able to accomplish?

It seems a bit of a stretch for someone first getting into active political life at a somewhat advanced age (it would damage my ego to go so far as to label her "old", because she's a few months younger than me). But the world has always been fascinated by the women in that family, so perhaps some observers believe that voters would be willing to make one of their number the first female president.

And it's an interesting commentary on the degree to which Democratic Party politics is still a Kennedy family affair, that the man who is perhaps Kennedy's main rival for the Senate seat, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, was formerly married to Kennedy's cousin Kerry.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Vice President, but not like you-know-who

As I wrote here, vice presidents have had a different role during the past three decades or so, than their predecessors did. Since the Carter Administration, VPs have been part of the White House team. There are marked differences in the level of influence of the VPs during that period, but none has experienced the type of political limbo to which VPs before Walter Mondale were commonly subjected.

It seems to me that, at first, that change in the vice presidential role was widely seen as a positive reform. But controversies surrounding outgoing Vice President Dick Cheney have given the new vice presidency somewhat of a bad name.

According to this report in Politico, Vice President-elect Joe Biden is putting out the word that his vice presidency will be significantly different than his predecessor's. But all indications are that Biden will be influential in the Obama White House. He has nine times as much Senate experience as the president-elect. Biden has chaired the Foreign Relations Committee, while Obama only recently became a junior member of that panel.

There will probably forever be disagreement about Cheney's role in George W. Bush's administration. Was he the evil genius controlling his puppet president? Or was he the loyal sycophant who supported the current President Bush's policies on Iraq, to the same degree he supported George H.W. Bush's very different approach to the same issue? I think the answer is somewhere in the middle.

The least surprising story of the year

Barack Obama was elected president yesterday. The members of the Electoral College met in their respective state capitals, to cast the only votes that really count for president and vice president. While the electoral votes won't be officially tallied until January 6 in a joint session of Congress, there were no reports of "faithless electors" casting a vote for anyone other than the candidate they were pledged to support. Therefore, Obama should get his total of 365 electoral votes, to 173 for McCain.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Election Day

Rise and shine, it's election day!

But it's less complicated this time, because only 538 voters need to find their polling places. However, those 538 will need to travel a greater distance, on average, than the rest of us did last month because, this time, the polling places will be the various state capitals.

What all this is leading up to is: today the Electoral College meets and elects the president of the United States. The result, of course, is a foregone conclusion. The majority of the electors will ratify the decision that we collectively made last month. They will elect Barack Obama.

The only open question is whether any electors will stray from the fold, and vote for someone other than their party's nominee. That has happened on rare occasions. Two examples:

In 1972, a Republican elector from Virginia named Roger MacBride voted for the Libertarian candidate John Hospers for president. Of course, it made no difference in the outcome. Richard Nixon had won a landslide victory, and still received 520 electoral votes, which was far more than necessary for victory. But MacBride did make an impact, in that his stunt created more publicity than the fledgling Libertarian Party had previously received. Its vote total went up in subsequent elections, but has generally stayed below 1%.

In 2004, one Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party elector from Minnesota voted for John Edwards for president. Edwards was the Democratic vice-presidential nominee; that elector was supposed to vote for John Kerry for president. No one owned up to it. That vote is generally assumed to have been a mistake in filling out the ballot paper. While the 2004 election was much closer than that of 1972, Kerry fell a few votes short of a majority, so losing one additional vote did not affect the outcome.

We'll find out later on today, whether any such anomalies pop up this year.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

U.S. Candidates and a Shadow Cabinet

In this post, I discussed certain issues regarding the details of how the U.S. could adopt a shadow cabinet system, similar to that in use in the U.K. and other parliamentary democracies.

I doubt that U.S. presidential candidates would be enthusiastic about adopting this idea.

The upside would be that a nominee could ensure the support of a wavering party member, via the offer of a shadow cabinet appointment. Someone like Senator Joe Lieberman, who supported John McCain's candidacy, could perhaps have been brought onside by Barack Obama, if Lieberman had been offered a cabinet post.

In Lieberman's particular case, he was probably too firmly placed in the McCain camp by the time shadow cabinet appointments might have been made, in August. But if there were a similar situation in the future, a presidential nominee could try that.

The flip side of that coin, however, would be that potential cabinet choices might lose their enthusiasm for supporting the fall campaign, if they had been passed over for a shadow cabinet appointment in August. If Obama had publicly announced Hillary Clinton as shadow secretary of state, Bill Richardson may have been miffed. Richardson had been mentioned as a candidate for the State Department, and perhaps it was just as well from Obama's standpoint that it was after the election when he gave Richardson what many consider to be his consolation prize: the Commerce Department.

On balance, I think the number of disappointed would-be cabinet members will always be larger than the number of shadow cabinet appointees. So, presidential nominees will probably not deem it to be in their interest to make cabinet appointments before the election.

Friday, December 12, 2008

London Comments on Ottawa

Lord Norton, a political scientist who is a member of the British House of Lords, has written in Lords of the Blog about a subject I addressed here. That subject is the decision by the governor general of Canada, to grant Prime Minister Stephen Harper's request to suspend Parliament until late January, thereby postponing a no-confidence vote that Harper's Conservative minority government was expected to lose.

Queen Elizabeth II is recognized as "Queen of Canada". However, Norton points out that the governor general is empowered to act as head of state in matters such as these.

Others have raised the question of whether Buckingham Palace might possibly get involved in handling Canada's constitutional crisis. There seems to be a consensus that there is no constitutional way for the Queen to overrule the governor general.

But, aside from that, my guess is that, purely for political reasons, the Queen would be extremely reluctant to involve herself in the Canadian situation.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Shadow Cabinet

After I wrote this post, I had an email conversation with John Cooper of the history faculty at UW/Madison, who wrote the New York Times article to which I was reacting.

Cooper points out that the shadow cabinet concept has been applied in the U.S. He told me that Thomas Dewey, the unsuccessful Republican presidential nominee in 1944 and 1948 "designated John Foster Dulles as his point man on foreign policy, and he was privy to what was going on. [Secretary of State George] Marshall took Dulles with him to the conference that hammered out NATO, and the European foreign ministers greeted him as the next secretary of state."

Most observers expected Dewey to defeat Harry Truman in the 1948 presidential election. But Truman won and, as Cooper puts it, Dulles "had to wait for another four years".

When Dwight Eisenhower was elected president on the Republican ticket in 1952, ending a 20-year Democratic lock on the White House, he appointed Dulles to be his secretary of state. Or, as Cooper puts it, Dulles "finally got to be SecState after running for it three times".

Cooper also points out to me that Woodrow Wilson, the subject of an upcoming biography by Cooper, "would be the proper person to enlarge upon" my points of comparison between the U.S. and British systems. "He was the first real practitioner of comparative government and he did want to adopt features of the parliamentary system here."

Are we there yet?

Every once in a while at this point in the political cycle, someone will write an op-ed piece questioning why the presidential transition process takes quite as long as it does. When the British hold a general election and toss one party out, the leader of the other party becomes prime minister the next day. Why can't we do that in the U.S.?

Professor John Milton Cooper, Jr., of the University of Wisconsin has written such an article in today's New York Times.

I wrote here about one relevant difference between the American and British systems. The British have an institution known as the "shadow cabinet".

During much of the transition period of about 2 1/2 months between election and inauguration, an American president-elect is engaged in choosing Cabinet members. His British counterpart doesn't need to do that, because his or her team is already pretty well in place.

That raises two questions:

First, could the U.S. Cabinet selection process be done more quickly? Barack Obama has moved more quickly than some predecessors (George W. Bush got a late start, due to the Florida recount), but could it be completed in, say, one month, if the president-elect faced a hard deadline? In other words, does Parkinson's Law apply?

Second, could the U.S. adopt a shadow cabinet system? Two additional Anglo-American differences would affect that. One is that U.S. parties choose a presidential candidate (more or less equivalent to a British party leader) shortly before each general election. By contrast, U.K. parties have a leader in place at all times.

Another difference is that the British have no procedure that is equivalent to our Senate confirmation process.

In light of all that, what process could American presidential nominees use?

Usually there is a period of time between the party conventions and Labor Day, which is traditionally considered the start of the fall election campaign. This year, both parties' conventions were unusually late, with the Republican convention extending beyond Labor Day. But if they were both held in July, that would give a nominee at least a month during which to choose a shadow cabinet.

Would the Senate get involved? A shadow secretary's status would be nebulous, if it were unclear whether he or she would eventually be confirmed by the Senate. But being called on to vet both a Democratic set of nominees and a Republican set of nominees would add to the Senate's workload. And the membership of the Senate in August of the election year would be different than in the following January, when Cabinet nominees are voted on, under the current system.

I don't recall having heard of the Wilson story that Cooper mentions. Such a succession plan could not happen in the same way now, because Congress has changed the presidential succession law, putting congressional leaders ahead of Cabinet members in the line of succession.

Let's Make a Deal?

The latest New York Times story about the corruption charges against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich discusses, among other issues, the possibility that he could strike a plea bargain with prosecutors, and that a promise to resign the governorship could be one element in such a deal.

There is at least one high-profile precedent for such a bargain. In 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew was under investigation regarding accusations of corruption from his days as a county and state official in Maryland. On October 10, 1973, Agnew pleaded no contest to one of the charges, and resigned the office of vice president. I'm not sure how direct the quid pro quo was, but it's generally accepted that his resignation was an integral part of the deal.

The political implications of Blagojevich's case are different than those of Agnew's. But both cases involve a sense of urgency.

Everyone recognized that the question of whether Agnew would continue as vice president was an important one. By late 1973, it was becoming more clear that Richard Nixon might leave the presidency, due to the Watergate scandal. And, of course, Nixon did resign, about 10 months after Agnew's resignation. By the time of Nixon's resignation, on August 9, 1974, Gerald Ford had been put in place as Agnew's successor, so there was a "clean" successor available to take over the presidency.

In Blagojevich's case, the urgency has to do with the need to appoint a senator to succeed Barack Obama, in a way that is not tainted by suspicions arising out of the allegations against the governor. It has already been almost a month since Obama resigned his Senate seat. Normally, a governor moves quickly to appoint a replacement, because a state loses clout in Washington when it has only one senator. That sense that the clock is ticking might work in Blagojevich's favor, if he negotiates a deal.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Seventeenth Amendment

What does the Constitution say about Senate vacancies?

The current rules are found in the 17th Amendment, which took the right to elect senators away from state legislatures, and gave it to the electorate of each state. Clause 2 of that amendment reads as follows:

When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of each State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.

The executive authority, i.e., the governor, does not automatically have the right to appoint a successor. The legislature of each state can grant, or remove, that power.

That is basis on which Illinois' legislature might eliminate Gov. Rod Blagojevich's power to make such an appointment.

I wonder whether other states might follow Illinois' lead, and provide for immediate special elections. This is not the first time that the gubernatorial appointment process has been controversial. I have written about previous controversies here and here.

Of course, Senate elections can be controversial too. If you doubt that, just ask the folks in Minnesota.

Republican Opportunity?

Until yesterday, the Democratic Party seemed certain to hold on to the position of junior senator from Illinois. But, now that that state might use a special election, rather than a gubernatorial appointment, to choose its new senator, the question becomes: can a Republican win that special election?

Illinois has been very "blue" lately. But it elected a Republican senator as recently as 1998. And Republican George Ryan was governor from 1999 to 2003 (ending a 26-year string of Republican governors). It was in part because of Ryan's corrupt behavior (he is now in prison) that Democrats staged a rebound during the current decade.

Will there be a similar backlash against the Democrats, now that Ryan's Democratic successor has been charged with corruption?

Politico has an article that speculates on that possibility, citing Congressman Mark Kirk as a potential Republican candidate. He represents northern suburbs of Chicago.

I wonder to what extent President-elect Obama's attempt to persuade Governor Blagojevich to resign is based on his hope of avoiding a special election.

Recommending Rod's Rapid Resignation

President-elect Obama has upped the ante in the Illinois corruption scandal, by calling on Governor Blagojevich to resign.

I doubt that a politician as skilled as Obama would make such a statement, unless he considered it likely that the governor would comply. If the president-elect were rebuffed in such a high-profile situation this early in his time as leader of his party, I think it would reduce his authority in that role.

It should always be remembered that a president has multiple roles, one of which is head of his political party. As I see it, it is in that role that Obama is acting in this case.

I don't think it fits the head of state/head of government roles that he is preparing to take on, to dictate details of a state's political leadership. As U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald repeatedly emphasized in his press conference yesterday, while it's his job to enforce federal law against state officials as much as anyone else, the Federal Government cannot dictate to the State of Illinois whether Blagojevich continues as governor, or how it chooses a new senator.

But, as head of the Democratic Party, Obama can attempt to persuade a Democratic public official to do the right thing.

In the wake of Obama's statement, I consider the governor's resignation more likely than seemed to be the case yesterday. But, if Blagojevich successfully defies the president-elect, that might embolden other Democrats to challenge him in future cases.

Gubernatorial Appointments to the Senate

When I wrote this post two weeks ago, I was not thinking about anything like the misconduct of which Gov. Rod Blagojevich has been accused. I was merely reacting to criticism of Gov. Ruth Ann Minner of Delaware, for appointing an interim senator whom the critic deemed unqualified for the job.

After I posted that, I realized that I had not been totally accurate. Not all states give their governor total leeway in filling a Senate vacancy until the next election.

One of the big issues has always involved a scenario in which the governor is of a different party than the senator who is being replaced. Such a governor tends to appoint a member of his or her own party. Three examples come to mind:

In 1968, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Republican of New York, appointed Republican Congressman Charles Goodell to serve the last two years of the term of Robert Kennedy, following Kennedy's assassination. In 1970, Goodell failed to win a full term, losing in a three-way race to James Buckley, who ran on the Conservative line.

When Senator John Heinz, Republican of Pennsylvania, died in a plane crash in 1991, Democratic Governor Bob Casey appointed Democrat Harris Wofford to replace Heinz. Later than year, in a special election victory that was considered a major upset, Wofford defeated former Governor and federal Attorney General Richard Thornburgh. However, Wofford failed to win a full term in 1994, losing to Rick Santorum.

Party loyalty in such matters can even extend to a third party. After Senator Paul Wellstone, Democrat of Minnesota, was killed in a plane crash during his 2002 reelection campaign, Governor Jesse Ventura appointed Dean Barkley, a member of Ventura's third-party movement, the Independence Party, to a very brief interim stint in the Senate.

At least two states have moved to limit a governor's ability to switch a Senate seat over to his or her party.

Under Wyoming law, a governor is restricted to choosing a replacement senator from a list of three candidates submitted by the state committee of the previous senator's party. That came into play when Republican Senator Craig Thomas died in 2007. Democratic Governor David Freudenthal chose Republican John Barrasso from the list of candidates that the Republican committee had drawn up. In the absence of that law, Freudenthal would undoubtedly have appointed a Democrat, and thereby given a bit of a cushion to the razor-thin majority that the Democrats have in the Senate until January 2009.

The Massachusetts legislature took a different tack. In 2004, when their junior U.S. Senator John Kerry was the Democratic presidential nominee, state law was changed to provide for an immediate special election to fill a Senate vacancy. Therefore, had Kerry won the presidency, then-Governor Mitt Romney, a Republican, would have been unable to appoint a Republican to the Senate. Now that the Democrats have regained the governor's office, there has been some talk of switching the law back. The report to which I've linked involved the possibility of Kerry being appointed to the Obama Cabinet, which apparently will not happen. But the other Senate seat could become vacant if Edward Kennedy is unable to complete his term due to his cancer.

Sen. Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, and others, have proposed that the Illinois legislature pass a law for an immediate special election to replace Obama in the Senate. But in that case, it's not an issue of party. The Democrats are firmly in control, but special election advocates want to take the appointment power away from Blagojevich.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What goes up ...

Party strength goes in cycles. Right now in the U.S., the Democrats are again the dominant party. By the end of January, there will be a Democratic president, and enlarged majorities for that party in both houses of Congress. They also hold a strong position at the state government level.

But such a situation doesn't last forever.

In this post on The Fix blog on the Washington Post's website, Chris Cillizza asks whether the Republicans' comeback has already begun, in the wake of some runoff victories in the South.

Of course, it's impossible to predict now with any accuracy the results of the 2010 elections. But it's more likely than not that the Republicans will rebound. Two reasons:


  1. As a party gains seats, it reaches out into districts in which it has less of an instrinsic advantage. In 2004, Democrats won 202 House seats, their lowest total since the 1947-8 Congress. Those must have been the 202 safest Democratic seats in the country. Now, they will have at least 255 in the 2009-10 Congress. Those 53 additional districts are presumably less inclined to vote Democratic, due to demographics, economic circumstances, etc., than the 202 districts to which they were added. They elected Republicans not too long ago, and might do so again, if the tide turns.

  2. When a party is given the responsibility of governing, as is the case with the Democrats, emerging from a period in opposition, they will inevitably take actions that some voters will oppose. When a midterm election comes around, as 2010's will, many voters, including some who voted for the majority party the previous time around, will find reason(s) to cast a protest vote for the opposition. Republicans will likely benefit from some such votes, but the unanswerable question is: how many?


On the other hand, there is precedent for a party to continue to gain for quite a while. In 1928, when Herbert Hoover won a huge landslide victory, his coattails brought in a Republican House majority of 270 to 165. Then the Democrats gained seats in four consecutive elections between 1930 and 1936. By 1936, when Franklin Roosevelt won the second of his four terms, the Democrats had built up an overwhelming House majority of 339 to 88. (I'm including Farmer-Labor representatives with the Democratic total.)

After the 1936 election, the Republicans began a comeback. By 1943, the Democrats' lead had shrunk to 223 to 209. Four years later, the Republicans won a short-lived House majority.

That is in stark contrast to what happened in a more recent case. In 1964, the landslide election of Lyndon Johnson for a full term as president was accompanied by a 295-140 Democratic House majority. But just two years later, the Republicans gained 47 seats at the midterm election. They won back the presidency in 1968. But Democrats maintained their majorities (at various levels) in both houses of Congress for the following 12 years.

Trends in the Senate were roughly similar. I'm concentrating on House numbers, because they're a better indicator of trends, with the entire membership up for reelection every two years.

So is this 1932 or 1964? Of course, no two historical periods exactly parallel each other. But the point is that there is precedent for the Democratic Party, in a situation similar to its current one, to keep on gaining, and there's precedent for it to fall back to earth. I predict the latter (I'm still a Republican, despite having voted for Obama), but we'll see.

Illinois Appointment

Today's developments in the Land of Lincoln raise an interesting question that has been addressed by The Caucus blog in The New York Times. Can Governor
Blagojevich still appoint a senator to succeed Barack Obama, even though the governor has been accused of trying to sell the Senate seat?

That blog post suggests multiple options that may be available to the state legislature, to find a way around the dilemma. It also notes that the Senate can intervene. But its agenda will be quite full, if it's also called upon to settle the disputed Minnesota Senate election.

Trouble in Illinois

One of the complaints about the original system of choosing U.S. Senators (by the state legislatures) was that a rich man (always men, in those days) could easily purchase a Senate seat.

Now, Governor Rod Blagojevich, Democrat of Illinois, has been arrested on corruption charges. Apparently, part of the alleged misconduct is related to the process of selecting someone to fill the U.S. Senate seat that has been vacated by President-elect Obama. The governor is empowered to make an interim appointment for the last two years of the term to which Obama was elected in 2004. If the allegations are true, it's an interesting attempt to revive that 19th century practice of selling places in the upper house of Congress.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Head of State 2: When things go very wrong

I will do a couple of follow-up posts to this one.

As I've written in that post and others, the most significant role for a head of state in a parliamentary system is to appoint the prime minister. But only the parliament, via a vote of no confidence, or the electorate, via an election defeat, can remove the prime minister from office. In other words, the severe limitation on the head of state's power in this regard is that he or she can hire, but not fire, the prime minister.

If one party wins a clear parliamentary majority in an election, the designation of a new prime minister is a mere formality; the head of state must give the job to that party's leader. But it is when things are more messy than that, that the head of state's role can become more interesting.

In the aftermath of World War I in Germany, the political situation was constantly messy. Economic problems brought on by the war, and by the terms of the Versailles Treaty that ended that war, made for an unstable society. And a high degree of proportional representation in their electoral system prevented any strong government from emerging.

In November of 1932, a German general election gave the highest number of parliamentary seats to the National Socialist German Workers Party, although that total was well short of a majority. You might not recognize that party's full name, but they were better known as the Nazis.

The German head of state at that time was President Paul von Hindenburg. The president, a career military man, might, earlier in his life, have been strong enough to prevent Adolf Hitler's rise to power. But, by January of 1933, Hindenburg's best days were behind him; he was 85 years old, and less than two years away from death.

Hindenburg appointed Hitler as chancellor, which is the title the Germans give their prime minister. Hitler immediately began a series of steps to consolidate his power and eliminate German democracy. He, of course, held on to dictatorial power until his suicide, shortly before Germany's surrender to the World War II Allies.

Now, it might be a kind of retrospective wishful thinking, to believe that any German president would have been able to stop Hitler under those circumstances. But that is just the sort of scenario in which, ideally, a head of state would prevent a head of government from destroying democracy. It's somewhat analogous to the Spanish example I mentioned in the previous post in this series, when King Juan Carlos prevented a coup from supplanting the nascent democracy in his country.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Figure-Head of State?

The question is often asked: what's the purpose of a head of state in a parliamentary system?

The American head of state, the president, supervises the executive departments, commands the military, leads his political party, etc. But in a parliamentary system, those functions are performed by the prime minister, who is head of government, but not head of state.

In the U.K., for example, many people love such pageantry as the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, but attach no political significance to the activities of Queen Elizabeth II. In fact, last week when, for the umpteenth time, the Queen presided over the State Opening of Parliament, she read the Queen's Speech, the British equivalent of the American State of the Union Address, from a script given to her by Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government, as is the standard practice.

But, every once in a while, a "figurehead" head of state is in a position to influence the political goings-on. The current effort to topple the Harper Government in Canada, which I wrote about here, here and here, is an example of such circumstances.

Formally, Queen Elizabeth is Canada's head of state. But, as a practical matter, her representative in Ottawa, Governor General Michaelle Jean, performs the functions of a head of state. It was Jean who decided to suspend Parliament until January, thereby postponing a no-confidence vote. And if such a vote eventually brings down the government, she will be called on to decide whether to allow the opposition parties to form a governing coalition, or to call a new general election.

Some other examples:

King Juan Carlos of Spain is credited with ending an attempted coup d'é·tat in 1981, by forcefully speaking out against the rebels. Juan Carlos had taken the throne after long-time dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975. A gradual process to institute democracy was well underway by 1981. In hindsight, the defeat of the coup is considered a critically important step toward creating the robust democracy that currently exists in that country.

I'm absolutely certain that I've heard stories from Britain about subtle royal intervention in the uncertainty that followed an indecisive general election in February 1974. But I can't find any confirmation of that on the Web. It was the only U.K. general election in modern times in which no one party won an absolute majority. Prime Minister Ted Heath, a Conservative, eventually resigned, and the Labor Party, which had a slightly higher total of seats in the House of Commons, formed a minority government. Did Heath jump, or was he pushed (or at least nudged) by Elizabeth's courtiers?

Though less dramatic than that, one ongoing way in which the Queen definitely influences politics is the weekly audience with the prime minister. They meet behind closed doors, without staff, and they observe total secrecy afterwards. The Queen brings at least two strengths to these meetings:


  1. In her 56 years on the throne, she has met regularly with every prime minister since Churchill, so she has a lot of history to draw on, in advising the prime minister of the day.

  2. While she doesn't make the political decisions, she sees a lot of the paperwork about those decisions, because she must formally sign off on them. She reportedly studies those papers diligently, so she's likely to have some familiarity with any issue a prime minister brings up during their meetings.


Walter Bagehot, a 19th-century British writer, summarized the limited political role of modern British monarchs:

The Sovereign has, under a constitutional monarchy such as ours, three rights - the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn.

The monarch's political role is limited, but not non-existent.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Happy Days Were Here Again

I'm not at all trying to denigrate the importance of those constitutional amendments that expanded political and other rights for formerly disadvantaged groups.

But I certainly think that an amendment the ratification of which was completed 75 years ago today, should be considered one of the most important in the history of the Constitution.

The dry legalese of Section 1 of that amendment reads as follows:

The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United
States is hereby repealed.

But the wet implication was: alcohol was legal again!

Happy birthday, Repeal!

One historical oddity has to do with the method of ratification. Article VII of the Constitution provided that ratification of that document was to be voted on by a convention in each state, specially elected for that purpose. But Article V gives Congress the option of submitting amendments either to such conventions, or to the regular legislature of each state.

The 21st Amendment is the only amendment so far, that Congress has submitted to state conventions. This website purports to describe the ratification procedure that was used in Michigan. I'm not sure how representative that procedure was, of what went on in other states.

A Congress that approved the repeal amendment by the necessary supermajorities (two third in each house) obviously wanted the states to ratify it, so they must have been concerned about whether the legislatures would do so. Some sources indicate that prohibition was more popular in rural areas than in the cities. Perhaps the fact that rural areas were overrepresented in legislatures prior to the Supreme Court redistricting decisions of the 1960s, was a factor in that decision.

Crossing Over

Nate Silver, in his 538 blog, has published a two-pronged analysis of how cloture votes might go in the new Senate. His is the first commentary I've seen that agrees with the point I've been making over and over in this blog, that a total of 60 Democratic senators (including two independent allies) would not have been a magic number to prevent filibusters. Democrat Jim Martin's defeat in the Georgia runoff earlier this week ensured that the Democrats would not reach that number.

Silver's analysis is based on the fact that exact party-line votes in Congress are rare. Usually, some members of each party will differ from the position taken by the majority of their party. He has ranked which moderates from each party are most likely to cross over.

For the most part, his list seems to make sense. I wonder whether southern freshmen such as Kay Hagan and Mark Warner should be higher on the Democratic list. We'll need to wait and see on that; their records as state legislator and governor, respectively, won't give very strong clues as to how they'll vote in Washington. But I've been wondering whether Democrats' resurgence in certain southern states will turn their party a bit closer to the center.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Update from Canada

Michaelle Jean, the governor-general of Canada, has prorogued Parliament. The plain English translation is that the current session comes to an end, and Parliament will not meet again until late January 2009.

That action postpones the opposition parties' opportunity to make a no-confidence vote against the minority Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

This soap opera, "As the Maple Leaf Turns", will now extend its run for several more weeks.

Update from France

Some belated closure on a story I wrote about here: Toward the end of November, Martine Aubry was declared the winner of a very close vote for leader of the French Socialist Party.

Aubry is considered further to the left than her defeated rival Segolene Royal.

Their party has been ambivalent over last few decades regarding the degree to which they should actually be socialist. When they came to power for the first time in the Fifth Republic (the constitutional system that has been in effect in France since 1958) in 1981, winning both the presidency and a parliamentary majority, the Socialists enacted a program that included, among other things, nationalization of certain businesses. Within a couple of years, socialism did what socialism does, and the resulting economic problems forced the party into a U-turn. In the meantime, for the most part, they have been socialist in name only.

The party's recent leadership election indicates a nearly even split between leftist and centrist factions. There's been some speculation that the party might split along those lines.

But these days, when even a Republican U.S. administration is nationalizing businesses like crazy, who knows where anyone stands in a debate about socialism?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Maple Leaf Maneuvers

I suppose that an American political junkie like me is destined never to have an instinctive feel for the workings of a parliamentary system. I'm very intrigued by that subject. But I'm not steeped in the intricacies of such as system that Canadian political junkies, for instance, imbibe with their mothers' milk.

So I'm a bit in the dark about some aspects of the plan for the Canadian opposition parties to oust the Conservative government, and form a coalition in its place. I invite any Canadian readers, or anyone else for that matter, to comment on the following two questions:

1. I know of two purposes for a coalition government: a) to create a majority in a parliament in which no one party has a majority of seats, and b) to foster national unity in time of war or other national emergency. But why would two minority parties coalesce (as the Liberals and New Democrats propose to do) merely for the purpose of creating a larger minority?

2. How do you think the Canadian electorate would react to yet another general election? Here in the U.S., where elections follow a set schedule, we don't really face the issue of voter fatigue. Will voters who have endured three general elections since 2004, the last one less than two months ago, react negatively, if next week's no-confidence vote sends them back to the polls once again?

41

In the end, the much-anticipated vote was not at all close. Senator Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia, has been reelected. Near-complete returns reported by the secretary of state show that he won 57.4% of the vote, to 42.6% for his Democratic challenger Jim Martin. In a vestige of the bad old days in the South, Georgia still requires a candidate to get over 50% of the vote, in order to win an election, with a runoff, if necessary. Yesterday's vote was such a runoff.

The parties' current standing in the new Senate:

Democrats and Independents: 58
Republicans: 41
Undecided: 1

Do the math. With the Republican total now at 41, the Democrats cannot reach their goal of 60 seats.

I still hold the opinion I've expressed previously in this blog, that there's not a huge difference between a 60-member Democratic Senate caucus, and one with 59 members. Yes, of course, 60 senators can end a filibuster. But congressional votes rarely fall strictly according to party lines. With 58 or 59 Democrats, there might still be cases where they can persuade some moderate Republicans to support a cloture resolution.

On the other hand, every additional Republican in the Senate does make it more difficult for Barack Obama and the Democratic congressional leadership to enact their legislative agenda, especially on issues that are sacred to the Democratic base, such as restrictions on secret balloting in labor union elections.

The Georgia result might cause both parties to put less stress on the recount of the Senate election in Minnesota. Perhaps whichever side loses, once Minnesota's state-level process is done, will have less incentive to appeal that decision to the Senate.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Junior Senator From The Empire State

When Hillary Clinton's nomination for secretary of state was first rumored, I wrote here about the process of replacing her in the Senate.

This article in today's Washington Post describes the current state of play. There has been no significant change since my earlier post.

I assume that Clinton will not resign from the Senate until her Senate colleagues confirm her in her new job. That can't happen for a while.

While some media reports might say that Barack Obama has nominated Clinton, or that he has nominated Tim Geithner, etc., technically he can't nominate anyone yet, because he isn't president yet.

The standard process is for Senate committees to hold hearings on a new president's nominees, shortly after the Senate goes back into session in January. Aside from any nominee(s) that are particularly controversial, the Senate readies itself to confirm the nominations as soon as they are formally made. That takes place at the Capitol, immediately after the inauguration ceremony. The new president signs a paper formally nominating his Cabinet, and the Senate then votes to confirm them.

One historical example of a new president's Cabinet nomination that did not proceed routinely through that process was George H.W. Bush's nomination of John Tower to be secretary of defense, in 1989. Senators balked at confirming that appointment, in part because of allegations that their former colleague Tower had a drinking problem. The confirmation process stretched into March of that year, when the Senate voted 53-47 against confirmation.

The Senate later confirmed Bush's second choice, the House minority whip. In light of recent history, it seems strange to label that nominee noncontroversial, but at that time he was: Dick Cheney. Another historical aside: Cheney's House leadership role was taken over by Newt Gingrich, part of a sequence of events that resulted in Gingrich becoming speaker of the House less than six years later.

So far, there is no indication that Obama's nominees will have such problems. The one who is perhaps most controversial, Larry Summers, will not need to face the Senate confirmation process, because his new role, heading the National Economic Council, is a White House staff job.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Georgia Senate Runoff

The election that I described here will be held tomorrow. There will be a runoff between Republican incumbent Senator Saxby Chambliss and his Democratic challenger Jim Martin.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports on a poll showing Chambliss ahead 53% to 46%, but the big question mark is turnout. Historically, voter turnout for runoff elections in Georgia has been significantly lower than for the initial vote at the general election. It could go either way, depending on which party is better able to herd its voters to the polls.

A Martin victory would keep alive Democrats' hopes of reaching a 60-40 Senate majority. That would also require an Al Franken victory in the Minnesota race, for which a recount is underway.

Ottawa Intrigue

Two Canadian parties, the New Democrats and the Liberals, are plotting to overthrow the Conservative minority government, and form a coalition government. Further details can be found in this CBC report.

A no-confidence vote is scheduled for December 8. As is the case in other parliamentary systems, if such a vote is successful, the parliament in effect fires the prime minister (in this case, Stephen Harper). Such a move often brings about a new general election. But, probably sensing voter fatigue in a country that has already gone to the polls three times since 2004, the would-be coalition partners want to form a new government within the current parliament, and thereby avoid an election.

They seem to be counting on the support of the Bloq Quebecois in the no-confidence vote, but the Bloq would not be a coalition partner. I suppose that's a function of the tension that has always existed for the Bloq, in participating in a federal government from which they want their province to secede.

Therefore, the Liberal-NDP coalition would form another minority government.

One complication is that the larger of the coalition partners, the Liberal Party, has a lame-duck leader, Stephane Dion. According to this article in the National Post, a Toronto-based newspaper, Michael Ignatieff, the front-runner to replace Dion, would become prime minister. However, that does not seem entirely clear at this point.

Bipartisanship, sort of

No surprises in the Cabinet appointments that were announced this morning.

President-elect Obama has selected Hillary Clinton to be secretary of state, Eric Holder for attorney general, and Janet Napolitano as secretary of homeland security. Also, he has decided to retain Robert Gates in his current job of secretary of defense.

If the Gates appointment is the extent of bipartisanship in Obama's major appointments, the president-elect's commitment to that concept has not lived up to its advance billing. And Gates is expected to be held over for a transitional period of no more than a year or so, although, as far as I know, Obama has not publicly said so.

I'm criticizing the overblown rhetoric, not the substance of the thing. In my opinion, when the electorate has clearly designated one party to govern, as they currently have with the Democratic Party, then that party should do so, subject to the voters' performance review at the next election. But that's not to say that I want to get rid of safeguards against tyranny of the majority, such as Senate filibusters.

My guess is that politicians in countries with parliamentary systems might be baffled by American presidents' tendency to appoint at least a token member of the opposition party to their Cabinet, as a goodwill gesture. In those countries, members of other parties are included only to the degree necessary to forge a governing coalition. Allocation of Cabinet positions to parties that are coalition partners is the result of painstaking negotiations, sometimes extending over several weeks. And those negotiations tend to be based on pure power considerations.

However, the British, at least, probably understood what Franklin Roosevelt did when, as I described here, that Democratic president appointed Republicans to top national security positions in his Cabinet during World War II. That was similar to the all-party coalition governments that the British created during World Wars One and Two.

I suppose one could argue that we're currently in similar circumstances, with our ongoing military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. To some extent. But, while Roosevelt was trying to rally America for war, Obama will try to extricate us from two wars that began during his predecessor's administration.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Congressional Seniority 2: The Committees

As I mentioned in this post, the job of chairing a congressional committee is earned by seniority. Usually, the most senior committee member from the majority party will chair each committee, unless he or she already chairs another committee.

It is often said that the most prestigious title on Capitol Hill is not Speaker or Majority Leader, but Chairman. There's an old saying that Congress in session is Congress on display, but Congress in committee is Congress at work.

For the most part, proposed new laws need approval by the relevant committees of the House and Senate, before they can even be considered on the floor of either house. The committee chairmen largely control the agenda of their committees. That power is not absolute, but it ensures that a committee chair is the most influential member in either house of Congress, regarding issues within his or her committee's bailiwick.

But in the House there has been some shifting back and forth between the speaker and the committee chairs, as to who controls legislative activity. Those shifts have been a function both of rule changes, and the personalities of various speakers.

Congressman Joe Cannon, Republican of Illinois, who was speaker from 1903 to 1911, was perhaps the most powerful speaker in history. One of his most significant sources of power was the right to appoint committee chairmen. A rule change at the end of Cannon's tenure as speaker did away with that power. Seniority then became the deciding factor.

During periods of Democratic control, including their nearly-unbroken streak from 1931 to 1995, that system favored congressmen from the southeastern states. For most of the 20th century, they faced no effective Republican opposition. And serious primary-election challenges to incumbents are few and far between. Therefore, southern Democrats racked up more seniority than those from other regions, and came to control a disproportionate number of committees.

But by 1975, the Republican Party had made gains in the south, and the ranks of northern Democrats had been swelled by their landslide in the 1974 post-Watergate midterm election. Those developments weakened the power of southern Democrats, and paved the way toward a revolt against the seniority system. At the start of the 1975-6 Congress, the House Democratic Caucus ousted three committee chairmen, and replaced them with members who had less seniority.

Seniority has remained a strong factor in the meantime, but not as absolute as it was before 1975.

Then, in 1995, another change came about. After Republicans won a House majority in the 1994 midterm elections, they instituted a six-year term limit on committee chairmen. The Democrats followed suit when they regained control of the House in 2007. Seniority still matters, but House members will not be able to keep control of committees indefinitely, just because their constituents keep sending them back to Washington.

To be continued, including a discussion of Senate seniority.

The Congressional Seniority System

The seniority system governs much of what goes on in Congress. The most important aspect of that is the appointment of committee chairmen. The custom of allocating chairmanships according to seniority largely survives, but the rules have been changed a bit in recent decades.

However, seniority has never been as important in choosing party leaders, such as the speaker, majority and minority leaders and whips, etc. As I wrote here, we'll probably never see a repeat of what happened to Henry Clay, who was elected speaker of the House during his first term in that body. Those who are elected to the top leadership jobs in Congress are typically veteran members. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi, although she's been in the House for more than 21 years, is only number 32 in seniority among House Democrats in the 2007-8 Congress.

But, for some reason, both parties apply a strict seniority rule in choosing one leader: the president pro tempore of the Senate. That's probably because it's seen as a largely honorary position. It's currently held by Senator Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia. Byrd has been in the Senate since 1959, having by now served longer than any other senator in history, and is 91 years old.

Neither the vice president (as ex-officio president of the Senate) nor the president pro tempore, does much of the work of presiding over the Senate. That task is typically delegated on a day-to-day basis to junior senators from the majority party. As I wrote here, the precedent was set in the First Congress in 1789-90 that the president of the Senate would exercise little real power over that body.

But the kicker is that the president pro tempore is number three in the line of succession to the presidency. Perhaps that ought to give senators second thoughts about putting in that position a man who has acknowledged that he's no longer fit enough even to run a congressional committee.

I'll have more to say about congressional seniority in some future posts.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

How many economic advisers?

During the recent presidential campaign, John McCain was unable to tell a journalist how many houses he owns. Pretty soon, Barack Obama will have the same problem, if he's asked how many economic advisers he has.

After I wrote here, questioning the need for both a Council of Economic Advisers and a National Economic Council in the White House, Obama went ahead and appointed yet another advisory group. The distinctive aspect of this Economic Recovery Advisory Board appears to be that it's an outsider group whose members are not full-time White House staffers. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker will chair the new board.

This follows the old presidential tradition of the "kitchen cabinet". That term, for a group of unofficial presidential advisers, goes back to the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Among the other presidents in relation to whom that phrase was commonly used, was Warren Harding.

This new advisory board is more formally organized than those kitchen cabinets, but the idea of bringing in perspectives other than those of the staffers with whom a president regularly interacts, applies to both of those types of groups.

I suppose there is a trade-off. The regular staffers have more access to inside information, which should improve the quality of their advice to the president. But the flip side of that coin is that the outsiders can give him a fresh perspective, based on their experiences outside of the White House bubble.

All presidents seek out some combination of inside and outside advice. Obama appears to be willing to involve the gray eminences of the financial world in his economic decision-making, including Volcker and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Unchecked

We learned it back in ninth grade Civics class. Our political system is based on checks and balances. Neither house of Congress can pass a law without the agreement of the other house. Laws passed by both houses of Congress are subject to presidential veto. A presidential veto is subject to a congressional override. A law that makes its way through that process is subject to judicial review, and may be found unconstitutional by the courts. The politicians can amend the Constitution to reverse the effect of a court decision. And so on, and so on.

But a president or governor can make some decisions totally on their own, in relation to which the political process has no formal check. Here are links to two current media reports regarding such powers, the president's pardon power, and a governor's ability to make an interim appointment to a vacant U.S. Senate seat.

However, as the old saying goes, actions have consequences. The voters can pass judgment on such decisions at the next election. For example, Gerald Ford was denied a full term as president in 1976, in part because he had pardoned Richard Nixon in 1974. And after a popular governor of Minnesota, Wendell Anderson, in effect appointed himself to a U.S. Senate vacancy in 1976, the voters gave his opponent, Rudy Boschwitz, a landslide victory over Anderson in the 1978 general election. As I found out to my chagrin when I worked on that campaign as an Anderson volunteer, many voters deemed that "self-appointment" to be a sign of arrogance.

But, if an executive is about to leave office under term limits, as is the case with both President Bush and Delaware Governor Minner, even that sort of check is inapplicable. The main remaining consequence is the verdict of history.

As you can see in the Times piece to which I linked above, Bill Clinton is still dogged by criticism of pardons that he granted as his presidency was ending in 2001.

On the other hand, the verdict of history has acquitted Ford. By the time of his death in 2006, there was widespread acknowledgment that his pardon of Nixon was a statesmanlike act.

Here is a link to the constitutional provision allowing presidents to grant pardons (see Article 2, Section 2, clause 1).

Monday, November 24, 2008

New Senator From Delaware

Governor Ruth Ann Minner, Democrat of Delaware, has announced her intention to appoint Edward "Ted" Kaufman, to take over the Senate seat being vacated by Vice President-elect Joe Biden, until a special election is held in 2010.

The Associated Press describes Kaufman as a former Biden aide, who is now president of a political and management consulting firm in Wilmington. Here is a description of Kaufman on the website of Duke University, with which he has been affiliated.

All indications are that this is a move to keep the seat open for Joe Biden's son Beau, the state attorney general, who is headed to Iraq with his National Guard unit, but who, if things go according to plan, can run in the special election.

Fed Up?

President-elect Obama has publicly confirmed his intention to appoint Larry Summers to be director of the National Economic Council.

But reports such as this one in Forbes, suggest that Summers will be merely throwing warm-up pitches in the NEC bullpen, while waiting to be called in to relieve Ben Bernanke as chair of the Federal Reserve Board ("the Fed").

An appointment to chair the Fed is for a fixed four-year term. Unlike Cabinet appointments, an incoming president must wait until the current chair's term ends, before putting his personal stamp on the Fed.

The fixed term is designed to give the Fed a degree of independence from day-to-day political control, as it directs monetary policy. Other central banks, such as the European Central Bank and the Bank of England, are also somewhat insulated from the politicians.

Bernanke was appointed to his current post by President Bush in 2006. Therefore, Obama will not make an appointment to that position until 2010.

Bernanke's two predecessors both received bipartisan endorsement. Paul Volcker, who was originally appointed by Jimmy Carter in 1979, had his appointment renewed by Ronald Reagan in 1983. Then, after Reagan appointed Alan Greenspan in 1987, Reagan's three successors, the Bushes and Bill Clinton, all reappointed Greenspan to successive terms, until he left the Fed in 2006.

Obama is not required to follow those precedents. Nothing would prevent him from appointing a Democrat such as Summers to replace Bernanke.

There is much talk about bipartisanship these days. Some degree of bipartisanship is appropriate at any time, especially in a time of perceived national crisis, such as now. But I think that idea can be overdone. There is something to be said for giving one party the opportunity to govern, and then holding it accountable at the next election.

Musical Chairs

If, as expected, Hillary Clinton becomes secretary of state, the next question is: who will replace her as New York's junior senator?

The story is the same as that involving the replacement of Barack Obama and Joe Biden in their Senate seats. As is the case with Illinois and Delaware, New York has a Democratic governor, and a heavily Democratic electorate. So, neither the interim appointment by Governor David Paterson, nor the ensuing special election, is likely to change the partisan balance in the Senate.

This New York Times report is typical of the speculation so far. Governor Paterson says he has not delved very far into the process of choosing a successor. The name most often mentioned by the chattering classes is state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo, 50, has been New York attorney general since 2007. He was federal secretary of housing and urban development during Bill Clinton's second presidential term. His father, Mario Cuomo, was governor of New York from 1983 to 1995.

Several other New York State politicians have been named. Two names have been mentioned that are even more famous than that of Cuomo, and they both formerly called the White House home. One is Caroline Kennedy. And this Newsday report, acknowledging that this speculation is "for fun", suggests a variation on the long-time custom of naming a dead senator's widow as successor. That newspaper puts forth the name of Bill Clinton as a potential appointee!

As I noted above, all other things being equal, a Democratic candidate can expect to win a statewide election in New York. But the Times story to which I linked, hints at a possible major Republican push to win a 2010 special election. If, after large Democratic gains in 2006 and 2008, the electorate's mood shifts against that party in the 2010 mid-term elections, it could be a G.O.P. opportunity. As I wrote in this post, all bets may be off, when a special election is held.

Who's Afraid of Larry Summers?

Contrary to what I wrote here, President-elect Obama is apparently not shying away from former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, despite his controversial return to academia after the end of the Clinton Administration.

Obama will reportedly name Summers to head up something which I've always considered a strange animal: the National Economic Council (NEC).

That Council was created at the beginning of Clinton's presidency. The sales pitch was that we've had a National Security Council (NSC) since 1947, so we should give equal attention to the domestic side of things. Therefore, the NSC should have a domestic counterpart, that being the NEC.

When Clinton took office in 1993, there were heady thoughts about a New World Order, following the downfall of the Marxist-Leninist regimes in Europe. Therefore, many people thought that domestic issues should have greater prominence. Later in Clinton's time in office, and, of course, during that of his successor, George W. Bush, it became clear how central foreign policy still is, among national issues.

Be all of that as it may, my question about the NEC has to do with the fact that presidents already have a Council of Economic Advisers (CEA). That group was created by the Employment Act of 1946. What does the NEC add, that the CEA wasn't already doing, or could have done?

When Greg Mankiw (now a teacher/blogger) headed CEA in the George W. Bush Administration, he addressed that question in an online forum:

Steve Friedman, the Chair of the National Economic Council, was a college wrestler so thankfully it never gets down to physical fights. The NEC is the coordinating body for economic policy. By contrast, the CEA is staffed with PhD economists and serves as policy analysts. The two organizations work quite closely together and are -- to use the jargon of economics -- complements rather than substitutes. I start each day by seeing Steve Friedman at a 7:30am senior staff meeting where we coordinate our activities. Our two staffs work closely together on all issues of economic policy. The CEA also works with the National Security Council on international economic policy issues and with the Domestic Policy Council on important domestic issues such as education.
So the NEC are doers while the CEA are thinkers? I suppose. But Mankiw's remark about wrestling hints at some overlap between the two organizations' responsibilities.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Cohabitation

Another subject regarding France, in addition to what I wrote here: The original Fifth Republic constitution set presidential terms at seven years, and the maximum parliamentary term at five years. Effective with the 2002 elections, both are set at five years.

In 1986, a center-right coalition won a majority in the National Assembly (lower house of the parliament), during the presidency of Francois Mitterand, a Socialist. That was the first time in the Fifth Republic that the president's party was not part of the governing coalition in the National Assembly. In other words, the presidency and the parliament were controlled by different parties. The French called the situation "cohabitation".

Cohabitation recurred from 1997 to 2002, when a Socialist-led coalition had a parliamentary majority, during the presidency of Jacques Chirac, a center-right Gaullist. That turned the tables on Chirac, who had been prime minister during that earlier period of cohabitation.

This leads me to one of my favorite subjects: political language, especially the differences in political language between countries.

A similar scenario occurs from time to time in the United States, when one party controls one or both houses of Congress, and the president is of the other party. That has been the case with the 2007-8 Congress, with Democratic majorities tangling with a Republican president. Here in America, we often call that "gridlock".

I consider it an interesting commentary on our cultural differences, that the French compare that divided-government scenario to an intimate relationship, while we draw an analogy to a traffic jam.

The recent French shift to five-year terms for both the president and the National Assembly is intended to reduce the likelihood of cohabitation. The theory is that, if presidential and parliamentary elections are held at the same time, the voters are likely to elect the same party in both. It has worked out that way in 2002 and 2007, but that is by no means guaranteed.

The American electorate has elected a president of one party, and a congressional majority of the other party, on the same day, in a few instances, such as 1996, 1988, 1972, 1968 and 1956.