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


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


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.

Successor to Alexander Hamilton

President-elect Obama has reportedly decided to appoint Timothy Geithner, who is currently president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, to be secretary of the treasury.

As I wrote here, speculation for quite a while has centered around Geithner and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers.

If that is indeed what the choice came down to, Obama may have opted for Geithner for two reasons: 1) his reputation has risen, due to his role in dealing with the financial crisis; and 2) Obama may have wanted to avoid questions about the controversial manner in which Summers left the presidency of Harvard.

Stock markets rallied yesterday, after significant losses earlier in the week. Those who write such things have called that Wall Street's endorsement of Geithner.

Presidents, maybe with some reluctance, tend to acknowledge the need to gain acceptance, or at least lack of hostility, on the part of the financial types, to their economic personnel and policy choices.

Again, the wisdom on this point comes from James Carville, that political consultant I would love to ignore, but he's just too quotable. At the beginning of the Clinton Administration, when the president and his staff cited financial market considerations as their rationale for turning their promised tax cut into a tax increase, Carville mused about reincarnation:

I used to think if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the President or the Pope or a .400 baseball hitter, but now I want to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody.

Friday, November 21, 2008


The French Socialists are in the middle of the process of choosing a new party leader. Here is some background on the French political system, and how their parties have reached their current situation.

The constitutional arrangements currently in place in France are called the "Fifth Republic".

France switched back and forth between monarchy and republican government, in the aftermath of the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century. Also, they have adopted new constitutions at certain points during their republican eras.

After the French regained control of their territory from Germany in World War II, they launched a short-lived arrangement called the Fourth Republic. A political crisis that arose in 1958, largely stemming from France's war against rebels in Algeria, then a colony, sounded the death-knell of the Fourth Republic.

General Charles de Gaulle, hero of the French Resistance in World War II, came out of retirement in 1958, to become president under the new Fifth Republic.

As was the case with previous French republican constitutions, the Fifth Republic is a parliamentary system. However, the head of state, an elected president, has greater political power than is the case in most other countries with parliamentary systems.

That stems in part from constitutional powers, such as the president's (real, not just formal) right to dissolve parliament and call a general election. But I think it also derives from the manner in which presidents are elected. De Gaulle was originally chosen by an electoral college. But his reelection in 1965, and all subsequent presidential elections, have been by direct popular vote. That gives the president a type of authority that a hereditary monarch, such as Queen Elizabeth of the U.K., or an indirectly-elected president, such as that of Germany, does not possess.

French presidential elections are conducted in two rounds. If no candidate gets more than 50% in the first round (and none ever has), the top two candidates stand in a runoff election.

De Gaulle put a very personal stamp on his movement. He and his allies were informally called the Gaullist party. That party became institutionalized after his resignation in 1969, and has been known at various times by such names as Rally for the Republic, and the Union for a Popular Movement.

The Socialists were also-rans for the first couple of decades of the Fifth Republic. Their high-water mark came in 1981, when Socialist Francois Mitterand was elected president and, for the first time in the Fifth Republic, a coalition led by the party gained a majority in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament.

The party's nadir came 21 years later, when they failed to make it through to the second round of the 2002 presidential election. The electorate's only choices were center-right (incumbent President Jacques Chirac, a Gaullist) and far-right (Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of a xenophobic party called the National Front). Chirac won.

The Socialists did better in the 2007 presidential election, but still lost. Their candidate, Segolene Royal, the first woman to make it into the second round, lost to Nicholas Sarkozy, by 53% to 47%.

As you can see in the BBC piece I linked to above, Royal is one of the candidates in the upcoming runoff of the Socialist leadership election.

UPDATE: What do Segolene Royal and Al Franken have in common? Pressing a recount of an extemely close vote.

Congressional Leadership

The congressional leadership elections that I previewed here, have now taken place.

The most significant votes were on the Republican side in the House. And by that I mean significant for the future, not the present. With the enhanced Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the main job for the Republican leadership will be to lay the groundwork for a future comeback. Their influence on the current running of the Congress is likely to be small.

There were no surprises in the elections to fill vacancies in the number two and number three spots in the House Republican leadership. Eric Cantor of Virginia will be minority whip, and Mike Pence of Indiana will chair the House Republican Conference.

House Democrats chose John Larson of Connecticut to replace Rahm Emanuel as chair of the House Democratic Caucus. Emanuel will leave the House, to become White House chief of staff.

Getting back to the subject of Republicans and the future, this post on The Fix blog on the Washington Post's website, lists 10 "Republicans to watch".

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Stevens Concedes Defeat

It's now official. Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, has conceded defeat to his Democratic challenger Mark Begich. That brings the totals in the next Senate to:

Democrats and their Independent allies: 58
Republicans: 40
Undecided: 2

Obama's Cabinet, So Far

What strikes me about the tentative choices for the Cabinet that have been reported to date, is how conventional they are. I'm referring to the following list which, while not official yet, seems to reflect the president-elect's will:

  • Secretary of State: Senator Hillary Clinton
  • Attorney General: Former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder
  • Secretary of Homeland Security: Governor Janet Napolitano of Arizona
  • Secretary of Health and Human Services: Former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle

They're unconventional in some ways. Holder would be the first African American attorney general. The Department of Homeland Security is very new, so it's not particularly significant that Napolitano would be its first female secretary. But there was only one past female Cabinet member in such a law enforcement/security position: Janet Reno, Bill Clinton's attorney general.

But they're conventional in other ways. They are all of the same party as the president-elect. There has been some talk of a bipartisan Cabinet. That might still happen. There are some major jobs still out there. For instance, rumor has it that Robert Gates might be retained as secretary of defense, a job to which he was appointed by President Bush.

The potential nominees listed above are also conventional in terms of background: a prominent senator, a prominent former senator, a governor, and a man with sub-cabinet experience in a previous Democratic administration. Those are all categories from which previous presidents have taken many of their Cabinet nominees. Not that, as Jerry Seinfeld has said in a different context, there's anything wrong with that. But we're all still curious as to how Obama's "Change" mantra will play out in real life.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Senate Elections: North and More North

The official tally has been completed in the U.S. Senate race in Minnesota, and the tally is apparently all-but-final in Alaska.

Mayor Mark Begich, Democrat of Anchorage, Alaska, has defeated Republican incumbent Senator Ted Stevens. I was incorrect in this post, when I wrote that the slim lead Stevens appeared to have in the immediately aftermath of the election would not be overturned. However, it is still remarkable that Begich's victory margin is only 0.29 of a percentage point, when pre-election polls had indicated that he might win by 10 points or more.

According to this New York Times report, Stevens could ask for a recount but, apparently, he would have to pay for it. He might not want to go to too much bother because, even if the recount were successful for him, his Senate colleagues would probably overturn his election via an expulsion vote.

The current official figures from Minnesota show an even closer margin. Out of 2,885,555 votes cast, Republican incumbent Senator Norm Coleman leads his Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party challenger Al Franken by 215 votes. The percentage difference is 0.00745%.

There's an old saying that life imitates art. I would go that one further by saying that life imitates Monty Python's Flying Circus. One episode of that comedy series from British television featured the Olympic Men's Hide-and-Seek final. Don Roberts (Graham Chapman) goes first, and finds Francisco Huron (Terry Jones) in 11 years, 2 months, 26 days, 9 hours, 3 minutes, 27 seconds. Then, when it's Huron's turn, he finds Roberts in 11 years, 2 months, 26 days, 9 hours, 3 minutes, 27 seconds. It's a tie, and the replay is scheduled to begin the following day.

Unlike the hide-and-seek final, the Coleman-Franken race is not quite a tie, but it's close. Minnesota election law requires an automatic recount in any election decided by less than half of one percentage point. Therefore, the margin in the current figures is 67 times closer than it needs to be to trigger the recount. Apparently there is no similar provision in Alaska law that Stevens could count on to bolster any claim he might make for a recount.

The Minnesota recount begins today.

There is precedent for a result similar to the hide-and-seek final. There was a do-over of a 1974 Senate election in New Hampshire. There has been some speculation about whether the Minnesota case is headed in a similar direction.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Mr. Chairman

The question of where Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut fits within the party structure in the Senate is now apparently closed. The Senate Democratic Conference, in a secret ballot, voted 42-13 to retain him as chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs.

His status has been in question since he was reelected as an Independent in 2006, and then endorsed Republican John McCain for president in 2008.

Now, both Lieberman and a majority of Senate Democrats have signaled their intent that he continue to caucus with the Democrats. That means that the Senate Democratic Conference will have at least 57 members, pending resolution of the Georgia, Alaska and Minnesota Senate races.

Monday, November 17, 2008


In the middle of the general election campaign for the Israeli Knesset, that I described here, there has been a significant election at the local level in Israel.

Nir Barkat was elected mayor of Jerusalem last week. Barkat defeated Rabbi Meir Porush. The most notable difference between the two candidates is that Rabbi Porush is Orthodox, while Barkat represents a secular viewpoint.

Since its founding in 1948, the modern State of Israel has faced the question: What does it mean to be a Jewish state?

Jewish identity can be both a religious identity and an ethnic identity.

The Law of Return, enacted by the Knesset (Israeli parliament) in 1950, allows virtually all Jewish people to immigrate to Israel, and become citizens. The key to that, of course, is how to define what is means to be Jewish.

The original text of the Law of Return was vague about that definition. However, a 1970 amendment added a specific definition:

"Jew" means a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion.

The effect has been that immigration to Israel has not been restricted to religiously observant Jews. Here is a description in The New York Times, by Tom Friedman, of the size of various groups within Israel's Jewish population, grouped according to their degree of religious observance. That description was written in 1987, and the percentages might have changed in the meantime, but the point is that the population is still divided in that way, and various political issues have arisen from those divisions.

Despite that diversity, Orthodox rabbis control some aspects of Israeli social organization, such as marriage. This story tells of an example of how that works.

Some Israeli couples leave the country in order to get married, when they fail to meet the requirements of the Orthodox rabbinate.

The office of mayor of Jerusalem has been batted back and forth over the years, between Orthodox and secular factions. Teddy Kollek, who was mayor from 1965 to 1993, was secular in his outlook. But, for the past five years, Uri Lupolianski, who is Orthodox, has been mayor.

On the national level, small religious parties have sometimes held the balance of power, under Israel's system of proportional representation.

One last point about Jerusalem: Amid all of this conflict between Jewish factions, Arab residents of the city generally boycott mayoral elections.

Secretary Clinton?

Since I wrote this, yesterday, the talk of Hillary Clinton as the next secretary of state has not abated. The New York Times carried this report, yesterday.

Some commentators have noted a similarity in appointments to high positions, between Barack Obama and that earlier Illinois lawyer who became president, Abraham Lincoln. The main theme of Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 book about Lincoln, Team of Rivals, was about how he brought politicians who had opposed him for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination into his administration.

Lincoln practiced the old maxim, "keep your friends close, and your enemies closer".

Obama began emulating Lincoln in that regard in August, when he chose one of his rivals, Joe Biden, to be the vice-presidential nominee. Now, there is talk of Cabinet jobs for at least two of his other rivals, Clinton and Bill Richardson.

The Times article points out that the disciplined Obama team would probably not have allowed the story to go this far, if they were not prepared to seal the deal. The only potential stumbling block that is noted in that report is conflict of interest with the activities of former President Clinton.

I wonder whether any member of Obama's transition team might use such financial/legal issues as a proxy for concerns about the awkwardness of having a former president that close to the official foreign-policy apparatus. There were similar concerns in the Clinton Administration about Jimmy Carter's post-presidential free-lance foreign policy work.

An earlier first lady to whom Hillary Clinton has often been compared, Eleanor Roosevelt, was also involved in public life after her husband's presidency. She was part of the American delegation to the United Nations during the Truman Administration. But she was a widow at that point, so Truman had no need to be concerned about a presidential predecessor being indirectly involved in foreign policy.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Secretary of State

There is much buzz about whether Barack Obama will appoint Hillary Clinton to be secretary of state. Bill Richardson's name is also mentioned in that context.

As I wrote here, it has been rare in recent years for presidents to appoint elected politicians to that job. There have been two exceptions in the last half-century, when the office became vacant late in a president's tenure. In that earlier post, I mentioned Jimmy Carter's appointment of Maine Senator Edmund Muskie in 1980. The other such case was Dwight Eisenhower's appointment of former Massachusetts Governor Christian Herter, after Ike's longtime Secretary of State John Foster Dulles resigned in 1959, shortly before he died of cancer.

The most recent president to appoint an elected politician to that post at the beginning of his presidency was Franklin Roosevelt. In 1933, he appointed Tennessee Senator Cordell Hull, who headed the State Department for almost all of Roosevelt's long presidency, resigning in 1944.

Most of the recent appointees were college professors, international lawyers, or career military men.

It has not always been that way, though. Many future presidents had been secretary of state during the first 60 years of the department's existence, including Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, J.Q. Adams, Van Buren and Buchanan.

Why did that trend stop? My guess is that, with the improvements in transportation and communication technology that have allowed presidents to take more direct control of foreign policy, that position, while still considered a prestigious Cabinet post, became more of a bureaucratic job than a policy-making role. As such, it might no longer have been attractive to top-level politicians.

I find it hard to believe that that will change in Obama's administration. But we shall see.

Nate Silver, in the 538 blog, speculates about whether Senator Clinton sees the secretary of state position as a potential stepping-stone to the presidency, as it often was in the early 19th century. Joe Biden will probably be too old to try to succeed Obama in 2016. Clinton will be up there a bit herself, at 69, but that one last chance might be available to her.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Minnesota Recount

Here is a New York Times report on the impending recount in the Minnesota Senate race between Republican incumbent Senator Norm Coleman, and his Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party challenger, comedian Al Franken.

Christina Capecchi writes the following:

Stakes are high because with three Senate races yet to be decided,
Democrats still have a chance of winning the 60 seats needed to break Republican filibusters in Washington.

I'll reiterate something I've written previously, that the notion of 60 members of the Democratic Senate caucus being a magic number is overblown.

It's not comparable to the question of whether one party gets 51 Senate seats (0r 50 along with the tie-breaking vote of the vice president), and is therefore the majority party. That is generally a one-time thing at the beginning of a Congress (two rare exceptions that occurred in 2001 don't invalidate my analysis). On the other hand, the breaking of a filibuster via a cloture vote (which requires 60 votes) is on a case-by-case basis throughout the two-year term of a Congress.

On some votes, the Democratic leadership is likely to lose the support of some members of its own caucus. They may also pick up some Republican votes on some issues.

The enlarged Democratic majority (or "Democrat majority", as the lame-duck president once said, in a remark that was almost controversial enough to start nucular war) is not irrelevant. But the notion that, if they have 59 votes they'll be stymied but, if they have 60, they'll be able to do anything they want, is an oversimplification.

That idea brings structure and drama to journalists' accounts of the still-undecided Senate races in Georgia, Alaska and Minnesota, but I don't think it is totally accurate in describing the situation.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Au Revoir Senate

President-elect Obama is resigning his Senate seat, effective Sunday, November 16. That is 65 days before his scheduled presidential inauguration.

In line with what I wrote here, that is unusually early.

There's not a whole lot of precedent for presidents being elected to the Senate. The two such cases in the 20th century went as follows:

  1. John Kennedy resigned his Senate seat on December 22, 1960, 29 days before his inauguration.
  2. Warren Harding resigned on January 13, 1921, which, in the era when March 4 was the standard inauguration date, was 40 days before he became president.

There is more precedent at the vice-presidential level (vice-precedent?). The most recent senator to be elected vice president, Al Gore, remained in the Senate until the new Congress convened on January 3, 1993. The earliest date on which any incoming vice president resigned from the Senate since January 20 became the inauguration date, was December 29, 1964, when Hubert Humphrey resigned early, in order to give his successor, Walter Mondale, a seniority advantage over other new senators.

Obama has apparently made a deliberate decision not to be part of the lame-duck congressional session that gets underway next week. That will both 1) make for more of a fresh start, when he tackles economic issues in January, and 2) free him up to work on assembling his Cabinet, and other transition issues.

There is precedent for a president-elect not involving himself in economic issues prematurely. In the 1932-33 transition, Franklin Roosevelt rebuffed outgoing President Herbert Hoover's invitation for a joint statement on government actions to combat the Great Depression. That contributed to the frosty relationship between the two on Roosevelt's inauguration day, that I referred to here.


I am endlessly fascinated by details of the daily routine of presidents, and their Secret Service protection. The New York Times reported yesterday on the degree to which the daily life of President-elect Obama has already been affected by his election.

He has not yet moved in to the White House, and one does not yet address him as "Mr. President", but he, and the life of himself and his family, changed forever at that moment on November 4, when his election was assured.

If, as the Times reports, his Chicago home will be his presidential retreat, that will indeed be quite a change from the recent pattern. Recent presidents, even the northerners, came to prefer one or more sunbelt getaway spots. I'll be interested to see whether Obama follows suit.

It will also be interesting to see whether his Chicago neighbors, once the excitement of his election fades a bit, will grow weary of the inconvenience of it all. Once a president starts making decisions, his honeymoon with the voters at some point ends, because everyone will find something to criticize in at least some of those decisions. When that happens, needing to pass Secret Service inspection in order to enter one's home or synagogue might be looked on differently.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Failed Experiment

In describing recent Israeli elections here, I glossed over the nature of some of those elections.

Israel experimented with a way of choosing a head of government that, as far as I know, was unique among parliamentary democracies. In 1996, 1999 and 2001, they held direct elections for prime minister.

One step in a leadership transition in any parliamentary system is to designate a potential prime minister who will take office if he or she is able to form a government. That means creating a cabinet that has either majority support in parliament (usually the lower house of parliament), or at least is not actively opposed by a parliamentary majority. There are three variations on that theme:

  1. One party has a parliamentary majority. That is the simplest outcome; that party's leader more or less automatically becomes prime minister.
  2. Two or more parties form a coalition that, in total, has the support of a parliamentary majority. In a coalition cabinet, the leader of the largest party usually becomes prime minister. Cabinet jobs are doled out to the smaller parties, roughly in proportion to how many seats they have in the parliament.
  3. Neither a single party nor a coalition has majority support. Unless/until other parties gang up against it and vote it out, the largest party can lead a minority government, and its leader becomes prime minister.

The head of state (such as a monarch or a president) is usually the one whose job it is to designate a potential prime minister who will attempt to form a government.

In scenario #1, that is a mere formality. For example, in 1997, when the Labor Party won a huge majority in the British House of Commons, Queen Elizabeth asked the leader of that party, Tony Blair, to form a government. But she had no other choice.

Scenarios 2 and 3 can be more tricky. Usually the nod goes to the leader of the largest party, but other questions, such as who might best be able to form a coalition, or whether a new election needs to be held, might enter in to it.

The British general election of February 28, 1974, left no one party with an overall majority in the House of Commons. Labor was the largest party. Prime Minister Ted Heath of the Conservative Party balked at resigning, hoping to remain in office with help from the Liberals and/or the Ulster Unionists. Four days after the election, it was clear that that was not going to happen, and Heath resigned. The Queen was then able to summon Harold Wilson, the Labor leader, to form a minority government. The Queen had held back in the meantime, trying, as she always does, to stay out of party politics.

In Israel, the president designates a party leader to form a government. That has been the case through most of that country's history. However, in 1992, a law was enacted that took that task away from the president and gave it to the electorate as a whole.

That change was intended to strengthen the office of prime minister by giving him or her a direct popular mandate, and de-emphasizing the need to build a coalition within the Knesset (parliament), a process that had magnified the power of the small parties. As I described here, Israel's system of pure proportional representation has resulted in many parties being represented in the Knesset.

Any change instituted by a government is subject to the law of unintended effects. In other words, an action that is intended to produce a certain effect, often produces other, unexpected, effects, and those other effects are often directly the opposite of what was intended.

In this case, the unintended effect was increased scattering of votes among small parties in the Knesset, and an accompanying decrease in the share of Knesset seats going to the major parties.

Why did that happen? Take the example of a right-wing voter. Such a voter could either vote for what was, at the time, the main right-wing party, Likud, or could vote for a smaller party with whose philosophy the voter was more in synch. The problem with the latter approach was that a decrease in Likud's vote total could contribute toward making the left-wing Labor Party the largest party, and thus the party empowered to build a coalition. Therefore, our right-wing voter had an incentive to stay with Likud, in order to improve the Likud leader's probability of becoming prime minister.

A similar effect was at work in the American presidential election of 2000, when Ralph Nader ran as a third-party candidate. If those who voted for Nader had instead voted for the major-party nominee to whom they were presumably closer ideologically, i.e., the Democratic Vice President Al Gore, he would have defeated George W. Bush. The reluctance to cause such a scenario holds down third parties' share of the U.S. electorate.

But direct election of the Israeli prime minister to some degree decoupled the issues of the parties' parliamentary strength, and the choice of prime minister. Likud's leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, barely won the first such election, in 1996. After having voted directly for Netanyahu, right-wing voters were free to vote for smaller parties for the Knesset, confident that that vote would not affect Netanyahu's prospects. The same effect worked on the left, in relation to the losing candidate in the prime ministerial election, the Labor leader and incumbent Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

This effect is reflected in the numbers. At the 1992 general election, the two largest parties at that time, Labor and Likud, between them won a total of 76 of the 120 Knesset seats. In 1996, the year of the first election for prime minister, those parties' total had been reduced to 66 seats. Then, in 1999, it fell to 45.

Thus, the change that was supposed to reduce the power of the small parties, instead caused them to grow.

The experiment was scrapped in 2001, when Israel amended its law on the formation of governments, to return to the president the task of designating a prime minister.

As I see it, the lesson here for the U.S., whether or not one is inherently interested in the politics of Israel, is that a country needs to be careful when considering changes in electoral law.

Proposals such as the introduction of proportional representation or the abolition of the electoral college should be carefully scrutinized, in order to minimize the possibility of creating unintended effects.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Not Whistling Dixie

More than one country has a region within it that has a distinct culture. That distinctiveness can raise difficult political issues and lead to violence. Such has been the case in Canada with Quebec, and in the United Kingdom with Northern Ireland (and, further back in history, with all of Ireland).

For the U.S. that region has been the South. In this and other posts, I've written about the manner in which slavery and its aftermath have affected the politics of the South, and of the country as a whole.

For much of the 20th century, the most influential southerners on Capitol Hill tended to be Democrats who were committee chairmen, after having built up a lot of seniority over long careers during which they faced little or no Republican opposition.

By the 1990s, southerners had extended their reach to several leadership positions in the political branches of the federal government. At the apex of their power, from June 12, 1996 to January 3, 1999, southerners (defined as those from states that had been part of the Confederacy) held all of the following offices: president, vice president, Senate majority leader, speaker of the House, and House majority leader.

As of January 20, 2009, none of those five offices will be held by anyone from an ex-Confederate state. Those who come closest to being able to be called a southerner are Vice President-elect Joe Biden of Delaware, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland. Delaware and Maryland were classified as border states during the Civil War, i.e., slave states that did not secede.

This New York Times article, which mainly addresses racial issues in this year's presidential election as it played out in the South, discusses how that region is becoming marginalized in national politics.

The Club

The most exclusive club in existence is the one whose members are the president of the United States and the surviving former presidents (of which there are currently three: Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton).

To hold that office is one of the most extraordinary experiences anyone can have, and very few men (so far, and into the immediate future at least, all men) have experienced it. That creates a bond that transcends differences of party, ideology and past ambition.

And first ladies are also part of The Club. The wives of the three former presidents are all still alive, along with two first widows, Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan.

The Club appears in public together at each other's presidential library dedications, inaugurations and funerals.

Two especially notable friendships have flourished in recent decades between pairs of presidents who ran against each other. The first such pair consisted of Jimmy Carter and the man he defeated in 1976, the late Gerald Ford. The second is George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, adversaries in 1992 when Clinton was first elected, who have worked together for philanthropic causes after Clinton left the White House in 2001.

However, that type of situation is not always friendly. It is said that Herbert Hoover refused to speak with his successor Franklin Roosevelt, when they rode together in a car to the Capitol for the latter's inauguration in 1933.

I bring this up now, to comment on reports of Barack and Michelle Obama's visit to the White House on Monday. Reports such as these in the Times and the Post, reflect reporters' anticipation that there would have been tension between Obama and President Bush, due to Obama's campaign-trail attacks on Bush's presidency.

For one thing, the people-skills of both of those men are such that they are able to carry off such an occasion, regardless of what went on during the campaign.

But I also think that the success of the occasion reflects the Bushes' acceptance of the Obamas into The Club. I suppose a president-elect becomes a member of The Club from the moment his election is assured. At that point, he is separated out from the much larger group of mere presidential wannabes. And those experiences that happen only to one who is elected to, or otherwise accedes to, that office, begin right then and there.

The visit to the White House by a president-elect has become a standard presidential ritual. As I see it, it serves three main purposes:

  1. Symbolic show of continuity in government.
  2. Substantive discussions between incoming and outgoing presidents.
  3. The more practical consideration of the new first family, like any family, being curious about the details of their new home.

Bush and Obama seemed to sense the importance of #1, and they carried that off well.

The two met without staff, so all that will be known is what, if any, either of them chooses to reveal after the fact. Everyone assumes they discussed emergencies both economic and military.

According to reports of past such meetings, some were more successful than others. Jimmy Carter has said that, when he met with Ronald Reagan, subsequent to Reagan's victory over him in the 1980 election, Reagan seemed disengaged during their conversation. Carter and his staff took that to mean Reagan was ill-informed and unprepared for the presidency. My not unbiased view is that Reagan probably felt as though he had nothing to learn from Carter and was just going through the motions.

And the Bushes gave the Obamas a tour of the White House.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Israeli General Election

This story was overshadowed by the American presidential election, but the sequence of events that was set in motion by the resignation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, that I wrote about in this and earlier posts, is now leading toward an early general election.

Tzipi Livni, the new leader of the Kadima Party, which is the largest party in Israel's parliament, the Knesset, has failed to put together a coalition government. That necessitates the general election, which is scheduled for February 10, 2009.

As I described in this post and also in this post, there are several parties who compete in Israeli general elections, which are based on pure proportional representation. But three of those parties are the main competitors.

Kadima was founded in 2005, when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and some of his allies left the Likud Party. Sharon suffered a major stroke soon thereafter, and the party was then led by Olmert. Kadima elected Livni as its new leader in September of this year, but Olmert will continue as caretaker prime minister until the election.

The Likud leader is Benjamin Netanyahu. He was prime minister from 1996 to 1999. After failing to win reelection, he was replaced as Likud leader by Sharon. Netanyahu again became party leader, after Sharon left Likud.

The Labor Party is led by Ehud Barak. He succeeded Netanyahu as prime minister in 1999, but was defeated for reelection by Sharon in 2001. Barak is currently minister of defense in a coalition government with Kadima.

Netanyahu is more of a hawk on the issue of negotiations with the Palestinians than are his opponents. However, this Associated Press report quotes him as saying he would not abandon those negotiations. Any such negotiations are probably in limbo anyway, until the incoming Obama Administration makes its position known.

Here is a Jerusalem Post report about a poll indicating a tie between Likud and Kadima.

President from Illinois

OK, time's up on the trivia question I asked here. The only Illinois native to become president of the United States: Ronald Reagan.

Senate Committees

Two of the most prominent committees in the U.S. Senate will get new chairmen in January.

Vice President-elect Joe Biden has chaired the Committee on Foreign Relations. And Senator Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, has announced he will relinquish his chairmanship of the Committee on Appropriations.

Normally, the successor in such a situation would be the Democrat with the next-longest seniority on the committee. On Foreign Relations, that is Christopher Dodd of Connecticut. Dodd already chairs the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, and plans to stay in that role.

Next in seniority is John Kerry of Massachusetts. Kerry's name has been mentioned as a potential secretary of state in the Obama Administration. But, if he stays in the Senate, he will probably become chairman.

If Kerry does not take over the chair, next in line is Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. Here is an article in The Hill, describing the implications of that.

The number-two Democrat on Appropriations is Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, who is expected to become chairman in January. Here in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin is home-state pride about Inouye taking over that committee, as well as Hawaii native Barack Obama moving into the White House.

Speaking of the Foreign Relations Committee: Its House counterpart is the Committee on Foreign Affairs. A political science professor of mine had a story about how a senator helped him remember which name applies in which house of Congress. The average senator is older than the average representative in the House. Therefore, according to this senator, he and his colleagues could still have relations, but were too old to have affairs.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Undecided Senate Elections

It's still not clear who won U.S. Senate elections in three states.

I wrote about the Georgia situation here.

Outcomes are also unsettled in Alaska and Minnesota.

In Alaska, they're still counting absentee ballots, and both sides have challenged some ballots. A final count is due later this month, but that could be challenged in court. Incumbent Senator Ted Stevens has a small, but not razor-thin, edge over his Democratic challenger Mark Begich. But if Stevens wins this vote, he still faces challenges, as I described in this post.

The Minnesota Senate race between Norm Coleman and Al Franken is headed for a recount. Coleman's 221-vote lead in unofficial returns is close enough to trigger an automatic recount, under that state's election laws. If the state's official count, due on November 18, is in line with those unofficial numbers, the recount will take place. Supposedly there is a December deadline on the recount, but court challenges could upset that timetable.

The most famous recount in Minnesota history occurred in the 1962 gubernatorial race between Republican incumbent Governor Elmer L. Andersen (Minnesota is so Scandinavian that, in discussing past governors, one must distinguish between multiple Elmer Andersons) and Democratic-Farmer-Labor Lieutenant Governor Karl Rolvaag.

Andersen had a tiny lead in the initial count. The recount came out in Rolvaag's favor, but he was not able to take office until late March 1963.

While both sides in the Coleman-Franken contest will probably put up as many challenges as they need to, I'm sure no one wants the Senate recount to drag on that long.

The Democrats' goal of 60 Senate seats is not quite out of reach. However, they need to do four things: 1) win the Georgia runoff, 2) prevail in the Minnesota recount, 3) one way or the other, take over Ted Stevens's seat in Alaska, and 4) keep Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman in the Democratic caucus. None of those four things is impossible, but stringing them all together seems somewhat improbable.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Encore in Georgia

When I wrote here about Senator Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia, being all but assured of victory, I had forgotten what I wrote here about that hallowed southern tradition, the runoff election.

At least some of the southern states have retained the requirement that a runoff election be held, if no candidate exceeds 50% of the vote the first time around. Here is a New York Times article from 1990, discussing whether such laws still have a racially discriminatory effect.

Be that as it may, the Senate race in Georgia appears to be headed toward a December 2 runoff. According to unofficial returns, Chambliss's total is a fraction below 50%.


As I anticipated here, the partisan status of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman is up in the air, now that the election results are (largely) in.

Some Democrats want to oust him as chair of the Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee, because he endorsed John McCain for president.

On the other hand, he has reportedly talked with Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader, about switching to the Republican Party. But, as this report in Politico describes, McConnell has little to offer Lieberman. The committee chairmanships are, of course, all in the hands of the Democrats. And it would even be difficult to find Lieberman a ranking-minority-member position on a major committee.

No obvious path for Lieberman. But if he does switch, that would end the Democrats' quest for a 60-40 majority in the Senate.

If you're curious about "mugwump", click here.

Jeff Merkley Wins in Oregon

Senator Gordon Smith, Republican of Oregon, has conceded defeat in his reelection battle against state House Speaker Jeff Merkley. That means the Democrats will have at least 57 seats in the next Senate, including the Independents who caucus with them. But more to come on that last point.

The New Congress

The 111th Congress is scheduled to convene on January 3, 2009. But the first meetings will actually take place before that date.

The Democratic Conference (called "Caucus" in the House) and the Republican Conference of each house of Congress will meet to choose their leadership. Those meetings are expected to take place shortly after the members return to the capital, week after next.

The leadership ranks are expected to remain largely unchanged.

On the Democratic side, the only apparent vacancy is for the chairmanship of the House Democratic Caucus, now that the current chair, Rahm Emanuel, is headed back to the White House. Rep. John Larson of Connecticut, the current vice chair of the Caucus, has announced his candidacy. Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland is reportedly considering a run against Larson.

As I implied in this post, the main reason to watch elections for the lesser leadership jobs is to see which members are being groomed for succession to higher positions.

The Democrats at the higher leadership levels, including Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer and James Clyburn in the House, and Harry Reid and Dick Durbin in the Senate, will presumably all continue for another term.

The Republican Senate leadership should remain stable. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell won a close reelection battle in Kentucky which, if it had gone the other way, would have set off a scramble for the top spots on the minority side. Senator John Kyl of Arizona is the minority whip, and seems to be facing no challenge.

But there are some vacancies among the House Republican leadership. Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri has resigned the office of minority whip. Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia appears to be the front-runner to succeed Blunt.

Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida is leaving the number-three position in the Republican leadership, that of House Republican Conference chairman. Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana looks to be set to take over that job.

House Minority John Boehner of Ohio has apparently dodged a bullet in his effort to hold on to his leadership position. A right-wing faction among House Republicans tried to persuade Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to challenge Boehner. But Ryan has rebuffed those efforts. Much of the disenchantment toward Boehner stems from his support of the financial bailout bill. Some House Republicans, being of course part of the oppose-it-because-it's socialism faction, not the oppose-it-because-it's-a-giveaway-to-the-rich faction, found Boehner too accommodating toward the Bush Administration in the handling of that legislation.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Land Of Obama

Of course, the first president who came from Illinois was Abraham Lincoln.

Ulysses Grant briefly lived in Illinois before the Civil War.

But Lincoln was a Kentucky native, Grant was born in Ohio, and the latest Illinoisan to have been elected president, Barack Obama, is a native of Hawaii.

So, the trivia question is: who is the only U.S. president who was born in Illinois?

Senate Vacancies

12 Democratic U.S. senators were up for reelection this year. All of them successfully sought reelection. Some commentator (I forget who it was) said before the election that the only two Democrats likely to be leaving the Senate were Barack Obama and Joe Biden. And now we know that that will be the case.

Senators in that situation usually resign their seats some time between the adjournment of the outgoing Congress, and the convening of the next Congress. It is considered likely that the current Congress will go back into a "lame duck session" later this month. Obama and Biden will presumably want to hold on to their Senate seats until that session adjourns.

If they resign a few days before the new Congress convenes on January 3, 2009, their successors will be higher in seniority than incoming senators who begin their terms on January 3.

Standard procedure for filling Senate vacancies is for the governor to make an interim appointment, that is effective until a special election is held. Special election laws vary among the states. However, since Obama's Senate term is up in 2010 anyway, there would be no special election in Illinois.

Illinois' governor is Democrat Rod Blagojevich. The most prominent name that has been mentioned as a potential appointee is U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr.

Other candidates include U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky, state Attorney General Lisa Madigan, and state Senate President Emil Jones.

Governor Ruth Ann Minner, Democrat of Delaware, will leave office on January 20, 2009. Assuming Biden resigns before the new Congress convenes, Minner will make the interim appointment. But even if, for whatever reason, the appointment is delayed until after January 20, it won't make much difference, because Minner will be succeeded by fellow Democrat Jack Markell.

There is much speculation that Biden wants to maneuver his son, state Attorney General Beau Biden, into the Senate seat. Beau Biden will soon be sent to Iraq with his National Guard unit, so his first chance at the Senate would probably be at the 2010 special election. If so, the vice president-elect would want Minner to appoint a "placeholder" who would not challenge Beau Biden in the special election.

Candidates for appointment by Minner include state Secretary of State Harriet Smith Windsor and Lieutenant Governor John Carney. It can never be guaranteed that such an appointee will cooperate and step aside when the special election comes around.

I Need Him

President-elect Obama has reportedly offered to U.S. Representative Rahm Emanuel, Democrat of Illinois, the job of White House chief of staff. It's not yet official, but it would be odd for a president-elect to allow a story to go this far, without being confident of acceptance.

Emanuel needs to consider whether to sacrifice a promising congressional career, in order to go back into the White House whirlwind.

He became chair of the House Democratic Caucus, the fourth-highest position in his party's House leadership, in his third term. That could put him on the road toward eventually becoming speaker. House Democrats, more so than the Republicans, tend to follow an orderly system of promotion within their leadership ranks.

That seems odd in a party about which humorist Will Rogers said "I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat." But it has been the case.

Perhaps Emanuel, who was a key aide in the Clinton White House, wants to return to the center of action.

The title of this post is arguably the most famous quotation about a White House chief of staff. Dwight Eisenhower said it of Sherman Adams. Eisenhower was later required to get along without Adams, who resigned after being caught up in a bribery scandal.

Eisenhower's successors, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, did away with the position. But Richard Nixon brought it back, placing the infamous H.R. (Bob) Haldeman in that spot. All of Nixon's successors have appointed chiefs of staff.

The Curious Case of Ted Stevens

Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, against all odds and against all polls, has apparently been reelected. Despite all of the corruption scandals involving Republicans in that state, its electorate seems bound and determined to keep Democrats out of power.

Why were the polls so wrong? Stevens's Democratic opponent Mark Begich was polling about even with Stevens (hey, that almost rhymes!) after Stevens was indicted on July 29. Then, after the senator's conviction on October 27, Begich shot upward in the polls. My guess is that those late polls underestimated Stevens's support because of some combination of voters 1) deciding at the last minute to stay with the incumbent, and 2) being embarrassed to tell pollsters that they planned to vote for a convicted felon.

The result could still be overturned by the official count or a recount. But the Stevens lead that currently shows up in the unofficial returns, which is 3,353 votes and 1.6 percentage points, while by no means a landslide, seems just a bit too big to be overturned.

If that result stands, then the only means to remove him from the Senate is the expulsion process. The Constitution, in Article I, Section 5, Clause 2, says that "each House may ... with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member."

Here is an explanation, from the Senate's historians, of that body's historical use of its expulsion power.

To me, at first glance, that seems to make sense. But thinking it through a bit further, as applied to a situation such as this one, it's really a bit strange. The Alaska electorate, with full knowledge of Stevens's conviction, has apparently decided to reelect him anyway. In light of that, why should the senators from the other states be able to tell those voters they can't do so?

I'm reminded of the late U.S. Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Democrat of New York. When he was first elected, in 1944, to represent a district centered on Harlem, Powell was the first African American congressman since 1935. Representative Oscar De Priest, Republican of Illinois, had been the last remnant of the movement to elect African American Republicans that began during the Reconstruction period that followed the Civil War. Powell, on the other hand, was in the vanguard of the trend to elect Democratic African American members of Congress from largely black districts, first in the north and then, after the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, also in the south.

During the 1960s, corruption allegations surfaced around Powell. After he was reelected to a 12th term in 1966, the House voted to "exclude" him. I'm not sure whether there is a technical difference between "exclude" and "expel" but they both seem to have the same effect. Powell won the special election that followed his 1967 exclusion from the House. His district also reelected him in 1968.

Then, in 1970, Powell lost the Democratic primary to Charles Rangel. Rangel still holds that seat, and has accumulated enough seniority to become chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

As is the case with Stevens in Alaska, the voters of Powell's district knew of the charges against him, and reelected him anyway. They told the House, in essence, "thank you very much, but we knew what we were doing, when we reelected Powell at the 1966 general election". Later, when they decided they preferred Rangel, the democratic process took its course.

I'm not inclined to defend Stevens, but I'm pointing out that the question is more complicated than some would make it out to be.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Electoral College 5: What Happens Next?

Shortly after 11 pm EST, Tuesday night, Brian Williams, Charlie Gibson, et al., announced that Barack Obama had been elected president. But, of course, that is not the official announcement. The official announcement will be made by none other than Dick Cheney.

Unlike 2000, with this year's presidential election, all activity of the electoral college between now and the date the vice president announces the result to a joint session of Congress (January 6, 2009) will be merely a formality. This time, any recount in the state with the tightest contest, North Carolina, cannot affect the result. Obama has won well over 50% of the electors in states where the result is undisputed.

Here is a press release from the National Archives, detailing the process whereby the electoral college formally elects the president.

You thought election day was November 4? Actually, it's December 15. That's the date on which the electoral college meets, state by state, as I described here.

Then, they send their vote totals to Congress, which opens them up and tabulates them in a joint session, shortly after they reconvene at the beginning of January.

The president of the Senate, i.e., the vice president of the United States, announces the result to the lawmakers. In 1989, George H.W. Bush announced that the new president was ... George H.W. Bush. But it has more often gone in the other direction. In 2001, for example, Al Gore made his own defeat official.

I'm guessing that, with this election, at least some Obama supporters will consider it to be delicious irony that their archenemy Cheney will formally announce Obama's election.

House of Representatives

As expected, the Democrats have increased the majority in the federal House of Representatives, that they originally won in 2006. The various networks currently show the Democrats with between 248 and 258 House seats, up from the current 235.

Any number that is 218 or greater makes them the majority party, with all of the committee chairmanships and control of the floor agenda by virtue of holding the offices of speaker and majority leader.

But Democrats who win districts that had formerly elected Republicans, can become vulnerable when they come up for reelection, if they stray too far left of center. The same effect has worked in the other direction when Republicans have gained House seats, e.g., in 1994. Therefore, it will be interesting to see whether Speaker Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic leadership are able to hold enough of their caucus together to prevail on votes on taxes, appropriations, labor law, etc.

The Passage Of Time

Yesterday's presidential election marks a personal milestone for me, as it does for the vast majority of baby boomers.

13 former presidents were younger at their inauguration than I am now. But Barack Obama is the first person to be elected president, who was born after I was.

Oh, well.

The Senate

We don't know the outcome of all 35 races yet, but it seems increasingly unlikely that the Democrats can reach a total of 60 Senate seats, which would, theoretically, make the Senate "filibuster-proof". Fox is so far the only network to project Republican incumbents Chambliss of Georgia and Coleman of Minnesota as winners. The Democrats would need to win in both of those states, and also to overcome a tiny Republican lead in Oregon, and a somewhat more substantial Republican lead in Alaska (more on Alaska, later on), in order to reach 60.

The raw vote shows Chambliss ahead by 50% to 46%, with 99% of the vote in. The reluctance of the other networks to call him the winner is seemingly based on a 2000-Florida-induced excess of caution.

The Democrats seem likely to end up within the range of 56 to 58 Senate seats.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

President-Elect Obama

Polls have closed on the Pacific coast. Networks are now making enough projections to put Barack Obama over 270. Congratulations to the next President of the United States.

Virginia Electoral Votes

Fox calls Virginia for Obama. The other networks' websites show it as too close to call. If Fox is correct, then McCain needs to win California in order to have any chance at 270. McCain trailed by more than 20 points in Golden State polls. It's as close to over as it can be. Unlike baseball, Yogi, this one is over even though it's not over.

Georgia Senate

Fox has called Georgia for Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss. The other networks still list it as too close to call. A Chambliss victory would make it just about impossible for the Democrats to reach 60.

Obama -- Ohio

Fox has projected Ohio for Obama. That makes it just about impossible for McCain to win. ABC has also called Ohio for Obama.

Kentucky Senate

ABC says Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, will be reelected. So far, apparently, ABC is alone in that. But if that result holds, it will be difficult for the Democrats to reach 60 Senate seats, although that is still possible.

North Carolina Senate

The biggest Senate projection so far: the Dole family will lose a Senate race for the first time. NBC, at least, has projected Democrat Kay Hagan the winner in the NC Senate race. That indicates the Democrats will probably be at least in the high 50s in the Senate. Not clear yet whether they can make 60. CBS and ABC agree.

Still No Surprises

With several states with 8pm poll closing times having been called by the networks, all of the calls so far are in line with my predictions. The most significant call in the presidential race so far is here in Pennsylvania. ABC and NBC have projected Obama as the Pennsylvania winner. Without PA, McCain needs just about every battleground state, including Ohio, Missouri, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, in order to win an upset.

First Results

No surprises so far. All networks project Vermont for Obama and Kentucky for McCain.

Philadelphia and Environs

I voted around 6 pm in the western suburbs of Philadelphia. This is formerly dark red territory, that has been veering significantly to the blue end of the spectrum in recent years. I'm guessing that the reason for that is that the type of Republican that was typically found in these parts leans more toward the Rockefeller Republican side than to the Sunbelt party that the Republicans have increasingly become.

My polling place was almost empty but, when I asked the election judges how turnout had been overall, they said it was very heavy earlier in the day. Around 75% of all registered voters had been in, by 6 pm.

Earlier in the day, I heard stories from coworkers in Philadelphia about long lines at polling places in the city. "Blocks long", in one story.

With statewide elections in Pennsylvania, the question is always whether a Democratic candidate can get a head start in Philadelphia, that is sufficient to offset opposition elsewhere in the state. What I have been hearing about turnout in the Philadelphia area seems to bode well for Obama.

If he can build up a lead, not only within the city limits of Philadelphia, but here in suburbia, he can presumably overcome any opposition in those parts of Pennsylvania where the bitter people clinging to guns and religion live.

So far, Obama has 71% of the popular vote!

It's one of the great traditions of American presidential politics. Every single one of the registered voters in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, (21 of them, this year) casts a vote shortly after midnight, so they can be tallied and announced to the world.

This year's tally: Obama 15, McCain 6.

But Obama and his supporters can, as they say, curb their enthusiasm, according to Nate Silver at the 538 blog. He presents a graph showing no correlation between Dixville Notch's vote and that of New Hampshire as a whole.

And it will inevitably be disappointing for Obama to watch his percentage of the popular vote decrease as the day and night go on. If the polls are accurate, of course, it's not really bad news, because he can expect to end up over 50% and, more importantly, over 50% in the electoral college.

According to past election results listed in Dixville Notch's Wikipedia entry, it has generally voted Republican during the past half-century. In what seems to me a quirky exception, Hubert Humphrey, in 1968, was the only previous Democratic nominee to win a plurality of the votes. Richard Nixon outpolled Humphrey in the entire state by 52% to 44%.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Prediction: The Electoral College

I predict that Barack Obama will win the presidential election by a margin of 325 electoral votes, to 213 for John McCain.

There seem to be indications that marginal states are swinging back to McCain, but not enough to change the result. The best-case scenario for Obama has been somewhere in the neighborhood of 350 to 400 electoral votes. But as the time draws near, I'm putting my prediction at the bottom end of Obama's range. And who knows? I might even be right.

That breaks down by state as follows:

Obama (325):
District of Columbia
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
North Dakota
Rhode Island

McCain (213):
North Carolina
South Carolina
South Dakota
West Virginia

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Prediction: U.S. Senate Elections

I predict that the Democratic Party will make a gain of seven in the Senate elections Tuesday. That would give the Democrats (along with their Independent allies) 58 seats in the next Senate, to 42 for the Republicans.

My predictions by state are:

Alaska -- Begich
Arkansas -- Pryor
Colorado -- Udall
Delaware -- Biden
Illinois -- Durbin
Iowa -- Harkin
Louisiana -- Landrieu
Massachusetts -- Kerry
Michigan -- Levin
Montana -- Baucus
New Hampshire -- Shaheen
New Jersey -- Lautenberg
New Mexico -- Udall
North Carolina -- Hagan
Oregon -- Merkley
Rhode Island -- Reed
South Dakota -- Johnson
Virginia -- Warner
West Virginia -- Rockefeller

Alabama -- Sessions
Georgia -- Chambliss
Idaho -- Risch
Kansas -- Roberts
Kentucky -- McConnell
Maine -- Collins
Minnesota -- Coleman
Mississippi -- Wicker
Mississippi -- Cochran
Nebraska -- Johanns
Oklahoma -- Inhofe
South Carolina -- Graham
Tennessee -- Alexander
Texas -- Cornyn
Wyoming -- Barrasso
Wyoming -- Enzi

My Vote

I have attempted to write this blog as an impartial amateur journalist/historian, as I explained here.

But now I want to step out of that role, and explain for whom I will vote, and why.

I plan to vote for Barack Obama. I have not voted Democratic for president since the last time the Phillies won the World Series.

As I see it, there are two aspects to a presidential campaign: 1) job interview, and 2) referendum on the issues.

Over the years, I've increasingly appreciated the importance of the job-interview aspect of the campaign. In other words, the part where voters decide which candidate would do a better job, aside from considerations of political philosophy.

I voted for George W. Bush both times but, in retrospect, he should have failed the job interview.

During his 2000 campaign, Bush struck the right chords for the various elements in the Republican coalition. But the results were something entirely different. There was significant growth in the scope of the federal government. And that was not limited to the inside-the-beltway growth that inevitably accompanies war. There was also the expansion of pork-barrel spending by congressional Republicans while the presidential veto pen sat idle.

I also believe that, while some of the U.S. military action that has been taken during Bush's presidency was necessary, much of it was not. His expansion of the war on Islamism into Iraq was unnecessary, and while, of course, the human cost in terms of people killed and wounded is the biggest issue, one also needs to take into account the resulting further increases in federal spending, and restrictions on civil liberties.

The main point that is relevant to this discussion is that that is very much contrary to the modest foreign policy that was promised by candidate Bush.

Now, John McCain is also saying many of the things Republicans want to hear. But, as I watched a McCain rally on C-SPAN last week, it struck me that his campaign promises were ones I've heard many times in past campaigns (and I've seen quite a few presidential campaigns by now).

As I've been tending to discount the usual campaign promises, I return to the question: which candidate would do a better job? I've decided that the answer to that question is Barack Obama.

One thing I've found in both the business and political worlds: the longer résumé is not necessarily the better one.

Arguably the best presidential résumé during my lifetime was that of George H.W. Bush, with experience in business, Congress, diplomacy, spying, and as vice president (though perhaps the least influential VP since the transformation of that office in the 1970s).

On paper, he had more experience that is relevant to the job of president than Ronald Reagan. But the Republican Party did not see it that way, when the two were battling for its presidential nomination in 1980. The verdict of history, I think it's safe by now to say, will also favor Reagan.

So what skill set does applicant Obama bring to his interview?

Many commentators have of course been talking about Obama's talking, i.e., his eloquence. His opponents dismiss him as a glib speaker who is more show than substance. But I consider eloquence to be a very important qualification for the job.

Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan could be called the two most effective 20th-century presidents. They were both very effective speakers. Had Roosevelt made the same choice of a first career as Reagan did, he could probably have done very well.

Both Bushes have been hampered by their ineloquence. The current president's folksy style is occasionally effective, as in his impromptu "people who knocked these buildings down" speech on September 14, 2001, at Ground Zero. But, for the most part, he has been a failure in rallying a nation for war, especially when contrasted with Roosevelt.

I don't think McCain is a much better speaker, if he's better at all, than the two Presidents Bush.

Another issue is that of temperament. Obama has appeared unflappable in his public appearances. That gives me more confidence than the more-emotional McCain, with his, apparently well-earned, reputation as a hothead.

At the risk of droning on long enough to produce a pro-McCain backlash, two more points:

This issue could be labeled either style or substance, depending on your mood.

It's the issue that one side would, quoting the Declaration of Independence, call "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind". Another faction, those who eat freedom fries with their hamburgers, call it surrendering our foreign policy autonomy to the French. They would perhaps add one or more colorful words between "the" and "French".

While, as I mentioned above, I support some of the military actions the U.S. has taken against Islamist militants, I have for some time thought that the balance should to some degree swing back toward soft power and multilateral diplomacy.

I can't quantify precisely how much of a change there should be, but I think Obama is more likely to get that balance right than is McCain.

To finally end this, let's discuss the governor of Alaska.

My decision not to vote Republican this time was pretty much sealed when McCain chose Palin as his running mate.

With a 72-year-old cancer survivor at the top of that party's ticket, I think more than the usual degree of attention needs to be given to the number-two on that ticket.

One problem, but not the only one, I have with Palin is her inexperience. While it's somewhat of a gamble backing Obama, who until quite recently had no experience above the level of state legislator, I'm still more comfortable putting American foreign policy in the hands of someone who has served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for four years, than someone with two years in Juneau.

My bigger concern has been her leanings toward the religious right.

I'm a member of a minority group within a minority group by being a gay Republican. As such, I'm attracted to that faction that has not been much in evidence lately, the libertarian Republicans. And, as you might guess, my least favorite faction is the religious right.

Palin gave a very moderate answer to a question about sexuality issues during her televised debate with Joe Biden. However, I still believe that, of all candidates on Republican tickets in recent decades, she is the one who is closest to the religious right point of view, more so than Reagan, Quayle and both Bushes. Along with my other doubts about her, that makes me want to look elsewhere for a vice president.