John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Category: Republicans

THE WAY HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES DISTRICT BOUNDARIES ARE SET IS A CORE CAUSE OF DEADLOCK IN US POLITICS

Many in Europe assume that the only really important election in the United States is the Presidential election.  But a President, who cannot get his/her legislative programme enacted by both Houses of Congress, can achieve little.

In fact the relative positioning of the candidates in the Presidential race is influenced by problems in Congress.  Hillary Clinton is away ahead of other potential rivals for the Democratic nomination, if she decides to run. Indeed the polls are so decisive she would find it very hard not to do so. But there is a strong possibility that, if elected, she will face a Congress where one of the Houses is controlled by the Republicans

On the Republican side, Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee show up best in polls in a widely dispersed field. But close observers suggest that Jeb Bush has the best chance of coming through as eventual Republican nominee, because he has a position on immigration that would allow him to win back Hispanic votes.  These are votes that his brother got when he was elected. This is important because the  Hispanic support that George W Bush won  has since been lost to the party because Republicans, who have a majority in the House of Representatives,   refuse to vote on an Immigration Reform Bill that has already passed in the Senate. 

The Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, will not schedule a vote because, although the Bill has an overall majority in the House, it lacks a majority within the Republican majority itself. This “majority of the majority” requirement, which has been the approach of Republicans since won a House majority, makes it very difficult to pass any bipartisan legislation. 

Many Republicans in the House were elected on a platform of “no compromise”, and are fearful of being undermined by Tea Party candidates in their party primaries.   

This means that they are also refusing to vote for any tax changes to reduce the deficit. The only tax changes they will support are pure tax cuts.

Likewise Congress has prevented President Obama getting the authority to negotiate a trade deal that would be voted on in Congress as a single package(so called “Fast Track “ authority, without which any meaningful trade negotiation is almost impossible.

Congress is also blocking an agreement on a reweighting of quotas between countries  in the IMF to reflect new global realities. They are refusing to recognise the new weight in the world of countries like China.
This deadlock is frustration for everybody, including the international partners of the United States.  The underlying problem  is in the way in which districts are drawn for House of Representatives elections. 

The districts are not decided at national level, but are drawn up by the State legislatures. In most states the legislatures design Congressional districts to create totally safe seats for one party or the other, and ensure that sitting members are not thrown together in the same one seat district.

This means that Districts often have highly contorted boundaries, and  that the really important contest in House elections is in primaries within parties, rather than in general elections. 

So House members spend their time fundraising to fend off opponents from within their own party who advocate a more fundamentalist view point. There is no electoral incentive to seek middle ground support. That then affects the way members of Congress approach votes in House itself.

There are two ways to resolve this dilemma

One would be to hand over the drawing of the boundaries of Congressional districts to an independent commission in each state, which would draw the lines on the basis of geographical convenience, without trying to create safe seats for particular parties. This is done in seven states.

The other is to have “Open Primaries”, where voters, of all parties and none, would take part in selecting the two top candidates who would contest with one another in the General election. The top two candidates would then run against one another in the general election, even if both happened to come from the same party.

Both of these solutions would  mean that candidates for the House  would  have an incentive to look for middle ground support, rather 

Such solutions could only be brought about on a state by state basis. They could not be imposed  on  a uniform basis in all states, because that would interfere with “states rights”, which are a strong tradition in US politics for the last 200 years.

It is often said that the European Union needs a Constitutional Convention to revise its constituting Treaties. The same could be said of the United States of America.






BRINKMANSHIP IN WASHINGTON, WEAK PARTIES AND STRONG LOBBY GROUPS

The news that the leaders of the two parties in the US Congress have  finally reached a deal on raising the borrowing limit for the Federal Government will be a relief to many.
It was beginning to look as if the political divisions in the country had become so deep that the US political system itself had become paralysed.   If that were to happen, the entire world would suffer.
Party discipline is very weak in the US for a number of reasons. 
Each member of Congress must raise huge sums for his/her personal campaigns. So members pay as much attention to potential donors as they do to their national party. Political action committees, tied to particular causes,  that  raise funds for candidates  can have as much influence on  how House members  vote as their  national party has.
District boundaries are manipulated to create safe seats for one party or the other.  This means that the contest in the primary for the  party nomination is often more important that the General Election. So members tend to spend a lot of effort courting the extremes of their own party rather than middle ground voters
Because party “headquarters” thus has little or no influence over who is selected as a party candidate for the House ,the penalty to a House member for voting against the national interest is low, while that of voting against the interests of his/her constituents or big donors is very high indeed. 
Party discipline was not always as weak as it now is, but” reforms” introduced in the 1970s have made the system more “democratic”, but less manageable.
Part of the compromise agreed between Democrats and Republicans will mean automatic cuts in Defence and healthcare for the elderly if Congress is unable to agree on alternative cuts.
In the medium term, this means that US military capacity will reduce, and will be more focussed on America’s own immediate interests.
Europe will have take more responsibility  for its own defence, and work out what  threats it wants  to equip itself to deal with on its own, and what threats it will  simply have to ignore. Adventures, like the bombing of Libya, will require a bit more thought. The defence provisions of the EU Treaties may acquire a higher profile, and NATO may become less important.
The cuts in healthcare entitlements hopefully force reductions in the costs of health services, which are much greater in the US than they are in Europe.  Vested interests in medicine and law have driven American health costs up to a completely unsustainable level.
But by coming so close to the brink of default, Congress has created uncertainty about the reliability of US securities. This may lead to higher interest rates in the United States.  That could have a knock on effect on borrowers in Europe because the interest rates on US  Federal bonds set the floor for interest rates.

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