Monday, March 27, 2017

Democrats Could Lead The Bipartisan Revolution

Sometimes an impossible situation presents options and opportunity that weren’t visible when your attention was diverted by bizarre happenings that seemed to defy reality. That is the case with the current Congressional health care debacle that unfolded Friday afternoon (March 24, 2017) with Russian spy stories and the fate of the U.S. Supreme Court playing in the background.

The House Republican caucus was frantically getting an education in the new D.C. math game called Freedom Caucus Integration. Woops, after 7 years and 50+ practice votes and with “repeal and replace Obamacare” reverberating in their brains the new math was not adding up -- they had to withdraw their bill.

Here’s how Freedom Caucus Integration math works: (218 votes needed to pass legislation) does not equal (193 Democrat no votes) plus (approx. 30 Freedom Caucus no votes).

Founded on January 26, 2015, the House Freedom Caucus (HFC) says it “gives a voice to countless Americans who feel that Washington does not represent them. We support open, accountable and limited government, the Constitution and the rule of law, and policies that promote the liberty, safety and prosperity of all Americans.”

The nine founding members and the first board of directors included: Scott Garrett (NJ), Jim Jordan (OH), John Fleming (LA), Matt Salmon (AZ), Justin Amash (MI), Raúl Labrador (ID), Mick Mulvaney (SC) [now Trump’s OMB Director], Ron DeSantis (FL) and Mark Meadows (NC). The group of nine founding members in their organizational meeting in Hershey, PA set as a criterion for new members that they had to be willing to vote against then House Speaker John Boehner on legislation that the group opposed. The HFC has now grown to approximately 30 members in districts indicated below.

Congressional District map for Freedom Caucus membership of the 114th Congress. Former members in light color.

Based on the new math, and emboldened by their ability to stop the passage of the American Health Care Act, the HFC is now the major player in Republican politics. They have virtually hijacked the Republican Party. If Democrats continue to hold tight in opposition to one-sided, partisan Republican legislation, nothing will pass the House without the approval of the HFC.

Thus, we’re not just talking about a health care bill, but the complete array of upcoming legislative initiatives that demand attention and political leadership – e.g. the budget; tax reform; immigration; infrastructure; raising the debt ceiling, etc. etc.

After hyping the importance of the need to repeal and replace Obamacare for the last four election cycles and relentlessly by Donald Trump during the Presidential campaign, the Republican response to Friday’s crushing defeat was simply we’re going to drop it and move on to something else.

While controlling the House, Senate and Presidency, the Republican answer to a health care system that according to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) is on a “death spiral” and according to President Trump is sure to “implode” and “explode” very soon, is to simply let it spin out of control. President Trump’s response

“So Obamacare is exploding. . . But we're very, very close.  And again, I think what will happen is Obamacare, unfortunately, will explode. . . It's going to have a very bad year.  Last year you had over a 100 percent increases in various places. . . So what would be really good, with no Democrat support, is if the Democrats, when it explodes -- which it will soon -- if they got together with us and got a real healthcare bill. I would be totally up to do it.  And I think that's going to happen.  I think the losers are Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, because now they own Obamacare.  They own it -- 100 percent own it.”  
"And this is not a Republican healthcare, this is not anything but a Democrat healthcare.  And they have Obamacare for a little while longer, until it ceases to exist, which it will at some point in the near future.  And just remember this is not our bill, this is their bill. . . So now we're going to go for tax reform, which I've always liked. . .”

The Republican response is give up; blame it on the Democrats and move on to something else. Who cares about the millions of people and businesses who are being affected day to day by a broken health care system that is about to explode? It’s not the Republican’s fault.

So now is the time for the Democrats to stand up for what they believe in and take control of the health care debate. After all, the President said, “They own it -- 100 percent own it.” Now is the time for Democrats to lead the way to a bipartisan revolution. How?

Here’s how. The Democrats know there are problems with Obamacare. Some are market based and some have been inflicted by Republican manipulations and actions in D.C. and the states, designed to make the system fail.

Democrats need to develop (if they haven’t already) the Affordable Care Improvement Act, designed to do what needs to be done to make the Affordable Care Act work better and introduce it in the House and Senate with all the Democrats in both chambers supporting it. Simultaneously, they need to launch a massive public education campaign comparing the Republican and Democratic alternatives.

Now, let’s look at the new math again. (218 votes needed to pass legislation) equals (193 Democrat yes votes) plus (25 yes votes from moderate Republicans). Now where could Democrats find 25 moderate Republican votes?

How about the Main Street Republicans, a group of 70-80 that, “. . .share the belief that governing matters. They’re not coming to Washington to shut government down but to make it work more effectively. They’re conservatives, not obstructionists. They want to address the causes of voter discontent by finding solutions rather than trying to prove how uncompromising they are.” [Real Clear Politics, January 31, 2017].

Or, how about tapping Ohio Republican Governor John Kasich who said on the Sunday talk shows (3/26/17) "You cannot have major changes in major programs affecting things like health care without including Democrats from the very beginning." As reported in the Columbus Dispatch, Kasich calls on "reasonable" Republicans and Democrats to unite and craft a bipartisan fix for Obamacare that preserves expanded Medicaid coverage for the drug-addicted and mentally ill. Kasich said that parts of Obamacare are in "very serious trouble," but reforms can be enacted without throwing out coverage for the additional 700,000 Ohioans who gained health coverage under his acceptance of the Medicaid expansion.

So, it’s highly unlikely that Democrats are going to sign on to a Republican led initiative to repeal Obamacare. The Republican’s efforts to “repeal and replace” have failed and the GOP has given up and said it’s moving on to other issues.

It’s time for Democrats to lead the way; start the bipartisan revolution. Remember, the President says “you own it 100%.” If Republican’s won’t work with you and the health care system explodes, at least you will have tried to act responsibly and in the public interest. After all, there’s only so much you can do when Republican’s own the D.C. political system 100%.


Note: the 218 votes needed to pass legislation is based on a full House with 435 members. There are currently 5 vacant seats so the current math changes slightly to 216 votes. But going forward we must assume a full House.

P.S. I also realize that the HFC or Republican leadership could attempt to block a Democratic led solution from coming to the House Floor. But, that's where the public eduction campaign comes in.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Shared Committee Power And The Ambience of Bipartisanship

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I’ve tried to emphasize the importance of Congressional committees and subcommittees within the structure of our government; their relation to gridlock and dysfunction; and the idea of sharing political party power to vastly improve the functioning of the legislative and oversight roles of this critical branch of government. Previous postings include:

In these posts I have suggested that the House and Senate committee system which gives overriding power to the majority party is the Achilles' heel, the linchpin of Congressional dysfunction and is completely self imposed by operating procedures of the House and Senate. There is no Constitutional or legal requirement for this process. I have argued that if the country is divided 50-50 along political ideologies why do we give complete legislative and oversight control to the so-called “majority” party?

This system can only produce one-sided solutions to complex problems and issues. I have asked, wouldn’t it make sense, considering the political divide of the country, if the committees and subcommittees had an equal number of Republican and Democratic members and a shared power arrangement? Such an arrangement would immediately force bipartisanship and would result in much higher quality legislation and oversight at the start of the process. 

I highlighted the fact that the U.S. Senate actually operated under a shared power agreement for a brief five month period beginning in January 2001, following the election of George W. Bush. The agreement called for equal representation of Republicans and Democrats on all Senate committees. Senator Daschle said the “agreement makes a big downpayment on the bipartisanship we owe our country.” Senator Lott said, “I think this is a framework for bipartisanship. . . nonpartisanship, Americanship, that is what we ought to call it. . .” 

Since the posting on the 2001 agreement I’ve been searching for some reinforcement of the mood and feelings of bipartisanship as characterized by Senators Daschle and Lott regarding the shared power arrangement. Being from Michigan I recalled the time back in the 90s when the Michigan House of Representatives were locked in a tie of Republicans and Democrats following the election of Bill Clinton as President and John Engler as the state’s Governor.

I really had never followed up on that period of time and the details of that power sharing arrangement. Imagine my surprise when I uncovered one of the most detailed accounts of political power sharing that exists today. Daniel Loepp, the Chief of Staff of the Democratic co-Speaker at the time has brilliantly chronicled that 2-year period in Michigan history 1993-1994 in a 1999 book entitled, “Sharing the Balance of Power”.

I highly recommend the book to political wonks that enjoy the details of the legislative process and how it could be turned inside out with the reality of governing in the aftermath of a tie between the political parties. While the details are interesting, I was most impressed with the testimonials of the legislators who actually experienced the day to day interactions and happenings during that 2-year period in the early 1990s.

These are a diverse set of men and women representing all sectors of life from urban and rural communities across the State of Michigan. Their words and thoughts are refreshing and inspiring in today’s current state of intense political polarization that has crippled the functioning of our government. They give hope to the idea that there is a better way and a path forward that could heal some of the wounds and lead to a more sensible way to manage the legislative branch of government.

Here are brief excerpts of the thoughts of 26 Michigan legislators who express, far better than I ever could, what I am now calling the ambience of bipartisanship.

John Gernaat (R-Cadillac) – “Shared power will go down in history as an example of how people on both sides can work together to get things done.”

Ilona Varga (D-Detroit) – “Both sides had to compromise. I feel the people got the best two years of representation in the over eight years I have been there.”

Tom Middleton (R-Ortonville) – “The House had a much more open line of communication in solving partisan problems [referring to the fact that the Senate during this time remained under Republican partisan control].

Michael J. Griffin (D-Jackson) – “…people of goodwill and determination can put public policy ahead of partisan consideration. . . Students of government, civics, political science, et cetera, can learn a great deal from this experience.”

Glenn Oxender (R-Sturgis) – “It gave a variety of leadership and made bipartisan support necessary for the passage of each bill. I rate it as a success because of the significant amount of legislation that was passed.”

David Points (D-Highland Park) – “The Eighty-seventh Legislature was an example of an unbiased bipartisan balance.”

Timothy L. Walberg (R-Tipton) – “A pleasant by-product of this situation was the development of friendships with the members of the other party who were once only acquaintances.”

Clyde Le Tarte (R-Horton) – “I found that in the main, we tended to focus on policy issues instead of political advantage because political positions could not be sustained through the process.”

Jan C. Dolan (R-Farmington Hills) – “Even when a vote comes down along party lines, there appears to be a willingness to hear out all viewpoints. Michigan has been well served by this cooperative spirit.”

Richard A. Young (D-Dearborn Heights) – “I believe that you can learn from the fact that you can accomplish the people’s work and you don’t have to do it in a hostile manner.”

James Mick Middaugh (R-Paw Paw) – “People seemed to genuinely want to work together. You had to, or you did not get anything accomplished.”

James Agee (D-Muskegon) – “I think it made us respect those on the other side of the aisle and know that we had to compromise with them.”

Carl F. Gnodtke (R-Sawyer) – “I have often thought it worked well enough that there should be a constitutional amendment requiring equal numbers from both parties be elected to serve in the House.”

Joseph Palamara (D-Wyandotte) – “I found the shared power arrangement to be an unqualified success… To me, the essence of representative government was embodied in the shared power agreement.”

Harold J. Voorhees (R-Wyoming, MI) – “Truly shared, the power agreement that was adopted by the House of Representatives in 1993 is and was a genuine masterpiece – a model for future legislatures throughout the land.”

Candace Curtis (D-Swartz Creek) – “The experience was one of compromise between not only the two parties but also between controlling interest groups.”

Don Gilmer (R-Augusta) – “As a body we at least had a greater amount of respect for one another because of power sharing, and a lot of that still carries on.”

Lynn Jondahl (D-Okemos) – “Working under the shared power agreement was successful in that we quickly adapted to the new rules/procedures and were able to proceed quite smoothly.”

Susan Grimes Munsel (R-Howell) – “One, you had to have the best policy, or two, you had to have a lot of factions with you on an issue, and that kind of focus forces you into the central area which is where the best policy making is anyway.”

Clark Harder (D-Owosso) – “While political pundits swore in advance it would never work, they were obviously proven wrong.”

Tom Alley (D-West Branch) – “Power sharing was probably the greatest experience any legislator could go through in a career of elected office.”

Frank Fitzgerald (R-Grand Ledge) – “I think that what you learn from shared power is that it is possible in a tie situation to make a legislative body operate.”

Pat Gagliardi (D-Drummond Island) – “The best part of shared power, for me as well as many others, was the fact that relationships from both sides of the aisle improved on a personal as well as on the professional level. . . Having been in the majority and the minority, the people of the state of Michigan would be best served if each party was equally represented.”

Paul Baade (D-Roosevelt Park) – “An opportunity to develop a spirit of cooperation and negotiation to move on many issues.”

Kirk A. Profit (D-Ypsilanti) – “I am personally very grateful to have had the wonderful opportunity to represent the eighty-five thousand people in the Ypsilanti area at such an incredible time in Michigan history when new standards for legislative production were set and new foundations of faith in government were laid.”

William Bryant (R-Grosse Pointe Farms) – “Shared power works because it encourages each party to act like a responsible majority.” [Note: Rep. Bryant presented a proposal to the co-Speakers to perpetuate the agreement into the future as an historic opportunity to move “politics not just in Michigan but nationally past sheer partisanship. . .” He concluded by saying, “Seize the moment. Have the vision. Change what it means to be a member of a legislative body. Make history.”]

Can you imagine 26 diverse U.S. Congressional members commenting on the state of the current Congress with the sincerity, excitement and insightfulness of the comments above? Isn’t this what the vast majority of Americans want from their government and their legislators?

It is possible. There is a better way. #BetterGovmt

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Shared Committee Power: How Crazy Is It?

From the Congressional Record, January 5, 2001, (107th Congress, 1st Session Issue: Vol. 147, No. 3 — Daily Edition). Senators Tom Daschle (D-SD) and Trent Lott (R-MS) on the Senate Floor discussing Senate Resolution 8, The Powersharing Agreement. [See the full text] The agreement was expanded by a leadership colloquy on January 8, 2001.

Mr. DASCHLE. The other day, I quoted the writer Thomas Wolfe who said: 
America is not only the place where miracles happen, they happen all the time.
If the resolution I will soon introduce is not miraculous, it is, at the very least,historic. It is also fair and reasonable. The details and the spirit of this agreement, which I expect the Senate to pass later today, should enable us to conduct our Nation's first 50/50 Senate in a most productive and bipartisan manner.

I especially thank the Republican leader, Senator Lott. We will enter into a colloquy in a period of time to be later determined, but I must say, without his leadership and his sense of basic fairness, this agreement would not have come about. He and I have spent many hours over the last several months, and now weeks, and certainly in the last several days, negotiating the details of this agreement. He spent many more hours consulting with the members of his caucus about it. He and they deserve credit for taking this unprecedented step. . .

Our negotiations involve many difficult issues and many strongly held opinions. Neither party got everything it wanted. Both sides made concessions. Both caucuses made principled compromises. That is the essence of democracy.

This agreement accurately reflects the historic composition of the Senate. More important, I believe it reflects the
political thinking of the American people. It calls for equal representation on Senate committees. Every committee would have the same number of Republicans and Democrats. And it specifies that Republicans will chair the committees after January 20. It allows for equal budgets and office space for both caucuses, at 50/50.

One of the most vexing questions we struggled with during our negotiations was how to break ties when committees are divided equally. We have agreed that in the event of a tie vote, either leader can move to discharge a bill or nomination. The Senate will then debate the motion to discharge for four hours, and that time will be equally divided. There will then be a vote on the motion. If the motion passes, the bill or nomination would be placed on the calendar.

Similarly, the resolution allows committee Chairs to discharge a subcommittee in the case of a tie vote and place the legislative item or nomination on the full committee agenda.

We arrived at this process after much thinking and exchange of ideas. Senator Lott has been concerned that equal representation on the committees could lead to gridlock. While I do not share that concern, I believe this was a fair concession to get this agreement. . .

Today's agreement makes a big downpayment on the bipartisanship we owe our country. Democrats and Republicans made significant concessions, putting the national interest first and putting party aside. . .

Mr. LOTT. Mr. President, I wouldn't say this is my preferred result, but I think it is a reasonable one with a serious dose of reality. We have work to do and we need to begin it now, not in a week or two or three or four. We need to conclude the assignment of our Members to the all important committees that will be having hearings on the nominees. . .

I would prefer to have a clear advantage on every committee and a clear advantage number-wise on everything. While that is preferable, it is not the reality. . .

What we have here, as difficult as it may make life for us, as difficult as it may be for our committee members and our chairmen and ranking members to make this situation work, it is going to require additional work, but it can be done. It is going to force us to work together more than we have in the past. No doubt. I do not think that is bad. I think this is a framework for bipartisanship. There has been a lot of talk about that word, and I am sure there are some people in this city, in this Chamber, who smirk at that, laugh at that. People across America are saying: I have heard enough of that; let's get some results here. . .

It is a framework to see if we really mean it. It can force us to live up to the truest and best meaning of that word-- nonpartisanship, Americanship, that is what we ought to call it--to find a way to get to these issues. . .

This is a classic case of extending the hand of friendship, of good faith. Will it lead to tremendous accomplishments or will that hand of friendship be bitten or the posterior kicked by one side or the other? It could, but we have to start from a position of good faith and reach out and say we are going to make this work.

If it does not work, then the American people will see. If these 50/50 committees do not function, then we can talk about obstructionism, and one way or the other, the American people will know who is trying to make it work and who is stalling it. If we come to this floor and have a debate on a tax bill and it passes this Senate by whatever number and does not get to conference or is tied up in conference or is killed in conference, do you think the American people are going to stand for that? I do not think so. We cannot let that happen. 
Yes, the shared power agreement did occur. From January 2001 to June 2001, during one of the most tumultuous times in American political history. George W. Bush, the Electoral College winner was declared the President over Democratic opponent Al Gore who received the majority of the popular vote. It was the closest presidential election in the nation's history, with a .009% margin, 537 votes, separating the two candidates in the decisive state, Florida.

So, maybe the idea of shared Congressional committee power is not so crazy or far fetched as some may think. The 2001 power-sharing agreement only lasted for five months when on May 24, 2001, Republican James Jeffords left the party to become an Independent and began caucusing with the Democrats, thus breaking the 50/50 party split in the Senate.

While it only lasted five months, the discussion above is refreshing in today’s highly polarized Congressional atmosphere. There are many lessons to be learned here and we should reflect on the words.

The 2001 shared power agreement and its rationale provides a beginning point for discussion of the need to change the committee power structure that currently exists and is doomed to produce one-sided solutions to exceedingly complex problems and issues. The current debate over a nationwide health care system is a great example.

Perhaps we should give this idea some thought and keep in mind the words of Senator Lott above:

“I think this is a framework for bipartisanship. . . nonpartisanship, Americanship, that is what we ought to call it. . .” 
Power-Sharing Legislation - Senators Lott and Daschle spoke to reporters about an agreement to have equal membership on Senate committees. . .

See my previous posts on the concept of Shared Committee Power:

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Reps. Lipinski and LaHood Lead Bipartisan Effort to Make Congress Work [H. Con. Res. 28]


[reprint of Rep. Lipinski’s news release]

[J.P. McJefferson comment: I think it is notable that in this effort to reform Congress "The Joint Committee would be made up of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, 12 members of the House and 12 members of the Senate." This shared power arrangement is what I have been advocating in several previous posts as the the Achilles' heel, the linchpin of Congressional dysfunction -- the one thing, that if you could fix it – Congress would function better. See links to previous posts below.]

Congressmen Dan Lipinski (D-IL-3) and Darin LaHood (R-IL-18) have introduced legislation designed to make Congress work again for the American people.  H. Con. Res. 28 would establish a Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, a powerful legislative tool that Congress effectively employed three times in the 20th century to overcome legislative dysfunction.  This bipartisan, bicameral committee would be tasked with analyzing suggestions from congressional experts and the general public, and then making recommendations for reforming congressional procedures so that Congress could more effectively address major issues faced by our nation.

“When I was a teacher, I taught about how Congress operates, but it doesn’t take a congressional scholar to understand that the Legislative Branch is not working effectively for the American people,” said Rep. Lipinski.  “Americans understand that the legislative process is not working effectively when they see Congress failing to act to address major issues until faced with a crisis; even then Congress waits until the last minute to act or sometimes even fails to act as we saw with the government shutdown a few years ago.  In order to conduct the peoples’ business more effectively, Congress must streamline rules and procedures, improve efficiency in the committees and on the floor of the House and Senate, increase participation of the members in the legislative process, and encourage bipartisan cooperation.  Hopefully, this Joint Committee would be a good step in creating a Congress that works for the American people.”

The Joint Committee would be made up of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, 12 members of the House and 12 members of the Senate, with a specific mandate to make recommendations across the spectrum of needed change in a timely fashion.  The Joint Committee would focus on restoring Congress’ ability to fulfill its basic responsibilities, including oversight, authorizations, appropriations, legislation, and passing a budget.  Specifically, the Joint Committee would first look to overhaul the legislative rules and procedures that internally dictate how Congress operates.  Then it would work to empower legislators to take ownership of the legislative process, debate issues, introduce amendments, and get laws enacted.  Finally, the Joint Committee would make recommendations to improve the relationship between the people and Congress.  The process would be open to the public and could draw on the expertise and experiences of the private sector.

 “Congress must earn America’s trust back,” stated Rep. LaHood.  “At this pivotal time in our nation’s history, the Legislative Branch must function effectively to address the challenges we face.  No matter how good our intentions, noble our cause, or hard we work, problems won’t be solved if the institution doesn’t function.  There is a plethora of reform ideas, but there is not an official mechanism to motivate Congress to evaluate those recommendations holistically, transparently, and speedily. This bill is a simple first step towards addressing the dysfunction that the American people see and what we, as Representatives, experience in Congress.  Whether reform requires changes in law, like evaluating the budget process, changes in procedure such as committee structure, or changes in the operation between the House, the Senate, and the White House, we need to take a hard look at what systemic improvements are necessary to overcome gridlock, to govern effectively, and restore America’s confidence in our first branch of our government.”

Joint Committees on Congress have been created at crucial periods before, and have yielded real results.  The Joint Committee of 1945, 1965, and 1992 each ultimately resulted in necessary reforms that were adopted in the form of Legislative Reorganization Acts.  These Joint Committees were formed at quarter century intervals, and it’s been 25 years since the last Joint Committee convened. 

The measure already enjoys a broad coalition of support from former members of Congress, bipartisan groups focused on congressional reform, and other interested stakeholders.

“The formation of a Joint Committee to reform Congress is a great step toward eliminating the gridlock and hyper partisanship that has infected Congress for too long and prevented our country from moving forward,” said Mark Strand, president of the Congressional Institute.  “Through the reforms a Joint Committee will be empowered to recommend, the bill-making process can be opened up to more lawmakers so they can truly fulfill their duties as legislators.  A Joint Committee can also help repair the broken budget process and revitalize the standing committees in the U.S. House and Senate so they function as intended.  Significant reforms to the rules and structures will allow lawmakers to better serve their constituents and give America the Congress it deserves.”

“We welcome the introduction of the Congress of Tomorrow resolution as the starting point of a discussion on restoring the legislative abilities of Congress,” said the Bipartisan Policy Center.  “We look forward to working with Reps. LaHood and Lipinski to ensure its prompt consideration.” 

“It is time for Congress to re-examine its structure, processes, and operations through a Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress,” stated the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF).  “For nearly 40 years the CMF has conducted a significant amount of research with congressional offices, Members, staff, and institutional offices.  A thoughtful, bipartisan effort aimed at improving the institution would result in a better Congress, better laws, and better service to the American people.  CMF applauds Representatives Darin LaHood and Dan Lipinski for calling for a Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress.”

Access H. Con. Res. 28 use subject line #H.Con.Res.28 
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