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21.12.06

Landrieu starts reelection push by misappropriating label

The rehabilitation of Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu continues apace. Despite the fact that her lifetime Congressional voting record is decidedly liberal, the 2008 campaign cannot start too early for her with her trying to create a fiction that she is a “centrist” senator.

Landrieu got the opportunity to co-lead the Senate’s centrist coalition in an ironic way. Even as Democrats like Landrieu but particularly those running for office in 2006 were claiming they had a centrist agenda, the party spurned perhaps its most centrist member of the Senate, Joseph Lieberman, forcing him to win reelection as an independent. Now officially not a Democrat, he had been the Democrat co-chairman of the group (and now is starting a related group), the position Landrieu now inherits.

In addition, Landrieu tries to hog more credit that she is entitled to have over legislation which has changed the royalty distribution for offshore oil extraction which will bring many new dollars to Louisiana. She had a hand in it, but neither was she the most important senator in its passage (that being the lead author of the bill that eventually passed, Republican Pete Domenici), but she wasn’t even the most helpful member of the Louisiana delegation in the process, that honor going to the lead author of the House version of the bill, Republican Rep. Bobby Jindal. Landrieu assisted, but let there be no doubt she was not in any way the main forces like Jindal and Domenici in getting it done.

Interestingly, one potential opponent (currently a Democrat but who knows in two years) state Treasurer John Kennedy already is stealing some of her thunder on this by promoting the idea that the relatively small initial additional royalties going into the fund expressly created to use the funds for coastal restoration be used to issue bonds backed by the fund to speed up restoration work. In essence, the new inflow of money would pay interest at first and then an increasingly-large amount of the principal as time passes and the royalties earnings grow much larger (because this applies only to new drilling). Kennedy’s idea is sound and should be pursued.

Nonetheless, she will inflate her reduced role in this matter day and night over the next two years, and anything else to blunt the fact that she has made many consequential votes out of step with Louisiana, and the country, over her decade in Washington. Quality challengers for her job will ensure in their campaigns that the public will know the mare Landrieu cannot paint moderate stripes on her liberal body and call herself a centrist zebra.

20.12.06

Defeated Democrats need to quit abusing judiciary

I’ve deliberately not commented on this particular news item because the whole thing has been ridiculous from the start, but a couple of whiney Democrats have gone to extraordinary efforts to keep it alive, so it’s time to bring some sense and perspective to it.

Last month, Republican Rep. Jim McCrery won yet another to term to Congress. But shortly thereafter, one of his defeated opponents, Patti Cox, sued to have the election invalidated and asked for something unprecedented in American politics, to rerun the election with McCrery disqualified. She based this on a claim that McCrery did not reside in the district, as he had sold his home and listed as his residence an address nearby where he stayed when in town.

While decentralized, the law is clear on determining residency and qualification for Congress, and the manner in which it may be protested. The U.S. Constitution requires that members of Congress live in the state they represent. Residency in Louisiana is defined as being an eligible elector. An eligible elector, by state law, is one who lives at an address for 30 days prior to an election. In terms of election qualification, someone who files for an office who is deemed to eligible to run at the time of qualification can be disqualified from running only if protested within seven working days of the filing deadline; otherwise, he may legally run. No one disputed McCrery’s residency at the proper time.

Thus, from the perspective of the state, McCrery has met all of the qualifications to run. Further, he has been duly elected. So now the only contestable matter is whether he is eligible to serve, something determined, according to the Constitution, by the body (in this case the House of Representatives) itself in which he is to serve which judges the elections, returns, and qualifications of its members.

Cox brought this case first to a state-created court, where it was properly rejected, and now the federal judiciary is correctly about to do the same thing. But now the other defeated Democrat from the race, Artis Cash, also has filed suit asking for him, the second-place finisher (40 points behind McCrery) be declared the winner because McCrery is not a resident because he has a driver’s license from another state.

Again, judicial relief is not afforded a plaintiff on this issue. At this point, unless they intervene before McCrery is sworn in for his next term, the only way McCrery can be removed from office is if the House voted to expel him (requiring a two-thirds vote). Further, the relief granted in that instance would be to schedule a new election, not to redo one or proclaim a winner from the old one.

These kinds of judicial actions merely clog up the courts, wasting precious judicial resources better used on other matters. Cox and Cash need to quit whining in courts and about their decisions and instead bring the action to the House, if they think they have a legitimate case.

19.12.06

Big media template of special session ignores reality

If a smattering of nattering about the recent special session of the Louisiana Legislature is any indication, either the state’s traditional media doesn’t get it about the partisan and political implications of it, or doesn’t want to.

After the session produced little of consequence, media analysis looked for who were the winners and who were the losers. It’s difficult not to conclude that Gov. Kathleen Blanco lost big in the session, able to get only one consequential, albeit short term in its policy impact, meaningful piece of her agenda through – insurance relief via tax credits for ratepayers saddled with extra costs due to the huge losses incurred by the state-owned property insurer. (Another measure set up a fund, but did not actually put money into it, to attract a foreign steel manufacturer, which may never get used.) And in going down in flames, she managed to drag legislative Democrats with her who were unwise enough to tie themselves to the populist/liberal agenda she espoused of showering money out like Carnival throws.

But to fail to see the potential large political gain legislative Republicans can realize out of the session reveals a myopic political analysis. For example we have the claims that “Rather than heroes of fiscal prudence, Republicans really came off more as partisan obstructionists” – an argument sustainable only if one didn’t really keep up with what actually happened at the session, or could not really understand the GOP agenda.

Perhaps it’s liberal political ideology espoused by the state’s old media that puts blinders on them when it comes to its dissemination of opinion about Republicans, but a more sophisticated and accurate understanding of the legislative conflict is this: (1) Republicans wanted tax relief for all taxpayers, (2) they refused to spend beyond the state’s constitutionally-imposed cap on expenditures, (3) they agreed with some of the Democrats’ agenda that included paying down state debt and the transportation infrastructure backlog and pay raises but insisted on tackling the issue of bloated state government in tandem, (4) Democrats refused to cut spending in bloated areas to allow for additional spending in others.

So, it is impossible to conclude that GOP “obstructionism” was to blame for little being done in these areas. If anything, it was Democrat obstructionism, because Blanco and her party are so wedded to big government that they could not bear to part with one cent of spending. (And they already know where much of the wasted spending is, for example.) Ironically, big media themselves seem to have consensus that there is unnecessary spending in state government, as one would gather from the scathing attacks they have on some facet of it from time to time, yet in relation to this session they seem to have forgotten that in their zeal to prevent the GOP from getting any credit.

Instead, their argument is too simplistic by ignoring the spending reduction request of the Republicans and instead they mistakenly tie the refusal to spend past constitutional limits to wanting tax cuts, an idea claimed to deserve “more deliberate analysis of their long-term effect: Will the state's economy continue to support recurring salary boosts and tax breaks?”

While accurate in calling for studying finances to support permanent salary increases, advocating that much time is needed at all to investigate the effects of tax breaks makes one wonder where have these authors been for the last three decades. To summarize succinctly what we have learned theoretically and empirically (even if this is resisted by some in the academy and politics who prefer to postulate on the basis of ideology rather than fact): tax cuts cause economic growth, and economic growth translates into higher government revenues. (And certainly you cannot argue that Louisiana is on the wrong side of the Laffer curve, given its higher level of marginal tax rates and other hidden taxes such as fees and overregulation.)

In short, there is no debate here: tax breaks only will benefit the state. But notice simultaneously the lack of understanding and knowledge of those who would express such a sentiment when they write, “Will the state’s economy continue to support … tax breaks.” They have it completely backwards: it is tax breaks that support the state’s economy, not the reverse.

With these in mind, we can understand the template into which the media is trying to cram the events of the special session: (1) Democrat ideas were hasty but not bad in theory, (2) Republicans ideas were hasty but might be worthwhile to pursue, (3) Republicans blocked Democrats in order to gain acceptance of their questionable ideas, (4) Republicans therefore obstructed progress. (Recall that in the liberal ethos to which the state media generally subscribes that “progress” is equated with “government action.”)

Contrast this simplistic summation to a more sophisticated, realistic analysis (partially restating from above): (1) Democrats wanted to spend more that the people, courtesy of the constitutional amendment they passed, thought wise, (2) Republicans wanted to stay under that cap, (3) Republicans wanted to shift spending to areas of higher priority and to promote economic growth by reducing government interference in people’s activities, (4) Democrats wanted to keep spending according to existing, sub-optimal priorities and to maintain the present size of government, (5) Democrats refused to allow legislation through that violated their desire of dysfunctional spending and love of big government.

Far from fulfilling the template of “obstructionism,” if next year during elections GOP leaders articulate the more accurate rendering of the session to voters, even a less-sophisticated electorate that typifies Louisiana will understand and will electorally grant rewards upon it while visiting punishment to the Democrats. Which if this happens, I suspect, the big, old, traditional media in Louisiana once again will misunderstand.

18.12.06

Emergence of partisan politics good for Louisiana

The media template regarding the recent special session of the Louisiana Legislature is that it brought partisanship to a new level, and which may stay at that level forever more. Assuming this accurately predicts the future, will this be positive for the state?

Some, particularly legislators who are long in the tooth, don’t think so, arguing flexibility becomes decreased. Such a view entirely misses the point because a major problem in why Louisiana government has been so dysfunctional, in terms of producing policy outcomes that don’t rank the state at the bottom of almost all indicators of quality, is because too much flexibility has been afforded individual legislators.

Politics in Louisiana traditionally have been “personalistic,” meaning the exercise of power derives more from the efforts of individuals for individualistic goals than from any collective source with more holistic goals. Another way of putting this is policy-making is skewed towards a confluence of individual agendas as opposed to any agenda-setting and promulgation by collective institutions, along a collectively agreed-upon program.

It is no accident that in this environment the only powerful institutions in the state are built around the individual, the executive elective offices, particularly the governor. Even though, in a comparative sense with other states, Louisiana’s governor in terms of formal powers at best rests in the middle of the pack, the office’s influence gets magnified by its superior ability to exert personalistic power, as opposed to a collective institution such as the Legislature which is weakened by this reliance on personalistic power.

The central problem with this kind of culture is it is far less capable of promoting and implementing a policy agenda focused on the holistic needs of the state born of a political culture that vests more authority into institutions. It also is no accident that a weaker Legislature has gone hand-in-hand with a weaker set of political parties, probably the weakest in America, at the state level in Louisiana. Parties are the primary agent around which legislative power can be collected and utilized.

Without parties, and the necessary partisanship that makes them effective, rather than an impetus existing to draw individual legislators together around a holistic agenda, instead the Legislature dissolves into a number of princes representing fiefdoms with much less emphasis of acting first towards the good of the state, than making their districts their primary focus. The most visible example of this inanity is the capital outlay process and budget. There, legislators more often fight over money to fund certain projects to aid their districts than take a more reasoned, collective view over the kinds of items that really would benefit the state as a whole. It’s why things like needless reservoirs and horse barns get funded while the TIMED highway program designed to impact the entire state drags on years behind schedule.

Part of the “bring home the bacon” emphasis is the fault of voters. Like it or not, Louisiana suffers from one of the least sophisticated electorates which disproportionately evaluates candidates not on the basis of their issue preferences, but on how well they come across, or on what favors members of it feel have come their way from the candidate. The ideological thinking necessary to promote voting on the basis of issues, on the basis of an agenda that must include general principles applied to decisions affecting the entire state, will happen only as the Louisiana public increases its overall level of educational attainment and quality.

But this doesn’t means that political elites such as legislators and party officials can’t invigorate the process by taking the lead in shaping institutions that will encourage thinking in ideological terms, that will lend themselves to formation of a holistic agenda, thereby demanding partisanship from them. Simply, partisan parties provide clear policy choices for voters, shifting thinking from “what’s good for me” to “what’s good for the state, which in general is good for me?” It works the other way as well; increasing use of ideological discourse in Louisiana politics from its elected officials signals they are attentive to this growing preference in the electorate.

Additionally, the personalistic nature of Louisiana’s political culture has encouraged its tolerance of big, intrusive government. It prompts thinking about politics in zero-sum terms (“I have to fight for a piece of the pie for my district”) as opposed to non-zero-sum terms (“How can we make the state better for all concerned?). The latter attitude gets legislators away from trying to grow government (because the more it grows the more each of them personally can get a piece of it) towards reducing its size and power, because that empowers people, which is to the benefit of all. (This does not mean that a political ideology such as liberalism does not want there to be powerful government, just that the countervailing force of conservatism has the opportunity to resist creation of such a government, whereas the other view gives up on this by default.)

“Partisan” politics is a welcome innovation to Louisiana. The idea-driven politics that would lie behind a strengthening of collective institutions both informal (parties) and formal (the Legislature) would make for more efficient policy implementation, or at least would reduce politics based on personality where the transient coalitions must be built issue-by-issue more geared to reelection than to statesmanship. Given that the personalistic model has produced such dismal policy outcomes, theoretical arguments aside, the mere fact the partisan model offers something quite different alone should be enough to think any such transformation cannot happen too quickly.

17.12.06

Session shows gulf between parties' attitudes about your money

All one needs to know about the differences between Democrats and Republicans in Louisiana is to review what happened in the final hour of the recently-concluded special session of the Legislature.

HB 59, having passed the House, was brought up in the Senate. Originally, the bill was provide a child tax credit although Democrats had shot down a Republican attempt by state Rep. John LaBruzzo to make the credit apply only to heads of households who actually paid taxes. Therefore, since the bill also had the purpose of redistributing wealth from producers of it to consumers of it, Democrats favored it.

But then state Sen. Robert Adley (ironically, a Democrat) got an amendment added in committee that swung the bill back into a posture of mainly providing assistance to taxpayers, that would restore many popular tax deductions presently applicable to federal income taxes but which were taken away three years ago from state income taxes. These were measures that Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Democrats had favored and had introduced into the House earlier in the session.