Category Archives: CONGRESS WATCH

America has a broken political system our leaders need to fix

By Former Rep. Tom Ridge (R-Pa.) and Former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) – According to a recent poll by the American Psychological Association, the future of the country is a significant source of anxiety for nearly two-thirds of Americans.

We elect leaders to place country above party, address the most critical issues plaguing the nation and prevent future crisis from taking root. But Washington needs to face the facts: The political system itself is broken, wearing down too many leaders with endless fundraising demands and turning the job of elected representative into a never-ending campaign whose purpose is to vilify the other party. We used to have to arrange schedules around fundraisers for senators. It was considered the exception, and now it is the rule.

Leadership in Congress focuses more on the capacity of lawmakers to raise money, rather than their policy expertise and merit on legislative issues. The political parties and system supporting them have come to care more about majorities in the legislative branch than governing.

Our experience tells us that if America lacks the will and moral strength to elect leaders who will repair the divisions in the country, then dysfunction in government will continue to be the greatest threat facing the nation. Our leadership on the global stage will diminish. Democracy as a way of life, and the freedoms only it can offer, will suffer. We must strengthen our bonds, not deepen our divisions. more>


Four things that matter more than the Paris Agreement

In a new report, “Undiplomatic Action: A practical guide to the new politics and geopolitics of climate change,” David Victor and Bruce Jones write:

“Without confidence in new technologies and the policy and investment support that follows from that confidence, even the most advanced and elaborated global diplomatic agreements can only produce an ever-wider chasm between stated goals and realistically achievable outcomes.”

They contend that “real world” actions on the ground, not global goals, will drive energy transitions at the local level and in the private sector.

In the paper, they outline four key factors they believe matter even more than the global agreement:

  1. Facilitate leadership through small groups
  2. Focus on near-term emissions reductions
  3. Invest in technological innovation
  4. Demonstrate success and enable better governance


Source: Four things that matter more than the Paris Agreement


The People vs. Democracy?


What is Populism?, Author: Jan-Werner Mueller.

By Jan-Werner Mueller – The election result in Italy, where populists and far-right parties topped the polls, following the twin disasters of Brexit in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump’s election in the United States, seems certain to harden a common liberal belief: the people brought these calamities on themselves. “Ordinary citizens,” according to this view, are so irrational and ill-informed that they make terrible choices.

Such diagnoses are deeply mistaken. By focusing on individual citizens’ beliefs, they miss the structural reasons for today’s threats to democracy. As a result, they are also bound to yield the wrong practical lessons. If one really believes voters are incompetent or illiberal, the obvious next step is to take even more decision-making power away from them.

The problem starts when citizens view every issue purely as a matter of partisan identity, so that the credibility of climate science, for example, depends on whether one is a Republican or a Democrat. It gets worse when partisan identity becomes so strong that no arguments from or about the legitimacy of the other side ever get through.

Trump was not elected as the candidate of a grassroots movement of globalization’s angry white losers, but as the leader of an establishment party. Long before Trump, that party – and its cheerleaders in the right-wing media – had started to demonize its opponents and effectively told its followers that they could never opt for “European-style socialists” and other un-American abominations under any circumstances. Thus, Republicans who readily admitted that Trump was not qualified to be president voted for him anyway.

In the US, polarization is not an objective reflection of given cultural differences; it has at least partly been a conscious elite project to divide the country for political advantage and sometimes even personal profit. more>


The future of political warfare: Russia, the West, and the coming age of global digital competition

By Alina Polyakova and Spencer Phipps Boyer – The Kremlin’s political warfare against democratic countries has evolved from overt to covert influence activities. But while Russia has pioneered the toolkit of asymmetric measures for the 21st century, including cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns, these tools are already yesterday’s game. Technological advances in artificial intelligence (AI), automation, and machine learning, combined with the growing availability of big data, have set the stage for a new era of sophisticated, inexpensive, and highly impactful political warfare.

In the very near term, it will become more difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between real and falsified audio, video, or online personalities. Malicious actors will use these technologies to target Western societies more rapidly and efficiently. As authoritarian states such as Russia and China invest resources in new technologies, the global competition for the next great leap in political warfare will intensify.

As the battle for the future shifts to the digital domain, policymakers will face increasingly complex threats against democracies. The window to mount an effective “whole-of- society” response to emerging asymmetric threats is quickly narrowing. more>


Wanted: Public Servants

Once a prestigious career path, heading to Washington to work in government is losing its luster.
By Susan Milligan – Wanted: White House staffer.

It includes long hours, a boss who might ridicule you on Twitter, give you a humiliating nickname and make you constantly worry about your job security. Pay is less than you’d make in the private sector – even lower when you subtract the amount you’ll have to pay a lawyer, even if you did nothing illegal.

The big payoff is notoriety – or a return to your old job in the private sector, assuming they’ll have you.

Looking for something a little less high-profile?

You can work in the civil service, where you’ll have better job security (assuming congressional efforts to weaken your employment protections as a federal worker don’t succeed). But you’ll be denigrated as a member of the “Deep State,” and quite possibly be without a real boss, instead working for an “acting” leader with no real authority.

This is what it means now to choose public service in Washington, where White House turnover is at record levels and uncertainty rules at federal agencies employing career workers. And it has many worried about the impact not only on the day-to-day operations of the U.S. government, but on the very integrity of public service as a profession.

Why, after all, would an educated, experienced person elect to take on such a low-results job?

“There’s no question that it not only demeans the value of public service, but undermines the trust the public has in public institutions,” says Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan group dedicated to making government more efficient and effective.

“Those are all bad for democracy.” more>


Utopia is a dangerous ideal: we should aim for ‘protopia’


Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia, Author: Michael Shermer.
The Moral Arc, Author: Michael Shermer.

By Michael Shermer – Utopias are idealized visions of a perfect society. Utopianisms are those ideas put into practice. This is where the trouble begins.

Most of these 19th-century utopian experiments were relatively harmless because, without large numbers of members, they lacked political and economic power.

But add those factors, and utopian dreamers can turn into dystopian murderers. People act on their beliefs, and if you believe that the only thing preventing you and/or your family, clan, tribe, race or religion from going to heaven (or achieving heaven on Earth) is someone else or some other group, then actions know no bounds. From homicide to genocide, the murder of others in the name of some religious or ideological belief accounts for the high body counts in history’s conflicts, from the Crusades, Inquisition, witch crazes and religious wars of centuries gone to the religious cults, world wars, pogroms and genocides of the past century.

We can see that calculus behind the utopian logic in the now famous ‘trolley problem’ in which most people say they would be willing to kill one person in order to save five. more>


How to Build an Autocracy


How To Build An Autocracy, Author: The Atlantic.

By David Frum – Fortunately for him, he did not need to campaign hard for reelection. His has been a popular presidency: Big tax cuts, big spending, and big deficits have worked their familiar expansive magic. Wages have grown strongly in the Trump years, especially for men without a college degree, even if rising inflation is beginning to bite into the gains. The president’s supporters credit his restrictive immigration policies and his TrumpWorks infrastructure program.

Allegations of fraud and self-dealing in the TrumpWorks program, and elsewhere, have likewise been shrugged off. The president regularly tweets out news of factory openings and big hiring announcements: “I’m bringing back your jobs,” he has said over and over. Voters seem to have believed him—and are grateful.

Most Americans intuit that their president and his relatives have become vastly wealthier over the past four years. But rumors of graft are easy to dismiss. Because Trump has never released his tax returns, no one really knows.

Anyway, doesn’t everybody do it? On the eve of the 2018 congressional elections, WikiLeaks released years of investment statements by prominent congressional Democrats indicating that they had long earned above-market returns. As the air filled with allegations of insider trading and crony capitalism, the public subsided into weary cynicism. The Republicans held both houses of Congress that November, and Trump loyalists shouldered aside the pre-Trump leadership.

The business community learned its lesson early. “You work for me, you don’t criticize me,” the president was reported to have told one major federal contractor, after knocking billions off his company’s stock-market valuation with an angry tweet.

In an 1888 lecture, James Russell Lowell, a founder of this magazine, challenged the happy assumption that the Constitution was a “machine that would go of itself.” Lowell was right. Checks and balances is a metaphor, not a mechanism.

The American system is also perforated by vulnerabilities no less dangerous for being so familiar. Supreme among those vulnerabilities is reliance on the personal qualities of the man or woman who wields the awesome powers of the presidency. A British prime minister can lose power in minutes if he or she forfeits the confidence of the majority in Parliament. The president of the United States, on the other hand, is restrained first and foremost by his own ethics and public spirit.

What happens if somebody comes to the high office lacking those qualities? more>


Tech Vs. Democracy

By Guy Verhofstadt – In an age when most people get their news from social media, mafia states have had little trouble censoring social-media content that their leaders deem harmful to their interests. But for liberal democracies, regulating social media is not so straightforward, because it requires governments to strike a balance between competing principles.

After all, social-media platforms not only play a crucial role as conduits for the free flow of information; they have also faced strong criticism for failing to police illegal or abusive content, particularly hate speech and extremist propaganda.

These failings have prompted action from many European governments and the European Union itself. The EU has now issued guidelines for Internet companies, and has threatened to follow up with formal legislation if companies do not comply. As Robert Hannigan, the former director of the British intelligence agency GCHQ, recently observed, the window for tech companies to reform themselves voluntarily is quickly closing.

In fact, Germany has already enacted a law that will impose severe fines on platforms that do not remove illegal user content in a timely fashion. more>


A Government That Looks Like Trump

By Robert Schlesinger – Trump’s personal pilot and his son-in-law-cum-senior adviser, Jared Kushner which bloomed brightly before being eclipsed; they serve as a reminder of the number, degree and reach of the ethical challenges and possible corruption which has become the background music in front of which the other Trump dramas unfold.

We have to a depressing extent become benumbed to the fact that we are living in an age aptly dubbed one of “American kakistrocracy” (government by the worst of us), in part because of its pervasiveness and almost mind-boggling scope.

So it’s useful to periodically step back and catalogue the extent to which Trumpism is corrupting our governance. The Washington Post reported last month that 9 of 22 of Trump’s initial picks for Cabinet-level jobs, 40 percent, “have found themselves facing scrutiny over their actions.” While the examples below range from unseemly to potentially illegal they bespeak a cavalier attitude towards government ethics and taxpayer dollars that is illustrative of the Trump era in America.

Another aspect of the Trumpian corrosion of our governmental standards is the death of qualifications as a prerequisite for high public service. Trump of course was, on paper, the least-prepared of any president in history. Naturally he views this as a plus.

So reports that Trump is considering nominating John Dunkin, his long-time personal pilot, to head the Federal Aviation Administration, should not surprise at this point. “My pilot, he’s a smart guy, and he knows what’s going on,” Trump told airline executives last year.

Well there you go; he sounds like a perfect fit for the top job in the $16 billion, 47,000-employee agency. Somewhere George W. Bush and Harriet Miers are having a good chuckle. more>


Beware the Trump Trade Trap

By Liz Mair – Not everyone in the U.S. feels that they’ve personally benefited from free trade. But the odds are, they have – they just don’t recognize it. The trend toward globalization is irreversible and tariffs designed to try will only cause pain for consumers in the form of lost jobs and higher prices for basic goods.

Remember that Trump sees an incomplete picture of free trade. He sees only people who have overwhelmingly lost thanks to free trade, instead of the more accurate picture of an America that has overwhelmingly won thanks to trade deals. And anyone who has studied Trump’s public pronouncements regarding policy over many decades knows that Trump really is anti-free trade at his core – and has been for a long, long time now.

Though his natural tendencies can be temporarily parked by persuasive arguments by people he trusts on economic policy topics.

Within the administration, the only people who seem to fit that bill, where trade is concerned, are economic adviser Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who are committed to reminding Trump especially of the link between free trade and a robust stock market, and how moderation on trade protectionism ties into stock market resilience.

Basically everyone else is protectionist, neutral, or their opinion on financial matters doesn’t carry that much weight with Trump. more>