If I Were King

Now this is just a harmless exercise.  I am a thoroughgoing believer in democracy.  As has been said (endlessly), it’s the worst form of government, except for all the others, but…admit it.  I bet you have thought at times how much better the country would be if you were, even for a short time, the omnipotent monarch.  Not some so-called king or queen like the ones in Britain or Spain. The real thing, attempting to show wisdom while ruling over a country.  What would I do?  Glad you asked. Here are a few things I would enact and change.

In government, I would maintain most of the current structures.  Congress would continue as a deliberative body.  Voting law would be uniform in all 50 states, though.  Registration would be in person with some proof of age and residence, and there would be a national registry of voters–any move by a voter to a different place (locality or state) would be a mere change of address.   Uniform regulations in all jurisdictions would be brought into being.  Why should voting in Vermont carry different qualifications than voting in Mississippi?  A national registry would also eliminate concerns of registry in multiple states and most any other fraud concerns.

There would be term limits.  Why should some 80-year old dementia sufferer just keep holding a seat in Congress?  And please don’t tell me that because Congressman X “helped my uncle get his social security,” Congressman X is deserving of 20 terms.  All those problems are farmed out to some staffer, anyway.  So, my thought would be that no person could be elected to more than 10 terms, or 20 years.  And each of them would be entitled to an “ombudsman” who would deal with constituent complaints.  And maybe one other staffer for legislative affairs.  Other employees?  OK, as long as you pay them.

Similarly, Senators would get a maximum of three terms: 18 years.  Just because.  And under the same staffing limits as Congressmen.  And donations to a political candidate would be severely restricted, replaced by air time on local TV and radio, which would be a condition of stations’ licensure.

I would have line-item veto authority over all budget matters.  No more would one state, by virtue of a long-term representative in Congress, get preferential treatment in matters of large federal expenditures, such as military bases or call centers.  Government expenditures are all “pork” according to some, except when that “pork” goes to their own districts, when it becomes “long overdue economic stimuli.”  I can’t give you a set formula that would govern my actions here.  You’ll just have to trust me.

Health care: big problem, but not insoluble.  I would set a timetable for long-term overhaul–say, 10 years.  And I would listen to the concerns of all who are involved.  Congress, of course, must represent the will of the people.  Pharmaceutical companies, the American Medical Association, and the insurance industry, too.  I would start with the premise that we all need to recognize that there is truly no such thing as a free lunch–someone, in the end, pays the freight for everything.  And most people just nod at that notion and accept that the costs are out of line, and that it is all too big for us to solve.

Here’s the thing: it’s not really that way.  I’d start with some assumptions that are not widely considered.  “The cost of medical care” includes much that is not salaries or bandages or saline solution, etc.  A primary care physician may pay thousands of dollars in malpractice insurance, for example.  Why? Just think about that robocall you got today advising you that if you or a loved one has suffered from side effects from XYZ drug, you may be entitled (emphasis mine) to compensation, etc., etc.  Drug companies spend millions to develop chemicals that will have this or that effect on humans.  Then, once the drugs are approved for human use, the companies spend millions more to advertise them!  The costs of all this development and branding, of course, are paid by the consumer…well…in reality, by his insurance, assuming he has insurance.

The insurance industry is, like all industries, out to make a buck.  There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that, but, unlike some guy who works in a hardware store or a woman who runs a beauty salon, an insurance company, if it has to pay out a multi-million dollar claim, can pass on the cost of that payment to its consumers in the form of higher rates.  And they all get hit with this sort of catastrophic cost at times, and all pass on the costs.  Who pays the increased costs?  Doctors, nurses, and other people involved in the delivery of health care.  How do they pay?  Through cost of services that builds in money for that insurance.  And who pays that?  You and I do, in premiums.

Who benefits from this spiral of costs and benefits?  Lawyers (Why do you think they make those robocalls?) and some winners of lawsuits.  If our hypothetical hardware store employee dies from some negligence or malpractice, his wife and his kids should be entitled to have his insurance make up for the loss of his earning power.  But why, if he makes $25,000 a year, should that compensation soar into the tens of millions?  Two words: “pain” and “suffering.” Remember, I said ten years to settle health care?  Huge rewards are at the root of high insurance rates, both for participants in health care delivery and for those who are its consumers.  There has to be reform of that system, and that means that ambulance-chasing lawyers will have to settle for less, and so will survivors. There should be a common-sense solution, but the current system has huge rewards, and the lawyers will howl.  We’ll get it worked out–within a few years.  The long-term final result is single-payer health care, just as it is in every other first-world country in the world.  It’s inevitable.

Church and state are separate in US law and practice, right?  Then why does the state permit any organization that meets certain minimum standards (really minimum) to evade many of the taxes that a flower shop or bakery would pay? This has had the effect of permitting some organizations to operate tax-free or at least at a reduced tax rate.  I would abolish this early on.  To the idea that some would no longer be able to operate, I can only shrug.  The state has no interest in fostering religion, or it must impartially foster all religions.  I opt for none.  Franklin Graham, Joel Osteen,  Jerry Falwell, Jr., will not starve. They are in reality TV personalities or corporate pitchmen anyway.

Infrastructure?  We really need it.  Trillions of dollars’ worth.  Decaying roads, bridges, water lines, and more must be rebuilt, and this is not open to debate.  Financing it all is a major problem, but not one that can’t be solved.  Institute, if need be, a 50-state lottery.  Or some combination of that and a spree of closing tax loopholes.  Or a temporary raise in gas taxes–a 25-cent levy on each gallon of gas sold in the US would raise billions, and it could be sunsetted, made to expire after 5 or 10 years.  Remember, in the runup to the election of 2008, we were paying nearly $4.00 a gallon, nationwide.  Now with gasoline at about $2.50, we’re driving more but enjoying it less.  Fix those roads!  And every road that gets repaved, every bridge that gets rebuilt, all create jobs that can’t be outsourced to China or Bangladesh.

There is a lot more that could be done, even without a king.  Will it?  I don’t know.  Will we sink into the crowd of second-tier nations?  We could; some would say we already have.  Let’s dream bigger.

President Pence

In yesterday’s post, I laid out the grim circumstances vis-à-vis a possible impeachment of President Trump.  I take no joy from such guesswork, but I think that even if you are a blind Trump worshipper, the possibility has to impinge on your thought processes by now that the man is a walking disaster as President of the United States; whether he is temperamentally unsuited to the job, mentally not quite up to it, or just too devil-may-care for the awesome responsibilities, he is not a good president.  What’s more, I sense no desire in the man to “grow into” the job.  For all of you who think that being the head honcho of a family business enterprise is a good way to prepare to be President of the United States (and leader of the Free World), I beg you to look at the results.

Today’s news brings even more reason to suppose that the Trump/Russia/Comey saga will turn out to be even more of a whack-a-mole game wherein each time Trump tries to bash some emerging scandal, another just crops up.  One consequence of advancing age is that “everything old is new again,” and I am eerily reminded of something from a time when I had much more hair and much less worldly experience—a steady drip-drip of scandal that came to be called Watergate and came to cost Richard Nixon the White House.  All the same, I do not see Trump being impeached by the current Congress, as I explained yesterday.  I would not be surprised, though, by Trump’s resignation at some point (or removal via the 25th Amendment), which leads to the same end: Mike Pence is sworn in as the 46th President of the United States.

Who is Mike Pence?  You probably know he was the Governor of Indiana, but before that, did you follow his career at all?  I will present no brilliant insight here, only a boring list of the things he did or signed into law as the chief executive of that state.  It’s all a matter of public record.  You can even find it through Wikipedia.  But once I had read through it all, I had the sinking feeling of knowing that a Pence presidency will not end the country’s struggles, and it may make the whole things worse.

In capsule form, then:

Mike Pence, the grandson of Irish immigrants, was, in his earlier life, a Democrat and a Roman Catholic.  He graduated from the University of Indiana’s law school in 1986.  During his college years at Hanover he converted to evangelical Christianity and to Reagan-inspired “conservatism.”  He was in private legal practice for two  years before deciding to run for Congress in 1988 at age 29.  He lost.  Two years later, he ran again, and lost again.  He spent 1991-93 as president of an Indiana “think tank” closely linked to the Heritage Foundation, that well-known reactionary, oops, “conservative” national think tank that loves to hinder the power of government at every level to work for things like a higher minimum wage and regulation of pollution, etc., that it regards as necessary byproducts of modern society.  Lower corporate taxes are another of its favorite causes.

Pence left that position to go full-time into “conservative” talk radio as host of his own show, where he billed himself as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.”  He continued his radio gigs until 1999.  At some point in the 1990’s (I don’t care enough to find the particular dates) it became known that Pence, during his Congressional campaigns, had used donated campaign funds to pay for a host of personal expenses.  Such diversion of campaign donations was found not to be in violation of the law at the time, though it did damage his campaign and his reputation,  In 2000, after Indiana had undergone redistricting, and the boundaries and numeration of its Congressional districts were different from those of his earlier runs, he ran again, and this time, he won.

Pence served in Congress from 2001 to 2013, and in 2006, associated himself with the “Tea Party” faction of the Republican Party.  In that year, he ran against John Boehner for leadership of the Republican caucus and was soundly defeated.  In his dozen years in Congress, he introduced 90 bills and resolutions.  None became law.  In 2010, he was the top choice for President by the Values Voters Summit, that collection of voters who seek commitment by political figures to stop social change through government action on matters such as drug legalization, LGBT issues, and abortion.

2012 saw Pence declare for the Republican nomination for Governor of Indiana.  He won the republican nomination, and then went on to win the General Election with 49.1 % of the vote in a reliably “red” state.

So Pence’s term as Governor ran from 2013 to 2017.  The list of accomplishments of that term include the following:

Reducing college and university funding in Indiana.

Reducing funding for Family and Social Services.

Reducing funding for the Department of Corrections.

Overseeing a job growth rate in Indiana that lagged the national rate.

Killing Indiana’s inheritance tax.

Cutting business taxes in several categories, a favorite Heritage Foundation position which supposedly improves business climate in a state and leads businesses from other states to relocate.  Job creation did not respond, and Carrier Corp. resisted Pence’s entreaties to maintain its manufacturing in the state.  Later, Trump joined in this effort, and let him and Pence argue that they had “saved” Carrier jobs in Indiana.  Nonetheless, many Carrier jobs were lost, along with several million tax dollars in “incentives” given to Carrier in the deal.

Sought increased funding for charter schools and voucher programs.

Declared Indiana to be a “pro-coal state” and resisted the “overreach” of EPA clean air standards.

Defunded Planned Parenthood clinics, even those that did not furnish abortion services.

Signed and defended a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which critics said was designed to let businesses and private individuals discriminate legally against LGBT persons.  Later, faced with the possible loss of millions of dollars in convention business and business expansion, he backed down and signed a revised law.

Signed a controversial abortion restriction measure which would have required, among other things, burial or cremation for any “remains” after an abortion procedure.  It was struck down soon thereafter.

Attempted to ban resettlement of refugees from Syria within Indiana.

There’s more, but if by now (or maybe a while ago) you got the idea that Pence is one more reactionary who talks calmly and works for an agenda of restrictions on personal liberty, lack of restrictions and low taxes on corporations, I’m with you.  I do not want to see President Pence, but I’m afraid that’s where we’re headed.

Some thoughts: Our Now and Future Political Crisis

If you have read from this blog before, you know that I write about U.S. political affairs often, not because I necessarily want to, but because the spectacle that is the current U. S. administration fairly cries out for attention.  And I, as many other Americans, keep on looking on with the horror akin to witnessing a train wreck.  As the carnage mounts, I recall having predicted in this space, on Election Day Eve, 2016, that Donald Trump will serve at most one four-year term, and likely not that much.  Today, I stand by that prediction as much as ever.  In this post, I will comment on some of what reinforces my initial thought.  A follow-up post in a day or two will lay out why I think Trump’s removal from office would not end the crisis; it might, in fact, make it worse.

A president’s term in office may come to a premature end in three Constitutional ways: his own death, impeachment and removal by congress, and resignation.  In my own lifetime, unbelievable as it is, I have seen one president die in office (Kennedy); one be impeached though not removed from office (Clinton), and one who watched an inexorable march begin toward impeachment and resigned from office before it could come to fruition (Nixon).  From 1789 to 1998, only one President (Andrew Johnson) was impeached and was not removed from office.  Impeachment was, is, and was meant to be, a serious thing, not lightly undertaken by any present or future Congress.  A President’s removal by impeachment is extremely difficult, requiring the votes of two-thirds of the Senate.  It is difficult to imagine two-thirds of the current Senate agreeing to anything, since the two parties view nearly everything in terms of their own re-election.

Edit: A good friend from my days with State reminded me that there is another way a president may be removed from office–via the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which deals with the inability of the President to carry out his duties.  It is complex and allows the Vice President to assume the duties of the President as the “Acting President.”  This would be a can of worms on a scale never before seen, (if it became more than some brief period) but is also an interesting possibility as a way of taking power from the Donald should his mental state at some point be adjudged as not up to the challenge.  End note.  Thanks, Dave!

In the case of Trump, there is plentiful speculation as to his eventual impeachment.  Much of it has solid legal grounding, but he will not be impeached unless, by a curious convergence of events, Democrats, either with the help of some disgusted Republicans, or with a newly-elected majority in the House of Representatives after the 2018 elections, manage to get Articles of Impeachment through the House.  Republican Senators would have to be haunted by the prospect of their own electoral underperformance to a degree that they decide to attempt to influence Trump to resign and disappear from the public eye.  Given Trump’s egotistical and narcissistic tendencies, his agreement would be hard to envision.  But I could easily see a long series of delaying tactics by the Senate (Mitch McConnell could drag this out for a long, long time…) with the endgame of having some more conventional Republican challenge Trump in the Primaries for the 2020 campaign.  One can only imagine the turmoil of a weakened Trump fighting the party who urged the electorate to accept and embrace him.  Third-party bids?  Maybe.  At any rate, 2020 appears, at least so far, to have the potential for heavy-duty political turmoil.

We are in the midst of an odd political moment when impeachment is so unlikely as to be of negligible consideration.  But wait–I mentioned above that the solid legal means for impeachment already exists, and I do believe it.  The so-called “emoluments clause” of the Constitution is generally understood to prohibit the President to make money off the office above and beyond the salary to which he is entitled from that office.  In brief, the argument that Trump is profiting off the office of President is based on a couple of facts: he has a long-term lease on a property in Washington, D. C., upon which one of Trump’s companies built a hotel (plastered, of course, with his name).  The hotel is often occupied by persons with business before the government of the U. S. (and thus before Trump), and so such persons might think that they curry favor with the President by staying in the hotel or eating in its restaurant.  Far-fetched?  Not at all.  A similar situation applies in the case of “Mar-a-Lago,” the resort property Trump owns and uses for his weekends.  In a recent meeting Trump had with the Chinese president, can you imagine how much money flowed to the Trump property by numbers of Chinese government employees who stayed at the property?  But never mind.  He will never be called upon to defend himself from charges of “government for profit.”

Another facet of the “for personal gain” way of thinking is Trump’s refusal to put any of his considerable assets into any sort of trust.  Several presidents have been wealthy men in their own right; it has been the normal procedure in these cases (until now) that the president transfer his assets into the care of a “trustee” who keeps the asset in a “blind” trust while the president is in office.  Theoretically, at least, the president is kept from manipulating the interests of the people’s business in line with his own business’ interests.  It has never been a perfect system for insulating one from the other, but Trump has essentially thumbed his nose at the whole concept by placing his assets in the control of relatives.  This isolates him, he insists. It doesn’t, insist hordes of experts.  Again. it really doesn’t matter.  The Republican majority in Congress will never hold him to account.

And now, we see the spectacle of the President’s firing of the FBI director  he lauded during the campaign for digging into his opponent’s e-mails.  Now, six  months post-election, he cited this treatment of Hillary Clinton as grounds for Comey’s removal.  At least he did at first, though he later blithely admitted that he had decided to fire Comey before he asked his Attorney General, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III (who tasked the memo out to his Assistant Attorney General). to write a justification for the firing.  Floating the airy statement that Comey “was not doing a good job,” he later said the ongoing probe by the FBI of Russian influencing of the 2016 election was part and parcel of the whole sordid episode.  And if this investigation turns out to engulf more of the Trump organization and the Trump campaign, the phrase “obstruction of justice” will be on the lips of all official Washington.  Impeachable offense?  Yes.  Will he he be called to account?  Again, I doubt it.

So what if Trump, by some miracle, is impeached?  Or suppose Trump tires of being questioned and just decides he’ rather sit on his gold-throne toilet in Manhattan?  What happens?  Mike Pence is what happens.  And that is not an outcome to be desired.  More in the next post.