A Broken United States Senate

While Paul Krugman writing in the New York Times believes that the healthcare reform legislation now on the verge of passage in the Senate is "an awesome achievement," I do not share those sentiments. Though there is certainly much of merit in the bill, overall it is a Frankenstein monster of bill whose sum of parts more reflects the narrow and profane interests that are overrepresented in the United States Senate. I do agree with Paul Krugman that the Senate has become "ominously dysfunctional." It is an institution that no longer works for the American people, one that produces flawed legislation no matter which party is in control and an institution that does not serve the national interest but instead caters to those who have access.

First let me state unequivocally that you can replace all one hundred of the Senators currently serving in the Senate and you would still have more or less the same inferior legislative product being delivered serving the same narrow interests. The problem is quite simply a mix of its composition that favors rural, more conservative sectors of the country over the more populous, urban and more progressive sectors of the country and the arcane rules that govern the body plus the insidious role that corporate lobbying and other monied interests now play in the nation's politics.

I have noted in previous posts that the 26 least populous states in the country who form a majority in the Senate represent just 17.8 percent of the nation's population according to the 2000 US Census. While these 26 include states like Vermont, Delaware and Rhode Island, of the 26 states 15 voted for McCain and 11 for Obama in 2008 but if we go back to 2004 then 19 of these 26 states voted for Bush versus just eight for Kerry (OR, CT, RI, ME, VT, HA, NH, DE). The most populous of these 26 states is Colorado and the least is Wyoming with the bulk of the states being a mixture of Southern, Prairie, Mountain West/Far West or New England states. Of these four regions, three are overwhelmingly rural and conservative and account for 20 of the 26 states. The United States is not the only country with a legislative body that overrepresents rural interests. Thailand and Japan have the same problem and not surprisingly suffer from many of the same problems that we do. The question of whether Thailand is a failed state or not is one that many Thai now discuss.

As the Republican Party is favored by rural and conservative interests, it too is overrepresented in the Senate though not to the extreme shown above. The GOP has 40 Senators at the moment but those seats represent just a fraction above 35 percent of the US population. Still that's an over-representation of 5 Senate seats, not an insignificant number in a 100 member body.

The composition of the body has subtle effects in perhaps unexpected ways. Since 1961 the Majority leaders in the body have come from Nevada (Reid), Tennessee (Frist), South Dakota (Daschle), Mississippi (Lott), Kansas (Dole), Maine (Mitchell), West Virginia (Byrd), Kansas (Dole), Tennessee (Baker), Montana (Mansfield). All but Tennessee (16th in population thanks to Nashville and Memphis but otherwise culturally similar) form part of these 26 least populated states. And if I include Minority leaders, I'd be adding Kentucky (McConnell) and would have to extend back until 1977 before I could find a Minority leader that came from one of the top 15 populated states, Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania.

There's a reason for this. It's reflective of the fact the Senators from the larger states are more burdened by serving in leadership roles. Senators from the more populated states have to cater to the needs of a much larger, broader and heterogenous constituency that they are effectively prevented from holding leadership positions. As the Senate's own website notes Senators "from small and large states alike all have comparable committee and floor responsibilities, Senators from the more populous states, such as California, face a broader array of representational pressures than do Senators from the smaller states, such as Wyoming. An indirect effect of Senate apportionment is that contemporary floor leaders of either party tend to come from the smaller rather than larger states because they can better accommodate the additional leadership workload."

The repercussions are that it further limits the interests of more diverse urban America from gaining currency. The last majority leader to come from one of the more populous state was Lyndon Johnson when the country was a vastly different place. This is in marked contrast to the House where members serve more or less the same size constituency and where the leadership tends to come from the more populated states. Speaker Pelosi hails from San Francisco and her predecessor was Dennis Hastert who represented Chicago. The last Speaker of the House who came from one of the least populated states was Carl Albert of Oklahoma in the 1970s.

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Is it Time to End the Connecticut Compromise?

"The use of the Senate is to consist in its proceedings with more coolness, with more system and with more wisdom, than the popular branch." - James Madison

The Connecticut Compromise, proposed by that humble cobbler and self-taught jurist Roger Sherman, was adopted on July 16, 1787. Sometimes also referred to as the Great Compromise, it gave this nation a bicameral legislature composed of an upper chamber, which we call the US Senate, to represent the interests of states and granted them equal representation of two Senators apiece in that august body and a lower chamber, which we call the US House of Representatives, to represent the interests of the people based on proportional representation. The upper chamber has since its inception been an aristocratic body. Even today, of its 100 members 66 are millionaires and of those all but a handful are multi-millionaires. That compares with the less than one percent of Americans overall who are millionaires. It thus should not be surprising that the Senate more so than the House of Representatives favors policies that largely benefit their class but not necessarily their own states or even the nation at large.

The Senate is an odd and singular legislative body by any description. Its creation puzzled Thomas Jefferson who was not one of the 55 Framers of the Constitution. At the time of Constitutional Convention that met in Philadelphia during the infernal summer of 1787, Jefferson was the American Ambassador to the court of Louis XVI. On his return to the United States in October 1789 to assume the post of the nation's first Secretary of State, Jefferson inquired of President George Washington, who had served as the Convention's chair, why the Convention delegates had created a Senate. "Why did you pour that coffee into your saucer?" asked Washington. "To cool it," said Jefferson. "Even so," responded Washington, "we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it."

The Senate is doing its cooling job so well that it has frozen the country in an Arctic state of permafrost. Whatever legislation does manage to seep through that sieve of a Senate is often so watered down that it is effectively worthless. It is then also not surprising that increasingly many are coming to see the Senate as a flawed institution that is putting at risk our ability to confront vast national problems. It is not just a question of increased sectarianism, though that is certainly a problem, but also one of institutional design. We seem to be headed for a Constitutional Crisis. Perhaps, we even require it because the present system serves no one, and certainly not the national interest. While perhaps not failed state, we are fast becoming a country that is falling behind on all sort of socio-economic indicators and metrics.

Among those who see the problem is Thomas Friedman, with whom I rarely concur. Friedman speaks in the New York Times of "paralysis." Another who sees the problem is Matthew Yglesias, with whom I generally agree. He writes over at Think Progess of a country that has become "ungovernable." Case in point is this week's latest development in our seemingly interminable health care debate whereby Senator Carper of Delaware has placed a "hold" on an amendment offered by Senator Dorgan of South Dakota to allow for the reimportation of pharmaceutical drugs from Canada. In response, Senator Dorgan is vowing to object to any other amendments being considered before he gets a vote on his amendment. Is this a Senate or kindergarten?

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A Song Sparks a Debate in Sierra Leone

Jerome spent a year in the Peace Corps in this small West African country, apparently riding around on a motorbike and drinking palm wine, or so I am told. Sierra Leone is best known for its brutal decade long civil war that began in 1991 and the illicit diamond trade that fueled the conflict. The movie Blood Diamond starring Leonardo DiCaprio was set in Sierra Leone. The war was brutal even by African standards leaving tens of thousands dead and an internally displaced population of over 2 million people, or one in three Sierra Leoneans. Though the war came to an end in 2002 and despite vast natural resources, the country remains troubled even under a democratically elected government. The problem is one that plagues Africa - corruption and poor governance. The recent Transparency International corruption index ranked Sierra Leone the 146th most corrupt nation in the world on a par with Zimbabwe.

But Sierra Leoneans are all of sudden talking about the state of their country and discussing issues like corruption and governance thanks to a song by one of the country's musical international superstars, Emmerson Bockarie. The song, Yesterday Betteh Pass Tiday, is sung in the creole language Krio that is spoken in Sierra Leone. Translated the song title means "yesterday is better than today". The song has sent shock waves and started debate all over the country because of its frank social commentary and stinging lyrics. It takes direct aim at the country's leadership. It's not often we hear words like "transparency,""anti-corruption""accountability" or "teachers' salaries" in a song. There's even a shout out to President Obama thanking him for raising the issue of poor governance during his visit to Ghana earlier this year.

Here's a story about the current debate raging in Sierra Leone from All Africa:

The song compares the performance in government of the previous Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) regime and the ruling All Peoples' Congress (APC). Bockarie points out that government in Sierra Leone was bad under the SLPP, but is worse now.

The song highlights corruption, the high cost of living, nepotism, tribalism, poor service delivery, poor government salaries and a static economy, concluding that things have not changed for the better under the new government.

"We identify with this song because Emerson said it all, nothing seems to move," said Sahid Sesay a secondary school teacher in Freetown. He said the government had given a 20 percent increment in salaries, but this had had no impact "simply because all the prices of everything in the market have gone up".

The APC government came to power on a platform of change, and in his inauguration speech President Ernest Bai Koroma announced he and his team would show "zero tolerance on corruption".

Mohamed Turay, a research assistant at the Fourah Bay College in Freetown, said: "I think the government is still yielding in principle to an anti-corruption strategy in order to satisfy requirements for donor funds, without fully implementing it. The commission is still crippled by a lack of political will."

Turay cited the case of Afsatu Kabba, former minister of energy and power, who clearly flouted the procurement rules by giving out a contract to Income Electrix, an independent power provider, for the supply of 25 mega watt (MW) generator whilst there were other favorable companies that would have cost government less and that even when the contract was awarded only 10MW was installed and commissioned.

"But nothing came out of it. She is now sent to head the ministry of fisheries and marine resources. How can we say the government is serious about fighting corruption?" asked Turay.

He also said the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) Act directed that public officials, including their spouses and children, were to declare their assets. While the president had declared his, most of the ministers and other public officials had not declared their assets, in spite of the commission.

Can a song change a country? I sure hope so. It's time to attack the culture of gbashi, gbashi that plagues everywhere from Washington to Timbuktu. Listen to it, since it is sung in a English-based creole, you can understand a fair bit of it. Plus it's zouk, one of the world's most infectious musical rhythms. It goes well with palm wine, or so I am told.

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Shining A Light - The White House to Release Visitor Logs

It perhaps took some prodding but in the end the Obama Administration is honoring one of its key and not insignificant campaign promises - that of government transparency. After an internal review, the Obama Administration will make publicly available the visitor logs to the White House with certain national security exceptions. Kudos to the President and the Administration for doing the right thing.

The story from the Washington Post:

Reversing a policy embraced by previous presidents of both parties, the Obama Administration will make public a listing of visitors to the White House.

The White House characterized the move as another step in making the Administration more open.

"For the first time in history, records of White House visitors will be made available on an ongoing basis," President Obama said in a statement. "We will achieve our goal of making this Administration the most open and transparent Administration in history not only by opening the doors of the White House to more Americans, but by shining a light on the business conducted inside."

Under the policy, the Obama Administration will post online the names of White House visitors from the previous 90-120 days. The only names withheld under the policy would be people being considered for high-level appointments, such as Supreme Court candidates. Visitors whose known presence at the White House would pose a national security risk also are exempted under the policy, the White House said.

The decision to release the visitor logs comes after ongoing lawsuits prompted an internal review of the policy that started in the early days of the Administration. The new policy promises to provide more information about the people who come to the White House in hopes of influencing decision-making.

The review of the policy was prompted by a series of lawsuits by the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). The suits were settled Thursday with the White House promise to make the visitor information public.

Previously, the Obama Administration had refused to release the visitor records, a decision that was in line with Bush administration policy. But after the review, the White House decided to alter its stand.

"The Obama administration has proven its pledge to usher in a new era of government transparency was more than just a campaign promise. The Bush Administration fought tooth and nail to keep secret the identities of those who visited the White House," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW. In contrast, the Obama Administration -- by putting visitor records on the White House web site -- will have the most open White House in history."

Transparency, it is how government works.

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In Jersey, Corruption as a Way of Life

Two of my closest friends from college are from Jersey, Secaucus actually, and over the years they have regaled me with richly woven tales of the corruption that permeates life in the Garden State. But nothing tops this one. I mean what one can one say when the ingredients of this sumptuous yet unsavory stew include five Rabbis from the Syrian Jewish community, a town called appropriately Deal, bribes to city officials for waivers on building permits, bank fraud, a $25 million bad check, a vast money-laundering conspiracy that extends to Israel and Switzerland, $97,000 dollars in cash being passed in a box of Apple Jacks cereal and trading in human organs.

The culmination of a two year corruption probe today brought criminal charges against 44 people including two New Jersey Assemblymen, three Mayors (Secaucus, Hoboken and Ridgefield though it should be noted that one of the Assemblymen also serves as Mayor of Ocean Township), and five Syrian Jewish Rabbis including a Grand Rabbi who is 87 years old. Jersey City was especially struck hard. Arrested were the President of Jersey City Council, the Deputy Mayor of Jersey City and the long-time former Mayor L. Harvey Smith. Mr. Smith, a former teacher, ran for office on an anti-corruption platform, telling The New York Times: "I don’t take cash. I don’t let people give me things." He is charged with taking $15,000 in bribes. There are both Democrats and Republicans among the arrested. Nor was the office of Governor Jon Corzine spared. FBI agents raided the home of Joseph V. Doria Jr., Commissioner of the state's Department of Community Affairs and a former mayor of Bayonne.

The Syrian Jewish component is beyond intriguing. We're talking about the Sephardic Jews of Aleppo and Dasmascus, a community that dates back thousands of years but now largely live in Brooklyn and in a town called Deal. The rabbis are accused of money laundering using charitable nonprofit groups they or their synagogues controlled, and taking 5% to 10% for themselves. Nice work if you can get it, as they say.

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