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.

There's more...

Larry Lessig on Corruption - In Government and Elsewhere

Update: Hmmmm....I just noticed that the video won't play properly. This has something to do with the fact that Scoop doesn't like parts of the video embed code. If anyone knows how to make it play, please leave a comment. In the meantime, here's a direct link to the Google Video.

This is not my usual fare, but I watched this lecture by Professor Lawrence Lessig this morning and thought that it was important enough - and sufficiently connected to politics - to be worthy of some attention.

If you don't know him, Lawrence Lessig is a Stanford professor most famous for his work on copyright, and he has decided for the next 10 years to focus his efforts on battling corruption. This is his first lecture on the subject. He's talking about corruption in government (money in politics), but also more generally about corruption in the sense that money incentivizes certain practices that it shouldn't, creating failures in supposedly free and peer-reviewed markets.

In light of what has been uncovered in the student loan industry, the relationships between our government officials and companies/contractors in Iraq, and the failures of our government to take action on global warming despite an overwhelming scientific consensus on the subject, this issue of corruption seems particularly relevant to any discussion of politics. Lessig is making important points about the underlying reasons as to why our government is failing on these and other issues that are of high concern to voters.

Towards the end he gets at solutions, giving props to new organizations that use technology and peer production to increase transparency in the system, like MAPLight, and the Sunlight Foundation, but ultimately sees traditional reform and new technology as only part of the solution. Most specifically he's calling for us to figure out how to change the cultural norms that enable corruption. It's a long lecture, but the 65 minutes is well worth your time.

They talk big, but will candidates deliver the fundraising transparency we need?

Last night, Presidential hopeful Barack Obama reiterated once more that he does not take money from lobbyists:

OLBERMANN: Thirty seconds. Senator Obama, I know you and Senator Edwards have taken a firm stand against accepting money from lobbyists, yet you allow them to raise money for you and, as the phrase goes, "Bundle it." What's the difference between those things?
OBAMA: No, no. I do not have federal registered lobbyists bundling for me, just like I don't take PAC money.  (APPLAUSE) And the reason that's important is because the people in this stadium need to know who we are going to fight for. And I want to be absolutely clear that the reason I'm in public  life, the reason I came to Chicago, the reason I started working with  unions, the reason I march on picket lines, the reason that I'm  running for president is because of you... (APPLAUSE) ... not because of the folks who are writing big checks. And that's a clear message that has to be sent, I think, by every candidate.

Click here for full transcript. 

While Obama's assertion is reality-based, he is dancing on a technicality, since several of his bundlers have recent histories that include lobbying. In April, Alex Bolton reported in The Hill that:

Three of Obama's top fundraisers, who each have raised more than $50,000 for his campaign since January, were registered as lobbyists last year, according to reports filed with the Senate Office of Public Records. In 2006, Alan Solomont of Solomont Bailis Ventures earned $90,000 in lobbying income; Tom Reed, of Kirkland & Ellis, lobbied for the Seismological Society of America, the Nanobusiness Alliance, and the Airport Minority Advisory Council; and Scott Harris, of Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis, represented Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Dell and Sprint-Nextel.

All three Obama fundraisers have said they are no longer lobbyists, although the public records office has not posted contract termination reports for any of them.

Several other major Obama fundraisers also have histories of lobbying government officials for a living. Thomas Perrelli was a lobbyist for Jenner & Block as recently as 2005. Until 2003, when Obama was a member of the Illinois Senate, Peter Bynoe was a registered state lobbyist representing Boeing and other corporate interests, according to the Illinois secretary of state. They have both raised at least $50,000 for Obama's presidential bid, according to his campaign.

 
The full article is here.

In fact, at least five of Obama's disclosed bundlers have registered in the past with the Senate Office of Public Records. Three of them hadn't filed the normal paperwork indicating termination of their lobbying contracts, though Alan Solomont, Tom Reed and Scott Harris all told they Hill they had stopped lobbying.

(You can confirm the lobbying IDs with the Secretary of the Senate's lobbying database. For example: Alan Solomont; Tom Reed; Scott Harris. One of them, Thomas Perelli, of Jenner and Block, lobbied for victims of the August 1998 Africa embassy bombings. Which raises the point that many have made in comments that not all lobbyists are alike.)

The article went on to point out that some fundraisers for Obama are corporate officers of companies that hire lobbyists. At least 10 other major bundlers work for companies that have lobbied the federal government, including Bill Kennard of the Carlyle Group.

And late last week, the Los Angeles Times noted that Obama has taken in more than $1.4 million from firms with partners registered to lobby the federal government.

That total likely includes money brought in by two federal lobbyists who don't appear on Obama's "official" fundraising list. John Corrigan and Sanford Stein both had their personal donations to Obama returned, the LA Times reported. They also were asked not to help with fundraising, but not until after they had sent out emails for a fundraiser that helped Obama bring in $190,000 from Illinois donors between June 6 and June 11th. Did Obama return the money Corrigan and Stein helped to bring in? He hasn't said.

As today's Tom Paine article on the candidates' "Secret Santas" describes, the candidates are actually ALL being less-than-forthcoming about the details of their fundraising operations.  

Public Citizen sent letters today to all of them calling on them to "put their mouths where their money is" and come clean on their bundling operations. It's a sad day when the Democratic hopefuls are disclosing less campaign finance information than did masters of secrecy Bush and Cheney in 2004.

You can find out what we do know about the presidential candidates' bundlers at www.WhiteHouseforSale.org and collect tips on bird-dogging the candidates on their poor disclosure of bundlers here.

Public Citizen, among others, is calling for a law to require disclosure of all bundling activity (and not merely by lobbyists, as in the recently passed lobbying and ethics bill). Relying on voluntary disclosure of information about bundlers makes us all too dependent on the whims of candidates.

There's more...

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