The Fix Is In, Can We Fix It?

Ward 8

Gill v. Whitford, the case now before the Supreme Court about whether Wisconsin’s state legislative districts were unconstitutionally gerrymandered, cannot alone bring democracy back to the USA, but it can certainly help.

Gerrymandering, the drawing of electoral districts for partisan advantage, has been around a long time (and has benefited both parties). The SCOTUS is looking at whether Wisconsin crossed a line in drawing their lines. Within this question is the fact that in 2012, Republicans received only 48.6% of the vote but took 60 of 99 seats in the State Assembly.

This same “seat bonus” can be seen at the national level. In 2016, Republicans received a plurality of votes cast for Congress nationwide, 49.9%, but they received a greater share, 55.2%, of the seats. Democrats, as a result, won a smaller share of seats than they did votes: 44.8 percent of seats as compared to 47.3 percent of the votes.

Our system of representative democracy in Washington is broken, and it is showing up on issues like gun control. E.J. Dionne Jr., Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann, in their new book One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet-Deported, said the United States is now a non-majoritarian democracy.

They note that our democracy is “undermined by a system that vastly overrepresents the interests of rural areas and small states. This leaves the large share of Americans in metropolitan areas with limited influence over national policy.” A key break they point out is with the Senate.

Even if a bipartisan group of Senators from the most populous states heeded the will of popular majorities to enact some elements of gun control (background checks or measures to prevent the mentally ill and those on no-fly lists from buying guns), they will lose if all 50 senators from the 25 smallest states voted for a bill and Vice President Pence cast his lot with them, senators representing just 16% of Americans could overrule those representing 84%.

“And this problem will only deepen. David Birdsell, a Baruch College political scientist, has calculated that by 2040, 70% of Americans will live in 15 states — and be represented by only 30 of the 100 senators,” Dionne noted.

The Senate, however, was never meant to be particularly representative. Fixing it structurally would likely require a Constitutional Convention. But we can still do something to address what Dionne called “the failure of our institutions to account for the movement to metropolitan areas is the culprit. In 1960, 63 percent of Americans lived in metros; by 2010, 84 percent did.”

As I mentioned in “No Taxation Without Representation,” we need to remove the cap on the number of representatives in Congress. Our 435 representatives is based on the population of the U.S. in 1911, and the cap was designed to support Prohibition and serve as a bulwark against all those immigrants from southern Europe.

Adding more members of Congress will make it harder for anyone to control – whether the Koch brothers, George Soros, or Vladimir Putin. It would also change the game of gerrymandering, making it harder to simply lump one party into the same district.

As we watch SCOTUS wrestle with this gerrymandering case, I can’t think of a better cocktail than the Ward Eight. According Gary Regan, in his book The Joy of Mixology, the cocktail was created at the Locke-Ober Café in Boston around 1898 to celebrate the victory of Martin Lomasney to the state legislature. Lomasney was known as the Czar of Ward Eight, who was well known for his methods of getting votes. This victory cocktail was created before the results were in.

The Ward Eight recipe taken from the Savoy Cocktail Book as I used it is:

1.5 oz rye (FEW rye with its Prohibition tie, also it’s really good, seemed appropriate)

.75 oz orange juice

.75 oz lemon juice

3 teaspoons grenadine

Shake over ice, strain into a cocktail glass

Cheers!

No Taxation Without Representation!

Diamondback

Independence Day this year carries a bit of melancholy with it as we watch the insanity emanating from Washington, D.C.

As David Frum put it in The Atlantic, “This is a Fourth tinged with sad ironies.” We are dealing with “a president mysteriously dependent on a foreign power—a president who lavishly praises dictators and publicly despises the institutions of freedom, not only the free press but also an independent judiciary and other constitutional restraints on his will.”

As we celebrate the Declaration of Independence we should remember that the Declaration is largely a list of grievances against the King of Great Britain, a list that interestingly carries echoes today for the governed and governors in the U.S.

A key concept expressed in the Declaration is no taxation without representation. It was one of the most fundamental slogans at the birth of the United States. Too often over the past few decades those four words have been separated, changing their meaning.

Our founders were not proto-Randians. They were not calling for no taxation, and that extreme view is coming home to roost. As The New York Times reported, conservative legislatures in Kansas, South Carolina and Tennessee have agreed to significant tax increases recently. Meanwhile Illinois faces the prospect of becoming the first state ever to lose investment-grade status from S&P after decades of fiscal mismanagement involving both parties. Perhaps America is getting the message it’s been waiting for.

While there has been a breakdown on our approach to taxation, it has a lot to do with forgetting the second part of the slogan and the consequent breakdown in representation.

As fashionable as it has become, this is not a rant about Gerrymandering. That is not to say it’s not an important subject. In the New Yorker, Lawrence Wright’s article “America’s Future Is Texas” notes how Texas’ redistricting really changed the bipartisan Gerrymandering game that led us to where we are now.

John Oliver also covered the topic very well on Last Week Tonight, and Barack Obama will devote his post-presidency to efforts at reforming the way political districts are drawn. Fixing the issue of Gerrymandering could go a long way toward solving the excessive polarization in our government, if not the country.

However, even the most evenhandedly drawn districts won’t solve the problem we face with representation today. As the Thievery Corporation reminds us, it’s a Numbers Game.

As I mentioned recently in “The Poisoning of Democracy,” the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives has been the same number for essentially the past 106 years. (Essentially because it briefly went to 437 when Alaska and Hawaii became states in 1959, but dropped back to 435 in 1962.) It has remained at the level that was set by the Apportionment Act of 1911.

There is no specification for the number of representatives in the Constitution, though there was a guideline on equal representation and a maximum number of people per representative. Representation was therefore reapportioned after each census, so the number should have risen after the 1920 census, to 483 to be exact. However, concerns about immigrant waves settling in cities led to fights during the 1920s that finally resulted in the Reapportionment Act of 1929 which gave us the setup for the 435 representatives we have today.

As the population of the U.S. has grown while the number in the House has remained 435, the power of smaller rural states has grown at the expense of larger urban areas.

The original idea was a representative for every 30,000 people, the average now is 700,000 people per representative. But districts are not set up nationally, and 700,000 is more than the entire population of four states. I live in the second most populous county in NJ. At 639,000 people as of the 2010 census, it is bigger than Wyoming and Vermont. But, unlike Wyoming and Vermont, we do not get two Senators and three Electoral votes.

We probably don’t need one representative for 30,000 people, but one per 700,000 is too few, and a greater number of representatives would make it harder – if not more expensive – for special interests and lobbyists to control Congress the way they do now. It would be a way to take the power back.

The key question is not just how much we are taxed, but how that money is used. Today’s Congress is bought and paid for by powers that do not have the best interests of the American people at heart. The AHCA is an example of legislation that penalizes millions of Americans to reward insurance companies and the wealthiest with new tax cuts. The unrepresentative nature of our government today can be seen in the unpopularity in much of what Congress pursues, from gun control to the environment.

Despite all of the tri-cornered hat wearing and Gadsen flag waving over the past decade, the Tea Party Patriots missed a very important element in the “Don’t Tread On Me” approach, representation.

With the Gadsen Flag rattlesnake in mind, it is time for the people to take back the symbolism of our revolution and we can start with a Diamondback cocktail. Then we can fight to have all of our voices heard in the people’s House. From the Cold Glass blog, the Diamondback recipe is:

1.5 oz Rittenhouse 100 rye

.75 oz Apple Brandy

.75 oz Yellow Chartreuse

Dash of Peychaud’s bitters

Stir, strain into a chilled cocktail glass (optionally garnish with a cherry)

Happy Independence Day!

Cheers!

The Poisoning of Democracy

Racer

The spectacle of Dear Leader Cheeto Mussolini receiving the sycophantic praise of his VP and Cabinet before the cameras yesterday raised serious questions about what alternate universe we’ve been beamed into.

Then the evening brought the trial balloon that Trump is considering firing Robert Mueller, the special counsel overseeing the Russia investigation (you know, the one that could potentially find that Russia interfered with the election to install Trump, who is now doing everything Putin could possibly want). This is a cause for concern not because of any doubt that Don Cheeto Corleone would do it, but rather that the GOP Congress would do nothing to stop or correct it.

Not to ignore the massive problems caused by our would-be naked emperor and his Russian patrons, but our representative democracy has some deep structural problems coming to a head right now.

In an encore to their utterly unprecedented stealing of a Supreme Court seat, Senate Republicans are now preparing to ram through some version of Trumpcare. There is no way to argue about its provisions specifically because no one knows what’s in it. However, if it follows the AHCA passed by the House GOP, then many Americans will suffer, many will lose their access to healthcare, most Americans will become that much more dependent on their employers for increasingly expensive healthcare, all while providing the wealthiest people in the country big tax breaks.

This breakdown in Congressional norms is the latest in a long string of anti-democratic actions that deny any real representation in our government. This certainly includes recent Republican voter suppression efforts around the country, but also the Gerrymandering work of both parties. In fact, it has been going on long enough that there is no false equivalence as both parties have undergone several changes in direction since it started. Those policies that were once the Democrats’ are now Republican, and vice-versa.

On Sunday, there was a vote that has the (unlikely) potential of exposing that structural flaw we are grappling with now. Once again, the voters of U.S. Territory Puerto Rico have voted for statehood. Now there are many problems with this vote, it was 97% in favor, but on 23% turnout, there was a voter roll purge before the election, etc.

However, despite its problems, half a million Puerto Ricans voted in favor of statehood, and that is about as many as the total population of a couple of states sending four Senators to Washington. Even Washington D.C. itself has more people than Wyoming, but Wyoming has 3 electoral votes and D.C. has none.

It is clear this Republican Congress is not going to give any real hearing to Puerto Rican statehood because that would add an awful lot of likely Democratic voters (the precise opposite of everything they have been working for) who are poorer, browner, and (worst of all) Spanish-speaking.

It is the fear of the other, the non-white invasion (that once included the Irish and Italians) that has kept our Congressional representation at the same number it has been since 1911 (with small variations).

The prospect of Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state reminds us of the question of representation. Sure, the Senate might move to 102 members, but the House would have to change a number it has had for more than 100 years with only temporary deviation for Alaska and Hawaii.

As the population of the U.S. has grown while the number in the House has remained 435, the power of smaller rural states has grown at the expense of larger urban areas. That is the poison at the heart of our system now, and the Puerto Rican vote has put it back in focus.

So the cocktail for today is the Puerto Rican Racer. Named for the island’s mildly venomous snake, this recipe from NYC’s Death & Co. calls for:

2 oz Puerto Rican Rum (Ron del Barrilito 3 Star)

.5 oz Laird’s Apple Brandy

.5 oz Yellow Chartreuse

1 tsp Grenadine

1 dash Peychaud’s Bitters

Stir over ice, strain into an old fashioned glass over a big rock, no garnish

Cheers!