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Too smart to be president . . .

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I have always thought that Bill Bradley, the one-time United States senator from New Jersey, could have been a great president. Basketball fans of a certain age will remember Bradley as a standout star at Princeton, a place known more for quantum physics than baseline jump shots. Bradley, an All-American, postponed his professional career in order to attend Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, then played 10 seasons in the NBA — the Knicks retired his number — and was then elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

In his famous 1965 New Yorker article on Bradley titled “A Sense of Where You Are,” the writer John McPhee quoted Bradley’s high school principal as saying, “With the help of his friends, Bill could very well be president of the United States. And without the help of his friends he might make it anyway.”
“Dollar Bill” Bradley, too smart to be president

My wife also liked the idea of Bradley as president, but was more realistic. “He’s too smart to be president,” she said, and she was right.

I’ve been thinking about the three-term senator recently, while reflecting on the intense interest in the young, smart and amazingly well-spoken mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg. The 37-year old Navy veteran of Afghanistan is the openly gay mayor of an old rust belt town and improbably he has vaulted from nowhere to the top tier of Democratic presidential aspirants. His cable news appearances have left the most jaded political observers impressed. Buttigieg easily offers insights from what is clearly a close study of history. One of his favorite books is the Graham Greene classic, “The Quiet American,” a novel that explores the perils of political hubris.

Buttigieg speaks several languages, including Maltese, and reportedly taught himself to read Norwegian so he could read a favorite author in that language. By contrast, I can think of one candidate for president who couldn’t spell lutefisk, let alone describe it.

But, like Bill Bradley, I suspect Mayor Pete may be too smart to be president. The current occupant of the White House has so devalued competence and intellect that it may be difficult for many voters to conceive of a real brain in control of the nuclear codes. As for drawing on history to inform current policy, well, what a quaint notion that is. Harry Truman used to check out stacks of books from the Library of Congress. The current occupant gets all he needs to know from Fox News and his Twitter feed.

The president of the United States who actually suggested that aerial tankers be used to fight the tragic fire at Notre Dame in Paris is an artifact of a country where education, particularly education about history, has been so diminished that Donald Trump could actually say a while back that Abraham Lincoln was a “great president. Most people don’t even know that he’s a Republican, right? Does anyone know? A lot of people don’t know that.”

For more than a generation, conservatives, while systematically diminishing public education and bemoaning “elitism” in higher education, have led an assault on expertise and embraced a corrupted notion of history. Charlatans of pseudo history, such as Bill O’Reilly and Dinesh D’Souza — one fired for harassing behavior of co-workers, the other jailed for making illegal campaign contributions — have created a lucrative right-wing “history” industry that may be impressive propaganda, but couldn’t withstand the vetting a typical seventh-grade research paper endures.
The President of the United States at Mount Vernon…giving “branding” advice

During a recent visit to Mount Vernon, the home of the first American president, Trump suggested that George Washington had erred by not doing a better branding job with the estate along the Potomac. Should we remind him that the nation’s capital is named for, oh well, never mind.

One White House aide, accentuating the obvious, pointed out that Trump’s lack of historical knowledge, not to mention basic interest in history, isn’t a big problem because most of his supporters simply don’t care. “If anything,” one handler pointed out, “they enjoy the fact that the liberal snobs are upset” that Trump doesn’t know history.

We’ve all seen the research showing how historical literacy has been diminished. Lots of young people can’t place the American Civil War in the right time period. Many don’t know that we fought with the Russians in World War II and faced them down in the Cold War. Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement and Watergate seem as relevant to many as stories of the ancient Greeks.

And you might well ask why you should care if a national leader doesn’t have a working knowledge of Lincoln or can’t grasp the significant of the NATO alliance?

Award-winning Princeton historian Kevin Kruse provides an answer.

“History offers lessons,” he says, “in what was tried before and what was not, and what worked before and what did not.” Moreover, Kruse says, “The study of history imparts critical skills in assessing evidence, weighing the differences when contradictions arise, forming a coherent narrative and drawing conclusions from it.”

We are fated to live in perilous times. Democracy is in retreat across the globe. Basic truth is under assault. Institutions at every level — the courts, the press, the Catholic church, among others — are diminished and in decline. And in such an environment, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation reported recently that a majority of Americans in every state except Vermont would fail a test based on questions in the U.S. citizenship test. In Idaho only 41 percent of those surveyed could pass.

If we can’t bring ourselves to embrace the smart leaders and the dim bulbs remain content to distract us with empty slogans and shiny diversions, then we’re on our own. The fundamental test of our times involves being smart enough to know enough to think for ourselves. It starts with grappling with our history.
 

Tyranny of one-party rule

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In his brilliant little book, On Tyranny, the historian Timothy Snyder offers citizens in a modern democracy 20 lessons from 20th century history. Snyder, a scholar of European history and totalitarianism, wrote the book in 2017 as a kind of “how too” guide for living in troubled times.

Some of the lessons — “believe in truth,” “contribute to good causes” and “defend institutions” — seem self-evident and universal.

But, one of Snyder’s lessons, particularly in light of the debacle that has unfolded over the past few weeks in Boise as the Legislature stumbles from one outrage to the next, seems downright urgent: “Beware the one-party state.”

The historian was writing with modern despots in mind, but he might have been thinking about the arrogant supermajority Idaho voters send to the Statehouse every January to tend to the public’s business. “The parties that remade states and suppressed rivals were not omnipotent from the start,” Snyder writes. “They exploited a historic moment to make political life impossible for their opponents.”

The speaker of the House, Scott Bedke, or the Senate president pro tem, Brent Hill, would never, of course, admit to using their overwhelming majority to make “life impossible for their opponents.” But consider what they and the vast majority of Republican lawmakers have been doing in the name of democracy.

The voters of Idaho passed by an overwhelming majority an initiative to improve the health care of tens of thousands of Idahoans. The voters acted, as their constitution provides, by the time-honored democratic process of advancing a measure directly to the ballot box, bypassing the Legislature. The process was ridiculously transparent. No one in the state who was paying the least bit of attention could have missed the effort to gather the signatures to put the measure on the ballot. It was a time-consuming, labor-intensive effort, well-documented every step of the way. The policy merits of the idea — expanding Medicaid coverage to more poor Idahoans — was debated right along with the signature gathering.

Nearly every politician in Idaho was forced to take a position on the issue. On his way out the door, former Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter endorsed the idea. His successor, Gov. Brad Little, promised to implement “the will of the people.” The voters spoke to the tune of nearly 61 percent approval.

Rarely in recent Idaho history has such a significant policy decision enjoyed such widespread public support. And it is important to remember that all this voter-driven activity came only after the Legislature repeatedly failed to act.

Then came the push back, including a frivolous lawsuit from a shadowy ultra-right “think tank” that the Idaho Supreme Court laughed out of existence. Legislative Republicans devised every possible means to contain the scope of the policy voters approved, insisting on work and other requirements that have already been struck down by courts in other states.

Gov. Little all but admitting that this mess will cost the state a bundle to defend in court, then joined fellow Republicans in defying the clear will of the 61 percent who voted to expand access to health care for thousands of Idahoans. This is not honoring the will of the voters; it’s thumbing your nose at them.

Little displayed real political courage just days earlier when he killed the Republican affront to citizen-driven democracy that all but eliminated the ability to put an issue on the ballot. Little’s logic: A judge would ultimately decide the issue was both prudent and sound. He might have applied the same logic, and respected the voter’s will, by killing the Medicaid work requirement legislation. That would certainly have further prolonged an already egregiously long session, but it might also have forced fellow Republicans to send him a “clean” bill that implemented what voters approved at the polls just five months ago.

During this session of political dry rot, Republican lawmakers also sought to create a partisan advantage on the state’s independent redistricting commission, grabbed office space that has historically belonged to the full-time state treasurer so they can create additional offices for themselves, prevented photographs of a House session that would have allowed reporters to identify lawmakers who wouldn’t otherwise have their votes recorded and had the state police mark off a public meeting room as off limits to the public.

As this was written, some GOP lawmakers were scheming to resurrect their anti-initiative revenge on voters’ legislation. In an absolutely unprecedented move, they sliced the measure Little vetoed just days earlier into four separate bills, hoping apparently that they might force the governor’s hand a second time.

The juvenile games may have reached the height of absurdity even by the standards of this legislative session when a majority of Republicans on the House Education Committee refused to attend a meeting where their chairman wanted to introduce legislation dealing with the school funding formula. Such are the antics of a one-party state where most legislators rarely face political accountability. They behave as they do because they can. It seems hardly a stretch to say this has been the worst legislative session in memory.

The overwhelming Republican Legislature is no longer content to marginalize the often-beleaguered Democratic minority — the redistricting move was clearly designed to target the growing legislative advantage Democrats have accumulated in Ada County — and they openly and blatantly work to punish their constituents.

This binge of partisan nonsense should be placed squarely at the doorstep of Bedke and Hill. They have either lost control of the mechanics of legislative operations or they have been content to stand by as the inmates took over the asylum. Either way, the GOP majority has demonstrated unmitigated disdain for governing and flaunted their responsibility to citizens.

And this is all a piece of one-party rule, an arrogance bred of entrenched, concentrated power, a hubris drawn from the privilege of majority.

The lesson of this legislative session is simple: One party rule isn’t democracy, but it surely is a license to abuse democracy. Left unchecked, the one-party state will treat its voters even worse next time.
 

Just say no …

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Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo is about to get his moment in the wacky spotlight of U.S. Senate confirmation politics.

Barring some last-minute change of heart, something never to be dismissed in Trump World, the president of the United States will nominate to the Federal Reserve Board a guy whose ethical and financial baggage would have immediately disqualified him during any other time in modern history. In the past, would-be cabinet secretaries or senior administration appointees have seen their appointments collapse for lesser transgressions than those hovering around Trump’s latest ethical outrage.

It seems almost quaintly secondary that Stephen Moore, a frequent Fox News gabber and Trump idolater, is also demonstrably unqualified for the job of overseeing the U.S. banking system and assuring the economy remains sound.

If Trump goes through with Moore’s appointment, Crapo will preside over his confirmation before the Senate Banking Committee and we’ll see how the mild-mannered Idahoan straddles the stupidity of the president’s nominees and the senator’s fealty to the big banks and financial interests, whose water he carries and whose campaign cash he hordes.

Will Crapo go with Trump and the Tea Party wing of the GOP or will he stand with the sane, sober financial realists who openly scoff at Moore’s lack of qualifications to serve on the Fed, not to mention his long record of incompetence?

Let’s review the “accomplishments” of the man who could be a heartbeat away from chairing the Federal Reserve by acknowledging that Moore is no Alan Greenspan, no Paul Volcker, no Ben Bernanke and certainly no Marriner Eccles, the Utahan who presided over the central bank during the Great Depression.

Rather, Moore owes $75,000 in back federal taxes and was held in contempt for failing to pay $330,000 in spousal support to his ex-wife. As the New York Times noted, “In 2013, (a Virginia) court ordered him to sell his home to raise money to pay the debt and forced him to set up an automatic bank transfer each month. After Mr. Moore paid $217,000 toward the debt, Ms. Moore asked the court to revoke the order to sell his home, which it did.” Moore calls his dispute with the IRS “a misunderstanding.”

So much for ethics. How about competence? Economics columnist Catherine Rampell assembled a “greatest hits” list of Moore’s crazy theories and predictions, including the old favorite that big tax cuts pay for themselves. The Congressional Budget Office said recently that the Trump tax cut, supported enthusiastically by Crapo, would add $1.5 trillion to the deficit during the next decade.

During the Great Recession, Moore predicted runaway hyperinflation like that visited on Weimar Germany in the 1920s, with people needing “wheelbarrows full” of cash to visit Albertsons. Moore was a principal architect of the disastrous tax policy implemented in Kansas in 2013, a policy he promised would miraculously lift that state’s economy, but instead slowed economic growth and crashed the state budget. As Rampell has suggested, Moore has been wrong so often — he’s not an economist by the way, but merely plays one on Fox — that he obviously doesn’t know how to use Google to check basic facts.

Moore was so often wrong in his pronouncements about the Kansas economy that he was banned from the editorial pages of the state’s largest newspaper. His lack of political independence was on full display when he said Trump deserved the Nobel Prize in economics. You can’t make this up.

Moore’s appointment comes, of course, in the wake of Trump’s continuing assaults on Fed Chairman Jerome “Jay” Powell, a respected conservative who seems determined to continue the Federal Reserve’s long struggle to remain independent of the kind of partisan meddling the president has raised to an art form. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Trump, who has publicly contemplated firing Powell — he legally can’t fire Powell who serves a fixed term — criticized the chairman on three different occasions recently before mumbling to Powell in a phone call, “I guess I’m stuck with you.”

Outside of the Fox News echo chamber, few people who know anything about the Fed and the economy think having Moore on the job makes any sense.

“Steve is a perfectly amiable guy,” says Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw, “but he does not have the intellectual gravitas for this important job.” Before Trumpers dismiss Mankiw as just another pointy-headed Ivy League academic, we should note he is a conservative Republican who worked for both George W. Bush and Mitt Romney.

But back to Crapo’s dilemma. In a normal political world, a senator in Crapo’s position — the conservative Republican chairman of the Banking Committee, a favorite of Wall Street and big banks, the 15th most senior member of the Senate — would have everything to say about this kind of appointment. A genuinely powerful chairman might even be expected to have his own candidate for the Fed, perhaps a trusted conservative economist with a track record of real accomplishment. There must be a few hundred of them available.

A real power in the Senate would have quietly signaled the White House that spouting sound bites on television just wasn’t adequate preparation for such an important job. A senator with a shred of independence would have never allowed a Stephen Moore to get in front of his committee.

All Crapo has said is that it’s a priority to fill vacancies on the Federal Reserve and he would not prejudge Moore’s nomination, while giving “it prompt attention.”

Maybe Crapo will yet head off this economic train wreck, potentially one of the most consequential, indeed disastrous of all Trump appointments. Or maybe he’ll do what Idahoans have come to expect of him and he’ll go along to get along and, in the process, further concede senatorial power and prerogatives to a man Crapo once said was so abundantly unfit for the office that he couldn’t support him for president.
 

A penchant for secrecy

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So, the Mueller report is released, but not really released. We have a four-page summary written by a guy who owes his job to the guy who the four-page letter exonerates. And the guy who wrote the four-page letter went into his job having established that the guy who appointed him couldn’t be guilty of obstruction of justice.

We’re told we may eventually see some of the real Mueller report, a document assembled over a two-year period during an investigation that established beyond a reasonable doubt that Russia interfered in an unprecedented way in the 2016 election. That investigation resulted in the indictment or guilty plea from 34 individuals and three companies. Not exactly a run of the mill definition of a “witch hunt,” but we must be very careful says the attorney general (seconded by the Senate Majority Leader) not to tell the public too much about such sensitive matters.

In the last few days we’ve witnessed merely the latest example of the American penchant for secrecy.

Idaho Senator Jim Risch quickly embraced the attorney general’s four-page summary as the definite word on all things Trump and Russia. “For me, there was no news in Mueller’s report,” Risch said in the statement, passing judgment without having seen the actual Mueller report.

“We have reviewed thousands of documents including dozens of witness statements throughout the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation, and I reached the same conclusion as Mueller,” Risch says with absolute certainty. “President Trump did not collude with the Russians.” Fair enough, but what about the rest of the report, a document the Justice Department has described as “comprehensive?” The Clift Notes are good for cramming for a test, but real understanding means reading the actual text.

By the way, a poll from Quinnipiac University found that 84% of voters they surveyed think Mueller’s report should be made public, while only 9% disagree.

Despite public support for much greater transparency across the board, Congress routinely joins the Executive branch and defaults to secrecy. Many if not most congressional hearings dealing with Russian involvement in the 2016 election – we are told that Putin-inspired activity remains ongoing – have been conducted behind closed doors. If Attorney General Robert Barr ever manages to get to Capitol Hill to answer questions from our representatives it’s a even bet the questions will be asked in secret and we’ll depend on second, third or fourth hand spinning of the answers from sources granted anonymity in order to, as the saying goes, “discuss sensitive matters.”

This kind of secrecy rarely happened in the past. The Teapot Dome scandal and the Watergate hearings were held in full public view. The penchant for congressional secrecy has increased in parallel to the penchant for extreme partisanship.

And Laura Rosenberger, who heads the Alliance for Securing Democracy, says transparency might force a bipartisan response that would address the next Russian influence operation. “Addressing Russia’s interference is a matter of national security,” Rosenberger told New York Magazine, “and will require partisanship to be put aside to take real steps to harden our defenses, deter Russia and other countries that might seek to follow suit, and build societal resilience.”

More secrecy, she says, “would play directly into Putin’s hands.”

The intelligence agencies are among the worst at overdoing secrecy and the congressional committees overseeing the agencies now routinely aid and abet the lack of transparency. We are assured that every thing is under control, while a senator bent on secrecy in service to partisanship can conveniently say – Risch does this all the time – that he has secret information that proves his partisan position.

The National Security Agency (NSA), one of the worst of the secret keepers, was, as Conor Friedersdorf has written, “maximally secretive from the start: President Truman created the NSA with the stroke of a pen at the bottom of a classified 7-page memorandum. Even the name was initially classified. Decades later, the memorandum that acted as the agency’s charter remained secret. Reflect on that for a moment. In a representative democracy, the executive branch secretly created a new federal agency and vested it with extraordinary powers. Even the document setting forth those powers was suppressed.”

Some things are so secret we can’t even admit they exist. NSA, it’s often been said, really stands for “No Such Agency.”

The Idaho Legislature is hardly immune from this epidemic of government by secrecy. Lawmakers have been debating legislation that would essentially do away with the ability of citizens to place an issue on the ballot and the origins of the awful idea to gut the initiative process has in no way seen the light of day. Increasingly what happens in public view during the lawmaking process is pro forma, developed and rehearsed in a back room and sanctified in public procedures that appear to include citizens, but really only involves the public as a prop in the process.

How else to explain the legislature’s headlong rush to destroy the initiative in the face of overwhelming public opposition? This whole smarmy mess was birthed in secret, hatched by lobbyists over lunch. It brings to mind Art Buchwald’s observation about where real political power resides. “Lunch is the power meal in Washington, D.C.,” Buchwald wrote, “it’s over lunch that the taxpayer gets screwed.”

Government secrecy is endemic, but even more it’s dangerous. As Frederick A.O. Schwartz has written – he was the chief counsel for the Senate Committee that investigated the intelligence agencies, the Church Committee – we need to understand the cost of all this secrecy.

“Too much is kept secret,” Schwartz wrote in his book Democracy in the Dark, “not to protect America but to keep embarrassing or illegal conduct from Americans.”

And while we’re thinking about secrecy, ask yourself what the last two years might have been had a certain political figure accepted the tradition that has existed since Richard Nixon, a tradition now shattered, of a president being transparent about his tax returns?

(photo/Lorie Shaull)
 

A carnival of Buncombe

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The journalist and social critic H.L. Mencken was made for the Trump era. Unfortunately Mencken, a guy given to using words such as buncombe, knaves, fanatics and fools in his Baltimore Sun columns and magazine articles, died in 1956, no doubt almost certainly convinced that a Trump-like character was in the country’s future.

“As democracy is perfected,” Mencken wrote, “the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

We have arrived.

Not many Americans remember Mencken these days even though he was once the best-known journalist – and the most full-throated cynic – in the country. Mencken was an equal opportunity basher of politicians. One suspects he would have loved the daily business of scraping the hide off our current crop of Democratic presidential hopefuls and he would have had an absolute field day with our deranged national tweeter.

In 1920, while Republicans and Democrats jockeyed for position and the chance to succeed President Woodrow Wilson, Mencken took on the entire field. He might have been writing about Beto or Biden or Bernie.

“All of the great patriots now engaged in edging and squirming their way toward the Presidency of the Republic run true to form,” Mencken wrote. “This is to say, they are all extremely wary, and all more or less palpable frauds. What they want, primarily, is the job; the necessary equipment of unescapable issues, immutable principles and soaring ideals can wait until it becomes more certain which way the mob will be whooping.”

We can only imagine what the Sage of Baltimore would have made of Trump and the president’s whooping mob, but charlatan was one of his favorite words. Fraud was another of his prized descriptions.

I got to thinking about Mencken this week after the most powerful man in the world spent most of last weekend attacking a decorated Vietnam veteran, prisoner of war and one-time Republican presidential candidate on social media. “I was never a fan of John McCain and I never will be,” the man with many grievances told us once again, seven months after most decent people came together, at least for a moment, to mourn one man’s courage and patriotism.

Thoughts came again of Henry – Franklin Roosevelt, who detested the writer for his barbed takes on the New Deal and FDR’s patrician privilege, called Mencken by his first name hoping to diminish him – when the Tweeter-in-Chief took time out from ravaging American agriculture with his tariff policies to assault the husband of his White House counselor as “a total loser.” The reality show presidency has morphed into “real house husbands of D.C.”

Henry would have mocked such idiocy, such buncombe, such complete claptrap.

What would one of America’s great social critics have made of the president’s daughter working in the White House while piling up patent approvals with a country we’re engaged with in a trade war? And what of the president’s grifting son-in-law, denied access to state secrets because he’s so clearly susceptible to – there’s that word again – fraud. And what of a political system that tolerates the nation’s chief magistrate maintaining a government lease on a gaudy hotel where every shade of influence seeker pays the rent knowing that their dollars flow directly to the cheater, the conman at the top? What a load of unmitigated rubbish.

Henry Louis Mencken often bemoaned the American predisposition to be hoodwinked by shameless scoundrels. A favorite target was a prominent populist blowhard of his day, William Jennings Bryan, although unlike our own prominent populist blowhard Bryan had some genuine principles. Nevertheless to Mencken the three-time presidential candidate “was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted … [and] ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest.” He could have been writing for tomorrow’s paper.

“A culture,” the conservative writer Peter Wehner wrote this week in The Atlantic,“lives or dies based on its allegiance to unwritten rules of conduct and unstated norms, on the signals sent about what kind of conduct constitutes good character and honor and what kind of conduct constitutes dishonor and corruption.” By those standards, or better yet by the decline of standards observed long ago by a Mencken, we have ceased to progress as a culture. We’re settling for buncombe when we might better demand brilliance, or at least competence.

Often H.L. Mencken reserved his most scathing takes on American politics not for the fools and knaves who occupied the hallowed halls of government, but for the gullible voters who put them in power. “The whole aim of practical politics,” Mencken once wrote, “is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” And to think he didn’t even know about the make belief “invasion” of the southwest border, or the “witch hunt” or the “fake news.”

“Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance,” Mencken once wrote. Cynics aren’t often the best judges of the overall direction of things, but our current tomfoolery is such that we’re left to a long-dead cynic to remind us that eventually “every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.”
 

Utter disdain

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On July 7, 1938, three avid Idaho outdoorsmen — R.G. Cole, Homer Martin and Dan McGrath — walked into the Idaho Secretary of State’s office in Boise. They were packing petitions containing the signatures of more than 24,000 Idahoans who were fed up with inaction from the Legislature.

The three hook and bullet enthusiasts used a statewide grassroots organization and old-fashioned shoe leather to accomplish what the Legislature had repeatedly failed to deliver — professional management of Idaho’s wildlife resources.

When their initiative went before the voters in November 1938, it passed with 76 percent of the vote. That’s how Idaho got its independent Fish and Game Commission 81 years ago.

The volunteers who cared about hunting and fishing would not have had to force the issue and voters would not have had to call the Legislature’s bluff, of course, if lawmakers had been listening. But they weren’t listening. The state Senate twice voted down proposals to create a fish and game department in the 1930s. And as far back as 1915, the otherwise commendable Gov. Moses Alexander vetoed a proposal to remove wildlife management from partisan politics. Ultimately the voters got a belly full and took action just as the Idaho Constitution envisioned.

Voters did the same thing in the 1950s when they limited dredge mining of the state’s rivers and in 1970s when they created the state’s Sunshine Law, mandating disclosure of campaign contributions and expenditures. Voters bypassed the Legislature in 1978 and passed a property tax limitation. They did so again in 1982 when they created the homeowner’s tax exemption.

In every case citizen action came after the Legislature diddled.

Now comes the self-righteous Republican legislative supermajority to try — again – to make it virtually impossible for their constituents to put an issue on the ballot. The number of signatures required to make the ballot could increase by more than half and the time to collect those signatures could shrink from 18 months to six. Republican Sen. C. Scott Grow’s bill would also require a significant number of voters to sign petitions in 32 of the state’s 35 legislative districts.

Hearings resume today on Grow’s abomination, a piece of legislation that can only properly be called an effort to create such sweeping impediments to citizen initiatives and referendums as to destroy what the Idaho Constitution promises. Here’s betting that the fix is in and GOP legislators will again blithely disenfranchise voters.

State Sen. Patti Ann Lodge of Huston, the Republican chairwoman of the State Affairs Committee, likely tipped her hand regarding the fate of Grow’s proposal when she cut off a hearing last week after just 45 minutes of testimony, while dozens of Idahoans opposed to the measure sat waiting to voice their disapproval.

Lodge defended her action by saying, “Everyone else who signed up is against the bill.”

Now, that’s democracy in action in Idaho.

It’s also telling that the only supportive testimony before Lodge’s committee came from the Idaho Farm Bureau, an outfit that exists primarily to put a rock on the NO button of Idaho politics, and the ill-named Idaho Freedom Foundation, a hard right-wing collection of anti-government zealots who sued unsuccessfully to stop the recent voter-approved expansion of Medicaid coverage for uninsured Idahoans.

In the “irony is dead” department was the testimony of the Freedom Foundation’s lobbyist, who said draconian changes to the initiative process were necessary to ensure “transparency,” an interesting line of argument from an outfit that steadfastly refuses to disclose which right-wing billionaire bankrolls its propaganda.

As Mark Twain famously quipped: “History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme,” and Michael Lanza, the Boise outdoor writer and photographer who led the successful fight to overturn the notorious “Luna Laws,” has seen it all before.

After then-Idaho state schools Superintendent Tom Luna rammed controversial “education reform” measures through the Legislature in 2012 and Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter eagerly signed them into law, Lanza and a coalition of parents, educators and business leaders got organized. They collected the signatures needed to put three measures to overturn Luna’s handiwork on the ballot. Each passed overwhelmingly, with one clearing 66.7 percent of the vote.

The effort was a huge victory for parents, teachers and public school students and a sharp rebuke of GOP lawmakers and Otter. As Lanza pointed out when I talked to him this week, the effort also had the desirable side benefit of “destroying Luna’s political career.”

The GOP Legislature, of course, immediately moved to make such effective and decisive citizen action much more difficult by upping the requirement to gain ballot access. Now they are at it again proposing even more drastic action.

“The state Legislature has demonstrated utter disdain for local control and citizen involvement,” Lanza told me. And, he says, the latest effort to destroy citizen involvement “is a direct response to the fact that voters decided to expand Medicaid” in the last election. “In a one-party system, especially with a supermajority, they feel no accountability to voters. They function like a Politburo or a mob family.”

In such an environment, Lanza correctly says, having the option for a citizen-initiated process to ensure accountability couldn’t be more important.

You don’t have to hang around the halls of the Idaho Legislature very long — 15 minutes should do it — before you hear some safely insulated right-wing Republican lawmaker voice the old trope that “the best government is that closest to the people.” That is one of the great myths of Idaho politics. Majority party lawmakers utterly abhor citizen involvement in their government.

They limit hearings all the time. They refuse to enact meaningful ethics legislation. They routinely strip local governments of basic decision-making authority. And barring a genuine citizen revolt or a veto from Gov. Brad Little, they will almost certainly gut the ability of Idaho citizens to put an issue on the ballot.

Republicans have now fully embraced autocracy in the White House, but they have long enjoyed pushing around their voters in the Statehouse. Stripping constituents of access to the ballot is nothing less than the ultimate insult to democracy.
 

Wait. Wait.

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By all appearances Idaho State Senator Brent Hill, the Rexburg Republican who is the president pro tem of the state senate, is a thoughtful, nice guy. He runs the state senate with a light tough, frequently invoking a “come let us reason together” demeanor. He seems far removed from the angry, fearful, resentful base of the Republican Party in the Era of Trump.

Yet, Hill’s recent decision to shelve again for another year any legislation that would extend human rights protections to Idaho’s LGBT community is, sadly, very much in keeping with current GOP orthodoxy of marginalizing communities that fall outside the party’s fearful, overwhelmingly white, religiously conservative base. Hill is practicing, or more correctly allowing to continue, the old conservative politics that preach that “the time is not yet right” to bring full human rights protections to fellow citizens too often left in the dark shadows of discrimination and hatred.

In a recent op-ed calling for more talking and no legislative action again this year, Hill struck what seems on the surface to be a moderate, caring tone. No doubt he meant to strike such a tone, but his language is as disappointing as it is misleading.

As Hill wrote the “only viable solution [to LGBT protection under Idaho’s human rights statute] is a balanced approach—one that will provide protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation while simultaneously safeguarding the right to fully exercise religious convictions.”

He called for more dialogue because, as Hill wrote, “it takes time … for people to better understand the concepts of this balanced approach and focus on the benefits it provides them.” It takes time, Hill said, time that Idaho’s overworked lawmakers just “do not have in the current legislative session.”

We just need more time. More time to talk. More time to reason. More time. More time.

Brent Hill surely did not intend for his manifesto for more talking to echo the calls of many religious leaders of the 1960s who counseled Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to go slow in the pursuit of civil rights for African-Americans. Hill perhaps didn’t intend to imitate those who counseled King to slow down, but he did just that. And King’s answer in 1963 remains today’s best answer to those, like Senator Hill, who counsel delay rather than provide moral leadership.

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” King wrote from the Birmingham jail where he was imprisoned for demonstrating not for “a balanced approach,” but for immediate justice and equality.

“Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed,’” King wrote to those who were critical of his aggressive efforts. “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”

Currently the Idaho Human Rights Act provides statutory protection for someone with strongly held religious beliefs, but a LGBT citizen has no protection under the law from discrimination related to employment, housing, public accommodation, and education.

And Senator Hill must know the argument that someone’s religious beliefs should allow them to deny another person’s fundamental human rights is, unfortunately, as old as America’s long toleration of racial hatred and as wrong as segregation.

As Dr. King knew – and died proving – rights are not merely granted they are won through demands and political action, including shaming the reluctant and those who counsel patience. Unfortunately, slow rolling before doing the right thing is part of Idaho history. Idaho was very late in adopting a day honoring Dr. King with some arguing as recently as 1990 that the country’s greatest civil rights warrior was a troublemaker unworthy of celebration.

It took four tries to adopt legislation authorizing kindergarten in the 1970s and now the fearful, resentful caucus stalls legislation to begin to provide pre-K education. Republicans can’t even agree on a measure outlawing child marriage.

Not liking that voters can actually put issues on the ballot and pass them into law Republican Senator C. Scott Grow of Eagle would make Idaho’s already extremely difficult initiative process next to impossible by adding new requirements for signature gathering. Grow talks about his proposed limitations on citizen political action as though it were a mere tweak of the law that implements what is embedded in the Idaho Constitution. His argument is flimsy and dishonest. Grow is proposing a fundamentally undemocratic measure designed not to empower citizens, but to diminish them. Other lawmakers would happily thwart the overwhelming will of Idaho voters by imposing conditions on access to medical care.

Make no mistake, the Idaho Republican Party, the party that has embraced a leader who, as conservative columnist Michael Gerson has written, “has made the denial of dignity to certain people and groups a political rallying cry,” is acting true to form.

Year after year, the party purposefully denies basic human rights to a sizeable group of Idaho citizens because they can’t get beyond their own intolerance. To give into such fear, resentment and old-fashioned bigotry, particularly in the guise of protecting religion, is an odious failure of moral leadership.

It takes courage, an attribute often lacking particularly in a one-party state, to stand up and be counted on what simply amounts to doing the right thing. Imagine if Brent Hill, a widely acknowledged decent and intelligent politician, would put the moral weight of his powerful position behind pulling Idaho forward to the benefit of thousands of his fellow citizens? Would he catch some grief from the fear mongers and haters on the far right? Of course he would. He should wear that pushback as a badge of honor.

Delay can be comfortable for those who know no discrimination.
 

The surest senator of all

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When he speaks about big issues Idaho Senator Jim Risch, the new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, likes to invoke his experience, the dozens of times he’s been on the ballot, his leadership of the Idaho State Senate and his early years as the Ada County prosecutor. One of Risch’s go-to lines is “I’ve been at this a long time.”

In the increasingly rare interviews Risch grants or when he, also rarely, entertains questions from voters his setup often goes something like this: “I’ve been at this [politics] a long time, I’ve been through 34 elections, I was a prosecutor and [in the context of the Russia investigation] I know what evidence looks like.”
Idaho Senator James E. Risch

All politicians display a certain level of confidence. It goes with the territory these days. The humble, self-effacing public servant is a relic of American political history, if indeed it has ever existed. But Risch has raised self-assurance to a new level, unlike anything Idaho has seen, well, ever and it’s gotten him into trouble.

Risch’s first real controversy as chairman came over his initial handling of the Senate’s demand for information from the Trump Administration on the murder of Washington Postcolumnist Jamil Khashoggi. When senator’s demanded that the administration follow the law and report on who had ordered Khashoggi’s brutal murder, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – Risch calls him a close friend – essentially said: “Mind your own business.”

Risch’s initial response was to fully back the Trump line. “We asked for the information. They sent it. And I put out a press release,” Risch told reporters. Then the proverbial organic matter hit the fan. Senate Republicans on Risch’s own committee demanded more and he did schedule a closed hearing earlier this week, but not before apparently misleading fellow Republicans on just how forthcoming the administration had been. All in all it was a stumbling, incoherent performance by a guy who has “been at this a long time.”

You have to wonder why?

Why has Risch worked so hard to shield the president from confronting the murder of a journalist, a murder the nation’s intelligence agencies have placed squarely at the feet of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman? Why are fellow Republicans like Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, Chuck Grassley and Mitt Romney confronting the administration over reprehensible Saudi behavior, while Risch has been carrying Trump’s water on both shoulders?

Remember that Trump has said of the Crown Prince, a pal of his son-in-law, that “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t” order the journalist’s murder.

During a contentious recent television interview, recorded while Risch was attending the annual Munich Security Conference in Germany, the senator invoked his “I’ve been at this a long time” certainty with another wrinkle he likes to use – “I know more than you, but because it’s classified I couldn’t possibly comment.”
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, identified by U.S. intelligence agencies as the man responsible for ordering the death of Washington Post columnist Jamil Khashoggi

Asked by veteran journalist Tim Sebastian whether he agreed with Graham’s characterization that there “was zero chance” that bin Salam had not ordered Khashoggi’s murder, Risch spun into a linguistic tap dance, first refusing to answer whether he agreed with the South Carolina senator and then invoking secrecy.

“I’m on the Intelligence Committee,” Risch said, “Lindsey isn’t. I’ve looked at every scrap of evidence there is on [Khashoggi’s murder] and unfortunately because of my position on the Intelligence Committee I can’t sit here and reiterate that for you, and in that regard I can’t comment on that.” Risch then said he could comment on the 17 Saudi nationals sanctioned by the U.S. government, but apparently his opinion about the Crown Prince is classified.

Again the question is why? Does Risch so value his access to the White House that he won’t summon moral outrage at the murder of a journalist whose body was dismembered with a bone saw and has still not been found? Why was he willing to launch his chairmanship by alienating fellow Republicans who must increasingly see him as an apologist for the heinous? Is Risch so concerned about a primary challenge from the far right that there is no “red line” of support for Trump that he will not cross?

In the same period that the senator was covering for the president and the Saudi Crown Prince he was effectively dismissing concerns about Trump campaign involvement with Russia. “It is simply not there,” the former prosecutor explained of his reading of Trump-Russia collusion. That certainty comes even as we now know that Paul Manafort, the convicted former Trump campaign chairman, was meeting with Russian operatives and sharing polling information literally while Trump was securing the GOP nomination in 2016.

In the face of mounting evidence of ongoing Russian efforts to interfere with American elections Risch told the Boise Chamber of Commerce recently “Russia is the most overrated country on the face of the planet. They get so much ink here. They get so much attention here, simply because of Trump, of course. These guys are incredibly inept. They are a nuclear power, there is no question about it. They certainly have some juice, there is no question about it. These guys, they are all bluster.”

Put that comment in context and again ask yourself why?

On July 27, 2016, then-candidate Trump looked straight into television cameras in Florida and said, “Russia, if you’re listening. I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing” — messages Hillary Clinton was said to have deleted from a private email server.

“Actually, Russia was doing more than listening,” as the Associated Press reported last week. “It had been trying to help Republican Trump for months. That very day, hackers working with Russia’s military intelligence tried to break into email accounts associated with Clinton’s personal office. It was just one small part of a sophisticated election interference operation carried out by the Kremlin — and meticulously chronicled by special counsel Robert Mueller.”

And ask yourself why wouldn’t the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee want to get to the bottom of that and so much more?
 

Eat or we both starve

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On an out of the way country road a few miles outside of Oxford, Mississippi you’ll find a place that claims to serve “the best catfish in the South.” The Taylor Grocery, actually a general store turned restaurant with a rusty gas pump out front that once promised “ethyl,” is the kind of place where the chicken is fried, the comfort food is red beans and rice and the pork chop comes covered in gravy.

At Taylor Grocery you can have sweet tea, soda and coffee. If you want a beer with dinner you bring a couple bottles in a paper sack, be discreet about it and the waitress will bring you a glass – made of plastic.

I certainly remember the rib sticking food at the place, but also remember the sign out front with a simple message: Eat or We Both Starve.

That sign in front of a shabby looking restaurant in the hardwood and pine forest of northern Mississippi is just about the perfect metaphor for what should be the central debate in American politics at the moment. The American middle class is a sad hollowed out husk of my parent’s generation. Lost in the economic turmoil, resentment and downright despair of millions of Americans is the notion that a robust, expanding middle class is what really makes a capitalist system function. The guy pushing fried oysters in Taylor, Mississippi, or selling cars in Reno or peddling new dishwashers in Clarkston doesn’t eat the farmer or schoolteacher or carpenter can’t afford to buy. We all starve.

Neither by mother or dad went to college, but they certainly saw to it that my brother and I did. They saw, properly so, that education was our society’s great advancer. They had every reason to believe, like their parents before them, that their kids would enjoy the American economic dream – a home, a car, an education and a decent job that would empower a whole new generation. We once considered that the American dream, back in the day when my dad could co-sign a $2,000 college loan that I could actually afford to repay.

But the stark reality is that the American dream for many fellow citizens is more illusion than expectation and there is evidence everywhere you look. The New York Federal Reserve reported recently that “a record 7 million Americans are 90 days or more behind” on their car payments, a metric that is genuinely worrying to many watchers of the economy. Many Americans are entirely dependent upon their automobile to get to work and they tend to make the car payment before anything else. That so many are so far behind is a stunner.

At the same time student-loan delinquency rates are going through the roof, more than $166 billion in delinquent loans in the fourth quarter of 2018 alone. As Bloomberg reports the total number of delinquent student loans is at a record $1.46 trillion.

Meanwhile, the prospects of a young American, even one with a good education, landing a job that will pay for the American dream are evaporating. In an article that manages to be both poignant and angry, Anne Helen Petersen wrote recently about why so many young Americans feel cheated by the enormous debt they have incurred to get a degree that then can’t produce a salary they can live on.

“The problem is the growing certainty that you were sold a false bill of goods about the immeasurable value of higher education,” Peterson wrote in BuzzFeed, “and that’ll you’ll be forever paying down the cost of a broken dream.”

There are dozens of realistic policy proposals to address these issues, including more focus on the affordability of community colleges and loan forgiveness programs that actually work. Peterson’s reporting confirms that many do not work and thousands of young people labor for years to make even a dent in their loan principal, let alone get to a level of financial security that allows a real pursuit of the dream.

The recent GOP tax bill has actually exacerbated the problem with graduate students who receive tuition breaks now required to treat those benefits as income. What kind of society taxes a young person for trying to get a master’s degree?

Meanwhile, the rich get richer and the middle class gets delinquency notices. University of California economist Gabriel Zucman recently published a paper on the continuing and dramatic growth in income inequality, another feature made worse by the Trump-Republican tax bill that was so enthusiastically supported by Idaho’s congressional delegation.

“U.S. wealth concentration has followed a marked U-shaped evolution of the last century,” Zucman writes. “It was high in the 1910s and 1920s … and the top 0.1% wealth share peaked at close to 25% in 1929.” The Great Depression stopped the increase and “after a period of remarkable stability in the 1950s and 1960s, the top 0.1% wealth share reached its low-water mark in the 1970s.” Now, “U.S. wealth concentration seems to have returned to levels last seen during the Roaring Twenties.”

The three wealthiest Americans – Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett – collectively have more wealth than the bottom 50% of the U.S. population, while about a fifth of Americans “have zero or negative net worth.” The only other places in the world were the wealth held by the super rich is as skewed are China and Russia. We truly are making oligarchs great again, while the folks who want to buy the appliances, the houses and hope to send their kids to school grow ever more marginalized.

The hollowing out of the once great American middle class, the loss of old-style manufacturing jobs, the decline of organized labor as a force for economic stability and worker protections, the skyrocketing cost of higher education and wage stagnation represent a crisis for American capitalism and politics. If fellow Americans aren’t reaping more rewards of the one-time American dream, we are all eventually going to starve.