weatherby JAMES
WEATHERBY
 

“This Town,” is both a funny and sad portrayal of Washington, DC’s elite. Author Mark Leibovich is the New York Times Magazine chief national correspondent. In his view, our nation’s capital is a town with a lot of back stabbers and self-serving parasites who are doing extremely well financially and not at all disturbed that the rest of the country is not.

“This Town,” hilarious reading at times, is combined with a searing critique. Snarky remarks are sprinkled throughout, made at the expense of well-placed DC celebrities.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is described as having “all the magnetism of a dried snail.” When interviewing Reid, the author imagined that Reid had “a little self-editing gerbil inside his skull hurling itself in the unimpeded pathway that typically connects his brain directly to his mouth.” But, believe it or not, the Reid profile is relatively positive; he’s weird but efficient, more authentic than most.

We, from far outside the beltway, regard DC as a highly polarized city, divided into fiercely warring partisan camps. But Leibovich writes of a much different version – one of bipartisanship and teamwork – but that’s not a good thing. The goal of these political elites is primarily to make money, lots of it. These powerful insiders are politicians, lobbyists, consultants, Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals.

Leibovich concludes that “far from being hopelessly divided, in fact they are hopelessly interconnected.”

The explosion of money over the last twenty years or so in and around the federal government has sparked a virtual gold rush: increased spending in governing, campaigning, and lobbying. The capitalists among us would say that’s okay; nothing wrong with making money, unless we consider that much of the money in their pockets are our federal tax dollars. No wonder that Washington DC is America’s wealthiest town.

There’s plenty of fodder in this book for those who reflexively hate and distrust DC.

Solving our nation’s problems is becoming less and less a priority. According to Leibovich, “the business of Washington relies on things not getting done” – so much for all of the optimistic talk about both immigration reform and tax reform. Why leave millions of dollars on the table by solving problems today that could fester for many more years of debate and conflict producing even bigger lobbying and consulting payouts. And, when problems are eventually “solved,” the solution often comes in the form of huge, complex legislation loaded up with all kinds of loopholes quietly inserted by lobbyists, the kind of legislation elected officials probably don’t even read. These supposedly minor tweaks to the legislation mean hundreds of millions to the interests who pay the lobbyists and “rent” the elected officials.

Washington’s revolving door swings wider as these elites move seamlessly between public and private sector employment. It used to be only a few stayed and became lobbyists. Now it’s common for elected officials and top staffers to parlay their experience and connections into lucrative lobbying contracts. Few go home anymore.

“Formers stick to Washington like melted cheese on a gold plated toaster.”

All of this movement raises at least one major ethical issue – conflict of interest. Who are these people working for at any given time? When did they actually become coopted? When were they approached by a lobbyist saying something like: “you’re good at your job, what are you going to do when you leave. Maybe you could come to work for us?” Instantly a whole new world opens up, dollar signs dance in their heads. What Leibovich calls the “preemptive bride” has been tendered. Once that kind of bribe is offered and positively responded to, it is a legitimate question to ask who indeed are they working for as they complete their “public service careers?”

Leibovich makes a powerful indictment but, as a journalist, offers no remedies.

Washington’s political culture is held up to a mirror but the reader is left looking for solutions on how our ship of state might be righted. What Leibovich has given us should make even the most committed big government fan cringe. What kind of trajectory are we on? What kind of outrageous tale might a similar book tell twenty years from now: a larger elite class, unencumbered by term limits, still feeding off the public trough to the determinant of the rest of the country? Are there any limits to the growth of the mercenary crowd?

What difference, if any, will this book make? Will it be known more for scathing comments and profiles or for planting the seed for real change in Washington, DC that is too often promised but rarely achieved? That, to a significant degree, rests in the hands of the reader who, once informed, may or may not join the revolution to really change the culture of our nation’s capital.

(Weatherby is an emeritus professor, former lobbyist and a native of the Palouse country. He lives in Boise.)

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weatherby JAMES
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Pity the state’s poor majority party fighting to keep its nominating process free from intruders: independents and unfriendly partisans. Never mind that this highly successful party has dominated state politics for decades and that its opposition struggles to field credible candidates willing to run. Despite their seemingly powerful positions, party leaders often have limited say over who will be their general election candidates, that’s left to the primary election voters who may or may not be well intentioned.

In an open primary system, voters choose a party ballot without having to register a party affiliation. There is much speculation concerning the motivations of crossover primary voters (independents and members of another party). Some seek to nominate the weakest candidate, easy prey for their preferred general election candidate. Others vote for a candidate who is more compatible with their more centrist views. Either choice cancels out the vote of many of the hard-line party faithful.

Though it took a lawsuit in federal court against the state’s chief election official to overrule legislation passed by a Republican legislature, GOP party activists won the day and successfully closed the Republican primary reversing the open system in place since the 1970s. Forcing Republican stalwarts to affiliate with primary voters who refuse to affiliate with them is a violation of the U. S. Constitution’s First Amendment right of association or, more relevantly, freedom of non-association according to U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill’s 2011 ruling. So why rehash the battle already won by Rod Beck and other Idaho GOP activists? Well, I’m not only writing about Beck and his allies but also about his like-minded strange bedfellows: liberal Hawaii Democrats.

Just as the GOP activists in Idaho want bad intentioned Democrats and freethinking independents out of “their” nominating process, so do Democratic Party leaders in Hawaii, complaining about the rascal Republicans and fickle independents. Mirroring Idaho Republicans, Hawaii Democrats recently filed suit in US District Court to keep the crossover undesirables from voting in their primary. And again as in Idaho, many elected officials, Democrats in this case, opposed the lawsuit. According to Governor Neil Abercrombie (D), “the Democrats have been inclusive, drawing strength from bringing together a diversity of people and perspectives.” But those in support of the lawsuit thought a closed primary would “ensure Democrats are elected at the primary stage by their fellow Democrats” and that the potential for crossover voting in the open primary weakened the party and made it more difficult for its views to be seriously considered. Sound familiar? Different set of actors, same dialogue, and same play!

In Idaho there’s fear that the radical right, empowered by a closed primary, will overreach and in Hawaii there are similar fears of the excesses of the radical left.

Closed primaries in states with a one-party system typically produce more extreme candidates – and it appears that’s the goal of hard core activists in both Idaho and Hawaii.

Activists expect their party platform, often driven by their ideology, to be supported by their elected officials and not ignored. They abhor the RINOs, “Republicans in Name Only,” or DINOs, “Democrats in Name Only,” (not sure they use this term in Hawaii but maybe they should) who seem to be more concerned about reelection and/or dealing with the pedestrian details of governing than in maintaining partisan or ideological purity.

As Idaho and Hawaii activists have demonstrated, the struggle to assert partisan power is not the sole province of either Republicans or Democrats. Both struggle with what to do with independent or weakly affiliated voters. Both are concerned about the

Declining clout of their respective parties despite their long list of electoral victories, too many of which have not been translated into policy victories.

That both parties fight to control their candidate nominations should come as no surprise. The Progressives who championed the primary over “the smoke filled rooms” of a century ago were largely anti-party and worked to develop a system that would empower the average voter and weaken the grip of party leaders on what is one of the most important decisions made in a democracy – the selection of a party nominee.

The fight over nominee selection processes never ends and to a large extent that’s understandable. Idaho has tried a whole variety of nominating systems. We’ve had conventions, closed primaries, then open primaries and now one closed primary in 2012. Were Idaho Republican politicos satisfied with the 2012 track record of their closed primary? We didn’t hear a lot of objections from the winning candidates. But some GOP activists have tried to further narrow the process – unsuccessfully proposing central committee endorsements as a prerequisite for candidates running in their closed primary. Other Republicans, especially elected officials, want to revisit the closed primary that produced an abysmally low voter turnout and they still worry about excluding the growing numbers of independent voters.

What you see is not what you get in observing Idaho or Hawaii’s politics. On one dimension they’re both one-party states. On another dimension, they are multiparty states featuring fiercely divided factions within the dominant party and minor parties struggling to be relevant.

(Weatherby is a political analyst, emeritus professor and former lobbyist who lives in Boise, Idaho.)

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weatherby JAMES
WEATHERBY
 

Idaho is one of only two states that taxes Girl Scout cookies. How could a heartless legislature turn its back on a tax relief request from this very worthy organization? And how could they deny a tax exemption on goods purchased by homeless shelters?

In 1988, the Governor’s Tax Study Committee expressed its concern about the growth of exemptions whether they were serving a public interest or just providing “favors to various special interest groups”. In 2003, that “concern” was again addressed by a legislative task force that scrutinized exemptions. Despite the optimism expressed in several editorials around the state, substantive action did not follow. Though there seemed to be significant support for reform, there was little appetite for taking on entrenched interests who benefited from the tax breaks.

Fast forward to 2013. Both sales tax exemption bills were strongly endorsed in the House committee and easily passed on the House floor. Even with opposition from some members of Senate leadership, it was widely believed that at least the Girl Scout cookies bill would pass on the floor of the Senate and become law. But both bills died without even a Senate hearing.

In a few months we’ll have another legislative session and no doubt the Girl Scouts will be back. Will the cookie crumble in the Senate – in an election year? Maybe. But how long can some Senate leaders assert their opposition to what seems to be reasonable bills? Virtually every legislative session in modern memory has considered one or more bills granting sales tax exemptions, so how can lawmakers deny exemptions to the Girl Scouts and to homeless shelters when the law is riddled with tax breaks to possibly less worthy organizations but ones who have far more political muscle? They may be coming late to the party, but the senators position is that until the sales tax is reformed or a well developed criteria for exemptions is established, more exemptions should not be granted.

Enacted in the 1960s, the sales tax is outdated. It was designed for a manufacturing based economy, not the service based economy we have today. Extending the sales tax to services has been a much debated policy option for about 30 years, but to enact an extension to services would involve a tax increase for many current tax-break beneficiaries. Tax reform bills are often supported in concept but shredded beyond recognition in the messy process of lawmaking.

Tax reform that is more likely, is to apply the sales tax to Internet purchases. Nationally, this approach is gaining momentum in Congress. The United States Senate just passed an Internet sales tax bill allowing states to force Internet retailers to collect and remit taxes to state and local governments. Meanwhile, back in Idaho, a majority of House tax writers expressed their opposition to the federal Internet sales tax legislation. They even opposed joining the 24 state consortium that is working on an implementation measure to simplify tax structures and clarify tax definitions if the federal legislation is enacted. They not only opposed broadening the base, they wanted to further narrow it.

What’s their argument? They claim that an Internet sales tax would be a tax increase. Bogus. Under the Idaho Sales and Use Tax legislation adopted in 1965, taxes on Internet purchases are due and payable. (On our honor, we’re supposed to compute sales tax on our Internet purchases and file such on our state income tax returns.) Influential Idaho business and local government groups are in support of enforcing the Use Tax. Many brick and mortar businesses oppose the current system that requires them to collect taxes on their Main Street sales while online providers enjoy the competitive advantage of tax-free transactions. It’s the fairness issue: treat Internet retailers the same way we treat Main Street. If congressional action succeeds and corresponding state implementation steps are taken, additional annual revenues for Idaho are anticipated to be approximately $60 million.

Enacting an Internet sales tax would be a significant step forward, but it is not the complete answer. Increased erosion of the sales tax base by way of the arbitrary pick-and-choose-approach to tax exemptions calls for in-depth analysis of the long-term effects on the state’s revenue stream. A comprehensive overhaul of the state sales tax is badly needed. It will require of our elected officials careful evaluation and courageous implementation to redesign a tax code that is equitable and effective for all of Idaho.

Jim Weatherby is a political analyst, emeritus professor and former lobbyist who lives in Boise, Idaho.

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weatherby JAMES
WEATHERBY
 

Introducing here James Weatherby, whose column will begin appearing here periodically. Weatherby is a political analyst, emeritus professor and former lobbyist who lives in Boise. He is a former professor at Boise State University and a former executive director of the Association of Idaho Cities.

Going into this year’s Idaho legislative session there was a lot of talk about the first-year class and speculation about its potential impact. The biggest bloc of newcomers are Republican House members who represent over 40% of the GOP House caucus.

This huge class is largely due to redistricting, retirements, and the migration to the Senate of several of last year’s House members.

Speaker Scott Bedke has had many kind words to say about these new House members – understandable to some degree because they no doubt helped provide the margin of victory for his historic election as Speaker. But he should be impressed, regardless. They have interesting, diverse backgrounds and many have local government leadership experience. Eventually dubbed by the media as the “gang of 16,” this group is from across the state. Every region is represented: 3 (northern), 4 (southwestern), 3 (southcentral), and 6 (southeastern).

Their coming together was one of the more interesting stories in recent Idaho legislative politics. As a group force, unlike some of their earlier predecessors, these rookies have not been bashful. Their most notable action was their support of a “trailer bill” to strengthen legislative oversight of a proposed state health insurance exchange. If the oversight language were added, these freshmen would support the exchange. From all appearances their 16 (later only 14) votes turned out to be crucial to the final passage of the exchange legislation. Fourteen votes represented a big share of the 36 votes needed to pass this highly controversial House bill.

The defection of the two original “gang” members who ultimately voted no denied Speaker Scott Bedke a majority of his own caucus in support of the biggest bill of this legislative session. The GOP House caucus split 28-29 on the measure. Democratic votes were necessary to pass the bill – a rather rare occurrence.

The close vote illustrates a significantly divided caucus which comes as no real surprise. The 2 final defections also are indicative of the intense pressure applied to all members and maybe more specifically to the freshmen who were barely settled into their new positions before they were required to vote on what may be the defining vote of their legislative careers.

The emergence of this coalition is a reminder of the rather large freshman and sophomore classes in the 1980s primarily created by a major change in legislative redistricting. Fourteen House seats were added by a judicially imposed redistricting plan which enlarged the House from 70 members to 84.

Freshmen Representatives Jerry Deckard (R-Eagle) and Dean Haagenson (R-Coeur d’Alene) were the leaders of what became known as the “Steelhead Caucus” named for fish who swim upstream. These moderates were in very conservative waters in their own caucus.

During the 1980s and 1990s the “Steelheads” had several major policy victories (increased funding for education, for example) as well as helping to elect a centrist (or less conservative) Speaker: Tom Boyd sharply differed in leadership style and, to a degree, ideological orientation from the former Speaker Tom Stivers. One cannot understand the legislative politics of that era without taking into account the significant contributions of this informal caucus.

The other significant coalition in Idaho history that comes to mind was the “economy bloc” of conservative Senate Democrats (yes, Democrats) and Republicans, largely from rural areas. In the 1950s and 1960s this bloc developed their own proposed budgets, had potent public relations campaigns, and played a major role in defeating appropriation and revenue measures not to their liking. They were especially lethal in their attack on sales tax proposals.

The future is not clear for this present day alliance. Is their interest and influence just the health insurance exchange around which they can all agree or are there underlying ideological or value orientations that bind them together? – too soon to tell. But at least their actions and rhetoric injected some much needed pragmatism in a legislative debate that tended to focus as much on socialism and tyranny as on the real question before the Legislature (and a limited one at that): are we going to have a federal or a state exchange in Idaho?

Time will tell whether the combined influence of these freshmen extend beyond this session. The politics of 2014 will also determine how many of them lose their jobs because of closed Republican primary contests where the ideologues who rail against the implementation of “Obamacare” have far more clout than in a general election. It’s not inconceivable that in 2015 we’ll be talking about another large first-year class whose tilt will be much farther right, determined to undo the “mistakes” of their predecessors. Such a turn of events would be a notable loss to the citizens of Idaho.

The Idaho legislature can benefit from more independent thinking, problem
solving legislators who are willing to take on major issues in the coming
years. At the very least, let’s hope they support adequate funding for all levels of education, deal with our state and local transportation needs, and extend anti-discriminatory legislation for all Idahoans.

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