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Posts published in March 2019

A penchant for secrecy


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)

The days contain multitudes


Imagine for a moment you are a member of the Idaho State Senate. (If you happen to be a member, you can just remember). On last Tuesday, here is some - not all - of what passed before you for your informed and careful consideration, and on which you were being asked to vote.

At the 10th order of business (we’ll just bypass the earlier nine) came votes to decide whether the Senate should agree with amendments made in the House to earlier-passed Senate bills: 1113 (on campaign finance), 1057 (on school improvement plans) and 1060 (early graduation in schools).

Next came a Senate concurrent resolution (116) to allow the Office of Performance Evaluations “to hire a consultant to study highway district consolidation and to review the role of the Local Highway Technical Assistance Council.” (It passed narrowly, 20 to 14.)

Next was first and second reading of a number of bills - no final decision - and a “report of the committee of the whole.” The committee of the whole is where bills can be amended on the Senate floor, so the senators were being asked to agree to decisions on amending two House bills, 217 (on local economic development) and 259 (having to do with how sales tax is collected under certain circumstances).

Then Third Reading, normally the centerpiece of business on the Senate floor, where final votes are done. But first came requests, as sometimes happens, to do other things - send them to other places for other sorts of action, or amendment or trashing - to three Senate bills, 1204 (on Medicaid eligibility), 1177 (on distributing horse racing funds) and 1124 (on grandparent visitation rights). All of these were done by unanimous consent: every senator had to okay it.

Okay, then. Here’s where the Senate votes up or down on actual bills. On this day, these included Senate Bill 2012 (the Tax Commission budget), Senate Bill 1203 (the Department of Labor budget), Senate Bill 2015 (administrative rules procedures), House Bill 78 (criminal diversion programs), House Bill 137 (dangerous dogs), House Bill 30 (“an evaluation committee when a criminal defendant’s alleged incompetency may be the result of a developmental disability”), House Bill 149 (self-funded health plans), House Bill 194 (internet use in public libraries) and House Bill 169 (a federalism committee).

That was all during the morning session, which ran from 9:30 to 12:19, a little less than three hours. You can imagine how much extensive debate each measure went through. Cough, cough.

In the afternoon session, which ran from to 2:30 to 4:42 - just over two hours - the Senate considered and passed 16 more bills (I won’t test your patience describing them all here, but they were as varied as in the morning), along with other action.

More or less the same happened about the same time in the Idaho House.

I didn’t single out Tuesday because it was unusual. To the contrary; in the latter weeks of an Idaho legislative session, most days run like this. (Hit the legislature’s web site for the House or Senate journals to get the details.) Think of those old-fashioned pneumatic tubes that use vacuum paper from one place to another; watching legislative floor action toward the end of a session is something like that, a high-speed factory of legislation shoveled in one side and pouring out the other.

Remarkably, it mostly works, allowing for mistakes here and there and differences in whatever you may think of the choices made. But let there be no pretense that slow, thoughtful, painstaking deliberation was made over each and every one of those decisions. True, committees generally review these measures as well, but the final decisions are made by all the legislators, including the large majority who didn’t serve on the committees involved. (None of this is unique to Idaho, either.)

So when you hear a legislator tell you, as some may try to do in the weeks and months ahead, that Idaho’s legislators are far better equipped and able to spend time and effort in carefully evaluating the hundreds of pieces of legislation introduced in a session (about 500 so far this year) than ordinary voters - they’re just snowflakes, you see - could possibly spend over a period of a year or more considering four or five ballot issues …

Well. You might want to apply more than a droplet of skepticism to that argument.

Hostages and the Bedke Rule


The primary function of the Idaho legislature is to set the annual budget. Our dear representatives love to wax eloquent on policy issues, and that is well within their function. But this year the Idaho voters spoke up on a policy issue the legislature has avoided for six years, Medicaid Expansion, and the Idaho House of Representatives is holding the Idaho voters hostage, refusing to address the budget for what is now Idaho law.

Six budget bills were passed by the Idaho Senate weeks ago that funded Medicaid Expansion. For weeks now, House leadership has refused to bring them up for a vote. Instead they have passed a “sideboards” bill, sending it to the Senate despite overwhelming testimony in opposition. And realize, this “sideboards bill” will cost Idaho taxpayers millions more than the simple Medicaid Expansion bills sitting on the House calendar.

Further, House Republicans signaled to the Senate they wanted the “Gag the Voters” initiative-killing bill (SB1159) sent over so they can approve it. House Republicans are puckered up on the lemonade they are making from what they see as a real lemon; the voter passed Medicaid Expansion Initiative.

House Speaker Scott Bedke got hurt real bad in 2013, his first year as the leader, when he let the House vote on a state health insurance exchange. He thought he had the majority of his caucus in support, but two Republican House members switched their votes at the last minute and the only way the exchange bill passed the House was thanks to strong Democratic support. He has vowed to never let such a thing happen again. The only way a tough bill comes to the floor of the Idaho House is with Speaker Bedke’s approval and he will only allow such a vote if he knows he has the majority of his caucus on board. That’s the “Bedke Rule” and it sucks.

By holding the Medicaid Funding bills hostage Speaker Bedke is giving the already supermajority House Republicans (56) total power over the body. He is negating the votes of the super minority House Democrats (14). Bedke is letting partisan politics trump the will of the people and holding them hostage.

I understand the Idaho Republican Party feels stung by the people’s initiative. They took a strong official stance against Proposition Two, even though many of their fellow Republicans, including former Governor Otter endorsed and voted for it. It makes partisan sense for them to now remove the people’s power of the initiative as they are doing with the “Voter Gag” initiative killing bill SB1159. But if they were being honest they would just work to repeal the Constitutional power of the initiative, not make it impossible through a law.

The Idaho legislature has been on a power grab for years now. The recent Constitutional Amendment to enshrine administrative rules review took two tries and some substantial Farm Bureau funding to pass the second time. This was the legislature puffing its chest against the executive branch.

But now they want to exert their power over the people. It’s not the first time. Every time voters have passed an initiative the Republican-led legislature has voted to make the initiative process further from the reach of the voters. In 1997, after the term limits initiative the legislature raised the bar. That was declared unconstitutional, so they quietly repealed the statute. But when the LUNA Laws were repealed by referendum, the Republican legislature reinstated the higher bar requirements, essentially ignoring the judicial branch. Now they want the initiative process beyond reach, securing their power in what is constitutionally designed to be a balanced system.

Speaker Bedke’s refusal to vote on the appropriations bills sitting on his calendar for the last two weeks is further bullying of the public he and his fellow Republican legislators are sworn to serve. This is not leadership, it is tyranny. Good people must resist when they see tyranny, especially in those they elect.

An over-reaction


So much of the nation's attention is focused these days on Washington - so little on our states and localities - that the slightest tremor there is apt to result in wild overstatements, and every event becomes a world-shaker. The latest about the summary of the Mueller report - it feels vaguely ridiculous even to write the words - is a classic example of the syndrome.

Part of it is that the Mueller investigation been over-promoted - the subject of exaggerated hopes and fears - for a couple of years now. The latest on it, a four-page summary of the Mueller report (including just 67 words of a report whose size is as yet unknown), into criminal activity relating to the Trump presidential campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election, is wild over-reaction.

The underlying report, developed by former FBI Director Robert Mueller and has staff as special counsel, was delivered late last week to Attorney General William Barr. And Barr in turn - while not releasing the report, or more than the aforementioned 67 words of it - did offer a four-page summary saying he could not find in it enough evidence to support criminal charges of Russian collusion or obstruction of justice. To what extent that represented Mueller's full take on the matter is unclear.

The artfully-worded statement was seized on, quickly, by President Donald Trump and his supporters as (as Trump put it) "complete and total exoneration." They either directly or indirectly called for apologies for two years of negative headlines about Russian collusion. Significant numbers of Trump critics seemed set back on their heels, both on the substance and on the politics.

Considered dispassionately, the Barr statement actually changes nothing other than the news cycle of a day or two.

First, we don't yet have the actual Mueller report, and we haven't heard from Mueller; when we do, that may or may not change the picture again, but we don't know yet. Democrats in Congress have been trying to bring both to light, and until that happens we won't know what in fact he did or didn't find beyond the extensive court filings he's already made (which seem to be forgotten in the wake of Barr's summary). Barr's statement was carefully drafted; at the most favorable interpretation to Trump, it leaves open quite a lot of wrongdoing, and at the least favorable, it leaves open a lot. It's a long way from exoneration under any realistic interpretation.

And we should remember Barr's back history of protecting presidents in trouble. One sample backgrounder from recent days should give the flavor of his actions in past years: "Back in 1992, the last time Bill Barr was U.S. attorney general, iconic New York Times writer William Safire referred to him as “Coverup-General Barr” because of his role in burying evidence of then-President George H.W. Bush’s involvement in “Iraqgate” and “Iron-Contra.”" Safire, a veteran of the Nixon White House, would know something about presidential cover-ups.

Personally, I find it notable that Barr didn't have Mueller standing next to him explaining what he had found, and what he hadn't. Mueller's silence so far speaks volumes to me. So did the fact that the tenor of the investigation seemed to change dramatically when Barr became attorney attorney; up to then, we'd seen a stream of indictments and other actions. They stopped when Barr arrived. You can expect some of these points, and others related, to surface loudly in the days ahead.

Which brings up, if we're going to examine the idea of exoneration, the mass of indictments, convictions and prison sentences delivered so far, over the last two years, to the many of the leading operatives in the Trump campaign. And the mass of information developed to date, in and out of that investigation, which have noted more than 100 undisputed contacts between people in the Trump campaign - including members of Trump's own family - and Russian operatives. And the strange behavior Trump and people close to him have exhibited toward Russia and toward this nation's long-time allies. Nor has the efforts of Trump to trash the Mueller investigation (witch hunt!) or use his authority to dismiss or derail it with Justice Department officials, or outright firings in some cases, gone away.

Criminal standards for obstruction of justice and collusion with a foreign power (which isn't actually a crime anyway) are one thing; but in the ordinary use of those words, those offenses have been long since established, with or without the Mueller investigation, in many, many ways, through means official and unofficial, not least through statements and actions the president himself has put on the record.

As a matter of politics, the Mueller report was unlikely to have changed much whatever it said. A harsher outcome (assuming here that Barr's summary is a fair representation of what was there) might have encouraged agitation for impeachment, but no serious effort at impeachment ever was likely unless conviction in the Senate was probable, and no Mueller outcome could have guaranteed that. Otherwise, people who approve of Trump and who don't - and nearly the whole population falls into one group or the other - overwhelmingly will stay where they are. A harsher Mueller outcome would have been dismissed as the witch hunt their leader long declared it to be; this one will not make Trump any converts among his critics. Very few minds will change.

For now, eyes should turn at the effort to pry loose Mueller and the text of the report, not to mention Barr's role with the investigation. But even if daylight shines there, don't expect a lot to change.

The road is long, and this is but another winding turn.

The white supremacist threat


In the aftermath of the massacre of fifty Muslims by an avowed white supremacist at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, President Trump was asked whether he saw white nationalism as a growing threat around the world. He replied, “I don’t really. I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.” While the President may not regard these extremists as a threat, they most decidedly are and we, as a nation, should be working to eliminate that danger to our safety.

White terrorists are nothing new to America. Unfortunately, they surface from time to time to wreak their havoc on vulnerable groups in our country. For decades, the Ku Klux Klan lynched, burned, shot, and otherwise brutalized African-Americans. The KKK also terrorized our Jewish population.

The KKK was a power across the country, including in Idaho, in the nineteen-twenties. Years later, Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was motivated by white power and hatred of the government to kill 168 people. More recently, Dylann Roof killed nine black worshippers in their Charleston church in 2015.

The current white supremacy movement in the U.S. is now linked with white power enthusiasts across the globe, thanks to social media. Brenton Tarrant, the murderer in New Zealand, was inspired by Anders Breivik, a Norwegian white power terrorist who killed 77 people, mostly kids. Christopher Hasson, the Coast Guard officer who was arrested in Maryland in February before he could fulfill his dream of setting off a race war, also drew inspiration from Breivik.

These people share the perverted grievance that white folk are in danger of being replaced by people they regard as inferior. They often make reference to “white genocide” and speak of the country being “invaded” by lawless immigrants and undesirable “others.” The cadre of torch-bearing white nationalists marching around Charlottesville in August of 2017 were chanting “Jews will not replace us.” It is doubtful that the hateful group contained many “very fine people.”

The threat is dangerous and growing. Robert Bowers killed 11 of our Jewish brothers and sisters at their Pittsburgh synagogue last October. This outrage is enough, in and of itself, to constitute a serious threat to our country. Bowers, Roof, McVeigh, Hasson, Breivik, and Tarrant are just the tip of the iceberg. They have many followers who applaud their actions, as demonstrated by the supportive response they receive on social media.

The FBI and Homeland Security Department warned in May 2017 of the threat of “lethal violence” posed by white supremacist groups. However, the extent of white terrorism is not readily apparent because it is not monitored and dealt with the same as foreign-inspired terrorism. Rather than being charged with terrorist activity, home-grown terrorists are often charged with murder, assault and other garden variety crimes.

The Anti-Defamation League has conducted a review of extremist killings and concluded that the majority are committed by white supremacists. The ADL reported: “White supremacists have killed more people in recent years than any other type of domestic extremist (54% of all domestic extremist-related murders in the last 10 years).” There has been an uptick in such crimes in the last couple of years.

And, even a small white extremist group can pose a serious danger. The Aryan Nations group in Hayden did not appear to be a large group but Idahoans considered them to be a threat. We rose up and said we would not tolerate their perverted creed. They were soon gone.

Incidentally, the ADL played a significant role in that effort, along with many Idahoans of good will. Let’s now demand that effective action be taken to clamp the lid on white terrorists across the country. A small group with very, very serious problems can threaten us all.

Marines vs. Navy


Polling. Polling. ‘Tis the season to be polling.

Unfortunately, when it comes to asking the public about Democrat presidential contenders, the numbers are just about meaningless at the moment. Way too early.

Saw one this week that had Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders way out in front. Duh. Of the 20 or so names on a pollster’s question sheet, do any of the others have the name identification of a 40 year politician - and recent Vice President for eight years - and a sitting senator who’s been running for President for 10 years and still has a national network of supporters?

It’s going to likely take another year for anything meaningful to come out of political sampling statistics. There’ll be lots of pushing and shoving and more than a few dropouts by early 2020.

Here in our cactus-littered landscape, we have an interesting race coming up. With some unique human interest.

After the death of John McCain, former Arizona Senator John Kyl was appointed to fill the remaining months until the 2018 election. At the same time, two of our members of Congress were going head-to-head for the other Senate opening to replace Jeff Flake who quit after polling showed him losing.

Eventually, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema beat the GOP’s Martha McSally in a close one.

Just before a new Congress could be seated, Kyl - as promised - stepped down, leaving McCain’s chair empty. So, what did our faithful Republican Governor do about filling it? Well, now, he just reached out and plopped the loser in the 2018 Senate race in it. The candidate the public had just rejected. McSally is in there until 2020 when - as the incumbent - she’s got to run again.

Hold those thoughts.

Several years ago, our Rep. Gabby Giffords was badly wounded in an assassination attempt in Tucson. During a long recovery, she was forced to resign and one of her staff members was eventually elected to replace her.

The main support for Giffords during recovery was her husband - former astronaut Mark Kelly. As she got better, the two of them started a national campaign to tighten requirements for gun ownership. Many prominent people joined in and the movement is now well-recognized and represented in several states.

A tragic story could happily end right there. But, it doesn’t.

After a lot of urging by a lot of people, Kelly has decided to run against McSally next year. Lots of hoopla around here when he made the announcement. Arizona has traditionally been a pretty red state. But, several House seats have recently gone to Democrats and Sinema is our first Dem in the Senate in 40 years.

Kelly was more than just another astronaut in our space program. He and his twin brother provided a unique opportunity for NASA to further determine the human effects of extended spaceflight when one twin circled the globe for a year while the other sat it out in Houston under the watchful eye of doctors. Additionally, Mark Kelly made three space flights himself.

As a result, Kelly brings a lot of charisma and name identification to the political wars. Around these parts, he’s thought of a lot more than just “local boy makes good.” So, there’s got to be some real concern in the McSally camp.

But, to me, there’s one more part of the promised McSally-Kelly match-up that will make it unique.

If all goes as planned, we’ll have a former Marine fighter pilot - McSally - running against a former Navy fighter pilot - Kelly - to replace another former Navy fighter pilot - McCain.

You just can’t get much more human interest than that.

A carnival of Buncombe


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.”

Two-sided civility


The Idaho Senate President pro tem, Brent Hill, had some words for a crowd that held a meeting in the home district of one of the state senators, C. Scott Grow, a fellow Republican from Eagle. Grow did not appear at the meeting, which drew about 80 constituents; apparently Hill had asked him to attend another event instead. In response a cardboard representation of Grow was installed at the event.

Here’s what Hill was quoted as saying:

“In the front of the room you placed a cardboard effigy of one of my colleagues. He became the target of … mockery because you disagreed with him on an issue. ... It’s my fault. So next time you can place my effigy next to his and I’d be honored to be in his company. I am glad he didn’t go to the meeting now when I found out what the obvious intent of the meeting was. But folks, if you think it’s acceptable to use those kind of tactics to gin people up, to get them to contact their legislators or to distrust their government or to sign a petition, then that makes me sad that we’ve come to that. And if you think that that behavior picked up any votes from this body you’re wrong.”

The words from Hill - who by longstanding reputation is a highly civil and even-tempered man - sound familiar coming from a member of legislative leadership. And that is why some unpacking of them is worthwhile.

The issue at hand, the reason the crowd developed at that meeting in Grow’s home district, was his sponsorship of a bill which would make the process of placing an initiative on Idaho election ballots just this side of impossible. Not just difficult (which it already is), but impossible. Grow was, in other words, seeking to take away from voters the effective right to pass their own laws, an assurance offered by the Idaho Constitution. These constituents faced being stripped of one of their constitutional rights by the action of one of their local legislators.

The request to hear an explanation for that from their legislator, and to expect their legislator to hear them out about why they thought this not a good idea, does not seem unreasonable.

It was blown off. It was blown off, in fact, the same way the state Senate had blown off public involvement, to the extent it realistically could, at the Statehouse. Initial moves were made to rush Grow’s bill through the legislative process before, from all appearances, the public could react. When the public did react, the committee hearing process was structured - there’s no other realistic way to interpret this - to admit as little of that reaction as possible.

When Grow did not appear at his constituents’ meeting (the choice was his, after all), his constituents reacted in like fashion to the way they’d been treated.

Was it the most mature and dispassionate possible way to react? Probably not. But it was completely in line with the way the Idaho Legislature, and their own local senator, had treated them.

Legislators operating during a session live in a closed world of civility (and more than that, a world that defers to them). But in dealing with their fellow citizens, they should remember they are relating to equals; the public, ultimately, is supposed to be the boss under our system of government. Legislators should expect no more (nor any less) civility and deference than they give.

This thought may not have occurred to a lot of legislators in recent years. For a couple of generations now at least, Idaho legislators almost never have been punished at the polls for maltreating their constituents - their voters - which they periodically have done (not least in regard to voter-passed initiatives). The gap between what Idahoans regularly say they want and what legislators regularly deliver continues to widen.

And so we wind up with constituent meetings like last week’s at Eagle. And we may get more than that over time. Even Idaho voters may yet have their breaking point.

The sham of testimony


We elect our representatives. They are our voice in making the laws that govern us. Why do they need our input except at the ballot box every two years? What purpose does this public testimony on proposed legislation serve? If we do not have the backbone to hold them to account come election, then why should they listen in their deliberations?

It was almost relieving to see ten-term, 20-year State Senator Lodge acknowledge this last week. As Chairman of the Senate State Affairs committee she had a roomful of people who had come from far and wide to speak on SB 1159, changes to the Idaho initiative process. She let the three who wanted to speak in favor and then four of the 100+ who were opposed speak, then wanted to call for a vote. In her defense she said, “All the rest are opposed.” So, it’s like she knew what the committee was going to hear and didn’t see the purpose. After all, they are our elected representatives. Let them get on with it.

There was another time I have seen such an overt sham of public testimony.

In my first term in the State Senate, 2011 Tom Luna, newly reelected Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction proposed his LUNA Laws. He had not mentioned them on the stump, campaigning just months before. But here he had a new legislature and what he considered to be a mandate, so he proposed his new laws; funding technology over teachers in the classroom. Public testimony ran for days, 95/5 opposed. But the laws passed. Then came the referenda and the laws were repealed at the next state-wide election 2 years later by an overwhelming 70/30 vote.

But here’s the thing: every legislator who voted for those laws was reelected.

Figure it out voters. I applaud that you might use the referendum process to rebuke your legislators for passing stupid laws. I acknowledge your wisdom when you want to initiate action like Medicaid Expansion because your elected legislators have ignored a problem with an easy fix. But I am amazed at the insanity of reelecting the same people to represent us, when we disagree with their decisions. Shame on us.

Idaho’s citizen Legislators, one Senator and two Representatives each serve districts of approximately 40,000 people. It is estimated that people can only closely know approximately 150 people. That means, for each of us to know our representatives in the legislature well, we have to make a big effort; have a cup of coffee, go to a town hall, make time for a meeting, or read their newsletters.

When I was in the Senate I sent out a weekly newsletter that approximately 1500 people read. If they were all talking to 150 different people, I would have been reelected easily. But I came to believe all these people knew and talked to each other. We are talking to the people who agree with us. Can we change this?

Who are these elected officials who represent us talking to? Where are they getting input? First, I would hope it’s from the elected officials in their district: the county commissioners, the city councilors, the highway district commissioners, the school board members.

Can this be dismissed to partisan affiliation? If so, we all should be questioning that insanity. But it may be true. I have heard a legislator say he met with his party central committee before each legislative session to consider legislation. Welcome to the echo chamber.

Don’t expect your passionate testimony to persuade the citizen legislators you have elected. It may be heartfelt and in fact, it may represent the sentiments of many of your fellow voters. But it is much more powerful to elect people who actually do represent your values. Share your values.