Bowdoin College’s Civic Education Videos: “Founding Principles”

“Narrated by Bowdoin College Government Professor Andrew Rudalevige, [Founding Principles] provides an introductory overview and basic understanding to American government, but one that is crucial to building citizen-leaders, promoting civic engagement, and working toward the common good.”  The Founding Principles website is located here.

Here’s a Table of Contents:

  • Chapter 1: American Governance in Theory and Action
  • Chapter 2: Federalism
  • Chapter 3: Congress

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How a Bill Becomes a Law Today (and Why Most Bills Never Do)

Vox.com, Ezra Klein’s  “explanatory journalism” venture, is off to a great start. So far, my favorite “articles” have been one called “40 Charts that Explain Money in Politics” and another entitled “Beating the Odds: Why One Bill Made it Through a Gridlocked Congress — and So Many Don’t.” Both are packed full of useful insights into the present state of our political system and policy making process. I highly recommend following the links to these articles and, for that matter, perusing the wealth of insightful content provided at Vox.com. But here I provide an example of the kinds of content they are providing. This is a video they describe as “an updated Schoolhouse Rock lesson for our polarized, dysfunctional Congress.”

Does it Matter that Congress is a Millionaire’s Club? Does it Have to Be that Way?

Political scientist Nicolas Carnes answers “yes” and “no”. I highly recommend reading both posts, but here’s a taste:

[L]awmakers from different classes bring different perspectives with them: how they think, how they vote, and the kinds of bills they introduce often depend on the classes they came from. The shortage of lawmakers from the working class tilts decisions about the distribution of economic resources, protections, and burdens in favor of the more conservative policies that affluent Americans tend to prefer. Social safety net programs are stingier, business regulations are flimsier, and the tax code is more regressive because working-class Americans are all but absent from our political institutions. . . .

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The ReDistricting Game

The Annenberg Center and Game Innovation Law at the University of Southern California have produced a nifty game for exploring redistricting and gerrymandering. According to their About Page:

The Redistricting Game is designed to educate, engage, and empower citizens around the issue of political redistricting. . . . By exploring how the system works, as well as how open it is to abuse, The Redistricting Game allows players to experience the realities of one of the most important (yet least understood) aspects of our political system. The game provides a basic introduction to the redistricting system, allows players to explore the ways in which abuses can undermine the system, and provides info about reform initiatives – including a playable version of the Tanner Reform bill to demonstrate the ways that the system might be made more consistent with tenets of good governance. Beyond playing the game, the web site for The Redistricting Game provides a wealth of information about redistricting in every state as well as providing hands-on opportunities for civic engagement and political action.

 

Does it Matter that so Few Congress Members are Veterans?

Graph by Kevin Jefferies http://theweakerparty.blogspot.com/2013/02/no-more-ww2-veterans-in-senate.html

Over at Monkey Cage, Erik Voeten offers an interesting discussion on the decline in the proportion of Congress members who are veterans and what, according to political science research, this might mean for Congressional foreign policy making:

Frank Lautenberg, who passed away this summer, was the last of 115 World War II veterans who served in the U.S. Senate. To the best of my knowledge, there will be only 12 U.S. senators who have experienced active military service in the 114th Congress. Only one in five members of the current House of Representatives were active-duty military. By contrast, during most of the Cold War, 70 percent of the U.S. Congress were veterans, with the peak coming in 1977 (80 percent).

Does this matter for policy making? There is some research suggesting that it does, most notably the work by Peter Feaver and Chris Gelpi. Feaver and Gelpi establish the following regularities (see especially this book and this chapter-length update):

— On issues that concern the use of force and the acceptance of casualties, the opinions of veterans track more closely with those of active military officers than with civilians.

— The U.S. initiates fewer military disputes when there are more veterans in the U.S. political elite (the cabinet and the Congress).

— The U.S. uses more force in the disputes it initiates when there are more veterans in the U.S. political elite.

— Veterans are less likely to accept U.S. casualties for interventionist uses of force than for “realpolitik” uses of force. [keep reading]

[Graph by Kevin Jefferies http://theweakerparty.blogspot.com/2013/02/no-more-ww2-veterans-in-senate.html]

Does the Filibuster Prevent “Tyranny of the Majority”?

Richard Arenberg of Brown University criticizes those who contend the filibuster is “undemocratic and unconstitutional.” According to Arenberg, “‘the possibility that senators elected from 21 states that may contain as little as 11 percent of the U.S. population [can have] an absolute veto power over bills, resolutions and presidential appointments supported by senators who represent 83 percent of the people of the United States'” is not necessarily alarming and certainly not unconstitutional. Those who suggest otherwise, he continues, “misrepresent . . . the founding fathers’ design of the Senate.”

 The founding fathers greatly feared the “tyranny of the majority” – and they created the Senate to avoid what they deemed the rule of the mob.

The Senate was the result of the “great compromise” at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, which shaped the body to represent the states. Each state has two senators regardless of its population size – an idea so important to the framers that the Constitution in Article V requires that “no State, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.” Therefore, changing the Senate’s composition would, in effect, require unanimous consent of the states, not the usual three-fourths needed to ratify a constitutional amendment.

With two senators representing each state, the idea that a Senate majority must somehow reflect a majority of the population is simply wrong. [More here.]

Mathew Yglesias of Slate Magazine responds:

. . . The whole thing hinges on the idea that filibustering defends minority interests and prevents the “tyranny of the majority.” But this is simply wrong. The problem of the tyranny of the majority is the problem that minority groups in society might see their interests trampled. But protecting the interests of the political party that lost the last election doesn’t achieve this goal.

Most people aren’t Jehovah’s Witnesses, and . . . you might see a proposal to trample on Jehovah’s Witnesses interests by banning them from knocking on doors. In this case, the filibuster would defend the interests of a minority group because it makes it harder to pass laws.

On the other hand, most people aren’t gay and some straight people think gay sex is immoral, so gay people may be subject to discrimination in employment and other venues. You might see a proposal to advance gay interests by banning employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In that case, the filibuster harms the interests of a minority group because it makes it harder to pass laws.

Which is to say that making it harder to pass laws simply makes it harder to pass laws. It has nothing in particular to do with majoritarianism or minority interests or anything else. It’s a status quo measure. To the extent that you think the status quo is great, then maybe you love a 60 vote threshold. Maybe you think it should be raised to 65 or 75 or 95. Or maybe instead of a bicameral legislature we should have a four-chamber legislature. It’s easy to think of new ways to make it harder to change the laws. But that’s the issue. Making it hard to change laws systematically preserves the advantages of whatever groups are advantaged by the status quo.

 

The Effects of Partisan News Media on Voters and Members of Congress

Over at Monkey Cage, John Sides discusses new research on media effects conducted by political scientists Kevin Arceneaux, Martin Johnson, René Lindstädt and Ryan J. Vander Wielen:

The emergence of Fox News in 1996 offers researchers a neat opportunity. Cable providers added Fox News gradually, meaning that people in some parts of the country could see Fox News while others could not. The gradual rollout of Fox News makes it easier to identify its effects. For example, Republican-leaning voters were more likely to support then-Gov. George W. Bush in places with Fox News compared to places without it. Now, new research shows that Fox News’s impact extended beyond voters — to members of Congress themselves. And perhaps most surprisingly, both Democratic and Republican members were affected. [Continue reading here.]