Lessons From A Crumbling Spillway

People have been holding their breath and keeping their fingers crossed out in northern California.  Thousands of residents from a number of communities have been evacuated after a spillway from the massive Oroville dam was determined to be on the brink of failure.  As of early this morning, fortunately, it looks like the spillway will hold.

oroville-dam-side-view-associated-press-640x480The Oroville Dam story is an interesting one.  California has been struggling with drought conditions for years, but then recently got hit with lots of rain and snow that has filled its reservoirs and allowed officials to declare that drought conditions are over.  Now, though, the spillway failure raises questions about whether the state’s water control infrastructure is up to the task of dealing with water flow in non-drought conditions.

It’s a story that you probably could write about much of America’s infrastructure from the east coast to the west coast, and all points in between.  As you drive under bridges that look to be cracked and crumbling, with chunks of concrete missing and rebar exposed, travel through airports that are beat up and obviously overtaxed, and walk past retaining walls that are bowed out, you wonder about whether the folks in charge are paying much attention to the basics.  And, of course, that doesn’t even begin to address “hidden” infrastructure, like dams and reservoirs, sewer piping and spillways, electrical grids and stormwater drains, that are underground or removed from population centers.  There is a lingering sense that the concrete, steel, and piping that holds the country up has been neglected — perhaps because bridges, tunnels, dams, and reservoirs don’t vote, lobby legislators, or fill council chambers, demanding their share of tax dollars.

President Trump has talked about addressing these infrastructure issues — such as our “third world” airports — and it’s an issue about which there seems to be some consensus among both Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C.  But there’s more to it than that.  Not every bridge or reservoir is a federal issue that requires federal tax dollars or federal bureaucrats issuing approvals.  Local and state governmental officials need to recognize that they have responsibility, too, and they can’t continue to shortchange maintenance and improvement of core infrastructure.  Rather than just holding their hands out to Uncle Sam, they need to look to their own budgets and tax revenues to fund the repair and refurbishment effort, too.

Perhaps the Oroville Dam story will get people to start paying attention to what they should have been paying attention to all along.

Looking To Fill The “Stolen Seat”

Last night President Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch, a judge on the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, to fill the vacant seat on the United States Supreme Court.  His formal nomination triggers the start of what will undoubtedly be a bruising confirmation process, with some Democrats already promising to do everything they can to prevent seating Gorsuch on the high court.

US-POLITICS-COURT-NOMINATIONThere are three reasons for this.  First, the Supreme Court has assumed an increasingly important role in the American political process over the last 70 years, with people at all points on the political spectrum looking for the judiciary to recognize a new right, provide a remedy, issue an injunction, or overturn a statute or executive action.  The Supreme Court is the head of the judicial branch, and every year, the Court accepts and decides cases that require it to tackle difficult issues — some constitutional, some statutory, some procedural — that can have broad ramifications for people, businesses, the legal system, and how government works.

Second, as the importance of the Supreme Court has increased, the process for nominating, reviewing, and approving potential Supreme Court justices has changed.  Republicans blame Democrats for the growing politicization of the Supreme Court confirmation process, and Democrats blame Republicans, but no one doubts that we have moved into a new era of “extreme vetting.”  Nominees not only have their credentials, backgrounds, and prior opinions scrutinized for the tiniest kernel of a potential argument against nomination, but advocacy groups immediately declare sides and start their scorched-earth campaigns before the nomination speech is even completed.  Last night, only a few minutes after Gorsuch was nominated by President Trump, an anti-confirmation demonstration began on the Supreme Court steps, and opponents of the Gorsuch nomination appeared on the cable news shows, describing him in the darkest, most ominous terms imaginable.

And third, the atmosphere has become even more poisonous because the seat on the Supreme Court Gorsuch has been nominated to fill has been vacant for almost a full year, and the Republicans in the Senate refused to take any action on Merrick Garland, the jurist that President Obama nominated to fill that seat.  That’s why the New York Times, in an editorial today, calls the vacancy the “stolen seat” — reasoning that if the Senate had just acted properly last year, Garland would have been confirmed, and the balance of power on the Supreme Court would already be changed.  The Times editorial castigates the Senate Republicans for obstructionism and abuse of power in their treatment of the Garland nomination, but seems to also implicitly encourage — with a wink and a nod — Senate Democrats to respond to the Gorsuch nomination in kind.

So now we’ve got a Supreme Court nominee who has served on the federal appellate bench for 10 years, has all of the educational bona fides you would wish, and is classified by some as a “very conservative” judge.  I’m interested in seeing how the confirmation process plays out and what is brought out about Gorsuch’s background and judicial opinions — but that means the confirmation process has to actually start.  Here, too, as in other areas I’ve pointed out recently, Congress needs to do its job.  The Republicans need to shut up about the “nuclear option” that Harry Reid unwisely imposed, and the Democrats need to get over the Garland nomination inaction, and both sides need to acknowledge that the Supreme Court has nine seats that can only be filled if the Senate acts and start to address the Gorsuch nomination on its own merits.

One other thing:  as the current Supreme Court justices age, delay and inaction is not an option.  If we don’t get over this self-imposed roadblock to the proper functioning of our government, we might soon have another vacancy to fill, and another.  If the Republicans and Democrats don’t get over their political titting for tatting, we might end up with a gradually vanishing Supreme Court.

The Way Of The Whigs

In the middle of the 19th century, the Whigs were one of the two major parties in American politics.  Founded in 1834 as a group that opposed Democrat Andrew Jackson, they won two presidential elections and counted as their members some of the most prominent American politicians of the day.

2zrpdutAbraham Lincoln started his political career as a Whig.  So did William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State.  Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, two of the most prominent members of the United States Congress during that era, were Whigs.  The slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” helped to carry Whig candidate William Henry Harrison to the presidency in the election of 1840.  Another Whig, Zachary Taylor, was elected President in 1848.

But by 1856 — only two presidential elections later — the Whig Party was gone, unable to field a candidate for national office.  It broke apart on the shoals of the slavery issue, irreparably splintered by the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, with southern Whigs supporting the South’s detestable “peculiar institution” and northern “conscience Whigs,” like Lincoln, recognizing that slavery had to be ended or the country would tear itself apart.  As the old Whig Party fell apart, a new party, the Republicans, arose.  Led by Lincoln and Seward, the Republicans opposed slavery, fought the Civil War, and then became the second party in America’s two-party system.  Since 1860, those two parties have been the Democrats and the Republicans.

Could what happened to the Whig Party happen to one of the two major parties of the modern day?  Probably not.  The modern political parties are much more well-funded and entrenched, with permanent national staffs and constant fund-raising and electoral laws that make it difficult to get third-party candidates onto the ballot.

screen-shot-2015-07-30-at-11-40-42-amAnd yet . . . I think about the Whigs when I consider the choice presented this year by the two major parties.  According to the polls, the vast majority of Americans are extremely unhappy with the candidates who apparently will carry the banners of their respective parties come November.  I’ve written before about the flaws of the candidates, but what about the flaws of the parties, and the process they created?

The two parties took opposite approaches to the 2016 election.  The Republicans had a huge field of 18 current and former Governors, Senators, and business leaders, had free-for-all debates, and ended up with Donald Trump.  The Democrats treated Hillary Clinton as the presumptive nominee, seemingly discouraged other prominent national Democrats from running, and now see an increasingly unpopular Clinton locked in an improbable, lingering fight with a 70-plus Socialist and facing increasing scrutiny about her personal ethics and credibility.  In short, the parties took opposite approaches to selection of their candidates, but each produced candidates who seem to be deeply, deeply flawed.

Many people out here in the Midwest speak of the choice the parties have given them with a bitterness that goes beyond the normal dismissive comments about politicians.  There is a strong sense that the political parties have utterly failed; many believe that the process is corrupt, and that we should blow it all up and start over.  In short, the views of the electorate probably are a lot like the views of Americans in the 1850s, when the Whigs turned out to be an empty shell with no substance that collapsed and vanished forever.

Could the Democrats or Republicans go the way of the Whigs?  I wonder.

Weird World

Let’s face it, we live in a weird, incredibly unpredictable world.  Just when you think you’ve got it nailed, you turn around and are astonished to learn that Donald Trump is the “presumptive Republican nominee.”

120408033849-ybl-van-jones-best-advice-00002022-story-topSome months ago, we went to dinner with a large group of friends, and someone suggested that we each predict the Republican and Democratic nominees who would emerge this year.  Even though the dinner occurred during the early days of Trumpmania, I’d guess that nobody picked Trump as the eventual carrier of the GOP banner.  His behavior and comments were uniformly viewed as so inflammatory that the notion that he could somehow navigate through the primary process without spontaneously combusting seemed wildly, impossibly implausible.  And since that dinner party I’ve been regularly expecting and predicting that, with each grossly improper, know-nothing comment, Trump was bound to fall.

And yet . . . here he is.  To be sure, he’s continued to say outlandish things that would have been immediately, irreversibly fatal for every other candidate who has ever vied for the presidency, and yet . . . here he is.  The Governors and Senators, the seasoned pols, who made up the large field of initial Republican candidates have all fallen by the wayside, leaving an egomaniacal reality TV show star as one of the two major party candidates for the most powerful office in the world.  Last night Ted Cruz “suspended his campaign,” and today John Kasich threw in the towel.  Amazingly, Trump has actually triumphed over his Republican opponents while Hillary Clinton is still struggling to drive a stake into the heart of Bernie Sanders’ rebel campaign.

Last night Kish and I were watching CNN’s coverage of the Indiana primary and Trump’s by-now-familiar stream of consciousness victory speech.  CNN has not one, but two panels of pundits to cover such events, and one of them is activist Van Jones.  Most of the pundits seemed to focus on the typical things that pundits do — that the early Republican candidates made this mistake or that that allowed Trump to survive and ultimately prevail.  Not Jones.  He cautioned that the political elites may be oblivious to something brooding in the country, something big but still under the radar, a kind of broad and deep, visceral dissatisfaction with the state of things that the inside-the-Beltway types are just missing but that finds its outlet in the insurgent, unconventional candidacies of Trump and Sanders.  Perhaps he’s right.  It’s as good an explanation as any for a “presumptive GOP nominee” that leaves me slack-jawed in wonderment.

 

Ohio Stands Tall

On a night when the Trump wave continued to roll across America, inundating yet another of the Republican candidates and washing Marco Rubio out of the race, one state stood out.  Ohio was a breakwater against the Trump tsunami, with Governor John Kasich knitting together a coalition of Kasich supporters, Rubio supporters, and Trump opponents to beat Trump convincingly.

635918131274016669-ap-gop-2016-debateThe pundits will talk about what Trump’s victories in Florida, North Carolina, Illinois, and (apparently) Missouri mean, and his chances of reaching the magic number that will allow him to be the Republican nominee.  I don’t think there’s much need for analysis on the former question, really.  Marco Rubio put his finger on it in his graceful concession speech last night:  there are a huge number of frustrated, angry, disaffected people out there who feel left behind, and Trump’s anti-establishment status and promises of a future where America gets “better deals” and “wins” again appeals to them.  I think the strong perception that he is a candidate who will bring about change — whatever that change might be, precisely — has attracted people who see his candidacy as a reason to participate in the political process and vote for the first time in years.  In primary after primary, these Trump voters are making their voices heard.

There are still a number of states where voting has yet to occur, and with the Republican race down to Trump, Kasich, and Ted Cruz, voters in those states will have their chance to determine whether Donald Trump does well enough to compile a majority of Republican delegates.  As Rubio noted, we are a republic, and the elections in those other states will be the final decision points.  Last night, Ohio had its say in the process, and the Republican primary voters in the Buckeye State have resoundingly voted against the Trump approach.

Whatever the ultimate result might be, I’m proud of my state.

Meanwhile, Back At The Issues . . . .

While our easily distracted nation has been preoccupied with political horse races, insults on debate stages, and brawling at campaign rallies, some of the real issues facing the country plod on.  It’s just that no one is paying any attention to them.

Consider the Affordable Care Act, known colloquially as Obamacare.  It’s been up and operational for several years now.  So, how is it doing?

A man looks over the Affordable Care Act signup page on the HealthCare.gov website in New York in this photo illustrationIt turns out that Obamacare is facing a number of challenges and is in what a recent Washington Post editorial describes as “an awkward place.”  The problem is that although people are still enrolling, they’re not doing so at the rates that were forecast when the new law’s financial viability was evaluated.  If there are fewer enrollments than were estimated, or the mix of new enrollees doesn’t include as many young and healthy people as was originally projected, then the Affordable Care Act could produce substantial premium price increases rather than what the statute’s name promises.

Another aspect of this complicated law is whether it is offering good insurance choices for people.  The Investor’s Business Daily recently published an article that focused on how the Affordable Care Act is working in Mississippi, which is one of the underinsured places that were a focus of the statute in the first place.  The IBD article found that enrollments of uninsured people in Mississippi were disappointing — just 38% of those eligible for subsidies — that the premium costs for the cheapest “bronze” plans are spiking, and that the increased expense may cause some people to opt for paying the uninsured, individual mandate tax rather than buying insurance as they are supposed to do.  Still other articles, from the New York Times and elsewhere, have reported that many people believe that while subsidies might be holding down premium costs in some states, high deductible amounts, which require the insured person to pay cash out of pocket before the insurance kicks in, are making some plans bought on the exchanges unaffordable and unusable.

The Affordable Care Act was a huge new governmental program, hotly debated and the subject of strong opposition from Republicans.  How is it working, really?  We deserve to know, and un any rational world, candidates of both parties would be debating that very important issue.  In this crazy year, however, the news media and the public have been distracted by the Trump phenomenon and all of its embarrassing nuttiness, so even in Republican debates the Affordable Care Act gets short shrift.  And does anyone really believe that, if Donald Trump somehow becomes the Republican nominee, he’ll work to understand the workings of this complex law, and be able to say anything other than that it is a “disaster” and he’ll “repeal and replace it with something much better”?

Cleveland’s Lucky Get

When the Republican National Committee picked Cleveland to host the 2016 Republican Convention back in July 2014, it was good news for the City by the Lake.

Back then, of course, no one knew how the Republican race would shape up, or precisely who would be competing for the nomination.  So happy Cleveland city elders probably anticipated your normal Republican convention, where one candidate would long since have the nomination sewn up, polite delegates wearing silly hats would flood into local restaurants to buy fine meals and drinks, and the only drama would be identification of the vice presidential candidate and whether Clint Eastwood would give another speech to a chair.  Delegates would come to town, toast the new nominee, spend some money and generate some tax revenues, and compliment Cleveland on its new look.

elite-defenderjpg-72ac43921b785fbaIt hasn’t exactly turned out that way.  With four Republicans still in contention and splitting up delegates, new twists and turns every day, “establishment” Republicans vowing to fight against a nomination of Donald Trump at all costs, and party leaders openly talking about a brokered convention, Cleveland could host the most eventful party convention in decades — perhaps since the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968.  And the kind of police-protester clashes that made the Chicago convention so memorable might be replicated, too, if the Trumpeters feel that their candidate has been screwed out of the nomination and decide to take their angry, “anti-establishment” mindset a few steps further.

So I wasn’t surprised when I read that Cleveland is looking to spend $50 million on riot gear and other crowd control materials in preparation for the convention.  According to news reports, the money will be spent on things like black, robotic-looking riot control suits complete with a robust and no doubt comfortable codpiece, 26-inch collapsible batons that police can use to crack protester heads if necessary in the name of public order, special riot-control suits for officers riding bicycles (riding bicycles?  in a riot?), and miles of interlocking steel barriers, ranging from 3 1/2 feet high to 6 1/2 feet high, for crowd control purposes.  Cleveland also plans to have a special force of 5,000 police officers — many recruited from neighboring communities — on hand, just in case things get feisty.

Whoo-hoo!  It could be hot times in Cleveland come July.  Let’s just hope the hat-wearing, button-sporting Republican delegates can still see and enjoy some of the city sights over the steel barriers and past those warmly welcoming black-suited riot police.