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      •  Saturday Q&A

Saturday Q&A

We wouldn't have guessed that the most asked about subject this week would be Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), but sometimes the mailbag throws a curveball like that.

Q: After being stripped of her committee assignments by a bipartisan vote, Marjorie Taylor Greene said in a press conference afterwards that she would use her free time to push the GOP more rightward. I hope this question doesn't sound facetious, but given that she and other members of her party have given tacit support to insurrectionists bent on overturning the government and the idea of invoking martial law to overturn a legal election, just how much more to the right is there left in conservatism before it devolves into other -isms? D.E., Lancaster, PA

A: In terms of the things they are talking about and/or doing, the Trumpy elements of the Republican Party have certainly covered the "greatest hits" of far-right politics. In terms of degree, however, they still have a fair bit of room to grow more extreme (excepting a few very, very fringy militia types). For example, they advocate for tighter voting requirements, but they are not suggesting that all Democrats' (and other opponents') right to vote be stripped. They don't like kneeling football players, but they haven't pushed for laws to make patriotic demonstrations mandatory. They say bigoted things, but have not yet advocated for ethnic cleansing or genocide.

Your last sentence suggests that if Trump & Co. go much further right, they will have left conservatism behind and moved into fascism, or Nazism, or the like. Maybe so, but those are themselves conservative ideologies.

Q: Who stuck their neck out most to defend Marjorie Taylor Greene? That is, which of the 188 who voted to keep her on committees are from the most Democratic-leaning districts? L.E., Putnam County, NY

A: Rep. David Valadao (R-CA), whose district—CA-21—is D+6. The only other Republican members from Democratic-leaning districts to support Greene are Ashley Hinson, who represents IA-01, and Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who represents IA-02. Those two districts are both D+1.

Q: Earlier this week when House Democrats were demanding that Marjorie Taylor Greene be removed from all committee assignments, Greene was quoted as saying, "They don't even realize they're helping me. I'm pretty amazed at how dumb they are."

I know by now I should take pronouncements by conspiracy-obsessed right wingers with, as you would say, several buckets of salt. But I can't help but wonder why she thinks this. Maybe she believes she'll be seen as a sympathetic victim of the secret baby-eating Satanist Democratic cabal. Or maybe she just thinks having tons of free time to go on right wing media outlets is a better use of her "talents" than sitting through hearings all day. Or was she just bluffing so as to not seem "weak"?
A.L., Oakland, CA

A: What she meant was that if the Democrats strike her down, she will return as a disembodied spirit voice, whispering guidance into conservative ears from the Great Beyond.

No, wait. That's the plot of Star Wars. What Greene means is that she will become a cause célèbre in far-right circles, appearing regularly on Hannity, Rush, etc. to commiserate about those infernal liberals and their "cancel culture." She can make some money off that, if she wants, and she can certainly expect to hold onto her seat for the foreseeable future. But that's her ceiling; she's not going to move into House leadership, or across the Capitol to the Senate, or to statewide office in her home state. Odds are she accepts a cushy commentator's job on OAN or Newsmax before the next inauguration rolls around.

Q: I do not like Marjorie Taylor Greene and think that her ideas are truly odious. However, do you think that House Democrats are making a mistake in removing Greene from her committee assignments? Wouldn't it be better for them politically to have her making all sorts of insane statements in committee hearings that will get publicity, as well as having an easier time tying her to the rest of the Republicans? How much power does a single committee member have anyway? I'm trying to understand the upside in removing her, and I also worry about the creation of a potentially dangerous precedent where a controlling party can remove the opposition party's members from their committee assignments. E.W., Skaneateles, NY

A: She's going to make all sorts of insane statements regardless of how many or how few committees she's on, and the ones on Fox News or Twitter will get far more attention than those uttered in some committee meeting room deep in the bowels of the Capitol.

And the ouster of a representative from their committee assignments is really inside baseball; the sort of thing that only serious politics-watchers will notice. The Trumpy types will be outraged, but their votes were lost to the blue team anyhow. Meanwhile, the politically involved members of the Democratic base, who have grown weary of the Party's unwillingness to play hardball, will be pleased that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) & Co. have stood up to Greene. And independent/moderate politics watchers will notice which Party opposes insurrection/conspiratorial thinking/bigotry, and which one looks the other way. Add it up, and we see little downside here for the Democrats and a fair bit of upside.

As to the precedent being set, we don't see it. There's a pretty clear distinction between saying outrageously offensive and arguably dangerous things, as Greene and former representative Steve King did, and just being an outspoken partisan.

Q: Marjorie Greene's 14th District in northwest Georgia is not short of right-wing conservatives and she continues to be very popular there. She didn't come out of nowhere; her constituents knew perfectly well what she was when they voted her in. So, suppose the House actually grows a pair and evicts her from her seat, which means Georgia would have to hold a special election to fill the vacancy. Is there anything (in state or federal law) to prevent her from simply running again? And if she won—which wouldn't surprise me at all—would the House be forced to accept her again? M.K.S., Gonzales, LA

A: The House can expel members, but they can't disqualify them from future officeholding. Obviously, disqualification can be imposed as part of the penalty in an impeachment proceeding, but the precedent has already been established that only executive and judicial branch members can be impeached. So, if Greene was expelled, ran again, and won, the House would have to accept her (though they could immediately vote to expel again). Although the actual details are a bit complicated, former reps. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Preston Brooks, among others, were reelected in special elections in defiance of Congressional discipline.

Q: Even before she took office, the outspoken House member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has been widely referred to by her initials: AOC. The outspoken new representative Marjorie Taylor Greene gets referred to by her full name, or last two names, but I have yet to see the initials MTG used. Why the difference? Is it because one is a Latina and the other is a Gringa? H.F., Pittsburgh PA

A: Doubtful. Last we checked, JFK, FDR, and TR were not Latino.

Language is subject to certain evolutionary pressures, not the least of which is conservation of energy. That is to say, people will naturally gravitate toward simpler ways of saying things, particularly when the original way was tricky to accomplish. "Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez" is 11 syllables, while "Marjorie Taylor Greene" is 6. So, the New Yorker's full name is much harder to say than the Georgian's. Further, AOC lacks a plosive letter (one requiring a full vocal stop). MTG has two, the 'M' and the 'T,' which means it's considerably harder to verbalize than AOC.

So, given that the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to AOC transformation conserves far more energy than the Marjorie Taylor Greene to MTG transformation, it's no surprise that the former caught on quickly and the latter hasn't yet.

Incidentally, JFK/FDR/TR also have plosives, but a part of the reason those caught on was because of their frequent use in newspaper headlines, which did not have room for really long names like "Roosevelt" and "Kennedy."

Q: I know you said that it wasn't likely that the House managers would subpoena Trump to testify at his own impeachment, but what could Congress do to him if he was subpoenaed and refused to appear? S.C., Mountain View, CA

A: They could find him in contempt of Congress and send the (acting) Sergeant-at-Arms of the Senate down to Florida to arrest The Donald and drag him back to Washington. This is unlikely, given the political implications, not the least of which being that it would encourage his base to respond with further violence.

Alternatively, they could go to court and ask them to enforce the subpoena. This is unlikely as well, since it would take a good long time to resolve, which means the impeachment would linger on and on and on. In fact, if the Senate held to its rules, they would not be able to do anything else while waiting for the subpoena issue to be resolved.

Q: Would the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment prevent Trump from being tried for sedition in a regular criminal court if the Senate acquitted him? J.B., Boston, MA

A: No, because the impeachment is not a criminal proceeding. In fact, it's not really a court proceeding at all. The closest equivalent is something like an administrative hearing held by an employer. If a professor, for example, were to steal money from the university that granted them tenure, then there would certainly be some sort of administrative hearing about the possibility of terminating them. And regardless of what happened in that hearing, the university would still be able to file a police report and pursue criminal prosecution. So it is with impeachment.

Q: It seems like any discussion about a possible criminal trial for Donald Trump is basically just an academic thought experiment. It would be nearly impossible to select a jury which could reach a unanimous conviction. No matter where you go, at least one out of every twelve people believe in outrageous conspiracy theories.

Doesn't Trump's cult following essentially render him immune to criminal conviction? Who is the most high profile American politician to have been actually convicted by a jury?
D.T., San Jose, CA

A: Recall that when Paul Manafort went on trial, there were Trumpy members of the jury, and they ultimately voted to convict because they could not deny that the evidence was overwhelming, and they didn't want to risk contempt of court or perjury charges (for violating their oath).

If someone who is so Trumpy they would never, ever convict were to find their way into the jury pool, they would probably be identified as such, challenged, and booted out by the prosecution. Failing that, if such a person made it to the trial, and then to the jury room after the trial, they could be replaced by one of the alternate jurors if it appears to be the case that they are simply unwilling to do a good faith evaluation of the evidence.

As to high-profile convicts, there have been several senators to lose jury trials, notably Kansas Republican Joseph R. Burton (in 1904), Oregon Republican John Hipple Mitchell (in 1905), Illinois Republican William Lorimer (in 1912), and New Jersey Democrat Harrison A. Williams (in 1980). And before anyone is tempted to e-mail us, Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy pled out before he could face a jury.

There have also been several dozen governors to lose jury trials. The most familiar of those is probably Illinois Democrat Rod Blagojevich, convicted in 2010 and 2011 and with his sentence eventually commuted by Donald Trump. Some readers will likely also remember the convictions of Arizona Republican Evan Mecham (in 1988) and/or Louisiana Democrat Edwin Edwards (in 2000).

Q: Imagine there was a former U.S. president known for being money-grubbing and vindictive. He reportedly had hundreds of millions in unpaid debts to unknown creditors, possibly to foreign sources. He also had refused to concede after losing his bid for reelection, and was impeached after an attempt to smear the son of the candidate he lost to. He had seen thousands of pages of classified materials as well as given oral briefings from the intelligence community during his presidency. After leaving office, he decides to undermine his successor and relieve himself of his debts by selling classified intelligence to Russian oligarchs. What can President Biden do to prevent this from happening, and how could U.S. law enforcement catch someone who did this, since many government officials have access to classified info? R.M.S., Lebanon, CT

A: We think the risk here is pretty small. Trump didn't pay attention to the briefings, and he has a poor memory. He probably doesn't have much intel to share. Further, much of what he did know will have changed by now.

If he was suspected of leaking to the Russians, there are basically two ways that tends to be proven. The first is testimony from a double-agent or mole in Russia who is privy to Russian intelligence operations and can testify to the betrayal. The second is feeding Trump fake information that only he is given, and then seeing if that information makes its way to Russia.

Q: I thought that abolishing the filibuster could only be done at the beginning of the Senate's term when the Senate reorganized itself and agreed to the rules it would go by. So isn't it too late to do that now even if all Democrats agreed? T.V.P., Portland, OR

A: Doing it at the beginning of the term is one option, though it's also possible to revisit the rules anytime during the session if enough senators support that.

With that said, this is not how the filibuster will be killed, if indeed it is. What will happen is that a Republican will try to filibuster something, and one of the Democrats will call for a point of order, decreeing that filibusters in general are contrary to Senate rules, or else decreeing that filibusters of [[specific issue]] are contrary to Senate rules. Points of order require only a majority to be sustained, and they cannot themselves be filibustered. And so, the 50 Democrats/independents would vote to sustain the point of order, the 50 Republicans would vote to reject it, and VP Kamala Harris would break the tie. Since precedents are as binding in the Senate as the written rules, then this would change the rules of the filibuster until such point that a new precedent is set or a new rule is adopted.

Q: Before you talked about them last week, I had never heard of an organizing resolution. I was flabbergasted by the fact that the losers were still running the committees. What would have happened if Mitch just never agreed to a resolution? Surely the Democrats could force the issue? J.O., Raleigh, NC

A: Eventually, a Democratic senator would have called for a vote on the organizing resolution, the Republicans would have filibustered, and a different Democrat would have called for a point of order, as described in the previous answer, either on filibusters in general or, more likely, on filibusters of organizing resolutions.

Q: Why don't we just go back to the old filibuster where the senator needs to stand up there and read the phone book until he/she collapses? Curious when and why the filibuster changed to enable it to be in place without any "pain" to those who are doing it. M.W., Northbrook, IL

A: The reason the filibuster was changed to its current form (in 1970) is because when someone was standing on the floor of the Senate reading the phone book, the Senate could not move on to other business. So, the actual rule change was not to legalize "painless" filibusters, it was to allow multiple items of business to be considered at once. However, that necessarily led to "painless" filibusters, since it is not practical for a senator to be reading the phone book in response to one bill while simultaneously participating in discussions/votes on a second bill.

If the old-style filibuster was restored, then filibusters would become less frequent because of the literal pain involved. However, the filibusters that did happen would be more impactful because they would grind Senate business to a halt.

Q: What are the actual ramifications when someone is censured? How is it different when a full legislative body censures someone, either a member or non-member (for example if the Senate censures Donald Trump) and when a party censures someone (like the Nebraska Republicans threatening to censure Sen. Ben Sasse, R-NE)? A.M., Brookhaven, PA

A: By both House and Senate rules, a member who is censured by their chamber loses their committee assignments. Beyond that, however, censure is just symbolic. If Sasse is censured, for example, it will actually be the second time the Nebraska GOP has done that, having also done so in 2016 when he dared criticize then-candidate Trump. As you might notice, he was reelected following that first censure (in 2020), so it clearly didn't affect him much.

Q: What is to become of the U.S. when the government functions solely via executive orders and budget reconciliation? Seems like we're rapidly heading toward an elected monarchy. What would be the consequences of such an almost-permanent arrangement? A.L., Cambridge, MA

A: A situation where the party in power gets to implement its program largely unhindered until they are voted out of office? That's pretty close to a description of the British system (and most other parliamentary systems, where the executive is generally a part of the legislature).

That said, the American system is not currently set up to guarantee single-party control of the levers of government, nor to allow the removal of leaders in whom confidence has been lost. And so, if that is the direction things are headed, it would presumably be wise to make some pretty big constitutional changes, so the country isn't stuck with a weird blend of "checks and balances" and "parliamentary system."

Q: I have read several of your pieces about reapportionment and how it will affect the makeup of the House in 2022, and continue to find myself puzzled. Using the example of Texas. I fail to see how a state that has gone from R+16 in 2012 to R+6 in 2020 is going to add three additional seats and all of them will be Republican.

And before you say "Because gerrymandering," consider. Even though Texas has had an amazing 17% increase in population in the last decade, 104 small rural counties actually lost population in that decade. The same goes for all states around the country. It's not the cities or suburbs that are losing population, it's the rural areas. In California and New York, the metros continue to grow, while the inland or upstate areas shrink. Rural flight is a very real, if under-reported, phenomenon. It appears just as likely that the blue states are going to lose a red seat, while the red states are going to gain blue seats.

Perhaps you can explain what I am not seeing.
S.M., Pratt, KS

A: The purpose of gerrymandering is not to claim all seats for the party in power, as that is not plausible. It is to claim a disproportionate share. And so, what we would expect in Texas is that the Republicans will pick up two seats and the Democrats will pick up one.

If the demographic trends work as you propose, it might change the equation. However, most of the migrating population, these days, moves to places similar to those in the rearview mirror. So, urban Democrats in California move to already-blue Austin. Rural Republicans in Texas move to already-red Riverside. And so forth

Q: Why, oh why does California have an independent commission draw the maps when this is the one state where Democrats can make up some ground? Why on earth do Democrats want to play nice with Republicans when the latter takes gross advantage of map drawing in every single state it can? R.V., Pittsburgh, PA

A: Because the people of California are disproportionately reform-minded and rank "fairness" as an important value.

A gerrymandered California wouldn't necessarily be the boon you suggest, though. The state's pretty politically segregated, with Los Angeles/San Francisco/their suburbs very blue, and the rest of the state pretty red. There aren't quite so many gerrymandering opportunities on a map like that.

Q: I was intrigued by a throwaway line in Thursday's piece on gerrymandering. You mentioned some rules for redistricting, one of which was "no district is located in a hole inside another district." In the U.K., cities tend to be represented by their own seat or seats, and when a city is about the right size for a constituency (about 70,000 electors), it sometimes ends up as a bubble in a larger suburban/rural seat. Examples at the moment are York Central, completely surrounded by York Outer, and Bath, which is entirely inside North East Somerset. So my question is: Is that a rule you picked for the exercise or a rule in the actual process of creating new districts in the USA? R.H., London, UK

A: The latter. And the reason that is the rule is...because that has been the rule. In several cases, like Shaw v. Reno (1993) and Abrams v. Johnson (1997), the Supreme Court has decreed that redistricting needs to be done according to traditional principles. However, neither SCOTUS nor Congress has specified what those traditional principles are. So, the states are left to guess, and a consensus has emerged that among the traditional principles are compactness, contiguity, equal population, preserving county and city boundaries, and no district-encircled-by-a-district situations.

Q: I poked around in Dave's Redistricting and after seeing TX-18 and TX-29, I am wondering which congressional district most resembles a gerrymander (looks like the outline of an animal)? R.T., Arlington, TX

A: To start, let us make sure readers understand that the original gerrymander, more than 200 years ago, produced a district that some felt looked like a salamander.

Today, the most animal-like district is surely OH-04, known as "The Duck," for (hopefully) obvious reasons:

It's pretty duck-shaped, though 
the neck part of the duck looks like someone broke it

Q: Every now and then a conservative pops up advocating a return to the gold standard. Am I wrong in thinking that there is not enough gold in the whole world to back up the U.S. currency? B.C., Walpole, ME

A: As a factual matter, you are indeed wrong. There are currently $2.04 trillion in federal notes in circulation, while there's just a bit less than $8 trillion in gold in the world.

As a practical matter, you are right. Much of the gold in the world is not accessible because it's in circuit boards or people's teeth or foreign vaults. And if the U.S. did try to lay hands on $2 trillion of the shiny stuff, the prices would quickly grow out of control.

Q: I read this Politico interview with fascination and horror. The interviewee, a former top DHS official who was raised in the evangelical tradition, explains an evangelical Christian perspective and expresses her concerns about Christian nationalism. I was wondering, is there any historical evidence to support the idea that the founders believed that they had made a covenant with God? J.K., Silverdale, WA

A: You might find one or two framers who thought this way, since those fellows were different guys with different priorities and different worldviews. However, the overwhelming weight of opinion and evidence is against this assertion. The Founding Parents were familiar with the use of religion as a political tool, and wanted to avoid that. So, they wrote a constitution that, among other things, guaranteed freedom of religion, banned the establishment of a "state" religion, and forbade religious tests for officeholders. Most of them, especially the biggies, took great pains to underscore that the government was entirely civil in character, and not at all religious. Perhaps most famously, John Adams declared: "The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."

In short, if the founders felt they had formed a covenant with God, they had a funny way of showing it.

Q: When was the last time an American political party decided to rest their fortunes on a man who just lost a bid for re-election, and with what result? S.K., Chappaqua, NY

A: Unless we are overlooking something, the answer would seem to be the Democrats' decision to go with Adlai Stevenson again in 1956. That one did not go well for the blue team, as you may have heard.

Q: You mentioned that Abraham Lincoln and FDR used the Overton window to implement important changes. Are there any U.S. presidents who had an Overton window to implement change, but didn't use this window? If yes, why didn't they use it? F.S. Cologne, Germany

A: Sure. We can think of at least three circumstances where this might happen:

  1. Limited Government: Until the late 1800s, most presidents had pretty strong views that the presidency was a limited office and/or the federal government was a limited entity, and that aggressive use of power was not indicated. For example, James Madison and James Monroe won two elections each in walks, but they did not take advantage of that to claim a mandate to aggressively implement a political program.

  2. Lack of Competence: Having political capital doesn't do much good if you don't know how to invest it properly. Most obviously, Warren Harding crushed James Cox in 1920 (60.3% to 34.1%!), but the politically amateurish Harding didn't really know how to use that kind of support to his advantage.

  3. Missed the Target: A president can also overestimate how far the Overton window has actually moved, and shoot for more than is possible. A pretty good example is Bill Clinton, who squandered much of his political capital on an effort to reform healthcare that the U.S. wasn't ready for.

In various ways, then, we would say these presidents (and a few others) failed to capitalize on an Overton window that would have allowed for substantive change.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Feb05 America First Couldn't Last
Feb05 Greene's New Deal
Feb05 Trump Refuses to Testify
Feb05 The Day AFTRA
Feb05 Double Trouble for Fox News
Feb05 Pence Makes His Move
Feb05 Judy, Judy, Judy...
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Feb04 Biden Is Willing to Compromise a Little on the Stimulus Checks
Feb04 The Future of the Republican Party Is Here Now
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Feb04 Senate Won't Vote on Merrick Garland's Nomination
Feb04 Bills about Voting Are All the Rage in State Legislatures
Feb04 You, Too, Can Gerrymander
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Feb03 Buttigieg and Mayorkas Confirmed
Feb03 Sanders Takes His Best Shot at $15/Hour
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Feb03 Biden Has a Mini-Scandal
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Feb02 Senate Republicans Unveil COVID-19 Relief Plan, Meet with Biden
Feb02 Graham Refuses to Schedule Garland Hearing
Feb02 The GOP Civil War Is Out in the Open
Feb02 Trump Has a New Defense Team
Feb02 Why Trump Lost, According to His Own Pollster
Feb02 Donald Trump, Russian Asset
Feb02 Jockeying for the 2022 Senate Elections Is Well Underway
Feb01 Biden's First Actions Are Popular
Feb01 Republican Senators Offer Biden a "Compromise" on COVID-19 Relief
Feb01 Trump's Impeachment Lawyers Quit
Feb01 Why Did Democrats Win in Georgia and Lose in North Carolina?
Feb01 Trump Raised $255 Million after the Election
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Feb01 Beware of the Gerrymander
Feb01 McDaniel Is in a Bind
Feb01 Town of Palm Beach Is Reviewing the Legality of Trump's Living at Mar-a-Lago
Feb01 Democrats Are More Popular Than Republicans in Georgia
Jan31 Sunday Mailbag
Jan30 Saturday Q&A
Jan29 McCarthy Goes to Florida to Kiss the Ring
Jan29 A House Divided against Itself Cannot Stand
Jan29 Senate News, Part I: Jordan Out
Jan29 Senate News, Part II: Rubio May Be Bulletproof
Jan29 Question Answered: It Was Trump
Jan29 Another Question Answered: It Was a Hacky Decision
Jan29 Bird Isn't the Word
Jan28 Some Democrats Are Working on Plan B