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      •  Saturday Q&A

Saturday Q&A

Abortion is definitely the issue of the week. It's going to lead the Q&A today, and it will lead the mailbag tomorrow.

Current Events

R.K.P. in Chicago, IL, asks: Gov. Tate Reeves (R-MS), appearing on Meet the Press last Sunday, said that Mississippi's present abortion restrictions are more liberal that most countries in Europe. Is this accurate? What is the state of abortion rights in Europe?

V & Z answer: We'll start by pointing out that his exact statement was: "39 out of 42 (countries) in Europe have more restrictive abortion laws" than Mississippi. That comes from this report from the strongly anti-abortion Charlotte Lozier institute. On the other hand, the strongly pro-choice Center for Reproductive Rights ran the numbers and concluded that 41 European countries, with over 95% of the continent's population, are more liberal than Mississippi while 6 European countries, with less than 5% of the continent's population, are more restrictive.

How can they reach such different conclusions? Heck, they don't even agree on how many countries there are in Europe (42 vs. 47). This is primarily due to the methods, and the goals, of the Lozier institute. They wanted to create a nice, clean talking point for folks like Reeves (and, for that matter, Chief Justice John Roberts in this week's oral arguments) to deploy. So, Lozier began by removing several countries from consideration because their approach is different enough from the U.S./Mississippi approach to make a direct comparison difficult. For example, the policy in the U.K. (outside of Northern Ireland and a few outlying territories) is that a woman is never entitled to a no-questions-asked abortion; they have to get approval from two physicians. So, you could say the Brits' cutoff is zero weeks. On the other hand, British doctors grant that permission liberally, often well beyond 15 weeks—so much so that their approval is sometimes described as a rubber stamp. So, you could say the Brits have no cutoff at all, and that their approach is as permissive as any to be found in the U.S. And the latter way of looking at things is surely closer to the truth than the former. In any event, since there's no magic number one way or the other, the U.K. was ignored by Lozier.

Meanwhile, among the countries that Lozier did consider, the interpretative dynamic is generally similar. That is to say, the no-questions-asked cutoff in 39 countries really does arrive at some point earlier than 15 weeks. However, in virtually all cases, the granting of exceptions to the cutoff is far more liberal than in Mississippi. In other words, in most European nations, the limit isn't just waived in cases of rape/incest/threats to the mother's health, but also for things like "the pregnancy would cause financial hardship" or "the pregnancy would cause emotional distress" or even "the person asked for an abortion."

The Center for Reproductive Rights also massaged the numbers to be more favorable to its point of view, but nowhere near as aggressively as Lozier did. What it boils down to is this: There is a handful of mostly small European countries that have very strong anti-abortion laws: Andorra, Malta and San Marino ban abortion entirely; Liechtenstein only allows abortion in cases of rape/threats to the mother's health; and Monaco and Poland only allow abortion in cases of rape/threats to the mother's health/total fetal non-viability. However, the vast majority of European women have far greater reproductive freedom than Mississippi women will have if the law stands. Further, even the more draconian European nations, with the possible exceptions of Poland and Malta, know full well that their women citizens will just cross over to some other nation to take care of business. For example, even if you stand right in the center of San Marino, and even if you have no transportation whatsoever, you're still just a two hour walk from Italy. And if you have a car, you're a 15-minute drive from Italy.

D.E. in Lancaster, PA, asks: Since it seems that legal abortion has about 6-7 months left in some states, what do you think will be the GOP's next target in the legal arena? We know that Republicans survive on outrage like most living creatures need air, so the party heads must be planning what to target next since they have their unstoppable SCOTUS bloc of extreme judges. Victory over Roe won't appease them and will just serve as crystal meth binge to make them more bold in their crusades. I'm putting my money on gay marriage/gay rights, although I could see affirmative action as being a perennial bugbear for them as well. What do you think?

While the words of Martin Niemöller have sometimes been overused, especially at a time when a man who is fighting to save lives is being compared to Josef Mengele without consequence, they are still powerful and extremely relevant: "First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."

V & Z answer: It is unlikely that LGBTQ+ rights are the next front in this particular war. The religious folks used to care passionately about divorce, and keeping it illegal. They also had very strong feelings about Blue laws, which forced most or all businesses to close down on Sundays so everyone could attend church. However, these positions became wildly unpopular, even among some adherents, such that the fight was abandoned. We would suggest the same is true of LGBTQ+ rights—some religious folks may have strongly-held views, but most of the rest of society, including many other religious folks, are not buying it. So, that ship has sailed in terms of influencing public policy. Trans issues may be the exception, but we doubt that has the salience to become a "signature" issue.

As to what the next issue will be, at risk of being obvious, we would suggest the right has already tipped its hand: education. They want to be able to dictate curricula, to make it possible for children to attend religious schools on the government's dime, and, ideally, to bring school prayer back. There are endless possibilities here for lawsuits, ballot initiatives, and Republican-passed legislation.

F.S. in Cologne, Germany, asks: Why should men and women over 50 care about abortion rights?

V & Z answer: Readers should note that we have context for this question that does not appear here, and that this is a genuine request for an answer, and not a political push point disguised as a question.

In any event, three answers immediately occur to us:

  1. Slippery Slope: The previous questioner, D.E. in Lancaster, recounts the Martin Niemöller quote about slippery slopes. If a 50-year-old person sits idly by and watches the rights of others be degraded, then that person could well find that their rights are on the chopping block next. For example, it's not impossible that the Republican Party could decide that Medicare should no longer fund any medication or treatment related to sexual function. And we would guess that there are plenty of 50+-year-old men, and spouses of 50+-year-old men, who would not be pleased to have the supply of Viagra cut off. (Note that not all Medicare recipients can get Viagra, but some Part C and Part D plan holders can.)

  2. Public Policy: The more people there are, the worse that some things get, like global warming, housing prices, traffic congestion, etc. If those people are born to parents who do not want them, or who cannot properly support them, then that may cause additional social problems. For example, there is a well-known (but controversial) argument that restricting abortions results in increased crime, the notion being that unwanted/poorly supported children are more likely to engage in criminal behavior as teens and adults.

  3. Don't Be a Jerk: Unless you're an Ayn Rand disciple, you should support the happiness and well-being of others beyond yourself, particularly in cases where there is zero cost to you. We're all in this together.

Those are the reasons that we can think of. We'll be happy to run additions to the list tomorrow, if readers send them.

D.S. in Lancaster, PA, asks: There has been lots of talk about what happens if the Supreme Court overrules Roe vs Wade. Is it possible for Congress to pass a law legalizing abortion on a national level? Would that supersede the Supreme Court decision? If yes, why hasn't this been done when Democrats had the trifecta over the past 20 years. Is it too much of a hot potato?

V & Z answer: Congress certainly can pass a law legalizing abortion nationwide. In fact, the House has passed such a bill, the Women's Health Protection Act of 2021, this term. They've also passed the same basic bill a couple of times before. The impenetrable wall, of course, is the Senate and its filibuster.

So why didn't the Democrats take action the last time they had a filibuster-proof majority? Well, that has happened only twice since Roe was decided. The first occasion was 1977-78, when it was 61 Democrats (plus one independent, Harry Byrd, who caucused with the Democrats) in the Senate. However, the blue team had no idea what kind of political football this was going to become, and that Roe would not be enough to settle the issue for good.

The second occasion came in 2009-10, when there were a couple of brief periods (July 2009-August 2009 and September 2009-February 2010) when the Democratic caucus included 58 Democrats, one independent (Bernie Sanders), and one independent Democrat (Joe Lieberman). However, several members of the Democratic caucus at that time were conservative on abortion rights, including Kent Conrad (ND), Mark Pryor (AK), and a fellow named Joe Manchin (WV). There was no way the blue team was getting to 60 votes, and there was no way they were going to get multiple Republicans to cross the aisle.

It is certainly possible that if the Democrats are in a position to get the Women's Health Protection Act of 2021 through the Senate, they will get gun shy for fear of handing Republicans a cudgel to hit them over the head with. But until they are actually in that position, we won't know.

J.L. in Baltimore, MD, asks: Suppose your analysis is spot on. If the Supremes rule in favor of the anti-choice forces in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health, with Chief Justice John Roberts as one of the dissenting votes, what will he do next? Will the idea of the "stench" mentioned by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor be enough to cause him to retire? I doubt that he'd want to give Joe Biden the opportunity to name his replacement, but he also might not want his name attached to additional decisions on the far right.

V & Z answer: We do not know of a case where resigning in protest after a problematic decision saved a justice's reputation—particularly a chief justice's reputation. Further, Roberts likes being one of the half-dozen most powerful people in the country, and, as you rightly point out, would hate handing the chief justice's seat over to a Democratic appointee. If he believes the Court has been damaged, then he is sure to want to hang on and to try to fix the damage from within.

The only way this changes, we would say, is if it turns out that his health problems (he's suffered seizures at least twice) are more serious than publicly known. But we doubt that's the case.

J.S. in Johnstown, PA, asks: You suggested that the Supreme Court has divided itself into factions of 4, 3, and 2 justices when it comes to the ruling in Dobbs. What happens if no faction wins a majority to its banner?

V & Z answer: We wrote that piece with the presumption that each of the three factions—and in particular the John Roberts swing faction—really wants a clear decision here, in hopes of putting this issue to bed (at least for now). We thought about getting into "what if there's not a majority?", but the piece was already pretty long and complicated, and addressing that nuance would have made it more so. That said, we're glad you asked the question so we have a chance to follow up.

The ins and outs here are kind of tricky, so we're going to keep it as simple and as clear as we can. If you want to really get into the weeds, you can read this report from the Congressional Research Service. Anyhow, in Marks v. United States (1977), the Court addressed this exact question, and determined that in the absence of a majority the controlling opinion is the one based on the narrowest legal grounds. Since the three liberals want to strike down the Mississippi law, and the four conservatives (apparently) want to strike down Roe, then an opinion written by Roberts (with Neil Gorsuch concurring, presumably) would probably be the narrowest, as it would steer a middle course, and so would probably be controlling.

The issue here is "probably." It is not always clear, including possibly in this case, exactly which opinion is the narrowest one. And there have been plenty of occasions since 1977 where one level of the federal judiciary decided that one opinion in a non-majority decision was the controlling one and a different level decided that a different opinion was the controlling one.

The Supremes know this is an issue, and they also know that coming up with a better answer will not be easy (if it's even possible). The case Freeman v. United States (2011) was about a sentence reduction for William Freeman, whose penalty for possession of crack had been imposed under guidelines that were later liberalized. The Court issued a 4-1-4 ruling, with four justices agreeing that the sentence should be reduced, and a fifth (Sonia Sotomayor) concurring, but on different grounds. Later, the case Hughes v. United States (2017) was about a sentence reduction for a different defendant, Erik Lindsey Hughes, whose circumstances were similar (but not identical) to Freeman's. One federal court decided that the four-judge sentence-reduction opinion (which supported the prosecutors' case) was controlling, while a different court decided that the Sotomayor opinion (which supported the defense's case) was actually the controlling one. SCOTUS watchers saw this as a chance for the Court to finally clarify Marks, and in particular to decree that a one-justice decision can never be controlling. However, the Court bent over backwards to decide that case on different grounds, and to not touch Marks with a 10-foot pole.

So, it is possible that even if Roberts can't rally a majority to his side, he could have his way by writing the narrowest opinion. However, that will not be a resolution in any real sense, as adherents on both sides would immediately launch new challenges to the ruling, landing this right back in SCOTUS' lap again a year or two from now (or sooner, given the upcoming Texas case). A wishy-washy decision that is respected by nobody would be almost as bad as an overtly political decision, excepting that the wishy-washy decision wouldn't even put this matter in SCOTUS' rear-view mirror. So, Roberts—and the other justices for that matter—are going to do whatever they can to come up with a majority opinion.

J.B. in Radnor, PA, asks: In your item about the Mississippi abortion case, you write that the Court could overturn Roe v. Wade and leave it up to each state to decide whether or not to ban abortion. How likely is it that SCOTUS could instead go a step further and not only overturn Roe, but come up with a ruling that bans abortion nationwide? I can't imagine Chief Justice John Roberts would go that far, but would the other five conservative justices be willing to go there?

V & Z answer: They can't legally do that. The Court does not issue advisory opinions, and can only rule on the questions before it. And the question here is "Can Mississippi (and, by extension, other states) restrict abortions more aggressively than already allowed?" The Court can answer that with a "yes" or a "no" or with something in between, and can even strike down Roe, since that is the case that the state and its allies are challenging. However, the Court can't answer with: "Yes, and while we're at it, Mississippi is actually required to outlaw all abortions, and so too are the other states."

That's not to say that the conservatives couldn't try it, at least theoretically. This is what happened in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), when the Taney court went way beyond the questions put before it, and tried to find a way to legalize slavery nationwide. That was disastrous for SCOTUS back then, however, and it would be equally disastrous for the Court today. In fact, it might be even more so, since it would give huge momentum to court packing schemes or other changes meant to limit the Supremes' power.

P.R. in Arvada, CO, asks: During the Supreme Court hearing on the Mississippi abortion law, CNN reported that Justice Clarence Thomas pressed each advocate, asking where abortion was mentioned in the Constitution. While the document obviously doesn't use those exact words, does he have a point or is it reasonably covered in there somewhere?

Personally, I look at the first sentence and see the term "promote the general Welfare" which should cover it.

V & Z answer: Thomas has no point whatsoever, and is smart enough to know it. The most friendly interpretation is that the question is a quick and easy way to compel counsel to articulate a clear constitutional argument in support of their perspective. The less friendly interpretation is that he's grandstanding and engaging in sophistry. You can decide for yourself which it is, though we will point out that the whole purpose of the briefs submitted to the Court before the hearing is to articulate clear constitutional arguments for the author's perspective.

In any event, here is a far-from-exhaustive list of things not specifically mentioned in the Constitution:

  • Political parties
  • Immigration
  • The cabinet
  • Paper currency
  • The chief justiceship
  • Judicial review
  • The right of individual citizens to vote
  • Executive privilege
  • Executive orders
  • The filibuster
  • God
  • Marriage
  • Education
  • A jury of your peers
  • The pursuit of happiness
  • Innocent until proven guilty

The Constitution is a framework for governance, and a fairly brief one, at 4,543 words. It was meant to provide a foundation for thinking about and addressing the many and varied issues that the Founders knew were sure to arise. So, many of the things above are implied by the Constitution, or can be justified based on its language, but the actual words are not there. And that was the ostensible test posed by Thomas.

Incidentally, Thomas' best-known majority opinion was probably the one he wrote in Kansas v. Marsh, in which he affirmed a state's right to impose the death penalty. Interesting, because we've reviewed our copy of the Constitution, and we don't find the phrase "death penalty" anywhere. However, the 10th Amendment does give the states the power to do anything the federal government is not empowered to do.

I.M.O. in Norman, OK, asks: Your site and the media I follow have well covered why the World Health Organization (WHO) skipped the Greek letters Nu and Xi (the former sounding like "new," and the latter being a very common surname in Asia). However, I've not seen the explanation for why they jumped epsilon, zeta, eta, theta, iota, kappa, lambda and mu.

V & Z answer: They didn't. With COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, WHO, the CDC, etc. place variants into four categories: Variant Being Monitored (VBM), Variant of Interest (VOI), Variant of Concern (VOC), and Variant of High Consequence (VOHC). Generally, they only issue warnings about VOCs and VOHCs, though the latter are rare.

At the moment, only the Delta and Omicron variants are classified as VOCs by the CDC, while WHO adds Alpha, Beta, and Gamma to the list. This means that, in the judgment of that particular agency, there is evidence the variant is: (1) more easily transmitted than past variants, (2) more damaging to people than past variants, and/or (3) more resistant to treatments/vaccines than past variants.

There are other differences between the two agencies' lists. For example, WHO considers the Lambda variant to be a (VOI) while CDC isn't even monitoring that one. On the other hand, CDC is monitoring a variant—1.617.3—that WHO struck from its list before they could even name it. And both agencies decided that Theta wasn't worth following any further and ended their monitoring.

The differences between the two agencies' lists are partly about different interpretations of the data and the standards, but are primarily because WHO has a much broader geographic focus than CDC.


S.B. in Hood River, OR, asks: You wrote that Donald Trump's approach to COVID was simply following his base's inclination rather than creating it. I always felt he was in a unique position to have a positive impact. If he had always worn masks and promoted their use, encouraged social distancing, pushed for frequent testing, and also hyped the vaccine, Fox would have had no choice but to support that as well and there would have been a lot fewer deaths. I think his downplaying the infection and promotion of conspiracy theories set the tone going forward and that is why he isn't listened to when he half-heartedly suggests vaccination now. I don't think he was the sort of person who could have followed the rational course, but I feel he would have been successful if he had. Why do you think this is wrong?

V & Z answer: We don't think it's wrong. Your argument and ours are not mutually exclusive, as you are saying he could have been a leader on this, and gone against the tide created by his base, and we are saying that he did not do that.

There is absolutely no question that if Trump had masked up, promoted vaccination, etc., some of his base would have followed his lead. Exactly what percentage is an open question, but it's certainly not zero. However, if he had done that, he wouldn't be Donald Trump. Going all-in on fighting the pandemic would surely have alienated at least some of his supporters, the ones whose fear and anti-science attitudes and resentment of pointy-headed elites like Dr. Anthony Fauci outweigh even their love for Trump. And Trump is a person who cares deeply about being loved by as many people as possible. That matters more to him than anything, which is why his favorite part of presidenting was the rallies in front of adoring crowds. Meanwhile Trump is also a person who is unusually lacking in any form of courage. So he was always going to lead from behind.

M.Y. in Windcrest, TX, asks: You wrote "One of the [Lincoln Project] founders, Rick Wilson, has encouraged Trump to run in 2024." That is shocking. Can you please expound on the reason—is it because he believes Trump would be easy to defeat in 2024, or has he changed his mind on Trump?

V & Z answer: Yes, the point of that was to demonstrate that the Lincoln Project folks are now on very different pages, but we probably should have explained that more fully. Wilson's view is that the only way for Trumpism to be defeated and for the Republican Party to find itself is for Trump himself to be destroyed. So, he wants Trump to run and to lose big time. He fears that if a Trump clone runs, that person might just win or, at very least, that their loss would not be seen as an unambiguous repudiation of Trumpism.

J.F. in Fort Worth, TX, asks: Given all the weirdness on the far-right about JFK Jr. still "really" being alive (and ready to come back and endorse Trump), I have to ask: If Trump were to die before the 2024 election, would his followers accept this or deny it for all time like the endless "Elvis is still alive" rumors? Would the die-hards (no pun intended) break off and form their own little cult of denial? Would ambitious Republicans like Govs. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) and Greg Abbott (R-TX) and Sen. Ted. Cruz (R-TX) immediately step into the void made by Dear Leader's passing, or would that be seen by the faithful as heresy because they'd be blocking Trump's eventual (inevitable?) return to power?

V & Z answer: The Trump conspiracists, and the QAnon folks in particular, are pretty far out there. However, "they're not really dead" conspiracy theories tend to attach to people who die young and unexpectedly—Presley, the three Kennedys (John, John-John, and Bobby), John Lennon, Brandon Lee, Jim Morrison, Tupac Shakur, Andy Kaufman, etc. This is a pretty obvious psychological defense mechanism for folks who don't like the thought that death can come for anyone at any time, even those who are young, well-heeled, and powerful.

Since Donald Trump is in his seventies, doesn't exercise, is overweight, etc., his death surely wouldn't be a shock anywhere near the level that the deaths of the people in the previous paragraph were. So, we think "Trump is actually alive" conspiracy theories are unlikely. Now, there is a different kind of death conspiracy, namely that the official story of someone's passing was crafted to hide some sort of sinister truths. JFK and RFK are also examples of this, as are Seth Rich, Vince Foster, Jeffrey Epstein, Osama bin Laden, etc. It's certainly possible that this kind of conspiracy theory could attach to Trump's demise, and that the True Believers could decide that he was actually done in by the Deep State, Hillary Clinton, the Illuminati, George Soros, Anthony Fauci, the Flying Elvises (Utah Chapter) and/or Weird Al Yankovic.

As to a successor for the dear, departed Trump, there will be many folks who claim his mantle and who will say that if the man were still alive, he would be supporting me. Trump's followers probably won't reject them outright, but they will choose their favorite successor, very possibly angrily lambasting all the others as pretenders. So, it could get ugly.

S.C. in Mountain View, CA, asks: Let's assume that the Republicans do flip enough seats in the November 2022 election to take control of the House.

Since the Speaker has to be elected by a majority of the entire House, and not just by a majority of the majority party, I could imagine the Democrats pulling a a Willie Brown-Doris Allen and helping the moderate Republicans elect one of their own as Speaker, denying the Speakership to both House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (D-CA) and Donald Trump.

My question is, in such a scenario, which Republican would be likely to become Speaker?

V & Z answer: That is a very tough question, because it's hard to come up with someone who would be acceptable to a sizable number of Republicans but would also be tolerable to Democrats. For example, the largest ideological caucus in the House is the conservative Republican Study Committee. And the chair of the Committee, Jim Banks (R-IN), could probably get enough Republican votes to knock off McCarthy with the help of the Democrats. However, Banks blasted the 1/6 Commission (after initially supporting an investigation), signed the amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to overturn the 2020 presidential election, did everything possible to undermine Speaker Nancy Pelosi's COVID rules for the House, and has also engaged in regular transphobia. The Democrats just can't support someone like that; even if they could swallow hard and accept Banks (dubious), their voters would be furious.

Ultimately, we think that is the rub. There are 126 Republicans who signed that amicus brief. Signing it is a dealbreaker for Democrats, while saying that Joe Biden was legally elected president is a dealbreaker for most Republicans. We just don't see a single member who would be acceptable to a sizable enough number of Democrats and Republicans. Maybe someone like Rep. John Katko (R-NY), if the gap between the Democrats and Republicans is small enough such that only a dozen or so votes are needed.

Another possibility is that the folks who don't want McCarthy take note of the fact that the Speaker need not be a member of the House, and so find someone from outside to vote for. Maybe someone like former senator (and six-term representative) Jeff Flake?

Anybody have better ideas?

J.B. in Hutto, TX, asks: What odds do you give Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) of winning her GOP primary in 2022? I haven't seen any polls on the race.

V & Z answer: There haven't been many polls, and the handful that have been done all involve opponents who have since dropped out of the race (Chuck Gray, Darin Smith) or who have had major skeletons emerge from their closets (Anthony Bouchard, who impregnated a 14-year-old when he was 18, and is thus a statutory rapist).

To the extent that there is any data, it's that PredictIt has Cheney at 20% to win. We think that's probably a bit bearish, though. The Democrats don't have a candidate yet, and may very well discourage anyone from running, so that Democratic voters can vote for Cheney (Wyoming is an open-primary state). If she gets the lion's share of the Democrats, and the non-Trump Republicans (of which there are a sizable number in the Cowboy State), then she might just survive, particularly if the Trumpy vote is split (there are currently two Trumpers in the race). We'd put her chances at something closer to 40% at the moment.


M.G. in Boulder, CO, asks: The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was gutted by the Supreme Court. How and why? Now various states have passed laws disenfranchising people who have traditionally been disenfranchised and who tend to vote Democratic. No need to ask why on that. Groups working to fix the problem are becoming deeply concerned that the Biden administration is moving too slowly on an issue they consider existential to democracy. What should and could the administration be doing about this issue? What will keep a new Voting Rights Act from meeting the fate of the 1965 Act?

V & Z answer: The VRA was divided into sections. Section 4 set up a formula meant to identify which states had issues when it came to getting voters registered and protecting their right to vote. The specifics of the formula aren't important, all that matters is that the list of states that failed the test, and the list of states that were once part of the Confederacy, is pretty close to the same list (add Alaska and Arizona, and strike North Carolina, Florida, Arkansas, and Tennessee, if you want to be entirely accurate).

Meanwhile, Section 5 decreed that any state identified as problematic by the formula could not make any changes to voting laws or procedures without getting preclearance from the Department of Justice. In other words, the DoJ had a veto over things like Voter ID laws or reductions in the numbers of polling places.

When SCOTUS gutted the VRA, what they specifically did was declare the Section 4 formula to be unconstitutional, finding that it unfairly discriminated against certain states based on outdated information. And without the formula, Section 5 is effectively meaningless, as it is unenforceable. Recognizing this, red states across the land promptly responded by passing all sorts of laws that the DoJ would never have signed off on, and that would have put those states at risk of failing the Section 4 test (if they hadn't failed already).

In his majority decision, John Roberts said that a new, updated formula would be acceptable. We will see if Congress can somehow get that done. And if they do, then we'll see if Roberts really meant it. And if he did, then we'll see if his five conservative colleagues give a damn about his promise. In short, there are a lot of roadblocks in the way of an updated VRA.

B.E. in Chico, CA, asks: Will Dr. Mehmet Oz be allowed to have his TV show during the run-up to the election? It seems to me this would be an unfair advantage.

V & Z answer: In theory, it was possible for Oz to keep his show. The Equal Time Rule, which has been on the books for almost a century at this point, does not forbid broadcast stations from airing programming that features political candidates. It just requires that those candidates' opponents be given equal time if they request it.

As a practical matter, Oz's Senate campaign made the show impossible. As you might imagine, the various stations do not want to give an hour to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who is running for the Senate in Pennsylvania—and such folks would each be entitled to an hour, regardless of their party or their level of electoral support. And Oz, for his part, does not want to try to do both things at once. He gave his production staff 15 whole minutes of warning that they were out of a job before quitting and announcing his intent to run.

If Oz had really, really wanted to keep doing the show, there is a potential exception to the Equal Time Rule available for syndicated programming. However, such exceptions have to be approved by the FCC on a case-by-case basis, and are meant for shows that might occasionally have an appearance by a politician (for example, Kelly Clarkson might have an interview with Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-OH). There is zero chance the FCC would have given Oz a waiver, and little chance he would have won if he'd taken the matter to court.

M.W. in Frederick, MD, asks: I agree 100% with the general sentiment I've seen at various times on this website that there are tons of problems with election funding in our country and the sheer amount of money spent on political campaigns has gotten extraordinarily asinine. However, one thing I've always wondered about is this: Is all of this money being spent good for the economy? I'm not an economist but my general sense is that whenever money is moving around it is good to stimulate the economy. Is this a silver lining to all of this ridiculous spending? Or does this spending not stimulate the economy like other types of spending?

V & Z answer: Perhaps you're familiar with Bastiat's window? It comes from French economist Frédéric Bastiat, close to 200 years ago. He observed that breaking windows stimulates the economy because a new window has to be made, purchased, installed, etc., but that the window-breaking also comes with deleterious costs (namely broken windows) and that the economic activity generated is redirected from other, more productive purposes like research or education or public health.

Bastiat's ideas are mostly deployed as a counterargument to the notion that wars are "good for the economy." However, Bastiat's window also seems to us to describe campaign spending. Yes, it gets money moving around, but in a way that primarily benefits a small number of people and businesses. Meanwhile, there are significant costs; politicians may be corrupted by the need for donations, and even if they're honest, they have to spend some sizable portion of their time fundraising rather than governing.

C.P. in Silver Spring, MD, asks: After reading your item on the stopgap spending measure, I'm curious: How often these days does Congress actually pass a full annual budget instead of 'kick the can down the road' short term bills? I imagine this was less of an issue in the past. When did the process of passing a federal budget start to break down?

V & Z answer: The modern process has only been in place for about 45 years, since the passage of the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. Before that, Congress just gave the executive branch broad guidelines and left the details to the president's discretion. However, Richard Nixon started engaging in trickery (or Tricky Dickery), and not spending money on things he disagreed with. So, the 1974 Act established that Congress would pass a much more specific budget with mandatory spending. They are supposed to have a budget in place, made up of 12 separate appropriations bills crafted by the relevant committees, by October 1.

In the years since 1974, the folks on the Hill have met the deadline a grand total of...four times, in 1977, 1989, 1995 and 1997. In the other years, at least one continuing resolution (CR) had to be passed in order to keep the government operating at full capacity. The difference between an appropriations bill and a CR is that the former can do more things, including establishing new programs and eliminating old ones, while the latter can only adjust funding levels from the previous budget.

In the last 20 years, Congress has managed to get a full budget in place by January 1 (i.e., 3 months late) a total of seven times. There are also four years in that timeframe (2007, 2011, 2013, and 2019) in which they never passed a full budget and at least a part of the government was funded by CRs for the entire fiscal year. In 2011 and 2019, the entire government was funded by CRs for the entire fiscal year.


S.S. in San Luis Obispo, CA, asks: In the modern era, when the president and vice-president are elected together, the balance of power in Washington doesn't change if the president dies (which doesn't seem to stop most U.S. political assassination attempts from futilely targeting POTUS). Excluding the Supreme Court, it seems that the most likely single random death or sudden retirement that could flip a branch of government would be that of a senator in a balanced senate. So, how often has an unexpected loss of a politician caused a chamber or a branch of government to flip? How common has it been, historically, to have such a fragile state of government where one death could seriously shake things up?

V & Z answer: It's not very common. First of all, the current setup—where majority status is critical in the Senate—has only been in place for 100 years. Second, for this dynamic to play out, you would need an evenly divided Senate, then the death of a sitting senator, and then a replacement from a different party.

There have been 301 U.S. senators who died with their boots on, as it were. However, if we limit it to the last century, the period of time where the current structure—with a majority leader, minority leader, etc.—was in place, the number drops to 135. And about two-thirds of those died in years where the Democrats were not only in the majority, but were in the majority by a bunch. To take a random example, when J. Hamilton Lewis died on April 9, 1939, that reduced the Democrats' majority to...68. And this is before statehood for Alaska and Hawaii, so the blue team still had almost 71% of the seats even after Lewis went to the big Senate chamber in the sky.

Anyhow, because the scenario you describe requires a fairly rare confluence of circumstances, we can find only one example. However, that one, the 107th Congress (2001-2003) was quite the roller coaster. The Democrats started in the majority, thanks to VP Al Gore's tiebreaking vote (50+1 to 50). They then lost the majority 17 days later when George W. Bush was inaugurated and Dick Cheney became the tiebreaker. The Democrats regained the majority on June 6, 2001, when Jim Jeffords of Vermont switched from Republican to Democratic, making it 51-49. The plane-crash death of Paul Wellstone (D), who was replaced by non-caucusing independent Dean Barkley, made it 50-49-1 as of Nov. 4, 2002. Then, the Nov. 23, 2002, special-election loss of Jean Carnahan (D), who was appointed to the seat because her husband Mel Carnahan (D) had died in a different plane crash, returned the Democrats to the minority, 49-50-1.

D.H. in Austin, TX, asks: My family has deep roots in the Worthington, Ohio vicinity. After researching family history, I found puritan ancestors in Plymouth who moved to Ohio. In later generations, I find fervent abolitionists and even a conductor on the underground railroad in my family tree. Those families became "Dry" supporters during prohibition. My grandparents were teetotalers (luckily that isn't genetic). My family members who still live in that area are staunchly anti-abortion. That small part of Ohio seemed to play an outsized role in these trends. Am I incorrect in drawing conclusions that these separate movements somehow play into a larger historical theme or family cultural inheritance?

V & Z answer: Well, if your family has consistently been quite religious, then you're right. The abolitionists, who opposed slavery on moral grounds (as opposed to free soilers, who opposed it primarily on economic grounds), were made up primarily of very religious people who found slavery to be ungodly, Black people who found slavery to be racist, and religious Black people who found slavery to be both ungodly and racist.

Prohibition was pretty complicated, and the movement was made up of several different factions with different agendas. However, many Protestants climbed on board because they equated alcohol use with immorality, and also with Catholicism, and they tended to approve of neither of those things.

Meanwhile, the anti-abortion movement is made up primarily of religious folks, or else people who are trying to get in good with the religious folks. So, all three of these causes have clear connections to religious belief, and in particular to Protestant/evangelical religious belief.

J.C. in General Trias, Cavite, Philippines, asks: I recall reading years ago a historian stating that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was a more accurate movie than Spielberg's Lincoln. This never made sense to me. Obviously there are no vampires, in contrast to the historicity of Lincoln. Is there any way that Vampire Hunter is more historically accurate?

V & Z answer: There are two possible ways you could make this argument. The first is that Lincoln does little to document the horrors of slavery, or even to mention slavery, other that to take it as a given that the institution must end. Spielberg covered the evils of the "peculiar institution" in Amistad, and apparently saw no reason to revisit that cinematic territory. Meanwhile, in Vampire Hunter, the vampires are obviously a metaphor for slavery, and they are pretty horrific. So, you could say that film does a better job in that way.

The other way to make this argument is to focus on very specific details. In particular, Spielberg didn't get the U.S. Capitol right. As you can see here, the dome was portrayed as being green. It's not quite clear why the filmmakers did that, though there may have been some confusion with the original dome, which was indeed green, but was smaller and lower than the dome shown in the movie, and which was long gone by Lincoln's time, in any case. Spielberg also had the climactic vote take place in a House chamber that had large windows and lots of natural light. Presumably he did that for purposes of a compelling visual, but in reality the House was meeting in an indoor chamber without windows by 1865. By contrast, Vampire Hunter renders both the Capitol dome and the House chamber correctly.


S.S. in San Luis Obispo, CA, asks: How should we format our question and comment emails to make it easiest for you to sort, read, and use them? Does it save you any effort to include our own "S.S. in San Luis Obispo, CA, asks:" instead of signing at the bottom with name and city, for example? What should we put in the subject line to make your lives easier?

V & Z answer: We appreciate the concern and the consideration! As every teacher knows (and presumably a sizable number of non-teachers), the more guidelines you set, the more likely that one of them will get overlooked or mangled. And so, we're only going to note the two things that make a meaningful difference. The first is making sure that we know your initials and city. It saves a small amount of time if they are formatted as "X.X. in City, State," but that is tiny as compared to the time that is expended if we have to try to figure out the missing information.

The second is to make sure that all relevant information is in the body of the question, and that there isn't something important relegated to the subject line. Since readers don't see the subject line, a message like that means we have to spend time fixing the question to incorporate the necessary information. This is a simplistic example, but if the subject line is "Ted Cruz's Cancun Trip" and the question is "What was he thinking?," that takes much more time to deal with than if the question is "What was Ted Cruz thinking in taking that trip to Cancun?"

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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Dec01 Atlanta Has a New Mayor
Nov30 Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar--meet Lauren Boebert
Nov30 Democrats Have Quite the To-Do List
Nov30 Obstruction Is Their Business, and Business Is Good
Nov30 Let the Conspiracies Begin
Nov30 Florida Republicans Embrace Their Inner Elbridge Gerry
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Nov29 Sunday in Virusland
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Nov29 Will the Select Committee Leave One Stone Unturned?
Nov29 The Lincoln Project Is on the Rocks
Nov28 Sunday Mailbag
Nov27 Saturday Q&A
Nov26 Republican Gerrymanders Have Locked in Control of Key State Legislatures
Nov26 Maybe the State Courts Could Save Democracy
Nov26 One of Biden's Nominations Is Opposed--by Democrats
Nov26 Greene Introduces a Bill to Honor Rittenhouse
Nov26 Maybe the Democrats Can Find a Senate Candidate in Missouri after All
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