Justices Embark on Very Controversial Term
Alaska Hospitals Overwhelmed by Covid-19
Pelosi on the Verge of Cementing Her Legacy
Biden Signs 30-Day Extension of Highway Funding
Biden Throws In With Left
Sinema Slams Delay of Infrastructure Vote
Two weeks ago, the feedback on the (slight) format change was 55%-45% in favor. Last week, it was 90%-10% in favor. So, we'll stick with the new format. Quite a few folks would like to see section headers on Saturdays, like we do on Sundays, but the questions do not "break" as distinctively as the letters do. Looking at today's questions, for example, debt/reconciliation questions bleed into questions about everyone's two favorite Democratic senators, which bleed into questions about coalition building and partisanship, and so forth. Where do we draw the section lines? So, we'll take this request under consideration, but we're not so sure it will work well.
M.U. in Seattle, WA, asks: Why are government shutdowns a thing, and what is really going on after these repeated near-shutdowns? Once upon a time, didn't the government just keep running after funding ran out because it was assumed the funding would eventually be coming? Can't Joe Biden just order someone in some department to write a memo that says the government shall continue to operate under the assumption that Congress will eventually fund it? It seems to me Republicans like the shutdown as a bargaining (nihilism?) chip, and Democrats will never stomach asserting such a unilateral power move as putting a stop to it all. Is that a correct assessment?
V & Z answer: There are a lot of questions here; we'll see if we can cover them all.
You are correct that, for many years, the government did not shut down when the budget ran out. As with "sitting presidents cannot be prosecuted," the shutdown policy is the product of a Department of Justice memo. In this case, the memo was issued by AG Benjamin Civiletti in 1980. In it, he gave his opinion that the language of the Antideficiency Act, which forbids federal agencies from spending more money than they have been allocated, means that federal agencies cannot operate in the absence of continued funding. "[The] legal authority for continued operations either exists or it does not," he wrote, and he concluded that if Congress has not approved funding for the current fiscal year, then it means that the necessary legal authority no longer exists until funding is re-established. Recognizing that it would not be practical for soldiers, VA doctors and nurses, federal prison guards, etc., to just pack up and go home, Civiletti eventually wrote a second memo that said that even in the absence of a budget, the president has the "leeway to perform essential functions and make the government 'workable.'"
What this means is that from 1789 to 1980, the government shut down for a grand total of zero days. Even after Civiletti issued his opinion, shutdowns were not common; the federal government was closed for a grand total of 40 hours between 1980 and 1995 (with the FTC being closed for an additional 8 hours beyond that). Then, Speaker Newt Gingrich came along. He decided that he could, and should, hold the budget hostage in hopes of frustrating Bill Clinton's economic agenda. By the time Gingrich had reached the second anniversary of his Speakership, he had forced 26 days of shutdowns, or more than five times as much shutdown time as the U.S. had experienced in its entire history to that point. There were another 16 days' worth of shutdowns during the Barack Obama years, and 38 days' worth during the Donald Trump years. Since either side could theoretically yield in a shutdown situation, either side could theoretically be "to blame." However, the general rule is that Republican Senates or presidents have used shutdowns (or the threat of them) as leverage to gain some sort of political advantage. For example, the 35-day Trump-era shutdown of 2019 was because he and his fellow Republicans were trying to extract money for a border wall. You could argue that it's the Democrats' fault that they weren't willing to swallow this poisonous pill, but if you make that case, you also have to explain why the Republicans didn't include border wall funding in their 2017 reconciliation bill.
And yes, Biden theoretically could order AG Merrick Garland to write a new memo contravening the one from Civiletti (who is still alive, by the way, and so has been able to see what he wrought). Alternatively, Garland could just write a memo dramatically expanding the definition of "essential functions." An even better solution, however, would be for the Congress to adopt an automatic continuing resolution that says that if there is no budget in place, then funding continues at current levels until one is agreed upon. This is what nearly all other industrialized nations do. This is not likely to happen anytime soon, however. Not because Democrats lack the stomach, exactly, but because, as with so many other things, it would be filibustered by the Republicans.
O.Z.H. in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, asks: So Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) says he wants the majority party to increase the debt ceiling. You have written that the goal is to use the Democrats' increase of the debt ceiling to label them as reckless spenders. But what I don't understand is why McConnell is filibustering a clean debt increase bill. Why not let the Democrats pass a 50+ Harris bill to increase the ceiling? The same "reckless spenders" label could just as easily be (disingenuously) applied in that case. So what is going on?
V & Z answer: We are going to begin with the presumption that McConnell has an excellent sense for what will make Republicans' blood boil. And he clearly believes that it will be much easier to nail the Democrats if it's one bill that raises the debt limit and spends the reconciliation money than if it's two separate bills. That suggests he doesn't have a lot of respect for his followers' intelligence, if he thinks they can't wrap their minds around "two bills." That said, we already knew he has low respect for his followers' intelligence, since he also thinks they don't understand what the debt ceiling actually is, and how the country gets there.
J.N. in Summit, NJ, asks: The procedures for dealing with the U.S. debt ceiling are absurd on many levels. Currently, the government reports that it is using "extraordinary measures" to pay its obligations since it cannot issue more debt. Undoubtedly these "extraordinary measures" defy common mathematical rules and common sense, the way many macroeconomic concepts do. If the treasury can legally make trillions of dollars of platinum coin appear out of thin air, what makes that more "extraordinary" than whatever they are doing now?
V & Z answer: What the Treasury is currently doing to keep the bills paid isn't actually all that extraordinary at all. They are allowed to spend money; they just can't borrow any additional money right now. And they are still taking money in, in the form of tax payments. The issue is that the government's income isn't actually enough to pay its bills, which is why the borrowing is necessary. So, at the moment, Secretary Janet Yellen & Co. are using the government's income to pay for the things that would normally be covered by income and for the things that would normally be covered by borrowing. Eventually, they'll burn through all the cash they have on hand, and that is the point at which the debt ceiling will cause the government to default.
Juggling money like this is a common feature of budget management, and so it won't spook the markets or investors when the government does it. On the other hand, issuing a trillion-dollar coin would be absolutely unprecedented, and would make the markets and the investors very nervous about what might happen in the short term, and also what might happen the next time the debt ceiling is reached.
G.H. in Tampa, FL, asks: I have seen many articles suggesting the Treasury Department mint a $1 trillion coin, but could they just call it $30 trillion and completely wipe out the debt? I would think that would devalue the dollar, but we would not be talking about the debt limit for a couple of years.
V & Z answer: This would be a very bad idea.
First of all, it would decimate confidence in U.S. currency and in U.S. bonds. People and nations would stop taking U.S. dollars, and would stop investing in T-bills, for fear that they would get screwed in the future, at such point that the U.S. pulled the same trick again. The markets would tank around the world, with the U.S. exchanges tanking worst of all. The government would thus be unable to borrow money anymore, except at outlandish rates, and American citizens and businesses would have enormous difficulty conducting commerce abroad.
Meanwhile, the current holders of the U.S. debt would get screwed, because they would be repaid in vastly less valuable U.S. dollars. Roughly half of the debt is held by U.S. citizens and banks; the citizens would be furious and would find themselves instantly much poorer, while many of the banks would go under. Coupled with the collapse of the U.S. stock market, and the inability of the American government or of American corporations to conduct business abroad, this would basically instantly re-create the circumstances of the Great Depression.
In addition, about one-quarter of the U.S. debt is held by...the U.S. government. When the Social Security Administration takes in more money than it pays out, it does not stuff that cash under its mattress; it invests it in U.S. bonds. If those bonds were to drop precipitously in value, the SSA would suddenly be far less able to meet its future obligations. Either it would have to cut payments dramatically, or it would have to move up the date on which it would have to rely solely on the money it's bringing in to pay beneficiaries (a moment that will also lead to a reduction in payments). If the 60 million or so SSA recipients were to see their already-not-too-high incomes cut, then that would further worsen the already disastrous economic situation.
In short, pulling a stunt like this would instantly commence Great Depression II, definitely for the U.S. and likely for the rest of the world, and would permanently crash the U.S. dollar while also permanently ruining the U.S. government's credit rating. And for what benefit? To say that the balance sheet is clean? Hardly seems worth it.
J.E.S. in Sedona, AZ, asks: I have appreciated the analysis of the potential trillion-dollar coin, which, should it come to be minted, I hope comes to be referred to as "One Janet." On a more possibly practical note, based in historic reality, what has happened to the various real paper currency bills printed in the nation's history beyond the current topline $100 bill? I would totally love to be able to slap a Grover down on my local convenience store counter at some point, shaming the carriers of mere Benjamins, but would my payment for two breakfast burritos and a Coke Zero be legal and allowable? (I will take ownership and responsibility for the unwieldy amount of change I receive, of course).
V & Z answer: The answer depends on how large the denomination is that we're talking about. As most readers probably know, the biggest bill ever printed by the federal government was the $100,000 note (Woodrow Wilson). Its sole purpose was to allow transfers between branches of the federal reserve, in the pre-digital era. Since the government retained possession of all of these bills (there were about 40,000 of them in total), it was easy enough for the government to yank them from circulation when they were no longer needed. And for the same reason, it is not legal for private citizens to own them. The only remaining specimens are owned by various elements of the federal government, like the Smithsonian Institution.
The other big bills—the $500 (William McKinley), the $1000 (Grover Cleveland) that you aspire to, the $5000 (James Madison), and the $10000 (Salmon Chase)—were publicly circulated, can be owned by private citizens, and remain legal tender. They have all been discontinued, though, in part because they weren't particularly convenient for citizens, and in part because they were very convenient for criminals (either for purposes of counterfeiting or money laundering).
There are about 140,000 Clevelands still in existence, so it's certainly possible for you to get your hands on one, if you wish. They are pretty much always available on eBay, though you'll pay anywhere from $2,500 to $10,000 for them depending on condition, which would make spending your new acquisition to acquire $1,000 worth of goods and return change a rather unwise financial decision. It is also likely that the convenience store would refuse to take the bill, unless the cashier happens to be a well-heeled currency collector. They might be suspicious, or they might not have the cash on hand needed to make change. It is true that the bill is legal tender for all debts, private and public, but until the store actually agrees to consummate the transaction, you are not in their debt, and so they are free to refuse. On the other hand, if you try to pay your electric bill with the $1,000 bill, then the electric company has to accept it.
S.N. in Santa Clara, CA, asks: Is there anything in the law that would prevent the Democrats from raising the debt ceiling to $50 trillion, $100 trillion, or even $500 trillion through the reconciliation process? If there is no legal obstacle, this might be a good way to get rid of this ridiculous political game permanently.
V & Z answer: Reconciliation bills can affect the budget for a maximum of 10 years. So, the Democrats would not be able to put a permanent end to this issue, but they would be able to neuter it for a decade. The other benefit to raising the debt ceiling to a crazy number is that it would, paradoxically, serve to illustrate that the maneuver really has nothing to do with the reconciliation bill.
If the Democrats raise it by $10 trillion, then Mitch McConnell & Co. will run around and make the case that the Democrats' reconciliation bill didn't cost $3.5 trillion, it really cost $10 trillion. That would be a lie, but the Minority Leader believes his base either wouldn't know or wouldn't care. On the other hand, if the increase is some absurdly high number, then McConnell's assertion wouldn't pass nearly as many people's smell tests. "We clearly did not raise the debt ceiling to $200 skillion bajillion to pay for a $350 billion/year spending bill," the Democrats would point out, "we did it to stop the Republicans from constantly playing chicken with the nation's economic well-being."
S.S. in Detroit, MI, asks: It seems to me that I have read, possibly on this site, that a filibustered cloture vote in the Senate can be challenged, and the challenge decided by a simple majority. Can you explain that, please, if I've got it wrong, and if that's right, why would the Democrats not go that route on the debt ceiling, since they seem to have the 51 votes, and could save the world from going over the fiscal cliff?
V & Z answer: 50 votes plus Kamala Harris' tiebreaker would indeed be enough. The Democrats would introduce a bill to raise the debt ceiling, the Republicans would filibuster, and one of the Democrats would raise a point of order that debt ceiling bills cannot be filibustered. The presiding officer would call a vote on the point of order, and in this case a simple majority is decisive. So, if 50+1 supported the point of order, then it would be carried, and would set a binding precedent making debt ceiling bills unfilibusterable.
If Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) had the votes to do this, it would presumably already be done. That means that Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and/or Joe Manchin (D-WV) are holding out. This is not a surprise. Manchin, in particular, clearly feels that tinkering with the filibuster a little is a slippery slope that leads to tinkering with it a little more, and then more still, and so on. Further, given that they are both trying to project an image as moderates, they hardly want to be the deciding vote that lifts the debt ceiling now, and for all time.
L.B. in Boise, ID, asks: It seems obvious to me that the main constituencies for most members of Congress are the folks who pay for their campaigns. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema both seem to work for big corporate interests, like most of the others. My question is: Could Joe Biden put the screws to their biggest donors to get them on board? Maybe something like "Without this bill, I am going to instruct my people to put very odious regulations on the very specific industries who are funding this obstruction!"?
V & Z answer: If Joe Biden were to try that, it would be a very serious abuse of power, and most certainly an impeachable offense. He would be using the levers of power to blackmail others into doing his bidding. It would be almost exactly the same thing as what Donald Trump did with Ukraine, excepting that Volodymyr Zelensky was too scared to complain loudly, whereas any American business/citizen Biden tried to coerce would run right to The New York Times or The Washington Post. There are hardball options, some of which we wrote about yesterday, but they involve turning the screws on the senators themselves, and not on using the machinery of the federal government to put pressure on their donors.
R.M. in Virginia Beach, VA, asks: Has there been any public speculation about Kyrsten Sinema switching parties? Surely the Republicans must be wooing her.
V & Z answer: Sure, there has been speculation. Her hometown paper even ran an op-ed on the subject a few months ago.
That said, we seriously doubt this is her plan. The Arizona Republican Party is entirely in the thrall of the Trumpists, and Trumpists are not going to vote for someone who was once an outspoken liberal, who is still far to the left of most of them, who voted twice for Trump to be removed from office, and who thinks Joe Biden won the election of 2020.
A.M. in Eagle Creek, OR, asks: Regarding the opaque reasoning of a certain pair of Democratic senators on the reconciliation bill, I believe I've read that neither is a fan of the D.C. lifestyle. I'm wondering if lateral moves to run for governorships in their respective states might explain their GOP-lite posturing?
V & Z answer: For Manchin? Maybe. He's been governor of his state before, and if he runs for reelection to the Senate, or if he runs to regain the governor's mansion, the election will take place at the same time, in 2024. So, the timing works out. Maybe he really is tired of the houseboat.
For Sinema? It doesn't really add up. The governorship in that state is up next year, and Gov. Doug Ducey (R-AZ) is term-limited, so the seat will be open. If the Senator was planning a run, this is the time to declare it. If she waits until 2026, she would have to get herself elected to the Senate again (or spend 2 years out of office), and she would almost certainly have to face an incumbent.
J.K. in Bremen, Germany, asks: This summer, you took the opportunity several times to
emphasize the differences between the U.S. two-party-system and European multi-party-systems. I liked this comparison,
because I am interested in the mechanics of how politicians build irresistible macro-movements out of a collection of
inconsistent micro-trends. You sometimes use the visual imagery of infinite forces meeting unmovable objects (this
metaphor clearly comes from someone with an educational background in physics).
Last year (being an election year) you often mentioned how important coalition building is in the U.S. (contrasting the Obama coalition with the Trump coalition several times). Coalitions are larger than parties; they are the real macro-phenomena in politics, so strong they can sweep away any skilled presidential operator (like Richard Nixon in 1960). Now I wonder: Where is the coalition builder's manual? Is this subject taught anywhere, or is it a secret subject, like Defence Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry? Where is it? Give me a link to the PDF and I will digest it. Wouldn't it be worth the effort for PhD students in political sciences to write such a manual (openly accessible) and keep it up-to-date every 4 years?
V & Z answer: First, let us note that Defence Against the Dark Arts isn't really a secret class. How to make a horcrux, by contrast? Now, that's a secret. Second, let us warn you that you might not find this answer very satisfying.
With that out of the way, building a temporary coalition is what winning an election, or getting a bill passed, is all about. Building a lasting coalition is a different matter, and anybody who claims they have the secret sauce is either lying or is deluding themselves. Franklin D. Roosevelt built a long-lasting coalition, one of the most potent in American history, but was that due to his personal magnetism, or was it a product of the circumstances in which he found himself running for office, or was it both? Could Jimmy Carter have done the same if he'd been the one running in 1932? Could FDR have done the same if he'd been the one running in 1976? Who knows?
Or consider Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Obama is clearly smarter, more savvy, and much more of a political strategist than Trump. It's like comparing the chess-playing skills of Magnus Carlsen to those of Mr. Ed. And yet, the Obama coalition did not outlast him, while the Trump coalition, though relatively small, appears to be holding steady. Even if we do an analysis that tries to figure out why that is, there's no guarantee that those lessons will hold moving forward.
To illustrate our point, consider the book Unite and Conquer: How to Build Coalitions That Win and Last. When it came out about a decade ago, it got great reviews and sold a bunch of copies. It has chapters with titles like "Creating Coalitions You Actually Want to Join," "Making Friends," and "Keeping the Team Together." This would seem to be the exact sort of study you are asking about, and if you want to read it, then click on the link and pick up a copy.
There is one small issue you might want to be aware of, however. The author of that book is...Kyrsten Sinema. Last we checked, her expert insight into building coalitions doesn't seem to be working out all that well. Maybe it worked a decade ago, or maybe it worked when she was a fire-breathing leftist, but it's hard to put much stock in the coalition-building advice of someone who is on all of her colleagues' sh** lists, and who is currently 48 points underwater with voters from her own party.
C.A.G. in Athens, GA, asks: One of the biggest success stories for Republicans under the last president's regime was their ability to get loads and loads of (ultra-) conservative judges on the bench at all levels. How are Biden and the (barely) Democratic Senate coming along in countering this, by nominating and confirming their own appointments? Considering the very real possibility that the Democrats will lose the Senate in 2022, do they need to place a very, very high priority on filling judicial vacancies while they can, especially in the higher judicial tiers? Lastly, and this may take some wild guessing, when do you think the Supreme Court could possibly end up with a liberal majority again? (I'm 48, and I really hope it's within my lifetime.)
V & Z answer: Well, thus far, Joe Biden has gotten 14 judges confirmed to the federal courts, and another 37 nominations are pending. Meanwhile, do you know how many judges Donald Trump had gotten confirmed by this point in his term (i.e., Oct. 1 of his first year in office)? 10. Ultimately, he would manage to ram another 224 judges through.
In other words, there's still time. Trump had 4 years of a Republican Senate, whereas Biden might only have 2 of a Democratic Senate, but it's fair to assume that once their time is not occupied by reconciliation bills and approving other appointees, Chuck Schumer and his colleagues will turn their focus to judges.
As to the Supreme Court, nobody knows when a judge will go to the big court in the sky, of course. However, if the Democrats can pull a Reagan-Bush 1-2 punch, and hold the White House for 12 years, it is not probable that all six conservatives could hold on that long. Clarence Thomas would be 85, Samuel Alito would be 83, and John Roberts would be 78 with a history of health problems. Given the current state of the GOP, 12 years of Democratic presidencies is certainly not out of the question, particularly if they do a heckuva job of persuading voters that the Supreme Court is as much on the ballot as the White House is.
B.C. in Soldotna, AK, asks: I genuinely believe cancel culture is harmful to debate, democracy, and reason. That being said, how has John Eastman not been "canceled?" If anyone deserves to have their life and career destroyed by their behavior, it should be a constitutional law professor who actively tried to end the American constitution. Why hasn't the American Bar Association ripped his license from him? Apparently he still has some privileges at University of Colorado which begs the question why wasn't he immediately fired (ideally from a cannon directly into the sun)?
V & Z answer: Just so everyone is on the same page, Eastman was dean of Chapman Law, and then was a visiting scholar at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He gave a speech on 1/6 encouraging the insurrection, and he also stood in the Oval Office and told Mike Pence that he could single-handedly overturn the presidential election.
As to the bar, he is indeed still active. Generally speaking, the bar is leery of getting involved with what would be regarded as political speech. He'd either have to commit a crime, or engage in serious professional misconduct. His activities are on the periphery of both of those categories, but aren't squarely in either.
As to his academic appointments, we run into the political speech issue again. Universities, and in particular, academic senates, are very leery of punishing people for political activism, even if it's outlandish and offensive. After all, is there much difference between what he said, and a professor who professes to be a communist and who expresses hope that the decadent capitalist system will be brought down from within? There aren't as many of those folks at universities as the right-wingers would have you believe, but they do exist.
Beyond that, cutting loose someone like Eastman runs the risk that he'll file lawsuits, and/or that he'll contact major donors who are conservatives to persuade them to cut their financial support, and/or that he'll go on Fox and badmouth the university. Those are unneeded headaches. Heck, Cal State Long Beach professor Kevin MacDonald is an outspoken white supremacist, antisemite, and Holocaust denier, and even he didn't get terminated.
The usual course of action, once someone like Eastman (or MacDonald) has become a huge PR problem, is to ease them out the door with a combination of carrots and sticks. They are encouraged to take emeritus status (retirement), and are often given a golden parachute (maybe $100,000-$250,000) to grease the skids. They are also told if they stay in their posts, their quality of life will noticeably decline, as they will be assigned to teach the 5:00 a.m. Saturday section of Basket Weaving 101, or they will be added to the University Committee for the Hiring of Janitorial Personnel. That is how Eastman's career at Chapman and MacDonald's career at CSULB were both ended.
At CU Boulder, Eastman was only on a short-term appointment, so they couldn't use exactly the same approach. But they did cancel the classes he was supposed to teach, and the various events he was supposed to lead. So, the money he will be paid by them this year will basically be a settlement to make him go away.
A.D. in Toronto, ON, Canada, asks: First, I do not believe the election was stolen. Second, I
believe that the Arizona election audit was a complete joke and embarrassment to the nation.
With that said, my friend—who does believe in some of the conspiracies, to varying degrees—is now asking me how I can support the findings of the "audit" reaffirming Biden's victory in Arizona after bashing it and claiming the results will be invalid because of all the fiascoes reported on throughout the process. I believe this is a fair question, and it makes me wonder how it was any more acceptable for me to dismiss the results of the audit before they were released and then turn around and show them to my election-truther friend as proof that even this bogus audit showed Biden won. It's confusing for many reasons but if you can help me reconcile this thought puzzle, I would be most appreciative.
V & Z answer: Let's talk the Bible as a historical document for a moment. We promise, the relevance will be made clear. The most extensive historical sources we have for the life of Jesus are the four gospels. However, they were all written by fellows who didn't actually know Jesus, or even live at the same time that he did, and who were trying to sell the religion to potential new adherents.
Over time, Biblical scholars have developed certain tools for trying to separate the facts from the exaggerations and the inventions, as best as is possible. One such tool, for example, is called "the criterion of multiple attestation." That means that if two different gospels say the same thing, it's considerably more likely that it is true, particularly if it's John + one of the others that are in agreement. It's generally agreed that Matthew and Luke were both familiar with the Gospel of Mark, and borrowed from it, and many scholars also believe those two also borrowed from a lost gospel known—ironically, these days—as Q Source. So, agreements between Matthew/Mark/Luke are a little less instructive, just because they could be parroting each other.
Another tool, and this is where we get back to your question, is "the criterion of embarrassment." The idea here is that if something reflects badly on Jesus/Christians, it is unlikely that it would be remembered, and would be incorporated into the gospels, unless it was true. For example, John writes that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. That puts Jesus in a weak/subservient position relative to John, and is something that would not be passed on to future generations if it was untrue.
The same principle applies here. Cyber Ninjas, and their financial backers, wanted very badly to "prove" that Donald Trump won in Arizona. The fact that they couldn't do it, and that they felt they had no option but to concede he lost, which runs entirely adverse to their goals, suggests that they must be telling the truth. Incidentally, lawyers have this same basic concept when it comes to evaluating certain kinds of testimony; they call it "declaration against interest."
J.L. in Los Angeles, CA, asks: I just got into a debate with a friend (from Kentucky, who "can't stand McConnell. Or Trump. Or Biden. Or Pelosi.") about congressional term limits. After all, we have them for the president. I reminded him of the impracticality of expecting a Constitutional amendment from a bunch of folks essentially voting themselves out of a job, but he said it would still be a good idea if it were possible. Assuming it were, in fact, possible to limit the number of terms a senator or representative could serve in Congress, would such a thing be a good idea or a bad idea? And if a good idea, how many terms for a senator and how many for a representative?
V & Z answer: It would be a bad idea. Full stop. Folks who advocate term limits generally have a vague sense that it would be "better," but usually struggle to articulate how, or why. And, in general, simplistic solutions (like term limits) to complex problems (make Congress work better) are silly and facile.
Let's start by considering presidential term limits. Only five men—Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama—have ever been compelled to leave office due to the limits. Ike and Ronnie were too ill to serve a third term, and Bush was too unpopular to be reelected. So, the Twenty-Second Amendment has, at very most, forestalled a third Clinton term and a third Obama term (assuming they were interested, and could have been reelected). Many people do not like those two men, but did blocking them really benefit the country in any clear way? If the people wanted them for another four years, and they wanted to serve, why not have that option be on the table?
And that's just the first argument against term limits—that they are undemocratic, and place limits on voters. A second argument is that "fresh faces" are not always good, and "old, entrenched members" are not always bad. Consider, for example, that Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) and Reps. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC), Lauren Boebert (R-CO), and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) are all in their first terms right now. Putting their politics aside, is Congress a more effective or responsible place because of their presence? Meanwhile, it actually takes time to learn how to be an effective member of Congress, particularly if someone is going to serve on an important and highly technical committee, like Foreign Relations or Armed Services. There are certainly members like Jim Traficant or Charles Rangel who become entrenched and corrupt. But there are also members who learn the ropes and then perform brilliant service for their constituents and/or for the country. Think Sam Rayburn, John C. Stennis, Robert Taft, J. William Fulbright, Henry Clay, Bob Dole, Carl Vinson, Ted Kennedy, or Barbara Mikulski.
Finally, remember the law of unintended consequences. If it was no longer viable for members of Congress to truly learn their jobs and to become experts, then that vacuum would be filled by bureaucrats and lobbyists, who would end up writing most of the legislation, since only they would have the necessary background. Further, if service in Congress was only a chapter in someone's career, and had a hard and fast expiration date, then many members would spend their time doing whatever needed to score a plum gig after leaving (yes, I can try to ram that bill through, Mr. Musk), and would be almost totally unaccountable to their constituents during their final, lame-duck term.
J.S. in Durham, NC, asks: You frequently refer to "moderates", "centrists", and "Blue Dogs" on the Democratic side of the aisle. Please help me understand the differences between these three categories.
V & Z answer: We, and other writers, may sometimes play a little bit fast and loose with these terms. But "Blue Dogs" refers specifically to the House Blue Dog Coalition, and is used to describe the most conservative of Democrats. It is somewhat implied that they happen to be at that point on the spectrum because that is where their real political beliefs lie, and that in some other era, they might be liberal Republicans, or moderate Democrats, or even moderate Republicans.
"Moderates" generally refers to people who occupy the ideological middle of their party spectrum, and are not particularly centrist, nor particularly far-left/far-right.
"Centrists" generally refers to folks who gravitate toward the center of the overall spectrum, in order to engage in coalition building and to be as mainstream and as broadly acceptable as is possible. In contrast to a "Blue Dog," it is somewhat implied that centrists move with the political tides, and that they might shift more to the right or more to the left as the political spectrum shifts. Joe Biden is the most notable centrist right now; as his party has shifted a bit more leftward over the years, so has he, so as to occupy the same basic spot on the spectrum.
R.E.M. in Brooklyn, NY, asks: When do PVIs get re-calculated? I assume the results from 2020 are baked in now, but I also don't remember seeing anything anywhere about "Here are the new PVIs." Or am I fundamentally misunderstanding how they are put together?
V & Z answer: Cook Political Report released tentative new PVIs several months ago, based on top-line census data. However, those need to be refined based on the more detailed census data, and on how the new district maps turn out. At the moment, the site is releasing updates, a few states at a time. However, they are only for subscribers, and a subscription costs $35/month. We write a politics-focused site, and that's a bit steep even for us. We'll wait until they release a comprehensive update, which they will presumably do later this year or early next year, once most or all the district maps are final.
J.B. in Portland, OR, asks: In
on the proposed new Texas redistricting map, you noted that if the suburbs get bluer, "Texas might draw new maps
mid-cycle; they've done it before."
I thought new maps were a once-a-decade exercise in response to the census. Under what circumstances, other than new census data, can states re-draw maps, and how often does it happen mid-cycle?
V & Z answer: As with the census itself, there must be new district maps every 10 years, but there is no prohibition on doing it more frequently. Specifically in response to the Texas mid-decade redistricting of 2003, the Supreme Court affirmed in League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry (2006) that states are entitled to redistrict to their hearts' content.
That said, it rarely happens. First, because it's politically unpopular. Second, because it would generally create uncertainty for incumbents, and they don't like that. Third, because lawsuits are guaranteed, and they can be hard to defend. Since there is no new census data, the state has to come up with an explanation for why they drew new maps that does not run afoul of rules against gerrymanders. In particular, they are very susceptible, in this circumstance, to claims that the new districts are illegal racial gerrymanders. Part of the 2003 Texas map was redrawn by a panel of judges for this very reason.
S.L. in Monrovia, CA, asks: We hear a lot about partisan gerrymandering. But what constitutes a good redistricting? What makes a fair one?
V & Z answer: Well, a gerrymandered map strives to nullify the votes of as many people as is possible, either by putting them in hopeless districts, or in districts where all they can do is contribute to a landslide. A fair map, then, does the opposite, as best as is possible. There's nothing that can be done to make the votes of a Democrat in rural Alabama, or a Republican in San Francisco, particularly relevant. However, one can try to draw districts that keep geographical units (cities, counties) and/or enclaves (Jewish neighborhoods, sizable Black populations, etc.) together in the same district. This is especially true for the districts of state senators and representatives/members of the Assembly, which are much smaller than congressional districts.
G.N. in Albuquerque, NM, asks: I read your list of the 20 most influential artists and I was interested to know if you had any further basis for your interpretation of "American Gothic" beyond the symbolism you point out? I related your comments on that to a friend, who replied thus:
It is interesting to hear perspectives about art. Years ago, in Iowa, I had a chance to hear Grant Wood's sister (pictured left) discuss American Gothic from her experience and her take went something like this: "Grant saw this house he really liked and wanted to paint it, but back then, you had to have people in a painting, so he grabbed me and his dentist, because he was nearby and had us stand in front of the house. He brought the pitchfork because he had been working in his yard when Grant grabbed him."
She didn't see any of the iconography that was assigned to the piece at the time. I honestly don't know if she was pulling our collective legs, but she was an Iowan, and seemed so sincere. So, maybe.
V & Z answer: To his students (including this week), (Z) often says: "It is not the privilege of the artist to dictate what people see in their art." It can be interesting to know the creator's intent, but something is not inherently this kind of painting, or that kind of movie, or this kind of song just because the painter, or director, or musician said so. And so, Grant Wood's opinion (or his sister's opinion) is not, in any way, determinative.
Meanwhile, when (Z) discusses that specific painting in class, he notes that most of the really famous paintings took decades or even centuries to become famous. "American Gothic" became a sensation basically overnight. And that fact, coupled with the historical context (start of the Depression), and the obvious message that people would be expected to take from the image is enough that any historian or art historian would be comfortable with what we wrote last week. If you paint a version of Madonna and Child, and millions of Christians buy postcards and posters with your painting on them, then you are free to say that you did not intend to communicate a pro-Christianity message, but it would still be crystal clear what most of those postcard and poster buyers were thinking.
N.F. in Brussels, Belgium, asks: I was scanning
The New York Times'
Extremely Detailed Map of the 2020 Election,
and noticed a tiny blue sliver in the middle of nowhere: Nicodemus, Kansas. I was curious, so I researched and
learned that this settlement was founded by recently-freed slaves in your "turning point" year of 1877! I had never
before heard about African American homesteaders; their story seems to be, not surprisingly, one of false hope,
exploitation, and discrimination—reminiscent of 40 Acres and a Mule.
Can the resident 1877 expert tell us about African American homesteaders and any lasting legacy?
V & Z answer: When (Z) was in graduate school, microhistory—extremely detailed examinations of very small/specific groups, communities, or geographic areas—was in vogue, and was of interest to many members of his cohort. However, the folks who wanted to do microhistories for their dissertations often had a hard time finding a faculty member to work with, as a dissertation is also supposed to reveal some larger truths about American history. It can be hard to make that case with a group or a movement or a community that was highly anomalous. For example, one of (Z)'s colleagues studied Black Israelites, and went through a number of advisers because the work didn't seem to have any broader relevance.
The same is kinda true of Black homesteaders. There were definitely some of them who gave it a try, so as to control their own destinies and to escape Southern racism and Southern antiblack violence. However, they were outliers. Broadly speaking, the climate of the Plains states was not to their liking, the techniques used to farm there did not line up with their existing expertise, and the lack of key institutions (like Black churches) was a problem. And so, the much more common choice for Black people looking to escape the South was to move to Western and Northern cities, in a process known as the Great Migration. The homesteaders numbered in the thousands, at most, while the migrators numbered in the millions.
There were six notable Black homesteader communities. In addition to Nicodemus, the list also includes Sully County, SD; Blackdom, NM; Dearfield, CO; Empire, WY; and Dewitty, NE. Nicodemus is the only one that survives today. It's a historical monument, and has a clear symbolic meaning, but it would be a stretch to argue that the black homesteaders had a major impact on the country. That said, George Washington Carver spent a few years as a homesteader, so if you want something specific to point to, he would be it.
L.P. in Milwaukee, WI, asks: This topic is certainly controversial, but I am asking only
out of curiosity. Let me ask it in the context of your observation about Ken Burns' assertion that the situation we are
in now is close to what we were in just prior to the U.S. Civil War.
The question is simple and is non-partisan in nature: Why have there not been any presidential assassination attempts, given how high emotions are, and how strong the partisan divide is? I am not talking about threats, but rather actual attempts.
I feel I should include as many disclaimers as possible with this question as it is really just a question out of pure curiosity.
V & Z answer: We'll give you three thoughts. First, the U.S. Secret Service is very good at what it does, having learned from mistakes made during past presidencies (particularly Truman, Kennedy, Ford, and Reagan). It would be very, very hard to make an attempt, much less achieve success. Not too many people want to put their freedom, or their lives, at risk for a needle-in-a-haystack chance of accomplishing their goal.
Second, the folks who seem most likely to try something like this are surely the Trumpers, right? But in our experience, they tend to be like the Dear Leader—full of strong words, but lacking the fortitude to actually back them up. And, for that matter, lacking in the smarts needed to outmaneuver the USSS.
Third, it is not good for people to know if the Secret Service's defenses have been breached and a meaningful assassination attempt has been made. So, it could be that there has been one (or more) and that they just weren't public enough for anyone to know about them. This is not too likely, but it is possible.
Q.S. in Holly Springs, NC, asks: I've read a fair amount of discussion and commentary on this site over the years about The Cold War and our American Civil War, but I wonder, with the rise of Trumpism relatively recently and all that entails, do you think describing our current political climate as a Cold Civil War is apropos? I can't see an actual hot civil war ever occurring again in this country despite all of the dire predictions and scenarios that have been bandied about, and I keep thinking "Cold Civil War" should be catching on, but it really hasn't. What do you think?
V & Z answer: When (Z) teaches the Cold War (see below), he asks the students to name everything a country might do to hurt and embarrass another country, short of engaging in direct armed violence. And they usually come up with a pretty good list: spy operations, and win in sports, and propaganda, and tell jokes, and try to recruit other countries to your side, etc.
You could certainly argue that there is a similar dynamic in American politics today, of doing everything possible to hurt and embarrass the "enemy," short of shooting at them. On the other hand, the Cold War was bilateral—both sides were engaging in the various hurtful shenanigans. We would say that the Cold Civil War, by contrast, is unilateral. Right-wingers—or, at least, Trumpers—bend over backwards to do whatever they can to "own the libs." However, we do not see evidence of a similar dynamic going in the other direction. Yes, most Democrats really dislike Trump, and act accordingly, but that's just politics. Is there any behavior among the members of the modern left that is equivalent to, say, refusing to wear masks because "that's what the libs want"?
J.P. in Horsham, PA, asks: The questions and comments about pivotal years in U.S. history got
me thinking back to my high school days, and specifically, the Advanced Placement U.S. History class I took my junior
At the start of that class, the teacher informed us that the exam at the end of the year tended to have a disproportionate number of questions based upon three decades: the 1790s, the 1850s, and the 1930s. Although I can certainly understand this in the context of this particular class, I wonder (1) if this is an appropriate focus for an American history course, given everything else that's true about the greater trends, and (2) which other vital decades this overlooks, as per our resident historian.
Incidentally I got a 4 on that exam at the end of the year.
V & Z answer: To start, (Z) would suggest that the focus on those decades is partly due to their importance, but is also partly an artifact of the test-making process. That is to say, you have to have a lot of things to ask about, and those decades had a lot of notable laws, and court cases, and people, and books, and the like. Meanwhile, what they didn't have was... wars. There is plenty to ask about for the 1770s or the 1860s or the 1940s, but it involves military history. You don't say how old you are, but military history—beyond very cursory coverage—has been out of vogue for a couple of generations.
As to decades that might be added to the list, we just gave you three that were all very important. Last week, (Z) listed the subjects he covers in the first part of the U.S. survey; here's the list for the second part:
Weeks 1-2: Course Introduction and "The Shame of the Cities" - The Gilded Age
Week 3: "Wizards of Oz" - The Populists and the Progressives
Week 4: "The White Man's Burden" - America Becomes an Empire
Week 5: "The War to End All Wars" - World War I
Week 6: "We Have Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself" - The Great Depression and the New Deal
Weeks 7-8: "The Good War" - World War II
Week 9: "An Iron Curtain Has Fallen" - The Cold War
Week 10: "Swords into Frisbees" - The Rise of American Consumer Culture
Week 11: "The Devil's Music" - Rock and Roll
Week 12: "We Shall Overcome" - The Civil Rights Movement and Beyond
Week 13: "Good-bye My Sweetheart, Hello Vietnam" - The Vietnam War and Its Impact
Week 14: "Making America Great Again" - Modern American Politics
Week 15: "My City of Ruins" - America and the Middle East
We wouldn't want to have too many "key" decades, perhaps, but if you're familiar with the periodization, it is pretty clear that the 1890s, 1950s, and 1960s were also pretty big deals. So that would be the three decades your teacher noted, the three war decades, and the three additional decades for a total of nine. Seems reasonable that roughly one decade in three would be a "key" decade.
T.P. in Monmouth, OR, asks: Your course outline for early U.S. History is interesting:
Week 4: The Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution
Week 5: The Constitution and the Presidency of George Washington
Do you get into John Hanson, the First President of the United States? Although he was really president of the Congress, not separate from it, a letter from George Washington addressed him as Mr. President. Hanson oversaw, among other things, the establishment of the Treasury Department and the division of the Western Territories into new states...and he set the date for Thanksgiving Day. He had been political leader, as Washington had been military leader, and had he lived a bit longer (he died in 1783) he might well have been elected to the post that Washington later held.
V & Z answer: Afraid not.
One thing you learn very quickly as a history teacher is that you have to pick your subjects carefully. Not only is time limited, but so too is the students' capacity to absorb new information. There's a limit to how much they can handle overall, and there is also a limit to how much they can handle of a particular thing. For example, you might be able to get away with talking about three events, three people, and three controversies, but if you tried to do nine people in a row, the students would quickly reach saturation and the information would become a jumble.
On top of that, there are plenty of things that are either complicated or are potentially confusing. You have to make sure to set aside extra time for those, because if you go too fast, then you might as well not have said anything at all.
Explaining that the U.S. had a "president," but not the same kind of president, before Washington, and then talking about Hanson's career would be a 15-20 minute task, when there is a grand total of maybe 240 minutes of class time available in those two weeks. There are so many other things that need to be covered, spending 5-10% of the available time on Hanson just doesn't add up, cost/benefit-wise.
J.H. in Boston, MA, asks: You wrote that (Z)'s history courses attract a large enrollment. Why is that? Is (Z) a celebrity historian? I know about (V)'s role with MINIX and Linus Torvalds. But what's (Z)'s claim to fame? Or what is the reason for such large enrollments?
V & Z answer: There is a saying in academia that "teaching fame is local." That is to say, unless you are a rockstar, you're unlikely to attract students based on your national/international fame. However, students talk about which classes are good and which are bad, and there are also websites where people post reviews. So, a professor can develop a fairly prominent local reputation (good or bad), particularly if they teach a subject where the quality of the teacher can make a big difference. That is to say, if a subject is expected to be extra tricky, or extra boring, students look high and low for someone who might mitigate that problem. And (Z) is known for taking a subject that many students believe is boring (based on past experience), and making it interesting. At the risk of engaging in some tooting of one's own horn, he has gotten hundreds, and possibly thousands, of e-mails along the lines of "I was dreading the class, and it turned out to be the best class I had at this university."
J.M. in Davis, CA, asks: I'm wondering if there's any way to access/audit (Z)'s classes. Does iTunes university still exist? I'd really love to see him "in action." Aside from the many books I've read over the years, the last college level history classes were 50 years ago!
V & Z answer: Hm. When (Z) teaches in-person classes, there aren't recordings. And his online classes, like the ones this semester, aren't live, per se. The lecture is actually a video he edited together and narrates (but does not appear in). He might plausibly put some of those online, though they are somewhat designed to accompany the discussion section, which only students can log in to.
He's been thinking about creating online versions of his lectures, however, that would be designed to stand alone. If that interests folks, then let us know, although that would be a long-term project. If you want to see some of the current lectures, which mostly but not entirely stand alone, you can also let us know that. You might also look at the list above, and note which ones would be of particular interest.
B.C. in Walpole, ME, asks: You
"New York Times columnist Tom Friedman is not
everyone's cup of tea."
Why is that? The statement struck a chord because whenever our faculty at a college preparatory school was addressed by an administrator or outside speaker, they always seemed to think that they would impress us, show their intellectual street cred, and cement their view (via ad hominem argument) by quoting or citing one of three people: Thomas Friedman, Daniel Pink, Malcolm Gladwell. Always one or more of those three.
Daniel Pink was regarded as a priest in the Church of What's Happening Now, who made a good living popularizing other people's ideas, whether he understood them or not. Malcolm Gladwell was seen as a contrarian who took the position that the common wisdom is always wrong, which he proved by adapting the common wisdom to his needs and then attacking the straw man. Thomas Friedman was seen as a journalist (seldom the same thing as an intellectual or an expert) who was sometimes very insightful, but there are other commentators who are more insightful and more often. What did you have in mind?
V & Z answer: Friedman is a "moderate" and tends not to like radical change of any kind, especially not the kinds that Bernie Sanders, AOC, and other progressives want. He also was a big supporter of the Iraq War and believed the U.S. had a mission to install democracy in that part of the world. In addition, he is a big fan of globalization and loves CEOs of successful companies, regardless of the consequences of how they treat their workers and the environment. Not everyone agrees with that.
As to the "intellectuals" you name, the only thing that surprises us is that Steven Pinker is missing from the list.
S.B. in New Castle, DE, asks: It was interesting to read your Beatles contest results and see how wide your readership reaches. Do you have any statistics on where your core readers are located geographically?
V & Z answer: We don't have great information, because the information we get is IP addresses, and those don't map geography all that accurately. For various reasons, it's very possible to have, say, a French IP address and yet to be in India using a VPN. Here are the top 10 countries based on Google analytics:
|Rank||Country||Pct. of readers|
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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Oct01 Ghosts of Administrations Past
Oct01 "U.S." Is a Rather Larger Stage than "S.D."
Oct01 Hogan for President
Oct01 Time for Liz and Adam to Step Up?
Oct01 This Week in Schadenfreude
Sep30 Congress Averts Government Shutdown
Sep30 Pelosi Is Furious with the Centrists
Sep30 Manchin and Sinema Could Sink...the Centrist Democrats
Sep30 Poll: Sinema Is Deeply under Water with Arizona Democrats
Sep30 Why Can't Democrats Be Like Liz Cheney?
Sep30 Elizabeth MacDonough Rules Again
Sep30 DNC Starts New Program to Register Voters of Color
Sep30 Oregon Wins
Sep30 Lewandowski Gets Fired for Sexual Harassment
Sep29 Pointing Fingers
Sep29 The Budget Ballet Continues
Sep29 Texas Unveils Its District Map
Sep29 Abbott Continues to Flounder
Sep29 What Is Going on with Kyrsten Sinema? Follow the Money...
Sep29 What Is Going on With Chuck Grassley? Follow the Crazy...
Sep28 Budget Ballet Continues
Sep28 Be Careful What You Wish For, Part I: Texas Abortion Law
Sep28 Be Careful What You Wish For, Part II: The Supreme Court
Sep28 Who Says Democrats Don't Learn?, Part I: Vote-by-Mail
Sep28 Who Says Democrats Don't Learn?, Part II: Ratfu**ing
Sep28 Epik Hack Begins to Exact a Toll
Sep28 Though the News Was Rather Sad...Well, I Just Had to Laugh, Part II
Sep27 The Triple Crises, Part I: Funding the Government
Sep27 The Triple Crises, Part II: The Federal Debt
Sep27 The Triple Crises, Part III: Infrastructure
Sep27 Arizona Audit Just Fuels More Conspiracy Theories
Sep27 Democrats Want to Limit Presidential Power
Sep27 McConnell Finally Accepts Reality
Sep27 Walker Is Running -- from the Voters and the Media
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Sep26 Sunday Mailbag
Sep25 Saturday Q&A
Sep24 Biden Wins Arizona
Sep24 Pelosi, Schumer Announce Infrastructure Funding "Framework"
Sep24 And Here Come the 1/6 Subpoenas
Sep24 Grift, for Lack of a Better Word, Is Good
Sep24 This Week's 2022 Candidacy News
Sep24 This Week in Schadenfreude
Sep24 Though the News Was Rather Sad...Well, I Just Had to Laugh
Sep23 Biden Will Have to Referee Democrats' Internal War
Sep23 Jan. 6 Panel May Go Straight to Subpoenas
Sep23 Corporate America Chimes in on the Debt Issue