Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Post Trump Reforms - David Frum Weighs In

When I heard that David Frum had a new book coming out, Trumpocalypse:Restoring American Democracy, I was excited. I like Frum, he's very smart, regularly has original ideas, has a nice sense of humor, and he's interested in just what I am – Post-Trump Reform. So I preordered and read it right away. And sure enough, he has an acute analysis of Trumpism, an acute analysis of our current troubles, and some ideas that I hadn't thought of. Although I have to say, without being too competitive with a very smart guy who does this for a living and has done so for decades, I've had some ideas that he hasn't thought of. (Especially reforming the presidential power of the pardon.)

I agree with the bulk of Frum's analysis, which is not far from my own. We both agree that post-Trump reforms are likely, comparing the post-Trump environment to that of post-Watergate. He says: “Democracy is tested by its ability to deliver security, prosperity, and justice. Relatively modest reforms to the US system could improve all those outcomes. This is not to negate the value of bigger ideas: changes to the voting system, changes to the campaign-finance system. But those things are hard to do.”

While he has some specific suggestions for changes, in general, he hopes that Americans will come to their senses after Trump, and that the new victorious forces will seek reconciliation rather than revenge, except for the leaders who will deserve opprobrium and often appropriate punishment. For two good summaries of what he says, check the book reviews in the WaPo and the NYT.

Although he doesn't dwell on it, it's interesting to look at the reforms he does offer. Let me recall the six tools and the eight problems I identify in my basic post, keeping in mind that one of the tasks of reform will be to turn some of the former norms into new law.

The six tools:

  • Constitutional amendment
  • New Legislation
  • Presidential executive action
  • New interpretation or resuscitation of existing congressional power
  • Reassertion of norms or declaration of new norms
  • Efforts to affect public opinion

The eight problems:

Problem #1 – Attacks on oversight

Problem #2 – Attacks on fair electoral processes

Problem #3 – Abusive extension of presidential powers

Problem #4 – Department of Justice has come under complete control of President

Problem #5 – Corruption and conflicts of interest are rife

Problem #6 – Extensive inattention and incompetence in directing basic governmental functions

Problem #7 – A coarse, mendacious, thuggish, racist, cynical and dictatorial demeanor and tone

Problem #8 – Population of the United States widely ignorant of governmental processes and concepts

Here are Frum's observations and suggestions as they apply to these problems.

#1 – Attacks on oversight. Frum takes this on on page 37. “The Trump years demonstrated the very great extent to which presidential cooperation with the law is voluntary, especially if he or she retains a sufficient blocking vote in Congress.” But then he says there really isn't much we can do about it, that enforcing subpoenas is very difficult, and “even outright lying to Congress can prove exceptionally difficult to punish.” Then, “...there is no 'Congress' anymore; there are only the two parties in Congress.” And then, “The system that protects all of us has failed because the protectors of that system have failed to protect it for us. Democracy does not fly on autopilot.”

Frum doesn't offer a ready remedy in law, although it's clear he wishes Congress had more backbone and independence. As I detail in my post, I think the Congress could and should be more assertive. You can't leave oversight to norms, you need law and muscle.

#2 – The electoral process. Frum spends a great deal of attention on this. Although he doesn't mention it, the great Yale political scientist Robert Dahl predicted that the Connecticut Compromise (two senators per state and the electoral college, both favoring small states power) and the undemocratic elements of the constitution would lead increasingly to trouble. Frum gives statistics that show a gathering skew of these elements – particularly the increasing frequency of electing a president with a minority of votes - and how the skew plus filibuster rules plus gerrymandering ensure continued minority rule and governmental stasis. His fixes are:

  • Nuke the filibuster. The filibuster enables 16% of Americans (small states count as much as large states in the senate) to block action by 84%. Just vote it down with a Democratic majority.
  • Adopt a modern voting rights act. He includes issuing tamper-proof voter ID for free to all citizens, aqnd making fair and equal the location of voting installations, voting technology, and waiting times at the booths.
  • Deter gerrymandering. Here Frum is quite innovative. He says: assume the Democrats win preponderantly. Then offer Republicans two maps of voting districts, one the way the Republicans would draw one if they were in power, and the other one done fairly. He has no way then of ensuring that the next set done 10 years later would be fair if the Republicans win, and seems to count on the moral virtue of reciprocity. Ingenious, but I'd reject it. First pass a statute for independent boards to draw districts in all states, and then set the districts.
  • Statehood for the District of Columbia. Now, that's a surprise! He points out that this can be done easily by a simple majority of the House and Senate and a presidential signature. This would help redress the structural strength of the preponderance of small state Republicans. Pretty good move, I'd say. He said in a radio interview that he wouldn't do the same for Puerto Rico because of a substantial independence movement there, which I understand, but it seems to me a quick referendum in Puerto Rico could change that decision quickly. My hesitation would be more about the nature of a nation; language is important to carry culture, and Puerto Rico's language is Spanish.

#3 Abusive extension of presidential power. I think his hope here is that better people will be elected president. I have several suggestions here, including that the constitution be modified to require the presidential pardon to be cosigned by the Speaker of the House. That one would probably be dismissed by Frum as too long-term, but then again, if Trump really goes wild with it as expected, I would contend that it might not be so long-term at all. It could sweep the country like the wind.

#4 Department of Justice repair. Frum recognizes the importance of this problem and proposes that the assistant attorney general for the Criminal Division be changed from a political to a career job. He is deterred from seeking a fully nonpolitical criminal justice system at the federal level because of the bureaucratic constraint – career bureaucrats are not paid enough to attract the very best, and to change the pay structure of DOJ would wreck havoc with the rest of the bureaucracy.

I see his point. In fact, the point is applicable throughout the government, and the quality of government standards of work reflect it. It might be a good idea to start with DOJ, make it a hybrid of regular bureaucratic structure for regular staff, and make the top professional staff above supergrade (GS18) with the expectation that they would elect to stay for long periods of time, and make them dismissible by combined action of the White House and the congress. Then other governmental units could be looked at for a similar structure. But, this would take time. For the moment, some serious personnel housecleaning and restaffing would be necessary. Or, as I suggest in my post, find a completely new way to insulate the DOJ. This comes under the category of bringing norms into legislation.

#5 – Corruption. Frum suggests as I do that tax return transparency be mandated, with more extensive, explicit, and modern financial statements. He compares the bank mandate to “know your customer,” which seems like a valid comparison. We are on the same page here.

#6 Poor direction of governmental functions. Anne Applebaum calls this “a three-year assault on professionalism, loyalty, competence, and patriotism.” Frum sees this, too, of course, but his solution is find a better president, which is hard to argue with. My suggestions bear on increasing transparency and putting Congress on record as approving or disapproving current operations.

#7 Thuggish demeanor and tone. Frum certainly has an exquisite distaste for this vile aspect of Trump, but once again, he thinks Americans simply have to come to their senses. He's right, they do. My idea is that they need help to do so, which would be helped by extensive education in civics.

#8 Population ignorance of governmental processes and concepts. Frum doesn't deal with this. I think it requires a major effort of public education in the schools with three years of civics required.

I liked the book. Frum is smart and an excellent writer. His ideas on #2, the electoral process, are quite good. I would add those to our list of possible solutions to these important problems. Likewise on his suggestion on #4, how to fix DOJ. I think his ideas about how people should appreciate more what good government is like is right on, although I don't think he's got great ideas about how to get there. His analysis of the current situation is penetrating, better than he is on solutions. Read it to your profit.

Budd Shenkin

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