Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

District of Columbia may soon have full representation in U.S. House

A bill that would give the District of Columbia full representation in the U.S. House has cleared a key hurdle in the Senate, a procedural vote invoking cloture, 62-34, that will allow it to face a final vote in that chamber later this week.  A majority of senators appear to support it.  If passed by the Senate, it will then go to the House of Representatives, where such bills have previously been approved in past Congresses.  President Obama has indicated he will sign the legislation.

In 2002 the District almost added "Taxation Without Representation", which would have ruined their excellent flag. If this bill passes, the flag will be even safer.

In 2002 the District almost added "Taxation Without Representation" to their excellent flag. If this bill passes, the flag will be even safe from such defacement.

The District presently has a Delegate in the House of Representatives, since 1991 Eleanor Holmes Norton (D).  Delegates can vote in committee and on amendments but not on final passage of legislation.  Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands also currently have delegates in the House; none has representation in the Senate (which the present bill would not change for the District).

Washington, D.C. is overwhelmingly Democratic; typically only about 10-15% of the city’s vote in presidential elections goes to the Republican ticket.  It is extremely unlikely that the District would elect a Republican to any House seat that it is given.  I don’t think such political considerations should bear on the matter, however.  The bill in question, S. 160, would also grant another House seat to the State of Utah, which is currently represented by two Republicans and one Democrat, in the lower house.  Utah is one of the most Republican-leaning states in the Union and would likely elect a Republican to that seat.  The state missed out on gaining a fourth representative by just 856 people after the 2000 census (it went instead to North Carolina; there were some lawsuits over the way people were counted, but they went against Utah).

I think that the people of Washington, D.C. should have full representation in Congress—and not just because I don’t want them to mess up their flag, either; it seems like a matter of right to me.  However, I think that the bill is probably unconstitutional.  The Constitution says that Representatives shall be chosen “by the people of the several states” and a normal reading would seem to limit full congressional representation to states, which the District clearly is not.  The Supreme Court’s precedents on the matter are divided, but it does appear likely the Court would strike down the bill.  A Constitutional amendment may be needed to rectify the problem.

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North Dakota may grant human rights to individual cells

Officially, the ratio of North Dakota's flag is 33:26, but they're almost always made in the more standard 5:3 ratio

Officially, the ratio of North Dakota's flag is 33:26, but they're almost always made in the more standard 5:3 ratio

The North Dakota House of Representatives approved a bill that would grant human rights to fertilized egg cells, a move designed to challenge abortion and Roe v. Wade.  The bill passed 51-41 and now moves on to the 47-member state Senate.

If passed by the Legislative Assembly and signed into law by the Governor, the bill will face a challenge in the courts, which will almost certainly declare it unconstitutional and a violation of Roe v. Wade. Critics say that defending the law in the courts will be an unnecessary expense for the state, since defeat is almost certain.  The current composition of the Supreme Court, and the likely composition after any Obama appointments, make it unlikely that that tribunal would intervene to overturn its prior precedents in abortion law.

The operative text of the bill reads as follows:

References to individual, person, or human being – Legislative intent. For purposes of interpretation of the constitution and laws of North Dakota, it is the intent of the legislative assembly that an individual, a person, when the context indicates that a reference to an individual is intended, or a human being includes any organism with the genome of homo sapiens.

The measure is very similar to Colorado’s Amendment 48 (blogged about in detail here), which would have modified that state’s constitution to define a fertilized egg as a person.  The people of Colorado examined the issue closely and handed Amendment 48 a huge defeat—73.3% of voters rejected it, almost a 3:1 margin.

To abortion opponents this sort of thing may sound good, but upon examination the law becomes extremely problematic.  Not only abortion, but many common forms of birth control that prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus would be illegal; women on the pill could potentially be charged with murder.  The law would also be likely to have a chilling effect on the medical community for various reasons.

Even if the law was a good idea, it is so likely to be struck down in the courts that passing it would amount to only a fairly costly symbolic gesture.  I think the people of North Dakota have more important business for their legislators to be attending to.

California Supreme Court to hear Prop 8 case on March 5th

Flag of California

The Flag of California

The California Supreme Court will hear oral arguments to determine the validity of Proposition 8, the constitutional amendment approved by 52% of the state’s voters last November.  Prop 8, which this blog is not a fan of, overturned a previous decision of the state’s high court that required the state to recognize and allow same-sex marriage.

The argument brought by opponents of the measure is that it violates not the Federal Constitution but certain provisions of the State Constitution, which contains several different amendment mechanisms including initiatives, which can be placed on the ballot by petition, and revisions, which can only be put on the ballot by a super majority of the state legislature.

The plaintiffs argue that a measure eliminating fundamental rights from a historically persecuted minority amounts to a revision of the Constitution and exceeds the power of initiatives.

A revision can be placed on the ballot only by a two-thirds legislative vote or by delegates to a state constitutional convention. The court has upheld such challenges to initiatives only twice in its history, in 1948 and 1990.

Opponents of Prop. 8 also argue that it violates the constitutional separation of powers by stripping the judiciary of its ability to protect a minority group. Attorney General Jerry Brown has sided with opponents of the measure and argues that it is invalid for another reason: that it abolishes “inalienable rights,” guaranteed by the state Constitution, without a compelling justification.

The plaintiffs clearly have a tough case to argue and, as a matter of law, I’m not sure if they’re correct about the measure constituting a serious revision.  I didn’t think they had a case at first, but now I think they may.  Imagine if a simple majority of the electorate could revoke the right of women or of African Americans to vote.  Or if 50% +1 could take away the presumption of innocence or freedom of religion.  (All of these are protected by the U.S. Bill of Rights, but the point remains.)

Keep in mind that the entire point of a Bill of Rights is to keep the majority from doing what it wants.  If it can be overturned by a simple majority, then what’s the point?  It’s just a speed bump, not any sort of true impediment to the mob or protection for political minorities.

Even if Proposition 8 is permissible under that wonderful document that is the California Constitution, it shouldn’t be.  Amending the Constitution should take more than a few signatures on a petition and then a simple majority of the electorate.  A simple majority to ratify an amendment proposed by a super majority of the legislature is fine; that’s what almost all, if not all states allow.  But an amendment proposed by petition, if allowed at all, should have to secure 60% of the vote, I think.

The lead case is Strauss vs. Horton, S168047.  The Court will also be hearing arguments concerning whether the 18,000 same-sex marriages performed prior to the amendment was approved are still valid.  I imagine they would be, but the state just couldn’t recognize them—if Proposition 8 is upheld.  The lead attorney for those seeking to overturn the amendment and limit marriage rights is Kenneth Starr, the former investigator of President Clinton.

Michael Steele elected Chairman of the Republican Party

The new Chairman of the Republican Party, Michael Steele

The new Chairman of the Republican Party, Michael Steele

Michael Steele has just been elected Chairman of the Republican Party.    This blog is pleased with this result and has supported Steele’s candidacy since the beginning.  A simple majority (85) of the 168 votes was needed to win.

Mike Duncan, who President Bush tapped to head the party, bowed out after the third ballot.

Steele had 51 votes after the third round, having increased his support in each round.  After four rounds Steele had 60 votes, trailing only South Carolina party chairman Katon Dawson, who had 62. Just before the fifth ballot former Ohio Secretary of State and gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell dropped out and endorsed Steele.  In that round of voting Steele captured 79 votes, just six shy of being elected in the then three person field; Dawson had 59.  The sixth round was down to just Steele and Dawson, Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis having dropped out after the fifth ballot.  In that final round, Steele got 91 votes fo Dawson’s 77.

The Republican Party emblem, sometimes called the gophant.

The Republican Party emblem is sometimes called the gophant

Mr. Steele is well qualified to lead the U.S. Republican Party.  He  was Chairman of Maryland’s Republican Party before serving as Lt. Governor of that state from 2003-2007.  He was the failed U.S. Senate candidate in Maryland in 2006, doing better than expected in a poor year for Republicans and in a heavily Democratic state.  Since then he has been chairman of GOPAC, which raises funds and supports Republican candidates at the state and local level.  He is familiar with the national media and talk show circuit and is an excellent communicator; Slate was right when they called him the best speaker among all the chairman candidates.

Not only is the President of the United States now an African American, but so is the Chairman of the Republican National Committee.  How about that?  Steele is the first black person to hold said post.

Steele, age 50, is a lawyer by training, though he spent three years as a Roman Catholic seminarian and considered taking holy orders.  See his Wikipedia article (which, incidentally, I started) for more information about him.  This blog wishes Mr. Steele all the best as he leads the Republican Party for the next two years.

Tories favored by 12 points over Labour

In a new poll released today by the Guardian, if the United Kingdom held elections for Parliament today 44% would vote Conservative, 32% for Labour, 16% for the Liberal-Democrats, and 8% would vote for another party. 

Across the poll, Labour is flatlining – the charge once thrown at struggling Conservative leaders who could not lift their party’s support below the low 30s. Labour has been on 31%, plus or minus two points, since August in ICM polls.

The prime minister can draw comfort from the fact that this new support has come almost entirely from the Lib Dems and smaller parties. Labour support is down only one point, and at 32% is well above the low points in the mid-20s it hit in the early summer last year.

But that simply suggests the party is on course for a big defeat rather than a calamity. One estimate suggests that the Conservatives would win around 360 seats on today’s figures, a majority of about 70. Labour could expect to win around 240, 30 more than it did at its nadir under Michael Foot in 1983.

The results seem largely driven by economic concerns. 

Elections must be held on or before 3 June 2010, as the maximum length of a Parliament is five years; however, Prime Ministers typically call elections after four years—unless they’re guaranteed defeat and think they can turn things around if given another year.  If elections are held this year, 4 June is a likely date, as they would then coincide with elections for the European Parliament.

This blog, which is more favorably predisposed to the Conservatives, predicts that Gordon Brown will not call elections this year and will let the current Parliament expire, or come very close to it before elections are held next year.  Furthermore, it is likely that David Cameron, the leader of the Conservatives, will probably be the next Prime Minister.

Netanyahu wants to expand West Bank settlements

Former Prime Minister of Israel and current leader of the opposition Benjamin Netanyahu says he will expand Israeli West Bank settlements if he becomes Prime Minister again after February 10th’s elections.  Based on current opinion polls, it appears likely that Netanyahu’s party, Likud, will secure a  plurality of seats in the Knesset and be able to form a government.

“I have no intention of building new settlements in the West Bank,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying. “But like all the governments there have been until now, I will have to meet the needs of natural growth in the population. I will not be able to choke the settlements.”

Israel’s West Bank settlements, constructed on land captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, are probably illegal under international law and are certainly a major obstacle to a lasting peace deal with the Palestinians.  It is therefore unfortunate that Netanyahu is willing to allow them to expand.

Settlement construction in the West Bank has been a key obstacle to peace talks over the years. The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank as part of a future independent state that would also include the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. They say Israel’s settlements, now home to 280,000 people in the West Bank, make it increasingly difficult for them to establish a viable state.

Nearly all Israeli settlement construction over the past decade has taken place in existing West Bank communities. And Netanyahu’s positions do not significantly differ from outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has allowed construction in existing settlements to continue even while holding peace talks with the Palestinians.

The West Bank. Israeli settlements in purple, areas where Palestinian movement is restricted in pink.

The West Bank. Israeli settlements in purple, areas where Palestinian movement is restricted in pink.

The settlements (see Wikipedia article) are home to about 280,000 Israelis and make it harder to the Palestinians to form a viable state.  They also require significant security infrastructure due to violence against them from Palestinians.  While the violence is deplorable, the anger which motivates it is understandable—how would you feel if foreigners came into your country and effectively claimed permanently as their own by building cities there?  Also keep in mind that about 40% of the land on which the settlements are built is privately owned by (unremunuerated) Palestinians.  Additionally, it is not simply the land on which they sit that Palestinians are deprived of; the settlements effectively cut up the West Bank, making travel and transport through the area difficult.

There are a lot of passions involved with the Israeli-Palestinian situtation.  For a possibly less charged example of a similar sort of activity, consider the Chinese policy of trying to tightly wed Tibet, which they conquered militarily, to the People’s Republic by settling ethnic Chinese people there.

These settlements make Israel less secure, not more secure.  They are furthermore one of the biggest obstacles to peace, right up there with continued Palestinian violence.  They are increasingly costing Israelis the good will of their allies, including, quite possibly, the United States under the new Obama administration.

Kadima party leader and Prime Minister candidate Tzipi Livni has vowed to dismantle the settlements, if elected.  This blog very much hopes that she will get that chance.

Gerrymandering legislative districts

Maryland's 3rd Congressional District, one of the nation's most gerrymandered

Maryland's 3rd Congressional District, one of the most gerrymandered in the United States

Slate magazine has an interesting article about using computer algorithms to draw, or at least analyze, cogressional and legislative districts.  It includes a slide show with 20 of the most gerrymandered districts in the Union, two of which are in Maryland, which has eight districts.

In Maryland, as in most states, the boundaries for Congressional and State Legislative districts are drawn by the state legislature, which makes it very tempting to draw lines favorable to yourself.  This can be especially problematic in a state like Maryland where one party (in this case the Democrats) control a supermajority in the legislature.  (After the 2010 census the Maryland Court of Appeals threw out the map drawn by legislators and substituted their own, it was that badly done.)   Some states have non-partisan boards which have authority to craft district lines, which leads to somewhat better outcomes.  Voters in California very narrowly (49.5% in favor) rejected Proposition 11 this past November which would have set up such a body in that state.

I’m skeptical if computer algorithms are the best way to draw final legislative districts, though they can certainly help generate ideas and be used to analyze plans.  I think the best route to go would be to create an independent commission with Democrats, Republicans, independents, along with Libertarians and Greens where no party has a majority and something more than a simple majority is needed to agree to a final plan.  They could take cognizance of already existing political boundaries, like county and city lines, along with major natural formations that make sense to use, like rivers.  Such an institution wouldn’t be perfect (nothing here can be, I don’t think) but would be much better than the way most states do it now.

Same-sex marriage bill introduced in Maine Legislature

The Maine State House in Augusta, where a battle over same-sex marriage is likely to be fought

The Maine State House in Augusta, where a battle over same-sex marriage is likely to be fought

Dennis Damon, a Democrat who serves in the 35-member Maine Senate, has introduced legislation that would legalize same-sex marriage in that state.  The bill is entitled “An Act to End Discrimination in Civil Marriage and Affirm Religious Freedoms.”  Maine’s governor, Democrat John Baldacci, has opposed gay marriage in the past, but indicates he supports civil unions.  The state already has a form of domestic partnership available.

According to the Washington Blade, an LGBT newspaper, Equality Maine collected over 33,000 signatures to send to the legislature in favor of same-sex marriage.  A newly formed opposing group, the Maine Marriage Alliance, which wants to limit marriage rights, is advocating to make Maine the 31st state which prohibits same-sex marriage in its constitution; currently, marriage is limited only by statute.

104 Generals and Admirals say let gays serve openly

Department of Defense HQ

Department of Defense HQ

A statement was released Monday by 104 retired generals and admirals calling for the U.S. to end the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy which prevents gays and lesbians from serving in the American armed forces unless they deceptively hide their sexual orientation.  The full text of the statement is as follows:

We—the undersigned—respectfully call for the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Those of us endorsing this letter have dedicated our lives to defending the rights of our citizens to believe whatever they wish. Scholarly data shows there are approximately one million gay and lesbian veterans in the United States today as well as 65,000 gays and lesbians currently serving in our armed forces. They have served our nation honorably. We support the recent comments of former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General John Shalikashvili, who has concluded that repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy would not harm and would indeed help our armed forces. As is the case with Great Britain, Israel, and other nations that allow gays and lesbians to serve openly, our service members are professionals who are able to work together effectively despite differences in race, gender, religion, and sexuality. Such collaboration reflects the strength and the best traditions of our democracy.

By my count, the flag offices who’ve signed the statement have a total of 161 starts on their uniforms (it was also signed by Former Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander).  The list is topped by Retired 4-star Admiral Charles Larson, a former Superintendent of the Naval Academy and prior supporter of the don’t ask policy. 

He thought it was a mistake for Bill Clinton, who was a close acquaintance, to try to lift the ban immediately, and wished he would have worked more closely with the military if he wanted to make the change. “You can’t change the military culture overnight,” he recalled thinking. …

Admiral Larson changed his view after he learned that “there were a lot of witch hunts and a lot of people were turned out on that basis.” He found that the policy was not being implemented as he had hoped, and the military was losing valuable talent. He was also influenced by having a number of people work for him who were gay, and by having a gay daughter with whom he spoke at length about gays in the military.

He now believes the ban should end. “I think the time has come to find a way to let talented, young, patriotic Americans who want to serve their country serve,” he said, “and let’s enforce high standards of personal and human behavior for everyone.”

Initially, opposition to gays in the military was justified on grounds that they wouldn’t make as good soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen as straight people.  That argument can no longer be made by any serious person.  Now, opposition to gay servicemembers is based on the argument that straight members aren’t mature enough to serve with someone that they know is homosexual.  (Though the claim isn’t normally put in such bald terms.)

Larson, the Democratic nominee for Lt. Governor of Maryland in 2006, says that a generational shift in thinking towards homosexuality now allows heterosexuals to serve alongside homosexuals.  This is exactly what happened with allowing non-whites to serve in the military in an equal capacity with whites: first blacks wouldn’t make good soldiers, then they proved they could so it was argued that whites couldn’t work with them.  Then whites proved they could.  And now we have a racially-integrated military that works fine.  The same thing will happen with homosexuals; it is inevitable.  People looking for more information about gays in the military are hereby referred to the very excellent essays and data maintained and provided on the subject by Dr. Gregory Herek of the University of California, Davis.

These changing attitudes can be easily seen in the age demographics in California’s Proposition 8 battle: 66% of 18-24 year olds, 60% of 25-29 year olds, and 50% of 30-39 year olds supported retaining same-sex marriage rights.  Only 41% of those 65 and older supported those rights.  In ten years many of those people currently over 65 will have passed away and there will be ten years worth of new younger voters who are comfortable with gay rights—and many of those who currently oppose those rights will change their own attitudes.

This blog supports equal rights for gays and lesbians who wish to serve in the military

This blog supports equal rights for gays and lesbians who wish to serve in the military

Between 1994-2007 the military discharged about 12,340 people for violating the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy; last year, 627 military personnel were discharged.  Some of these people have been Arab-language linguists with sklls that are, to say the least, mission-critical at this point in time.

During the primaries, all of the Republican candidates for president favored retaining the present policy; all of the Democrats, Barack Obama included, favored repealing it.  However,  he has indicated he won’t scrap the policy unilaterally, preferring to lead and work with the Department of Defense and military leaders in developing a consensus to do so.  I think this is probably the best approach in getting widespread acceptance for the reform.  Pundits are saying that it’s unlikely he’ll make changing the policy a top priority early in his term.

The don’t ask policy doesn’t work and harms our military.  Heterosexuals should be given credit for being mature enough, with very few exceptions, to work side-by-side with a gay or lesbian person.  This blog strongly favors repeal of the policy and allowing people who can cut it to serve in the military regardless of sexual orientation without having to deceptively hide said orientation.

Michael Steele wants to be next RNC Chairman

Maryland’s former Lt. Governor Michael Steele wants to be the next Chairman of the Republican National Committee and is likely to formally announce his candidacy for the post on Thursday.  Steele is well qualified for the post and this blog heartily endorses his candidacy.

Steele was Maryland’s first and only Republican Lt. Governor, serving in that capacity from 2003-2007 under Bob Ehrlich—which made him the highest ranking African American in the history of the Seventh State.  Prior to that, he was chairman of the Maryland Republican Party.  In 2006 he ran for the U.S. Senate, losing to Ben Cardin by 11 points in a heavily Democratic state in a bad year for Republicans.  He later became, and still is, the chairman of GOPAC.  FOXNews indicates that Newt Gingrich, the founder of GOPAC, is not interested in the RNC post and may soon endorse Steele.

Steele would make a great RNC Chairman.  He’s run a the party on the state level—in a heavily Democratic state—held office, raised money, and comes across very well on TV when explaining conservative positions.  A lawyer by training, he was mentioned by some as a possible Vice Presidential pick for John McCain this past election.  I think he could help re-brand the GOP and make it the party of ideas again.  Those wishing to show support for his bid should visit DraftMichaelSteele.com and sign their petition.