Catastrophic Attack and Political Reform

June 22, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

Had the Alexandria shooter had his way and murdered a score or more legislators on a baseball field, the country would have witnessed horrifying carnage--and, as Norm Ornstein has argued, it would have entered into genuine constitutional crisis. The slaughter of the members of one political party would have changed, in minutes, the balance of power in the federal government. A Killer’s Congress would have come into session for an extended time. Special elections don’t happen overnight, or within days or weeks.

It is hard to see how-- by what exceptional displays of political leadership--the government in these conditions could re-establish its legitimacy. It would be exceptionally hard in the “best of times”. In a divisive, polarized politics, it is close to unimaginable.

As Ornstein points out, we cannot say that this miserable state of affairs could not have been anticipated. On 9/11, the Capitol only escaped a devastating attack because Flight 93’s passengers gave their lives to bring down the plane. We also cannot say that no thought was then given to reforms to protect the continuity and democratic integrity of government if its senior ranks were to be violently cut down. Ornstein joined with others to establish a Continuity of Government Commission, which then recommended measures for assuring in the event of catastrophe a functioning, constitutionally legitimate presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court. That was fourteen years ago.

An Uprising for Campaign Finance Reform?

April 20, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

A few years ago, after the enactment of McCain Feingold, the Federal Election Commission began issuing implementing rules, and there were not well received in reform quarters.  It was objected that the agency was ignoring Congressional intent and gutting the law.  One line of attack was possible Hill intervention to disapprove the rules pursuant to the Congressional Review Act.   At a lunch with Senators to discuss this possibility, a prominent reform leader told the assembled legislators that if they did not reject the rules and hold the FEC to account, the public “would rise up” in protest. The public uprising did not occur, neither the Senate nor the House took action, and the reform critics took their cases to court—with some but not complete success.

But the hope for public pressure remains alive, and as Matea Gold reports in The Washington Post, there is some thought that with Super PACs and the like, things have gotten so out of hand that voters will insist on action.  The ranking of campaign finance among other priorities important to voters remains low, but by one reading, it is inching up the list.  Any upward movement is taken to be, maybe, a sign of more popular passion to come.  This is always the wish.  In the annals of modern campaign finance, it is never a wish come true.

But campaign finance history also shows that elected officials can be moved to take up this cause, and the same Post story that speculates about changes in public opinion records, more concretely, restiveness on the part of politicians.  And this could make a difference.  Candidates and officeholders cited in the story, such as Senator Lindsey Graham, worry about the small number of Americans—“about a 100 people”-- who can shape the course of a campaign with their money.  The issue for Senator Graham is not, apparently, the cost to political equality: it is the unfairness to candidates who find that these wealthy activists “are going to be able to advocate their cause at the expense of your cause.”

Both before and after the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on a constitutional amendment on campaign finance, most of the press coverage understandably went to the dueling appearances of Senators Reid and McConnell. Somewhat lost were the statements delivered by Jamin Raskin and Floyd Abrams.  This is a shame. Each ably represented their opposing views, and when compared and contrasted, their statements bring out large issues in the campaign finance debate and the sources of sharp, enduring disagreement. Among those seemingly unbridgeable differences: what is “reasonable” to expect from the government in regulating political spending?
Justice Stevens delivered brief testimony to the Senate Rules Committee, taking no questions. Maybe no exchange with the committee members was needed: he said little that was surprising or required elaboration.  He had made public before his proposed constitutional amendment and the analysis he offered in support of it closely followed his lengthy dissent in Citizens United. As a retired justice, displaying extraordinary energy and commitment, he certainly brings attention to his cause, but he won’t convince many not already in his corner, and the weaknesses in his case will be turned against the project, whatever its merits, of moving a constitutional amendment.

Selling the American Anti-Corruption Act

December 5, 2013
posted by Bob Bauer

Consider this program to—


Represent.Us is not just building a movement in support of the [American Anti-Corruption] Act, we’re going to use our collective power to stand against those who stand for corruption. If it becomes law, the Act will completely reshape American politics and policy-making and give people a voice.

This is a bold claim that the sponsors of the American Anti-Corruption Act have made. Perhaps “bold” is the wrong word; “audacious” might be more accurate. The sponsors declare that the adoption of their proposal will “completely” reshape American politics and that it will be “completely transformative” in giving the people a voice in their government.