John Maginnis Thursday, November 7, 2013 0

It could not happen here, this government shutdown thing. Under similar circumstances in the Louisiana House of Representatives, regardless of how members voted, they would at least vote.

The impasse over the budget resolution and GOP attempts to defund the Affordable Care Act soon will be followed by another face-off over raising the debt ceiling. Assuming, hoping, that both matters are resolved sometime before Halloween, a deeper problem will remain. Despite the widespread frustration of the people, the current gridlock is not the fault of tea party Republicans, or the president and the Democrats, or of everyone failing to get along.

Rather, the responsibility for this irresponsibility gets down to Speaker John Boehner, both as a person and an institution. Boehner has prevented the House from voting and letting the will of the majority prevail. If the partisan roles were reversed, the Democrat who would be speaker would be as much at fault.

The U.S. Constitution barely mentions the office, other than to say the House may choose a speaker, but over the years, the speaker of the House has gained the power to decide which legislation gets voted on. But such discretion, mainly for the sake of managing the House agenda, was not intended to block crucial budget votes on keeping the government operating.

Compounding that assumed power, this speaker has chosen to invoke the “Hastert Rule,” named for former Speaker Dennis Hastert, to bring up no legislation that is not supported by a “majority of the majority,” even if the instrument is supported by a bipartisan majority, as is the continuing budget resolution.

Hastert, currently a lobbyist and diving to get out of the line of fire, denies ever making such a rule. He said his “preference,” in order to maintain Republican policy, was to try not to use the votes of Democrats to pass legislation that only a minority of Republicans supported.

Rule or not, Boehner’s stance is rooted in large part in self-preservation, for he figures he won’t be speaker for long if he lets a bipartisan majority overcome a majority of his Republican colleagues, who are demanding that Democrats negotiate concessions on Obamacare.

That consideration may loom large for Boehner, but why is it our problem? It demeans the institution for its leader to operate like a party hack, just as former Democratic speakers have when it was their turn. This is the people’s House, not some party’s.

A government shutdown, irresponsible as it is, at least would be constitutionally legitimate in the case of a majority of the House voting the opposite of a majority in the Senate. The constitution offers no solution to that standoff. But for a leader of one house to stop that body from voting, because most of his or her party won’t like the outcome, enshrines partisanship and violates the spirit of our democratic republic.

For suppressing the will of the elected majority, the Hastert “don’t call it a rule” Rule is matched only by the Senate’s filibuster rule. The constitution already grants leavening powers to the upper chamber, where Wyoming carries the same weight as New York. Why does it also need a 60-vote bar before a vote is called on a controversial measure? The rationale for the rule, which only evolved recently, is to avoid the whipsaw effect of massive and opposite legislation being passed whenever a new party takes power.

Both the majority-of-the-majority rule in the House and super-majority rule in the Senate seem meant to protect party power, but they also wildly overstate the importance of both bodies within the three branches of government. Whatever legislation the Congress passes, the president can veto and the courts can strike down if it goes too far, not to mention that the voters can pass judgment and settle scores every two years.

Members of both parties, not just the leaders, should come together to get rid of this partisan misrule. As a simple “outside the Beltway” view, that’s not likely to happen, just as Capitol Hill’s current crisis of the absurd is bound to happen again.

But at least it’s not going to happen here, where one can take comfort that in the Louisiana Legislature, the majority still has a say, even if the governor rules.


Political Sideshow 

Next month, a federal judge will decide whether the historic, mammoth lawsuit against 97 oil companies for damage to coastal marshes will proceed in state court or be moved to U.S. District Court, as sought by one of the defendants, Chevron.

Big corporations tend to think they will fare better in a federal system of appointed judges than before an elected state judiciary. Federal court can be no picnic, though, which BP is learning in its Gulf oil spill trial, now in the penalty phase, before U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier.

To whichever courthouse the case goes, before the first arguments are heard, a political sideshow is playing out in the court of public opinion.

The foremost champion of the suit, author John Barry, soon will not be vice chairman of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, once Gov. Bobby Jindal appoints a replacement from two names a nominating committee submitted, neither of them Barry’s. Though he can still speak out as a private citizen, his departure leaves a void among public officials willing to take on Big Oil.

Into the breach stepped Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, who called out the state Democratic Party to support the legal action. The early response of elected Democrats, however, has been muted, with none yet taking his cue. Their reluctance to get involved doesn’t surprise Campbell.

“Some top Democrats have been tap dancing,” he said on the Jim Engster Show. “They’re in the pockets of the powerful instead of the people.”

Therefore, Campbell may have to go over the politicians’ heads to rally public support to at least dissuade lawmakers  from passing sure-to-be-filed legislation next Spring to curb the autonomy of the flood control authority.

The oil companies hope it doesn’t have to come to that, but, rather, that the lawsuit will be disposed of short of court or the Capitol. Their current aim targets not the lawsuit itself but the levee board’s contingency contract with its lead law firm. If the defendants can nullify the pact with the plaintiff’s lawyers, who would collect 22.5 percent of the first $300 million awarded and 32.5 percent after that, the levee board wouldn’t be able to afford the millions in research and legal fees it would take to press its case.

The strategy of the oil companies is, to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Dick the butcher, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all their lawyers.”

And so they have handed the knife to the one they deem responsible for letting this genie out of the bottle, Attorney General Buddy Caldwell. The Louisiana Oil and Gas Association is demanding that the attorney general rescind his approval of the levee board’s resolution approving the contract with its attorneys. The petition contends that state law requires that the attorney general’s office represent political subdivisions of the state or retain counsel for them.

Caldwell’s office hasn’t commented on the petition, but it has previously claimed that his oversight of the board’s action was very limited and that he did as the law prescribed.

To add some theatrics to the sideshow, enter Jeff Landry, stage right. The former congressman, who seems interested in running against Caldwell in 2015, recently unleashed an op-ed tirade against what he labeled the “Buddy System,” which he described with the terms “extortion,” “racketeering” and “ambulance-chasing free for all.”

Caldwell shot back against “the lies of my detractors,” stating that he doesn’t know the board’s lawyers, has never received a political contribution from them, and didn’t authorize the contract, but only the board’s power to sign it.

We likely will be hearing more from these two. Before then, politically, Caldwell finds himself on the spot. If he reverses his authorization, he angers the many in the public who want the suit to get a fair hearing, and he opens himself to being called a flip-flopper. If he stands by his initial decision, he exposes himself to the wrath of the oil companies and the many thousands of voters who draw their livelihoods, directly or indirectly, from the oil patch.

The flood protection board, as its supporters point out, was established by the Legislature to be insulated from politics. Nice try.


Governor Struggles Over Common Core

This ruckus over Common Core, silly and sad as it’s been, has still served the public good in a couple of ways. It has given me and my journalistic colleagues something to write about on a slow week. And it has caused more people to know and discuss the most important thing going on in classrooms today, far more so than vouchers.

Up until last week, about the only ones who knew about Common Core were educators, involved parents and, of course, the kids, who now are being taught and tested in new ways, in order to meet standards shared by the rest of their generation, across the land.

While there are parents and teachers legitimately concerned with the new demands, the greater controversy stirred over it nationally has come from elements of the tea party and the Republican right wing. To hear some theories, this is all a plot hatched in the Obama White House to, one can only guess, brainwash naive youth into becoming community organizers and climate-change believers.

In truth, the more intensive teaching methods and rigorous tests were developed through the National Governors Association and the national council of state school superintendents to better enable American students to not only compete with each other but also with those in the rest of the world, lest ours fall further behind.

Forty-five states have adopted Common Core. In Louisiana, local school districts work within a broad outline to tailor instruction to their classrooms. The only federal involvement is to offer financial incentives to participate.

Yet wild-eyed conspiracy theories will always find its takers, especially in quarters most hostile to the Democratic president. What brought it home to Louisiana was a group of parents in Jefferson Parish who incited Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, to take up their cause.

Henry, seen to have statewide ambitions, has been an outspoken critic of Gov. Bobby Jindal on a variety of conservative issues. Surely he noted how uncomfortably wishy-washy the governor was in responding to tea party opponents of Common Core at the recent RedState conference in New Orleans.

The lawmaker brought that pressure back to bear with a public letter, figuratively nailed to the door of the Governor’s Mansion, that urged Jindal to withdraw the state from Common Core, calling it a “a tool of federal coercion.”

Jindal has never embraced the tea party, but he has not messed with it, either. So, as much as he disdains Henry, he meekly responded, “We share those concerns,” adding that while he supports rigor and high standards, he opposes “a national or federalized curriculum,” which he well knows Common Core is not.

“We need Louisiana standards, not Washington, D.C., standards,” wrote the governor of the state with some of the lowest-performing schools in the nation.

Henry plans to introduce legislation next year to withdraw the state from Common Core, though, so far, GOP colleagues have not exactly rallied to his side. His own senator, Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, re-stated his strong support for the program, as did his House counterpart, Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge.

Board of Elementary and Secondary Education President Chas Roemer, a Baton Rouge Republican, has not wavered, either.

Coming close to agreeing with Jindal and Henry is some pretty dangerous company — not the tea party, but the state Democratic Party, which has called the rollout of Common Core a “train wreck.” Also sharing concerns and calling for a one-year delay in the program’s testing regimen is the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, whom the governor has labeled an “agent of the status quo.”

Jindal badly needs a face-saving way to extract himself from this crack he has stumbled into. The state’s chief architect of Common Core, state Superintendent John White, threw him a possible life line last week when he said, “We are willing to discuss concerns, whether it is with legislators or others, but we must maintain the work that so many of our teachers have spent countless hours working toward.”

White and BESE can come up with a few tweaks; Jindal can declare his concerns addressed, and, he hopes, move on. With many more watching now than when this tempest started, the governor needs to act, not just for his own politics, but for the thousands of teachers who have been striving to do Team Jindal’s bidding and to make Common Core deliver on its promise. Some leadership would be helpful, but one hates to set standards too high.