Sunday, August 08, 2010

Does Kelly drink the Rooibos?

I had some trouble with Jack Kelly’s column today, because the logic is so twisted. The over arching message is clear enough, that our federal legislators no longer represent us Kelly’s column even has that classic phrase “There was a time, not so long ago…”, referring to a false nostalgia for a bygone era (the Reagan administration).

So who does Congress represent, according to Kelly? This was part of the problem I had with the column; Kelly doesn’t say exactly, he relies’ on a Rasmusssen survey that uses the categories of “political class” and “Mainstream America”. Which reminds me of something I heard in 1978 when I took high school political science (hey, I was interested and it was easy). Our teacher told us that in America (probably everywhere) 30% of the people read the newspaper for news, while 70% read the sports pages and comics (this would translate for today’s equivalent of TV news or information from the internet). But I don’t think this classic distinction of news consumers is what Jack Kelly has in mind.

Actually, Kelly does pause to take a shot at the usual suspects (Democrats) by saying “Part of the problem is partisan and ideological. Democrats are more fond of government, less respectful of the rights and wisdom of ordinary Americans.”. But surprisingly he then goes on to blame Republicans (who ”controlled Congress from 1995 to 2007”) for ”plenty of corruption, big spending, and disregard for the opinions of ordinary Americans”. Kelly declares the problem “primarily structural, and will require structural fixes”. In this column, although he never says anything about the Tea Party, I think Kelly sees Democrats and Republican partisans as the "political class" and Tea Party members and sympathizers as "Mainstream America".

Just to be clear, Kelly repeats this information from the Rasmussen poll (I paraphrase), the “Mainstream America” group favors the free market, want to repeal “Obamacare” and “reduce” illegal immigration, while the political class disagrees. Sounds like the issues the Tea Party is interested in to me.

I certainly agree polls show an overwhelming majority of Americans are dissatisfied with Congress. The way I would interpret that is this. Liberals/Democrats see a Congress hamstrung by record numbers of Republican filibusters in the Senate, so while the stimulus and health care reform did pass, they were compromised to death and nothing else can pass. Conservatives/Republicans see Democrats holding the majorities in Congress and holding the White House, so they are spending money left and right, sending the deficit/debt skyrocketing and putting us at risk for hyper-inflation.

Whether you agree with Jack’s stated assessment of the situation, or mine, you may have trouble following the logic behind Kelly’s suggestions to fix the problem. I did. First he proposes term limits. I can see the logic there, although I have always been ambivalent at best about them. Yes, term limits make Congresspersons more dependent on donors (particularly lobbyists who pay attention) because they want to get re-elected, but term limits also let a Congressperson ignore their constituents if they so choose (at least in there last term they don’t have worry about re-election) and there is less institutional memory in Congress. But I would regard that all as worth debating.

More puzzling is Kelly’s recommendations for changes in rules for donations. Kelly wants donors to voters registered in the same state as the candidate is running. He claims this will limit the effect of special interests, and it likely will, although it would likely hurt Republicans as well as Democrats. And Kelly wants to raise the contribution ceiling to $10,000. Kelly explicitly says he thinks this would not be enough for one donor to buy a Congressperson, but it would be enough “so an otherwise competitive candidate can raise the campaign funds he or she needs from among his or her constituents.”.

Again, if you view this through the perspective of the Tea Party, this makes sense. I have mentioned before the NYTimes/ABC poll that found self-identified Tea Party members to be wealthier than the norm for voters (they are probably the suburban “soccer moms” and “NASCAR dads” of the 2000 election). So while one Tea Party donor couldn’t own a candidate, one district’s or State’s Tea Party could marshal considerable resources, especially if the national Democrats or Republicans were prevented from acting. The “otherwise competitive candidate” is the Tea Party nut-job who most voters would run from.

I have to admit, I am not sure exactly what to do with Kelly’s next paragraph. A $200 million dollar fund to be divided between the Democratic and Republican parties, no party donation larger than $100,000? I will say simply that I am sure the Tea Party would prefer the traditional parties to be limited while they would not be (because, as far as I am aware, they are not yet an official party). I don’t see where the NRA or the American Medical Association is limited by Jack’s plan (or the NEA or the AARP), so I don’t see where the worst of the attack ads would be eliminated. But I guess that’s OK with Jack and his new found friends the Tea Party.

So yeah, pretty obviously Americans (as polled) are annoyed by Congress, for reasons you may think are good and/or bad. But Jack Kelly’s prescriptions for reform, which strike me as designed to help the Tea Party, are not at all an obvious good thing.

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