Monday, September 19, 2005

Federalist Walking Papers?

For some reason, I haven't been able to get too excited about blaming Bush for bungling Katrina. I assume he did, or at least partially did. Homeland Security and FEMA certainly have gone out of their way to make me feel less secure about the prospect of my surviving any upcoming natural disasters or terrorist attacks, and it's definitely true that as a nation we'd have more money, attention, and National Guard troops to focus on the short- and long-term mess in the affected region if Bush hadn't chosen to invade Iraq. Part of my relative lack of excitement, I think, comes from my sense that Bush was far from alone in this. Yes, he could've done a lot of things (almost everything) better. But so could a lot of state and local officials.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, in particular, hasn't covered himself in glory in recent days. In particular, I question his decision to allow residents to start returning to parts of New Orleans before anybody has had a chance to really evaluate the health risks of their moving back--much of the city doesn't have drinking water and does have a thick, juicy coat of toxic sludge. The decision further seems a little hasty given that he had to re-evacuate a lot of the returnees because there's a new tropical storm off the coast. I also question Nagin's stated rationale for allowing the early return. He argues that with so with many resources, talents, and energies deployed to make New Orleans work again, it's inevitable that someone will find a way to make the city safe and secure. That's a nice spirit of can-do optimism for the long run, but it's just goofy in the short-term. Living in toxic sludge is living in toxic sludge, and all the resources, talents, and energies in the world don't mean squat if the people coordinating the recovery effort don't direct those resources etc. toward sane, measurable, and sequential tasks that, say, remove the damn sludge before people bring their kids back to the city. (Nagin's recovery philosophy is starting to resemble Bush's reconstruction plan for Iraq--rhetoric and feel-goodery taking the place of analysis and planning.)

That, I guess, was part detour and part preamble to what I started out to discuss: election reform. Former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker have just started appearing on the political talk shows to tell people about the recommendations by their bipartisan election reform commission. Now, some of you might--like I did--react with surprise and suspicion to anything James Baker has to say about election reform, since he also led the Bush campaign's legal team during the Florida controversy in 2000. But I like Jimmy Carter; he's definitely done more good out of office than many Presidents do in office, and he's done a lot of election monitoring at home and abroad. I'm disposed to listen when he talks about this stuff.

I'm not sure I agree with all the recommendations of the commission--a lot of progressive activists are suspicious of the report's advocating a national voter ID, to be issued a state level. They figure this is another way to keep those without any current ID (usually poor, sick, and/or elderly) from voting. It might work out that way if civil rights advocates and the Congress don't insist on some transparency and make concerted efforts towards universal inclusion (something Congress isn't always so good at). But my hunch is that it could be done in a way to cut down on disenfranchisement of precisely those groups: if a black guy has his state-approved voter ID on election day in Florida, it'll be a lot harder for election officials in the panhandle to claim that he's actually a convicted felon.

At any rate, I'm not really interested (here) in discussing the specifics of the committee's recommendations. What I'm interested in--and this is why I brought up the Katrina response--is discussing the federalist system that still governs so much of America and whether we need to give it serious rethinking. In addition to nationally standard (thought state-issued) voter IDs, the Carter-Baker commission also wants Congress to urge the states to implement certain kinds of uniform voting practices. Of course, that's really all the Congress has the power to do--urge. Unlike those of most other countries, which have more national programs, our elections are left up to the state and local governments. So, at least partially, are out disaster-relief efforts. I'm not sure that's a great idea.

When the founding fathers drew up the Constitution, the technological and historical realities were very different than they are today. Not only was voting forbidden to women, racial minorities, and people without property, it was also a very slow and comparatively low-tech process. Having nationwide standards would have been more difficult technologically and pretty much impossible politically. (In many ways, the separate states were just that--separate nation states with very different cultures in each one.) These, days, though, the Electoral College is a technological and political dinosaur that, in many ways, makes the votes of some people worth more than the votes of others. These days, one can count every individual's vote in the course of a few hours and transmit those results almost instantaneously everywhere. These days, although the different states still have very different populations and histories, they aren't much like separate nation states, and the odds are many if not most Americans will live in at least a couple of them during their lifetime. (At age 30, I've lived in four, and I move way less than many.)

So it's my feeling that we need to start thinking about bringing our voting system and disaster relief systems up to date in order to deal with those new realities. In terms of disaster relief, that means one set of tasks--reorganizing, streamlining, establishing clear procedures and chains of command in ways that neither FEMA nor Homeland Security seems to have done despite the lessons of 9/11. And in voting that may well mean developing a national, nonpartisan election commission that sets universal standards for all federal elections (and maybe even all ballots with federal elections included on them). For federal legislators (whose votes affect the way I live regardless of what state I live in) and for the President (who by definition governs for and answers to Americans and not to New Yorkers or Mississippians), it makes less and less sense to me that the way we elect them varies state by state, city by city, and district by district.

This would require a massive change in relevant state and federal laws. Maybe even a Constitutional amendment. It would be a lot of work. And it's sort of scary in many ways. It definitely conjures up all sorts of Big Brother scenarios. But we could put proper safeguards in place. Besides, I'm not sure if such hypotheticals are any worse than recent actual events in which, for example, "voting irregularities" (or just outright voter fraud) in one state or precinct have determined who gets to cast a deciding vote in Congress or to be President and send our troops to war.

Anyway, just something I'm trying to sort out.


At 6:21 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

AP's asap Opens For Business
Network Live: Looking For A Good Night To Go With Bon Jovi's "Nice Day" : I never could have ... The exclusive features include the reminiscence of a former White House correspondent about biking with the First Biker but I'd have expected something more current like a Katrina notebook.
Great Blog! Interesting!

Posted by a forex historical data related site.

Come and check it out if you get time :-)

At 8:39 PM , Blogger Mike M. said...

*Sigh* I guess enough people read us that we now get spammed pretty regularly. But, gotta keep the comments open, I think, because we don't have near enough readers to keep things up if we create hurdles.

As for the substance of this post: I have no problem accepting that locals made mistakes. But the federal government is bigger, better funded and simply has more raw power than any local or state government. It also should attract more qualified talent, unless people are purely hired and appointed by the spoils system. It's a simple fact that head of FEMA or the Department of Homeland Security is a better paying and more prestigious post than head of Oklahahoma Security. Don't forget Worthington's Law: More Money = Better Than!

I should do my own post on this since I'm going on too long, but... if the states could handle EVERY problem on their own, we wouldn't be the United States. States and localities make a lot of compromises, giving up local beliefs and acepting broader common beliefs, because very few, if any, states could actually survive the world's dangers as independent nations. Even heavily populated states or rich states like New York or Connecticut or California, which pay more in taxes to the Feds than they receive in aid would be, at best, third world countries if left to fend for themselves. I don't even want to to think about what a place like my home state of New Mexico would be if it were wholly on its own but... "A place Honduras mocks," would probably be a good description.

At 10:42 AM , Blogger Jon E. said...

I don't think Honduras would mock New Mexico. Costa Rica, probably. But we'd still be able to lord it over Alabama.

You know, Mike, I had a weird thought about New Mexico. It's the fifth largest state in the union geographically and, last I checked, has about 1.5 million residents. I was taking the el home from work, and I realized that if you evacuated less than half the Chicagoland area, you could move all of New Mexico's population into the vacated houses.

I'm sure there are any number of deeply insightful conclusions one could reach from that. Mostly it just made me say, "huh."


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