Monthly Archives: January 2013

A glimmer of hope on the horizon for immigration reform

The thousand-mile journey to comprehensive immigration reform has begun, as you might expect for Washington, with a single memo. Eight senators, four from each party, released it on Monday: a statement of principles behind a deal to overhaul the system in one big bill. It calls for more border and workplace enforcement, more visas for needed workers and legalization — with a path to citizenship — for 11 million undocumented immigrants.

The statement lacks specifics and leaves a lot of room for disappointment and retreat. But what’s encouraging is that it exists at all. No longer does the immigration debate consist of two groups yelling across a void. No longer is the discussion hopelessly immobilized by Republicans who have categorically rejected any deal that includes any hint of “amnesty.”

Full editorial available from the New York Times

From my perspective, the bipartisan immigration memo released this week is a very encouraging step in the right direction. As the NYT editorialists point out, there is a LOT to be concerned about with the proposal (the most significant being that the “pathway to citizenship” will be made conditional on reaching a level of border security that will be virtually impossible to achieve). However, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon for immigrant advocates (such as myself) that something might finally get done this year on immigration.

Using Congressional votes to measure Obama’s ideological position

“Based on President Obama’s announced positions on actual legislation, we find that he is closer to the ideological center than any president since LBJ.”

This is based on an analysis of votes that the President has publicly spoken either in favor of or against. More available here:

Procedural changes in Danville City Commission meetings

The Advocate-Messenger reported today that the Danville City Commission has made the following procedural changes to coincide with the new term and new make-up of the commission:

  •  Paige Stevens, who just started her second non-consecutive City Commission term, was appointed mayor pro tem. She received the most votes during the November election. Hunstad recommended that commissioners stick to the tradition of appointing the person who garnered the most votes.
  •  After a brief discussion, City Commissioners decided to change to a “rotating” voting method instead of the former method in which the mayor casts the last vote. “It’s about perception,” Caudill said.
  •  Commissioners unanimously voted to move the public comments period to the beginning of meetings. Atkins said he would like to hear people’s opinions on issues before he votes.

Full article available here:,0,7514833.story 

Rep. Guthrie’s take on Congressional dysfunction

As I reported in my last post, U.S. Congressman Brett Guthrie (R-KY2) visited my U.S. Congress class here at Centre College on Friday afternoon. Rep. Guthrie spoke to my students for about fifteen minutes and then fielded questions for the remainder of the hour. 

Rep. Guthrie began by addressing a topic that he said tends to be on everyone’s mind when he meets with constituents: “why can’t Congress get anything done?” He gave a short and concise answer: there aren’t a lot of cross-party mutual interests that form the foundation of bipartisan solutions. He explained that a few generations ago, there were several liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, and that with a few exceptions, they’re all gone now. So now there are no conservative Democrats for the Republicans to reach out to, and conversely, no liberal Republicans for the Democrats to reach out to. Hence a great deal of partisanship and inability to compromise and find common ground.

What impressed me most about this is that this is the same basic answer agreed upon by most academics and political scientists. It’s often the case that academics spend their time combating “conventional wisdom” popularized by both politicians and the media. In this instance, Congressman Guthrie’s answer was right on the mark in line with what I teach my students.

How should we fix the problem? He offered: “We haven’t figured that out yet.” It was an honest answer, which I appreciated. The most effective way of “fixing” it immediately would require substantially shifting the ideological constituencies that make up today’s partisan coalitions, and then having them elect representatives accordingly. That’s not something that’s going to happen any time soon.

I very much appreciate Rep. Guthrie visiting my students and we look forward to future visits here on Centre’s campus.

The story behind Paul Ryan’s water in the 2012 VP debate

My GOV 334 U.S. Congress class was privileged to receive a visit from Congressman Brett Guthrie this afternoon, who now represents Boyle County in Kentucky’s 2nd congressional district. Rep. Guthrie was an excellent guest and shared several insights about how Congress works from an “insider” perspective.

One interesting tidbit he shared was the story behind why Paul Ryan took so many sips of water during the 2012 vice presidential debate here at Centre College a few months ago. This was famously lampooned in the Saturday Night Live skit that came out later that weekend.

It’s no secret that Paul Ryan is an exercise enthusiast and he drinks a lot of water every day. This necessitates several trips to the “facilities.” According to Congressman Guthrie, on the day of the debate, Congressman Ryan’s staffers would not let him drink any water after 2:00 P.M. so that he would have no need to excuse himself in the middle of a national debate. Apparently, when the debate finally started at 9:00 P.M., Congressman Ryan had had nothing to drink for seven hours. So when he was presented with a glass of water during the debate, he took advantage of it!

Two books to understand contemporary American politics

Over the last year or so, it seems that I regularly encounter questions from friends, family, and neighbors along the lines of: “Why is our government so dysfunctional?” or “How come they can’t get anything done?” or “Why don’t they just grow up and stop acting like a bunch of babies?” These are, of course, entirely legitimate but very broad questions. For those who are interested in a sophisticated, concise answer to those questions, I would recommend reading the following two books, in this order:

The Polarized Public: Why American Government is so Dysfunctional by Alan Abramowitz

It’s Even Worse than it Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism by Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein

In short, the first book argues that our elected leaders are polarized because the American public itself has polarized, meaning that ideological diversity has decreased among the constituencies of the two major political parties over the last fifty years (i.e. unlike a generation or two ago, there are no longer very many liberal Republicans or conservative Democrats). 

The second book argues that our American political system only works if there is ideological diversity within the representatives of the political parties in Congress. Since this is no longer the case (as shown in the previous book), it becomes very difficult to forge “bipartisan” agreements in Congress simply because there are no longer any like-minded individuals to reach out to across the aisle. The bottom line is that our system is not working because the parties act as if they were in a parliament (where parties are strong and expected to vote in lock-step) instead of a Congress (where parties are weak and cross-party coalitions are regularly expected), and our system was not designed for parliamentary-type political parties. 

Understanding why our current system is so dysfunctional doesn’t solve the problem or make us feel any better, but it at least helps to understand what’s going on and gives a realistic expectation about what is likely to occur in a such an environment, as well as to be able to critically evaluate the merit of any proposed solutions.