February 17, 2013

KARR-KAITIN: The State of the State of the Union

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President Obama’s first State of the Union of his second term was the lowest rated in 13 years. Even at the height of his unpopularity, people still tuned into to see what George W. Bush had to say. Odds are that even you, someone willing to read a college student’s poorly-worded political column, didn’t even take the time to watch our President explain where he wants to take our country. I’ll admit, I even put off watching the State of the Union for a few days.

The President was just reelected, his approval rating is increasing and his state of the union was expected to lay out his policy framework for the next four years. It’s hard to imagine why nobody tuned in. Was it that millions across the nation have destroyed their televisions after mistakenly tuning into MTV’s new show BUCKWILD? Maybe in part. But I think I’ve come up with a real answer.

The real reason why many, myself included, couldn’t be bothered to tune in is nobody believes that the President will make much headway in achieving the goals on his agenda. Through a mix of gerrymandering, use of the filibuster and an overarching unwillingness to compromise, Republicans will block the vast majority of the President’s agenda (except for maybe immigration reform …).

If you have been reading my columns or blog posts over the past year there is a phrase I have used time and time again: “Elections need to have consequences.” When Americans (or the half of us who vote) head to the polls, we are making decisions about who we want in power and what we want them to accomplish. So when one party wins, our democracy ought to ensure that their political vision is enacted.

The difficulty is that, unlike many other modern democracies, we can elect a divided government. Currently, Democrats control the Senate and the White House, Republicans control the House.

Quick side note: The only reason the Republicans control the House is because their districts are so gerrymandered (a term used to describe a situation when districts are designed to unfairly give one party an advantage over the other) that they could not lose. After all, House Republicans got 1.1 million fewer votes than Democrats and yet retain something like a 30-seat majority.

Now I know what you are thinking: “There goes ol’ socialist Noah again, with his crazy conspiracy theories …” Well don’t take my word for it; take the word of the Republican State Leadership Committee, who recently released a memo bragging that “redistricting” allowed them to “maintain a Republican stronghold in the U.S. House of Representatives.” I’m not saying that Democrats would not try to do the same thing if given the opportunity, but if they did, it would be just as bad for our democracy.

Okay, so regardless of how the Republicans took the house, they have a firm grip on it. What does that mean for us? It means that Republicans in the House believe they were elected to stop President Obama from achieving his agenda, and that means refusing to compromise on anything. This has essentially been the status quo since 2010.

Furthermore, the Republicans in the Senate have shown that, even though they are in the minority, they are more than happy to use the filibuster to stall the President’s agenda in the Senate. This has essentially been the case since 2009, when they got the 41 senators necessary to filibuster.

Another side note: there is nothing constitutional about the filibuster, in fact, it might be unconstitutional. Harry Reid, the leader of the Democrats in the Senate just decided that the best thing to do about the filibuster is… more or less nothing. Senator Tom Harkin’s response to Reid’s decision was better than anything I could muster:  President Obama “might as well take a four-year vacation” because nothing of substance is going to pass through the Senate. Bravo, Harry. Bravo.

All right, back on track.

I think we are honing in on why the American people, even if they didn’t realize it, did not tune into the State of the Union. They know that nothing is going to be accomplished in the next four years unless we change the way our democracy is structured.

I do not propose appointing President Obama to be a King Obama the First, although he would look great on the Iron Throne (Season 3 of Game of Thrones starts in less than a month!). What I do propose is four simple conclusions I want us all to agree to live by: 1. Congressional districts should be drawn fairly, 2. Legislation should be passed by majority votes, 3. Compromise ought to be sought not scorned. 4. BUCKWILD is an affront to humanity and we must see it vanquished from the earth.

Now if you’re a conservative, you might take a step back and say: “Hold on, Noah! As a liberal, those changes would primarily benefit politicians you are sympathetic to.” And that’s true, for now.

I am certain that someday Republicans will win a popular majority again. If we’ve made the changes I suggest, they will be able to enact the agenda that the American people elect them to implement. When that day comes, and President Jeb Bush stands up to give his first State of the Union, I’ll prepare myself a big bowl of sour grapes, turn on the TV and see what he has to say, because I’ll know it might actually happen.

Noah Karr-Kaitin is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at nkarrkaitin@cornellsun.com. Plain Hokum appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Noah Karr-Kaitin