The Catholic University of America

Category: Government & Civil Society

Apr 17 2012

Two Ways to Be a Do-Nothing Congress

Today’s congress is viewed by the public with minimal high regard (to borrow a phrase from the ever-polite former Speaker of the House, John McCormack).  Really minimal.  The institution’s approval ratings have been abysmally low for months—lower than their usual low—with a mere 12% of the public approving of the job Congress is doing.

At a political science conference in Chicago last week, I was graciously given the opportunity to serve on a roundtable panel to discuss the current congress.  One of my fellow panelists, Scott Adler, observed that people expect Congress to do things, and yet this congress has struggled to pass even routine legislation.  It should come as no surprise that so many people scorn the place.

The most obvious reason why Congress has been so unproductive is that party control of government is split:  Democrats have a majority in the U.S. Senate and hold the White House, while Republicans control the U.S. House.   Looked at this way, all we’re seeing is the consequence of a constitutional system that permits voters to select some, but not all, occupants of elected offices in the national government.  Thus, we sometimes get divided government and, as the political scientist Sarah Binder has shown, a drop in legislative output.

But in some ways, this implies that both parties actually want to pass legislation, yet are being stymied by their political opponents.  What if neither party is even trying?  In fact, this is exactly what is happening.  It appears that Senate Democrats and House Republicans not only anticipated the problems inherent in divided government, but also figured that more would be lost than gained by genuinely trying to enact new laws.  Accordingly, each chose a different strategy that ensured nothing substantive would be enacted.


1 comments - Posted by Matthew Green at 10:45 AM - Categories: Government & Civil Society

Dec 14 2011

Envisioning a Gingrich Presidency

As anyone who follows the news will know by now, former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is the current (and surprise) front-runner for his party’s presidential nomination.  While I remain highly skeptical that Gingrich can overcome his own predilection for self-destruction and win the nomination (let alone match Mitt Romney’s money and superior organization), I’ve nonetheless found myself wondering what a Gingrich presidency might be like.  Here are my answers to four questions about such a presidency, based on my own examination of his speakership and career in the House.


0 comments - Posted by Matthew Green at 4:02 PM - Categories: Government & Civil Society

Nov 23 2011

No, There Isn’t “Blame to Go Around”!

The blame for the failure of the deficit “Supercommittee” to reach agreement on a long term plan for fiscal sanity can be placed squarely at the door of its Republican members.  Anyone who levels an ounce of blame on the committee’s Democrats or the President are delusional at best and liars at worst.  The President has always indicated his desire for a balanced plan of spending cuts and revenue increases.  The supercommittee’s Democrats offered significant cuts to entitlement programs in exchange for minimal revenue increases through the closing of tax-loopholes and an end to the Bush tax cuts.  To a person, the Republicans balked, partly because of an intransigent allegiance to a bankrupt ideology and partly out of fear of the electoral retribution they would suffer from their Faustian bargain with the “no tax increase ever” demagogue Grover Norquist and his vigilante organization Americans for Tax Reform.  Understand this.  There was no reason for this Supercommittee in the first place except as yet another presidential bow to Congressional Republicans.  Thoughtful, workable, and truly bipartisan plans already existed in the plans offered by the Bowles-Simpson and Domenici-Rivlin commissions.  Unfortunately,  both of these plans, while proposing significant and, to some, excessive spending cuts, also proposed significant increases in tax revenues.  The latter, of course, was the proverbial “nail in the coffin”.  I’ve been reading and hearing in the various news media about the disgust Americans harbor against the failure of our lawmakers to get things done.  Well, for this last debacle, there is one and only one group towards which the disgust should be directed—Congressional Republicans.               

0 comments - Posted by Ernest Zampelli at 2:12 PM - Categories: Economy | Government & Civil Society

Sep 21 2011

Poverty Rates Climb… And Congress is Silent. Why?

The U.S. Census Bureau has released some disturbing new numbers measuring poverty in the United States.  More than 46 million Americans are currently living below the poverty line – a whopping 15% of the U.S. population.  Not since the early 1990’s has the percentage been this high.  And even worse, the data show sharp declines in real income, a record number of people without health care insurance, and particularly harsh economic conditions for women.

Yet despite widespread media coverage of these alarming figures, the reaction from Congress has been surprisingly muted.  Why?

To be sure, the current political environment is not conducive to Congress taking action.  The talk in Washington is about debt reduction, not federal spending.  Congress is sharply divided along partisan lines – Democrats control the Senate, Republicans the House – a recipe for policy gridlock.  Democrats, thinking to the next presidential election, worry that pushing the issue may only further connect Obama with the struggling economy.  And Congressional Republicans, an increasingly conservative party, do not want to lose the support of activist Tea Party groups, most of which are so opposed to government programs and regulations that they sometimes sound like the Anti-Federalists of the 1780’s.

But there are three bigger reasons that Congress is less likely to deal with poverty than it should.


0 comments - Posted by Matthew Green at 10:16 AM - Categories: Social Justice | Education | Government & Civil Society

Sep 15 2011

Poverty, Civic Education, and Democracy

I happen to be working on a paper dealing with strategies that enhance civic education. There are extensive data showing that the quality of civic education differs according to the population being served. For example, in California, schools serving low income, “disadvantaged” students, tend not to have supplements to civics classes such as service, simulations, or discussions, whereas schools serving higher income students have these supplements (Kahne and Middaugh, 2009). Across the country, schools serving disadvantaged students tend not to have student governments and if they have them, student governments tend not to have a voice in policy (McFarland and Starrmans, 2009).

Recently published data on civic knowledge (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2010) demonstrate that the failure to use enriching practices is a lost opportunity. Disadvantaged students, defined here as being eligible for free lunches, benefit greatly when their teachers use discussion of the material being studied. 8th and 12th graders whose teachers say that they never or only a few times a year used discussion, scored 125 and 126, respectively, on the NAEP test. Their peers in classes where teachers used discussion on a regular basis, scored 155 and 152, respectively. (These are my calculations using the on-line data provided for NAEP by the National Center for Education Statistics.) The differences are statistically significant and indicate that disadvantaged students benefit from enriched civic education classes. (Advantaged students benefitted as well.)


0 comments - Posted by James Youniss at 12:41 PM - Categories: Education | Government & Civil Society

Jun 2 2011

What is Subsidiarity?

Subsidiarity refers to the appropriate balancing of responsibilities and functions among the parts of a social order.  It has its origin in the Catholic understanding of community, which perceives a community not as a so many individuals connected by contracts, but as a corporate whole—a moral and cultural body that, like any body, is comprised of limbs and parts the differences of which contribute to the good of the whole.  The ethic that pertains to the unity of the body is called solidarity.  The ethic that pertains to the role of the parts is subsidiarity.  And the good of the whole by which solidarity and subsidiarity are measured is called the common good.

In the complete sense, this understanding is referred to as the Mystical Body of Christ.  Romans 12:4-5 puts it this way.  “For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another.”  But, Catholic teachings encourage us to promote such an understanding in all human associations.  Hence, the Church argues that subsidiarity (like solidarity and common good) is an ethic to apply even to political governance.

The root of the word subsidiarity is the Latin subsiduum, which is also the same root for our English word subsidy.  Subsiduum was used, among other things, in reference to the morally weighted giving from those who had to those who had not, much like we still understand the old French term noblesse oblige.   Its context is a traditional understanding of society, arranged hierarchically, wherein the various classes each had obligations to the other.
So, from its original root, subsidiarity invokes that hallmark idea of traditional Catholic teaching: the preferential option for the poor.  Moreover, it shares with its root a context in the social order as a body-like whole, in which everyone has moral obligations vis-à-vis others in light of the common good.  From subsiduum also comes the Latin subsidiarius, which refers to a person to whom a subsidy should be given.  In Roman-based systems of law, courts’ concern with compensation to a subsidiarius was to avoid either overcompensating or under compensating.    Overcompensating, it was reasoned, undermined the ability of those in our care to take responsibility for their own duties to the community and society.  It sapped initiative.  Under compensating, just the reverse, would not provide enough subsidy to those depending on us for them to fulfill their potential for themselves and the social order.


6 comments - Posted by Stephen Schneck at 1:30 PM - Categories: Government & Civil Society

Dec 10 2010

The Obama-Republican Tax Deal

Though I’m a bit disappointed, I’m not at all surprised over the tax deal that’s been brokered between the Obama Administration and Congressional Republicans.  Granted, maybe something more palatable could have emerged had Obama engaged the issue much earlier.  Personally, I would have liked to see the tax cuts expire for high income households and the revenue generated transferred to shore up hemorrhaging state and local government budgets.  In that way, a budget deficit source would have been closed off while a spending source with one of the largest multiplier effects would have opened up.  Alas, that is water under the bridge.  The liberal left of the Democratic Party and progressive economists like Paul Krugman need to get over it.

In exchange for extending the high income tax cuts, the tax cuts for low and middle income Americans will continue and this should help in at least maintaining the slow rise in consumer spending that the economy seems to be experiencing.  Additionally, the extension of jobless benefits and the one year reduction in payroll taxes will put a bit more money mostly in the hands of those who will likely spend it rather than save it.  It’s like a second “mini” stimulus that should modestly expand aggregate demand and provide a little more oomph to our ongoing but fragile recovery.  What I really don’t like about the deal is Obama rolling over on the estate tax cut.  Its extension was an unnecessary gift to very high income households and to the Republican side of the aisle. 

2 comments - Posted by Ernest Zampelli at 2:35 PM - Categories: Economy | Government & Civil Society