As American politics continues its sorry decline – with many elected officials now sounding as goofy as any loud-mouth radio host – there are more and more suggestions about the need for reform, as Michael Winship observes.
By Michael Winship
Miriam “Ma” Ferguson was the first woman governor of Texas. Like my own dear ma, she both hailed from Bell County, deep in the heart of the state, and graduated from Mary Hardin-Baylor College (now the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in the fine town of Belton, Texas, long may they wave).
“Ma” Ferguson first was elected in 1924, just a few years after the impeachment and conviction of her husband, Gov. James Edward “Pa” Ferguson, who was charged with the “misapplication” of public funds and banned from holding further office.
During her campaign, “Ma” promised, “You’ll have two governors for the price of one,” a pledge that may have seemed more like a threat to those Texans inclined toward a greater civic-mindedness.
Contrary to current Texas governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry, who relishes his role as capital punishment’s Lord High Executioner, “Ma” was famous for passing out pardons.
In her administration they were as common as cow chips, with some 4,000 issued during her two non-consecutive terms. “Ma” claimed they were to relieve overcrowding in the prisons; others believed that many of those in custody were freed only after making pay-offs to “Pa.”
Those allegations helped lead to the creation of the independent Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.
But I digress. Another reason that “Ma” Ferguson will go down in the history books — the funnier ones, at least — is the apocryphal tale that when an early attempt was made to legislate the teaching of Spanish in Texas public schools, “Ma” refused, saying that if English was good enough for the Sweet Baby Jesus, it was good enough for the schoolchildren of Texas.
Obviously, this was neither the first or last ludicrous thing that ever has been said by a state governor: a mere glance at the foolishness uttered by the several seeking – or contemplating seeking – the GOP presidential nod reveal a race as much to the bottom of the rhetorical barrel as it is to the White House.
But this week, several governors not seeking the Oval Office also revealed an uncanny gift for the goofy.
According to the Associated Press, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley announced at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday that forthwith, state employees are to answer official phones with a cheery, “It’s a great day in South Carolina!”
Gee whiz, that should solve everything!
As AP noted,”“Never mind the state’s 11.1 percent jobless rate and the fact that one in five residents are on Medicaid.” Great day indeed.
Presumably, Governor Sunshine plans to accompany the next set of her state’s unemployment figures with a chorus of “We’re in the Money.”
Then there’s Maine Gov. Paul LePage. You may remember that in March, just a couple of months after this Tea Party favorite took office, he ordered an 11-panel mural depicting the history of unions in the state removed from the walls of Maine’s Department of Labor, claiming that it was “not in keeping with the state’s pro-business goals.”
While Maine’s arts community – a lively, activist group if ever there was – and others rose in protest, the governor’s story kept changing.
As described by Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, “At first it was an anonymous letter citing a business person’s concerns about feeling like they’re in a North Korean dictatorship; then it was too anti-business, too one-sided; and now seven months later the governor has a new explanation for this. And he just keeps embarrassing us and himself in the process.”
That new explanation popped up this week when NBC News’ Brian Williams asked LePage, “What do you have against organized labor?”
The governor replied, “I have absolutely nothing about organized labor. … My objection to the mural is simply where the money came from. The money was taken out of the unemployment insurance fund, which is dedicated to provide benefits to unemployed workers. They robbed that account to build a mural. And until they pay for it, it stays hidden.”
Funny how this has never come up before now.
And according to the Portland Press Herald and Alan Pyke of the progressive website Media Matters, “LePage’s new line accusing the department of ‘robbing’ the jobless to pay for a painting is smarter politically than his clearly stated original reasoning, but state officials say that ‘nobody lost any benefits to which they were entitled’ according to the Press Herald.
“Furthermore, the federal Department of Labor actually demanded that Maine return the money used to buy the mural if it is not going to be displayed any longer. …
“The Press Herald also points out that LePage’s new rationale doesn’t square with the case his attorneys are making in fighting lawsuits over the mural. Those attorneys ‘have said the governor’s actions are protected because they represented his political views.’”
As Maine goes, so goes North Carolina. On Tuesday, that state’s governor, Bev Perdue, suggested — “My point was one of sarcasm,” she now says — that next year’s congressional elections be put on hold so that members of the House of Representatives can stay focused on economic recovery rather than reelection.
“I think we ought to suspend, perhaps, elections for Congress for two years,” she told a Rotary Club meeting in Cary, North Carolina, “and just tell them we won’t hold it against them, whatever decisions they make, to just let them help the country recover.”
This set off a firestorm of criticism, and not only from state Republicans, the Drudge Report and Rush Limbaugh.
As the Raleigh News & Observer reported, “When Perdue is off script, it is often an adventure;” in this case an adventure stunning in its unconstitutionality. And yet, in the manner of the proverbial stopped clock that’s right twice a day, there’s the kernel of an idea embedded in her unfortunate, off-the-cuff comments.
Perdue herself said at the beginning of her remarks, “You have to have more ability from Congress, I think, to work together and to get over the partisan bickering and focus on things.”
One way to do so, dimly related to her line of reasoning, indeed would require amending the Constitution.
Harold Meyerson writes in the current issue of The American Prospect magazine (published by Demos, where I’m a writing fellow), that a reform “that would create a more representative government would be to change the timing of elections and the terms of congressional office. …
“If House members were given four-year terms coterminous with the president’s, they would be answerable to the same larger electorate. This, of course, would also be true of senators.
“These wouldn’t be parliamentary elections — the candidates for president, senator, and representative would still be elected separately — but at least our elected officials would all derive their power from the identical and most broadly representative electorate.”
The same day as Gov. Perdue’s oratory malfunction, USA Today had some other suggestions for reform: “Perhaps the most significant would change the way congressional lines are drawn, making more districts competitive and increasing the odds that centrist candidates could prevail.
“Revising the rules for Senate filibusters could prevent a few senators from routinely blocking action supported by a majority. And changing the congressional calendar could encourage legislators to build personal relationships with colleagues from the other party.”
Matt Bennett, of the centrist think tank Third Way, told the paper, “Much of the blame for the disconnect between the parties goes to the congressional calendar, where you have members scurrying home (to districts) on Wednesday nights or certainly by Thursday nights.
“They’re not around on the weekends, and the demands of fundraising means they are separated from each other the minute the votes are over. They don’t interact at all.”
Luckily, no amount of reform will ever rid us of governors who, like kids, say the darnedest things. And even if they miraculously did become error-free Solons of the republic, we’ll always have members of the House of Representatives to fill the gap.
Why, just the other day, the website Talking Point Memo reported, “Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL) told an audience in Illinois that he was ashamed of his state for not allowing concealed handguns, warning that they were the ‘last line of defense’ if Americans need to revolt against their government.”
Never mind the statehouse. There’s gold up there on Capitol Hill. Comedy gold.
Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at Demos and president of the Writers Guild of America, East, is the former senior writer of “Bill Moyers Journal” on PBS.