Love the Gridlock
For this issue, I’ll change the subject that I’ve obsessed about
for the past several months and not write about corruption. Instead, I
want to ask why the DC government works so badly. Why does the city
council pass so much bad and foolish legislation? And how do we protect
ourselves from it? I quoted Councilmember Mary Cheh in themail on
September 18, “If I get six other people to agree with me, she said,
‘I can pass a law, and we can lead the country.” As Mike DeBonis
wrote, Cheh was celebrating the fact that “barriers to legislation are
lower in the District than virtually anywhere else in the nation,” http://tinyurl.com/3m75apj.
But low barriers to bad legislation are a bad idea.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia spoke at a hearing of the Senate
Judiciary Committee last Wednesday, October 5. What he said was archived
and the longest transcribed quote that I have found was published at Hot
It’s worth quoting extensively.
I ask them, “Why do you think America is such a free country?
What is it in our Constitution that makes us what we are?” And I
guarantee you that the response I will get — and you will get this
from almost any American . . . the answer would be: freedom of
speech; freedom of the press; no unreasonable searches and seizures;
no quartering of troops in homes . . . those marvelous provisions of
the Bill of Rights.
But then I tell them, “If you think a bill of rights is what
sets us apart, you’re crazy.” Every banana republic in the world
has a bill of rights. Every president for life has a bill of rights.
The bill of rights of the former evil empire, the Union of Soviet
Socialist Republics, was much better than ours. I mean it.
Literally, it was much better. We guarantee freedom of speech and of
the press. Big deal. They guaranteed freedom of speech, of the
press, of street demonstrations and protests, and anyone who is
caught trying to suppress criticism of the government will be called
to account. Whoa, that is wonderful stuff!
Of course, it’s just words on paper, what our Framers would
have called a “parchment guarantee.” And the reason is that the
real constitution of the Soviet Union — you think of the word “constitution”
— it doesn’t mean “bill” it means “structure”: [when]
you say a person has a good constitution you mean a sound structure.
The real constitution of the Soviet Union . . . that constitution
did not prevent the centralization of power in one person or in one
party. And when that happens, the game is over, the Bill of Rights
is just what our Framers would call a “parchment guarantee.”
So, the real key to the distinctiveness of America is the
structure of our government. One part of it, of course, is the
independence of the judiciary, but there’s a lot more. There are
very few countries in the world, for example, that have a bicameral
legislature. England has a House of Lords, for the time being, but
the House of Lords has no substantial power; they can just make the
[House of] Commons pass a bill a second time. France has a senate;
it’s honorific. Italy has a senate; it’s honorific. Very few
countries have two separate bodies in the legislature equally
powerful. That’s a lot of trouble, as you gentlemen doubtless
know, to get the same language through two different bodies elected
in a different fashion.
Very few countries in the world have a separately elected chief
executive. Sometimes, I go to Europe to talk about separation of
powers, and when I get there I find that all I’m talking about is
independence of the judiciary because the Europeans don’t even try
to divide the two political powers, the two political branches, the
legislature and the chief executive. In all of the parliamentary
countries the chief executive is the creature of the legislature.
There’s never any disagreement between them and the prime
minister, as there is sometimes between you and the president. When
there’s a disagreement, they just kick him out! They have a no
confidence vote, a new election, and they get a prime minister who
agrees with the legislature.
The Europeans look at this system and say “It passes one house,
it doesn’t pass the other house, sometimes the other house is in
the control of a different party. it passes both, and this
president, who has a veto power, vetoes it,” and they look at
this, and they say [adopting an accent] “Ach, it is gridlock.” I
hear Americans saying this nowadays, and there’s a lot of it going
around. They talk about a dysfunctional government because there’s
disagreement . . . and the Framers would have said, “Yes! That’s
exactly the way we set it up. We wanted this to be power
contradicting power because the main ill besetting us — as
Hamilton said in The Federalist when he talked about a
separate Senate: “Yes, it seems inconvenient, inasmuch as the main
ill that besets us is an excess of legislation, it won’t be so
bad.” This is 1787; he didn’t know what an excess of legislation
Unless Americans can appreciate that and learn to love the
separation of powers, which means learning to love the gridlock
which the Framers believed would be the main protector of
minorities, [we lose] the main protection. If a bill is about to
pass that really comes down hard on some minority [and] they think
it’s terribly unfair, it doesn’t take much to throw a monkey
wrench into this complex system. Americans should appreciate that;
they should learn to love the gridlock. It’s there so the
legislation that does get out is good legislation.
High barriers to legislation keep us free, and free us from bad laws
and bad legislators. Learn to love the gridlock.
This week, DCIst.com highlighted an example of how easy it is to pass
bad legislation in DC. Councilmember Tommy Wells is continuing his war
against drivers by proposing a mischievous bill, the “Assault of
Bicyclists Prevention Act of 2011,” Bill 19-0475, which already has
enough cosponsors for it to pass. The Act gives anyone riding a bicycle
the right to file a civil suit against a driver, not just if the
bicyclist is physically assaulted by a driver, but also if the bicyclist
is “threatened with physical assault or injury . . . by words . . . or
intentionally distracted,” whatever that means. The bicyclist who wins
a civil suit is to be awarded a minimum of one thousand dollars (even if
there is no monetary damage), plus all legal costs. Drivers will have no
comparable right against bicyclists who threaten or “intentionally
distract” them. In other words, in the future a driver better not get
involved in a traffic dispute with a bicyclist. Wells has stacked the
deck against them.
I wrote in the last issue of themail about a conference call
initiated by Mayor Gray’s Chief of Staff Christopher Murphy to scold
the press for its coverage of the city’s grass cutting contracts, and
of the Gray administration in general. One reporter who was on the
conference call has corrected what I wrote. I wrote that Murphy didn’t
put the call off the record until after he had already begun his
complaints, but I’ve been told now that Murphy had begun the call by
insisting that it would be off the record, and that people who were on
the call at the very start would have known that.
DPW Statement on Landscaping Contract
Linda Grant, firstname.lastname@example.org
This statement was issued by the Department of Public Works on
December 6 on the DC government’s landscaping contracts: “Last
spring, the mayor determined that it was in the best interest of the
District not to renew the first-year option on a landscaping contract;
however, by continuing the contract through the growing season (April
2011-November 2011), service needs will be met. By recompeting the
contract, his hope is that we can get a fair price for the taxpayers and
give DC companies an opportunity to bid which, if successful, would keep
District tax payer dollars in the District to help grow our city’s
economy. Supporting our local businesses is especially important in
light of the Mayor’s commitment to reducing the unemployment rate and
increasing economic opportunity for District residents.”
In the Thursday, October 6, Washington Post, reporter Teresa
Tomassoni wrote about the District’s Child and Family Services Agency
She made public CSFA’s unjustified and unconscionable removal of
children from their families and homes. She brought into the sunlight an
issue most often confronted by those without the resources or knowledge
to stand against a politically correct overbearing bureaucracy, CSFA.
CFSA paints by the numbers. I know. I have seen it happen.
I had a client whose family of many children was devastated and
wrenched apart by CFSA. It has now cost the District untold hundreds of
thousands of dollars for foster care and legal fees. CSFA could have
provided support in the home with close supervision, with better results
at a fraction of the financial cost. In this instance CFSA acted on an
unsubstantiated allegation and removed and scattered the children to the
wind. Now, many years later, the family is still devastated, still
wrenched apart, and still scattered to the wind. The mother’s grief is
It is an open question whether those removed children are any safer
or any better off today than they were when taken by CSFA. Most likely
not. I do know they have forever lost that familial bond of sister with
sister, brother with sister, mother with child. In my client’s
instance she was a caring mother and a good homemaker, but had issues
with which she needs help. CSFA could have provided her with the needed
guidance, support, and parenting skills she needed in her home, at a
much lower human and financial cost, instead of invading and breaking up
Confronting Childhood Poverty in the
David Schwartzman, DC Statehood Green Party, email@example.com
Re: “Confronting Childhood Poverty in the Washington Area”
(October 5, http://tinyurl.com/3q32t8g).
Has the Washington Post finally changed its tune? Hallelujah, the
editorial board of the Post has discovered the issue of child
poverty in the District! Better late than never, but the Post is
part of the problem rather than the solution. Its editorials have long
supported policies that have driven ever greater income inequality and
poverty, such as persistent attacks on trade unions, opposing even
modestly higher taxes on the wealthy (see editorial, September 20, 2011)
while turning a blind eye to our local regressive tax structure for
families, as well as vigorous support for privatization of public
services, firing of public workers and erosion of democratic governance
and public education.
And of course we have not seen a peep of opposition from the
editorial board to the more than $200 million in budget cuts, gutting
low income programs since 2008. In Europe this is called neoliberalism,
greasing the wheels of finance capital at the expense of the great
majority. In DC this should be called urban structural adjustment,
similar to the World Bank and IMF policies the ex-chief economist at the
World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz, has critiqued in South America. In their
born-again expression of concern for children living in poverty, the Post
editorial board offers no solutions, but we are hearing them now across
the nation in the Occupy movement which is now encamped in Freedom Plaza
and MacPherson Square. Thankfully there are a few Post columnists
who do offer just solutions, including Courtland Milloy and Harold
Meyerson. But please spare us from praising the prime mover of
structural adjustment in DC, Tony Williams, as Colbert King did in his
October 1 op-ed, http://tinyurl.com/3nb8nd6.
No more budgets balanced on the backs of the poor!
Richard Holzsager, firstname.lastname@example.org
With regard to Jack McKay’s comments about redistricting Advisory
Neighborhood Commission Single Member Districts [themail, October 5], I
think Jack is spot on about not obsessing over the 2,000 figure. My own
ANC has SMDs that average 2,074 residents apiece, for example, and
juggling census blocks to stay in the 1,900 to 2,100 range can be done,
if at all, only by ignoring all other considerations. Furthermore, the
2010 census numbers are already out of date, and will become more
irrelevant as new development occurs. Turning somersaults for
out-of-date numbers makes no sense.
So how does one stay within the law concerning the number 2,000? I
suggest that the best way is to separate the two goals stated in the
law: 2,000 and nearly equal. Use the 2,000 as the criterion for
determining how many commissioners an ANC should have. My ANC has 18,667
people, so nine commissioners gives the 2,074 average I mentioned above,
while ten commissioners would give 1,867. Since the former is closer to
2,000, it is the natural choice.
Once the number of commissioners is decided, it’s time to move on
to the second criterion, approximate equality. My commission put forward
a plan that has its districts varying from 2,002 to 2,139, all within
3.5 percent of the average. That makes much more sense to me as a
measure of equality than trying to stay close to 2,000.
CLASSIFIEDS — EVENTS
Environmental Health Group (EHG), October 11
Allen Hengst, email@example.com
World War I munitions, bottles filled with chemical warfare agents,
and contaminated soil have been found in and around the Spring Valley
neighborhood of northwest DC. The Environmental Health Group (EHG) seeks
to raise awareness of the issues and encourage a thorough investigation
and cleanup. Every Saturday at 1:00 p.m., please join the Environmental
Health Group for an informal discussion about Spring Valley issues. In
the cafe at the Glover Park Whole Foods Market, 2323 Wisconsin Avenue
(one block south of Calvert Street). For more information, visit the EHG
on Facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Washington-DC/Environmental-Health-Group/67807900019.
Tuesday, October 11, 7:00 p.m.: a “Citizen Summary” of the 4825
Glenbrook Road Feasibility Study and Proposed Plan will be presented by
Dr. Peter deFur, Technical Advisor to the RAB. At the monthly
Restoration Advisory Board meeting with the US Army Corps of Engineers,
Saint David’s Episcopal Church basement, 5150 Macomb Street, NW (one
block north of MacArthur Boulevard) http://www.nab.usace.army.mil/Projects/Spring%20Valley/.
Ward 5 Health Insurance Exchange Public
Meeting, October 13
Michelle Phipps-Evans, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Mayor’s Health Reform Implementation Committee (HRIC) cordially
invites members of the public to join Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas
in a community dialogue on the “future of health care in the District
of Columbia.” This meeting, which is open to the community, will be on
Thursday, October 13, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., at the Dorothy I.
Height Community Public Charter School, Ernest and Virginia Amos Campus,
1400 1st Street NW. Parking is available. President Barack Obama signed
the health care reform bill into law on March 23, 2010, and the HRIC has
been working since then to head up the effort to implement the law in
the District. The HRIC is encouraging you to attend its next meeting to
discuss what health reform means for you: more options for health
insurance, better consumer protections, and help for District residents
and small businesses to pay for health insurance.
To RSVP for this meeting, please contact Patricia McLaurin at
724-8028 or email@example.com.
For more information on the Ward 5 One City Insured Public Meeting,
please contact HRIC staffer Dorinda White at 442-8992 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
March for DC Statehood, October 15
Ann Loikow, email@example.com
Two hundred and eleven years after District residents (at least white
males) lost their rights after voting for Thomas Jefferson, we need you
to join us October 15 and demand statehood for DC.
Saturday, October 15, will be a historic day for all District
residents. We will reach out to Americans across the country and ask
them to support our dream — statehood for DC. The Rev. Dr. Martin
Luther King, Jr., marched and spoke up for DC residents, but our dream
is unfinished. We still lack the right to self-government enjoyed by
every other American who is a citizen of a state. Please join us
Saturday, October 15, at 9:30 a.m., at Freedom Plaza to support DC
statehood. We will march to the Sylvan Theater to join the national “From
the Emancipator to the Liberator Rally and March for Jobs and Justice,”
which goes from there to the new Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial. If
you missed the 1964 March on Washington, this is your chance to march
for DC statehood, and finally bring freedom and democracy to our nation’s
CLASSIFIEDS — VOLUNTEERS
Reading Partners provides one-on-one literacy tutoring for students
in DC elementary schools that are reading below grade level. Our
students are eager to have someone work with them each week to improve
their literacy skills. No experience is necessary. Tutors are provided
with an easy to follow curriculum. Volunteering takes as little as 45
minutes per week.
Opportunities are available Monday through Thursday from 8:30
a.m.-6:00 p.m. Our tutors range from high school students (starting at
age fourteen) to retirees. Here is a link that maps all of our tutor
locations: http://tinyurl.com/3kcbe5m. By giving 45 minutes of your time
each week, you’ll make a tremendous difference in the life of a
student who is struggling with reading. For more information visit www.readingpartnersdc.org
or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Call for Volunteers, Dupont Circle 2011 House
Tour, October 16
Debbie Schreiber, email@example.com
Volunteers are needed as house captains and house monitors, to work
one two-and-a-half-hour shift on the day of the Dupont Circle 2011 House
Tour. All volunteers receive a free ticket, which includes admission to
all tour sites, the Tea, and the Volunteers’ After-Party following the
Please contact Debbie Schreiber if you would like to be a volunteer
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