A little history on government shutdowns

In the next week or so we should be hearing a lot about government shutdowns, so this article provides a little history on what happened the last time the U.S. government was shut down over a budget battle.

In particular I’d ask you to look at the way people play fast and lose with historical interpretation and with polling data. Remember this latter point in the spring when we look more closely at polling.

And now on to the even more frightening issue: the debt ceiling debate. We’ll be talking about this a lot in class in the next week or so, but for now I’d like you to read these two (admittedly liberal) takes on the debates in Congress.

First from the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/27/us/politics/house-gop-leaders-list-conditions-for-raising-debt-ceiling.html?hp

And this from the Washington Post (only read the first section):


And you MUST read this, from the National Review online, which is supposedly the House Republicans’ initial gambit in the debt ceiling negotiations. Business Insider has a succinct take on this position calling it at total fantasy. I have to admit, when I read it, I thought that this was a joke, but apparently it’ s not.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, especially on the debt ceiling issue. Also check out some of the new links to articles I’ve posted in the “articles and links” page.


America’s shrinking middle class

Considering that I graduated from high school in 1988, the figures described in this article are startling:


I wonder three things about this phenomenon:

1. To what degree are they the result of politics/government policy?

2. Assuming that you see this as a problem, is there a political solution to it?

3. If this phenomenon was NOT caused by politics, what caused it, and does this cause admit of ANY solution?

Guns, Marijuana, and the limits of federalism

Although it’s not front page news, lately there have been a number of decisions made by states that bring up questions of federalism.

In this article from Slate, Emily Bazelon, tries to explain how state marijuana legalization laws and state laws attempting to nullify federal gun regulations differ from each other.

Read the article and let us know what you think. You should consider how federalism is at issue, what you think about the way the states are acting in each case, and how your personal political orientation (whether you identify as liberal or conservative) influences your opinions on the issues.

Read this article now, and remember it later

For my money, Thomas Edsall writes the best pieces on politics and government for teachers and students.  This isn’t one of his better ones —  the connection between the political science analysis and Malcolm Gladwell seems forced —  but it still contains ideas that we will be talking about all year long. Read it, and if you want to respond, try to be specific and limit yourself to one or two of its points.

(if the link above doesn’t work …)


Is presidential power really on the wane?

In today’s Sunday Review, Sam Tanenhaus, in a piece called the Hands-Tied Presidency, writes that President Obama’s inability to push forward his preferred policy in Syria is an example of a structural and institutional limitation on the power of the presidency. He further claims that writers have been remarking on the weakness of the presidency in relation to the legislature for many years, citing as an example Woodrow Wilson, who before he became president was an historian and political scientist. This seem a rather odd piece of evidence to support a questionable claim, first because Wilson was writing about government 100 years ago, and especially when only a few weeks ago commentators on both the left and the right were decrying the long reach of the executive on that was revealed — perhaps not the appropriate term — along with the details of the NSA intercept programs.

So here are some things to consider:

1. Is it really true that Congress is stronger or more effective, in its ability to make policy, than the President?

2. If this is the case, isn’t that what the Constitution dictates?

3. Which branch, the executive or legislative, should take the lead in formulating policy? Does it matter if the policy in question is domestic or foreign?

4. Why might it be better to have one branch be preeminent in policy making? Which branch Do you think it should be, and why?

Congress, the President, and the Syria question

So this will be the first “real” post on this blog, meaning that it will be the first actually intended to spark discussion for students.

I hope that you have been following the distressing news from Syria. I don’t pretend to understand the intricacies of the civil war there or the depth of the human suffering, and this is not the place to go into the history of Syria. For our purposes, what matters is the U.S. response.

Although fighting in Syria has gone on for months, with Syrian President Assad’s regime taking increasingly brutal action against Syrian rebels, reports last week that Syrian forces employed chemical weapons against Syrian citizens have prompted President Obama to call upon Congress to authorize the use of American military force against the Syrian government.

What exactly this force may be is unclear, although it will likely involve missile or drone strikes against Syrian targets, and it is unlikely to feature American ground forces in Syrian territory, since the American public has grown weary of ground wars in the Middle East and one of President Obama’s accomplishments has been to draw down U.S. forces in the region.

All of this I suspect you already know. Perhaps you have an opinion on whether it is morally right for one nation to intervene in the affairs of another nation in order to stop atrocities from occurring. While this might seem a simple proposition, international law is less clear on the issue. Of greater concern to us, as far as Government class goes, is whether the President is allowed to pursue military action in Syria, based on the structure of the government as laid out in the constitution and later federal legislation, and whether he should pursue military action, based on his political fortunes and those of his party.

What the president is allowed to do under the constitution at first glance seems pretty clear. Article I of the constitution grants Congress the power to declare war, but Article 2 grants the president control over the armed forces as Commander in Chief (CiC). One might assume that this means he can only act as CiC when Congress has already declared war. But this brings up a separation of powers issue, since it seems that, if the president commits to military action without Congress having declared war, he has intruded on their expressed power, and if the President is unable to act militarily without a Congressional declaration of war, then they are limiting his power as commander in chief. I’m interested to hear what you think of this dilemma.

The political issues here are even more interesting. Apparently there are many Democrats in Congress who do not support the President’s desire to use force in Syria, but also do not want to deal their party leader a setback by voting against him. Republicans don’t want to give the President a political victory, but typically Republican voters are more supportive of military action, and do not like to see any diminution of American prestige abroad. A number of articles have said that if Congress votes against the use of force, this will be a blow to the president’s prestige and will make him look weak. But I am not so sure about this for two reasons.

First, Americans generally seem highly ambivalent about continued use of the military in the Middle East. It’s not clear to me that a vote against airstrikes would do much long term damage to the president. News cycles run incredibly fast in the U.S. and it is hard to imagine that a story in which the U.S. did NOT bomb Syria would persist very long.

Second, Americans, as a rule, don’t care much about foreign policy and don’t understand it. This is almost certainly the case with Syria, which can quite complicated to grasp. I suspect that the President has much more to lose by pursuing this path than he will gain and that he might secretly welcome a vote against further use of force, although his pressure on Nancy Pelosi to marshall Democratic support suggests otherwise.

What do you think?

Unit 1 videos are now complete

I’ve finished posting the videos for Unit 1 of AP Government. It turns out there are only four of them, but they have a lot of information about some of the basic concepts that are foundational for understanding why our government looks the way it does.

What these videos do not do, is show exactly what the government looks like, or how it functions. Those videos are in Unit 2, and there are many, many more of them. The Unit 1 videos provide a conceptual overview and, I hope that they help students (and anyone else who watches them) more about Checks and Balances and Federalism. (Separation of Powers, the third big concept that everyone is supposed to learn in school, is pretty self explanatory.)

I’m looking forward to your comments and questions.