Archive for the 'Congress' Category

If Senators were D&D Players: Filibuster Reform

Sep 14 2013 Published by under Congress,Dungeons and Dragons,Procedure,Senate

Six Dungeons and Dragons players sit around a table.  A seventh, the Dungeon Master (DM), sits at the head.

DM [Chuck]: You fail to block the goblin’s strike.  Its +2 frost blade pierces your Helm of Wonder causing 3 hit points of damage.  You fall to the stone floor, dead.

Paul (in shock): That’s not fair!  What about my Helm of Wonder’s Saving Grace spell?

DM: That’s a one-time use spell and you used it on that Ogre.

Paul: No, I said I thought about using it, I didn’t actually use it.

DM: Thinking about using it is how the Helm’s spell is activated.  You’re dead Paul.

Paul: Wait, a goblin can’t wield magical items!  That means he couldn’t have used the +2 frost blade.

DM (referring to the D&D rule book): Nope, it says here they can wield magical items not greater than short swords.  The frost blade is a short sword.  You’re dead.

Jeff: Come on, Paul; it sucks, you’re dead, but let’s just move on.

Paul: But it also says on that page that goblins fear and are vulnerable to cold.  That means it would never even touch a frost sword!

DM: Well this one was particularly brave.

Bob: Actually, I kinda agree with Paul here, I don’t think that a goblin would touch a frost sword.

John: If I were a goblin, I sure wouldn’t.

Jeff: Clearly there’s some ambiguity in the rules concerning goblins, let’s take a vote on it.  Christopher, Tom, I think you’d agree with me that the goblin could wield the sword and that Paul is dead, right?  And Chuck, as the DM your vote would break the tie, and since you agree with us, that means…

Paul (interrupting): I don’t think you all understand the significance of the origin of goblins’ fear of the cold.  Let me explain: 1500 years ago in the kingdom of Midgaard…. (10 minutes later)… and that’s when the great Goblin King, Traktok…

Jeff: Can we just get on with the vote?  Come on, Chuck, Paul’s just trying to avoid the inevitable.

DM: Actually, in our house rules, it states that we let every player make their argument, without any specified limit, before making any decision, unless at least three fifths of players feel otherwise.  So unless Bob or John feels they’ve heard enough of Goblin history…

Bob: I finished my chemistry homework, so I’m in no hurry.

John: Paul, were there any female goblins?

Jeff: That’s a stupid house rule!  Chuck, this is your house, you make the house rules, just change the rule!

DM: We’re in the middle of a quest, though, so while technically we can change the rules with a majority vote, the house rules also state that you would have to have a two thirds majority to force Paul to shut up about goblins if you’re trying to make a change to the house rules during a quest.

Jeff gets out of his chair.

Jeff: Fine, well I’m done with this quest. (Leaves)

DM: Well you all can’t continue with out a paladin, so we’ll just have to start a new quest next Saturday.

(Next Saturday, all players reconvene)

DM: Ok, today we’re going to do the Dragon’s Beak quest…

Jeff (interrupting): Wait, before we start, I think we need to change the house rules so that we don’t have a repeat of Paul’s goblin rant.  Paul, your died last week, so you’ll need to make a new character sheet and start at level one.  Now, the D&D rule book says we can make our own house rules as need be, and I think we should make it so each player can only argue their points for a maximum of five minutes, then we have to move on no matter what.  Who agrees?

Paul: Wait, I didn’t get a chance to complete my history of goblins last week!  Let me tell you about the Trek of Grogdun…

Jeff: That’s not going to work, Paul; we haven’t started the quest so the house rules don’t apply, you have to vote.

Paul: It doesn’t matter; we’re still playing at Chuck’s house, so the house rules still apply.  Now one day, Gragdun was in the goblin mines…

Jeff: No… it’s a new quest, so we can make new house rules without having to listen to any goblin rants.  The D&D rule book says we can make our own rules as need be and that supersedes any past house rules.  So I say you shut up about goblins, your character is dead, and let’s play using the old house rules but with a new rule to limit arguments to five minutes per person.

Bob: Nah…Paul’s right, most of us have our same character sheets, we’re all still playing in the same world we started two years ago.  The house rules from last time still apply.  So unless you can persuade John otherwise, I think we’d like to continue with Paul’s goblin history lesson.

John: Did Grogdun have a girlfriend?

Jeff: Bah!  Chuck, it’s your house, you’re the DM, what do you think?

DM: Actually, do any of you remember Jeff’s mountain dew rant last year?  About not wanting to have to pay a quarter for a can if you wanted one out of the fridge?  I said last time that the old house rules still applied then, even though we hadn’t started the quest yet, so I’ll have to say the same thing this time.

Jeff: Fine!  Let’s drop it then.  Paul, you’re not dead.  Let’s just get on with the Dragon’s Beak quest.

Paul: Oh, somehow I seem to have forgotten how Grogdun’s story ended.  Let’s move on with the quest then.

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Election Year: Expect the Unexpected… Legislation

Feb 21 2012 Published by under Congress,Election Year

Perhaps there’s a certain sector of the economy you’re unhappy with.  Maybe it’s energy with big oil or green tech, or agriculture with industrial farming or hemp production.  Say you want to tip the scales of the sector to favor a particular type of production.  Why not introduce some legislative uncertainty?  While perhaps not intentional, this is something Congress does tend to accomplish.  Wrangling in Congress makes certain businesses more expensive to operate.  Coal fired electric plants may be required to install expensive smokestack scrubbers, or they may not.  Either way, the operators will need to hedge against the possible expense which costs them money.  This makes investment in coal fired plants less attractive, which makes financing more expensive, and so on.  Note that there’s an actual expense to the operators without the benefit of the scrubbers.

So long as your district isn’t affected (you wouldn’t want to lose your seat, would you?) and you want to inhibit coal, perhaps consider throwing around some chatter about installing scrubbers.  Of course, the executive and judiciary both have similar power.  Is this considered an obstructionist tactic or a way to have an impact in what could otherwise be an ineffectual year?


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What Can be Done in Congress’s Off Year?

Jan 25 2012 Published by under Congress,Election Year

There’s a lot of talk about nothing getting done in Congress this year.  Why?  Because not only do opposing parties continue to control the two houses of Congress, but in case you haven’t heard, is 2012 an election year.

Every even-numbered year is campaign season for each and every Member of the House and for one-third of the Senate.  Campaigning and the persistent nag to fundraise, either for yourself or for fellow Members, draws the attention away from the Hill.  For some, re-districting has changed the nature of campaign season.  Previously competitive seats may have become safer, while some non-competitive seats will now face more of a challenge.  In any case, it seems that concern is reserved for the campaign trail.  On the Hill, controversial issues will be dodged and wins for the opposing party will be avoided at all costs.  Compromises will like be few, if any.

It seems that passing laws, the most well-known power of Congress, is likely off the table for most.  So as a Member of Congress, what can you do this year?

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What’s the Matter with the Supercommittee?

Nov 21 2011 Published by under Congress

That’s Right, I’m Calling You a Chicken.

With only three days left before the November 23rd midnight deadline, it looks increasingly likely that the Supercomittee will fail to put forth a proposal for the whole of Congress to vote on.  Some eyes are looking for an end-game miracle “Hail Mary” (or should that “Hail Murray”?), but most of the dialog seems to have degenerated into posturing for the expected game-day loss.  (Forgive the football metaphor, it’s Sunday.)

With real skin in the game for both Democrats and Republicans in the form of automatic cuts to beloved medicare and defense spending (respectively), why are the chances so slim for the Supercommitee to produce a deal?

The initial idea was that Congress as a whole would not bring themselves to do the dirty work of targeted spending cuts and revenue increases.  No Member wanted to risk being the subject of a campaign commercial accusing him of being the reason that Grandma can’t afford her medicine or why troops aren’t getting the equipment they need.  So the theory went that a smaller, bi-partisan committee, with a gun to their head, would be able to share the “blame” and make the hard choices that Congress as a whole could not.  The deal would then get an up or down vote in each chamber of Congress with no amendments and no filibuster (that’s the “super” part, by the way).  It seems like this approach would have a reasonable chance of producing a result, right?  So what happened?

Chicken.  That’s right, Chicken happened.  Recall that the supercommittee is a direct result of the debt ceiling crisis where both parties were playing a game of Chicken.  Chicken, as seen in “Rebel Without a Cause”, is a game where two players drive their cars at high speeds towards the edge of a cliff.  The first player to stop or bail out of the car is “chicken” and the other player wins the game and the respect of all of his teenage friends.  Needless to say, going over the cliff is the ultimate loss.  So Congress played Chicken with the debt ceiling in an effort to gain the respect of their metaphorical teenage friends and as a result, they created another game of Chicken in the form of the Supercommittee.

So how do you win a game of Chicken?  Easy: you have to convince the other player that you’re going to drive off the cliff no matter what.  And by what means to you accomplish this ruse?  Simple: act as crazy as possible.

During the debt ceiling crisis, the Republicans had everyone convinced, whether a ruse or not, that they would put the petal to the metal until they hit the bottom of the canyon.  Credit the tea party freshman with adding significantly to their credibility.  But before either player reached the cliff edge, they both agreed that they could save face by postponing the game to a later date with a few concessions handed out to the GOP (such as the floor debate and vote on the Balanced Budget Amendment).  This postponment agreement became the Supercommittee.

And so the game was recreated, except instead of US default, automatic spending cuts were substituted as the cliff.  At first the rhetoric did not indicate that Chicken was being played,  in that no Member of the committee was talking about the process.  But once each party released their initial plans, it was clear what was to become of the effort: Chicken.  This time, though, the Democrats would be the crazy ones: an initial plan to cut $5 trillion instead of the required $1.2 trillion, Obama and Democratic Members promising to hold Congress to the automatic cuts as agreed to, and the Democrats even leading on that the cuts to their beloved programs wouldn’t even be that bad (i.e. “My car has airbags”).  All this while Republicans are already talking about stopping the triggered cuts and submitting to possible revenue raisers (i.e. “I have flammable materials in my trunk”) .

The problem with Chicken is that there is no collaborative solution.  The equilibrium of the game is in fact a mixed strategy where you sometimes drive off the cliff, and sometimes bail.  But of course, with the stakes so high, and both players sharing the same car, you only get to drive off the cliff once.

So how do you really win a game of Chicken?  Don’t play, change the game.


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Why Can’t We Wait?

Nov 01 2011 Published by under Congress,Executive

This week, President Obama changed his mantra from “pass this bill” to “we can’t wait”.  He pushed through new rules to help both underwater homeowners and students burdened by debt in an effort to make something happen.  Now these new rules will likely only make a very small difference (only Fannie/Freddie mortgages will qualify and there was already a 15% discretionary income cap available to most student debt), but this change in mantra signals a huge shift in how the Executive branch intends to operate.

Obama’s Presidency has so far been characterized as “leading from behind”, in effect prodding at Congress to do what it ought.  But “pass this bill” seems to have been the last friendly prod.  “We can’t wait” coupled with the new rules is the opening shot in what may become an Executive power grab.

Historically there has been a power struggle between all three branches of government, with Congress generally holding most of the power.  Through most of the 19th century, a person had more power and influence as a senator rather than a president.  But in times of national crisis, the Executive has seized considerable power, most notably Lincoln during the Civil War and FDR during the Great Depression and WWII.  Since FDR, there has been a very palpable power struggle between the Executive and Congress with power flowing much more freely than it had prior.  Does the current Great Recession require greater intervention from the Executive, and if so, what are Mr. Obama’s intentions for gathering the power necessary?

It seems he’s testing the waters.  While some argued that Mr. Obama should have seized power during the debt ceiling crisis (including former President Clinton), he did not yet seem ready or willing to do so.  But Congress has still been unresponsive in any substantial measure  and the brinksmanship still remains on the forefront.  So keep an eye out for the Executive Order power play and populist appeals.  Will Mr. Obama consolidate enough power from Congress to enact his strategy for combating the Great Recession or will Congress fire back and fend off the incursion?

For now, it will be like watching two great defensive sports teams: lots of parrying and dodging, but if a strike should occur, it could be game changing.  I, for one, can’t wait.


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Why the President’s Approval Rating Matters

Oct 16 2011 Published by under Congress

To most of us, the President’s approval rating equates to his likelihood of being re-elected, or his party retaining control of the executive branch.  Indeed, the media tends to push this view and seems to especially enjoy playing out various scenarios of election-day-magedon.  The more astute might equate approval rating with political capital and ability to push his agenda on a macro scale.  While not immediately obvious, there is a more nuanced consequence to the President’s approval rating particular to Members of Congress.

The leverage a Member has to negotiate or flat-out defy the President’s agenda is directly affected by the popularity of the President in that Member’s district.  If the Member’s approval rating is greater than that of the President’s, then the Member has less incentive to comply with requests from the Executive Branch.  This applies to both parties.  For example, say a moderate Democrat (might be hard to find one these days) who is popular in her own district is facing a vote on Obama’s jobs bill (or part of it, as will be more likely at this point).  If Obama  is popular in her district as well, she will feel pressure to support the bill.  Likewise, a Republican in a swing district might feel it necessary to drag his feet in following his party’s leadership in denouncing it.  If Obama has low approval ratings in those districts, the Dem might look for ways to temper the bill while the Republican will have more freedom to publicly criticize it, should they so desire.

This effect is greater, in either direction, when the President will be on the ticket in the approaching election.  Down ticket campaigns (i.e. Congressional campaigns) will concern themselves with the President’s rating and either distance themselves from or tie themselves to the President.  Of course, there will be exceptions as there are many forces in play in any campaign, but consider this one of those forces.

Consequently, the success of the Obama administration to push legislation through Congress over the next 13 months will depend on his approval rating relative to those of Members of Congress.  And that’s why he is campaigning now, not just for re-election, but so that Members of Congress are more likely to warm to his policy agenda.  Think thumb-screws.  Any Member who is looking at an approval rating less than that of the President’s in their own district might be inclined to find more ways agree with him.

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Bernanke: No Way to Run a Railroad

Oct 04 2011 Published by under Congress,Monetary Policy

Today I had the opportunity to attend a hearing by the Joint Economic Committee with number two on my list of heros: Ben Bernanke.  It’s rumored that Mr. Bernanke wears red socks, a rumor that inspired my own collection of colorful socks.  And no, it is not a rumor that I dressed as him for Halloween a couple years back.  In any case, it was exciting to see and hear him in person.

While Mr. Bernanke answered most questions with surprising frankness, he dodged other questions that only served to put an exclamation at the end of his overall point: this is “no way to run a railroad”.

Mr. Bernanke confirmed our greatest fears: the current condition of the US economy (and the Euro crisis for that matter) is a political problem, not an economic one.  He reiterated that US debt was downgraded because of political brinkmanship, not from concerns about the US long-term growth.  One Member asked, what can Congress do? Mr. Bernanke’s reply: short-term fiscal stimulus, medium-term deficit reduction, and clarity about policies; the continuous threat of government shutdown… it’s no way to run a railroad.

Is Congress truly that dysfunctional?  If so, how has it come to this and what can be done about it?  What is clear, according to Mr. Bernanke, is that if Congress does not get its house in order, it will be the economy that suffers.





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What’s the Matter with Policy?

Sep 05 2011 Published by under Congress

At last I am in DC to experience first-hand why logical policy ideas fail to make it through the legislative process, or if it does survive the grinder, why those ideas are often no longer recognizable.  Somehow, straight-forward, no-brainer ideas turn into political brinkmanship while the most wrong-headed policy ideas slip through into law.  Why?

Is it because no politician wants to give a “win” to an opponent even if the policy idea is sound?

Is the processes of getting a bill turned into law so complex that only a select few have the capacity to navigate the storm?

Are interest groups using Congress as pawns in a proxy battle against each other?

Or does Congress wield too much power for their own (and the country’s) good?

Or perhaps this was the intention of our Founders to force compromise to make sure no one gets what they want.

At this point, when Congress seems so dysfunctional, I am inclined to believe that the Founders were playing a big democratic joke on everyone and then died before they had the chance to deliver the punchline.

Indeed, Congress has an approval rating of approximately the last two digits I write when indicating the date on a recent check.  Yet individual Members often have approval ratings better than the President among their constituents.  Does this mean that people are cynics of Congress as an institution or are they simply dissatisfied with the recent processed, empty-calorie laws that tend to be its final product?

I am an optimist.  And I won’t be passing my own judgement until I learn the broad, historic context and the current machinery on which Congress operates.  In the mean time, I will be questioning the judgement of others.  I don’t consider our government as a fluke of history; I tend to believe that whether by evolution or design, policy concerning such a diverse country was meant to be subject to the gauntlet that is Congress.


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