Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Obama: Proving to be Pre-Emptive

Further evidence that Obama is a pre-emptive--not a reconstructive--president:

Obama's speech very much drew upon both New Deal and Reagan political traditions. Government is a solution, but it has its limits. Obama's presidency will not shatter the old order or establish a new, longstanding political coalition.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Update on HB 546

House Bill 546, preventing HOAs from restricting the placement of political signs, passed on third reading today. The vote was 55-45. I can't believe this has become such a partisan issue, and we lost 3 GOP votes from the second to the third reading.

I will be re-tooling my testimony for the Senate to deal with some of the arguments raised by Republicans on the floor.

Stay tuned...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Dr. Parker goes to Helena

This will be an unusual post, because it is not going to be a political analysis post. Rather, I'm going to share a political experience that was simulatenously fun, gratifying, and empowering.

Today, I drove to Helena to testify on behalf of HB546, introduced by my Representative, JP Pomnichowski (D-Bozeman). The bill concerns Home Owner Association bylaws and convenants; specifically, the bill attempts to ban bylaw and convenant restrictions on the display of political signs. I've never done anything like this before, but I feel very strongly about this issue. The Founding Fathers believed strongly in an active and engaged citizenry, and in particular, a citizenry willing to disagree politically. I find it appauling that HOA's can and do restrict political discourse, and some folks unwittingly sign away their constitutional rights to freedom of political expression. I found in Helena a group of very active, involved, and engaged citizen-legislators who asked some tough and probing questions about the bill. I don't know how this will be resolved, but I sincerely hope that my and JP's testimony will result in a victory on the behalf of political speech rights. This is neither a Democratic or Republican issue. It is about core constitutional values.

On a side note, it was great to see my colleague, Dr. and Representative Franke Wilmer, in action in her legislative role. It's great to be a member of a department that believes in both the study of politics and its praxis.

I relay below my testimony on behalf of the bill. I'd love to know what you think:

"Ladies and Gentlemen, esteemed members of the committee, Good morning.

My name is David Parker, and I am here to speak on behalf of House Bill 546 at the request of Representative Pomnichowski.

By way of background, I am an assistant professor of political science at Montana State University. I teach American politics, and hold a doctorate in political science from the University of Wisconsin. I have published a book and two articles on congressional elections and Congress. I also worked on four campaigns during the 1995-1996 election cycle. Let me emphasize that I appear today as a private citizen of the state of Montana and the views I express are my own. My views do not reflect those of Montana State University, broadly conceived, or of the political science department.

HB 546 is an important piece of legislation because it aims to protect one of our most cherished political rights: the right to free speech. In particular, the Supreme Court has emphasized that political speech—above all else—receives the strictest protection from government interference. Any attempt by government to restrict speech must meet the test of strict scrutiny: in other words, government must not only show evidence of a compelling state interest to restrict that speech, but must also utilize narrowly tailored means in restricting that speech. Under this logic, the Supreme Court unamiously supported flag burning as free speech protected under the Constitution.

The bill before you today, however, has nothing to do with government restriction of free speech. It instead deals with the ability of home owners associations—commonly referred to as HOAs-- to restrict the political speech of home owners who are members of these associations.

I would like to make three general points demonstrating why this legislation is necessary. First, as subdivisions and condos increasingly become the preferred way to develop land, the constitutional rights of citizens are increasingly becoming circumscribed by covenants and bylaws these subdivisions develop. Second, these bylaws and covenants have the potential to form a majority tyranny and unduly suppress minority political speech. Third, there is no empirical evidence—to my knowledge—that restrictions on political signs have any positive effect on the property value of homes in associations with such restrictive covenants. I will now expound upon these points in turn.

In 2005, my wife and I moved to Granger, IN—a suburb of South Bend, IN. We purchased a home that was part of a home owners association but did not receive proper communication of that fact when we signed our closing documents. We were never presented with bylaws or covenants. It was not until after the fact, when we received notification of annual dues, that we knew we were in a subdivision and that the subdivision did indeed have bylaws restricting the placement of political signs. We were outraged, but there was nothing we could do. We had unwittingly signed away our constitutional rights to free political speech.

This brings up the obvious question: are such bylaws and covenants constitutional? The answer is generally yes. As I make clear to my students in American politics, the constitutional language is plain that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. Later court decisions have, through the process known as incorporating the 14th amendment, applied these same individual protections against government action to the citizens of the various states. Private associations, however, can plainly restrict the speech of its members. Indeed, one implies consent when purchasing the house: you are agreeing to abide by the rules of the subdivision.

Nevertheless, these bylaws and covenants are clearly deleterious to civic health. Individuals who are more active in elections: wearing buttons, displaying signs, and volunteering in campaigns are generally more civically minded, more efficacious politically, more trusting in government, and more politically informed. It is no surprise that higher voter turnout in the 19th century was the result, in part, of the widespread campaign pageantry and engagement that was part and parcel of the 19th century campaign. Voter turnout topped 80, even 85% of the vote, in part because of spectacular campaign. It is no surprise that as these forms of organization and civic engagement have diminished, so too has citizen interest and voter turnout.

Can the state of Montana restrict the operation of home owner associations in this regard? Recall after 9-11 the huge outpowering of civic pride and patriotism. Flags appeared everywhere: on cars, in front of homes, in windows, and the like. Some aggressive home owner associations in some states, however, tried to limit or outright ban the display of the American flag as a violation of subdivision bylaws and covenants. Both California and Florida passed laws prohibiting home owner associations from banning the display of the American flag. This proposed law is very much in the same spirit.

While the courts have protected the right of an association to restrict the placement of signs (and this was most recently affirmed by the NJ Supreme Court in 2007), there is a definite problem with allowing associations to do so. In Federalist #10, James Madison warned us of the problems of majority tyranny trampling the rights of the minority. In communities with a majority constituting a particular party or ideology, one might think that the potential to utilize the HOA restrictions by some to suppress alternative viewpoints is too good to pass up. In 2002, I was living in Madison, WI in a condo that my wife and I owned. I happened to place a sign in my window supporting a particular candidate for governor. Let’s just say that this particular candidate was none-too-popular in Madison, and I soon found myself arguing with the condo association’s judicial committee about my sign. I did remove the sign but made the point that the individual who brought me up on charges was a member of an organization very much opposed to this particular candidate, and I wondered whether I would have faced a fine from the association had I been supporting the preferred candidate of majority opinion in the city of Madison. The right of Republicans in Missoula to engage in debate and civic discourse must be protected as much as Democrats in Eastern Montana, and I fear that HOA bylaws and covenants are all too often used to suppress an unpopular political opinion. Finally, it is interesting that renters generally have more rights in this regard than owners of property subject to HOA bylaws and covenants.

The final point I would like to make is the nature of the bylaws and covenants in subdivisions. Generally, these bylaws and covenants are established to protect the collective home values of property owners in the association. It is firmly established that the color of homes, the upkeep of yards, and the like not only affect the value of one home, but also affect the values of homes around them. Who wants to live next door to a slob who can’t mow their lawn? The logic of protecting home owner value is often cited in support of these covenants restricting the placement of political signs. But to my knowledge, there is no empirical evidence indicating that allowing political signs detracts from the value of a home. At least, I have not seen the evidence and do not know of any studies that have attempted to uncover a relationship. Indeed, if covenants put in reasonable restrictions, such as signs can only be displayed in the 60 days prior to an election, this would remove any yard clutter for most of the year that might seem unseemly or unattractive to a potential buyer.

In the end, I urge you to vote on behalf of political expression and freedom. In the end, these covenants and restrictions on political speech are agreed to by home buyers not because they support them, but because of necessity. Subdivisions and condo associations provide affordable choices for families and individuals, and many times—in places like Bozeman, Belgrade, Missoula, or Billings—families have little choice but to purchase homes that are part of home owner associations because they are the most affordable option in fast growing communities. In short, many families sign away their constitutional rights because they have to, not because they want to. As Dr. Evan McKenzie, author of the book “Privatopia” put it in a New York Times op-ed piece 15 years ago, “Constitutional protections are meaningless if they do not apply in your own home, and when powerful private organizations act like governments, they should be treated as such. Otherwise, each development should be required to post a sign: "Warning: You are leaving the jurisdiction of the U.S. Constitution. Check your rights here, and take them with you when you leave."

The Founders, above all else, hoped for a republic based upon lively and informed political discourse among the citizenry. Help restore individual speech rights and support HB 546."

Monday, February 9, 2009

Obama's first news conference

Sat down tonight to watch Obama's first news conference. I was impressed with the give and take, and learned a lot.

I remarked to my wife that it was nice to have a president who wasn't afraid of the facing the media in a news conference, thinking that Bush was loathe to do this. Well, turns out he wasn't as loathe to do a news conference than I had thought.

According to the American Presidency Project at UC-Santa Barbara, Bush held a total of 209 news conferences during his presidency, averaging just a shade more than 26. In 2008-09, Bush 29 news conferences alone.

While much fewer than Presidents Coolidge through Truman, Bush fares well compared to his contemporaries. He held more on year, on average, than Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton. Only his father exceeded the yearly average, holding more news conferences on average than any president since Truman.

Boy, was I wrong! And it just goes to show you that sometimes an impression fostered by the media (Bush as syntactically challenged and afraid of facing the media in unscripted events) can lead to the wrong conclusions about a president/presidency. Check out all the nifty graphs and charts at the website.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Obama's stimulus passes...

without any GOP votes in the House.


Simple: the Republicans left in the House represent heavily Republican districts. Nearly every Republican representing a marginal House district lost in either 2006 or 2008.

Therefore, voting against the stimulus was the right vote. Voting for it can open up these House members to a primary challenge--virtually the only way they could lose their seats.

Expect more defections among Republicans in the Senate, given the nature of their more heterogenous constituencies.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama's speech

Very interesting. Some commentary felt that it wasn't as impressive as the event itself, with all the crowds shouting for Obama and the intensely felt passion of the onlookers.

I disagree. First, Obama had a number of things he had to do. First, inspire confidence. Second, tell the hard truth about the tough economic circumstances we're in. Third, strike a clear chord with foreign nations about the intent of the nation internationally from this moment forward.

I thought he did all three, and did them well.

And, if you listened carefully, there were shades of Reagan, JFK, and FDR.

JFK--all call to service.

Reagan--candor about economic problems and an acknowledgment that while tough, Americans can get through this.

FDR--shaming the money lenders.

What was different, strikingly to this listener, was Obama's solution. Reagan, of course, felt that the economic ills were afflicted by government and that government was not the solution. FDR blamed Wall Street. Obama--well, he tried to craft a new path. Government is not always the solution, but it is not always the devil, either. It was interesting that he said we'll do what works and scrap what doesn't--very technocratic, and very Jimmy Carter. Pragmatism was the solution that was being peddled.

The question is, of course, if Obama can be the reconstructive president that Reagan and FDR were. If he can make good on his promise to change the tone in Washington, to get us to grow up, as it were, then perhaps. But the solution that is neither anti- nor pro-governmental strikes me as very Clinton and very pre-emptive. These presidents are successful in their own right, but do not establish long lasting legacies.

I'll keep watching and listening.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A lesson in correlation and causation

One of the foundational texts in voting behavior is the American Voter, published in 1960. This book kick-started the behavioral revolution in the discipline, moving political science away from the study of institutions and legal systems to the examination of individual political behavior.

Campbell et al discuss in the early chapters of the book the funnel of causality. To use their words directly:

"Events are conceived to follow each other in a converging sequence of causal chains, moving from the mouth to the stem of the funnel. The funnel shape is a logical product of the explanatory task chosen. Most of the complex events in the funnel occur as a result of multiple prior causes. Each such event is, in its turn, responsible for multiple effects as well, but our focus of interest narrows as we approach the dependent behavior. We progressively eliminate those effects that do not continue to have relevance for the political act" (p. 24).

What causes someone to vote in a particular way? Lots of things. But the best predictor--the most causally proximate--would be partisanship. It is the best single predictor of political behavior.

I mention all of this in the context of a news story I saw floating about on the web the other day. Apparently, traffic fatalities in Montana were down in 2008, compared to 2007. The reasons offered included increased use of seat belts and more police patrols. And yes, these probably do relate to the decrease in traffic deaths. But are these factors the most causally proximate predictors of the observed behavior (i.e. a decrease in traffic fatalities)? Probably not.

I was surprised that the article did not mention the most likely reason for the decline: fewer highway miles travelled. This, from a press release generated by the US Department of Transportation:

"Americans drove more than 100 billion fewer miles between November 2007 and October 2008 than the same period a year earlier, said U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters, making it the largest continuous decline in American driving in history." Read the whole release here.

Now, sure, one might say Montana probably didn't experience as big of a decline. Wide open spaces, big distances, there's only so much travel you can reduce in a state as big and as sparsely populated as Montana. Well, wrong. Montana's August 2008 travel numbers suggest that we had between a 5 and 6 percent drop in travel compared to August of 2007. That's among the biggest drops in the country (18 other states were in the top category). Check out these maps here.

The moral of the story: the simplest explanation is probably the best, and correlation does not equal causation.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Franken v. Coleman: It's a tie

The Minnesota recount saga continues. The Minnesota Commission in charge of the recount has found that Franken is ahead by 255 votes, but inconsistencies in counting and ballot acceptance/rejection abound. Norm Coleman has decided to sue, preventing Al Franken from receiving the proper certification from the Secretary of State, meaning he cannot be seated by the Senate. So, at the dawn of the 111th Congress, there are only 99 Senators and 1 vacant seat.

There has been talk of the Senate seating Franken and of Republicans filibustering to prevent this. I have a much more simple solution: the Senate can declare the seat vacant, and force another election.

Let's face it: this election is damn close. It is so close we may not really know who really won. For all intents and purposes, it's a tie. Frankly, whoever wins will have very little "mandate" or flexibility to accomplish much anyway. So why not simply do it over?

There is precedent for this. In 1974, the Democratic candidate Durkin led by a slim margin on election night but the election commission recounted and certified the Republican Wyman the winner by 2 votes. The Democratic majority ended up declaring the seat vacant to protests from the Republicans, but this was probably the smartest and best move. Durkin ended up winning the special election, and was defeated in Republican landslide in 1980.