Changes in How America Gets News

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The Total U.S. Debt in One Chart

Holders of U.S. debt


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Supreme Court to Hear Landmark Campaign Finance Case

McCutcheon v. FEC is a federal lawsuit scheduled to be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case is about whether or not Congress may limit the total amount of donations an individual can make, at the federal level, in an election cycle.

What is the limit?

Many people are familiar with limits on how much individuals can give to a campaign; in the 2014 cycle, gifts are capped at $2,600 per candidate per race ($5,200 including both the primary and general election). In addition, they can give up to $5,000 per year to a PAC.

However, there is also an overall limit: No individual can give more than $123,200 in a two-year cycle. Of that amount, only $48,600 can be given to candidates and only $74,600 can be given to PACs. This means that a donor can only give the maximum allowable donation to nine candidates and seven PACs in the 2014 election cycle.

Along with the limits on how much can be given to candidates, committees and parties, the overall cap is increased every election cycle.

First established in the 1970s, the limits on how much an individual can give to a candidate or committee were designed to prevent a handful of individuals from having undue influence over a candidate by being his or her dominant source of funding. However, to make the limits on how much an individual can give to candidates and committees effective, Congress also had to establish an overall cap.

Didn’t Citizens United allow unlimited donations?

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC lifted limits on how much money can be given and spent by outside spending groups; many of these are super PACs and politically active nonprofits. Although an outside group may favor a particular candidate, it does not give directly to the candidate and is not allowed to spend the money in coordination with the campaign.

The Supreme Court did not touch the limits on donations to candidates or committees in Citizens United.

Who is McCutcheon?

The plaintiff challenging the limits, Shaun McCutcheon, is an Alabama businessman and member of the Republican National Committee.

What is the court trying to decide in McCutcheon?

The Supreme Court is being asked to decide whether those overall limits are unconstitutional.

In 2012, McCutcheon gave donations to 15 different federal candidates. He has said that he wanted to give more money to even more candidates, but the limits prevented him from doing so. Citing the argument successfully made in the Citizens United decision that political contributions are a type of expression that should fall under the First Amendment’s protection, McCutcheon is claiming that the overall cap infringes on his right to freedom of speech.

Opponents are arguing that without the overall limit, any limits are essentially useless. Even if an individual may only give $5,200 to a candidate in an election cycle, if the donor is allowed to give an unlimited amount to other committees — such as the candidate’s leadership PAC, joint fundraising ventures or other organizations affiliated with the candidate — the money can still flow directly to the candidate, who will be aware of the source of the funds. This would allow wealthy individuals to dominate candidate fundraising and possibly give them undue influence.

How many people are actually affected by these limits?

While it’s impossible to say how many people would like to donate an unlimited amount of money but don’t because the limits exist, we do know that only a very small handful of people even come close to reaching those limits.

Few people make substantial political contributions at all. Out of an estimated 310 million Americans, we estimate that just 0.4 percent make a political contribution of $200 or more (large enough to be individually tracked in FEC data). And even among those who give more than that, only about 0.1 percent give $2,500 or more.

The number of donors who max out on the overall cap for donations is much smaller. According to CRP data, only 591 donors in the entire country – or 0.0000019 percent of the population — gave the maximum of $46,200 to federal candidates in 2012, accounting for only $34.1 million of the estimated $3.1 billion raised by federal candidates in the cycle.

Based on data released by the FEC on 10/07/2013.

Source: The Center for Responsive Politics.

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A Comparison of Federal Government Spending

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Job Growth Contunues (part II)

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Job Growth Continues

Since the end of 2011, the US has averaged about 185,000 new jobs a month.


chart 2

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Government Report Cards Give Way to Community Livability Scores

High and low pricesRemember when report cards were simple records of your academic successes and failures? For some of us, grades were accompanied by groundings; for some of you, maybe an ice cream sundae. Report cards for local governments mostly come in the form of resident surveys – customer satisfaction surveys, citizen satisfaction surveys, community quality ratings. They don’t exactly come with groundings, but nobody’s getting sundaes either.

Community Surveys Have Become a Best Practice

Today’s savvy local government managers are conducting these surveys and getting their grades at rates never seen before. When my colleagues and I wrote the first citizen survey book for International City/County Management Association (ICMA) in 1991, we estimated between 30 and 60 local governments did periodic broad citizen surveys about quality of community life and services. Today we have collected and coded the results of these kind of citizen surveys from 600 different places all across America. Among those places over 25,000 in population, more than 30 percent, representing at least 77,000,000 residents, have conducted a broad citizen survey.

Despite the popularity of traditional resident surveys, the model for these old school measures has mimicked student report cards for as many years as both have been around.

Models need refreshing and rethinking – not just for how we teach, learn and manage, but for how we measure.

New Model of Community Quality Forms Basis for Next Generation Citizen Survey

Imagine a different model. Assessments implicate not only students, but teachers, classmates, parents and others who can help students to succeed. If everyone has a stake in each child’s work, then everyone works together to maximize the grades of the child in question. This way the report card reflects the success of the entire system devoted to assure her achievement. We already see these principles changing public education where some schools are closed and others are targeted for extra support, not just because of student grades, but because teachers, principals and whole neighborhoods are being held responsible for the quality of education.

Similarly, the new citizen survey is not only about whether the government did right by the taxpayer, the survey delivers resident evaluations of community livability. With the next generation community survey, questions are about characteristics that comprise community quality, not just local government service delivery, and solutions not only come from government, but they come from partnerships with every person and organization that benefits from a good quality of community life. When civic life is understood to be everyone’s purview, the questions that arise from the new citizen survey aren’t only, “how can government improve?” They include, “how can we all contribute to making things better?”

Broader Measures Mean Better Solutions

Why is this important? Because when we reconceive the meaning of grades to be something other than the responsibility of just local government, and we measure more than the quality of government services, we open the door to many more solutions to improving places. In a time when one of the biggest roadblocks to community improvement is knowing how to respond to customer opinions once they are delivered, being able to turn to more than a single actor to get things done vastly improves the chances for making communities thrive.

Here’s one example. Fixing low police ratings may have only a little to do with improving the activities of police or even the activities of the rest of local government. Good police ratings may be a condition for a safe community, but safety is the real goal. A low police rating or a low sense of personal safety from residents may be bolstered by a downtown business district that stays open later into the night to keep the streets alive; a city that funds safety enhancing land use practices ; faith based organizations that hold art fairs and support youth programs; schools that offer practices in local government operations; and residents who convene block parties to develop a stronger sense of mutual security.

The new survey about community livability not only assesses how well government operates, but it measures how well a community delivers on the fundamental qualities of community life – what ICMA’s executive director, Bob O’Neill, identified as “critical issues” for the future of the local government management profession:

  • “Jobs and Economy
  • Education
  • Safety
  • Health Care
  • Environment
  • Infrastructure, including transportation”

Solutions that grow out of the new community assessment of critical community factors will still result from benchmarks and trends to help identify local issues that require attention. Using these survey results requires answers that balance on the shoulders of all the actors key to enhancing community quality.

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