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The Midterm Problem No One’s Talking About

October 28, 2014

Maja Thomas

With the 2014 midterm elections coming up, the political sphere is getting ready for a shift in congressional party dynamics. The Democratically controlled Senate is likely to turn Republican, and the United States seems to be focusing almost solely on the GOP’s forecasted gains. The current dynamics seem to suggest that the race is already over, despite still being weeks away.
The New York Times recently published an article[1] detailing the actions the newly-Republican congress are planning on taking, suggesting their anticipation of success in the midterms. Similarly, Politico detailed the celebrations[2] hosted by Magnum Entertainment Group, a rightward-leaning event planning firm located in Washington D.C., that are scheduled to occur on November 4th. Invitees included the Republican Governors Association, National Republican Congressional Committee, and Republican National Committee. Thus, discussion is undeniably focused away from the election itself, with the exception of specific tight races. The public now is increasingly set on the future of our political system with a Republican-controlled House and Senate. Will there continue to be such deadlock? Will federal regulation of fracking become banned? Will we see more spending cuts? What will be the fate of Obamacare?

While these are important questions, one factor of our political system remains overlooked: voter turnout. The public is quick to criticize platforms and legislation, but no one seems to discuss the fact that only around 40% of the eligible voting population shows up to the polls during midterm elections (see figure 1)[3]. Presidential years experience an increase up to around 60% of eligible voters, yet compared to other democratic nations this number is quite low. Many other democracies have compulsory voting polities, forcing citizens to become more engaged in their country’s political sphere. While the argument of whether to adopt compulsory voting is controversial, the mere idea raises a point: the country should take a larger interest in what happens in our nation’s capital.

Yet, despite the fact citizens should feel a civic responsibility to vote, almost half choose to abstain. This certainly skews opinions, because the 40-60% of registered voters casting a ballot on Election Day are not representative of the nation. Voter turnout is skewed by such factors like ethnicity, income, and education. Looking at the chart below (see figure 2)[4], it is very apparent that income and voter turnout are correlated. Lower-income individuals do not vote for a variety of reasons, two of which being that they either do not believe they are informed enough or do not believe they have time to make it to the polls. Because Election Day falls on a non-holiday Tuesday, many low-income individuals do not have the flexibility in their schedule to physically go to the polls and wait in line. In addition, they often have fewer connections to candidates than higher-income individuals. Wealthier Americans are much more likely to participate in political activities than poorer individuals, with the exception of protests (see figure 3)[5]. Most prominently, the wealthy are much more likely to have political contacts and donate to campaigns, causing them to be more likely to prioritize voting come Election Day.

Similarly, ethnicity plays a role in voter turnout as well. Hispanic/Latino and Asian Americans experience significantly lower turnout rates than blacks and non-Hispanic whites (see figure 4)[6]. Particularly with the election of the United State’s first black president, there was a rise in the black vote, surpassing the white vote for the first time and following a steady climb in turnout since 1996. However, most other minorities still need to close the gap between themselves and white voters. While Hispanic/Latino voter turnout continues to grow in both presidential and midterm elections, it is overshadowed by the larger growth in the eligible population who chose not to vote. With poor representation of certain minorities, we see the interests of these groups receive even smaller attention. Our political system would be bettered by increased voter turnout because it equalizes voter participation and allows for a more accurate representation of our nation’s opinions. Rather than focusing on the outcome of a race that isn’t even over yet, the nation should shift its attention towards bettering the system in which chooses the men and women who represent us.

Charts and References




Figure 1: US voter turnout 1948-2012 (Fairvote 2012)


[4] Data from

Figure 2: 2010 US Voter Turnout by Income

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Figure 3: Participation by Socioeconomic Status (Weeks 2014)

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Figure 4: Voter Turnout by Ethnicity (Taylor and Lopez 2013)

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EI Pride Day Recap

October 27, 2014

Kathryn Thompson

A sheet sign on campus celebrated President Eisenhower’s 124th birthday
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Every birthday celebration needs cupcakes! 

Ryan Bonner ’15, Jeffrey Blavatt, and Kathryn Thompson ’15 pose for #EIPrideDay

Two EI employees pose for #EIPrideDay

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The Eisenhower Institute Team gathered at the end of EI Pride Day for a group picture

The New Reality of Campaign Finance

October 16, 2014

August Umholtz

With Congressional midterms now just weeks away it is likely that far fewer members of Congress will lose their seats that would normally be expected. With Congress’s approval rating at around 14%, the lowest before an election since 1974, this fact seems shocking.[1] There are countless reasons why we are seeing so many members of Congress heading to easy re election. Factors like gerrymandering and a lack of engagement on the part of many Americans certainly play a role, but there is one new and dramatic shift in the way elections take place that must take a large share of the blame, and that is the prevalence of money in politics.

Each year the cost of elections increase and the amount of money that politicians need to raise increases to meet these demands. With the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision the floodgates were opened to a dramatic increase in the amount that could be spent on a campaign. In 2012 the average cost of a house seat was $1,500,000, and a total of almost 1 billion dollars were spent of house races.[2] Both Democrats and Republicans have been unable to gain a decisive financial advantage, but the total amount spent on campaigns generally has been steadily rising.


While it is true that Republicans have benefited to a larger degree from the loosening of campaign finance regulation, sometimes receiving donations from groups like superpacs at a rate 10 times that of Democrats, Democrats have been increasingly successful getting money from smaller donors.[4] Democrats have been able to average $100,000 more from smaller contributors than Republicans.[5] With both sides benefiting from the status quo there is little hope that dramatic changes will be made to the campaign finance system.

That being said there has been a movement to try to remove the money that has permeated all aspects of elections and politics generally. Just last month the senate voted on a constitutional amendment that was designed to limit money in politics. The amendment was considered to be a long shot, and as many expected, it failed. This is despite the fact that recent polling shows a majority of Americans would be in favor of such an amendment.[6] So why has campaign finance reform not received significant attention and support? The answer is largely due the to fact that most Americans don’t find campaign finance important. In recent polls asking Americans what issues are most important to to them, campaign finance did not even rank.[7] Politicians will not feel pressure vote with the opinions of their constituents unless they know that they will be held accountable.

Despite the lack of legislative action on this front many prominent figures have spoken out recently on this topic. Justice Ginsburg said that if she could reverse the Citizens United ruling she would, adding “I think the notion that we have all the democracy that money can buy strays so far from what our democracy is supposed to be”.[8] Although there still seems to be little movement on this issue, especially with the Federal Election Commission’s recent decision to further relax campaign finance rules.[9] We live in a new world of campaign finance and it looks like we are just going to have to get used to it.

So what does this mean for the future of political campaigns? Well, we are undoubtedly in a political arms race, both sides are increasing their war chests but neither side can pull out on top. Thanks to the stalemate cost of running a successful political campaign keeps increasing and is unlikely to plateau or decrease in the foreseeable future. This is likely to have profound ramifications. First, we are likely to see a dramatic decrease in the number and quality of political challengers. Those who have limited funds, will be unable to compete with incumbents who have millions of dollars to spend, this is especially true in high cost media markets. We will also see the growing influence of hidden special interests, who are increasingly spending money in political campaigns.

Dark-Money-Graph-500-300x222 [10]

Unless substantial changes are made to the way campaigns are financed, we are likely to see more entrenched Congressmen, who have deeper pockets and are increasingly indebted to the special interest rest that fund their campaigns. While this is not something most Americans want, it looks like, at least for now it is a reality we will have to live with.







[7] Ibid.




Carve-outs, Lofty Ideals, and Pivoting

October 6, 2014

Robert Bridges

Why Politics is getting in the way of a Trans-Pacific Partnership

Over the past several months, talk of a Trans-Pacific free trade agreement has become increasingly pessimistic, with most policy-analysts and government officials referring to the negotiations as “ambitious,” and the agreement itself as a “lofty ideal.” The rise in U.S. exports since the end of the recession in 2009 has aided our country’s economic recovery tremendously.

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Over the past five years, exports have accounted for one-third of U.S. economic growth.[1] A 57 percent rise in exports to our free trade partners over that same period helped our country reach a record high $2.3 trillion in export goods and services. In the past several years, the Obama administration has been working on two Pacific trade agreements: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The countries included in these agreements produce two-thirds of the world’s GDP and half of global trade.[2] A free trade agreement will likely facilitate even more growth in exports for the U.S. and world economy.

In June, President Barack Obama said he would have a draft for the free trade plan ready by this November to present to the leaders of the Trans-Pacific Partnership countries.[3] In a follow-up article for the Huffington Post in August, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel reaffirmed that the President’s economic team would “redouble” efforts to conclude a multi-national partnership at the upcoming G-20 Meeting in Australia this November, which will achieve “tangible outcomes that create jobs and strong, sustainable and balanced global growth.”[4] With November fast approaching, government officials of the other twelve countries are calling for policy transparency from the U.S., fearing their trade aspirations will not be reflected in the policy. Likewise, Congress has become increasingly skeptical of the feasibility and benefits of knocking down trade barriers in the midst of an economic recovery. They worry domestic industries will be competed out of the market if, for instance, tariffs and quotas on sugar from Australia, and textiles from Vietnam are removed.[5]

Politicians hesitate to open up barriers to trade and risk exposing Americans to competition with cheaper foreign labor. Despite our acknowledgement of the logic behind David Ricardo’s principle of comparative advantage in trade, which has delineated liberal economic policy debates since it was first formulated in 1817, policy-makers today fear “carve-outs” in the terms of a TPP trade agreement will give Asian markets an unfair advantage. This is not the first time a lack of political support has threatened to put a stop to free trade agreements between the U.S. and other countries. When NAFTA legislation made it through the House of Representatives in 1993, it was approved by a polarized margin of just 34 votes. The NAFTA vote was also non-partisan, and was passed by a coalition of 132 Republicans and 102 Democrats opposing 156 Democrats, 43 Republicans and 1 independent.[6] From the date of NAFTA legislation approval to 1999, U.S. trade with neighboring countries Canada and Mexico was boosted by 86 percent.[7] In Mexico for instance, automobile sector jobs have increased by upwards of 50% since 1994, and according to one source, their automakers produce approximately 3 million vehicles per year.[8]

Critics maintain there are significant problems with NAFTA as a model for the 21st century, especially with regard to environmental protection policy and international competition amongst agricultural sectors. Yet despite these concerns, policy-makers are not considering NAFTA’s tangible results in discussions about what TPP’s effect on the U.S. and world economy will be. The evidence still indicates the first ten years after NAFTA was a “decade of success” with upwards of 30% growth for Canada and Mexico and 38% for the U.S.[9]

Politicians hesitate to support TPP today for much the same reasons given in opposition to NAFTA. Politicians need to understand what they perceive to be a lofty ideal based on a Ricardian pipe dream has already worked before. Moreover, there are even more political and economic gains likely to be made by a TPP agreement with Asia, especially given our near- total trade parity with China.

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Our “pivot” to Asia must not be misconstrued as purely militarily, and given Chuck Hagel and John Kerry’s plans to strengthen our military alliance with Australia and our presence in their sphere, a trade agreement to strengthen a U.S.-China political and economic alliance is even more urgent.[10] The benefits certainly outweigh the costs of failing to complete a trade agreement with Asia. Despite the urgency, Congress is still slow to consider or even actively pursue a trade consensus with Asian countries like Japan, China, or Thailand. We need to get back on track and support policies that will make U.S. industries more competitive in the international marketplace. Regarding the completion of a TPP agreement, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman asserted in a speech given at a recent HSBC event, “It’s challenging, it’s difficult, but achieving it is absolutely critical to getting back on the path towards sustainable growth.” [11]

In this piece, I will not concentrate so much on the debate over the economic virtues and vices of these free trade policies, but the politics halting progress toward their completion. I ask both what Washington politicians’ concerns are, and more importantly, are their concerns genuine? In other words, is politics getting in the way?


[2] Ibid.










Communicating Climate Change

September 29, 2014

Megan Zagorski ’16, Environmental Leadership

Climate change surrounds us, yet sometimes the over-saturation causes people to disregard the urgency with which we need to act. Some find it difficult to comprehend the severe impacts of temperatures one degree warmer or a sea level that is one inch higher. This past week, the People’s Climate March launched these issues into the international spot light accompanied by an article published by the Audubon Society, a much anticipated climate summit held at the United Nations addressed climate concerns, and CBS reported on the state of the loons in Minnesota.

Last Sunday, September 21st , saw the largest climate march in history as an estimated 400,000 marchers descended on New York City in a march designed to focus global attention on the issue of climate change and the upcoming UN summit that held Tuesday. Unlike former climate marches, this one was distinguished by the presence of “young, diverse communities” ready to have their voices heard in the global discourse (Kieffer). The defining characteristic of this march was the shared humanity of participants because climate change does not distinguish between race, ethnicity, language, or income level. A special section for those immediately impacted by climate change saw Filipinos marching alongside youth from the Brooklyn organization El Puente. Hoping for this symbolic unity to become concrete inside UN headquarters, these marchers have shown that cooperation is still a valid possibility, but we must act now while we still can, including everyone, young and old, in a solution.

That solution will take a variety of approaches, some of which were stated on Tuesday at UN headquarters during the climate summit. Called by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon an “unprecedented and important gathering,” he called for a “clear, shared vision” in working on the two main objectives of the meeting, which included cutting carbon emissions and mobilizing political will. A Mayor’s Compact signed by 200 mayors called for a 12.4 – 16.4 per cent reduction in annual emissions, and various other companies pledged to lower emissions. These promises are a giant step forward. However, in 2020 how many of these promises and goals will have been met, let alone in 2100? As the memory and spirit of cooperation fade, will these mayors and companies still have the political will to follow through? More needed than any number of promises, however persuasive they may seem, political willpower will allow us to follow through with the statements made this week. When your will weakens, it always helps to have a source of motivation to continue the fight.

One such motivational symbol can be found in the Common Loon, Gavia immer. Who is not moved by their haunting call or the majestic site of a loon gliding along a lake resplendent in its aptly named necklace and snowflake-patterned back? There is a reason the loon is a symbol of the American wilderness, however the loon is in imminent peril from climate change. And it is not the only one. A recent report by the Audubon Society shows that nearly half of America’s bird species will be negatively impacted by climate change, including other recognizable and beloved species like eagles and hummingbirds. As CBS reported, with rising temperatures, fish are dying and forcing loons farther north. While scientists are testing whether loons can adapt to warmer climates, testing has just begun. If enough people recognize the beauty we may lose and pressure their politicians, it may provide the necessary political will. Putting an image to the potential crisis makes a larger impact by bringing the issue closer to home. Species in our own backyard will soon be irreversibly impacted. Dare we not act?

Blurred Lines: The NSA’s Cyber Surveillance and Security

July 15, 2014

Andrea Buchanan ’15

A year ago, Edward Snowden rocked the foundational trust of the public with when he exposed documents that showed that the phone records of millions of Americans had been collected by the National Security Agency (NSA). Snowden’s disclosures also exposed that the U.S. was spying on foreign leaders, as well as tapping into U.S. internet companies, such as Google and Facebook, to collect data. Though the U.S. government took steps to calm the public and reassure them that their privacy was not being breached, the NSA and the issue of cyber security have become prominent fixtures of concern in minds of Americans.

Snowden’s revelations started with phone data but have since spurred deeper investigation into other forms of digital communication, mainly the internet. A panel sponsored by the New America Foundation titled “National Insecurity Agency: How the NSA’s Surveillance Programs Undermine Internet Security,” effectively captured the feelings of insecurity that many Americans now feel towards the internet and the federal government in general. The event, which included opening remarks from both Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Congressman Alan Grayson (D-FL) and a panel composed of several policy experts, highlighted the concerns that both businesses and the public share in regards to national security. Panelist Amie Stephanovich, Senior Policy Counsel at Access, emphasized the fact that the NSA actually has two missions: surveillance and information assurance, and security. What was made clear during the course of the discussion is that it is obvious to the American public that surveillance is part of national security and that is the job of the NSA. But what is often forgotten is the security component of the NSA’s mission. At what point does surveillance breech security? Does the NSA fulfill one goal better than the other?

Bruce Schneier, a security technologist and author who is a fellow at OTI and Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, does not seem to think that the NSA does a good job balancing its two objectives. Schneier stated, the NSA “undermines fundamental trust to achieve security,” specifically in reference to the NSA’s use of “backdoors” in widely used technology programs that allow the NSA to “eavesdrop” on users of any kind. The fact that the NSA has the ability to have backdoors built in for them to spy and gather information demonstrates how large the reach of the NSA really is and how far they are willing to stretch the constructs of surveillance to fit under the guise of security.

Possibly one of the more recent discoveries about the NSA is that no one is safe. When the Patriot Act was signed in 2001, the public generally accepted wide sweeping surveillance measures because it believed that it was more important to spy and stop terrorists before something like the tragedy of 9/11 occurred again. After the Snowden revelations – over a decade after the attacks of September 11 – the public has become increasingly outraged at the government’s surveillance overreach. What has changed in that time? Well for starters, most people do not believe they are terrorists and should not be targeted. And while the NSA might agree that the overwhelming majority of citizens are not terrorists, it is easier for them to cast a wide surveillance net over everyone rather than focusing their efforts on a targeted population. Schneier emphasized this point during his speaking points on the panel, and also noted that with its power over companies and ability to take advantage of vulnerabilities in software security, the NSA is willing to compromise the privacy of everyone in order to make their target larger.

A recent article in the Washington Post echoed Schneier’s points. The Post’s four-month investigation discovered that most of the information captured by the NSA serves little to no purpose for the NSA nor does it constitute a national security threat. This calls into question the effectiveness of the NSA and their current strategies to combat cyber threats at the expense of the American people.

Since the Snowden revelations and more recent disclosures by media outlets and whistleblowers have shed new light about the true tactics of the NSA, Congress has decided to act to increase security for the average citizen. Recently, on July 8, 2014, the Cyber Information Sharing Act (CISA) was cleared from the Senate Intelligence Committee to be debated by the full chamber. However, in an article by The Economist, the CISA bill does little to corral the surveillance powers of the NSA or other government agencies. The article also notes that the bill could allow for collected information pertaining to cyber-threats to be used for other purposes “including things such as criminal cases that have nothing to do with the original cyber-threat.” Mark Jaycox of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who is quoted in the article, points out that “any cyber security bill must acknowledge what we’ve learned by incorporating robust privacy protections,” a statement that would be agreed upon by all of the panelists of the aforementioned New America Foundation panel.

In today’s modern age, the cyber arena is widely considered the fifth domain of warfare and has the potential to become the most debilitating. It is true that our cyber security measures need to be on point and effective. However, compromising the privacy of everyone through the overreach of federal government agencies does little to build strength and trust from those that are supposedly being protected. Furthermore, the NSA’s current tactics are arguably unconstitutional- a possible violation of the 4th Amendment, which ostensibly protects all Americans from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Constitutional questions pertaining to cyber security will undoubtedly be posed to Supreme Court in the near future.

The New America Foundation panelists advocated for political action, as changing the cyber security laws and the domain of the NSA will require existing laws and policies to change. We are living in a world where we now have hundreds of passwords to remember to log into our digital lives – our emails, bank accounts, social media, and everything else. There’s a reasonable amount of surveillance we can accept, but it is not unreasonable to believe that when we key in our password, we are unlocking our digital private vault just for ourselves, and not opening the door for a cyber Big Brother to be watching our every move.

College Ratings: A Good, Fair or Poor Idea to Increase Completion and Lower Student Debt?

June 17, 2014

Andrea Buchanan ’15

Back in February 2014, President Obama made it clear in his State of the Union speech that he was going to make full use of his executive order privileges and dubbed 2014 “a year of action”-with or without the support of Congress. One of his commanding points and areas of focus was education, specifically higher education. Now, Obama seeks to improve college completion and accessibility through a college rating system. He announced in his 2013 State of the Union address that his administration would be rolling out a College Scorecard, which would help students and families compare schools so they would get the “most bang for [their] educational buck.” While this tool is helpful in comparing schools based on cost, Obama is now trying to push it one step further and actually develop a ranking system for colleges and universities.

In a recent article published by the New York Times, college and university presidents expressed their growing concern over the development of a college rating system. They claim that rating colleges is not the solution needed to help more students graduate, and with less debt. According to the article, the rating system would be based on “graduation rates, student debt accumulated while in school, and what students earn after they graduate.” Congress would then give out federal aid to schools based on how they scored, leaving low scoring schools little to offer in terms of financial aid. College presidents predict that this model – putting financial concerns ahead of academics – could cause harm to exceptional schools that fall under the liberal arts category or have a high proportion of programs such as drama and theater that produce degrees that tend to be less profitable immediately after graduation. Additionally, since less federal aid for students may be appropriated to schools based on ratings, it may limit the number of students who apply to colleges or even prevent students from going to their “dream” school. This seems counter-intuitive to Obama’s goal of increasing both college access and affordability.

Despite the outcry from college presidents, the Obama administration is pushing forward with the college rankings, looking to extend the executive branch into a system that is currently dominated by private firms. But the rankings put out by the Princeton Review or U.S. World & News do not come with any penalties, such as loss of funding, at least from the federal side. In addition to the college ranking system, Obama is also using an executive order to help lower student debt. His order, known as “Pay-As-You-Earn,” caps student loan payments at 10% of a borrower’s monthly income. While this makes it easier for those who are already incurring student loan debt, it does not really do anything to encourage more students to attend and complete school, nor does it make college more affordable. It is a half measure that fails to address the larger problem created by limited federal aid to education and a slow, lagging economy that has yet to see the job creation needed to satisfy the students who are graduating with degrees and encumbered with thousands upon thousands of dollars of debt.

Obama’s proposals for high education sound eerily familiar to the controversial No Child Left Behind policy (NCLB) and the belief that ranking schools and making them compete for funding would result in better academic results. In the case of college and universities, giving them rankings of “poor, satisfactory, good, and excellent” linked to funding can only produce the same, failed, result NCLB did. Schools, both primary and secondary education, need to receive funding and aid to help their students be able to graduate and afford to continue their education. They do not need that taken away. Students should receive more help on the front end of college, no matter what school they want to attend, and not wait until graduation to receive any sort of relief. This approach would incentivize students to go to college and also make it more affordable for them, thus achieving President Obama’s ultimate education goals in a more realistic way.

Andrea Buchanan ’15 is a political science and public policy major at Gettysburg College, currently interning at the Eisenhower Institute’s Washington, DC office.