Lessons from other nation

Han Solo’s lessons on politics

 Image source:  ABC

Image source: ABC

By Colleen J. Shogan

The latest film installment of the Star Wars saga features the backstory of one of its most memorable and beloved characters, the rogue smuggler turned Rebel sympathizer Han Solo. Full disclosure, I’m an unapologetic Star Wars fan and I’ve always adored Han, with his smart-alecky retorts, cocksure demeanor, and nagging moral confusion.

“Solo” has received mixed reviews, largely due to missed opportunities. But for diehard fans, its best virtue is the uncovering of curious details about Han’s past. When considering these revelations, I realized Han Solo could teach us a lot about politics. Such nuggets are particularly instructive to elected officials, many of whom might compare the instability of contemporary American political life with the perfidy of Mos Eisley.

Here are three important lessons politicians could learn from Han Solo. And warning: This post contains spoilers about the recently released film “Solo: A Star Wars Story.”

With Ingenuity, Enemies Can Become Friends.  One of the best scenes in “Solo” is when Han meets Chewbacca, a Wookie who will become his co-pilot and constant companion. However, Han and Chewie don’t meet under the best circumstances. Young Han is an infantryman in the Imperial Army when he shoots his mouth off (no surprise there), leading to Han being thrown in a pit with a “Beast” who allegedly hasn’t eaten in a few days. The “Beast” turns out to be Chewie. Han quickly pivots and convinces Chewie that by working together, they can escape the Imperial Army and gain their freedom. Han Solo finds his future best friend in a most unusual place. They’re a motley duo, yet end up as lifelong buddies. In short, Han Solo looks past the “Beast” and finds a kindred spirit. Likewise, in politics, sometimes enemies can be transformed into useful friends and allies. With razor-thin margins in Congress these days, Members who are creative when searching for allies just might find help when they need it.

There’s No Honor Amongst Thieves (or Smugglers). “Solo” also fills out the personal history between Han and Lando Calrissian. (Editorial note: Donald Glover plays a perfect young Lando in the film. The performance is spot-on.) We know that Lando lost his ship, the Millennium Falcon, to Han in a card game. “Solo” provides additional context. Lando is the master of cheap tricks, and he bests Han as they spar early in the story. In the end, Han beats Lando at his own game and takes possession of the prized ship. Fast forward a decade or so when Han flees with Leia to Cloud City because Lando is the administrator of the operation. But as we know all too well, Lando double-crosses Han and his Rebel friends. The moral of this story is as old as the debate concerning the existence of justice amongst thieves in Plato’s Republic. Han is way too trusting, especially given Lando’s previously nefarious ways. Rather, Reagan’s “trust, but verify” seems like the more prudent course. The best predictor of future political behavior is past behavior, which Han might have pondered as Vader placed him in carbon freeze.

Han Shoots First.  By far, the best part of “Solo” was the settling of a long-disputed detail of the Star Wars saga. In the original version of “A New Hope,” Han Solo is confronted by the bounty hunter Greedo, who seeks to deliver Solo to gangster Jabba the Hutt. After it’s clear Greedo can’t be reasoned with, Han shoots him and walks out of the bar. In an apparent effort to soften Han’s image, George Lucas altered the sequence of events in an updated release of the film, adding Greedo’s attempt to shoot Han first. In “Solo,” we see Han in action when confronted by his back-stabbing mentor Tobias Beckett. Before he can lecture Han about the way the world really works, Han shoots him. The bottom line is that Han didn’t wait around for others to act. If left to their own devices, Greedo and Beckett would have certainly killed Han. Rather than reacting, Han initiated action. Without condoning violence, there’s an important underlying political principle to learn here. Successful politicians don’t let their adversaries define them. Instead, they create their own destinies, striving to act proactively rather than in self-defense. Would Han Solo survive the United States Senate? Yes, but only the 1977 version of our favorite scruffy-looking nerf herder would truly excel in American politics.

Colleen J. Shogan (@cshogan276) is a political scientist at the Library of Congress. She writes both fiction and non-fiction books about American politics. In an earlier life, she taught a summer course at the Phillips Academy on the mythology of Star Wars. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Library of Congress.


Should Members of Congress Get DC Housing Stipends?

Benjamin Freed writes in the Washingtonian:

"Both the United Kingdom and France give members of their parliaments allowances for capital-area housing. British MPs, who earn base annual salaries of £76,011 ($96,812), can expense up to £22,760 (about $29,000) on renting in London, with more allowed if they are living with dependents. The French do it a bit differently. Each member of the National Assembly receives a monthly stipend of €7,100 ($7,956), of which 3 percent, or €165.44, is a dedicated residential allowance."
"These systems are far from perfect, and can be corrupted under lax oversight, as in the case of an scandal in the UK in 2009 in which the Telegraph found MPs claiming expenses on furniture, home appliances, swimming pool repairs, and one instance of a “duck house” for a backyard pond...."

Read more at: https://www.washingtonian.com/2017/06/27/congress-housing-stipends-chaffetz/

Not Only America: Canada’s Legislature Begins to Strengthen Itself

 Source: http://www.lop.parl.gc.ca/

Source: http://www.lop.parl.gc.ca/

Guest blog post by Sean Speer, R Street Institute

Last month’s Supreme Court decision on President Obama’s unilateral immigration directive was a positive development for those determined to restore the paramountcy of the legislative branch in U.S. political life. It does not reverse several decades of executive creep but it is a step in the right direction. Additional resources for congressional staff would be another. The road back to Madison’s vision – with Congress as the first branch and source of all legislation – will invariably be walked in baby steps.

A similar path is being followed in Canada where Members of Parliament have historically been called “nobodies” and “trained seals.” Canadians may even have further to go after decades of centralization in the executive and the marginalization of parliament. But there have been small steps in the right direction in recent years including a 20-percent increase to parliamentary budgets.

Notwithstanding important differences between the two countries, both nations are slowly moving to empower individual legislators and strengthen the role of the legislative branch. This progress is encouraging and the reformers in Canada and the United States may have something to learn from their respective experiences. 

Canada’s parliamentary system sets out different responsibilities, functions, and powers for legislators than the U.S. presidential system. The principal difference is that the Canadian system operates on the basis of a fusion of powers rather than the American separation of powers. Thus the prime minister sits in the legislature and is almost always the leader of the largest elected party in parliament. The cabinet (including the ministers of finance, national defence, foreign affairs, and so on) is also selected from sitting legislators. And the government in turn relies upon the legislative branch for its authority. If it loses majority support in the legislature, then typically the government will fall, and elections will be held to select a new executive including new ministers. 

It may sound therefore like the legislature in general and individual MPs (what we call “backbenchers”) in particular must wield considerable power. But, alas, that is not usually the case. Members of the governing party almost always vote with the government and opposing Members of Parliament vote contrary to the government. The system functions based on party discipline rather than individual autonomy and the incentives (including the prospect of a Cabinet promotion resting with the Prime Minister) discourages independence or candour on the part of parliamentarians. Canada’s parliamentary system has been cited as the most prone to party discipline in the world.  (America’s national legislature, however, is becoming increasingly parliamentary in this sense.)

The result is that while MPs are tituarly responsible for considering, refining and passing legislation, holding governments accountable for laws and expenditures, and determining a government’s longevity by exercising their ability to provide or withhold support, their function has been much more limited in practice. Members typically fall into line behind their parliamentary leader and vote according to the party line. The Gilbert and Sullivan operetta HMS Pinafore essentially had it right with the famous chorus: “I always voted at my party’s call and I never thought of thinking for myself at all.”

Such a tendency to party-line voting has consequences for the functioning of Canadian democracy. The primary concern is that it can cause MPs to stop properly scrutinizing legislation or holding Cabinet ministers to account when they appear before parliamentary committees. The legislative branch, particularly in a majority government scenario, can become a mere symbolic speed bump on the way to executive action. 

These two forces – caucus solidarity and powerful internal incentives such as a Cabinet promotion or the prospect of local spending – can thus concentrate significant power in the hands of the Prime Minister and his or her Cabinet. The risk is that the executive is fallible and capable of poor choices and yet faces few parliamentary checks on its scope of action.  

Insufficient staffing and research resources for MPs only worsen the problem. Parliamentarians have basic office budgets of $350,000 per year (following the recent budget increase) to pay employee salaries, service contracts, wireless devices, some operating and travel costs, and other expenses. Staffing costs need to be distributed between local staff whose primary role is to respond to requests and concerns from constituents, administrative staff who are responsible for running the member’s office and arranging an MP’s schedule, and legislative staff who support a Member of Parliament in his or her role on parliamentary committees and in the House of Commons. MPs are therefore often left to review draft legislation, the government’s budget, or massive appropriation bills with little support. The image of the backbencher struggling to study legislation in the back of a jammed-packed airplane to and from Ottawa is not far from the truth. 

The consequence is what R Street Institute senior fellow Kevin Kosar has called “the knowledge problem.” It certainly applies to Canada where the evolution of our parliamentary system has led to information asymmetries between the executive and legislative branch that exacerbate the pre-existing creep towards executive aggrandizement.  

Responsible government – that is, the Canadian idea that the executive is responsible to the people as expressed by the legislature – can only properly function if the knowledge gap between the executive and the legislator is minimal. Parliamentarians can only reasonably hold the government accountable if they have ample time and resources to review and understand legislation. And, without adequate resources and staffing, MPs are dependent on the Prime Minister’s Office and Cabinet offices for information and analysis and less capable of challenging bad ideas. 

But, as mentioned at the outset, there have been some positive developments to strengthen the role of parliamentarians in recent years. The past Conservative government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, established a system of Caucus Advisory Committees through which backbench MPs from the governing party were able to contribute more directly to government policy-making. The Reform Act, a private member’s bill introduced by a backbench MP, seeks to rebalance the role of individual MPs and party leaders and establish greater autonomy for parliamentarians. The new Liberal government has restored the role of Parliament to approve the government’s annual borrowing limit. And, of course, just recently MP budgets received a considerable boost to hire more staff and pay them more generously. 

These steps will not transform the system in and of themselves but they are progress on the path to strengthening the role of the legislative branch in Canada. We will continue to monitor the similar slow yet essential headway in the United States and learn from your experiences. The work of protecting, sustaining, and strengthening our democracies never ceases. It is a long journey. 

Sean Speer is an associate fellow at the R Street Institute and a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a Canadian-based think-tank.