A Tale of Two Commissions

A Tale of Two Commissions

by George Liebmann

Those amazed by the parlous state of today’s Democratic Party can find its roots in the fate of two national commission reports of twenty years ago.

National commission reports are not usually brought by the stork. These bodies are usually created by Presidents for their own purposes. The Nobel Prize economist George Stigler once wrote a notable article entitled “The National Commission as an Instrument of Controlled Impartiality.”

It is when national commissions defy the expectations of Presidents that their reports deserve the playwright Arthur Miller’s admonition that “attention must be paid.”

One such was President Nixon’s marijuana commission under the chairmanship of former Republican governor Raymond Shafer of Pennsylvania.Its recommendations for a large measure of decriminalization were thrown in the ashcan; three quarters of a million marijuana arrests per year ensued for the next fifty years, with little or no measured effect on marijuana usage but dramatic effects on the polities of our large cities and of Mexico..

Two lesser-known examples provide the gravestones of President Clinton’s otherwise almost non-existent domestic program. A remarkably expert and generally nonpolitical Commission on Immigration Reform was appointed by President Clinton in 1994 under the chairpersonship of the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas, one of the notable orators of her time. It expressed concern about the impact of immigration on unskilled American workers and proposed to reduce legal immigration by about a third by eliminating adult children and siblings of citizens as ‘chain migrants’ and eliminating the so-called ‘diversity lottery’ admitting new residents from exotic regions with few cultural or family ties to the United States. It would have admitted 400,000 members of nuclear families, 100,000 skilled workers and 50,000 refugees a year, while using the “E-Verify” system to insure that “those who should get in, get in; those who should be kept out are kept out; and those who should not be here are required to leave.”

Important campaign contributors, some from Asia, caused President Clinton to withdraw his initial endorsement. Ms. Jordan’s proposals, with their concern for native unskilled workers was allowed to die, to the accompaniment of a flood of sentimentalist anecdotes resembling those told of the 2000 child victims of the Trump administration’s ham-handed implementation of new policies or the few hundred persons with valid visas improperly turned away at airports in the administration’s earliest hours.The immigration issue thus remained as a loaded pistol aimed at the industrial workers who once represented the heart of the Democratic Party. The illusion was entertained that the nation had an unlimited absorptive capacity, notwithstanding the rise of the Know-Nothing Party in the immigrant-rich 1850s and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in northern states in the 1920s after the wave of uncontrolled immigration preceding the First World War.

A similar indifference to the interests of the unorganized working class explained the fate of another Clinton-era commission, the Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations under the chairmanship of former Secretary of Labor John Dunlop that reported in 1994. This commission was jointly appointed by Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and the late Secretary of Commerce Ronald Brown. It included three other Carter-era Democratic cabinet officers, Ray Marshall, William Usery and Juanita Krebs. It recommended relaxation of the case law interpreting the Labor-Management Relations Act’s ban on company unions to allow employee participation programs influenced by management to discuss local productivity deals and other terms and conditions of employment, a privilege theretofore limited to international unions more completely separated from management. Such employee participation programs had been fostered by the War Labor Board during World War I and their growth presaged the later growth of the labor movement.

A TEAM act embodying the commission’s recommendations passed both houses of Congress with bi-partisan support, only to be vetoed by President Clinton at the behest of the commission’s only dissenting member, Douglas Fraser of the United Auto Workers. Once again, President Clinton indulged his penchant for marching with the big battalions that helped his electioneering.

At the time of President Clinton’s veto, there were still more than four million unionized workers in manufacturing industry. Today, there are barely one million, and Volkswagen declined to build a plant in Ohio because the European-style works councils with which it was familiar were unavailable in that state, preferring to locate in a right-to-work state where there would be no labor organization at all.. By 2018, even Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO was making sympathetic noises about works councils as the next best thing to fully independent and adversarial unions.

By then, most of the American work force, including hundreds of thousands of the workers of Wal-Mart (on whose union-busting board Hillary Clinton sat for nearly a decade) was totally non-unionized, proletarianized, alienated, and embittered, a condition ably exploited by Donald Trump in a campaign focused on ‘rust-belt’ states avoided by the Clintons. Those asking “upon what meat doth Caesar feed, that he is grown so great” can find the answer in President Clinton’s wastebasket.

The writer, a Baltimore lawyer, is the author of a number of books on public policy, most recently America’s Political Inventors: The Lost Art of Legislation (I.B.Tauris,2018)


Posted in: Criminal Justice, Culture Wars, Economic Regulation, Judiciary and Legal Issues, Regulation, The Right, Urban Affairs, Welfare and Other Social

Tags: , , , , , ,