July 26, 2014 at 1:00 am


Other writers, on the death penalty, gridlock, and the Constitution

Did the winner-take-all primary system cost House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor his job? (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Botching the death penalty

Lauren Galik in Reason : Another state, another botched execution carried out with secret new drugs. This time: Arizona, where convicted murderer Joseph Randolph Wood gasped and snorted for more than 90 minutes after his execution began. What should have been a 10- to 15- minute ordeal took 117 minutes for Wood.

According to witnesses, Wood “gulped like a fish on land” and made movements “like a piston: the mouth opened, the chest rose, the stomach convulsed.” He gasped for air roughly 660 times over the course of the 117-minute execution — which had been carried out using a controversial two-drug cocktail the state had never used before.

One of the drugs, midazolam, has been used in flawed executions carried out in other states this year, including the horrific botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, who died of a heart attack more than 40 minutes after the procedure started. It was also used in Ohio on Dennis McGuire, who gasped and snorted on the gurney before being pronounced dead 25 minutes after the execution began.

Yes, it’s true that Wood’s victims suffered. And yes, the families of the victims have suffered as well, probably much more than Wood did last night. But there are limits to the type of punishment the state can impose on prisoners in America — the punishment they receive for their crimes isn’t supposed to match the level of pain and suffering they impose on their victims or victims’ families. Vengeance isn’t the job of the state.

Wood certainly won’t be the last inmate to have his execution botched. As long as states continue to experiment on inmates with secret lethal injection drugs from presumably dubious sources without providing an ounce of transparency into the process, these grisly results are going to continue to repeat themselves again and again.

Adopt open primaries

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer in the New York Times: Polarization and partisanship are a plague on American politics.

Political scientists have found that the two parties have each grown more ideologically homogeneous since the 1970s. The Senate hasn’t been so polarized since Reconstruction; the House has not been so divided since around 1900. As measured by laws passed, the current Congress is on track to be among the least productive in our republic’s history.

How did this happen? One of the main causes has not gotten enough attention: the party primary system.

The reasons behind the shocking primary defeat last month of Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, who was then leader of the Republican majority in the House, are still being debated, but there is no doubt that his defeat highlighted the pernicious effects of the predominant “winner-take-all” party primary system. Even in one of the country’s most Republican districts, Mr. Cantor was not conservative enough for the fairly small proportion of highly energized, ideologically driven voters who turned out for the primary. The partisan primary system, which favors more ideologically pure candidates, has contributed to the election of more extreme officeholders and increased political polarization. It has become a menace to governing.

From 10,000 feet, the structure of our electorate looks to be healthy, with perhaps a third of the potential voters who are left-leaning Democrats, a third who are right-leaning Republicans and a third who are independents in the middle.

But primaries poison the health of that system and warp its natural balance, because the vast majority of Americans don’t typically vote in primaries. Instead, it is the “third of the third” most to the right or most to the left who come out to vote — the 10 percent at each of the two extremes of the political spectrum. Making things worse, in most states, laws prohibit independents — who are not registered with either party and who make up a growing proportion of the electorate — from voting in primaries at all.

Our obstructionist Constitution

Charles Lane in the Washington Post : President Barack Obama’s plan to transform the U.S. health-care market is once again in trouble. This time, two Republican-appointed judges on a federal appeals court have invalidated a key portion of the program.

In other words, the U.S. constitutional system is functioning normally.

That’s not to say that the majority of a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit correctly struck down the issuance of tax credits through the federal health insurance exchanges in 36 states — though it is true, as the judges said, that the law only speaks of “Exchanges established by the State.”

There is a strong argument that ambiguities in the statute should be resolved in favor of the Internal Revenue Service’s interpretation, given the law’s manifest purpose to expand coverage, as a Democratic-appointed dissenter on the D.C. Circuit (as well as a unanimous Richmond-based federal appeals court) concluded.

Rather, the very existence of this case, Halbig v. Burwell, illustrates basic aspects of the U.S. political system about which progressives are in deep denial: Specifically, the Constitution is designed to inhibit comprehensive national legislation like Obamacare.