Frankenstein Party

September 21st, 2013

“Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.”
― Mary ShelleyFrankenstein

Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, made headlines earlier this year by telling his fellow Republicans that they needed to stop being the “stupid party.”

This week Republicans are demonstrating to the voting public that they not only rejected Jindal’s characterization, they embrace it.

Here’s how Tom Friedman describes it.

We’ve got messes aplenty abroad and the Republican-dominated House of Representatives is totally paralyzed. Indeed, the G.O.P.-led House has become a small-minded, parochial place, where collaboration is considered treason, where science is considered a matter of opinion, where immigration is considered a threat, where every solution is a suboptimal compromise enacted at midnight and where every day we see proof of the theory that America is a country that was “designed by geniuses so that it could be run by idiots.”

Before we proceed let’s recap to put this in perspective.  The Republican Party failed to win the White House in the last election even though voters were living through the worst economy since the Great Depression.  They failed to retake the Senate after winning the House in 2010 and even though there were more Democratic seats being contested than Republican.  They even lost the popular ballot for the House by 1.4M even though through gerrymandering they managed to retain their majority.

The past two elections proved that the Republican base is shrinking while the Democratic base is growing.  The Chairman of the Republican Party addressed this issue earlier this year.

The way we communicate our principles isn’t resonating widely enough…Focus groups described our party as ‘narrow-minded,’ ‘out of touch,’ and ‘stuffy old men.’ The perception that we’re the party of the rich continues to grow.

When Republicans lost in November it was a wake-up call….We know that we have problems. We’ve identified them, and we’re implementing the solutions to fix them.

If the last week is any indication, the Tea Party elected representatives in the house are still asleep.

In no particular order, here’s what we’ve seen.

SNAP cuts

The House cuts $40B cut from the food stamp program.  Conservative Republicans claim that there are people receiving food stamps that should be working, but the data doesn’t support that view.  The SNAP program (current version of food stamps) already has provisions which require those who can work to at least demonstrate that they are trying to find work or suffer the consequence of losing their benefits.

Studies have shown that SNAP is one of the most effective government programs we have.  It has an abuse rate of about 1%.  Most of that is private retailers buying SNAP benefits for cash rather than providing approved groceries.  It has a stimulus multiplier of 1.73, which means that every dollar of benefits generates $1.73 dollars in economic benefit.  That is the highest of any government program.  It’s better than corporate tax giveaways.  It’s better than military spending.  It’s better than bailouts and stimulus.

It also provides essential public health benefits to low-income people and that has an economic impact also.

The Trust for America’s Health, a health advocacy organization that focuses on disease prevention, warned recently of the consequences of cutting food stamps: “If the nation continues to underfund vital public health programs, we will never achieve long-term fiscal stability, as it will be impossible to help people get/stay healthy, happy and productive.”

Indeed, according to a 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “research shows that low-income households participating in SNAP have access to more food energy, protein and a broad array of essential vitamins and minerals in their home food supply compared to eligible nonparticipants.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “good nutrition can help lower risk for many chronic diseases, including heart disease, stroke, some cancers, diabetes and osteoporosis.” As it is, public healthcare expenses for diet-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease cost taxpayers more than $100 billion annually.

Cutting SNAP will impact the economy, cost jobs, reduce health, and increase the healthcare costs.  I’ve also posted that the stress associated with food insecurity actually affects brain development in children.  That inhibits academic success and ultimately affects employment prospects.  72% of those receiving benefits today are families with children.

We have enough food.  What we suffer from is a misguided ideology that suggests that benefits create a culture of dependency. According to the Congressional Budget Office, 30% of SNAP recipients worked in 2010, up from fewer than 20% in 1990. Most of the rest are either elderly, children, or disabled.

Fortunately the Senate will not pass this massive reduction in SNAP and a more modest reduction will likely emerge from the conference process.  House Republicans know that too.  This was an ideological vote to re-enforce the conservative Republican position that hungry people chose to be in that state because they are too lazy to find a job.

Defund Obamacare

This is a similar bit of Kabuki Theater.  Senator Ted Cruz was elected based on his pledge to defund Obamacare.  His rants and accusations finally goaded the House into action.  They passed exactly the bill that Cruz has been asking for.  That bill will expose what people have been silently saying for a while.  Cruz isn’t even close of having the votes in the Senate to accomplish what he promised to deliver.  He has already tried to lower expectations.

Harry Reid will no doubt try to strip the defund language from the continuing resolution, and right now he likely has the votes to do so….At that point, House Republicans must stand firm, hold their ground, and continue to listen to the American people.

Boehner would have none of it. He responded.

We’ll deliver a big victory in the House tomorrow. Then this fight will move over to the Senate — where it belongs. I expect my Senate colleagues to be up for the battle.

So at the end of the day, Cruz’s bluff is going to be called.  He doesn’t have the votes and will go down in flames as a result.

John McCain told CNN on Thursday: “In the United States Senate, we will not repeal, or defund, Obamacare. We will not. And to think we can is not rational.”

Senator Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, said of the House Republicans’ strategy of threatening a government shutdown to force the defunding of Obamacare, “I think it’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard of.”

Senator Jim Risch, Republican of Idaho, has said: “There isn’t anybody that thinks that Obamacare is going to get defunded. It cannot happen.” He added, “It is as impossible as anything can possibly be in Washington, D.C.”

Republicans may have gained some points in the process with their base, but the rest of country will be left scratching their heads over the spectacle.

Regulating Sexual Relationships

Finally last week in Michigan, Republican AG Bill Schuette argued in a brief supporting Michigan’s ban against same sex marriage that states have the obligation “to regulate sexual relationships between men and women so that the unique procreative capacity of such relationships benefits rather than harms society.”

This is really a simple calculation for any rational Republican.

How many of the 47M people receiving SNAP are going to vote for Republicans in 2014?

When the Republicans shut down the government or force the government to default on its debt obligations in an effort to stop Obamacare, how many voters are going to blame Democrats – particularly given what even some Republicans are saying?

Finally, how many people are going to support a party that claims the government has the right to “regulate sexual relationships”?

This is the logical conclusion of the cynicism that began with Nixon’s southern strategy.  Republicans exploited racial backlash to promote the economic goals of low taxes for the rich and deregulation.  They were remarkably successful in convincing low information whites to vote against their self-interests.  Instead they blamed four decades of middle class wage stagnation on the poor, liberals, and unions.  Sustaining this strategy, however, required morphing from racial fear to an embrace of fringe conspiracy group paranoia.  These fringe groups have always existed in US politics, but only gained credence as their apocalyptic fears of a black man in the White House came to pass.

Now the monster that Karl Rove and Fox News created to take back the House in 2010 and continue to promote the agenda of low taxes for the rich and deregulation has broken loose and is running amok.  Even Karl Rove can’t control it.

Any strategy to repeal, delay or replace the law must have a credible chance of succeeding or affecting broad public opinion positively. The defunding strategy doesn’t. Going down that road would strengthen the president while alienating independents. It is an ill-conceived tactic, and Republicans should reject it.

When ideology leads to extremism, it always demonizes its opponents.  Ultimately its opponents includes its previous allies.  It narrows its focus and base of support until it finally collapses under the weight of its own self-destructive rage.  Tea Party driven conservative Republicanism has reached this point.  They are willing to alienate hungry voters and shut down the government to demonstrate the purity of their ideology.  We will suffer the consequences of their actions between now and 2014.  Then voters will hold them accountable and the Tea Party will become another footnote in history.  Frankenstein died because he couldn’t figure out how to live in this world.  Tea Party-backed Republican Conservatism is going to suffer the same fate.

New Balance

September 19th, 2013

I am the product of Jesuit education.

Jesuits taught me to question everything and not be afraid of the consequences.  They taught me how to think deeply about my life in order to develop a set of core beliefs.  They taught me to stand up for what I believe in even if that position is unpopular.  They also taught me that being of service to others is a high calling.  Most importantly, they taught me that you can’t just talk about it.  You have to live your values every day.  I’ve found my service in speaking out in defense of poor, the hungry, the homeless, the stranger, and the imprisoned.

I was raised Catholic but some time ago realized that my church had left me.

I’ve seen that church become increasingly politicized and conservative.

So I have found my own way.

Then something wonderful happened.

The church elected a Jesuit pope from Brazil – Pope Francis.

This pope also has a commitment to the poor.  The pope also cares about the hungry, the disenfranchised, and the imprisoned.

He has refused to take up residence in the papal palace in the Vatican.  Instead he sleeps in the much more modest guest house because, as any Jesuit will tell you, words without deeds are empty.

This new pope cut right to the heart of Catholic thought in his first public interview.

In his opinion, the church has lost its way.  It is so focused on narrow political issues like abortion, gay marriage, and contraception, that it has in his words become a moral “house of cards”.

He said the church should be a “home for all”, not a “small chapel” focused on doctrine, orthodoxy and a limited agenda of moral teachings.

The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.

We have to find a new balance.

This is straight out of the Jesuit playbook.

The Bible has precious little to say about abortion, gay marriage, or contraception.  It has LOTS to say about our relationships with our neighbors, those less fortunate than us, and even those who disagree with us.  The Christ-message is that we are all God’s children made in the image and likeness of our Creator.  Our job is to embrace that reality and learn to love the God-child in everyone including those who may want to harm us.

That’s what Pope Francis is talking about when he said a “home for all”.

I lived through the amazing changes that the Catholic Church went through as a result of the vision of Pope John XXIII.  He single handedly dragged the church into the 20th century.  It may be time for Pope Francis to reawaken the 21st century Catholic Church to its REAL mission.

It looks like an impossible task, but I’m sure he will take it on with determination and humility.

Gotta love those Jesuits.

Personal Responsibility

September 3rd, 2013

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: and before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.  Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.  Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?  When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?  Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?  And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
Matt 25:31-40

For Christians, I don’t know how the message could be any clearer.  This is about salvation.  In my reading, those that provide for the poor, the hungry, the stranger, the sick, and those in prison will be welcomed into heaven.

It is also instructive that Jesus directed this advice specifically at those he called “the righteous”.  These are the people who aspire to perfection, go to church, and keep the commandments.

During Jesus time, many pious Jews thought that bad things happened to bad people.  So they felt no compassion for those that Jesus described.  Instead most blamed the poor, the sick, the hungry, the homeless, and those in prison for their plight.  The self-righteous Jews figured that these people were being punished by God for something.  And clearly who are they to question God.

Jesus was very clear in what he said.  He didn’t qualify those in need in any way.  Instead he said that their NEED is the only relevant qualification.  It doesn’t matter why someone was hungry or sick or homeless or in jail.  Our response is all that is important.  That response will determine how we are judged in the afterlife.

We find ourselves in a very similar situation today when we attempt to have a conversation about race, poverty, and crime.

First a few facts.

According to the Census Bureau, fully 38% of African-American children under 18 now live in poverty.

67% of African-American children live in single parent households, and nearly all of those doing the actual parenting are women.  The courts, according to HHS, have awarded child support to 45% of these African-American mothers, but less than half actually get any money.   Doing the math, that means that 80% of those custodial mothers get no funds from the fathers of those children.  About half of white women actually receive the support the courts have awarded.

This raises the obvious question of where the African-American men are.

A million of them are in prison.  That’s 43% of our prison population even though they represent only 13% of the population.  One out six African American men have at some time been incarcerated.  Even that is a decrease from the past decade.

Maybe because they commit more crimes?

Not exactly.

African-American defendants are more likely to be given jail or prison time for the same or similar offenses for which white folks are given probation. African-American men also receive longer sentences than white men sentenced for the same or similar offenses.

This is, in part, the sorry legacy of our failed war on drugs.  In the 80’s, “ghetto” drugs like crack cocaine carried penalties up to 100 times more severe than a similar offense for a similar amount of the “yuppie” powder version of cocaine.  When these drug laws were originally passed in 1986, the thought was that crack was more potent and addictive.  Studies have since disproven that claim.  The U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled the sentencing disparities unconstitutional.

On the employment front, only 52% of African-American students graduate from high school and the rate for African-American boys is even worse according to the Department of Education. The economic consequences of that lack of formal education are well known – lousy jobs with lousier pay and a downward economic spiral from which there is no escape.  The economic consequences of an arrest record are also severe.  70% of employers run criminal background checks and 50% won’t hire those with a criminal record.

New research also suggests that children raised in poverty actually suffer physician damage to their brains which impair their cognitive abilities as adults.  Testing has already discovered that rich kids perform better than poor kids at a number of standardized cognitive tests.  Researchers have now discovered at least one cause.  During the first couple of years of life, our brains “wire” themselves based in part on the stimulation that we receive from our environment.  Stressful environments inhibit the full development of this wiring.  Even the tone, language, and vocabulary that a young child experiences during the first weeks and months of life can have a profound effect on later academic success.

It’s a statistical avalanche of negativity – grinding poverty, early developmental deficits, poor educational opportunities, failing schools, few jobs, and way too much interaction with the criminal justice system.

We cannot and should not ignore that some of this is self-inflicted even while we acknowledge the historical and socio-economic hurdles faced by African-Americans. Whether or not you respect the women trying to raise you and the young women around you, or if you stay in school, or take responsibility for your own children are all choices that can be made regardless of external pressures.

But it most certainly is not all self-inflicted.

There has to be some other reason why, for example, if a white man and African-American man with the same educational credentials apply for the same job the white man is twice as likely to get the job. Or why, when both African-American and white little girls were given a choice between a white doll or one of color, even the African-American girls preferred the white doll. Or why we still have such a profound ignorance of Africa and African-American history.

There also has to be a reason why race and poverty have become so politicized.  Why African American voters, for example, voted in higher rates than whites in the last two elections.  One opinion is encapsulated in a Romney quote that became a pivotal moment in the 2012 election.

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it — that that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. … These are people who pay no income tax. … [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

Romney was correct in suggesting that 47% of those who file income tax forms pay no net income tax, though that doesn’t mean that they aren’t tax payers.  Two thirds of those paying no income tax did pay payroll taxes (FICA and Medicaid) and virtually everyone pays some state and local taxes/fees.   He was also wrong in suggesting that this cohort votes primarily democratic.  55% of the “47%” are elderly.  They voted 56% to 44% for Romney.  Roughly 60% of the “47%” had incomes above $50,000 a year.  They supported Romney 52% to 46% and those with incomes above $90K supported Romney 54% to 44%. 

So what segments are left that voted for the president no matter what?

The voter segment that gave Obama the largest margin of victory was African Americans (93% – 6%).

Even though Obama won two elections, this open issue has not been resolved.  It remains the most difficult one that I think our democracy faces.  One only need look at the range of responses to the Treyvon Martin killing to understand the depth of the division.

What do we do as a country to deal with the stark realities of institutional poverty, crime, and violence in the African American community?

One choice is to blame African Americans for their condition.

This view was summarized by Ted Nugent in his comment about problems of crime and violence in the African American community.  He said African Americans could “fix the black problem tonight,” if they would put their “heart and soul into being honest, law-abiding, [and] delivering excellence at every move in your life.”

And

“racism against blacks was gone by the time I started touring the nation in the late [19]60s” and by the 1970s, “nothing of consequence existed to deter or compromise a black American’s dream if they got an alarm clock, if they set it, if they took good care of themselves, they remained clean and sober, if they spoke clearly, and they demanded excellence of themselves and provided excellence to their employers.”

There is great risk, at least for Christians, in this choice as Jesus explained.

The other choice is to follow Jesus recommendations.  Feed the hungry.  Help the stranger.  Clothe and shelter the homeless.  Heal the sick. Care for those that are in prison.

That’s not to say that these aren’t complex issues.  They are.

This is also not to say that all people need to develop individual responsibility.  They do.

But Jesus said clearly that the individual responsibility He is concerned about is that of the righteous.  THAT responsibility is to care for the less fortunate regardless of how they got there.

Jesus never said this would be easy.  But he did promise that the reward for those willing to take on this task would be great.

He provided every righteous Christian a choice.

Just like any other issue of personal responsibility, how you respond is up to you.

Sequester the Sequel

August 22nd, 2013

While many are suggesting that the first year sequester cuts weren’t that bad, they are generally unaware that the sequester bill included five years of scheduled across the board spending reductions.

So let’s take a look at what has happened already and then what is coming.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, over the first half of 2013, the federal government has subtracted 0.8 percentage point from GDP growth—this as the economy grew a paltry 1.1 percent in the first quarter and 1.7 percent in the second.

The CBO has projected that if the next round of sequester cuts were canceled, we would see another .7% in GDP growth and add another 900,000 jobs by Q3 2014.

As Business Week says, this isn’t rocket science.  “We’re living through the biggest contraction in federal spending in 60 years, and this is one of the weakest recoveries on record. Coincidence?”

Conservatives counter that every dollar that isn’t spent by the government goes back into the pockets of taxpayers.  The implications are that individuals will spend that money in the same ways that the government will, we will see the same growth, and we will be better for it because the government is inefficient and political.  The problem with this simplistic view is that in uncertain times like this individuals DO NOT spend their money.  Instead they reduce their debt and increase their savings.  Businesses respond to reduced demand by doing the same thing.  So we end up with a lot of cash sitting on the sidelines and economic growth slows, which is where we are today.

The CBO says we are operating 6% below our capacity right now.  That is $1T in economic capacity that is sitting idle because of lack of demand.  The problem, for anyone willing to take a look, is clearly NOT too much government spending.  It is too little consumer demand.

Here are a few more quotes if you remain unconvinced.

“The idea that spending cuts generate growth in a demand-constrained economy is nonsense,” says Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“To say the sequester is good for the economy is wrong on a scale that’s impressive,” says Neil Dutta, chief U.S. economist at Renaissance Macro Research.

“I don’t know how you can make that claim,” says Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group, who estimates that the sequester has stolen about 30,000 jobs from each month’s payrolls total since it was enacted in March.

If there is good news in this story, the economy appears to have survived the assault with a blunt instrument that the first sequester administered.  We are now in a position where the GDP can grow faster than the debt.  That means simple focus on short term economic growth will likely complete the recovery and put us back in a situation where debt as percentage of GDP is going down even though the debt in absolute terms may be going up.

So what is the Republican agenda?

First, threaten to shut down the government if Obama doesn’t repeal Obamacare.

Second, threaten to throw the government into default, if the Obama administration doesn’t agree to ANOTHER round of spending cuts in addition to what is already on the books.

So it doesn’t sound as though there is much political appetite at the moment to replace the sequester with something more constructive and there is certainly the possibility that it will get worse before it will get better.

That said, here’s a short list of the impacts we’re dealing with beyond those already mentioned.

States

This next round is going to impact states even more than the previous cut.  States will see $4.2B less in federal funding.  Targeted programs include public housing assistance, money for schools with low-income students, food inspection, scientific research grants, and environmental protection programs.  While states absorbed a $4.6B cut last year through reductions is staff in reductions in programs, this year they will be forced to start eliminating programs completely.

The other state complication is that most states are required by law to balance their budgets and the 2014 budgets have already been passed.  If the next round of sequestration is implemented, most states will start their fall legislative terms with significant budget shortfalls.

From a USA today article

“They are already in a difficult spot because they already have imposed major cuts to their schools and other public services,” Leachman said. “If they enter those legislative sessions having to deal with additional cuts in federal funding for schools or law enforcement or clean water or programs that help low-income families, that makes their job even more difficult.”

Pennsylvania budget secretary Charles Zogby said his state managed to get through the first round of sequestration budget cuts without massive cuts in personnel—but that may change. “Thus far, that hasn’t been part of the challenge. It may be in round two,” he said.

Headstart

Headstart, one of the most successful programs we have to alter the future of poor kids, is going to have to cut fall enrollment by 57K because of sequestration cuts.

Public Defenders

The federal public defender system has been decimated by the sequester cuts.  According to the WSJ, this ends up costing tax payers more than what has been saved through the cuts because our constitution guarantees that those who cannot afford an attorney will have one appointed for them.  When public defenders are not available, court dates are delayed and courts ultimately hire private attorneys.  We pay for all that.

Overburdened defenders also make mistakes and miss evidence that could have cleared their clients.  These mistakes create more appeals.  As Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer noted in March in congressional testimony about the effects in general of the sequester, it is “cheaper to have a decent lawyer in the first place.”

Medical Research

Even George Will decries the effects of reductions in basic medical research caused by the sequester.

For Francis Collins, being the NIH’s director is a daily experience of exhilaration and dismay. In the past 40 years, he says, heart attacks and strokes have declined 60 percent and 70 percent, respectively. Cancer deaths are down 15 percent in 15 years. An AIDS diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. Researchers are on the trail of a universal flu vaccine, based on new understandings of the influenza virus and the human immune system. Chemotherapy was invented here — and it is being replaced by treatments developed here. Yet the pace of public health advances, Collins says, is being slowed by the sequester.

This will be, Collins believes, “the century of biology.” Other countries have “read our playbook,” seeing how biomedical research can reduce health costs, produce jobs and enhance competitiveness. Meanwhile, America’s great research universities award advanced degrees to young scientists from abroad, and then irrational immigration policy compels them to leave and add value to other countries. And now the sequester discourages and disperses scientific talent.

Forest Management

The sequester has also reduced our ability to manage our forests which has contributed to the unprecedented scale of wildfires that we’ve had to fight.

The Hazardous Fuels Reduction Program was $500 million last year, went down to $419 million this year under the automatic budget cuts, and has been proposed to go to $292 million next year.

“The fires that are ripping through Oregon and Idaho and California and the West are just proof that the fire prevention policy is broke,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, said from Lincoln City.

“There are years of neglect. The fuel load builds up and it gets hotter and hotter on the forest floor. Then you get something like a lightning strike and a big inferno. Then the bureaucracy takes money from the prevention fund to put the fires out and the problem gets worse. The cycle just repeats itself again and again.”

This brings us to the basic question of why.

The only answer I can come up with is that Republicans have lost touch with reality.  They have won the war against debt.  Rather than take a victory lap and set themselves up for a potential change in control in the senate, they are determined to pump another bullet into the wounded economic recovery.

Their fantasy that cutting government spending would stimulate economic activity has failed.  We can now document the damage it did to the economy.  With the second round of sequester cuts looming, we have an opportunity to reduce the damage.  Just stopping the austerity program will have a positive economic effect.  But we can’t seem to even have a rational discussion on how to do that simple thing because of ideology and politics.

Since it is unlikely that Republicans will unilaterally abandon the ideology that is driving their actions, the only other possible solution is a political one.  If Republicans suffer another defeat in 2014 similar to what they experienced in 2012, maybe then the survivors will finally realize that there are real political consequences to imposing a minority agenda on an unwilling majority.

Clown Politics

August 12th, 2013

This past weekend, a rodeo clown at the Missouri State Fair wore a mask to mock President Obama.  Apparently the performance went well over the line between the sort of slapstick humor typical of rodeo clowns and mean spirited racism.

 

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Here’s a description from one of the members of the audience.

“It was the usual until the very end at bull riding,” he said. “As they were bringing the bulls into the chute and prepping them … they bring out what looks like a dummy. The announcer says ‘Here’s our Obama dummy, or our dummy of Obama.

“They mentioned the president’s name, I don’t know, 100 times. It was sickening,” Beam said. “It was feeling like some kind of Klan rally you’d see on TV.”

Unfortunately, this Missouri rodeo clown is part of a vocal minority who feel that the man who has won two national elections fair and square somehow doesn’t deserve the office that he occupies.

This is driven by an unprecedented assault on both the man and the office by the Republican Party.

Paul Ryan recently responded to Obama’s latest proposal for a corporate tax cut.  Obama was offering to work with Congress to overhaul business taxes in exchange for a guarantee that the revenue gains be used create new jobs through spending on roads and infrastructure.

“The president claims his economic agenda is for the middle class. But it’s actually for the well-connected…There’s no doubt that it works well for them. But for the rest of us, it’s not working at all.”

Ryan further protested that Obama is “interested in tax reform for corporations — but not for families or small business.” He also accused Obama of implementing health care and regulatory policies that favor big businesses and big banks.

Paul Ryan struck a different tone during the 2012 Presidential campaign.  He accused Obama of “sowing social unrest and class resentment,” of supporting “a government-run economy” and of “denigrating people who are successful.” He has charged the president with leading the nation toward “a cradle-to-grave, European-style social welfare state.”

So which is it?  Is Obama a class-baiting socialist or a corporate sellout?

Boehner, asked at a news conference about Obama’s series of speeches on the economy, replied: “If I had poll numbers as low as his, I’d probably be out doing the same thing if I were him.” Obama’s job-approval rating is 46 percent. Boehner’s is half that.

Mitt Romney called Obama a “weak president,” and Newt Gingrich, during the 2012 campaign, called Obama “so weak that he makes Jimmy Carter look strong.”

Yet in January Boehner said that Obama planned to annihilate the Republican party, ““[G]iven what we heard yesterday about the president’s vision for his second term, it’s pretty clear to me and should be clear to all of you that he knows he can’t do any of that as long as the House is controlled by Republicans,” Boehner said. “So we’re expecting over the next 22 months to be the focus of this administration as they attempt to annihilate the Republican Party. And let me tell you, I do believe that is their goal. To just shove us in the dustbin of history.”

Rep. Issa said Obama is guilty of “imperial behavior” and “abuse of power.” Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, asserts Obama is “someone who wants to act like a king or a monarch.” And Rep. Louie Gohmert, of Texas, says Obama is “a tyrannical despot.”

So which is it?  Is Obama a weakling or a tyrant?

During the intervention in Libya, Gingrich demanded in early March 2011 that the United States should “exercise a no-fly zone this evening.” Two weeks later, after Obama took the action that would bring down Moammar Gaddafi, Gingrich said, “I would not have intervened.”

After the Benghazi attacks, Republicans lined up to criticize the President for not having enough security at the embassy in Benghazi and ignoring the mounting tensions Ambassador Stevens was documenting.

Fast forward to this month when the administration closed embassies across the Middle East in response to an intercepted al Qaeda communication.  “Terrorism works — because we’re closing all of our embassies and consulates on one day,” said Rep. Ted Poe, the chairman of the House’s terrorism and nonproliferation panel.  “Our embassies cannot operate with a bunker mentality in foreign countries,” he said. “Our embassies are there to interact with the people of that country. I hope we don’t get into this bunker mentality mode.”

So which is it? Is Obama a tone deaf risk taker or a terrified bunker dweller?

I could continue for quite a while, but the picture is clear.

The only consistent message coming from Republicans is that Obama is always wrong.  He is wrong if he acts.  He is wrong if he doesn’t act.  His ideas are always wrong even when he borrows them from Republicans (Obamacare, corporate tax cuts, and no fly zones).

Republicans may feel that tearing down the President is an effective strategy to get them back into the White House.  The problem is that if they demonstrate that this is an effective strategy, it will be used on them too.  And if they do ever return to the White House, they may not recognize the smoldering ruin they had to create to get there.

A More Perfect Union

August 4th, 2013

A More Perfect Union

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?

And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.  Matthew 5:43-48 

Jesus was pretty clear here.

God loves everyone.  His Son Jesus advises us, for our own good, to do the same.  He was also pretty clear about who that “everyone” included.  Not just those that agree with us, but all those who treat us badly, make us mad, and may even persecute us.

The political situation in this country is pretty good evidence that people aren’t taking that advise.

CBS released a poll which shows that there are very few people left in the middle of our political spectrum.  The rancor of the past 13 years or so has forced most people to take a side.  The result is that everyone thinks that the other guy is crazy.

Is-the-other-party-too-extreme

 

Compared to partisans, independents actually don’t appear stuck in the middle: just 29 percent of them see both parties as too extreme. Independents instead tend to pick only one of the parties as too extreme, so this isn’t really a case of an alienated center watching both parties move further away. (And it also squares with the fact that many people who call themselves independent do in fact lean to one side.)

Here’s how that affects our politics.

Americans want deals and compromises in principle, and from both sides -eight in ten say they’d like to see more of it. But when those Republican voters back home see congressional Democrats as too extreme, and vice versa for Democratic voters, then members to who cut deals across the aisle are bound to face suspicion: has that extreme other side really changed its stripes? Did our side really get more than we gave? And it’s easy to see why activists on both sides are turned off by the very thought of cooperation with another party that’s so (seemingly) out of touch.

The result is that voters have given their representatives an impossible task.  They dislike deadlock, but they are so skeptical of the motives of the other side, that they question any concessions that necessarily have to be made in order to reach a compromise.  In other words, voters say that they want compromise, but they punish the politicians who in fact attempt to make a deal and reward those who, in principle, refuse to support anything but the party line.

Because the extremes appear to outnumber the middle, our government has lost the ability to compromise.  Instead it is all about maneuvering for power and counting the “scalps” that can be accumulated along the way.  We have replaced practical reality with political gamesmanship and obsessive ideology.

Here are a few recent examples.

Obamacare Obsession

The House recently voted for the 40th time to repeal Obamacare.  It passed on a strict party line vote, but will have no practical effect on the law.  The only value of this vote is to provide Republican members of the House a “scalp” to take home with them and show to their supporters.  The vote may help Republicans build the case for electing more Republican Senators in 2014, but Senator Tom Coburn summarized reality when he said, “The only way you get rid of Obamacare is winning the 2016 election.”

Republican Senators Lee and Rand Paul have been circulating a letter threatening to shut down the government in the fall if President Obama doesn’t stop the Obamacare rollout.  This is another activity, like the previous one, that is perilous for Republicans.  The last time Republicans shut down the government, they paid a dear price at the polls and single-handedly rescued Bill Clinton’s Presidency from the Lewinsky scandal.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., called it the “dumbest idea” he had ever heard, while Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., warned against more shutdown “shenanigans.” Some senators who initially backed the idea, like Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, have rescinded their support for it.

Even if House Republicans WERE successful in shutting down the government, that action, like the votes in the House, would only be symbolic.   The Congressional Research Service has reported that a government shutdown would not slow the Obamacare rollout.  That’s because Obamacare has other sources funding that are beyond the reach of the sorts of annual appropriations controlled by the House.

So why try?  According to Senator Ted Cruz, who is backing the government shutdown gambit, “No major entitlement, once it has been implemented, has ever been unwound,” he said. “If we don’t do it now, in all likelihood we never will.”

The reality about Obamacare is that the game is over.  By 2016, the law will be fully implemented.  State exchanges will be up and running.  Somewhere around 20M people who previously couldn’t afford to purchase insurance themselves, will be insured.  Those people are not going to vote for anyone who promises to take away their health insurance.  The margin of victory in 2012 was 5M.  It will be political suicide for any candidate for national office to start the race with a 20M deficit.  The 2012 election was the best opportunity for Republicans to repeal Obamacare, and they failed.   Their base, however, won’t allow them to admit defeat.  Instead they may inflict some very real economic damage to the country.

Scandal Obsession

Republicans are convinced that there must be a scandal somewhere.  The harder they look, however, the less they find.  Yet they continue to dig, because the digging itself supports the conservative partisan view that Democrats are corrupt.  So we have the spectacle of Rep Issa issuing subpoenas for more documents from the IRS, the state Department, and the Justice Department while the information that they are supplying only continues to support the administrations original claims.  Issa claims that the agencies involved are holding back valuable information, but that is also more political grandstanding.  The IRA has 170 people including 70 lawyers working on delivering the documents that Issa has requested.   His demands deliberately exceed their ability to respond.

Here’s what the documents that have been delivered so far have shown.

There was no executive branch involvement in the methods the IRS created to screen applications for non-profit status.  In fact, both liberal and conservative groups were subjected to the same types of screens.

While mistakes were made in Benghazi, there was no conspiracy to misrepresent the information shared with the public.

The failed attempt to trace guns being traded across the Mexican border was just that.  There was no attempt by the White House to cover up what was a poorly designed operation from the start.

The failures in each case were bureaucratic, not political.

Republicans aren’t particularly interested in what has the potential to be a real scandal – domestic spying.

Debt

We’re going to see this spin up again this fall when there is another discussion about spending.

The reality is that the sequester has cost both jobs and economic growth, but it has slowed the growth in debt to the point where it is possible with additional economic stimulus that we could grow our economy faster than our debt.

This should be good news.  Instead we are going to see more attempts to cut spending rather than stimulate growth because it was never about the debt.  It was always about reducing the size of government and weakening the traditional Democratic base.

Immigration Reform

Republicans of almost all stripes have admitted that if they are to have any hope of competing in future national elections, they have to repair their dismal image with immigrants.  The Senate in a brief moment of clarity managed to pass an immigration reform bill, but only after committing to spend $30B to build more fences and hire more border control agents.  Some have estimated that this cost works out to $40K per immigrant and may only serve to redirect the flow of immigrants from the border to other coastal locations.

The CBO estimated that the Senate bill would reduce the debt over the next decade by $135B and cut the flow of illegal immigrants by 50%.  Because of the path to citizenship, it would also reduce the number of undocumented workers living in this country over the next decade to 5M.

Yet it was not enough for House Republicans who rejected the whole thing.  They want to focus on questionable enforcement measures first.  Some reject the whole notion of a path to citizenship.

Why?

Because they have a base that has been supporting candidates with xenophobic positions against all immigration.  This even though President Bush proposed a similar plan in his administration and Reagan signed the Immigration Reform Act in 1986 which legalized 3M undocumented workers.

Summary

For those interested in history, what we are seeing in politics today is fascinating.  Ideas that Republicans created and promoted for decades are no longer recognizable to that party.  Obamacare was a Republican alternative to single-payor healthcare reform and was actually successfully implemented by Mitt Romney in MA.  Cap and Trade, monetary stimulus, tax reform, and entitlement reform were ALL originally Republican ideas.  The have ALL been proposed at one point or another by this administration as “common sense” approaches to solve problems.  They have ALL been rejected by today’s Republican Party.  This used to be the party promoting the intelligence of the free market.  It has become the party of opposed-to-whatever-the-Democrats- support.

There is a solution coming because demographics are running in the direction of Democrats.

The problem is that even this doesn’t resolve the underlying erosion in democracy as an effective method to resolve differences between political extremes.  Instead we appear to be drifting towards more of a parliamentary democracy where the only times things get done is when one party controls the government.

While I would prefer that Democratic ideas prevail, I would not want that to happen as a result of the death of the Republican party.  If that’s what occurs, it will be a dark legacy for our troubled time.

Chariots of Fire

July 24th, 2013

And when the servant of the man of God was risen early, and gone forth, behold, an host compassed the city both with horses and chariots.  And his servant said unto him, Alas, my master! how shall we do?  II Kings 6:15

Elisha was in a tough spot.  God, through Elisha, was helping the King of Israel elude the more powerful Syrian army.  When the King of Syria discovered Israel’s secret weapon, he sent a bunch of his best chariot soldiers (the military killing machines of the day) to capture Elisha.  They surrounded him at Dothan.

Republicans have adopted a similar strategy with Obamacare and so far have been just as frustrated as the King of Syria.

President Obama used the majority that he earned in his first election to get this legislation passed.

He lost that legislative majority in part because of Republican opposition and popular backlash to the law.

The law did survive legal challenges that ultimately went to the Supreme Court.

It also survived a second national election where Obama’s opponent, Mitt Romney pledged to repeal the legislation.  Paul Ryan was recently quoted saying that Obamcare was a key component in their defeat.

“This was our challenge that Mitt Romney and I had in this last election,” Ryan said in a speech at the annual Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington, DC. “We had to argue against the promise and the rhetoric of President Obama. The great soaring rhetoric, all of the empty promises.”

It may have also been the unseemly spectacle of Romney arguing against a program that he had promoted while Governor of Massachusetts.  Or it could have been the failure of Republicans to offer a credible alternative, but we’ve already discussed the 2012 election in more than enough detail.

Now Republicans are attempting to defund any part of the bill that they can get their hands on, while beating the drum as loudly as they can that the implementation is going to be a disaster.  This is right in the wheelhouse for Republicans, since Big Lie politics has been their strategy pretty much since this President first ran for office.  The result is that some people are scared, though there is little proof yet that they have anything to be afraid of.

When you look at this from a historical perspective, the same things happened to every major new government social program over the last century, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

In 1966 the Johnson government had to mount a door to door campaign to sign up seniors for a free medical insurance program designed to help them with what for many was their single largest expense.

“What will happen then, on that summer day when the federally insured system of paying hospital bills becomes reality?” Nona Brown, a New York Times reporter, wondered in a story published April 23, 1966. “Will there be lines of old folks at hospital doors, with no rooms to put them in, too few doctors and nurses and technicians to care for them?”

Medicare wasn’t a slam dunk either.  JFK was the first to propose it and he failed.  The AMA opposed it.  Two months before LBJ signed the bill the AMA ran ads across the country denouncing the program as “the beginning of socialized medicine”.   Some experts said that the government would fail to enroll enough seniors to make the plan work.  They worried that the $3.00 monthly premium would be too expensive, particularly for those poor seniors who needed it most.  They also said that there wouldn’t be enough physicians to treat all of these newly insured people.  Segregation was also a problem in the south were hospitals refused to provide service for elderly African Americans.  Medicare patients had access to only 1% of the available hospital beds in Mobile Alabama because they potentially could be used by African Americans.  Within weeks of the start of the program, however, all 65 hospitals were accepting patients.

There are also parallels to Medicare Part D rolled out eight years ago. In the spring of 2005, Medicare Part D was less popular that Obamacare is now in part because even fewer Americans understood how IT worked than understand how Obamacare works.  Just before the start of enrollment, in October 2006, “only one in five seniors expected to enroll in Part D.” The rest either hadn’t made up their mind, or thought they already had similar coverage.

Medicare Part D rollout compared with Obamacare

Medicare Part D rollout compared with Obamacare

Seniors, it turned out, were not exactly great at predicting their behaviors: 53 percent of Medicare beneficiaries ended up enrolling in the new benefit. The CBO was off by a bit too, with the average drug plan costing $29 per month rather than $35.

The Medicare Part D rollout had plenty of problems and still hasn’t reached all of the seniors originally targeted.  It has also been criticized as a give-away to Big Pharma.  But in a recent survey, 90% of the participants in the plan said they were satisfied.

“The temporary issues were just that, temporary,” said Mark McClellan, who led Medicare during the rollout. “The memories didn’t last that long. In the end, it comes down to how good the insurance coverage is.”

So what are the clues that we’ve been seeing so far for Obamacare?

Premium bids on the health exchanges, for example, are coming in slightly lower than the Congressional Budget Office projections. Call centers are starting up right now, but it’s still hard to predict what call volume they will receive in the coming months.

Medicare Part D started marketing a year ahead of the program.  Obamacare is planning a big push this fall closer to when the new plans will actually be available.

What they have determined is that they have to get 7M people signing up through the exchanges, 2.7M of whom need to be in the 18-35 set.  Fortunately this is in the wheelhouse of the Obama administration because this was the same targeted group that helped elect Obama in 2012, and the administration has kept all of the microtargeting data that proved so effective in that campaign.

Here’s an example of what they have learned.

The Obama administration believes it has four ways to pull people — both young and old — into the market. There are the subsidies. There’s the individual mandate. There’s the hoped-for ease and transparency of the new marketplaces. And then there’s the fact that people want health insurance.

The rest of the good news for Obamacare is that young people are the largest uninsured group at 18M.  8M will qualify for free insurance.  9M will qualify for subsidized insurance.  Now the prospect of getting 2.7M young people to sign up doesn’t seem nearly so daunting.  The urban institute projects that 96% of 21 to 27 year olds will qualify for some subsidy.  Combine that with the individual mandate penalties for those who can afford insurance and you get the results seen in Massachusetts, where the number of uninsured young adults dropped into the low single digits.

That’s not to say that Republican opposition won’t still impact the rollout, but that opposition is going to be increasing desperate as the facts on the ground prove Republican claims to be, yet again, lies.

A good example is the recent revelation in Indiana. Republican Governor Mike Pence has made opposition to Obamacare a major part of his platform in hopes, perhaps, of making a run at national office.  Funny thing happened on the way to the primaries, however.

Pence’s administration gleefully announced that under Obamacare Indiana premiums were going to rise to an average of $572 a month.  That’s a 72% increase over where they are now.  That seemed to fly in the face of announcements from states like California, Oregon, Washington, and New York where Democratic governors announced projected savings.

Turns out that those same savings exist in Indiana too with the most popular plans coming in under $300, but Indiana officials masked that savings by assuming that at least 30% of the people in that state would purchase the most expensive options.  The national guideline is more like 8%.  In Midwestern states like Indiana that number is even lower.

The recalcitrant Michigan Senate also finally voted today to extend Medicaid to the poor and accept the Federal government subsidies.  If the tea party zealots that comprise the majority in the Michigan Senate ultimately wilted under the reality that this deal is just too good to pass up, the same thing will happen in all of the other states opposing Medicaid expansion.  Accepting the deal makes too much economic sense.  Those states who oppose it for political reasons will discover, just as they did in Michigan, that they have put their business community at a cost disadvantage.  Even fanatical conservatives understand where their support comes from, and if they persist in their opposition, the business community will make sure someone more favorable to expanded Medicaid coverage takes their place.

Obamacare will succeed because, just like the 2012 election, he has the numbers.  The numbers of people who will see improvement in their healthcare coverage WILDLY outnumber the people who may either see their rates go up or their coverage change because of actions of their employer.  The CBO has already said that 90% of those who currently have coverage through their employer will not see any change.  And each person, whose access to healthcare improves as a result of this plan, will oppose any future effort to take that coverage away.

And he answered, Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.

And Elisha prayed, and said, Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see.  And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.  II Kings 6:16-17

 

The Original Tea Party Patriots

July 13th, 2013

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution continue to be controversial, as they were intended to be.

Nathan Philbreck has written a wonderful new book called Bunker Hill chronicling the role that Boston played in the revolution that led to the creation of these documents.  The Boston of his telling was not too far removed from the ungovernable tribal areas of Afghanistan that we hear about today.  As a result, founding fathers like Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, and even Adams were way more concerned about the Boston rabble than they were the British.  They feared that after beating the British, Bostonians would keep right on going and defeat the rest of the colonies in short order, establishing themselves as the rulers of the new America.

The one saving grace was that the inhabitants of this feisty bare-knuckled blue collar town of 15,000 also believed in this new idea of democracy.  That’s the soil in which the seeds of this great country were sown.  While they still believed in settling their differences with their fists, they longed for a government where laws protected the rights of the individual from the might of the powerful.

Today’s Tea Party could learn something from the history of the group whose name they have taken.

What has grown from those Boston seeds is a government of checks and balances that is now severely challenged by special interest money and partisan politics.

Let’s go down some of the list examples of those challenges.

Obamacare – No single recent political issue is more divisive.  The reality, however, is that Obamacare did pass by a majority vote of both the House and Senate, was upheld by the Supreme Court, and is now the law of land.  Republicans ran a Presidential candidate in the last national election who promised to repeal Obamacare if elected.  He lost convincingly.  Rather than accept the obvious and work to make the law better, Republicans continue to fight a trench war against its implementation.

The Republican budget proposed this year included a repeal of Obamacare, even though there was no hope of getting that past the Democratic majority in the Senate or the White House.  That budget did, however, still include the same taxes that Republicans labeled as “job killing” in the last election.

Michigan is another example.  The Republican Governor supports the federal expansion of Medicaid contained in the bill.  He says it is a good deal for the state and for businesses.  He is supported by the business community.   The Medicaid expansion bill passed the house but stalled in the Senate.  It has stalled because the Republican majority leader refused to bring the bill up for a vote before the Senate adjourned.  It was because he didn’t have enough votes to defeat it.  Instead Michigan is at risk for loss of billions of dollars of federal aid and significant added business cost because a Conservative MINORITY opposes the whole concept of subsidized care for the poor.

Abortion – The single most divisive political issue of our time.  Abortion up to 28 weeks has been legal for decades since the Supreme Court Roe V. Wade case in 1973.  This ruling continues to be upheld in the courts.  It continues to survive in national elections, 2012 being the last example.  Rather than seek some common ground where both pro-life and pro-choice forces could focus efforts on the prevention of unwanted pregnancies; those opposed to abortion continue to use the same trench war tactics against access to abortion.  It has become a valuable fund raising issue for both conservatives and liberals.  States with conservative majorities are passing laws to make abortion more difficult, expensive, and time consuming.  Just like the Michigan Senate, the goal is to “run the clock out” for some of the women seeking these services.  These laws will eventually make their way to the Supreme Court and will likely be struck down.  In the meantime, though abortion is a constitutional right, ability to exercise this right depends on the state you live in.

Immigration – The courts have ruled that all residents (legal and illegal) are protected by our laws and have a right to things like a free public education.  In striking down the Arizona laws, the court said that immigration status in and of itself is not probable cause for a police stop.  In the wake of a sound drubbing in the 2012 election, Senate Republicans and Democrats came up with a compromise immigration bill that offers those who are currently in this country illegally a path to citizenship.  That bill will likely pass the House if an up down vote is taken today.  House Majority Leader Boenher, however, is unwilling to bring it to a vote because a majority of Republicans in the house oppose it.  This after the CBO projected that the Senate Immigration bill would reduce the deficit by $135B over the next decade and reduces illegal immigration by 50%.

Surveillance – The US began a massive data gathering activity to monitor all internet communications as well as phone conversations during the Bush administration.  The Obama administration continued this surveillance with full Congressional and judicial overview.  This clearly runs counter to the privacy protections of the constitution, but it is a practice that a majority of our elected representatives have approved as part of a larger effort to detect terrorist plots.  What is interesting here is to see the role that politics is playing.  In 2006 when the illegal Bush Administration NSA surveillance schemes came to light, Pew Research found that 75% of Republicans supported the plan and 61% of Democrats opposed it.  Now in 2013, the opinions have flipped.  47% of Republicans oppose the NSA program.  64% of Democrats support it.  So clearly this has WAY more to do with who is in the White House than the legality or constitutionality of the program.

Marriage Equality – This was a wedge issue created by Republicans to energize social conservatives.  It culminated in Bill Clinton signing a Defense of Marriage act in 1996.  He signed it because it had passed both houses of Congress with veto proof majorities.  Every national election cycle since has seen local conservative groups in at least one state propose a state-wide issue to define marriage even though at a federal level the issue had already been decided.  The Mormon Church and it’s members contributed more than $20M of the $39M ultimately raised by the supporters of Prop 8.  45% of the out of state money supporting this California ballot measure came from Utah.

The bottom line is that all of these measures are unconstitutional and will ultimately all be repealed or struck down because they violate the basic constitutional rights of same sex couples.

Summary

The Constitution doesn’t care about politics.  It only cares about rights.  The Supreme Court interprets those rights based on the body of law to date as well the needs of TODAY’S citizens.  That’s why slavery was abolished and women can now vote, even though the original document allowed slavery and prohibited women from voting.

Citizens also have an opportunity to amend the constitution, but the last time that happened was in 1971 when the voting age was lowered to 18 (not counting the 27th amendment which took 203 years to ratify).  So the reality is that most of the time these days the Supreme Court decides how the constitution applied to the laws that Congress passes.

Some conservative groups have attempted to revise history regarding the intent of our founding fathers and at least one Supreme Court justice reflects this “strict constructionist” view of how the constitution should be interpreted.  Fortunately the court continues to steer a path between the extremes represented in the voting electorate.  That makes extremists from both sides of the political spectrum unhappy.

That’s because the courts and our founding documents are mitigating the impact of the more extremist policies coming from our deeply divided electorate.

Like it or not, that is one of enduring qualities of a country where right can trump might.  Those Bostonian patriots would be proud of how well this system that they created continues to function.

 

Budget Fantasy

June 20th, 2013

It wasn’t all that long ago that Republicans in the House and Senate were claiming that the Obama administration was irresponsible because they hadn’t proposed a budget.

“President Obama missed a great opportunity today to help our economy.  This was supposed to be the day he submitted his budget to the Congress.  But it’s not coming.  It’s going to be late.  Some reports say it could be a month late,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said on the House floor.

Then both the White House AND the Senate Democrats put budgets on the table.

What has happened since is a fascinating political turn from Republicans.

The first was the claim that no progress would occur on budget talks until President Obama was willing to support cuts to retirement programs.  Then Obama DID publically outline his willingness to make adjustments to retirement programs in return for more revenue through tax reform and subsidy cuts.  The Republican response was to deny that Obama ever said anything.  Boehner said, “there’s no plan from Senate Democrats or the White House to replace the sequester.”

When confronted by reporters that Obama had not only produced a budget, but that it also included concessions on retirement plans, Boehner responded, “If he had a plan, why wouldn’t Senate Democrats go ahead and pass it?”

The facts again, however, are at odds with that position.

The reason the Senate Democrats have been unable to pass a budget to replace the sequester cuts is that the Senate Republicans have blocked a vote with a filibuster.  The Senate Republicans are filibustering the bill because they know if they allowed a simple up or down vote, the budget would pass.

This is consistent with the Republican message that the sequester is not only Obama’s fault, but his preference.  At the same time as they are criticizing Obama for failing to compromise (which in Republican speak means accept our position), they are taking credit for the whole effort.  “I don’t think taking 2 percent off the top in a $14 trillion economy is going to be a big drag on growth,” said House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.  For an economy that is struggling to grow faster than 2%, that is a curious statement – but then math has historically been a challenge for him.

Both Obama, the Democrats, and Republicans proposed alternatives to the sequester.  Yet the sequester cuts still took effect.  Here’s how Boenher explained it.

Well, no, he didn’t want the cuts, but we have the sequester as a result of his demands. And I, told my colleagues in the House that the sequester will stay in effect until there’s an agreement that will include cuts and reforms that will put us on a path to balance the budget over the next ten years.

This path to a balanced budget is a reference to the Republican Paul Ryan budget which was rejected by voters less than a year ago. That’s the budget that also includes repealing Obamacare which the CBO says will ADD to the debt. But the Ryan budget keeps the “job killing” taxes contained in the Obamacare bill in order to balance the budget in ten years.

What about the deal that Obama put on the table to “trade” reductions in retirement programs for tax reform?

Boehner said, “Listen. I have worked with the president for two years to try to come to an agreement. Unfortunately, we’ve not been able to do so.”

Right! Obama has a deficit plan, but Boehner couldn’t come to an agreement on it because Eric Cantor told him the House Republicans wouldn’t approve it. Cantor has said this himself. That’s not a supporting point for Boehner’s contention that Obama has no deficit proposal that includes spending cuts. It’s, if anything, a refutation.

When pushed on this point, Boehner has said, “The president got $650 billion of higher taxes on the American people on January the first. How much more does he want? When is the president going to address the spending side of this?”

And so the circular part of this illogical argument starts over again.

Republicans claim that Obama doesn’t have a plan to replace the sequester (which he does) because the Senate can’t pass it.  The Senate has the votes to pass it but Republicans are preventing the Senate from taking a vote.  The House Republicans discount Obama’s offer to cut spending AND raise taxes because they oppose tax increases even though their own budget includes tax increases.

So why don’t we have a deal?

Boehner can’t make a deal because if it did, it wouldn’t pass the House and would likely also cost him his job.  Instead of pointing the finger at the Tea Party section of the house, he has simply created this Big Lie regarding the President and his intentions.

He figures if he and other Republicans continue to repeat this Big Lie, perhaps it will stick.

“The president has to go first with plans for Medicare and Social Security,” Maine Senator Collins said. “Then I think you will see more receptivity on the Republican side to an overhaul of the tax code” that raises more revenue.

Or

“It’s still not clear he’s willing to actually cut spending,” said another House aide.  “And that’s what is necessary.”

“I’m not so sure he has given up on raising taxes entirely,” says yet another aide.  “He will try to raise net tax revenue through tax reform.”  GOP Congressional aids quoted by Byron York.

Yet this is EXACTLY what Obama has been offering for months.  He has gone first, as Senator Collins recommended, and nothing has happened.  He has offered to trade tax increases through tax reform for cuts in Medicare and Society Security.  Republicans are rejecting this offer because, apparently, THEY are the only ones who can be trusted to raise taxes.

So why aren’t we getting a deal done?

Ezra Klein from the Washington Post documented this maddening circular logic with GOP Strategists Mike Murphy.

Murphy began by opining that Republicans might cut a deal with Obama if only Obama would endorse means-testing Medicare. Reporter John Harwood tweeted to him that Obama has supported this. Murphy replied that it’s a “good start but not enough” — Obama should also support “chained CPI,” or using a stingier formula to calculate cost of living increases for Social Security. Many people pointed this out to him. Murphy then called chained CPI a “small-beans gimmick.”

Instead we have sequester cuts which are causing real hardships to real people.  The cuts are slowing economic growth and putting people out of work.  That is making even the International Monetary Fund uncomfortable.  They have already expressed their concern that the US cutting spending TOO quickly.  It wasn’t all that long ago that Republicans were using the IMF as the boogeyman.  If the US didn’t cut spending, they predicted, the IMF would impose harsh penalties similar to what they did to Greece.  Now the IMF is warning us, just like it warned Greece, but the warning is that the Republican plan to dramatically shrink government is too aggressive.

“The nature of the recovery appears to be changing,” the IMF staff wrote in its mid-year review of the world’s largest economy. “The automatic spending cuts not only exert a heavy toll on growth in the short term but the indiscriminate reductions in education, science and infrastructure spending could also reduce medium-term potential growth.”

What do they recommend?

The same deal the President has offered.   Increase taxes to fund investments in education, science and infrastructure and reduce longer term spending through retirement program reform.

So why don’t we have a deal?

Because the Republicans are unwilling to make ANY deal with Obama.  This has nothing to do with entitlement reform.  This has nothing to do with taxes.  This has nothing to do with economics.

Republicans would rather prevent REAL economic recovery, blame the continuing hardship on Obama, continue to tell the Big Lie that he’s the one who is unwilling to compromise, and take their chances with voters in 2014.  That’s been the Republican strategy ever since Obama and his new progressive majority took over the White House.  It was a strategy that worked in 2010.

Fortunately the Democrats already have plans to hold Republicans accountable for this strategy in 2014.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said in speaking with constituents that the budget has become a common topic and people are receptive to the approach Democrats have outlined.

“People want a budget,” Schatz said. “There is anxiety because we’ve been on a [continuing resolution] for so long and sequester is hurting our local economy.”

Hopefully there will be some accountability at the ballot box.  That is the best way to punish those who choose the interests of their party over the interests of the country.

Issa’s IRS Agenda

June 4th, 2013

Rep Darrell Issa from California thinks that the Cincinnati IRS office method of investigating applications for non-profit status, “was coordinated in all likelihood right out of Washington headquarters – and we’re getting to proving it.”

This might be shocking to those who have not been following Rep Issa’s Congressional career, but a closer look reveals a different agenda.  When Congressman Issa took over control of the house, he claimed that the Obama was “one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times”.   He also predicted that his investigations into this corruption would save the taxpayers $200B.

His committee has generated over 700 requests for information, issued dozens of subpoenas, and held hundreds of hearings.   But for all of that activity, there have been few follow-ups and more importantly, even fewer reports, and no prosecutions or convictions.

Let’s see if Rep. Issa has delivered on his two big agenda items; uncovering corruption and saving the taxpayers money.

To support his promise to save $200B, he used this Medicare example.  “We can save $125 billion in simply not giving out money to Medicare recipients that don’t exist for procedures that didn’t happen.”

When asked where his $125B number came from, Issa’s press office pointed to the Office of Management and Budget.  That office, however, said the $125B figure covered all government payments, not just Medicare.  The OMB report cited by Issa’s office also detailed how the Obama administration’s focus on Medicare fraud had reduced improper payments from 12.4% to 10.5% saving $4B.

Politifact labeled Issa’s claim of $125 in Medicare fraud FALSE.

Issa tried to make a big issue out of Solydra’s failure.  “There’s been this attitude that government can weigh in with loan guarantees and money and pick winners, specific company winners, and losers.”  ”We see that as a backdoor easy way to end up with corruption in government.”  Issa got more than 170K pages of documents on Solyndra, requested another 1M pages, and after a year, came up empty.  “Is there a criminal activity? Perhaps not,” Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa told POLITICO. “Is there a political influence and connections? Perhaps not. Did they bend the rules for an agenda, an agenda not covered within the statute? Absolutely.”  Shortly after making that comment, it turned out that Issa had himself sent a letter to the Department of Energy requesting that they “bend the rules” on a loan to Solyndra.  Issa was also the featured speaker at a Romney fund-raiser hosted by Solyndra’s main lobbyist.

Finally, Issa was particularly incensed that Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak was offered an administration job in exchange for dropping out of the primary race against Arlen Spector.

He called the Sestak matter “Obama’s Watergate” and called repeatedly for an investigation, suggesting at one point that there could have been “up to three felonies” involved. He also called for a special prosecutor to conduct a “formal investigation into whether a crime was committed” in the Sestak offer.

Where did that one go?

The same place all of the others ones have gone – nowhere.  After learning that this practice was common in the Bush White House, he dropped the whole thing.  “Once we knew, as we discovered, that it turns out that Republicans and previous administrations thought it was OK in spite of the absolute black and white letter of the law, it got bigger — it got bigger than President Barack Obama.”

So that brings us back to the IRS investigation and Issa’s claim that it can be traced back to Washington.

He claims that he has testimony from IRS employees to support his claim, but refuses to release the full transcripts of the testimonies.  He claims that his committee has subpoenaed the administration for more documents, but his office later said no additional subpoenas have been issued.

And that Washington connection?  It turns out that the tax attorneys who serve as a resource for those processing applications for tax exempt status work in Washington.  Those were the people that were providing the IRS Cincinnati office direction on how to deal with applications from groups who appeared to be participating in prohibited political activity.

The funny thing is that for someone obsessed with the “scandals” of the current administration, Rep. Issa was himself a key participant in a REAL political scandal.

It was Bush’s political purge of 8 US Attorneys.  Turns out that Rep. Issa was one of the politicians requesting the dismissal of the attorney in his district because of her successful  prosecution of Republican San Diego Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham.  He wrote a letter complaining that his local attorney should have been focusing her attention on immigration violations rather than the $2.4M bribery that eventually sent “Duke” Cunningham to jail.  That attorney was later dismissed even though her HR record praised her for her work on the Cunningham case and had no entries suggesting she was somehow neglecting her immigration enforcement responsibilities.

So where does this leave us?

As far as the IRS is concerned, the spin is already moving away from Watergate and toward lack of oversight.  So rather than being guilty of concocting the plot, the White House is now guilty of knowing about it and not doing anything.

“My gut tells me that too many people knew this wrongdoing was going on before the election, and at least by some sort of convenient, benign neglect, allowed it to go on through the election,” Issa said. “I’m not making any allegations as to motive, that they set out to do it, but certainly people knew it was happening.”

The next inevitable step has already been floated by Karl Rove in a weekend dustup on ABC with David Plouffe.  After debating the topic, Rove said, “I didn’t suggest it was being driven by the White House.”, but finished up by blaming the president anyway and said those at the top in the Obama administration should have done a better job in policing the IRS.

Thus this story follows the same arc of many others in the Issa resume.  Big claims of scandal, followed by innuendo based on partial reporting of the data, followed by reframing of the original claims as the facts contradicting the original claims become better known, followed by silence – no report, no indictment, no trial.  The trial of course would be redundant, since the only trial that matters is the trial that was already held in the court of public opinion.

Issa has even backed off on his claim regarding Obama’s corruption.

“I’m certainly saying this administration is going to have to straighten up and fly right. It’ll be our job to make sure government money isn’t wasted.”

“I’ve never made that a personal statement, tried never to make that a personal statement about the president, so if that’s backing up from it, I’m not saying the president is personally corrupt. But his administration has to change direction, particularly as to taxpayers’ money.”

So what is Issa’s agenda?  Why does he continue to play this “rope-a-dope” game of making reckless claims and then backing off from them?

Perhaps his own words will give us more insight,

“Oversight is not and should not be used as a political weapon against the occupant of the Oval Office. It should not be an instrument of fear or the exclusive domain of the party that controls Congress.” USA Today 11/11/2010

“You know, there will be a certain degree of gridlock.”  On the Rush Limbaugh Show 11/19/2010

Issa’s agenda is simple.  Just like the rest of the Congressional Republicans, he is going to do everything that he can to drag down the public image of this President and tie his administration up in knots responding to whatever “scandal” his committee can concoct.

This cynical tactic was created by McConnell and Boenher in hopes that they could somehow regain power by grinding government to a halt and then blaming Obama for the consequences.

The best hope to resolve the gridlock Republicans have created?  Vote them out in 2014.

Next up, what happened to all that talk about the budget?