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Syria ... and You

Sep 03, 2013
We don't have a dog in this fight. We don't have a side to side with. The Arab world is in deep turmoil, caught between the forces of longstanding (and often US-maintained) dictatorships and antediluvian fundamentalism. Oil is about to go through the roof (according to Kiplinger forecasts), from the current $107 a barrel now to probably $120 to $140.

If there was ever a time to call upon America's instinct for isolationism, it's now. If there was ever a time to focus our extensive innovative and entrepreneurial talents on renewable sources of energy, it's now. If there was ever a time to stifle our rush to solve the world's problems through a unilateral application of force, for which no one has yet offered a convincing scenario for success, it's now.

The people are speaking and we don't want another mideast conflict. We may, and should, and must, shed many a tear for those poor dead children laid out in their shrouded rows. But everyone's fight cannot be our fight. We don't have the prestige, the power, or the right to intervene unilaterally.

Write your representative. Tell her or him that you oppose this war. Write your senators and tell them that you oppose this war.

They may very well take us to war yet again, anyway—historical precedent does not assuage our anxieties in this regard. But if you don't speak up to your congressman and to your senators, and they go to war next week, it will, to a small extent, be your fault.

So don't just go up on Facebook and grouse to your Friends. Our nation's future, to a small but so-important extent, is in your hands.
tags: Congress

Sequestration

Feb 28, 2013
Tomorrow sequestration begins, and today the market flirted briefly with closing at an all-time high. Go figure. Apparently Wall Street loves the chaos, the upwardly mobile unemployment rate, the accelerated deterioration of our infrastructure, and the thousands of laid-off teachers who will shortly join the 300,000 who have been laid off since June 2008.

As always, the coming economic storm will hit the poor the hardest, and more of us hanging onto the middle class by our fingernails will be joining them. The inequality gap will increase even more, if that is possible.

Will this benighted country ever find its way back to its ideals? Can our world do without the beacon of our example? Have we become incapable of producing a man, a woman, or an idea that can bring us together in common cause to save our own souls?

Stay tuned.

tags: Congress

The Coming of the Candidates: Jeanne van den Hurk

Mar 24, 2012
You don’t have to guess where Jeanne van den Hurk stands on the issues. This grassroots candidate for the 3rd Congressional district of South Carolina lays it all out for you at BeYourGovernment.org. This web site aggregates information on a variety of Independents and what I might call new-age Democrats, that is, Democrats not under the sway of the corporatocracy.

Van den Hurk supports universal health care, an end to the misbegotten war on drugs as well as our other militaristic misadventures, a green energy policy, restoration of Constitutional rights, and other issues of increasing importance to an increasingly alarmed electorate. As with the other candidate I have written about in this series, David Levitt, van den Hurk pays less attention than I think she should to employment issues. In time, I hope she will develop and deliver progressive positions toward alleviating the inequality which has exploded over the past thirty years and to the crisis in employment which is not going away soon. In that regard, I recommend she read over the entries I have posted here under the tag New Political Party.

[All the information about van den Hurk in this piece is taken from the above-referenced web page. If you are able to refute anything there or here, citing reliable sources, please email us with that information and we will post corrections to this piece.]

Van den Hurk accepts no corporate money and is therefore dependent on small and medium-sized contributions from—you. Yes, you, if you are reading this and are of the same mind as so many today who know we must find a means of wresting our country back from runaway capitalism and a bought-and-paid-for Congress. If continuous war isn’t to be the legacy we hand down to the next generation; if we are not to consign them to a standard of living significantly below that of our parents; if we are not to condemn them to a crippled planet and one in which the coming water wars will make the current oil wars seem like peace rallies: if this is not the world we are handing on to our children, then something needs to be done now, because this is the world where we are headed, as all the empirical evidence indicates.

Van den Hurk, like many of the doughty candidates who are stepping out of peaceful, private, middle-class lives to expose themselves to the cauldron of partisan politics, is married with children and is an entrepreneur with a jewelry design and antique business. I am a long way from South Carolina and only follow van den Hurk in her Twitter and Facebook capacities. I hope more is going on in her campaign than is evident in this social media. You can bet the Mainstream Media will avoid providing her with much coverage until and unless she makes dramatic inroads into the territory of the first-term Republican incumbent. And BeYourGovernment provides the minimum of campaign exposure.

So how are van den Hurk and these other candidates going to be elected? They will be elected by you. Your dollars, your word-of-mouth, your volunteer efforts, your votes. And if, come November, we find ourselves once again with a neo-liberal Democrat in the White House, a far-right Republican majority in the House, and a lame, old-age Democratic majority in the Senate—or worse, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

I contributed to van den Hurk’s campaign, and I will do so again if it maintains its viability. This is the very least you can do, and it is something you can do it right now.
tags: Congress

The Coming of the Candidates: David Levitt

Mar 06, 2012
David Levitt is opposing California Senator Dianne Feinstein, and will run in the non-partisan primary there on June 5. According to his web page, http://www.levitt2012.org, he has a doctorate degree from MIT and was a researcher at the MIT Media Lab before becoming a Silicon Valley scientist, engineer, and entrepreneur. This is his first foray into politics.

[All the information in this piece is taken from Levitt’s web page. If you are able to refute anything there or here, citing reliable sources, please email us with that information and we will post corrections to this piece.]

In California’s “non-partisan” primary, the top two vote getters will appear on the ballot in November, even if both are from the same party. Since Feinstein’s leading Republican contender is one Orly Taitz, known as “Queen of the Birthers,” it is not at all unreasonable to hope Levitt may face Feinstein in the fall.

Levitt’s major gamble—and innovation—is the Free Campaign. He intends to establish a credible candidacy with a tiny fraction of the money typically poured into Senate races. He will do so by exploiting the Intranet and its social networking tools. Of course, no campaign can be entirely free, and Levitt, like other progressive candidates coming forth, solicits small contributions from individuals and does not accept corporate money.

Levitt’s Issues and Solutions section of his web site is heavily weighted—perhaps too heavily—toward social issues (pro-choice, marijuana legalization, marriage equality), and is less attentive to economic issues. In time, I hope he will develop and deliver progressive positions toward alleviating the inequality which has exploded over the past thirty years. In that regard, I recommend he read over the entries I have posted here under the tag New Political Party.

Our country is on the cusp of becoming a police state inside of a banana republic. Mlitarism is rampant. The rule of law has been set aside. We are distracted by divisiveness over social issues that have nothing whatever to do with our well-being or our common interests. If we are to regain our greatness as the moral leader of the world, we must defeat a corporatocracy which has kidnapped our body politic. The only way I can see our doing that, short of armed rebellion, is by supporting a new “citizen congress.” Occupy Wall Street has shown us that we still have the ability to muster a widespread, grassroots social movement in this country, similar to the ones that brought about a measure of racial justice in the 50s and 60s and the end of a futile, illegal, and immoral conflict in the 70s. Such a social movement is needed more than ever today.

David Levitt, and others I will be writing about in this series, have stepped forth into the light—and the cross-hairs of an establishment that will stop at nothing to stop them—to offer themselves as a first generation of candidates for that citizen congress. We owe them our attention and, if their candidacy proves to our satisfaction to be a worthy effort, our financial support, our voices, and our votes.
tags: Congress

The Coming of the Candidates: Introduction

Feb 27, 2012
I have often on this site urged us to find, fund, and elect1,2 a new brand of politician that will wrest our country from the grasp of the corporatocracy. I have proposed a third party, naming it the New Century Party, and provided it with a platform with ten planks that should appeal to rational individuals across the political spectrum, from conservative to progressive, from Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street.

With the 2012 election coming up, a grassroots groundswell of sorts is developing, with several candidates coming forth to challenge the incumbent Republican and Democratic minions of the corporatocracy. They share an agenda which puts the people first, and promises to reverse the disastrous trends of the last 30 years. They share an awareness of the dangers of gross inequality in income and opportunity among Americans; of the disasters we are facing from global climate change; of the evils of militarism and unregulated capitalism. They support a publicly funded health care program; a revitalized, green economy; and a return to the principles of open government, the rule of law, and adherence to due process.

These candidates are not going to be slick; they are not going to be air-brushed; they are not going to have $400 haircuts. They may sound more like your next door neighbor (if you are lucky in your neighbors) and less like the snake oil salesmen currently spending tens of millions of dollars attempting to manipulate the less worthy instincts of an undereducated and frightened electorate.

They deserve and demand our attention. If we find them credible and their campaigns viable, we should support them with our dollars, our word-of-mouth, our letters to the editor, our volunteer labor gathering signatures, our Tweets, and any other assistance we can bring to bear.

I will introduce them here, as they come to my attention. Please EMAIL ME with additional ones you would like to see featured here, providing me with at least the URL to their web page.
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1 Birthers and Death Panels, from All Together Now, Aug 14, 2009.
2 Up From Slavery, from All Together Now, Sep 6, 2009.
tags: Congress

The Great 2010 Boondoggle

Dec 09, 2010
Many are the voices,1,2 all urging the same thing: “Give him a break, he’s doing the best he can.” Meanwhile, for the progressive base, currently led by Bernie Sanders and his filibuster threat, this is the last straw.

The “package,” which would add nearly a trillion dollars more to the deficit before the next election3, represents a huge giveaway to the super-rich and peanuts to the poor. It will further solidify a permanent underclass of unemployed Americans, extending their puny benefits for another 13 months, while retaining for the plutocracy their ability to continue scrambling for an ever larger portion of the pie.

The long death march of Social Security takes another giant step forward, as a third of the payroll deduction is slashed for one year, a cut which the corporatocracy will almost surely try to make permanent, as the Bush tax cuts are shaping up to be.

The capital gains and dividends giveaway—they are taxed at 15%, only about half the 25-28% the middle class pay on their income—will be extended another two years.

Blood in the streets is postponed by extending unemployment benefits to a chunk of the 15.1 million idle Americans. That largess accounts for only $56 billion of the $900 billion price tag on the package, as 7 million unemployed were facing no income and virtually no prospects of work in 2011.

This “center” cannot hold, and should a filibuster fail to materialize or fail to be effective against this boondoggle, then look for things to begin falling apart in 2011. Whether it take the form of China calling in our markers, a third conflict initiated against Iran, a descent into anarchy via the reinvigorated Republican assault on government, or something unexpected and out of the blue, yet it will come.

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has provided one of the clearest and most comprehensive explanations of what is happening, and why the current tax “compromise” has to be where we draw the line in the sand.4
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1 No Deficit of Courage,by Jon Meacham, from the NY Times, Dec 8, 2010, accessed Dec 9, 2010.
2 Falling Off the Bandwagon, by Gail Collins, from the NY Times, Dec 8, 2010, accessed Dec 9, 2010.
3 Tax Deal Suggests New Path for Obama, by David M. Herszenhorn and Jackie Calmes, from the NY Times, Dec 6, 2010, accessed Dec 9, 2010.
4 Why the Obama Tax Deal Confirms the Republic Worldview, by Robert Reich, in the Huffington Post, Dec 8, 2010, accessed Dec 9, 2010.
tags: Congress

Earmarks

May 07, 2009
According to Wikipedia, “In US politics, an earmark is a congressional provision that directs approved funds to be spent on specific projects or that directs specific exemptions from taxes or mandated fees.”1

Earmarks are a subject politicians love to go on about when they are attacking the other side; however, they are an equal opportunity provision protected by the appropriations privilege granted to the legislative branch in the Constitution (Art. 1, Sec. 9). Earmarks circumvent the usual procedures involved with federal allocations of funds, including congressional debate (although requested earmarks are not always received), competitive bidding, and Executive branch oversight of expenditures. Until recently, congressional legislators could anonymously request and receive these special appropriations; since the 110th Congress (2007-2008), they have had to post their requests on their web sites.

Earmarks, or “pork,” as they are usually referred to in the media, constitute about two percent of the federal budget—not terribly significant, but neither is it a trivial figure. We wrote about earmarks last September at The Problem with Pork, where we said, “[T]he waste of a three-trillion-dollar mistake in Iraq dwarfs the cumulative effect of a hundred years’ worth of earmarks.”

In April, 2009, New Hampshire representative Paul Hodes introduced H.R. 2038 (linked via GovTrack.us), which would “prohibit an authorized committee of a candidate who is a Member of Congress from accepting contributions from any entity for which the Candidate sought a Congressional earmark.” The bill seeks to disconnect earmarks from campaign contributions, which, to the extent they are connected, could well (and should) expose a legislator to the charge of accepting bribes. The bill has been referred to committee (the House Committee on House Administration). The majority of bills never make it out of committee. We will be watching this one and, should some version of it be enacted into law, we will post it on Happy Daze.

Meanwhile, with an assist from Know Thy Congressman, which provides information on the number of earmarks requested and received by each congressional member (and the total amounts involved), and a trip to members’ websites, here are some data regarding our congressional delegation. If you would like to compile data regarding yours, send it to us, and we will add it to this posting.

Vermont
Sen. Patrick Leahy: 109 earmarks requested ($458M); 93 received ($221M)
Sen. Leahy’s FY2010 requests: About 120 ($Many Millions).
A hat tip to Bill Allison at Real Time Investigations, a project of the Sunlight Foundation, for digging up these (and Sen. Sanders’s) requests. Their offices never got back to us after multiple requests.

Sen. Bernard Sanders: 44 earmarks requested ($325M); 40 received ($125M)
Sen. Sanders’s FY2010 requests: About 60 ($Many Millions).

Rep. Peter Welch: 24 earmarks requested ($38M); 24 received ($38M)
Rep. Welch’s FY 2010 requests: 29 projects (c.$29M)

The Sunlight Foundation has provided a visualization of earmarks from 2005, which will show you how they were proportionally distributed that year among the states, among federal agencies, and among recipient organization types (for-profit, non-profit, etc.).

Are earmarks pork? When they are used as a means of rewarding a constituent for their support, they are worse than pork, they are a crime. If they award projects to specified contractors without competitive bidding, they may be circumventing rather strict federal regulations. If, however, the earmarks support intelligent, forward-looking projects which benefit all or a large segment of a state’s population, supporting economic, social, and environmental progress, then we may say earmarks constitute one important, and constitutionally legitimate method by which the country’s business is conducted.

Earmarks are probably here to stay. H.R. 2038 and other measures must ensure that they are employed appropriately and for the common good.
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1 Earmarks (politics), from Wikipedia, accessed May 5, 2009.
tags: Congress

Accountability NOW

Feb 27, 2009
After a week of pretty bleak entries, we are delighted to end it with one that inspires pure joy, at least tentatively.

Accountability Now PAC (Political Action Committee) has just come under our radar, thanks to Twitter and a story in yesterday’s New York Times, “Bloggers and Unions Join Forces to Push Democrats.”1 Even the staid Times was scarcely able to hide its enthusiasm in an article that almost reads as a call to arms: A large and growing coalition of progressive voices are teaming up for a full court press on Congress. They will seek to identify and support candidates who are to the left of centrist Democrats and may eventually target Republican primary contests as well. The players so far, as reported in the Times and on the Accountability Now web site:

  • Moveon.Org, the largest online grassroots progressive organization in the country, with over four million members.
  • Democracy for America, another progressive online group, founded by Howard Dean, and experienced in training political organizers and backing progressive candidates.
  • ColorOfChange.org, an online organization that “exists to strengthen Black America’s political voice.” We have written about all three of these organizations extensively in All Together Now, and have taken part in many of their initiatives.
  • 21st Century Democrats. New to us. Their activities seem to overlap those of Democracy for America: training organizers and identifying and supporting progressive candidates.
  • BlogPAC. They “give grants, no strings attached, to activists on the internet who have demonstrated a record of success in either creating progressive change or creating the space for progressives to make change.”
  • Glenn Greenwald, a liberal blogger at Salon.com (and frequent interviewee on Democracy Now).
  • Jane Hamsher, blogger on Firedoglake.
  • DailyKos, another well-known progressive blog.
  • Service Employees International Union (SEIU). This is the only member of Accountability Now we look on with skepticism. Andy Stern, the leader of SEIU, appears to be a grandstanding empire builder more interested in self-aggrandizement and stirring up internecine strife in the organized labor world than he is in doing his job fighting for the rights and benefits of his membership.2
The movement, at least on paper, is just what we have been waiting for (and writing about over the past couple of weeks): a cooperative venture among the widespread grassroots, Internet-based, political progressive movements around the country, aimed at supporting candidates for Congress who will move the country toward a humane, people-based, and equitable democracy. Well, Hallelujah!

We encourage you to sign up with them on their site. We will be keeping a close eye on them and will hope to be reporting back about the good work they are doing. We will also hope to see other Internet-based progressive groups (TrueMajority, etc.) join forces with them.

We can do this together, and only together. We can halt the military/corporatocracy that has dominated our country since the Vietnam War. We can retrieve our standing in the suffering world and help it toward a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic future.

In his speech on Tuesday evening, Obama focused on three vital issues we need to address: energy, health care, and education. This is our agenda, and to reach it, we are going to need to elect more progressive candidates to Congress, candidates who are not beholden to those corporate and special interests whose agendas are diametrically opposed to Obama’s.

So go on the Accountability site and get on the bandwagon. We have the right man at the top. Now we need to build the base, and it seems to us this group may have a shot at leading the way.
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1 Bloggers and Unions Join Forces to Push Democrats, by Jim Rutenberg, from the New York Times, Feb 26, 2009, accessed Feb 26, 2009
2 Union Leaders Accuse Stern of Scheming for Control of America’s Only Union-Owned Commercial Bank, from Democracy Now, Feb 20, 2009, accessed Feb 26, 2009
tags: Congress

Meet the In-Crowd—Your 111th Congress

Jan 09, 2009
Except for a couple of senatorial seats and one in the House, the 111th Congress is pretty much nailed down. And the Congressional Research Service has given us an up-close-and-personal look at the boys and girls who will be haunting our dreams for the next two years. These are the cats Obama will be herding through the first half—the traditionally more effective half—of his administration. Here are a few fast facts for cocktail chatter at your inaugural bash:1

  • House Democrats outnumber the Republicans 262 to 178—a comfortable majority.
  • Not so in the Senate, where Dems count on the two Independents who caucus with them to raise their majority to 57 to 41, still three short of the filibuster-busting 60. And Kennedy and Burris (or whoever) together won’t change that.
  • Your average senator is six years older than your average House member (63 to 57). The average age of senators has gone up 1.5 years over each of the past two congresses; the average age of representatives has gone up one year.
  • The House folk have been there on average for 11 years and the senators for 12.9.
  • Women have crashed through the glass ceiling in record numbers this time around, with 78 in the House (18%) and 17 in the Senate (17%). They are still radically underrepresented.
  • However, that is better than the African-American representation, with 41 in the House (all Democrats!) and (as of January 6) not one in the Senate.
  • Former occupations of members of the 111th Congress include five Peace Corps volunteers, one territorial first lady, a talk show host, five accountants, an astronaut, three organic farmers, a river boat captain, and 225 lawyers.
  • Ninety-five percent of our lawmakers have college degrees, but the only PhDs (23 of them) are in the House.
  • The one Native American in the 111th Congress, serving in the House, is a Republican. Go figure.
And gosh, we wish them all just the very best of luck. The clock is ticking and the honeymoon is over in 60 days.
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1 Members of the 111th Congress: A Profile, by Mildred Amer and Jennifer E. Manning, from OpenCRS, December 31, 2008, accessed January 6, 2009
tags: Congress

More Talk

Dec 23, 2008
Yesterday, we wrote about a topic which may have struck you as being of fairly marginal interest to a limited number of people—the problems citizens and congressional representatives are finding in sharing communications back and forth in the age of the Internet and instant and easy communication. However, we believe these are issues of enormous importance to the future ability of progressives to press their agenda.

The gist of the problem is that representatives and senators are being inundated with communications, many of which are solicited, aggregated, and communicated to Congress by special interest advocacy groups. Congressional staffers now spend an inordinate amount of time managing and responding to these communications.

Technology is the answer here, and rather than rely upon the disparate six or eight commercial products which now dot the Washington landscape, we believe the parties involved—citizen and advocacy groups and congressional offices—should cooperate to produce an open source software solution that would satisfy 95 percent of the players involved. We believe the following are among the requirements and features of such a product:

  • The system would cost between $25 and $30 million to develop and would take from two to four years;
  • The resulting collection of software applications, which would run on Macintosh, Windows, and Linux operating systems, would be free to all parties.
  • Although the “open source” software would be available to any developer to enhance, official enhancement releases would be managed by the World Wide Web Consortium or similar standards-setting body in much the same way the W3 manage HTML and CSS updates.
  • Standardized back-end database procedures would nevertheless allow for a continuing rich variety of front-end web designs and applications.
  • The software would allow for the production, management, and automation of two-way communication via email, postal mail, fax, Instant Messaging, voice, and other emerging media.
  • The system would be built with open source tools where appropriate.
  • The system would result in at least a 50 percent savings in staffers’ involvement with constituent communications.
Having been involved with computers, software, and programming since the early 1980s, we know this system can be built along the lines, and within the constraints, noted above. We could manage such a development effort ourself, and so could many others.

The level of constituent communications will continue to grow at a very fast pace, particularly that which is initiated and managed by advocacy groups. Those groups and congressional offices must harness tools to cope with these communications. They deserve the same level of acknowledgement and influence as more traditional one-to-one communications. The only way to accomplish this, and to avoid a continuing struggle amidst a Babel of conflicting standards and procedures, is for the parties to work together to forge a solid system that answers all their requirements.

It can be done. It must be done.
tags: Congress

Can We Talk?

Dec 22, 2008
Good question.

The Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) has been asking it vis-a-vis Congress for almost ten years, and their enlightening answer may be found in their report, Communicating with Congress: Recommendations for Improving the Democratic Dialog (.pdf, 3.5Mb).

The good news: The Internet has made it far easier for citizens to communicate with their Congressional representatives. The bad news: The Internet has made it far easier for citizens to communicate with their Congressional representatives. The result: A huge increase in communications to Congress, by both citizens and grassroots advocacy groups, has resulted in the expenditure of a great deal of effort on the part of both senders and recipients in trying to manage—and in some cases, to thwart—the efforts of the other. Sophisticated software tools to efficiently deal with these communications has yet to be developed.

Until it is, CMF has several recommendations for each participant. Among them, for the individual citizen:

  1. Develop a good understanding of how Congress operates.
  2. Contact your representatives only once per issue.
  3. Limit each message to one issue.
  4. Use consistent email and postal addresses.
  5. Be concise and clear.
  6. Make a specific request, and refer to the number of the pertinent bill if you can.
  7. Be respectful, as difficult as that may be from time to time.
The 84-page report fleshes out these recommendations a great deal, of course.

We were most interested in CMF’s recommendations for grassroots advocacy groups. We are involved with many of them (see our listing of several at What Now, Where Now, How Now?) and have signed many a petition they have organized to forward to Congress. We want those communications to be effective. Here are some of CMF’s recommendations to them:
  1. Send every communication with the knowledge, consent and action of the citizen. (As far as we know, all the groups we are involved with do this.)
  2. Encourage citizens to personalize their messages in some way. (This also is common with the groups mentioned in the posting noted above.)
  3. Communications should only come from constituents.
  4. Notify citizens to whom their communications are being sent. (There is room for improvement with our groups here.)
  5. Identify the organization behind a grassroots campaign.
  6. Grassroot organizations should develop a better understanding of Congress.
  7. The purpose of a campaign should be to influence public policy, not overwhelm an office.
Recommendations to Congress include:
  1. Allocate more funds for Members’ staffing.
  2. Adapt to the new communication environment.
  3. Collaborate with advocacy/interest groups to identify solutions and solve problems. (Of course!)
  4. Fully utilize email to respond to constituents.
  5. Provide separate web forms for constituent service requests.
  6. Provide answers to legislative inquiries online.
  7. Diligently maintain your constituent database.
Optimizing citizen/representative communications is a huge challenge and a top priority of our new information age. The issue is of major public importance and should be publicly funded. We take part in enough advocacy group outreaches to Congress to know that if we are to avoid a Babel of conflicting technologies, increased animosity between the parties, and continuing bottlenecks to having our combined voices heard in Congress, then all parties must dedicate themselves to working together to craft the effective solutions that are available to us through technology.
tags: Congress

Guys in Ties

Dec 19, 2008
We don’t see a lot of neckties in Vermont, where we live, or New Hampshire, where we work. We guess Jim Douglas probably wears a tie—probably to bed—but he’s our governor, and he’s in that crowd we’re talking about.

We see all these guys in ties these days, strutting before cameras, taking questions, not taking questions, rationalizing away the acts that have impoverished millions, brought industries to their knees, murdered innocents: greedy guys, corrupt guys, unapologetic, unashamed, unindicted.

We see these guys in ties, and we’re tempted to hide the silver, check for our wallet, lock up our daughters. When we see the odd guy wearing a tie up here in northern New England, we think, what are you trying to get away with today? Whose pension are you going to loot, which union are you going to bust, what sick old person are you going to screw over? We just can’t see guys in ties anymore without wondering what they’re up to. No good, we’re pretty sure.

What is it about that silly sliver of senseless cloth they all wear down their fronts, like badges of mastery, like cryptic IDs in a secret society of despoilers, like a fancy shield against anyone thinking they’re just nasty little schoolyard bullies, narrowminded, grasping, and despicable.

Guys in ties.
tags: Congress

GAO, Way to Go!

Dec 12, 2008
No one is closer to the federal government than the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan agency that works for Congress. They:

  • audit agency operations to determine whether federal funds are being spent efficiently and effectively;
  • investigate allegations of illegal and improper activities;
  • report on how well government programs and policies are meeting their objectives;
  • perform policy analyses and outline options for congressional consideration;
  • issue legal decisions and opinions, such as bid protest rulings and reports on agency rules.1
The GAO has produced a web page entitled Serving the Congress and the Nation. It contains information on:
  • the 13 “Urgent Issues” it believes the new administration needs to address in its first year;
  • agency-by-agency issues;
  • management challenges across the government;
  • major cost-savings opportunities;
  • upcoming reports on major issues;
  • the long-term fiscal outlook;
  • working with GAO.2
Though not as noisy and dramatic as some watchdogs, the GAO is probably closer to the pulse of the federal government and to the real needs of the nation than any other. The GAO is the primary fact-finding and fact-reporting agency of the Congress and as such their voice will be ignored at their peril by the incoming administration and the new Congress.
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1 About GAO, accessed December 7, 2008.
2 Serving the Congress and the Nation
tags: Congress

Civics Lesson

Dec 07, 2008
Okay, college grad, think yer pretty smart? Try this Civics Quiz on for size. It comes from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) an organization which seeks “to enhance the rising generation’s knowledge of our nation’s founding principles.” They have their work cut out for them.

In 2006 and 2007, they tested 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities nationwide on the basics of their American heritage, and in both years they failed, scoring less than 55 percent on average.1 This year, in an attempt “to learn more about the real-world consequences of this collegiate failure,” they tested a broader cross-section of Americans of all ages and backgrounds, asking them 33 basic questions about the history and operation of American democracy, the Civics Quiz mentioned above which you are invited to take. The bad news:

  • Seventy-one percent failed, with an overall average score of 49 percent.
  • College adds little to civic knowledge.
  • Television, including TV news, dumbs down America.
  • Elected officials score five percentage points lower than non-officeholders.
  • Fewer than half of all Americans can name all three branches of the federal government.
Sixty percent is passing. Good luck.
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1 Summary, from ISI, accessed December 3, 2008
tags: Congress

The High Cost of Winning

Nov 18, 2008
Money in politics. Whether viewed as the 800-pound gorilla or the elephant in the room, it is the animal we seem doomed to have to live with. Try as we might, we cannot tame this beast, which grows more voracious at each election cycle. We recall being appalled at the $60 million Nixon’s re-election committee raised in 1972. Today, that’s chump change even in 2008 dollars, as the presidential campaigns for the first time this year passed the billion-dollar mark in revenues raised.1

The Campaign Finance Institute has given us a revealing “First Look at Money in the House and Senate Elections”—a first look because a few races are still unresolved. Among the most notable results:

The High Cost of Winning
Winners in the House races raised an average of $1,282,597 in 2008, twice the amount raised ten years ago. On the Senate side, winners raised $5,507,146, a third more than was raised by winners ten years ago.

When You Gotta Go, You Gotta Go
In the House race, 15 Democrats and 4 Republicans defeated incumbents, and they did so even though they raised, on average, around $400,000 less than their incumbent opponents. Nevertheless, 377 other House incumbents won re-election, outraising their upstart challengers two-and-a-half to one. Similarly on the Senate side, the two incumbents who lost (both Republicans—Sununu (NH) and Dole (NC)) outraised their Democratic challengers almost two to one and still failed to retain their seats. Twenty-four incumbents won in the Senate, outraising their challengers by over three-and-a-half to one. Incumbency may be an advantage, but it is an expensive one.

Landslide or Squeaker?
Results in the races for open seats (no incumbent) in the House and Senate may be a good indication of just how profound the move to the left was in this election. Was Obama’s commanding electoral count (about 365 to McCain’s 162) reflected in Democratic successes in runs for open seats? In a word, no. Of five open seats in the Senate, three were won by Democrats and two by Republicans. Of the 33 open seats in the House, Democrats won a slim majority of 17; Republicans, 16. The three Democratic senators had to raise an average of $10 million dollars for those seats; the two Republicans only $3.3 million. Put those laurels back in the closet. We can’t rest on them yet.

A Little Help From Our Friends
Figures above reflect monies raised by candidate campaigns. Add to the mix the “independent expenditures” by national party committees in the 2008 Congressional general election alone, which amounted to $204,261,538. The Democratic committees outspent the Republicans two-and-a-half to one. The lion’s share of the $36 million spent by the Republican Senatorial Committee—$23,683,935—went to two definite losers, Sununu and Dole, and two potential losers (results are not yet in), Coleman (MN) and Smith (OR). The Democratic Senatorial Committee spent $42,817,912 on those races.
We may as well reconcile ourselves to the sorry fact that money in politics is here to stay, at least until some smart lawyer can disassociate campaign contributions from freedom of speech to the satisfaction of five Supreme Court justices. Until that day, let’s remember the power of the little guy in politics. If the roughly 125 million people who voted in the 2008 presidential election each contributed a mere $15 to a national campaign finance fund, it would raise as much money as all the federal races combined, and that includes candidate and party revenues. As these funds come from small, individual donations over time, perhaps our elected officials will voluntarily spend less time cuddling up to the fat cats and corporate hegemonists and pay more attention to the people they are supposed to represent.

If not, we’re going to have to take it to the polls, find candidates who will represent us, and throw the blackguards out.
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1 Banking on Becoming President, from OpenSecrets.org (Accessed November 15, 2008)
tags: Congress

Breathing Room

Oct 28, 2008
Can we agree we need to breathe, and that the air we need to do so comes from green things, the same things that, miraculously, absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide that we exhale? And if we agree on this, how can we not agree to preserve our environment so that there are enough green things left in it to produce that loverly air?

Not everyone does agree, however, and it is quite distressing to see how closely the states that don’t agree1 match up with the states that are expected to vote for John McCain.2

The needs of a struggling world are slowly—inevitably—making themselves felt, however, even if not quickly enough for the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), the nonpartisan group advocating for sound environmental policies. Their 2008 National Environmental Scorecard shows significant gains over 2007, with 67 House and 27 Senate members earning scores of 100 percent versus 33 and 3, respectively, in 2007. The House shows some backsliding on the other end in 2008, with 70 House and 2 Senate members earning scores of 0 percent, as against 48 House and 9 Senate members in 2007.

Obama did not vote in nine of the 11 crucial environmental issues in 2008. His pro-environment vote in two of them therefore earns him an 18 percent score for 2008, although LCV gives him a lifetime score of 72 percent. McCain did not vote either way on any of the 11 issues, making him one of the two senators with a 0 percent score (the other, David Vitter [R-LA], voted against all 11 environmental issues). McCain’s LCV lifetime score is 24 percent.

What in the name of heaven is the matter with these Republicans?
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1 National Environmental Scorecard, from the League of Conservation Voters (Accessed October 21, 2008)
2 Election Day Map Today, from Polltrack.com (Accessed October 21, 2008)
tags: Congress

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Oct 27, 2008
It is common knowledge by this time that middle-class incomes (the kind the two of us probably enjoy) have remained flat over the course of the Bush 2 administration, while the rich have gotten richer and the richest among the rich have become fabulously wealthy. To note but one startling statistic: In 2005, the poorest 20 percent of American households had $380 billion in income, while the top 1 percent had a $520 billion increase in income.1

Our national wealth is soaring to the top, and it is not trickling down.

But thatís old news. Some new news has just been reported by OpenSecrets.org the web site of the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), a watchdog group that tracks money in U.S. politics.

With a recession settling in, unemployment rising, a huge bailout emptying our children’s pockets of another $850 billion in public funds (ours were already empty), how are our brave and doughty legislators making out during this perfect economic storm? Just fine, thank you.

OpenSecret’s report title says it all: As Economic Storm Brewed, Congressional Wealth Grew 11% Last Year. McCain retained his position among the 61 millionaire senators and Obama joined that group for the first time in 2007. During these doldrum years for the middle class, the average member of Congress saw their net worth soar 57 percent between 2004 and 2007.

CRP works hard to provide data on Congressional members’ net worth, given that disclosure requirements are not as stringent as they should be. Look into their Personal Financial Disclosures Database and see how your congressional delegation is doing. We got more than one surprise from ours.

At the least, you may look with a more informed eye on their next appeal for a campaign contribution.
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1 Report Says That the Rich Are Getting Richer Faster, Much Faster, by David Cay Johnston, from the New York Times, December 15, 2007 (Accessed October 21, 2008)
tags: Congress

The Problem with Pork

Sep 05, 2008
The truth is messy, and things are usually more complicated than they seem.

This brilliant conclusion arose through a perusal of the 2007 Senate1 and House2 Scorecards put out by the Council for Citizens Against Governmental Waste (CCAGW). Pork is CCAGW’s bête noir, particularly as it takes form in Congressional earmarks, those add-ins to major legislation that send federal dollars to legislators’ pet projects back home. The poster child for recent earmarks is Alaska’s Bridge to Nowhere, a $223 million earmark obtained by Senator Ted Stevens, currently under indictment for some low-level bad-boy behavior.3

The Scorecards examine votes relating to earmarks and are graded in one of two ways: The Taxpayers Won or The Taxpayers Lost. The taxpayers lost 32 of 35 such votes in the Senate and 96 of 100 votes in the House. Those results alone should go some way toward justifying our identification of the CCAGW as a community of soreheads.

A closer look at a few specific votes provides grist for additional conclusions regarding the CCAGW, such as their elitist proclivities.

Senate vote #11 to repeal the estate tax was defeated and the taxpayers were said to have lost. Well, of course, some taxpayers did lose—the richest one percent or so—but the rest of us won a reprieve from the additional taxation we would have had to shoulder to make up the shortfall from killing a tax that helps preserve an economic balance throughout America that was dear to the hearts of the founders. Louis Brandeis echoed their opinion when he said, “We can have a democratic society or we can have great concentrated wealth in the hands of the few. We cannot have both.”

Most of the 100 cited House votes were either to remove funds from projects which had already been voted for or to cut various appropriations across the board by half to one percent. The lion’s share of such measures was overwhelmingly defeated, and one wonders just how much time the House spends attempting to undo its own accomplishments.

Given the extent to which organizations like CCAGW favor privatization of federal job functions, it is curious to see them characterize two failed initiatives to restrict privatization (House votes 28 and 77) as losses for the taxpayer.

Of the 435 members of the House, 40 voted CCAGW’s way 90 percent or more of the time in 2007; 212 voted CCAGW’s way 0 to 10 percent of the time. One wonders what would induce the four representatives who voted CCAGW’s way 100 percent of the time (Flake, R-AZ; Latta, R-OH; Hensarling, R-TX; and Sensenbrenner, R-WI) to vote for a federal expenditure of any kind—perhaps an amendment to reduce their salaries?

The Senate numbers were even more lopsided: 5 voted in the top 90 percent; 48 in the bottom 10 percent. Only one senator was rated voting CCAGW’s way 100 percent of the time, a fellow named McCain from Arizona.

Earmarks are a complicated issue. No doubt a few of them are outright “pork” others, however, fund worthy local projects in representatives’ districts which do not merit separate legislation and do not fit conveniently into other appropriations bills. No one wants to waste taxpayer dollars, probably not even our legislators. However, the waste of a three-trillion-dollar mistake in Iraq dwarfs the cumulative effect of a hundred years’ worth of earmarks. And to agonize over the latter provides little more than a smokescreen to deflect our concentration on the former.
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12007 Senate Scorecard (.pdf)
22007 House Scorecard (.pdf)
3Alaska senator, under indictment, wins primary. From the International Herald Tribune, August 27, 2008 (Accessed August 31, 2008)
tags: Congress

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