January 29, 2011

The Same Old Pandering, Hypocrisy and Legislated Morality

About three months ago, the 2010 midterm elections saw the Republican Party reclaim the majority in the House of Representatives, reportedly not on a tide of partisan extremism, but on a wave of populist anger with a distinctly libertarian bent.  Said rage was embodied by the Tea Party movement, whose core positions focused on what it views as government over-reach, uncontrolled spending, and dismay at the supposed abandonment of Constitutional principles.  But while there were indeed things in the nation's capital worthy of extensive criticism, the contrast between rhetoric on the American right wing and the actions of the now-GOP-controlled House since the 112th Congress took office earlier this month, has been striking.

Of particular note is the selection of John Boehner as Speaker of the House.  While it might be unrealistic to expect one of the more consistently radical conservatives - Ron Paul, for example - to have claimed the third most powerful position in the country, it is nonetheless more than a little confounding that Republicans, who owed much of their electoral success to voters allegedly "sick of business as usual in Washington," would choose an old school, lobbyist-friendly flack like Mr. Boehner.  This is a man, after all, who once handed out tobacco industry checks to his fellow members of the GOP on the floor of the House, and who has used his political clout to try and quash EPA lawsuits against contributors to his campaigns.

Where Mr. Boehner seems to represent everything against which the conservative populism stands, however, another luminary in the new Congress is Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who remains a darling of the Tea Party.  Ms. Bachmann offered her own Tea Party rebuttal to President Obama's most recent State of the Union address, which was representative of her positions in general, but it was in another speech before a group called Iowans for Tax Relief that she definitively revealed herself to be what can be charitably described as a poor man's Sarah Palin.

In her remarks, Ms. Bachmann claimed - among other clearly untrue assertions - that the nation's founding fathers had worked tirelessly to end slavery, demonstrating either a willingness to lie in support of wishful thinking, or an appalling ignorance of an American past that includes the Constitutionally-mandated three-fifths compromise, as well as the timing of the Civil War, which took place nearly a century after the the country was founded.  This is nothing new for the Minnesota congresswoman, however, as the non-partisan organization PolitiFact recently noted, "We have checked her 13 times, and [found] seven of her claims to be false and six ... to be ridiculously false."  A student of the heritage the Tea Party claims is so dear, she clearly is not.

Likewise, Representative Paul Ryan, author of the GOP's "Roadmap for America's Future" - the document that is purportedly the Republican plan to address government entitlements and spending - and one of the Republican Party's rising stars, has demonstrated that he is, at best, deeply misguided, and at worst, a shill for the rich.  Andrew Fieldhouse of the Economic Policy Institute analyzed Mr. Ryan's Roadmap, and issued a report that came to the following conclusions, of which several are decidedly counter to declared Tea Party positions:
  • The Roadmap would raise taxes only on people making between $20,000 and $200,000, while slashing taxes in half for the wealthiest Americans. Some three quarters of the workforce would face tax increases, and the middle class would actually pay higher average tax rates than millionaires – an unprecedented reversal of progressive U.S. tax policy.
  • The Roadmap would replace corporate taxation with a regressive consumption tax, and corporate income tax would be replaced by an 8.5% flat tax. Not only would corporate drop dramatically, but the profits passed on to owners and shareholders would be tax free, generating significantly more wealth for the owners of businesses.
  • The Roadmap would place the entire burden of deficit reduction on spending cuts. The hefty tax hikes on the middle class included in the plan do not go toward deficit reduction, and the Roadmap’s overall revenue plan does not improve the long-term fiscal outlook. The plan actually reduces federal revenue relative to both current law and current policy.
  • The Roadmap calls for dismantling Medicare and Medicaid, defunding important social programs without addressing the rising cost of health care throughout the economy, and making the wealth-based access to health care even worse.
  • The Roadmap would cut benefits and partially privatize Social Security. The retirement age would be raised, benefits would be cut for most workers now under 55, and the 76-year-old social insurance program would be gradually replaced with a two-tiered system of privatized accounts for the wealthy and a schedule of reduced benefits unrelated to lifetime earnings for lower-income working Americans. For a worker who is now 25, that would mean a 24 percent cut in benefits upon retirement, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
On the social issue front, the new Congress has also returned swiftly to the highly intrusive, anti-libertarian ways of the mainstream GOP.  While legislators dither on major questions like military spending, wedge issues are still getting plenty of attention.  Ohio Republican Jim Jordan, for instance, is attempting to introduce a bill that, if passed, would nullify the District of Columbia's year-old decision to permit same sex marriage, and while the capital is legally under federal oversight, such a return to legislated descrimination would very clearly run against the wishes of the local populace, as expressed at the ballot box.

Similarly, House Republicans are currently working to dramatically narrow the definition of rape in an effort to severely limit the number of cases eligible for federal abortion funding.  Hinging on an effort to introduce a shaky, poorly-defined legal concept called "forcible rape", the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act would have serious consequences:
This would rule out federal assistance for abortions in many rape cases, including instances of statutory rape, many of which are non-forcible. For example: If a 13-year-old girl is impregnated by a 24-year-old adult, she would no longer qualify to have Medicaid pay for an abortion...

Given that the bill also would forbid the use of tax benefits to pay for abortions, that 13-year-old's parents wouldn't be allowed to use money from a tax-exempt health savings account (HSA) to pay for the procedure. They also wouldn't be able to deduct the cost of the abortion or the cost of any insurance that paid for it as a medical expense.
None of this is very surprising to anyone who didn't buy into the idea that the Tea Party movement was an organic, grassroots phenomenon.  Certainly, some of the feeling behind the movement has always been genuine whether one agrees with it or not, but the management of that angry sentiment by the Republican establishment has never been anything but a useful and deeply cynical effort to distract voters from the two-term disaster of George W. Bush's presidency and the ongoing financial crisis, whose roots are planted firmly in three decades of established conservative doctrine.

Assuredly, useful idiots like Michele Bachmann will continue to be trotted out as evidence that the GOP has gotten the Tea Party message, but there is every indication that there is almost no genuine respect for the movement among Republicans in Washington.  If that sounds like overstatement, or if the examples of pandering, hypocrisy and attempts to legislate morality detailed above are somehow unconvincing, consider the attendance figures for the first meeting of the Senate Tea Party Caucus.  At least a dozen GOP senators owe at least some of their most recent electoral success to the Teabaggers, but of forty-seven Republicans in the Senate, a grand total of four showed up.

January 22, 2011

The Dollar Value of Discrimination

The recent repeal of the military's Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) policy, which prohibited openly homosexual men and women from serving in the armed forces, was a clear victory for civil rights and equality before the law.  While to many it is obvious that DADT's demise will improve force readiness and competence - as soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines with critical skills who also happen to be gay are no longer drummed out of the service - a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) indicates that this policy shift is likely to have financial benefit as well.

In Military Personnel: Personnel and Cost Data Associated with Implementing DOD's Homosexual Conduct Policy, the GAO determined that 3,664 servicemen and -women were expelled from the armed forces between 2004 and 2009 - nearly 40% of whom held skills deemed critical.  Using constant, 2009 dollars and standardized figures for separation and replacement - roughly $52,800 per individual - the Government Accountability Office estimates that the United States military spent more than $193 million dollars enforcing DADT.  If one uses the same average cost amount for the more than 13,000 active servicemembers who were forced out under the policy from its inception in 1994 through 2009, the money devoted to discriminating against qualified Americans working to serve their country totals over $686 million.

One can certainly argue that that amount is a drop in the enormous bucket of the overall Pentagon during the time Don't Ask Don't Tell was in force, but it is equally certain that that sum was money poorly spent.  We are well rid of DADT - despite Republican Duncan Hunter's efforts to block enactment of the repeal - and if anyone remains doubtful about that fact, perhaps they can console themselves that, at a minimum, ending discrimination against gays in the military is the fiscally responsible thing to do.

January 15, 2011

It's So Weird That You Think That

Remember what an important issue the "Ground Zero Mosque" was?

You know, the Islamic cultural center originally known as Cordoba House (now named Park 51) that was going to be built, well... not actually at ground zero of the 9/11 World Trade Center attack, but kind of close? The one that was going to occupy the sacred turf in an old Burlington Coat Factory building, near some  liquor stores and an off-track betting parlor, and which was the worst possible affront to the memory of the 9/11 victims and to their families?

Come on, you remember!

This was the issue that had Senator John McCain weighing in; former Alaska half-term governor Sarah Palin decrying the project and inventing a new word in the course of her opposition; potential 2012 Republican presidential candidate and serial panderer Tim Pawlenty chipping in his two cents; and one-time Speaker of the House and repeat traditional marriage enthusiast Newt Gingrich urging Americans to rise to the level of tolerance currently enjoyed in Saudi Arabia.

Really?  Still nothing?

But it was the hit of the pre-election season!  And innumerable polls were conducted about public sentiment against Cordoba House.  GOP candidates pounced on the topic, issuing lowest common denominator statements like this one from Elliott Maynard, a Republican attempting to unseat West Virginia Democrat Nick Rahall:
Ground zero is hallowed ground to Americans.  Do you think the Muslims would allow a Jewish temple or Christian church to be built in Mecca?
No?  Nada?  Zip?


It's so weird that you seem to think it was just politicians and the media catering to the worst elements of politics and society through divisiveness and fear-mongering.  After all, it's not like this crucial, vital, terribly, awfully important issue materialized out of thin air to play a major role in the 2010 mid-term election campaign, and then simply disappeared not to be acted upon or discussed since...


Google Time Line showing stories reporting on the "Ground Zero Mosque"

January 8, 2011

Keeping the Kettle of Divisiveness on the Boil

On Thursday, the day the 112th Congress was sworn in, the United States Constitution was read aloud in the House of Representatives, for the first time in history.  The version read was a sanitized one, and superseded portions of the nation's foundational document - language no longer in force because of amendments - was omitted.  Those in favor of that decision argued that they were focusing on the current law of the land, while those opposed were distressed at what they perceived to be a whitewashing of America's past mistakes, such as the language making African American votes worth only 3/5 of a white person's ballot.  Whatever one may feel about this choice, however, it is hard to argue that a brief refresher on the country's guiding principles is a bad thing.

What then, to make of H.R. 140, The Birthright Citizenship Act referred to the House by Iowa Congressman Steve King, just one day earlier?  Mr. King's bill seeks to end the practice of granting citizenship to children born in the United States to illegal immigrants, but it flies directly in the face of both established case law and, more importantly, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which begins as follows:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.
The Fourteenth Amendment is particularly clear in its language, and was written to address several key issues in the post-Civil War era.  First, it was a legislative response to the Supreme Court's infamous Dred Scott decision, which held that people imported into the United States as slaves - as well as their descendants, whether or not they were slaves themselves - were not, and could never be, citizens.  Second, it served to pre-empt any attempt by the judiciary to assess as unconsitutional the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which states that anyone born in the U.S. who is not subject to a foreign power is a citizen, regardless of race, color, or previous condition of involuntary servitude.  Finally, the 14th Amendment was a response to the so-called Black Codes, which arose in the American South in the wake of the Thirteenth Amendment's elimination of slavery and attempted to limit the civil rights of blacks.

This citizenship clause of the Fourteenth Amendment has been amply tested in court, most notably in the 1897 case of Wong Kim Ark, who was born to immigrant parents during a period in history when it was actually illegal for Chinese citizens to become naturalized Americans, as a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act.  The Supreme Court's decision in the case firmly established birthright citizenship as the law of the land more than a century ago, and as Justice Horace Gray noted in the majority opinion:
To hold that the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution excludes from citizenship the children, born in the United States, of citizens or subjects of other countries would be to deny citizenship to thousands of persons of English, Scotch, Irish, German, or other European parentage who have always been considered and treated as citizens of the United States.
Congressman King's initiative will not be surprising to anyone who has followed his statements and positions.  The Iowa Representative has claimed that the election of Barack Obama to the presidency would be a victory for Islamic terrorists, said that the president favors black people by default, and has made it clear he fears that Iowa could become a "gay marriage mecca."   In other words, Steve King is a man with a body of public statements that pretty clearly demonstrate he is an extreme nativist, as well as someone with a strong a fear of people not like himself.

What is remarkable, however, is the introduction of a bill just one day before a celebration of the Constitution that not only flagrantly disregards that very document, but which will clearly have no possible chance of accomplishing its intended goals.  The Fourteenth Amendment can only be changed by another amendment -  not through legislation - despite claims by Congressman King, who has already begun appearing on talkshows to promote the creation of a permanent American underclass that doesn't enjoy full rights.

Clearly then, H.R. 140 must almost certainly have another purpose, and it does.  Just as one of the signature Republican pledges for the new Congress is to hold a vote on repealing President Obama's health care reform legislation despite certain failure, Mr. King's birthright citizenship is not about substance, it is about stoking the fires of racial tension and part of a coordinated effort to keep Americans divided. 

January 1, 2011

Happy New Decade

Happy new year and new decade!  It won't be hard for the next ten years to be better than the last, but certainly, nothing is guaranteed, either.  Let's work to make 2011 and its decade a great one!