Sunday, February 19, 2012

Return Of The Social Agenda

There are those times when you think that that irritating dog next door that frequently disturbs your relaxing time in your backyard has decided to sleep quietly and just let be lie.  Then your neighbor – who you are not too crazy about anyway – decides to wake that sleeping dog and the unwelcome disturbance starts up again.  Unfortunately, we have a political equivalent to that scenario now occurring.  The sleeping dog of the “social agenda” has recently been re-awakened, and we have been forced to listen to its bark yet again.

First, we have the recurring gay rights battle for equal marriage.  California’s constitutional amendment banning gay marriage was declared unconstitutional by a federal judge.  The opinion was intentionally and tactically written very narrowly to focus only on the California amendment process, not the broad national spectrum of gay marriage itself, making it much more difficult (though not impossible) for the Supreme Court to overturn it.  Then the state of Washington’s legislature and governor passed a gay marriage approval bill for that state, just as a half-dozen other states have now done.  (Notably by the way, none of these states has been cast into hell a lá Sodom or Gomorrah.)  Finally, New Jersey’s legislature passed the same approval, although Governor Chris Christy has vetoed it saying that he prefers a public referendum on the issue.  So New Jersey will have to wait for now, but its time will come eventually.

I have already written of my personal opinion about gay marriage (see “Gay and Lesbian Marriage” posting of 12/15/2008), so I will not repeat those thoughts here.  Full gay rights will ultimately come, just as every other prior denial of rights has gradually been (or is being) overturned.  It just has to be slogged out one issue at a time, over time.  Why we carry on for so long such fights of being on the wrong side of human justice I will never quite understand.  But justice does and will ultimately come.

Next came the latest supposed “attack on religion” by our “demonic government.”  This time in the form of an administrative ruling that all employers had to provide contraceptive coverage in their employee insurance programs.  Religious institutions were exempted, but non-religious organizations connected to churches were not exempted (e.g. hospitals and schools supported by religious groups).  Apparently these charitable and social institutions give their services only as long as you do it their way – a distinctive example of “conditional religious love for others.”  Various religious leaders, principally of the Catholic Church hierarchy, screamed “violation of freedom of religion” and some commentators opted to see another battle front in the fantasized “war on religion.”  (The only religious war we have is an ongoing battle to protect everyone’s religion equally.)  Yet the real battle was over contraception itself, ignoring that in every poll taken at least 2/3rds of Catholics ignore their Church’s position against contraception.  But Obama officials compromised: religious-attached organizations do not themselves have to offer contraception, but in such cases the insurance companies have to offer it to the employees directly – going around the Church.  Fair enough – except for some priests and political candidates who still doth protest.  Yet no one in the media, or in the church, or in the Congress trying to make hay over this issue bothered to actually include any women in this conversation!

There are several truths at work here.  One is that our Constitution does promise each individual the freedom to exercise his/her religious belief, but it does not promise a legal obligation to support any particular church or specific dogma.  Notwithstanding Mitt Romney’s unfathomable position that “corporations are people, too,” I feel no obligation to prop up any church by special laws.  Each needs to succeed on its own merits based upon its ability to spiritually fulfill its congregation, not relying on secular government support.  40 years ago the IRS forced non-profit institutions (including these same religious-based institutions) to separate out those commercial activities not core to their charitable mission (e.g. bookstores, publishing companies, food operations).  Those commercial activities had to operate and be taxed on an equal basis with other similar for-profit ventures without special favors (nor allowing untaxed income to certain non-profit “owners” seeking tax avoidance).  Perhaps this standard should equally apply here.  However noble it may be for a religious group to extend itself into the care, feeding or educating of people of their and other faiths, let them do so on an equal basis with other non-religious institutions – whether non-profit or for-profit.  No special favors cloaked under a religious cloth.  An “employer” is an employer, all with the same obligations to their employees, the same rules as everyone else plays under.  Frankly, I am really tired of all these special rules for all kinds of special interest groups.  Including churches.

Lastly, that usual bastion of conservative change, the military, once again delightedly surprised us in a positive way with progressive thinking.  They decided that henceforth, women would be allowed full combat status.  Rick Santorum, the Rip Van Winkle candidate who seems to have slept through the last 50 years of social change, decried the decision.  He appears to be worried that male soldiers will be “distracted” from their job, feeling the extra need to “protect” these female combatants in battle; that the weaknesses of men’s feelings will cause more emotional entanglements, on the job romances, and increased sexual assaults.  Did we not already traverse this terrain way back in the 1980s when women were seeking equal access to police, fire fighting, and construction jobs, as well as even being business executives?  In conflict, every soldier is already looking over their shoulder at their buddies, protecting each other while concurrently fighting the enemy.  Requiring women soldiers to stay in the “back lines away from battle” is nonsense in the urban wars of today where there is no front/back line; the battle lines are all around you.  Bullets do not have gender.  So we should give these women who are already in service a rifle to defend themselves.

So many old arguments.  So many old fights.  We have had these discussions too many times, been there and done that too often.  Too many white-haired white guys talking about things they have never experienced, holding on to that which begs to be let go.  More intent on maintaining the status quo of their power rather than advancing issues to new and needed conclusions.

Right now the highest priorities for most Americans are getting our country back into economic good heath, restoring home values, providing jobs for those who seek them, and establishing equal rules for everyone to play under.  These (not-so-social) issues are simply distractions from these critical priorities, old news seeking renewed attention by out-of-touch old spokesmen now passed over.  Let us let these three old dogs go back to sleep, let them lie quietly.  Past beliefs and past times are past.  And it is long past time for all of us to now move on to more important things.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Jobs of Government - Part 2

In Part 1 of this 2-part blog, we reminded ourselves of the first ten Constitutional statements of the powers invested in Congress, and thereby the Federal Government.  It was towards an endpoint of better grounding ourselves in this election season to answer what should/should not be government’s roles and responsibilities.  In this blog installment, let us finish that list. 

(#11) “To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.”  (#12) “To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer term than two years.”  (#13) “To provide and maintain a Navy.”  (#14) “To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval forces.”  These statements are all about the government’s war powers.  We did pretty well in our history with leaving to Congress the decision to go to war, and to the President to prosecute those wars.  It all got confused after World War II.  Since then, virtually none of our military engagements have been pursued based upon a formal Declaration of War from Congress.  Instead, they have been unilateral actions by a president or a Congressional resolution for logistical support (Korea) or a mandate for defensive action (Viet Nam) with the exception of the 2nd Iraqi war – and we see how well that turned out!

The post-Viet Nam War Powers Act of 1973 gave some balance to this question with a flexible form for a president to act quickly on our behalf, but for Congress to decide on any long-term commitment.  But most decisions on long-term commitment have been reduced to patriotism demagoguery (e.g. “who is the true patriotic American?”) or to legislative budget tricks (“who would not agree to support our men and women in uniform?”).  All in all, in the past 60 years these congressional powers have not been working out too well, separate from any military outcomes themselves.

(#15) “To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.”  (#16) “To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.”  “Militia” is what we now call our National Guard, organized by and within each state and commanded by each governor respectively.  These are the folks that often show up in times of disaster to help with local relief and rescue operations.  But based upon statement #15, these were also the troops called into Federal service to enforce civil rights and integration laws in the 1950s/1960s (Eisenhower at Little Rock High School; Kennedy at Ole Miss University) rather than using federal troops over “civilian” issues.  Even so, Federal troops were used frequently during the labor strikes and economic unrest from 1875-1932, and the state militia was used by various governors over similar instances – always in support of the established corporate owners and sitting governments calling these instances “insurrections.”  In the late 1960s/early 1970s Viet Nam protest years, militia (Kent State) or federal troops (Capitol protests) were often called into service to put down street demonstrations or outbreaks of urban violence.  In our Iraq and Afghanistan engagements, the National Guard has provided a major portion of our military strength for long years – not exactly what was originally intended for their role.  (A significant portion of our Revolutionary Army was made up of independent local militia groups, sometimes operating alongside Washington’s army but also working independently in the local countryside.)

(#17) “To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise such Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings.”  Congress is the landlord over Washington D.C. as a sort of “neutral zone” independent of any state (similar to the land in New York City where the United Nations sits).  It also has superseding jurisdiction over property owned by the Federal government across the country – post offices, federal courthouses, national parks/forests, military bases, etc.  This ownership issue was the basis for the first military act of the Civil War – the state of South Carolina firing on the Federal base at Fort Sumter to prevent its resupplying.  Possession and separate jurisdiction are not always easy coexisting issues. 

(#18) “To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.”  This is the big escape clause.  It works in combination with the “provide for the common Defence and general Welfare” in the 1st statement, and the “regulate Commerce … among the several States” in the 3rd statement.  It is the clause that switches the Constitution from an objective to a subjective statement, from a literal to an interpretive criteria, from a static document to a fluid, evolving one.

All of these Constitutional powers leave the “how” unspecified and simply provide a framework for decision specificity.  The majority of our commerce in now interstate, if not international.  I live in North Carolina, have medical insurance through my state retirement program in Massachusetts, which is delivered by CVS headquartered in Woonsocket, RI and UniCare headquartered in Indianapolis, IN.  Yet, for example, Obamacare opponents claim that Congress had no right to pass legislation prescribing individual health care, even under the interstate commerce clause.  Only a potentially ideological and politicized Supreme Court could strike the law down on any supposed “constitutional grounds” – and well they might, given their track record this past decade.

With “provide for the … General Welfare,” any number of good and bad ideas can be argued to fit under that umbrella, and have been.  And your ideas for “general welfare” are unlikely to be the same as mine.  So resolving this question can never truly be an act of the Court, but must always be a Congressional act reflecting the current mood of the people (or the mood of Congress!).  Which leads us to statement #18 – “make all Laws necessary and proper to execute these Powers.”  “All” is a lot of laws.  “Necessary” can reflect many different potential ways to get to a particular end.  “Proper” reflects a perspective of our values and experiences – which is a perspective unique to each of our individual backgrounds.  What is “permissible” for government’s role in our society could fill a suggestion box the size of a football stadium.

We can, should, and will have never-ending debates about what our Federal government’s role should be, either in general or as regards a particular issue seeking resolution.  What we need to stop doing is pretending that our Constitution says things it actually does not, that it prohibits things it actually does not, that there is any such thing as a “strict constructionist” regarding an unrestricted meaning, or that “activist judges” are simply ones who interpret a law differently than we would.  Our Constitution is a framework, a guideline, not a narrow law.  It is up to us to determine, case by case, in our current time, how it can guide us to the best possible decisions.  Just as with our important spiritual texts, the realization of its spirit is not in the words, but is in our hands.