Friday, February 22, 2013

Lock Them Out

In the first days of January 2013, the 113th U.S. Congress began its turn as the legislative branch of our government.  224 years of tradition precede this session, a track record of great accomplishments, notable failures, and embarrassing mediocrity in between.  Congress has been a forum for great uplifting rhetoric and frightening demagoguery.  It has exemplified the best that is America as well as our worst pettiness, vindictiveness and prejudices.  But what it has always been is contentious.  A battleground for the clash of ideas, at times running leftward on the progressive side of change, at other times moving to the right to slow or reverse those changes.  It has continually alternated among America’s major vested groups, with allegiance to party or interest group (and their money) usually trumping decisions of conscience or the truly national interest.  But somehow collective decisions have been made that have directed the country and kept it moving.

Given that history, what should we presume to expect from this 113th Congress?  Its predecessor, the 112th from 2011-2012, gives us more discouragement than hope.  It is already rated by historians as the least productive ever, with a continual inability to make almost any decision unless under a financial gun.  Even then the decision was usually simply to not decide or to postpone until later.  It left Americans discouraged if not outraged, awarding it the lowest Congressional approval rating in history.  It also apparently set the stage for a repetition.

First impressions matter.  In the first days of its new session, the 113th Congress allowed the country to go over its “fiscal cliff” before quickly restoring tax cuts for 99% of Americans, while leaving some benefit cuts and a payroll tax increase in place.  They continued to dawdle on emergency relief for Hurricane Sandy victims for almost 90 days after the destructive event until public outrage enabled passage – with 2/3rds of House Republicans dissenting.  A month later, the Senate confirmed John Kerry as Secretary of State.  But then, only two weeks after agreeing to limit its use of the filibuster – especially regarding presidential appointments – Republicans dishonestly broke their promise and filibustered Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Secretary of Defense for what was finally admitted to be nothing more than “political revenge.”

Then they packed up and went on a week’s vacation, apparently exhausted from six weeks of non-accomplishment.  They left two weeks before an automatic budget cut of around $1T is to go into effect.  Cuts that we will likely survive, but will puncture job growth and economic recovery – two goals all Congresspersons claim that they want.  For this remarkable display of non-concern, hypocrisy and irresponsibility, these national representatives are paid a base salary of $174,000/year.  Except for the big donor individuals, corporations and interest groups on the left and right whose political puppets are doing exactly as they are expected, do any of the rest of us feel that we are getting our money’s worth for this very expensive non-performance?

These impending “sequester” cuts were supposed to be a doomsday device adopted in August 2011 that would be so universally onerous to all constituencies and interest groups that Congress and the President would be forced to intervene and make rational decisions about out budget future.  Except that apparently irrationality is well beyond rational expectations, for it appears that doomsday will now occur as scheduled on March 1st.  To be followed three weeks later by a government shutdown because of the lack of an operating budget – even though we are already six months into the current fiscal year.

If a corporate CEO went this long without a financial plan, or proposed an across-the-board cut of this proportional magnitude, as the response to a financial shortfall, that person would likely be fired immediately for lack of imagination and an informed and effective strategy.  Only a managerial idiot proposes that kind of solution for an ailing company.  Everyday American families have shown far greater sensibility and accomplishment in dealing with their financial reversals during the past five years.  Most of them do not make anywhere close to $174,000.

There has been a symbolic proposal to suspend Congressional pay until Congress actually accomplishes its job.  At this point, Americans are justified in going a few steps beyond that action.  Someone needs to walk the halls of Congress and spray glue into all the locks to keep Congresspersons out of their offices.  Let them stay on vacation for a whole lot longer, given that they are doing far more damage when in session than tucked away back home where we can keep an eye on them and keep them out of further trouble.

Then let’s rescind Article 1 of the Constitution – the section that created Congress in the first place.  If a less than 10% job performance rating from their “employer” is not sufficient cause to fire these government workers, I do not know what is.  As America’s stockholders and Board of Directors, let’s just elect a President we believe is capable, let him/her do the job, and be fired if they do not get it done.  It is a perfect business model – and “run government like a business” has been a mantra by many (business) people for years now.

Except that many of us still believe that American democracy has not run its final course quite yet.  But the current players and supporting institutions have well exceeded their welcome.  As Jesus had to restore the sacredness of the Temple Mount by chasing out its corruptors, we need to similarly restore the honor of our Capitol by locking out the ineffectual and self-serving.  It is time to: replace this current bunch across the board regardless of their record and past allegiances; ban political parties as being un-American and unacknowledged by the Constitution; expose all hidden political funding and interactions between politicians and their interest groups; let each man or woman willing to offer public service have an equal shot at it; and then limit their time in office against the “career politician.”  As any good turnaround specialist knows, after a certain point many old players and mechanisms just cannot be turned around and made newly functional.

Yes, pretty crazy ideas.  And they will not happen.  But the responsible Middle American center who still remembers their history and civics lessons needs to take charge once again.  Our American Constitution is still sound.  It is We the People who have failed it.  We need a wholly new set of re-Founding Fathers and Mothers to discipline this unruly child, restore ethical maturity, and set us on the right course once again.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Headlines - February 2013

This is another one of times when I feel there are many topics currently under discussion in our country, but not necessarily warranting a full-length blog commentary.  So I offer instead a multi-topic review of some of our current headlines.

GUN SAFETY: The debate continues.  In fact, perhaps surprisingly, it has grown even louder in the six weeks after the Sandy Hook massacre.  There are four primary legislative proposals that the public appears to overwhelmingly support: universal background checks (supported by 92% of the public and 85% of NRA members); background checks for ammunition purchases; limits on number of bullets in a magazine clip; tighter restrictions on the sale of military-style assault weapons.  An NRA member recently stated, “If a hunter needs a 12-round magazine in an assault weapon to bring down a deer, it means he missed 11 shots and has no business hunting anyway.”

The first three actions would seem to be a no-brainer for almost all Americans.  But for any of these proposals to actually pass Congress, this evaporates as a common sense or moral issue.  As discussed in my blog of 1/18/2013, to make legislative progress this issue has to be dealt with as a campaign finance issue.  The political contributions of the NRA versus the (currently small) political contributions by those against the NRA’s positions.  And there is where we actually see some beginnings of change.

It is being led by billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City’s promise to personally spend mega-millions to support pro-gun safety candidates and expose NRA-funded favorite politicians.  It shows up in Gabby Gifford’s new PAC that has already been promised several million dollars from a few wealthy supporters – supplemented by her willingness to be a personal, public face on this issue.  (See her brief but riveting testimony to a Congressional committee on 1/30/2013.)  This fundraising has already had a direct affect.  Recent TV ads directed to a new Democratic Senator from North Dakota, and to a Democratic candidate in a special election in Chicago for a vacant House seat, have already prompted a public change of their pro-NRA positions.  Money still speaks.  Loudly.  I encourage you to consider donating to the Brady campaign.  Action is (unfortunately) still all about the money.

IMMIGRATION REFORM: Could this logjam finally be breaking up?  It seems to be another area where past paralysis may at last be starting to shift.  We see glimpses of that oft-invisible “bi-partisanship” as various ad hoc Congressional groups are advancing proposals to address this long-standing frustration.  Some politicians are fueled by a sense of humanity towards the untenable living condition we have created here.  Others are blatantly responding to a political reality – a growing voting block that is overwhelming against anti-Latino treatment, legislation, and roadblocks to resolution.

Whatever the motivation, it is a wave we need to surf.  Both sides need to “get” and both sides need to “give.”  We need to secure the nation’s border with all the physical, technological, and human resources available.  We need to enforce – and strengthen where necessary – laws requiring employee checks for everyone to prevent employers exploiting undocumented workers.  We need to institute a responsive and effective “guest worker” program that supports the small businessperson and farmers who are dependent upon filling jobs that resident Americans have proven they will not take.  Last and foremost, we need a defined program by which the people who came here illegally can become legal, taxpaying citizens.  Should they have been allowed to come in the first place?  No.  Are they here?  Yes – almost 12 million of them.  We blew it when we failed to stop it before, and now we need to own up to our own failure as much as theirs.

Our last step is to blot out all of the noise from those stuck in the past who scream “amnesty” as if it was a dirty word.  We need to speak back at them “forgiveness” to those seeking to make amends.  America is, and always has been, an incredibly forgiving nation.  After the American Revolution we forgave the Tories who had sided with the British.  We granted amnesty to all Confederate soldiers (excluding the generals) immediately as the Civil War ended.  We forgave the Japanese and the Germans their horrors after World War II and helped to rebuild their governments and economies.  President Jimmy Carter granted amnesty to those who fled to Canada to avoid the Viet Nam draft – and today Viet Nam is one of our “most favored nations” trading partners.  All of these were done to bind wounds and move on.  And still the nation stands, fully intact.  We will continue to stand intact after we bring these 12 million people, including their innocent children, out of the shadows, and welcome them into their adopted country.

WOMEN IN COMBAT: With almost no forewarning, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the military Joint Chiefs officially announced the end of the restriction against women serving in combat.  Coming on the heels of lifting of the ban on gays/lesbians serving in the armed forces, our military once again has become a surprising driver for America’s promised equality for all.  Just as they were for accelerating racial integration when President Truman desegregated the military in the late 1940s.  There will be no rush to implement this change; there is a three year timetable for preparation, and there will be no lowering of standards for eligibility and performance.

Of course there were some of the expected opposition cries about women being inherently emotionally incapable of performing a combat role; women unable to physically carry a wounded 250- pound buddy to safety (hell, I couldn’t do so either even in my best youthful days!); where will women go to the bathroom in a shared foxhole; and, of course, the “inevitable” lowering of morale and probability of sexual affairs and assaults; etc.  It all sounded as such a frustrating echo of the 1980s when women pushed to be cops, fire fighters, construction workers, and executives – all jobs most Americans do not think twice about now.  Can we not move on from these Neanderthal arguments once and for all?  Yet the pleasantly surprising good news is how quickly this political/media discussion has come and gone.  Done.  Quiet.

So I guess we are making progress after all.