Monday, May 27, 2013

Scandals They Are Not

The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Senator from New York, once famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”  In the past several weeks, the dominant news from dysfunctional Washington has been multiple supposed government “scandals.”  The news media has gone on non-stop in their never-ending quest for ratings (versus information).  Many Republicans have jumped on their individual soapboxes  seeking continual attention for themselves and preferential votes from their political base.  Goals of enlightened perspective and useful information are non-existent in the cacophony of all this verbiage.  And attention to the really pressing issues of our time has been diverted to this melodrama.  So what can one really say, and what have we learned, about these would-be scandals?

First, there is the killing of our four diplomats last September.  Over eight months ago.  A deeply regrettable scenario that has already been assessed in detail by previous and unending Congressional committees.  In addition, a State Department internal inspection team recommended numerous changes that are already being implemented.  Yet this pet issue of several Senators and Representatives will not go away, even though we have learned virtually nothing new with each new release of emails or witness testimony.  Our very respected Ambassador to the U.N. has been unfairly blamed and has taken the rap for “misleading the public” by simply reading “talking points” prepared by others (CIA and State) that were later proven incorrect.  (Republicans had no such need for distraught committee hearings when Colin Powell “misled” the public – and the world – about WMDs in Iraq based upon CIA-provided analysis.  Yet we went to war over those misstatements, costing thousands of lives instead of four.  Nor was much said when as many as seven or more embassies were attacked during the George W. presidency.)

Yes, in the confusing aftermath of the attack in Benghazi concurrently with violence occurring elsewhere in the Middle East, the CIA and State went back and forth for an announcement that would hopefully buy time against the politicization of this event – the same politicization that happened anyway, then and still through today.  Republican Congresspersons of short memory who today are most vocally chastising the administration for lax security are the same ones who voted against the State Department’s request for additional security funding.  When Senator Rand Paul concluded that main lesson from these committee investigations was that “Hillary Clinton is not fit to be President,” it revealed the truth of the pure politics driving this uproar.

The real scandal of substance here is our failure to recognize that diplomatic posts in dangerous countries are dangerous jobs, including in Libya.  Especially, as this Ambassador believed, if one ventures out into the people and places of one’s assignment rather than holding up behind the reinforced fortress walls of an embassy.  We can, and should, do everything possible to protect our diplomats.  But we cannot absolutely guarantee their safety and prevent against all potential tragedies from occurring.  It is time to move off of this issue.

Second, there is the supposed IRS scandal.  A small field office in Cincinnati that is charged with determining eligibility for non-profit status is accused of “targeting” conservative political groups for political advantage.  Most everyone hates the IRS as an institution, which always makes it an easy target for public outrage.  It is one of those thankless, no-win jobs that needs to be done but will never generate adoration.  In the wake of the disastrous “Citizens United” ruling by the Supreme Court that opened the floodgates of political money into our elections, a corresponding flood of PACs were hatched overnight.  Hundreds of new applications for non-profit status, mostly from groups with a conservative agenda, flowed into this IRS office with no increase in manpower to process them.  This was a whole new piece of business from wholly new constituent groups.

Given the current extreme abuse of “non-profit” status by religious organizations, and hospital and charities paying multi-million dollar salaries, and given that non-profit groups are supposed to be prevented from engaging in overt political activities, all those new applications demanded close scrutiny.  So it appears that the everyday working people in that office tried to do their job in this new environment as best as they could figure out.  Unfortunately, they adopted processes without vetting how their processes would appear in the short-form ticker-tape headlines we now live within – a vetting now seemingly required for every governmental action instead of vetting for substance.  Yet in the end, no legitimate group was denied such non-profit classification.  Once again, if one is looking for a scandal, look no further than the Supreme Court and its Citizens United ruling, and the law of unintended consequences.  And look at the scandal for what today passes for “non-profit” organizations and the many abuses thereof.  Look at the flagrant politicking by many “non-profit” groups.  These are our far greater issues for discussion.

Third, we have the capturing of call records and email traffic by the FBI in pursuit of the leaking of classified security information.  I have been an opponent of the misnamed Patriot Act since it was passed in the aftermath of 9-11.  I protest greatly the potential of government eavesdropping of private citizens.  I also believe that “whistle-blowers” are needed in both government and private corporations and are important to protect.  That said, when I first heard that a dangerous terrorist plot had been exposed by a CIA spy embedded in the terrorist leadership, I remember immediately thinking “why in the hell would you ever announce that?”  And sure enough, that spy’s value was ended, and others suffered subsequent harm.

The news media loves to talk about freedom of the press in as absolute terms as the NRA talks absolutely about 2nd Amendment gun rights.  But none of our  rights is absolute.  A careful, case-by-case balance between legitimate national security needs and freedom of the press is always required.  From World War II up until Watergate, such a delicate balance of judgment worked out pretty well.  By all accounts it did not work out well here, and appropriately classified information was inappropriately revealed.  Once again, if one is looking for a true scandal, look at governmental over-classifying information as “secret” without meaningful discretion.  Look at a news industry that places misleading headlines and a rush to “scoop” above thoughtful, researched, and grounded reporting that leaves the public skeptical of the whole profession.  (Are you listening CNN?)

Too many people continually want to find a “scandal” where simple incompetency, stupidity, or error in judgment reign.  Watergate and Iran-Contra were true scandals – extreme, inappropriate, and illegal decisions and actions made on high in a continual and deepening sequencing of events with seriously destructive consequences.  Evidence of none of these conditions has been presented in our current litany of political stories.  Not every governmental misstep warrants a “-Gate” appellation.  And politicians and news commentators that were children during Watergate should not cheapen the serious meaning and impact of what a real scandal truly is.  We need to tune out these stories and rhetoric, America.  We have important work to be done that requires our real attention.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A Bullet To Representative Democracy

On April 17, 2013, our United States Senate shot down any new legislation to address gun safety issues.  Most notably, it rejected any expansion of background checks for gun purchasers.  The intent of this expansion was to make such procedures universally applicable for all gun sales, including the now-exempt gun shows and online sales.

An astonishing consensus of 90% of Americans have been consistently supportive of such a common-sense measure, including over 80% of gun owners.  But the Senate saw fit to reject this national mandate.  Or, more correctly, 45 of 100 senators voted against it – sufficient to kill it in a parliamentary setting where “the majority” has now perversely become a 60% standard.  Put another way … a minority of 45% of the Senate “defeated” a majority of 55% and rejected what 90% of the country wants to see enacted.  It is a paradox I can think about only so often or so long, because it makes my head hurt.  Only in the archaic, self-serving world of inflated egos that is our U.S. Senate could this through-the-looking-glass scenario occur.  What had been called “the greatest deliberative body in the world” has now become “the world’s most debilitated body.”

The “no” vote was made up of 41 Republicans and 4 Democrats.  4 politically courageous Republicans sided with 49 Democrats and 2 Independents in saying “yes.”  (Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tactically voted “no” so that he can recall the bill again later.)  In the aftermath of the “no” vote, these obstructing 45 offered up all kinds of varying reasons for their vote against universal background checks – reasons that collapsed under the slightest scrutiny or reasoning:
·       “The bill would add an undue burden and paperwork to gun purchasers.”  (No.  The purchase application is estimated to take less than five minutes.  Far less than registering my car at the DMV.)
·       “The bill would interfere with the ability of qualified purchasers to buy a gun.”  (No.  It would put all purchasers and retail outlets on equal footing, and as intended only prevent the unqualified from buying.)
·       “The bill would lead to a national gun registry database tracking all guns and gun owners, thus invading their privacy.”  (No.  The current background check system has not created such a registry.  The proposed bill specifically prohibits anyone from doing so as a felony punishable by 15 years in prison.  That said, our national registry of automobiles has not limited any qualified driver from buying or owning a car.)
·       “The bill would require onerous background checks for transfers of guns among family members.”  (No.  Provision was made to exempt such private transfers from required retail procedures.)
·       “The bill would not have prevented the Sandy Hook massacre.”  (True.  But it would have potentially led to holding the killer’s mother accountable for irresponsibly making her guns available to her obviously disturbed son.  And it would go a long way to preventing the senseless everyday shooting of our kids on streets and in shopping malls across the country.)
·       “The problem is not guns, but is a mental health issue.”  (No.  Gun violence comes from the mentally ill, from domestic terrorists, from small people trying to act big, and from old-fashioned criminals.  It is a gun owner problem, which is why we seek to do checks on purchasers, not metal firearms.)
·       “Criminals will just ignore and circumvent this law anyway and get guns illegally.”  (On that logic, why do we have any criminal laws?  Criminals by definition ignore and break the law, but the laws prevent many from doing harmful actions.  This “logic” is too stupid to even speak with a straight face.)

All of this false logic, however, attempts to overshadow the three real goals of these 45 votes:
·       to unify a voting bloc of Republicans still intent on defeating any proposal by the current President for their own political advantage, versus governing the country;
·       to stave off in future Republican primary elections potential rivals who would accuse them of being soft on the 2nd Amendment and of being “pro-government” (as if that would be a bad thing!) – fears about reelection trump good governance;
·       to hide the millions of dollars in political donations from the NRA and gun manufacturers that have been received by 42 of the 45 senators.

So where does this leave the 90% of the country?  We sit anxiously at the bedside of a wounded proposal, but not a dead one.  Remarkably, the public is not yet turning loose of this one.  Approval ratings for these 45 Senators are showing substantial negative impacts.  Media attention continues to trumpet this issue, from conservative Joe Scarborough’s morning commentary to comedian David Letterman’s nightly “Stooge of the Day” pictures spotlighting each one of the 45.  Fundraising to support future anti-NRA candidates is rising, and two leading Republican fundraisers in Florida are refusing to raise money for “no” candidates.  Citizens are showing up at town meetings to call these senators out to answer for their votes.  The tide of action against gun violence may have rolled back for now, but ocean tides of support may well be rolling back in yet again.

Yet all of this legitimate debate about the pros/cons of gun legislation is frankly overshadowed by an issue of even greater and more lasting importance.  Which is that when 45% of our senior legislative body is able to prevent what 90% of the citizenry wants, the unique American concept of “representative democracy” has suffered a major bullet to its core.  It moves “Washington” from being simply dysfunctional to almost treasonable by failing the 225 year old test as to whether “We, the People” can govern ourselves through elected representatives acting on our collective behalf.  This is a far more ominous and consequential threat to our survival as a society than all of the horrible mass shootings combined.  And a far greater and more potent issue for future elections.

Will we remember these 45 votes in the elections of 2014, 2016, and 2018?  This blatant ignoring of the democratic ideal?  The 45 are hoping that their votes will be long forgotten by their next election.  But I have written to my Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) to thank her for her courageous “yes” vote, and promised to work for her 2014 reelection.  And I have written to my Senator Richard Burr (R-NC, recipient of substantial NRA/gun association donations) to tell him that I would remember his “no” vote all the way to his 2016 reelection campaign.  Further, that I would be writing to him once every month until November 2016 to remind him that I had not forgotten.  (I am hoping that other letter writers will do something similar.)

Lest we forget – April 17, 2013.  The day the grand and noble American experiment of representative democracy was critically wounded by a mass shooting from 45 United States Senators.