Dec 30 2013

Win, Lose or Draw – State of the Nation, 2013

Posted by Steve Ross in National Politics, Policy

This is part 1 in a series of 3 posts that will look at who came out ahead, who came out behind, and who didn’t move an inch in the past 12 months. As with all these type lists, they are both subjective and incomplete, so make any additions/corrections in the comments. Thanks and have a Happy New Year. -SR

#Winners

Inaction – If you’re one of those that thinks the government needs to do less, you probably liked the hell out of 2013. Congress took more vacation time than the average person gets in more than 10 years of working, and little if anything was done to address the sluggish economy, unemployment, or any of the other major problems facing the country. Since Congress writes the laws, most of this falls on their heads, but you’d be hard pressed to know that in the national press, which continuously placed the blame on an administration hamstrung by recalcitrant members of the House.

Outlook for 2014 – Good (which means bad for the rest of us)

Harry Reid – The strong, silent type…Reid shoved through the Senate what he could, and spearheaded an effort to cripple the crippling filibuster, which kept a record number of Obama appointees from ever coming up for a vote. He also held his own during a government shutdown that was largely blamed on those same recalcitrant House Members that were mentioned above.

Reid isn’t the most compelling character in a TV driven national conversation, but his behind the scenes skill at getting things done and keeping his party together earned him a win for 2013.

Outlook for 2014 – Good

Paul Ryan – The 2012 GOP VP nominee stayed out of the spotlight for much of 2013, but surged in the waning weeks of the year to pass a Budget that accomplished most of what he wanted while giving up little in return. Bipartisanship may not be popular on the GOP side of the aisle, but any negotiation that gets you 70% of what you want is a win.

Outlook for 2014 – Not Bad

Misinformation – The media struggled against noise machines like Darrell Issa (R-CA) and others this year to get basic facts right about the stories that dominated the headlines. What’s more they struggled to even understand if those stories held any relevance. The Affordable Care Act, Benghazi, and the IRS scandal were the top three issues where the media largely parroted Issa and his acolytes despite information that would eventually discredit their assertions (Sources:Al Quaeda wasn’t involved in Benghazi Attack, IRS targeted progressive groups, Too, Documents reveal, Top 16 myths about the health care law).

The media politics of “He said/She said” continue, and the only winners are those who profit either politically or financially through stirring up misinformation and strengthening the paranoia machines.

Outlook for 2014 – Worse

Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-TN) – This may seem an odd addition, since Fincher isn’t a member of the GOP House leadership…but he did get some headlines, and those headlines didn’t seem to hurt him much. The whole SNAP Flap over farm bill subsidies and food stamps helped put Fincher on the national map. That attention helped him raise over $2 million dollars for his campaign…and that’s just through the end of September. Fincher has benefitted from a constituency base that is isolated from media outlets that have the resources to draw the connection from his preferred policies to the impact on the area he represents. Also, having the most conservative swath of Shelby Co. in his district, which can easily provide him 41% of the votes he needs to win in any election doesn’t hurt.

Outlook for 2014 – Good

Steve Cohen (D-TN) – Cohen also had a good year. He too got a good deal of national attention…some of it not always in the best ways…but far better than many of his contemporaries in the House. In addition to working for several progressive bills that will likely never see the light of day in the GOP led House, he used his time on the national TV circuit to push for more progressive legislation to deal with all kinds of problems that haven’t garnered the national attention that the should. This may not seem like a win, but in a year that saw the GOP led House do more of less, anyone doing more of more comes out a winner in my book.

What’s more, Cohen hasn’t drawn a serious challenger in his re-election bid as of yet (unless you count Ricky Wilkins as a serious challenger…and I don’t).

Outlook for 2014 – Good

Losers

Barack Obama – Coming off an election year that saw him win 51% of the popular vote, and 61% of the electoral college, you might think there would be a tailwind for the first year of his second term. That simply didn’t happen. Stymied by a GOP led House that seemed more interested in voting to repeal his signature healthcare law and investigate bogus scandals…the President might have made it through the year with at least a draw…if not a win in the wake of the GOP forced government shutdown. But the botched rollout of the healthcare.gov site erased any gains the President made and ultimately distracted the public from the foolishness that was, by far, the signature of the GOP led efforts to implicate him in something…anything.

Outlook for 2014 – Neutral

John Boehner – “Cryin'” John Boehner had a shitty year. Plain an simple. If “herding cats” is an overused metaphor for damn near everything, that’s still what Boehner was tasked with doing…and he largely failed. Unable to grab the reigns from the TEA Party elements in his party, he led the House to vote for a government shutdown that surged public opinion against him, and his GOP colleagues. Boehner looked weak, and acted weak…eschewing the “Hastert Rule” to eventually end that shutdown, and pass some of the few pieces of legislation that actually had a chance in the Democratically controlled Senate. On top of all of that, he gained a Primary Challenger, something that just about never happens to a sitting House Speaker. Every morning I wake up and thank God that I am not John Boehner…for these, and a multitude of other reasons.

Outlook for 2014 – Worse

Mitch McConnell – If John Boehner’s year was bad, Mitch McConnell’s year was somehow worse. The Senate Minority Leader managed to block a good deal of Obama nominees to various and sundry posts throughout the year…until Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid effectively took away the filibuster for the approval of nominees…effectively hampering that effort. On top of that, McConnell is about as unpopular in his home state as a politician can be…and he drew a credible opponent in Alison Lundergan Grimes, the current Democratic Secretary of State of Kentucky.

Outlook for 2014 – Worse

Unemployed – The US unemployment rate may have dropped from 7.9% in Jan. of 2013 to a mere 7% in November of this year, but the unemployed still got the raw end of the deal. Congress failed to reauthorize long-term unemployment benefits, which means 1,300,000 people who have been looking for work for a long-assed time are more screwed than they were before.

Outlook for 2014 – Worse

Working Poor – Wages for all workers in the US eked up 2¢ for the year. At the end of the year, the average hourly wage in the US was $10.31/hr. That’s the average, so a whole bunch of folks are way below that number. Median household wages are still below their pre-recession level, which means that damn near everyone is still worse off than they were before the Bush Bubble Burst. But for the working poor…who were struggling in the first place, its just not looking good…and there are no immediate sings of improvement in the future.

Outlook for 2014 – Worse

Affordable Care Act – The Affordable Care Act may have been an early success in helping women, and children get or keep healthcare they needed, but the rollout of the healthcare.gov site was a disaster…and has been largely pegged to the failure of the law in general…even though that’s pure BS. The law has been scratched bare by scrutiny, some of it legitimate, much of it rhetorical flourish and the fumbling of the rollout of a key component only gives credence to those who proudly say that government can’t do anything right. Add to that the 23 states that aren’t expanding Medicaid and the 4,800,000 people that are being left behind and you’ve got a full on catastrophe. Its a damn shame, because despite its flaws, this law could help a lot of folks.

Outlook for 2014 – Neutral

TEA Party – The most recent iteration of secessionists finally got their civil war…though not where they expected…in their own party. Now I’ve always held that the TEA Party folks aren’t Republicans, but newfangled “know-nothings” that are more interested in maintaining the status quo than the public populist persona they initially used to their advantage. Nonetheless, the National GOP embraced them as a means to an end, and now they have to deal with them. There’s always been an element of these folks in government, but this is the first time in my lifetime they have grabbed this much power. Even conservative groups are running away…like the US Chamber of Commerce which has pledged $50 million dollars to defeat them. Popcorn popped. I can’t wait to see how this plays out in the primaries.

Outlook for 2014 – Not Good (Which is just fine by me)

The filibuster – Most people have no idea what the filibuster is. I’m not going to get in to all that. But it is a loser this year for reasons I mentioned above. Earlier this year the Senate voted to limit its use as a delay tactic in the Senate for most Presidential nominees. This has been called “the nuclear option” but in reality, its little more than a grenade tossed in the general direction of a nuclear blast fortified door. In any case…its a loser this year which is a huge change and could mean swifter justice, and a whole host of other efficiencies in government…which is something we all want, right? (maybe not)

Outlook for 2014 – Worse (which is good for people who want to see appointees make it through…)

Dist. 8 Constituents – While their Representative may have had a good year, the people of the 8th district of Tennessee had a bad one. Unemployment is 1.7% higher than the state level, and 2.8% higher than the national outlook. Nearly 25% of all the people in rural counties in the district (All but Shelby Co.) are on food stamps. Businesses have closed, population is dwindling, and there’s no help in sight. If only the people of the 8th district would draw the connection between the decline and their elected leaders. It was NEVER this bad when John Tanner was in office.

Outlook for 2014 – Awful

Draw

Congress – This may be the worst Congress ever. It may be that only 13% of Americans approve of how Congress is functioning. But like most dysfunctional relationships, this is one that probably won’t end without something really terrible happening. This article describes why Congress as a whole is unlikely to flip. At the height of the shutdown, 60% of Americans said fire every member of Congress…but that sentiment faded when the House GOP decided to relent for its own good. People still hate Congress and love their Congressmen…for the most part. So any real hopes of things suddenly “changing” when there are 538 cats to herd, is unlikely. Also, the notion that Democrats could surge in 2014 aren’t supported by history. The President’s party typically gets hammered in the last two years of a Presidential term. 2014 could be different, but it seems unlikely.

Outlook for 2014 – Good

Sep 30 2013

Would Boehner break the “Hastert Rule” to avoid a shutdown?

Posted by Steve Ross in National Politics

He's so emotional.

He’s so emotional.

At the time of this writing we’re right around 8 hours away from a government shutdown.

The Senate was back in session to address the bill passed by the House over the weekend. The House bill delays, rather than defunds the Affordable Care Act for a year.

The Senate tabled the motion, meaning that their last offer to the House…a clean spending bill with no exceptions…is their final offer.

So the questions you’ll hear from the punditocracy is what will the House GOP do? Because seriously, they’re between a rock and a hard place.

Reality Check

Shutting down the government is really unpopular. I mean, I pay taxes all year round for the government to be funded all year round. If the people holding the purse strings (Congress) can’t get that done, then what the hell good are they?

And that, basically sums up the response to the 1995/96 shutdowns, and will most likely be the same response now.

But for the House GOP, it’s a little more dire. From a CNN poll released today:

• 46% of people polled would blame the House GOP, as opposed to 36% for President Obama

• 69% of respondents said the House GOP was behaving like a “spoiled child”.

• 60% of poll participants reject the GOP’s approach and think it is more important to avoid a shutdown than to make major changes to the Affordable Care Act.

Whether you believe in polling or not, those last two numbers are pretty compelling.

So the question becomes: will the House GOP go for broke or will they bend a little and save themselves the ire of the public.

Right now it seems like they will go for broke…literally.

Boehner’s Dilema

While common sense Americans think this whole thing is ridiculous (it is), House Speaker Boehner is between a rock and a hard place politically.

The House GOP caucus stands at 230 members, about half of which are hardliners. They will not bend. So the larger political issue (the shutdown) gets lost in smaller political the issues of the caucus (unity and retaining leadership), consequences be damned.

The House GOP has, for the majority of the past two decades, held to a standard called the “Hastert Rule”. This unwritten rule says that any measure that cannot pass without the majority of the majority should not be considered. The rationale behind this is that former Speaker Hastert believed the House Majority should not abdicate political victories, even if it was for the good of the country.

However, Speaker Boehner has run afoul of the “Hastert Rule” on at least three previous occasions. In doing so, he has put his leadership post in jeopardy by the hardliners.

But to pass the Senate’s clean funding bill, all the Speaker would need to do is:

1. Bring the measure to the floor.

2. Get 30-40 Republicans to vote for it (several were already cracking Saturday).

Boehner fears the fallout of those two actions might be losing his speakership…something that would be bad for Democrats…which is not to say his leadership has necessarily been good for our causes…but that the result would be worse, if that’s imaginable.

There’s also the chance that the measure might fail (though unlikely), which would mean the Speaker had spent political capital for no good reason. No one in leadership of any organization wants that to happen.

So Speaker Boehner would need assurances from Democrats that the spending measure, that includes spending cuts Democrats abhor, would have their support, and then he’d still need to find a gaggle (30-40 or more to be safe) Republicans that would support the clean bill.

Boehner already has OPP (other political problems) in the form of a primary challenge at home, though its unlikely that his opponent will succeed. But this too, might be giving the speaker pause. It wasn’t that long ago that Speaker Foley was put out of office. Boehner was a wee pup in Congress when that happened. I have no doubt he remembers that…and worries…a lot about it.

Nose/Face/Spite/Fill-in-the-blanks

The ball is, and has been in the House GOP’s court. They have made this a drama. They have exposed themselves to ire and scrutiny of the public by overreaching. They have held long and hard even in the face of advice from GOP math messiah Karl Rove.

Its their shutdown…we’re just going to have to deal with it. And the most effective time to deal with it, will be in November ’14.

Until then, stock up on canned foods, freeze some meats, and schedule some extra volunteer work. People in real need are going to need help when the House GOP leadership lets internal politics trump the good of the nation.

Sep 29 2013

Not learning from history…

Posted by Steve Ross in Financial Crisis, National Politics

The architect of the current recession.

The architect of the current artificial crisis.

If there’s one thing the House GOP leadership is good at doing, its creating a crisis where none should exist.

The current ploy is to defund or delay the implementation of the Affordable Care act in exchange for avoiding a government shutdown.

This, of course, is a non-starter with the President and the US Senate…which means that if no bill is passed through the House without a defunding or delay of the landmark healthcare law, non-essential portions of the government will shutdown until one is passed.

How long that would take is anyone’s guess.

But the impact on the economy of a government shutdown would hurt an already struggling economy according to Bloomberg and other sources.

Apparently, Republicans are more interested in playing politics than governing…a fact that should have been obvious in the 40 odd previous votes to repeal the law and the statement by House Speaker John Boehner that “Congress ought to be judged by how many laws they repeal”, which, by the way is zero. You can decide whether that is a good or bad thing.

In the wake of the 1995 and ’96 government shutdowns, the political cost for the majority party at the time was the loss of seats, though not their majority. But economic conditions were very different. Unemployment was lower, and growth was higher.

This time, we’re not in as strong a position, and the economic impact will hurt more if the government does shutdown.

The reality of a shutdown, even a short one, is the loss of a lot of growth, and tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people losing income. These are mostly regular people, doing regular jobs, that just happen to work for the Federal Government. They are, in effect, being punished for serving their country…a reality completely lost on the GOP majority. A reality they don’t seem to care about at all.

Current GOP orthodoxy holds that all workers should be thankful that the ownership class has allowed them to make any kind of income, whether in the private or public sectors. This is where that whole “makers and takers” rhetoric from the last Presidential election cycle naturally leads.

Understanding this, makes it easy to see why both damaging the economy at large, and potentially causing financial ruin for people who made the mistake of wanting to serve their country are no big deal to GOP v.2013.

The long-term impact of both this ideological position and policy decision to artificially constrain economic growth through inaction is founded in the politics of damaging a President more than representation of constituents…or anything else.

History has not been kind to people who put political self-interest over the needs of a nation.

So it seems that we’re in for at least two big fights (budget and debt ceiling) that don’t need to be fights except for the purposes of political expedience. These fights will include things that don’t need to be included (primarily the Affordable Care Act) and will be framed as a means to curb deficit spending, which is down at its lowest level since the previous administration.

A prolonged shutdown, due to both issues will cause a lot of harm to both the economy by creating unnecessary uncertainty. The uncertainty thus far has hurt markets…which are more a measure of sentiment than the overall economy, by taking some 200 points from the Dow Jones Industrial Average, in the past 5 days alone (a loss of 1.2%).

It would seem even GOP paymasters understand that a shutdown isn’t good for them in the real world.

But according to the current GOP, all that matters is an ever increasing list of pie in the sky conditions that help the mighty few and hurt the many, to make a President look like he’s not doing anything…which is actually what the House leadership is doing.

It is the definition of madness.

Apr 14 2013

Kittens lash out at ice cream, apple pie, and background checks

Posted by Steve Ross in National Politics

A recent You Gov poll found that Americans have a very high opinion of many things both cute and cuddly, as well as cornerstones of American culture.

These include:

Ice cream – 93%
Apple pie – 81%
Kittens – 76%
Child Labor laws – 71%
Baseball – 67%

Its not that surprising that the two top things in this poll are food, especially ice cream and apple pie. Kittens are also no surprise. I think people like the idea more than the reality, but that could just be my allergies talking.

Cute, cuddly, stone cold killers

Cute, cuddly, stone cold killers

But one thing that I found really surprising is, with the exception of ice cream, Americans approve of background checks on gun purchases more than anything else.

92% of Americans approve of background checks according to a Quinnipiac poll released in February.

Ice cream edged out background checks by only 1%.

Kittens were blown away by background checks by nearly 16 points.

Kittens, needless to say, while cute and cuddly, are pissed.

Harnessing their inner sense of vengeance, something all felines possess, kittens have taken to a program of firearms training to strike back at the items that outperformed them.

Beware Good Humor man. Watch out Apple pie. Stand back, background checks.

Kittens are coming to get you.

Apr 04 2013

Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice…

Posted by Steve Ross in activism, National Politics, Policy, State Politics

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals. – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

 Martin Luther King Jr. --- Image by © Flip Schulke/CORBIS

Martin Luther King Jr.

Forty-Five years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed by an assassin’s bullet as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

King came to Memphis in support of a sanitation strike brought on by low wages and horrific working conditions that led to the deaths of two workers.

By 1968 the United States had passed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and a package of reforms dubbed Great Society which sought to eliminate economic and racial injustice.

Despite the passage of these reforms, there were still many roadblocks to African-Americans in particular and the poor generally, receiving equitable treatment and access to opportunities that would help them overcome their circumstances.

In the final days of King’s life, he worked to organize a Poor People’s Campaign in search of economic justice not only for African-Americans, but for all of our nation’s poor.

The struggle of the Civil Rights Movement, which was born of a desire for equal rights, came to include the ideas of economic justice. It is a struggle that continues to this day, not only in Memphis, but around the country and impacts all of us.

The Struggle Continues

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

Over the past forty years we’ve seen the fruits of King’s leadership come under consistent attack. Sometimes in ways that are hard to recognize.

The list of incremental changes over time is too long to even attempt to compile in one place, but laws that seek to limit people’s ability to exercise their rights, like the Voter ID bill, and efforts to hamper people’s ability to seek justice, like the Tennessee Civil Justice Act of 2011, which limits a company’s financial liability, have become the norm rather than the exception.

Yesterday I wrote about the value of work and how the notion of work has been turned on its head in recent decades. I wrote about a bill before the state legislature that would make it harder for people hurt in the actions of their work to be taken care of.

This kind of injustice is exactly what Dr. King fought against in his later years. In the years since his death, the concerted effort of one group to limit the access to justice has become commonplace both here in Tennessee and across the nation.

An Organized Assault on Justice

“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Over the past forty years, there has been an organized assault on the ideas of economic and social justice.

This effort has taken many shapes, and been played out in many venues…from school boards to legislatures at the state and federal level, as well as everything in between.

It is well funded, and organized for a single purpose: to further tilt the playing field in support of those who have plenty and seek to accumulate more, in opposition to those of us who are seeking to simply make a life for our families.

Newscoma wrote about one such group, ALEC an organization that crafts model bills that are personalized for each state. As she notes in her post, we’ve had several of them.

These bills, which have been labeled “conscientious reform” by supporters, seek to make holding people accountable more difficult, especially when they have more resources. They represent an attack on economic justice for people who have few resources to fight for themselves.

By and large, there have been few organized attempts to bring light to the impact these bills would have on regular people. The struggle has been fragmented while the attack has been organized. The end result has been a steady erosion of justice by limiting access and stifling accountability.

Education: Divide and Conquer

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

The cause of true education, as King describes it, has been under attack by forces seeking to cripple public education for the past two decades. An increased focus on testing has led to curriculum focused on teaching to the test rather than critical thinking and problem solving skills that empower people regardless of their chosen profession or trade.

While the effort began before the passage of No Child Left Behind, this bill had a devastating effect on education by forcing educators to focus on rote memory rather than broader ideas of personal development.

The philosophical foundation of the act ultimately makes learners “consumers of education” rather than active participants. True education can no be based on a passive “consumerist” model. Students must be active participants engaging in a dialogue to truly gain the “intelligence plus character” that Dr. King mentions.

This notion of consumerism is furthered in legislative efforts that have followed.

The concept of “school choice”, either through transfers, charter schools, or voucher programs, resonate with parents seeking to give their children the best opportunity to gain a quality education. This idea is based on this same consumer model predicated on personal resource availability, time, transportation, and money, that, by default, exclude those who lack resources.

In Tennessee, bills seeking to hobble teachers unions, state nullification of local charter school decisions, school voucher programs, and stiff economic penalties for the poor who do not meet state educational standards, AKA “Starve the Poor” bills have made, and are making their way through the state legislature.

These initiatives seek at once to reduce investment in education, place public dollars in the hands of private entities that are largely unaccountable in the public sphere, and most importantly, distract from the economic circumstances brought on by decades of economically unjust fiscal policy in the service of wealth concentration for the mighty few rather than opportunity for the common good.

This is similar to Dr. King’s opposition to the Vietnam War, which sucked resources away from domestic programs, and led to a global financial showdown that paved the way for the trickle down economics that would dominate the 1980’s and begin a trend of wage stagnation that continues to this day.

Reclaiming the Dream

The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.
PROVERBS 29:7

Dr. King’s work is most closely associated with social justice and racial equality, particularly through his I Have a Dream speech. But his legacy cannot be defined by that one awe inspiring event.

Dr. King’s vision went beyond the struggles of his day, and is owed the consideration of his later efforts, including those that led to his life being cut tragically short here in Memphis.

His later work focused on the broad ideas of justice and were targeted at helping the economically disadvantaged.

I think it was and still is difficult for people to understand the potential outcomes of this effort.

While focused in the south and primarily on African-Americans continuing their struggle for equality, his work didn’t just apply to one race, but to all who fell under the grip of poverty. I feel confident that over time this effort would have expanded to poor white coal miners in West Virginia, and migrant workers in California.

We never got to see what would come of Dr. King’s leadership on economic justice. His life and work was cut short.

We can continue to take cues from his leadership, and push on, continuing the struggle, through out tireless exertions and passionate concern, dedicated to the service of justice.

In fact, we have a duty to that very thing.