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

Apr 10 2013

The Oliver Twist Act

Posted by Steve Ross in State Politics

Starving Children instead of advancing education

Starving Children instead of advancing education

Yesterday, the House Government Operations Committee recommended passage of HB0261 aka The Oliver Twist Act.

The bill, if passed and signed by the Governor, would reduce payments to families on certain government assistance if their child does not meet state educational standards.

Yes, there are provisions for intervention, including tutoring and parent-teacher conferences, but that doesn’t take away from the reality. The State Legislature is considering a bill that would financially punish certain families that are already experiencing hard times, for the educational challenges of their children.

No, this is not a joke.

The bill has garnered some national attention. MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry did a segment on her show this weekend about it, as did Martin Bashear on the same network. The Huffington Post sounded the alarm back in January.

The Daily Show covered the issue last night. Pretty dead on coverage.

More than just the wrong message

Stacey Campfield playing the role of Fagin

The author of the bill claims it would “break the cycle of poverty”. I’m not sure how reducing assistance to underemployed families accomplishes that, but even still, the potential financial penalties are not nearly as bad as the message the bill sends in a time when the state’s unemployment is in the upper reaches of 7% and wages haven’t recovered to pre-recession levels, especially for the working poor.

And that’s who receives this kind of assistance, people who work, but due to the number of hours available or other market driven pressures, don’t make enough to survive without assistance.

It says to these people, who are trying to get back up on their feet, here’s a stick, I’m not afraid to use it.

And it puts undue pressure of children, who are likely already under a great deal of pressure due to their family’s circumstances. It tells these children that if someone else deems their best isn’t good enough, that their family will suffer.

It doesn’t matter if there are interventions, or if the amount were considered negligible. It is a financial penalty, and one that would require school districts to report test results to another state agency, not to mention keeping up with who does and who doesn’t receive this kind of assistance.

Insult to injury

Tennessee has 1,091,100 people living in poverty. That’s nearly 17% of the population. 442,000 children, 24% of the child population in Tennessee lives in poverty.

Both numbers are well above the national average.

You have to ask yourself, with all this struggle and suffering, why on earth would anyone think another financial setback would help someone right their ship?

Thus far, no one has been able to answer this question. The reason, they can’t.

Sacrificial lambs

For all the talk of the Tennessee economic miracle that has been trumpeted by our Governor since last year, the reality for the over one million Tennesseans in poverty, and the 1.5 million people (23%) more who are one paycheck away from being completely destitute is anything but a miracle.

Their reality is one financial crisis away from being a nightmare.

Some miracle.

Missing Opportunities

Where are the opportunities to flourish, to thrive? Where is real investment in education, jobs, infrastructure? You know, the things that built the middle class and made our country great!

You won’t get it from these folks. All they see is saving you $3.65 on sales tax a year, while they give huge tax breaks to the ultra-wealthy, and corporate handouts to companies that aren’t really employing Tennesseans in the first place.

This is the same group of people who have done everything in their power to keep anything that might help regular working people from actually helping.

They turned down billions of dollars for working people to have access to healthcare, that didn’t send them in the poor house because they didn’t like the idea of having to 10¢ on the dollar…eventually.

To date, the state has collected over $127m MORE than they thought they would…and we’ve still got four months of this fiscal year ahead of us.

$127m more and they can’t see the benefit of keeping 54 hospitals that care for working people up and running at current capacity…which means not only keeping the jobs we have, but also adding thousands of more jobs.

$127m more and they think that creating a punitive system that punishes children and families is a good way to increase educational outcomes.

$127m more and they haven’t invested one red cent in the people who could actually benefit from it. They’ve arbitrarily cut spending across the board, damn the consequences, and in the process, seen a net increase in poverty statewide.

Why have they done this?

They’ve done this, not because they thought it was the best thing for the people, but because they felt it would score them political points. Because they think you aren’t paying attention.

Its sick, and disgusting. And this bill, to take money away from families that are already struggling…and working. This bill, if anything, is the most clear example of the way they think about working people, and how they operate…in the best interest of their ideology, rather than their constituents.

See also: The Greatest Poverty is Resentment
Suffer, Little Children
Dismantling the American Dream

Jun 14 2012

A Little Resolution, A Lot of Cold Comfort – #voteshelby

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Shelby County

You'll see fewer of these signs this August

As I’ve noted in my last two posts, the business of the Shelby County Election Commission has been about as easy to pick through as high density, double reinforced concrete. There’s so little information available, and the information that is available is plain useless. So I decided to spend 3 hours of my day sitting through a public meeting at the election operations center near the Penal Farm.

What an eye opener. Not because so many questions were answered, but because I got to really see the problem…which is multi-fasceted.

A Little Resolution

Precincts Impacted by Consolidation or Voting Location Changes

The actual business of the Election Commission was fairly dry, except for one issue that may be of interest to about 77,500 voters.

A resolution, which saw no disclosure prior to the meeting, and was not publicly available for comment, was passed that consolidates precincts, and portions of precincts for the August election. A rough map of the impacted precincts is included to the right. I’ve scanned the resolution and made it available here (PDF).

The rationale for these consolidations and voting location changes was to comply with ADA standards and address closed voting locations.

These things happen, and I’m sympathetic with the Commission’s efforts to ensure people have access to the voting location. However, it was mentioned that the resolution was drafted just hours before the committee meetings began, which leaves effectively zero time for the Commissioners themselves, much less the public, to inspect the proposed changes.

With just 51 days to election day, and no prior public disclosure, as many as 77,500 voters will have a new voting location in August. Based on the number of active voters the Election Commission reports, that means about 18% of all voters in the County will have to be notified of changes (numbers based on those reported in the resolution).

That’s an awful lot of people impacted even though the total number or precincts only changed from 236 to 219.

Ed. Note: I am told that the Election Commission is required to give prior notice of resolutions that impact precincts and/or voting locations. Failing to do so may be a violation of open meetings/open records laws. I’ll be checking into this over the coming days and report my findings in a future post.

Cold Comfort

There was a discussion at the meeting about public access to information and the business of the Commission. Below are some of the issues discussed. Nothing, by the way was resolved.

1. The public disclosure of what is to be discussed at the actual meeting has been lackluster for some time. Before the January 27, 2011 meeting, bullet points of discussion were included in the agenda. After that time, those discussion points became fewer and fewer. This is further hampered by the fact that the committees meet earlier in the day, on the same day as the Commission, and that the Commission only meets once a month. So items for discussion that come up in committee either have to be dealt with on that evening’s agenda, or put off for a month. I want to thank Commissioner Lester for bringing this issue up, and hope that the Commission endeavors to increase advance disclosure of the topics for discussion in their July meeting.

2. The one month lag between the meeting and the publishing of minutes, as I have noted before, is somewhat understandable. Minutes must be approved before they can be published…I get that. But in observing the meeting, I saw that it was being recorded…albiet on a less than ideal device. The presence of that recording makes me wonder why they haven’t been publishing the audio…even in its raw form, until the minutes are approved. When I asked members of the commission (from both sides of the aisle), I was told that they didn’t know enough about it to know what was possible. The solution is not just shrugging your shoulders…its asking if its possible, and if not…why. It would resolve a truism of life: If you don’t tell your story, someone else will, and you might not like the story they tell.

3. There’s a lot of tension in the room. Some of the questions asked got answered with a terseness that I felt was unnecessarily defensive, dismissive, and disrespectful. I observed this on several occasions. The message in the answers and the delivery of those answers is effectively that the questions themselves have no merit. This is compounded by what seemed to be softness in the lingo (names of reports, functions, and job descriptions) that can create unnecessary confusion. I’ve experienced this myself when asking for specific reports from the Commission, often with mixed results.

No Comfort At All

After the meeting, I and a few other interested individuals at the meeting spoke with several of the Commissioners about the problems relating to gaining information about the upcoming election in August…particularly as it relates to the Unified School Board.

Some of this discussion was broached in the meeting…particularly the precinct locator function that Administrator Holden reports is the single most popular feature of the website.

Its wrong, and there’s no ETA for it being right.

So, considering the changes made to nearly every district up for a vote this August, and the addition of a whole new class of districts (the Unified School Board), the Election Commission has no way of informing voters about what districts they will be voting in this August.

Even the most recent Ward and Precinct Stat File is incorrect. It not only doesn’t list the new Congressional, State House and Senate seats…it doesn’t even have a field for Unified School Board.

I was told there is no way to find this information out, even though the new districts we will be voting on in 51 days have been known since January 23.

The rationale for the delay is still the lack of a County Commission district plan. Considering the County Commission isn’t up for election for another two years, this excuse is bunk.

That there is no way to gain this information is simply negligent. While I understand that the workers at the Election Commission are working as hard as they can, it seems evident that they have been directed to wait for the elusive decision by the County Commission.

That’s just a poor administrative decision that will negatively impact the outcome of the August election.

I guess what surprised me most was that there was no outrage or even surprise at this revelation, which, more than anything else describes the problem.

Inconclusive Conclusion

The paternalistic nature of the entire meeting, the tension, the willingness to shrug and move on, all point to a culture of acquiescence from the Commissioners themselves. I understand that serving on the Commission is a huge time commitment, and that everyone has busy lives, but the issue at hand here is the security (both real and perceived) of the voting franchise.

Some of the muted, but present defensiveness from staff members and Commissioners leads one to believe there is more interest in protecting the honor of the Election Commission itself rather than performing the necessary due diligence to inform the public, and thereby, protect both the voting franchise and the Commission. This is the kind of perspective that results from a bunker mentality that is all too pervasive in Boards and Commissions throughout Shelby County.

Transparency isn’t difficult. It just has to be intentional. It doesn’t happen by accident or happenstance. It has to be in the forefront of the minds of those who are making the and enacting decisions. While there were assurances that the upcoming precinct consolidations (which will likely be taken up later this year) will be transparent, based on what I observed, this would constitute a massive change in philosophy that is little more than an afterthought in the grand scheme of things.

I’ve heard, and been told directly in other public meetings that “the process will be transparent” before. In almost every instance these assurances have been fool’s gold. You’ll excuse me if I’m more than a little skeptical about his one.

I said earlier, and it bears repeating: If you don’t tell your story, someone else will and you may not like the story they tell.

I’m pretty sure that none of the Commissioners (on either side of the aisle) will like what I’ve said. They probably think I’m being too hard on them or inflexible.

This isn’t personal.

If the Commissioners/Commission want less grief, they have the power to reduce it by looking for solutions and working to be more open. Back in 2009 I wrote a very positive post about changes and greater openness at the Commission. I would prefer to be able to do so again rather than point out the failings of the body.

Commissioners, the power is in your hands, but you have to make it a priority rather than an afterthought. You don’t have to have the know how yourselves…that’s what staff is for. You do have to have the will to start and continue the discussion.

Further, I and other interested individuals are always available for suggestions. But at the end of the day, its on the Commissioners and administrative staff to enact the changes.

No one else can do it but you. I hope you will resolve to restore the trust of the people rather than hunker down and ultimately, make the problem worse.

May 30 2008

Thank you Senator Reid

Posted by Steve Ross in Uncategorized

I’ve had some issues with the leadership in the Congress since they took control last January. Eventually, they figured out a way to work their respective legislative bodies in a way that is mostly in tune with the sentiment of Democrats, but it has, at times been a struggle, as Senator Harry Reid points out in this article at HuffPo. My favorite quote from the article:

“People think she [Pelosi] has a large margin, she doesn’t,” he said. “You add in the so-called Blue Dogs [conservative Democrats], she has trouble passing anything, because they are a pain in the wrong part of your body.”

That they are sir…that they are.

I just want to say to all those people who have busted my chops for being hard on Tanner, Cooper, and some of the other “Bush Dogs”, here’s your evidence. Certainly, we want Democrats whenever possible, but we also want the best Democrats we can get. To that end, give this a looksee, and if you can, drop Ed Fallon some coin to help build a more progressive Democratic Congress.

While you’re at it, give Steve Cohen some love too. He’s been great, both in the Congress and for Memphis the past 18 months. A truly progressive voice. If any Freshman Democrat deserves re-election, it’s him.

Update: Braisted beat me to the punch on this (by 11 min.) and has some commentary from John Spragens, spokesman for Blue Dog Rep. Jim Cooper.

Apr 07 2008

Free Ride

Posted by Steve Ross in Uncategorized

The filing deadline in Tennessee has come and gone, and now we know who’s running, and in some cases, who’s not. The Tennessee Bush Dogs are on their way to re-election, some with less opposition than others. Lincoln Davis has drawn a Democratic Primary opponent. I’ll be keeping an eye on that race. Jim Cooper and Bart Gordon face some opposition in the general, but nothing insurmountable. John Tanner is the luckiest, drawing no opponent period.

Way to send a message TN-08. I guess that’s one safe “Democratic” seat in Tennessee.

Tanner’s lack of an opponent is annoying, but not surprising. He’s relatively popular in the 8th. He’s never had much opposition EVER. I guess that means he can use his reported $1.2m on getting other Democrats elected. I hope that’s what he does with it.