Wednesday, December 22, 2010

DADT Is Repealed; Dream Is Undone

The Senate passed the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) after much drama and rhetoric echoed across the Chamber.  Despite dire warnings thundered by John McCain and other Republicans, several from his party crossed the aisle to vote with Democrats and Independents 65-31; President Obama and the Democrats can point to a much needed win.  It was the right thing to do.

And for those who complained about this decision being made in the lame duck session -- it was the Republicans who delayed any decision until after the Pentagon's long survey and study had been released.  In Congressional hearings recently when Secretary of Defense Gates and many senior military officials testified in favor of repeal, Senator McCain challenged their responses.  He got General Amos of the Marines -- who has been outspoken against changing this regulation to testify against any changes since "we are in war time and unit cohesion could be compromised."

Despite these words, this legislation has been long due.  In a country which has prided itself on showing the world how to be free, civil rights for the LGBT population have long been denied.  Some states and local governments have expanded civil rights.  The Federal Government has a fairness policy and anti-discrimination in hiring.  Despite studies which have shown that the American public has been supportive of repealing DADT, and younger generations are said to be more tolerant than their elders, we still see behaviors and bullying which have led to youth suicides.   More than 15,000 armed forces members have been dismissed over the tenure of this errant regulation.  The Center for American Progress recently published a cartoon which showed a casket being carried out of a Veterans Cemetery with the caption reading -- "they found out he was gay."   Doesn't that give you pause?  This cultural change has been compared to the integration of the military by President Truman after WW II.  There are obvious differences.  Race is generally -- but not always -- a visible and permanent characteristic.  Sexual orientation and gender preference is less casually determined. 

Some people choose to not broadcast their relationships, nor should they have to do so.  It is said that some military members have had long careers, living a dual existence very carefully.  The decision to come forward, should be a preference, but not be mandated.   The formal military policy changes should be implemented in a short while.  The generals have said that the military runs on discipline and rules will be followed. Some military members, who were dismissed honorably, are now being allowed to apply for re-enlistment.  Politics and cultural change sometime cross paths.

Shouldn't we be grateful, as a society, that we have so many patriots who care about this country, despite its lack of fairness, that they are willing to risk their lives to keep all of us free?

Unfortunately, the Dream Act did not become law in this Congress.  Again, Republican foot dragging and posturing against immigration reforms and civil rights for those born here or brought here as children was responsible, with help from a few Democrats.  The vote on this bill was 55 for and 41 against.  Now in what universe, is this not a majority vote?  Only in a place such as the US Senate which agreed that a majority is not a winning vote -- it must be a cloture-proof majority of 60 votes.  How Democrats ever got suckered into that one is something that remains inscrutable to most Americans.  The Senate, this plodding, deliberative body with a preponderance of millionaires could have demonstrated their populist appeal and understanding of "other classes" by passing this modest request for our newest Americans.  Instead, they denied both President Obama and Majority Leader Harry Reid an opportunity to make good on campaign promises made to Hispanic voters especially. 

Both sides know that the Hispanic vote has transitioned to the Democrats in recent elections.  Again this is a Civil Rights decision.  Again this is an area in which the many, deny the rights of the few -- but growing -- body of immigrants who have enriched our country in many ways.  Hopefully, the names of those who voted for and those who struck down this years attempt for the Dream Act, will be trumpeted across the land and all will be known.  Sadly, many young people who wanted to serve in our military and attend college will be harmed in real life by these partisan games.  Our economy would have been aided by the skills they might have earned.  Their families could have lived on a higher income scale. 

The short-sightedness of these decisions, in this economy belies the words voiced frequently, about equal opportunity and the promises of America made across the world.  While some say this is a reward for illegal behavior and should not become law, others wonder: should the child be punished for desperate actions taken by their parents?  Should we not reach out and try to pull these young people into the core of our communities?  Since we don't have this Federal Dream Act, I encourage others to develop these programs at the state and local levels.  Maryland already has a Dream Act on the docket for this year in which any legitimate graduate of a Maryland High School can receive in-state tuition, even if they do not have a U.S. birth certificate or green card.  It should receive support and be passed.  Montgomery County already allows such students to attend Montgomery College.  Isn't that the proper thing to do?

Let's hear from you on these two topics.  How should the Senate have voted in your opinion?  If you disagree with these decisions, what would you propose instead?

Monday, December 13, 2010

A House Divided or Democrats being Democrats?

Many Democrats are berating the President for "caving in" to the Republican demands on tax breaks for the rich and estate taxes.  Senator Bernie Sanders brought back the old fashioned filibuster on the Senate floor the other day. Congressman Chris Van Hollen is one of the Democratic Congressional members leading the battle to oppose the tax cuts on the House side.  What's a party to do?

First, we as Democrats should take a deep breath, express our discontent, and move forward.  Dana Milbank had an interesting column in the Washington Post in which he claimed that the White House stood aside and listened to Congress on the Health Care debate.  It did not push or pull and almost allowed the public debate on health care to be side-swiped.  The 2009 summer of Congressional dithering, town meeting posturing and Senator Max Baucus' refusal to allow the public option even to be discussed almost derailed the health care bill.  We all watched as the Republicans snipped and clipped and tried to destroy any options proposed.  We saw no real proposals or constructive alternatives offered by the other side.  Still, by the narrowest of margins, the Senate passed a bill which, although imperfect, became the first major overhaul of health care in decades.  Sure, the pharmaceutical companies and the health insurance carriers are doing their best to undermine its provisions, which they had signed on to, but we have a bill enacted into law.   We now have protections for children with congenital conditions and students can stay on their parents health care policies until age 27.  Insurers can no longer deny coverage for pre-existing conditions or remove those with chronic conditions from coverage.  No, we did not get my choice -- a single payer option nor a broad public option, but we have something.  As Democrats we can celebrate that victory.   Now where do we go from here? 

Secondly, as a Democrat, I believe we have a Presidential election we must win in 2012 and we cannot do that if we are not united.  When the Republican leaders come in and say their first priorities are to deny President Obama a second term, doesn't that say something to Democrats?  Why are Democrats not calling them out here?  When the economy was allowed to tank under their President and their policies, how can they try to get away with this negativity?  Because -- wrong as they are -- they stick together.   President Obama is trying to get a deal done here.  If the lame duck session cannot get it enacted, then he can point to a blown agreement.  This should be his best chance -- if Democrats can support their President.  Should the other side be holding up every other piece of legislation to get their way?  Of course not!  However, due to the archaic Senate rules when a supermajority is required to agree on anything and 51% is not a majority,  how does one break the stalemate? 

Additionally, we should not support tax breaks for the rich.  If this were a way to stimulate jobs, why hasn't it happened in the last ten years?  Why are oil companies, banks and Wall Street all back in the black with record profits, while the average American is seeing income flattened?  So -- skip the tax breaks for the rich -- and skip the roll back of the estate tax provisions for millionaires.  Let's allow the small businesses up to $500,000 of income a break, if that is what it takes, to compromise.  But do make certain, that until unemployment significantly decreases, the long term out of work people will continue to receive the pittances that keep them off the street.  Over the last year, Democrats have been all over the place.  We have yellow dogs and blue dogs and even some down dogs, while our opponents have mostly stood their ground and we could not capitalize on our majority.  Democrats allowed the Ben Nelsons and Blanche Lincolns to go their own way.  Did that help in the end?  Retool, offer constructive amendments, stand up for something.  Find a way to work together. 

Finally, when he initially came into office, the President reached out across the figurative aisle and was rebuffed.  He first stayed on the sidelines.  Now he has stepped forward and has tried to find a way to work out a deal.  The President has worked to secure many of the promises made on the campaign trail.  He has not been perfect -- but compared with his predecessor -- well there is no comparison.  He wanted to close Guantanamo -- the Congress refused to allow him to bring the detainees here.  He wanted to have civilian trials.  Again, the other side started an uproar.  He wanted to address "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell," but the Senate cannot even gather a vote, even though the Secretary of Defense and many Generals testified for it.  On the wars -- Iraq has wound down significantly.  Afghanistan is another issue -- let's give him 50% here.  As a progressive, I want to push the President further away from the minority party, but I also want to make our country work well.  I want to govern in spite of the Republicans, precisely because they do not act to support the common good.  As President Obama said so eloquently in 2004, we do not have only blue states or red states, we have the United States of America and we should work together.  Others have said that more practically -- we have purple states where red and blue are joined together in order to govern. 

What do you think?  Is real governance truly the art of the compromise?  Is confrontational politics the only way to go?  Should Democrats support or challenge President Obama on the tax cuts?  Do you think the mid-term elections sent a true message or was the message skewed by the media and the money involved? 

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Politics of Breast Cancer

Elizabeth Edwards died this week at the age of 61.  She lost her fight against the ravages of breast cancer after too short a battle.

Many admired Elizabeth for her forthright and upfront campaign to beat this odious disease.   She lived a full life in her modest time with us, becoming a lawyer and raising four good children.  She also refused to become a victim, neither from the assault of disease nor the personal trials she faced.   She refused to allow cancer to define who she was.  She took on the insurance industry, as she became a voice for many whose opportunity for health care had been denied.  She was an advocate for the public option and testified frequently before Congress and advocacy groups from her think tank position at the Center for American Progress.  She understood that many foreclosures, long before the recent increases, were due to the expenses of uninsured families trying to pay for medical expenses.  She knew that over half of all bankruptcies were a direct result of medical bills owed by those who were not insured or had been under-insured.  She knew about the politics of breast cancer. 

Many in health care today support the public relations campaigns that have brought the treatments for breast cancer front and center into the public consciousness.  One cannot walk into a shopping mall without seeing multiple pink ribbons adorning products from sneakers to lingerie as corporate America jumps on the breast cancer awareness band wagon.  But, many wonder, has the incidence of breast cancer decreased with this awareness?

Have we increased the diagnoses without increasing the knowledge about causation?  Aside from testing for genetic pre-disposition and some familial tracking, we are not much further along in halting the incidence than we were a generation ago.  We do not understand why some young pre-menopausal women get the disease -- and may have a much more invasive condition than others.  In fact, some medications which were said to be helpful, such as hormone replacement therapy, subsequently were found to cause harm.   Screening mammograms were promoted, then demoted, first as an annual test, then decried as too costly.   Insurance companies tried to schedule mastectomies as outpatient procedures.  Only huge publicity against "drive thru" mastectomies cancelled these requirements.  (The reasoning, incredibly, by the companies was that these are not vital organ parts and therefore are expendable!) 

Elizabeth Edwards did not make it to the five year mark cancer free, so she could not be labeled a "survivor" according to the American Cancer Society guidelines, but she did teach survivors and others how to fight.  Generations ago, women did not mention that they had cancers.  It was a disease which was whispered about; patients often were not told of the finality of their diagnoses.  Elizabeth put this practice behind her and went public from the first day of her diagnosis. 

Only by bringing out the incidence and challenging the politics of breast cancer will women begin to address a cure.  The Race for the Cure has helped a lot of women -- but it should not be an end point.  Women should be racing to determine the causes and prevent the occurrence.  This was something which Elizabeth understood quite well.  Elizabeth would be the first to admit that she had an atypical course of diagnosis and treatment.  She had enough money to buy what ever health care she wished to obtain and treatment continued until just before her death.  She had standard and experimental treatments, but in the end, the disease -- as it often does -- won out.  During recent years Elizabeth was a strong advocate for dismissal of the use of pre-existing condition clauses in insurance contracts.  She stated many times that sick people need to get the care which is required by their illness, what ever it is.  She acknowledged that Americans have great care available for those who could afford it.  However, she noted, that while we spend more on healthcare than anywhere in the world, we are only 36th in longevity.  We have too much care that is ineffective and too many practices that are unhealthy.

Women must ask what toxins in our environment, food or water have increased the numbers of women -- and men -- getting breast cancer.  Incidence according to one study has increased from an average in the 1940s of 66 per 100,000 population to an average of 127 per 100,000 today.  Death rates of 25 to 24.7 per 100,000 have remained constant across this more than 60 year span.  There have been advances in care from the disfiguring radical mastectomies to more minimal surgeries today.  There are staging and hormonal testing for cell descriptions.  Radiation, chemotherapies and hormonal treatments have been greatly improved.  But, to my way of thinking, until women stop thinking that wearing pink ribbons will cure breast cancer, we will not be on the road to eradication of this disease.  Until women speak up and say, "find the cause and stop the increases in incidence," we will not see change.  We should do this to honor the life of Elizabeth Edwards and all who suffer today and have suffered in the past from this disease.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Buying happiness this season?

The Washington Post had a column in the Saturday (December 4, 2010) "On Faith" page in the Metro section which caught my eye.  It showed two hang tags which noted:

"The consumer society is constantly tempting us to spend money we don't have to buy things we don't need for the sake of a happiness that won't last.”

The quote comes from Lord Jonathan Sacks of Britain who is the Chief Rabbi there.  The comment was made at an unusual 'Conference on Happiness' held recently at Emory University and described in the article.   At this conference which also included the Dalai Lama, an Episcopal bishop and a Muslim scholar, all spoke of differing views of what goals one should pursue in looking for happiness, yet came to agreement in declaring that happiness is an internal achievement, not one met by goods, material wealth or property.  Happiness was described as coming back from the goodness one sends out to others or when one has achieved an internal goal such as equanimity.  Happiness was also equated with degrees of scale; a cold drink of water on a scorching day brings a happy satisfaction of thirst, but is not to be equated with the happiness of the birth of a child.  Further discussion considered affluence and satisfaction and how while it distances one from humble origins, this often brings worry, little joy and removes the ability to remember and to be thankful.

What does this have to do with politics, one might ask?  I think we are seeing a voting public which is having buyers' remorse regarding votes which have not brought about the change they hoped for.  No matter that the change was ill-defined, and vaguely promised; it was expected to make things better.  When it did not, the voters went to the polls and voted the opposite way from the previous election, or they just stayed home.  This is analogous to the toy being broken and discarded before the charge card bill arrives in the mail.  Instant satisfaction or disruption?  In this era of sound bites and short takes that comprise our news casts, with little objective analysis, is it any wonder that fast solutions are expected?  After all, doesn’t Law and Order solve heinous crimes with complex DNA testing in less than one hour?  Shouldn't our President be able to solve the complex economic mess in 18 months?  It doesn't matter when you are out of work, that the stock market has bounced back, the banks are making more money than ever and business are showing record profits, does it?  But statistics show that they are hoarding the funds and not increasing staff -- does this make sense?  Are they planning on holding out until 2012?

America has always outwardly prided itself on having a populace which works hard, plays by the rules and gets a reward at the end of the day.  Well, somehow we woke up one day and found out that the rules had all been changed and we were the last to learn about them.   Remember when bills were due once a month on the same day of the month -- every 30 days -- it was.  Then credit card companies learned they could make more money if they changed the due dates and had different interest rates on varied amounts due, so that it became very hard to pay on time, then of course one could be charged late fees.  The mortgage you transacted with your neighbor, the banker in your town bank, was sold to some conglomerate which had no interest in assisting you if a downturn hurt your income and your mortgage payment was late.  They could just as easily sell your home to another without adequate notice or due process. 

Is this the kind of change Americans voted for?  Of course not!  Americans just want to have the downward spiral stopped.  The average income for the middle class American has decreased in the last decade or so. Our habit of making the world better for the next generation has been thrown off course.   Despite the fact that here in the DC Metro area, that several of the highest income counties in the nation are where we call home, the rest of the country is still suffering double digit unemployment.  People who thought they were secure have lost their jobs, their way of life, and their homes, often by being caught up in circumstances beyond their control.  They face bleak times for the holidays.  But, even those with jobs are keeping an eye on their wallets.  They know that they must live within their means and want their government to try to do the same.  They know that buying ever more goods and standing in lines on Black Friday does not buy happiness.  They really know that going into debt with on line orders on Cyber Monday or TV shopping at "midnight only" offers is not the answer to their problems.  But what is being offered in return?  The current discussions of extending unemployment versus extending tax cuts for the rich show the increasing divide between the wealthy and the rest of the country.   The wealthy are not losing their homes, even if their business had to be bailed out.  Only threats from the Administration kept the bailed out banks from paying out bonuses with taxpayer's money. They are on track to pay bonuses again this year.  Some of the biggest contributors to Republicans in the 2010 campaigns, now that unlimited monies have been permitted by a partisan Supreme Court, have come from those whose excess funds were reined in after their businesses had been rescued.   When Sarah Palin asks snidely: "How's that hopey changey stuff workin' for ya?".  She hits a nerve, and the inability of the Democrats to provide a reply is not a good omen for the future.

President Obama has inspired many; he needs to show the promise of a better tomorrow, needs to hold out a real sense that happiness is around the corner -- that we are on the recovery road, but he also needs to realize that small minded nay-sayers are out to sabotage his administration and do not care if the country suffers in the meantime.  What would you tell the President to do? 

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Four Billion and Counting

The budget for Montgomery County is now over four billion dollars and has been so for the last few years. Over half of that sum goes for funding our educational systems; additional fixed amounts account for salaries for county employees. MCPS pays for about 22,000 employees; the county covers about another 10,000 people. Those salaries are a large portion of the fixed costs that are necessary expenses in every county budget. Recent reports have put salaries, benefits and pensions at 80% of the budget. Last year approximately 56% of all revenues received went to cover costs at MCPS and Montgomery College. Variable costs include snow removal, unexpected repairs of roads or buildings, sudden increases in costs of goods.

What is not calculated in the budget numbers are economic downturns, abrupt decreases in expected income and falling tax revenues. Budgets are predicated on expected revenues as forecast by income and sales taxes, fees and transfer taxes from real estate transactions. When those fall significantly below expectations, belt tightening must occur. Counties and states must report out a balanced budget; they cannot extend out balance sheets beyond the current year. Editorials have recently spoken out in favor of significant reductions for contracts of "overly generous benefit packages," sometimes worth more than the paycheck over time. But how does the county do that? Incoming Council President Valerie Ervin has asked for legislation requiring arbitration to ensure that any negotiated agreements fit within budget guidelines which are affordable. This could be done moving forward, but where does this leave agreements which are already in place?

The country has a Debt Commission appointed by the President to come up with suggestions for savings and revenue enhancements in the future. The county has no such luxury, so I'm asking readers to weigh in here. Which programs can we cut? We certainly cannot pay people less than we did last year -- can we? Well, if furloughs are again given as a solution, we are already planning on doing that. And, since granting a waiver to the MCPS employees last year, did not sit well with the other county employees who did have enforced days off, where should we go in the future? (Then there was that confusing addition of more leave days, which never quite made sense to me.) However re: MCPS, the Board of Education said accepting the furloughs would have made the issue of underfunding the Maintenance of Effort even more of a burden and make it more likely for the county to be refused another waiver by the State Board, which has to approve it. It appears to many people that this is a regulation which has outlived its usefulness, but that remains an issue for the state delegations, especially since it has remained in effect and is adhered to in most other counties in the state.

So -- no easy solutions appear on the horizon. Many major questions remain unanswered. The ambulance fees were defeated, no monies were found there. The government just announced that federal pay is frozen for the next two years, so no increases in income taxes from that group can be anticipated. There are approximately 50,000 federal employees who call Montgomery County home and a few hundred thousand in the State of Maryland, so the negative ripples flow across the state. What should we expect from the new council? First they are not going to be able to print money -- the county does not have an independent treasury -- so they are going to have fewer revenues to work with and will be able to do less than they did last year. Secondly, the make-up of the council committee structure is changed with the new council members being added and some shifts in structure. Finally, County Executive Ike Leggett has asked for 15% cuts from many departments and is expecting reports from department heads soon with their suggestions. The health and safety areas are being asked for about 5% cuts. Education is also targeted, although the BoE cannot realistically expect exemption from the belt-tightening, the Superintendant has asked for increases, despite the budget issues, since enrollment has increased somewhat. It looks as if we will have to be seeing increases in class sizes, if the school board is going to look at this issue seriously. Recreation is discussing closing down programs and having partial day services. The Para-medics are not going to receive promised increases.

Although we are looking at serious concerns, the county situation is better than what happened early last summer, in some states, where large numbers of teachers were laid off and schools were let out early. Just how close are to that scenario? That is something that is not readily apparent to the casual observer. Should we be asking all county employees at the executive grades to voluntarily give back ten percent of their salaries? Sadly that would be a symbolic gesture, more than it would be a savings measure. When one saves thousands, yet needs to save millions, somehow it does not make ends meet. Just as cracking the piggy bank is not going to pay ones mortgage. As mentioned above, one significant issue was the cost of our county employees’ benefits packages. MCPS employees pay low co-pays and have a better health plan than the other county employees. Would it be cheaper in the long run to have the county negotiate with a single health benefit provider and supplementary packager for all covered employees? Just what should the county ask of its union employees? How sustainable are ever increasing county salaries when the average earnings over the last decade for most other workers have been flat and retirees have seen no COLA increases in the last two years? How realistic are annual raises and step increases as contracted measures? Does private industry (aside from Wall Street and the banking industry) give bonuses in bad years?

So -- you taxpayers out there -- which services are you willing to do without this year? We have already seen our libraries cut to the bone, parks and recreation services flattened, emergency services decreasing response time, roads patched instead of resurfaced, services to the needy diminished in our safety net areas, what is left? Let me hear from you -- on Monday our new Council is being installed and our County Executive takes office for what he has said is his final term -- what message shall we send to our elected officials?