Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Shutdown Averted -- At What Cost?

Well, Federal Government workers, contractors, military families and those who depend on revenues from nearby installations can sleep restfully now. The government is again funded -- for a while, anyway. Against a backdrop during the week of Tea Party members chanting "cut it or shut it," much of this dialogue was held as if the government was not run by real people, with real bills to pay and families to care for. These protestors seemed not to care that "government workers" and "government" make this country run day after day, by such duties as keeping the planes in the air, getting supplies to our military, and providing care for our elderly and youngest residents. The EPA does its job of keeping clear air and clean water for both Democrats and Republicans alike, despite the desire of some to diminish its powers. The FDA and food safety resources continue to work for all, legal and undocumented, just to mention a few examples of necessary services provided by "our government." The people who rail against big government often fail to realize the many times each day that they are touched by the good services of hard working civil servants.

The poker game being played out on the Capitol grounds and the White House sometimes seemed more like a tennis match as numbers, proposals and counter-proposals were being batted back and forth along the air waves and with dueling press conferences. The budget promises made by the Tea Party House members indicated that $100 billion dollars would be chopped from the Federal budget with little care given to the details. Democrats came belatedly to these negotiating sessions timidly suggesting abut $30 billion in cuts from some of the issues originally favored by President Obama and their caucuses. The Speaker of the House was said to be urging about $70 billion in cuts, although he held his cards tight and would not quote a number. Unbelievably, services for women's health, which had nothing to do with the budget, were among those being threatened. Democratic women senators, led by Barbara Mikulski and Patty Murray spoke passionately against plans to throw women and their rights under the proverbial bus. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine spoke up also against this proposal, saying it had no place in the budget plans. (The issues, known as riders, were seen as purposely provocative as their Tea Party proponents targeted The Affordable Health Care Act, Planned Parenthood, EPA mandates, NPR funding, and DC initiatives, to mention a few.) Senator Harry Reid finally made a strong speech urging support by unanimous consent -- he almost got it -- Rand Paul voted no.

So back and forth it went. Democrats insisted definitive numbers were in place. This was denied by the other side as social engineering was again brought forward and turned down as irrelevant. After several in-person White House sessions ended, The Washington Post and New York Times both reported that Obama and Biden had to repeatedly remind House Speaker Boehner that a deal had been agreed to and would not be renegotiated. The Speaker was reportedly dealing with those in his own party who did not care for and did not agree with the compromises made. Final numbers indicated that cuts in the 2011 budget finally agreed to, amounted to a total of $38.5 Billion dollars once the final totals were tallied. This was in the total budget of over $3.6 trillion dollars, really just a small sliver. Finally at the midnight hour when the decision to close government was at hand, an agreement was voted on. Speeches were made and all went home, whether satisfied or not. Where was the concern for the single mother working as a clerk in a government office who lived in fear all week that her paycheck would not come next week? Where was the reassurance for the soldier on a battlefield that his loved ones would get their support on time? Could this have been accomplished with out this brinkmanship? Of course it should have been -- these games were unnecessary.

Additionally, the rights of self determination in the District again felt the meddling hand of the Republican House members as the city's right to pay for abortions was removed. Furthermore, DC was made to accept a private school voucher program which could further disrupt public education efforts. Both of these had been in place before during the last time the Republicans controlled Congress.

So at this time, it is not known just which of the small amount allocated to the "discretionary" spending -- meaning non military, non entitlement, non mandatory debt service will be selected for reductions. Could this all have been avoided had the Democrats forced a vote on the 2011 budget in October, of course. But Senate Leader Reid did not want to have to address the threat of a filibuster, so he did not force this vote, when, in fact he controlled the Senate and Democrats were in charge of the House and had passed a budget. The Lame Duck session could have voted on this but it did not. Democrats who would not stand with their party in pushing this through and who had to show their independence allowed this to happen, as did the Republicans who reneged on a previous commitment. President Obama was commended for achieving a consensus which allowed both unemployment benefits and an extension of the Bush Tax cuts, but did not address the budget.

Now, while all are congratulating themselves on this temporary solution, the battle over the raising of the debt ceiling looms. Let's hope these so-called Patriots care more about the security of our finances as a country than they do about their own over heated rhetoric. Let's urge them to act responsibly and raise the $14.3 trillion dollar ceiling without further catastrophes. There is already speculation that the debt ceiling might be filibustered by Rand Paul. Let's all hope not.

Were you worried about a shutdown? How might it have affected your life? Let me hear from you.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

President Obama Announces He's In For 2012

Few Democrats were surprised when President Obama announced on Monday, April 4, that he is a candidate for the 2012 Presidential race.

He reached out to those on his massive email lists to share the news through a "real persons-type video" embedded in the email.

On a telephone call with supporters tonight (I am a supporter) he was low key, sending the message that he has a country to run and needs the grass roots supporters to be the ones who are the canvassers, neighborhood and community organizers who get the messages out.

He further pointed out that in the last two years he has accomplished more than any President in a comparable time in the last 50 years.

And his accomplishments -- many of which were monumental -- among many somewhat problematic issues, are indeed many: (my plus +/ minus - scoring noted below.)

+/ The Affordable Care Act -- tops my list, even though I wanted single payer -- I'm Okay with this major improvement toward pulling more people into the health care network and know that the American people are happier as the rhetoric dies down and the real advantages are seen. Of course today the Republicans released their plan to privatize Medicare in the future. What part of pre-existing exclusion clauses in the private health care market do they not understand?

+/ Lily Ledbetter Act -- Although this bill does not help Lily -- it lends its name toward helping those in future gender pay inequity situations. We cannot count on the Supreme Court to step into the Wal-Mart gender discrimination Class action lawsuit.

+/ Repeal of Don't Ask Don’' Tell -- Long delayed, but finally ready for implementation. Restores dignity to all who serve their country. Can the DOMA repeal be far behind?

+/ Reduction of Unemployment Rate/Increase in Numbers of Workers With Jobs -- Last week, unemployment rates dropped to 8.8%. Since President Obama was elected over one million jobs have been created.

+/ Extension of Unemployment Benefits -- Added much needed benefit weeks to those workers, who through no fault of their own, became unemployed during the tough economy. (Many are dismayed that this came at the expense of preserving the Bush Era tax cuts for the rich, and think the Democrats gave away too much to get too little. But the President went up in the polls after this bargaining process, so it appears to have worked.)

+/ Finance reforms/Auto Industry Bail Out Repayments/TARP repayments -- The government has made money on the auto bailout with its General Motors stock selling well. Most of the TARP investment has already been paid back. The financial industry has been strengthened by the steady hand which has been shown by his resolve to move at a measured pace. Wall Street has yet to get officially on board, but the stock market has gained over a third in value since he was elected, currently standing at 12,400 at the close of business today. When Obama took office on January 20th, 2009, the market Dow Jones value was 8279. It had been at 10,000 when Bush took office 8 years before. So, some confidence is returning to the world of investment. Have the banks been restrained, downsized and paid any penalties for their poor management policies which almost brought down world financial market? Nope. They have again managed to step aside and accept no responsibility.

+/- Foreclosures -- Although there have been some minor improvements in this area, delays and poor recordkeeping by banks have muddied the waters here. The value of homes is still flat as many people owe more than their home is worth. New home building is not yet back on track. So foreclosures are still happening and neighborhoods are impacted negatively. More improvements needed here.

+/- Environmental advances -- Some changes have helped advance the mission of EPA with clean air and clean water improvements. However, we also now still have to deal with regulating off-shore drilling permits after the BP oil spill, and address increases in nuclear power plants here in light of the disasters in Japan with the release of massive radioactive contamination.

+/- Wars to end all wars? Okay -- not there yet. BUT troops in Iraq are down to around 50,000 and these troops are not in combat. Afghanistan -- bumped up -- said to be winding down starting in June, let's hope it can happen and we can bring the troops home soon. Libya -- jury still out on this one. I think a humanitarian response was the correct one but do not want to see mission-creep here. He can no longer legitimately wear the mantle of the anti-war President which we all wanted him to assume, but I do not see him as a militaristic Bush inaccurately touting "Mission Accomplished".

-/ Closing Guantanamo? AG Holder announced on April 4 that terrorist trials would not be held in New York City, as he had wanted, but would be held at the Cuban base. Regardless of the facts in the case here, Congress refused to allow any funds to be used for transport, housing, mainland trials or maintenance of former inmates from the prison if they were moved to the US mainland. So progressives have taken the President to task for not keeping this promise. I wonder how he was to have accomplished this with no allocations of funds allowed. Take note, Democrats voted for this restriction also, despite the facts that several terrorist trials have successfully been held in Federal Courts.

So the election year is still taking form. It is expected that it may get ugly, just as the 2010 Congressional Campaigns did. Do we still have hope. Can we still say Yes we can? My score card here has more pluses than minuses and the pluses were accomplished with a positive messaging, so it appears that this has resonance. Democrats worry about too much compromise. Independents worry about too little. So, just like the Three Bears and the bowls of porridge, there has to be one formula that is found to be just right. There is an old political axiom that one runs from the left and governs from the center, so if the President can keep his coalitions together -- left and center left -- through the next eighteen months or so of the campaign and pick up the Independents who deserted the Democrats in 2010, he might pull this one off! Beinart of the Daily Beast believes that many of the former Clinton administration members who joined early on and are now leaving will allow President Obama to move back left again for the campaign.

What do you think?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Is Nancy Holding the Bag?

Recently Council Member Nancy Floreen has been all over town spouting off her opposition to a Bag fee (some say tax) which has been proposed in Montgomery County.  The fee -- which as I understand it -- would apply to both paper and plastic bags would be imposed at the charge of five cents per bag.  This bill was proposed by County Executive Ike Leggett.  A similar fee has been in place in the District of Columbia for the last year.  It has been so successful that it has raised less money than was proposed, as the residents of DC changed their behavior and started bringing their own bags to shops.  The public is not speaking out against this, so what's Nancy's problem here?

The Alice Ferguson Foundation announced recently that the Anacostia had 66% fewer bags when the river was cleaned up this year as opposed to the previous clean-up.  (Even though Nancy claimed that this is not quantifiable -- but less trash is a measurable result.)  Retailers have noted that their costs have decreased as they are buying fewer bags of all kinds.  Street crews have indicated that there are fewer loose bags to pick up.  The Bill is supported by environmental groups and river keeper groups.  Internationally, groups report oceans with swirling morasses of thousands of bags intermeshed with tons of trash.   There seems to be a real problem with excess bags.

Not only did Nancy write an Op-ed in the Washington Post, she also appeared on WAMU speaking about this topic -- a link about this and the text of her op-ed appeared on her periodic emailed news column this week.  Council Member Floreen noted that the "store-made" fabric bags might be derived from petroleum products and are not recyclable.  Even the ones she ordered for promotional give-aways during her recent campaign came from China and are not made of recycled materials.  She further indicated that the bags would need to be washed before they should be used again for food products to avoid food contamination with subsequent grocery use (and who wants to wash grocery bags?)  As was pointed out in the discussion on the Kojo Nnamdi show on WAMU, the fabric bags are reusable.  And -- as most environmentalists know the mantra goes -- reduce, renew, reuse, recyle! 

She indicates that the discussions of this tax are distractions in this difficult budget year -- and the tax would not really make such a difference.  Drawing a parallel to the "carry-in, carry-out" failure of trash management for the county parks, she indicated this was such a feel-good exercise.  She also discussed in her op-ed the re-use of her plastic bags when she walks her dog.  As Anne Ambler of the Sierra Club pointed out in a response letter to the Editor published in the Post -- retail bags are not the only options -- newspaper bags work equally as well!  I like the community options I have as my HOA provides disintegrating recycled bags and disposal sites along our public walk ways.  As the bags are labeled -- here today -- gone next year! 

Montgomery County State District 18 Delegate Al Carr called in to the radio show as he is the sponsor -- for the second year of a state level plastic bag bill -- and spoke about the importance of this option.  He reiterated the success the District of Columbia has shown in changing public behaviors in a short time.  The bill has not yet passed in this session which ends soon, so next year may see it have a better chance at the state level.  Blogger Keith Berner also called Nancy to task on her "facts" which he believed were questionable.  He has since blogged about this topic as well. 

Now my two cents -- and I'd love to hear yours as well -- I support the bag fee. I have a car back seat loaded with store bought fabric bags used not only for groceries, but also myriad purposes.  I carry a fold up fabric bag in my purse. I carry out small purchases in my purse or pockets when possible.  When I walk my dog I see plastic bags caught in trees, lodged in storm drains, blowing across swimming pools, in short, littering my little piece of the world.  I know we can and should do better as a community; I do not litter, but we can stop those who do.  The Europeans have been using personal shopping bags for years.  It seems quite routine to them.  Paying for a bag might easily be enough of a deterrent -- and it should be tried.   I strongly believe a bag bill will, in the long term, save us money.  We would have less mess to clean up in our parks and public highways and by ways.  Our streams and rivers would be cleaner as would the oceans they flow into.  For me there is no down side here -- so I say loudly and clearly -- pass the bag fees!