Tuesday, August 30, 2011

East Coast Sorta Survives One-Two Punches of Earthquake & Hurricane

This has been a week for paying attention to Mother Nature. First, many of us in the Washington DC/MD/VA area were rudely jolted by a 5.8 earthquake on Tuesday, and then as we regrouped from that, we were told we were under a tropical storm warning. Double whammy!

This area hasn't had a major earthquake of this magnitude -- ever! (Last year we had a mini-earthquake in the 4.2 range and some people, such as me, slept through it, although my dog didn't!) This one caused some damage and rattled nerves, as well as masonry. Iconic buildings such as the Washington Monument, the Smithsonian Castle and the National Cathedral all suffered noticeable damage. Engineers are trying to determine the extent of damages, whether they are cosmetic and/or structural. Some of the older historic buildings near the epicenter and in historic Alexandria also suffered damages and cracks in walls. Thankfully, the nuclear power plant which existed a stone’s throw from this quake's center in Mineral, Virginia, was able to follow protocol and shut down automatically. Some one please tell me again -- why it is that we build nuclear plants near fault lines and population centers? It turns out that there are close to a dozen operating nuclear plants in the East Coast corridor shaken by this quake, and more than 50 million residents in the heavily populated centers along the path.

I understand that the West Coast "experienced" earthquake veterans have laughed at our modest experience, and I cheerfully acknowledge our naïveté in this area, but I am glad that only property and not people suffered injury here.

Now -- the hurricane -- many in this mid-Atlantic area are still without power and are trying to repair property damaged by falling trees or raging waters. Some have suffered from Hurricane Irene-driven tornadoes or storm surges and high winds. New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont, as well as New Jersey and Pennsylvania, have joined Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and North Carolina, who took the early damages from this massive storm. For a change, the population was prepared. FEMA and local state governments worked together in evacuations and strategic planning to meet the needs of a mostly unknown weather event. Still no one could adequately anticipate the floods which are devastating Vermont, far from the coast. Rarely has one hurricane/tropical storm brought so much damage to so many people in so many states. The Denver Post has collated a photo album which demonstrates the breadth of damages seen across these many states. Tonight millions are still waiting for rivers to crest, flood waters to recede or are trying to restore their lives to normalcy. Some 40 lives have been lost and this toll continues to rise. I am certain we all share in condolences to all who have lost so much here.

But I would absolutely be remiss if I did not bring in the reality of politics on this date, the anniversary of Katrina. What lessons have been learned over these last six years? Certainly we have seen a President Obama engaged in disaster outreach. We have seen the administration from FEMA, to the National Guard, to the Department of Homeland Security coordinate with local and state officials in meeting the needs of the millions in the path of a furious storm. No residents were marooned on rooftops waving white flags, nor herded into sweltering sports stadiums without food, water or sanitation. No distant smirking leaders patted themselves on the back. No, instead we heard Secretary Janet Napolitano say, "our job is not yet done," and FEMA chief Fugate indicate that one prepares for disasters by advance storage of food and equipment and strategic positioning of emergency supplies. I see a Federal Government at work in service for Americans with disaster declarations helping states to better serves their residents. I see the power of many coordinated efforts and cooperation between state and federal entities to make relief effective. I see the massiveness of a federal need being met in a critical and timely manner. I see our tax dollars hard at work for the greater good.

To those such as Eric Cantor (whose home state suffered from both the hurricane and the earthquake) who demand that moneys spent in this necessary relief, be offset from some other approved spending streams before it is expended, I say hang your head! I heard candidate Michelle Bachman laugh at the "double whammy" of earthquake and hurricane and state that God was trying to send Washington a message. (She later -- after being roundly condemned for these words which were spoken more than once -- claimed to be only joking!) Former Senator (and unsuccessful Democratic Presidential candidate) George McGovern speaking on the Diane Rehm Show decried this attitude by stating that his God wouldn't send people to their death in order to make a point. He felt that Bachman should not pretend to speak for her interpretation of God. He also spoke out against the combative nature of politics today and the mission of the minority in the Senate to paralyze any effective legislative measures. He mentioned how effectively he and Senator Bob Dole worked together to find food for the poor. Working for the common good was seen as a role for government. Shouldn’t that be true even today?

Governor Perry has been heard to say he wants government to be as inconsequential as possible to the average American. Does this mean I have to arrange my own national guard and FEMA relief or -- as a consequence -- be treated the way New Orleans was treated? Shame on those who espouse this attitude! Tsk, Tsk, to Ron Paul who stated that Galveston restored itself long before FEMA existed. He indicated that the Federal response was not in existence then and is not needed now. Galveston, he claimed, rebuilt itself. However thousands died due to the inability of adequate advance warnings. There were no FEMA stores of fresh water and portable toilets, tents, or cots for weary residents. There was no hurricane plane tracking storm trajectory and intensity, nor a National Hurricane Center projecting the storm path a week in advance.

Government, as I have said before, is a reflection of the goodness of a people, government is us. People such as you and I make government work by our dedication to our duties, whether great or small. Few get rich serving as federal employees. Those who do get rich are ones such as defense contractors and lobbyists, (and some legislators) who may not be serving for the greater good. So let's not tar all with a negative brush. Let's say thanks to the first responders, the National Guard, the Federal and local workers who manned the emergency lines, worked on power lines and opened relief centers even though their own families may have been in harms way.

Let's hear what you think. Shall we all fight hurricanes, earthquakes and other disasters on our own or should we use the pooled resources of the many to assist those in need? Seems like a no-brainer to me!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

What Happens in Iowa -- Does This Train Run Elsewhere?

The 16,892 Republican people who voted in the Ames Iowa straw poll have spoken. In a poll taken by a self-selected and candidate-driven group at the periodic Ames straw poll, Michelle Bachman won a narrow victory over perennial candidate Ron Paul. Of the 16, 800+ votes cast, these two candidates took 29% and 28% respectively, leaving the other 8-10 candidates to split the rest. Tim Pawlenty came in third with around 15%. Nobody else made that much of a splash although former Senator Rick Santorum claimed he was happy with fourth place. The surprise was that Texas Governor Rick Perry, who did not enter the race until August 13 (the same day as this straw poll) and had little visible organization, garnered over 700 write-in votes besting Mitt Romney, who did not formally campaign for this vote although he did have a residual state organization in place from 2007. Of course it goes without saying that 16,000 people in a Midwestern state -- even a swing state -- should not be thought to speak for 300 million Americans -- just in case you might wonder at the significance here!

Tally: 16,892 votes, which broke down as follows:
  • Bachman: 4,823
  • Paul: 4,671
  • Pawlenty: 2,293
  • Santorum: 1,657
  • Cain: 1,456
  • Perry: 718
  • Romney: 567
  • Gingrich: 385
  • Hunstman: 69
The Iowa Straw Poll has sometimes gone on to select a nominee, but equally as often has not done so. Governor Romney was a winner in 2007 with Gov. Huckabee close behind. (The straw poll is only held for Republicans in pre-Presidential election years when there is no incumbent Republican candidate for President. It has been held five times since the first one in 1979.) In 1979 George H.W. Bush won, only to see Ronald Reagan win the nomination. In 1987, Pat Robertson won the poll when Bush finally became the nominee. In 1995, Senators Phil Gramm and Bob Dole tied with Dole getting the nod the next year. In 1999, George W Bush won over the other candidates and went on to win the nomination. And in 2007, Mitt Romney came out ahead, after spending some two million dollars busing in voters, campaigning, and building an organization there.

Political pundit Matthew Dowd on ABC TV claimed that if Pawlenty finished third, then he would not be able to raise enough money to continue. He also described the energy and money that Texas Governor Rick Perry brings to the race as a way to further shake things up on the conservative Republicans side. Sarah Palin suddenly showed up at the Iowa State Fair this week with her huge tour bus trying to sound coy, but he dismissed her as more entertainer than politico.

Does this all leave you a bit less than enthused? Did you happen to watch any of that sorry discussion on Fox last week (aka = debate?) The candidates were busy out-doing each other on Conservative anti-tax, anti-Obama rhetoric. They remain the only people in the country still using the ill-considered term "Obamacare." Although some of the questions were inane and incorrect answers on foreign policy had no follow-up, there was little to be learned from this show. Some complained that questions were not being addressed to the lesser candidates (Cain, Santorum, Gingrich) as much and an attempt was made slightly to improve. Bachman apparently kept dashing off stage at breaks to "fix her make-up," (or was it to get prompts from her staff?), so there was a bit of amateur hour in the air. The reporters also did not distinguish them selves with "gotcha" questions or asking Bachman the "submissive wife" question.

Suffice it to say, this group of candidates does not seem to be ready to run the country and with the way they talked about cutting the government budget and reducing taxes, there would be precious little of the Federal Government to run, if they had their way. Can they all collectively be that naïve or misguided? A sound bite from Governor Perry today indicated that he wanted government to be as inconsequential in each life as possible. This from a Governor who a year or so ago was urging Texans to explore secession from the United States? This from a Governor who was associating with known religious extremists at his day-long prayer meeting a week ago? How is such a person ready to govern a country which will be majority -minority, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic in a few short years?

I am torn between being amused and appalled at this cast of characters. Can this possibly be the best and the brightest that Republicans can offer? Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine was quoted recently as saying she was embarrassed by her party. She, one of the few so-called moderates left in her party, must find it hard to defend members of the Tea Party who purport to speak for her. She is also possibly targeted by the Tea Party since she did not support their agenda this year.

How can it be that a rational moderate voice can no longer be allowed to speak out? How can it be that any of these hopefuls could ever claim to be a leader for all of the people in this country?

As for me, I am a Democrat. I belong to a party with blue dogs, yellow dogs, and possibly a few wild dogs, but one which is also not quite as disciplined as the other side. So unfortunately we put up with the Heath Shulers (Rep NC) and the Ben Nelsons (Sen. NE) [often to our dismay] as they vote against the initiatives of our side. In the Senate some of our so-called Democrats have prevented Leader Reid from breaking threatened filibusters or overcoming cloture. Many Democrats have been ready and willing to compromise, while the House refused to do so.

The Republican candidates and leaders still have no apparent sense of the damage they have caused this country with their intransigence on the debt ceiling and raising needed revenues. According to Nate Silver in the New York Times 538 columns, these representatives will pay a price as the American public quite rightly is blaming them for the bond rating drop and the lack of compromise. The feelings seem to be that elected officials are sent to DC to solve problems cooperatively, not to create them. With high disapprovals for Republicans in general, and for residents own Congressional members as well, he expects some shifts to occur. He does not, however, see a Democratic landslide or even a return to Democratic rule in the House. Silver also discusses the redistricting taking place this year which is going to cause some demographic shifts and some Congressional districts to disappear. With more Republican Governors than Democratic, this redistricting may also see some conflicts between urban and rural areas.

Some are claiming that this is the year for the anti-tax groups of social conservatives, for the anti-choice groups, for the religious right to all have their say. What do you think? They cannot seem to say what they are for, just what they oppose. They attack the President on some very shaky terms. Has the time come for them to bring their decidedly minority views down the tracks into the political mainstream? Should we all be excited now that this crew of conservative candidates is trying to each be more conservative than the other? Should we wonder at the hypocrisy of this crowd of "Christian believers" who are ready to throw the poor to the wolves, close down social safety nets, and leave our elderly to live without Social Security or Medicare? Does not charity and benevolence begin at home? Is this not why hundreds of interfaith clergy stormed the Capitol during the debt limit debate to urge a social conscience on the legislators? It is so sad that they were unsuccessful. We, as concerned Americans cannot allow this train to continue unchallenged. Let me hear from you.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Is It Poker or Chess?

Were you as dismayed as I was over the events of the last week? Did the agreement on raising the debt ceiling give you a big sigh of relief or indigestion? Are you tired of party politics playing games on our dime?

Personally, over the many years I have observed the antics of our politicians. I remember back prior to the Watergate years. I cannot think of a more contentious time. I had read of the arm twisting by LBJ and the offerings of bridges and roads as inducements for votes dangled before reluctant legislators. Some even spoke darkly of actual bribes over the years. So, Congressional misdeeds are nothing new. I must also say that I have observed many fine legislators who were steadfast in support of principles and policies from which we have all benefitted. We can point with pride to the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the signing of the landmark Medicare legislation. Each of these accomplishments have helped to change our nation and been beneficial to rich and poor alike.

But now we are seeing those who believed it was their duty to only serve the tiny minority which elected them. They did not believe it was their duty to listen to those senior in tenure and experience, or rank. Churlish and childish, to our sorrow and their shame they heard only their own voices. Disrespectful as a class and disobedient as a party they threatened to take down the country's economy if they did not get their way.

Lest you have pity for these poor neophytes, let me educate you. According to opensecrets.org, more than half of the members of the Tea Party caucus are millionaires. The numbers of Americans, who are millionaires and above, amounts to approximately 1% of the total population of 309 million. The average worth of a House member is stated as over $700,000.00, while Senators enjoy an average wealth of over $2 million. The average salary of an American male who worked full time in 2009 was $46,000 approximately, while for a comparable woman it was $36,000. How does this equate to the House of Representatives which pays each member over $174,000 as a base rate, not including staff, postage and expenses? Some of the newest Tea Party representatives refuse to take a house or an apartment in DC and live instead in their government supplied offices, with utilities supplied by the taxpayer and shower in the House gym, also provided at taxpayer expense. Despite claims by Eric Cantor (a millionaire himself, by the way) that no one has asked him to raise their taxes, there is actually a group called patriotic millionaires who have written an open letter and called for tax hikes. They understand that our current system is unfair and unbalanced. They joined with President Obama in calling for revenues to be paired with spending decreases. A lot of these arguments can be read in this website posting (link).

Now we are faced with the matter of Standard and Poor's (S & P) down grading the USA AAA bond rating. This slap on the wrist from those who were complicit in credit default swaps, the foreclosure mess, and cut-rate mortgages would be laughable in any other context. The European Union recently threatened to sue them for failing to accurately report the stability of some of these suspect mortgages and other entities. S & P, when the initial math used to underpin their decision was found to be faulty, went on to say, "well the political climate is too unstable, so we are sticking with it." Fortunately the other ratings agencies are not jumping aboard this bandwagon, so in reality this will most likely not have a long-term effect. However, where is the public outcry at the ill-conceived actions of the Republican House? The majority of those polled do blame the Republicans for this manufactured crisis. According to an article in The New York Times -- this outcry is starting to come -- as more than 80% of the public do not support the actions of Congress and more than 40% are unfavorable to the Tea Party. Independent voters are turning away in droves.

What does this mean for the election of 2012? Will the voters have long memories? Will the Republicans over-play their hand here? Already Speaker Boehner is egging on his dark side forces to go out and push for the Balanced Budget Amendment, which again is not what our government needs to focus on when we have millions still unemployed. Just how many jobs will this amendment create? Just how many people returned to work with the assault on Planned Parenthood? Just how many consumers have been aided with the refusal to seat Elizabeth Warren as the head of the Consumer Protection Bureau she organized?

I am hopeful that the voting public will not say a pox on all politics and stay home next year. I would like to allow real debate to surface and those who vote against the interests of the country in Congress to be defeated. I do not think the American people want their government to be dysfunctional. However when the President is indeed the only adult in the room, we have to insist on a better discourse. When one side is playing poker and stacks the deck, we should walk away. Perhaps that is the real problem. The Republicans are playing poker and the President is playing chess. One looks for short-term gains and the other looks for long-term solutions and a winning strategy. I am with the President on this, how about you? I’m not a millionaire, but if you are, would you mind paying a few more dollars for the collective good of our country as a whole? Do let me know.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Come for Tea -- Stay for Mayem?

Do you believe that the Tea Party officials elected last year have over-stepped their so-called mandate and become as some have claimed -- thugs and hostage-takers? Joe Nocera writing in the New York Times on August 1 minced no words as he compared the Tea Party Republicans to jihadists, claiming they showed "almost gleeful willingness to destroy one of America's most invaluable assets, its full faith and credit" and claiming their intransigent demands were incredibly irresponsible.

Have you been intrigued and appalled at the spectacle of our Congress in action these past few days? Have you wondered how grown men (yes ladies -- they are mostly men, aside from Michelle Bachman) could behave in such a childish manner? Does it seem to you that these elected officials are not earning their keep? Their oaths of office seem to indicate that they will work to "well and faithfully discharge the duties" they were elected to perform, yet that seems to be quite far from their minds if actions account for anything in this world. Nowhere is it stated that they should drive the country to the brink of financial disaster with an exercise in political theatre and power grabbing.

The Tea Party caucus in the House consists of approximately 60 members (among the 435 total members) who collectively come from about half of the states in the country. Eight states in the South, six in the western portion of the country and several in the Midwest comprise the list of these members' home states. Maryland's octogenarian senior representative, Congressman Bartlett has joined in the caucus, although he is a long term member of Congress. No states in the Pacific Northwest or Atlantic Northeast are in this group. The U.S. population is over 300 million people. With each Congressional District representing a bit over 600,000 residents on the average, it would seem that these members who claim to have such a mandate represent a very small percentage of the population of several districts. Approximately 41% voter turnout was seen in 2010 among the approximately 210 million potential members of the American electorate, so about 86 million voters made it to the polls.

Now they have been rewarded for being hostage-takers by the Democrats caving in to their demands. The President and Vice President were apparently negotiating in good faith with those whose word cannot be their bond. The Speaker and the minority leader have not either been shown to be honorable or stalwart in their zeal to honor party over country. The country will be the loser here in the long run. This group of Tea Party obstructionists is not representative and has shown it does not care about the collective good of middle class America. Democratic leader Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz has said this division of government will be resolved at the ballot box in 2012.

My concern is that this is the third manufactured crisis since the November election: the Lame Duck session agreements, the continuing budget resolution threatening government shutdown, and now the debt ceiling debacle. All have increased the pressure on the President, created a hostage mentality in Washington, and scared the elderly, federal employees and investors alike. In no way are these actions symbolic of what a representative government should be. My hope is that we can all survive the next session once Congress returns from recess.

One shining smile made yesterday have a small redeeming value -- that was the smile and tentative wave from Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords as she returned to the House floor to vote for the first time since she was so gravely wounded in January. The House erupted in spontaneous applause from both sides of the aisle -- a sign that there could again be unanimity in the Capitol -- if all were to view their jobs as ones of service to the Amrican people.

Some are working broadly to prepare for the next elections (aside from the Obama for President push); defeated Liberal Senator Russ Feingold has set up a group called Progressives United to prepare for 2012. Check out his site here.

Maybe he has found a path we can travel down toward the future. Let me know what you think. What do you plan to do to reverse this backward trend? There will be more discussion about the "super committee and the agreed upon measures" in a future column, but I want to hear from you. How could this have been better resolved and included revenues? What would you have had Boehner, Biden, Reid and the President do instead? How do we keep our country from being led by a group more symbolic of Lord of the Flies than Mr. Smith goes to Washington?