Politics

The Kennedy assassination: from Camelot to Clusterfuck

Yes, I know precisely where I was when someone murdered John Fitzgerald Kennedy. No, I do not want to hear where the hell you were. Nor do I want to read or watch any “retrospectives” on his assassination. Nor do I want to read or watch orations on what might have been had the shot or shots missed. I’m only concerned with what the hell actually happened in and to America since Kennedy died.

A half century has passed since my infatuation with Camelot. Fifty years have passed since the naïveté of my youth promised me wars will end, peace will reign, and society will be equitable. Even after the brutality of Daley’s thugs disrupted the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, Camelot sang as my siren. Even after gunfire from the National Guard killed four students at Kent State, I still believed in what the precisely cultivated mass mediations of JFK presented to me while he lived. Even after Nixon and his protect-me politics of Watergate, I had faith in process, politics, and people — even some politicians.
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The Republican response to healthcare exchanges – oblivious and shameless

Oblivious and shameless – two observations about Tea Party Republicans and healthcare exchanges.

I’ve had two minor epiphanies recently, both brought to me by (mostly) Republican-led states and the Tea Party-dominated Republicans in Congress.

First, many Republican governors and/or state legislatures refused to implement health care exchanges in their own states. As a result, these conservatives gave up their state’s right to form a healthcare exchange and forced their citizens to use a big government federal program, all supposedly in the name of “small government” and “states’ rights.” Irony or hypocrisy? You decide. Continue reading

Arts and Literature

Our psychopath Congress

Government shutdown, debt crisis reveal how much GOP has in common with other sociopaths…

Is this to be an empathy test? Capillary dilation of the so-called blush response? Fluctuation of the pupil. Involuntary dilation of the iris?

I believe Philip K. Dick had it right in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Technology had, in that not-so-distant future, created androids that were nearly indistinguishable from humans. The one thing people had that the Nexus 6s didn’t, the quality that made them essentially human, was empathy. Continue reading

CATEGORY: PoliticsLawGovernment3

Slate’s gerrymandering puzzles

CATEGORY: PoliticsLawGovernment3Earlier this year I got into a debate with one of my fellow Scrogues about how best to stop gerrymandering. While we didn’t come to any agreements as to a solution due to my lack of time to continue, we were in violent agreement that gerrymandering is a problem that simply must be solved.

Today Slate was kind enough to publish a graphic way to learn just how screwed up the entire gerrymandering thing really is. Chris Kirk created six puzzles using actual state Congressional districts as a way to demonstrate how both Democratic and Republican state legislatures are gerrymandering district lines to ensure that the dominant party controls the state’s Congressional Representatives. It takes about 10 minutes to do all six puzzles and read the information that pops up after each puzzle is completed.

Some states (like Iowa, the tutorial puzzle) have strict anti-gerrymandering laws, but most states don’t. Barring such laws, it should be the job of the federal government to step in and prevent gerrymandering. However, both parties benefit from gerrymandering, and so it’s highly unlikely that an anti-gerrymandering federal law could pass out of Congress. And while the courts are more willing to address issues like this, the Supreme Court just overturned the part of the Voting Rights Act that was specifically crafted to prevent minority-based gerrymandering (rather than party-based, although the two are similar in large parts of the South). As such it’s not a foregone conclusion that the courts would be any more receptive to ordering states to stop gerrymandering than Congress would be.

Still, there’s little question that gerrymandering in the modern age is so bad that it’s risen to the level of being unconstitutional according to the “general welfare” standard – having a gridlocked Congress incapable of passing laws isn’t good for the country, however much big business and think tanks might say otherwise.

h/t Alex Palombo

CATEGORY: Congress

Work half time, earn $179K — welcome to Congress

… I was so busy keeping my job, I forgot to do my job. — President Andrew Shepherd in The American President

After the 2012 elections, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee leaders called in the freshmen for “orientation.” Leaders told the plebes how they were expected to spend their time. They would be “on duty” nine or 10 hours a day, they were told. Half of that time would be spent raising money. And lots of it.

A PowerPoint presentation obtained by Huffington Post outlined their day. Here’s the sked.

So, it appears, freshman legislators plan to spend half their time trying to keep their jobs instead of doing their jobs.

When you considered which candidate to support last year, did any congressional candidate tell you — at a “town hall” meeting, in an print ad, in a robocall, in a TV ad, on a campaign website, in a tweet, on Facebook — that he or she planned to be a representative in Congress who would only work part time on behalf on constituents and the good of the Republic?

Look at that schedule. They will be making four hours of phone calls every day to raise money. They will spend an additional hour in “strategic outreach” (perhaps that’s when they meet with the lobbyists). They’ll be on the house floor or in committee hearings for two hours. (That’s bullshit; unless a hearing will generate considerable — and favorable — news coverage, staff will attend those.) In fact, staff will read necessary documents (even proposed bills running hundreds, if not thousands of pages), and reduce them to a briefing paper of a few pages for the boss — including instructions on how to vote.

Where in these nine- to 10-hour days will these idiots members of Congress learn to negotiate and compromise with their colleagues, whether of same or opposing party? When will they actually legislate?

The fundraising efforts are more lucrative that you can imagine. Freshman representatives seek membership on the “cash committee” — the House Financial Services Committee. It is a committee on which one freshman, Rep. Andy Barr of Kentucky, “has raised nearly as much money this year from political action committees run by major banks, credit unions and insurance companies as longtime lawmakers like Speaker John A. Boehner and other party leaders.” Barr has brought in $150,000.

Membership on the financial services committee is incredibly lucrative in terms of fundraising, reports Eric Lipton of The Times:

Political action committees — set up by lobbying firms, unions, corporations and other groups trying to push their agenda in Congress — have donated more money to Financial Services Committee members in the first six months of this year than to members of any other committee. The $9.4 million total is nearly $2 million more than the total for the Armed Services Committee, the only House panel with more members.

So many people want in, writes Lipton, that the “cash committee” has grown from 44 to 61 seats since 1980.

If criticized, every one of these clowns members of Congress will utter a daily mantra duly reported by the stenographic media: We are here to do the business of the American people.

Again, bullshit. We’re paying them $179,000 a year (and the average net worth of members of Congress is about $6.5 million for representatives and $11.9 million for senators).

So, according to their “model daily schedule,” they’re only working for us half time. As a collective of individuals, I doubt that the welfare of their constituents — or the good of the country — ranks high on their list of priorities.

Lipton’s Times story is illuminating. I highly recommend it.

CATEGORY: Guns

I hate handguns, but I have still considered owning one

On my way into work this morning I was listening to an NPR story about how there’s now an ammunition shortage because Americans are stockpiling it. Many are afraid that the government will be taking away the right to own guns, or certain types of guns, or certain types of ammunition, or they’re convinced that an armed rebellion against the government will be necessary soon, and so they’re buying ammunition left and right. The story reminded me of the reason why I might be willing to learn how to use and own a handgun.

I might need one to protect myself from the kind of people who stockpile ammunition and think that they might need to overthrow the government.

I hate handguns. With vanishingly few exceptions they exist for one purpose – killing people. And they’re very good at fulfilling that purpose in the hands of criminals, the mentally ill, and poorly-trained private citizens. I think handguns and ammunition should be regulated and taxed so extensively that they’re too expensive to own and operate even for most criminals. I think that everyone who wants to own one should be licensed, both to ensure that he or she knows how to properly carry, wield, clean, and store their deadly weapon and to ensure that criminals and the mentally ill can’t get their hands on one. And I think that owners should be held criminally liable for the actions of anyone else who uses the handgun except under a very small set of exceptions (shooting ranges and self-protection).

But even with all that said, I no longer think that they should be banned outright like I once did. While I firmly believe that most people are better off learning some basic unarmed self-defense techniques than relying on a weapon, that doesn’t work for everyone or in every situation. So I appreciate that people should be allowed to own and carry handguns, albeit under the restrictions I mentioned above.

I also used to be afraid of handguns, or more specifically what I would do with one. I used to fear that having that kind of easy life-and-death power in my hand would be too likely to turn me into a monster. But that fear was burned out of me when, in November 2010, I briefly considered owning one myself.

There’s nothing like cognitive dissonance to clarify what you really believe, and in this case I came to the realization that as much as I hate handguns, owning one wouldn’t turn me into a monster any more than owning a sword or knowing how to kill someone with my bare hands would.

The NPR story today reminded me of what it was in November 2010 that got me to this point. It was the fact that my fellow Americans voted so many Tea Party politicians into Congress. I’m not afraid that the government is going to come and get me. But I don’t trust the significant percentage of the American population who are apparently terrified of the government. Terrified people tend to make really, really bad choices. And form mobs. And there’s not a self-defense technique that exists that can save me or my family from a terrified mob armed with handguns.

I’m not sure that owning and wielding a handgun myself would protect me and my family from a mob either, for that matter, which is one small part of why I still don’t own a handgun.

Every time I hear about how my fellow Americans are stockpiling ammo because they’re terrified the government will come and take their guns away, I think about owning a handgun again. Every time I read about how 29% of my fellow Americans think an armed rebellion may be necessary in the next four years, I think about owning a handgun again. Every time I read about how Republican Congresscritters killed sensible federal gun safety bills in Congress that the vast majority of my fellow Americans supported, I think about owning a handgun again.

I truly hope to never own a handgun. But if I do, it won’t be because I’m afraid of my government. It’ll be because I no longer trust too many of my fellow Americans.

Two reasons why the new CREDO Action petition to limit CEO salaries wouldn’t work

There’s a new petition going around – maybe you’ve seen it on Facebook. It points up our growing rich-poor gap and asks Congress to cap CEO pay, which is obscene in many cases.

The ratio of CEO pay in the United States has ballooned to 380 times that of the average worker. Pass legislation to limit the salary of CEOs to 50 times as much as the average employee at their company.

The petition notes the recent viral video highlighting wealth inequality in the US, and argues that “a major driver of this inequality is pay disparity, with CEOs in Fortune 500 companies now making 380 times as much money as the average worker. This is a massive increase from 1980, when CEOs were making 42 times as much as the average worker.”

The proposed solution?

To help rectify this problem, Congress needs to pass legislation that caps the ratio of CEO pay to average worker pay at 50 times. CEOs can still be very well compensated, but this will help to drive down the massive disparity we’re facing right now.

I don’t disagree with either the statement of the problem (although there’s more at work than CEO pay), nor do I have any moral or ethical problems with the solution, in concept. At some point the accumulation of material wealth becomes a pathology, and no society that hopes to thrive can allow itself to be held captive to the sickness of its elite minority.

But this petition is a waste of time. Two reasons.

The first is obvious. You can call on Congress all you like, but you won’t find ten votes for this bill in Washington. A good many of our Representatives and Senators are rich themselves and are unlikely to be interested in limiting their own future earning potential. As of two years ago 47% of Congresspeople were millionaires, and those who aren’t hyperwealthy themselves are in the pocket of the 1%. If you’re a fair-minded Rep and you vote for this bill, you may as well announce that you won’t be running for reelection while you’re at it. Dr. Denny has written about this dynamic a number of times, most recently here.

Of course, I suspect this petition is less about expecting actual reform and more about driving public awareness.

The second reason is important in understanding how corporations actually work. Even if this law were passed – even if you let CREDO, the petition’s sponsor, word the bill themselves – it wouldn’t make a scrap of difference. Faced with such measures, corporate boards would simply respond by boosting their outsourcing programs. They’d decide how much to pay the CEO and then they’d draw a red line just above the employees making 1/50th of his/her salary. They would hire a contract management firm and terminate all the employees below that line, who would then be hired by the contracting firm to keep doing the same jobs in the same ways they were before.

Given my experience a few years back as an employee of such a firm, my guess is the end result would actually be worse for the affected workers, as contracting firms lack the market heft when it comes to negotiating benefits with health care providers. So if you’re one of those outsourced employees, even if you make the same salary you probably lose ground on benefits.

This is just the start, of course. There are all kinds of accounting gymnastics that a corporation could engage in when building compensation packages, and the way Congress works these you start with loopholes and then weave the illusion of reform around them.

I appreciate what CREDO is trying to accomplish here, but I can’t imagine meaningful reform issuing from our congenitally corrupt system.

CATEGORY: PoliticsLawGovernment3

Redistricting: by deceitfully moving a line, I can rule forever

In America, most — but probably not all — citizens who seek public office do so with initial good intent. They wish to perform a public service.

That quaint, altruistic notion lasts, on the national level, perhaps 10 minutes after the swearing-in ceremony.

Lobbyists descend. Party leaders demand fund-raising success now. The novice lawmaker is partnered with veteran D.C. good ol’ boys (and girls). And before casting a single vote, the political novitiate begins the daily grind of hours spent dialing for dollars.

And the new titles — Congressman, Senator — and their apparent conferred respect edge into the psyche. I like this, think the freshmen. People stand up when I enter a room. People with money — lots of money – offer me not-so-subtle favors. I like this.

The discovery of power breeds the lust to retain it. An individual politician may be a decent human being. He (or she) may not end up in sexual disarray or keep $90,000 in his freezer. But as a species, politicians place preservation of power at the center of their communal altar.

National politicians cheat, steal, connive, and kiss babies to stay in office. That we can live with. But we should no longer stomach the mind-numbingly boring — so mind-numbing far too many journalists ignore it — and tainted process of redistricting. We must demand its reform.

That’s because Machiavellian maneuvers in redistricting — manipulating lines on a map — is how these charlatans keep the power they use so ineptly and unwisely.

It’s no secret that re-election rates to Congress are astonishingly high. But too many of us in the governed class, myself included, have focused our attention on the ungodly sums of money these indeliberate deliberators raise.

It’s not, so much, the money anymore: It’s who draws the lines of congressional districts, how they are drawn, and with what motive.

Redistricting is the legally required process of equalizing the numbers of people in districts following the decennial census. This is done to ensure that House seats are fairly distributed. But gerrymandering — the redrawing of district lines with the motive of ensuring a “safe” district for an incumbent — has corrupted the process. Consider these few bizarre, convoluted examples of gerrymandered districts scattered through this post.

It’s quite simple, really. Legislatures in 34 states control redistricting. In other states, “independent” and “bipartisan” commissions draw the lines. It’s always been a partisan process, but in this era of childish political tantrums, the process serves only to maximize the power of those who rule, not distribute fairly the power of those who are ruled. Districts are packed, using unimaginable boundaries, with voters of one party to the maximum extent possible.

Now do you see why the re-election rates of incumbents in Congress are so damn high?

Despite the few successes in ’08, ’10, and ’12, voters find it difficult to “throw the bums out.”

Imagine the United States, if political wrangling over redistricting and unfettered spending on campaigns by millionaires and billionaires remains unchecked. Will the day come when members of Congress simply cannot be removed through the ballot box?

If that happens, it will make the doomsday-prepping wingnuts seem absolutely prescient.

Cast your eye over history. What has been the fate of nations when citizens could not peacefully remove their government?

As boring as it is, demand transparency in redistricting efforts. And demand media organizations cover them as ardently as they do the tragic OJ-Lite™ drama under way in South Africa.

CATEGORY: PoliticsLawGovernment

Mitch McConnell and the GOP: Filibusted

Mitch “Sad Turtle” McConnell

Mitch McConnell is having quite a week.

Earlier this week, Senate Majority leader and sad turtle McConnell led Senate Republicans in boldly not voting for a UN treaty to protect disabled people. And then yesterday, he had to filibuster his own bill when Senate Democrats called his bluff.

The bill in question would turn the power of raising the debt ceiling over to the executive branch and leave the legislative branch out of it. The President would ask to raise the debt limit, and if Congress wanted to stop him from doing so, they would have 15 days to pass a joint resolution of disapproval. The President could veto that resolution, and then Congress could override the veto with a 60 percent majority in each the Senate and the House of Representatives.

McConnell brought the bill forward claiming that the Democrats didn’t have enough votes to pass it. And, well…this happened.

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Congress: Why throwing the bums out won't improve it

I like sausage. I don’t care what names attach to them. I like sausage, be it bratwurst, kielbasa, bauerwurst, chorizo, bangers, Italian, summer, or linguica. Different meats (beef, pork, even reindeer) and seasonings produce the vast panoply of sausage found worldwide.

But, after a while, no matter how different the ingredients, it’s still just sausage.

At the heart of sausage making is a common device: the meat grinder. Drop meat into the hopper. Add seasonings. Crank the handle. Grind chunks of meat. Slide into casing. Result: Sausage. No matter what enters, what emerges is sausage.

Congress has become little more than the meat grinder that produces sausage. Yes, there’s the old saw: Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made. That’s not the point here. Rather, it’s about the machine. It’s about why no one should foster belief in the “throw the bums out” approach to correcting continual congressional ineptitude and ethical malfeasance.

Consider: I plan to vote for a 29-year-old hospital administrator, Nate Shinagawa, to replace my current congressman, Tom Reed. Reason: I don’t like Reed’s ethically ambiguous approach to communicating with constituents. I like Shinagawa because I was young once — and believed in politics as an honorable calling. He believes; I don’t.

Reed’s been a politician for a long time. He’s been in Congress just long enough for the machine — that influence-peddling, leadership PAC-manipulating, anonymous donor-condoning meat grinder — to have ground him into sausage indistinguishable from most other members.

Shinagawa’s public stances on issues paint him as youthfully idealistic. But if he beats Reed, there’s a high probability that the same machine will grind him, too, into sausage virtually indistinguishable from the other 434 representatives. Shinagawa’s campaign goal is poignantly liberal and hopeful — Working For Us — but impossible to accomplish now in a thoroughly degraded Congress.

Consider some of the political effluent surrounding Congress — how members raise money, from whom, and in what amounts; their inability to behave as adults and actually legislate; the revolving door that shuttles legislators and staff from the Hill to K Street to the Hill; Grover Norquist’s no-tax-hike pledge feared by virtually all members; and the minimal work week spent on us because the bulk of the week is devoted to fundraising from them. This is the meat grinder that young Shinagawa would enter should he defeat Reed.

This is the meat grinder that will stay firmly in place even if voters, as they did in 1994, 2006, and 2010, “throw the bums out” to change party control of Congress.

Whom we elect to Congress may no longer matter. In fact, it is hard to rid Congress of incumbents. Throwing out the bums has become particularly difficult to do, as John Avlon writes, because of gerrymandering risen to an exceedingly refined political art.

Over the past decade, has the performance of Congress in Working For Us improved by any significant measure? Has the rancor among members of Congress decreased by any significant measure?

What should be America’s best hope for the future — an intelligent, compassionate, effective Congress — has become merely a means of making sausage out of its members. And foul-tasting sausage at that.

Our hardworking folks in Congress: more interested in keeping their jobs than doing their jobs

When voters elect members of Congress, they are hiring them to do a job. Voters, through their taxes, compensate those politicians well — $174,000 a year, and more if they have committee or leadership roles.

Many, if not most, voters — unless they are among the 12.5 million without jobs — work about 35 hours a week for a median income of about $32,000. They get perhaps two weeks of paid vacation each year. But a member of the House of Representatives this year was scheduled to show up for only 89 days from January to November. He (and it’s generally “he,” not “she“) is taking off a week in February, another in April, still another in May, and — get this — the whole of August and the first week of September. “It’s too hot in the city in August,” he tells you, then takes off for week-long conventions in the hot, humid Deep South before working only eight days in September. That’s 89 days out of the 172 days voters will be at work (minus a few paid holidays) before Nov. 6. Continue reading

How my congressman, Tom Reed, lost my vote: He sent me a franked letter he shouldn't have

Imagine you are a freshman member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Unless you’re an idiot, you want to be re-elected. It’s a cushy gig — it pays $174,000 a year. It’s likely you already have a net worth in the high six figures — nine times that of the your constituents — so you’re not hurting for coin of the realm. In debates, the moderator calls you “Congressman” and your opponent “Mister” or “Ms.”

People line up to give you the $1.3 million that you, on average, need to spend to get re-elected. How cool is that?

Re-election rates to the House are high — at or above 90 percent 18 times in the last 24 election cycles. But in 2010, when you washed ashore on the congressional beachhead in that tea-party wave of slash-government insolence, the re-election rate fell from 94 percent in 2008 to 85 percent. Continue reading

Surprise! Corporations secretly investing in U.S. politics, increasing need for DISCLOSE Act

In his book “Private Empire,” author Steve Coll relates a telling remark that reflects how Lee Raymond, then ExxonMobil CEO, viewed his company’s relationship with America. He was asked whether ExxonMobil would build more refineries inside the United States to help insulate the nation against gasoline shortages.

Raymond: “Why would I do that?”

An oil industry executive: “Because the United States needs it … for security.”

Raymond: “I’m not a U.S. company and I don’t make decisions based on what’s good for the U.S.”

Yet ExxonMobil invests heavily in American politics. U.S. tax law, however, prevents the electorate from knowing the exact nature of that investment — how much money, given to whom or what, and with what intent. That should change, but Congress adamantly stands in the way of such disclosure. Continue reading

July 5, 2012: Nothing's changed. The American dream continues to erode

Hope you enjoyed your hot dogs, Mom, apple pie, fireworks, and the inevitable flourishes of patriotism, both faux and real, on the Fourth of July. But nothing has changed in America from the July 3 that kissed you good night to the July 5 that nudged you awake you this morning.

Political warfare by any name is still war. Call it what you will: The haves vs. the have-nots, class warfare, or ideological conflict — it’s still a cruel war, and it inflicts wounds on far too many of us. Some are deep: The bank took the house. Some are possibly fatal: The insurance company wouldn’t pay for the surgery. Or the drugs for that cancer. Some will fester for a lifetime: College students face a one-trillion-dollar student loan debt. Some are a perpetual itch that scratching does not relieve: There will be no pay raise next year, and your contribution to the company’s health plan will double. Continue reading

Lindsay Lohan to run for Congress? Why we should vote for her

The strikingly beautiful young woman — she will turn 26 years old on July 2 — approaches the podium with its waiting forest of microphones. Her hair, reddish blonde and flowing well below her shoulders, is caught briefly in a gust of wind as she walks to the front of the press corps on the granite steps of the state capitol. Eight fluted Corinthian columns line the portico behind her. She is, surprisingly, modestly and professionally dressed in a tasteful navy pants suit. For a moment, as she stands at the lectern, only the clicking of cameras is heard.

Good morning, everyone. My name is Lindsay Lohan, and today I am announcing my candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives from my district.

Brief silence, followed by peals of laughter. Whispers of “Is this a movie promo?” drift through the throng. Lohan waits patiently, quietly, proudly for the laughter to subside. Continue reading

Congress attempts to legislate away containment of Iran and replace it with war

At Foreign Policy in Focus Stephen Zunes reports on a resolution (HR 568) that the House passed in a show of bipartisanship (401-11) that couldn’t have come at a worse possible time (as is usually the case with bipartisanship these days). He explains that HR 568 calls for “the president to oppose any policy toward Iran ‘that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat.’”

… Congress has essentially told the president that nothing short of war or the threat of war is an acceptable policy. Indeed, the rush to pass this bill appears to have been designed to undermine the ongoing international negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program.

Even Colin Powell, as quoted by Dennis Kucinich, “has stated that this resolution ‘reads like the same sheet of music that got us into the Iraq war.’” Continue reading