Congress Plays with Political Fire…Again

It’s hard out there for a wimp. The 113th U.S. Congress doesn’t waste time proving how inept and ineffective it is and no enemy, foreign or domestic, has changed that.

As President Obama has used executive authority to strike at the heart of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, both House Democrats and Republicans have raised serious and valid concerns over executive power to essentially declare war without declarations from Congress. The founders of the constitution spin in their graves over things like these – they were pretty specific over war declarations. But whether you agree or disagree with the current course of action toward ISIS (personally, I’ve found myself leaning toward the “wipe the bastards out” side), the real issue is – as usual – Congress’ sadly hilarious incompetence.

For a while now, the looming question of U.S. involvement has hung over Mideastern dialogue. Iraq asked us for help in fighting back the spread of ISIS within its own borders. Muslim clerics all over the world – even Saudi freaking Arabia – have harshly denounced ISIS. The world recoiled in collective horror when the Islamic State slaughtered Kurish Yazidis and Iraqi Christians and beheaded journalists on camera.

President Obama joined other leaders in condemning ISIS for what it is: barbaric and bloodthirsty. He was clear about U.S. involvement, too – he wouldn’t act unilaterally until U.S. interests were directly threatened, a cautious approach that is rather refreshing after the Bush Administration. At that moment, House and Senate Democrats got a significant portion of their colleagues to come out in support of congressional debate on the course of action they would authorize the President to take.

And then they convened for recess…for two months.

With the threat of a third Iraq war and more military involvement in Middle Eastern affairs, Congress chose now to go on vacation. I wonder why the public rates them lower than kitchen mold in approval?

With Congress literally out of the picture, President Obama has authorized missile strikes against ISIS. House Republicans’ response: We never got a bill on military action from the White House. Seriously. I’m no expert, but I think it’s the purview of Congress to write bills. Apparently Republicans never watched that one Schoolhouse Rock! video about “the bill on Capitol Hill.”

Congress has become really good at tying the president’s hands. From holding up appointments to passing the least amount of bills in U.S. history, Republican leadership has made it its sole mission to give President Obama headache after headache. They create government crises and then blame the president for government crises. As MSNBC’s Steve Benen pointed out, “congressional Republicans have been almost hysterical about presidential overreach, condemning the White House for alleged abuses that leave Congress out of the policymaking process.” He continues, “In nearly every instance, their evidence has fallen somewhere between baseless and ridiculous.”

It all comes down to politics. Congresspersons and Senators are terrified of being the ones who vote for or against wars (hello, Iraq War 2.0). If you vote for war, it can make you look tough and it pleases neoconservatives and interventionists…but it can also tag your name to a possible boondoggle. If you vote against war, it can make you look like a bleeding heart and please pacifists and isolationists…but it can also make you look weak.

Representative Jack Kingston (R-GA) captured the GOP zeitgeist by openly admitting to the New York Times, “We like the path we’re on now. We can denounce it if it goes bad, and praise it if it goes well and ask what took [Obama] so long.” In case any of you have forgotten, there’s a midterm election coming up in November.

It’s the Turnout, Stupid!

Conventional Beltway wisdom says Democrats will get walloped in November. Reading the pages of The Hill and Politico, one would think the elephant in the Capitol has already trampled its donkey counterpart. Even MSNBC’s screeching Chris Matthews has called the Senate for the GOP.

But Why?

Based on previous midterm elections during a president’s second term (where his party usually loses seats in both houses of Congress), the prediction is that Republicans will gain a larger majority of the House and possibly take the Senate, even if by a bare majority. There are rare exceptions to this rule: 1998, when the GOP lost ground in Congress after flirting with (and later getting) the impeachment of President Clinton; and 2006, when Democrats took the House after American dissatisfaction with the Iraq War reached new highs. Other than that, the president’s party takes a “shellacking,” as President Obama (in)famously said in 2010.

But the future is unwritten. It sounds cliché, but when it comes to historical precedent, we should simply acknowledge that that was then and this is now.

The world has drastically changed. That’s an understatement. For one, the unstoppable proliferation of the Internet across the planet has led to previously unfathomable connections. Breaking news, scandals, leaders’ faux pas, grassroots campaigns, Instagram pictures of cats in tuxedos – these have all reshaped how we see ourselves and our world. The fact that the two surprise elections of ’98 and ’06 happened within the last 16 years should only strengthen that point. The stats and recent history back the Democrats up.

More of us are connected to a global information network and for better or worse, we’re more aware of what’s going on in the world than we have ever been before. DC bigwigs and VIPs seem to ignore this important little fact. Young adults are at the forefront of this massive change. The elections of 2008 and 2012 brought out record numbers of us, mainly because nearly all of us have a social media account of some sort. When Mitt Romney made offensive comments about the 47 percent or when Rick Perry made a Moral Majority-esque video decrying the inclusion of gays in the military, young people noticed and turned out in droves to vote for President Obama…by 67 percent. As Gallup recently found, a large majority of us identify with the Democratic Party, even more so than previous generations did when they were our age. The challenge this November is making sure we turn out in high numbers, something we usually don’t do.

The youth vote isn’t the only necessary ingredient for a Democratic win. It’s no secret that the country is becoming more diverse. Seventeen percent of the nation is Hispanic (myself included) and nearly 65 percent of Hispanic voters cast their ballots for Democrats. In my home state of California, often seen as an “omen” of things to come for the rest of America, Hispanics make up nearly 40 percent of the Golden State’s 40 million residents. In both houses of the California legislature, Democrats have a supermajority and they have the governorship.

The Party of FDR also has the upper hand when it comes to registered voters in general. Forty-seven percent of registered voters identify as or with the Democratic Party (compared to 42 percent who are registered/lean Republican). In 2012, more votes were cast for congressional Democrats than Republicans. But thanks to gerrymandered districts, the GOP still held control of the House…but they did lose a chunk of their majority.

Since midterm voter turnout is typically older, whiter, wealthier and more conservative, the diversity of the country and Democratic Party don’t amount to much. In 2010, when Tea Party Republicans swept the House and several state legislatures and governorships, the number of registered voters who did not vote was substantially higher than the number who did. That year, four out of five voters were white. Seniors made up 21 percent of the electorate in the “Tea Party Tidal Wave” of 2010 and supported the GOP by nearly 60 percent.

The crop of newbies that went to Congress in 2010 pulled the GOP further to the right. From one manufactured crisis to the next, Tea Party extremism and incompetence have resulted in sluggish economic growth, a downgrade of the national credit rating, a government shutdown that siphoned billions of dollars out of the economy, unnecessary and burdensome restrictions on reproductive rights, and millions of low-income Americans left without health care insurance at the insistence of Republican governors. But hey, at least Ted Cruz got his fifteen minutes of fame, right?!

The ineptitude of the modern Republican Party has left quite the sour taste in the public’s mouth. Most Americans disapprove of the Republican Party. Though the GOP has largely recovered from the image-battering it got over the shutdown last year, it is still a very unpopular party, particularly in the eyes of young and minority voters. Congressional approval continues to hover at historic lows (it was higher when Democrats were in control of both chambers) and Tea Party quacks in the House and Senate continue to make excellent segments on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

To be fair, President Obama’s favorability has suffered, too, thanks in large part to the disastrous rollout of the federal exchange website. But now that the website has (mostly) been fixed and nearly 10 million people have health insurance under the ACA (7 million enrolled in private plans), the president’s approval rating has stabilized and approval of the ACA itself is creeping upward. As more people discover the security of not playing Russian roulette with their health care by actually getting coverage, I’m pretty confident that both the ACA’s and the president’s popularity will continue to rise.

But, for a thought experiment, let’s say the President’s popularity declined to the low 30s and the ACA’s approval dipped as well, with even more people misunderstanding/not even knowing its basic provisions. Even in that scenario, it would still be possible for Democrats to retake the House. If enough voters turned out, it could be done.

That’s the usual problem – turnout. It is crucial that the young and diverse turn out in mass this November. Historical precedence may be against Democrats, but the possibility and diversity of the future is definitely “for” it. It seems like a Herculean task, but if Democrats can keep the focus on the benefits of the ACA, what it’s resulted in (hint: no commie takeovers or putting grandma to sleep), and continue to point out how extreme and out of touch the Tea Party-run GOP is, they should be able to drive a substantial amount of us out to cast our ballots on Tuesday, November 4th.

The American Way

I really love my country. I still get that cliché lump in my throat when singing the Star Spangled Banner and thinking of great American icons like Martin Luther King Jr., Harvey Milk, Cady Elizabeth Stanton and Frederick Douglas. Our constitution and the form of government it has produced are, by far, the best in the world, after all, countless other nations have emulated it. I love the United States of America. E pluribus unum.

Now that I got that out of the way, let me say one thing: My nation is incredibly stupid. We are in the 13th year of the 21st century, you know, that magical time when most of our problems were supposed to be solved, we’d be living like the Jetsons, and shit would be great for everyone? Despite the fact that information and knowledge is literally at our fingertips (and free), there are massive amounts of ignorance in America.

Income inequality – that huge gap between the richest and poorest among us – has increased to historic levels as the wealthy and the most profitable corporations in the history of mankind continue to pay little to no taxes (thank you, tax code and loopholes). The poorest continue to be hit the hardest by economic hardships and the middle class is continuing to shrink. Our leader’s solution to this problem: more trickle-down, austerity magic! Shame on us.

Climate change is a globally recognized, scientifically accepted fact of life on Earth now. Our science has only gotten better and the cause of accelerated, devastating climate change is us, humanity, burning the remains of dinosaurs and other Cretaceous plant and animal life. Storms, floods and droughts are worse than they’ve ever been and the global average temperature has continued to climb. The oceans are more acidic, a result of absorbing more carbon dioxide than they should naturally be absorbing. Nasty feedback loops have eaten away a shocking amount of the planet’s polar ice caps. Several animal species are approaching the point of extinction. Agriculture and other industries reliant on the Earth itself are already seeing the devastating results of a planet less hospitable to their business, where areas that were once fertile and green are becoming barren, arid wastelands. Parts of the planet that have been traditionally cold are becoming more tropical. Tropical diseases are becoming more common globally. The effects of these catastrophic phenomena have already displaced or killed several million people around the globe.

And yet, nations like the United States and China continue churning out billions of tons of carbon dioxide from dirty sources like coal because, apparently, that’s what “progress” looks like. True, natural gas produces half the emissions coal does and while it is a good thing that more focus is being placed on it as one of the major alternatives to coal, we are still releasing far too much carbon dioxide than the planet can naturally and safely absorb. Renewable energy? We’re investing more in it than we ever have before and that is a very good thing. But to combat a warming planet and ensure our survival sustainably we need to lead the world in massive investments into renewable energy sources like we once did with the interstate highway system decades ago.

Despite the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence and natural disasters stemming from climate change, a large portion of the American public thinks it’s all a hoax (most likely because they heard it on talk radio and saw it on Faux News). There IS  silver lining, however: a majority of Americans agree that climate change is something our leaders should be doing more to address and alleviate. But it should be a vast majority because remember, the information and research on climate change, not to mention the news reports of devastation, are instantly accessible. Shame on us.

We also elect disgraceful excuses for leaders; After the 2010 midterm election, the once-great Republican Party – poisoned by the religious right and purchased for several billion dollars by corporate America – picked up a supermajority of the House of Representatives and state legislatures across the country, as well as governorships in many states.

The philosophy of this terrifying brand of conservatism sees government and taxation of any kind as oppressive. The social safety net? It’s the makers vs. the takers! Investments in education and infrastructure? It’s a commie plot to destroy America! Don’t even mention raising government revenue via tax raises on the super wealthy! Nut jobs like that used to be relegated to the fringes. Now they’re running the party.

The result of electing these jokes to office:

The use of the filibuster exploded to dizzying heights, grinding the process of governing and government itself to a halt; the economic recovery and the transition to a more sustainable, greener future is being painfully suffocated by severe budget cuts, sequestration and a dogmatic refusal to pass anything resembling a job program; restrictions on abortion that would effectively outlaw many forms of birth control and fertility treatments flood state legislatures; the Defense of Marriage Act  (DOMA) – prohibiting all same-sex couples in the nation from having the 1,100 federal benefits that straight couples have – was ruthlessly defended at a cost of millions of dollars to the American taxpayers, despite the fact that the majority of those taxpayers think DOMA needs to go; members of the LGBT community can be fired for being who they are in several states because of Congress’ refusal to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA); new restrictions on voting rights were passed in battleground states controlled by Republicans, restrictions specifically targeted at young people, African-Americans, and the poor (groups that usually vote Democratic); the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed cross-country pipeline that would expose millions of Americans to filthy tar sands oil spills (like the recent one in Arkansas) and would also act as an exacerbator of climate change has been pimped and promoted by all Republicans and several Democrats in both the House and Senate; and mass shootings have increased in frequency thanks to successful lobbying by the National Rifle Association and the fact that an assault weapons ban, high-capacity magazine bans, and universal background checks aren’t federal realities.

Shame on us for voting in this insanity.

Even Republicans are stunned, and not in a “look at the pretty fireworks” kind of way. Mark McKinnon, a former advisor to President George W. Bush and lifelong Republican, captured the sentiment in a single quote:

“…the party, by refusing to recognize reality, is going to end up looking like the ‘stupid party’ that fails to adapt and evolve to changing circumstances in our society…On issues where the physics are moving irre…vocably forward, like immigration, gay rights, and guns, the Republican Party continues to look backward. And backward is a sure path toward irrelevance.”

Because of gerrymandering after the 2010 GOP landslide, ousting this far-right crop of Republicans is harder than ever. For example, Democrats received over one million more votes in congressional elections in the 2012 election than Republicans did. But because gerrymandered congressional districts are an affliction effecting many states, the GOP still holds a *slim* majority and majorities in too many state assemblies and senates.

But there’s another silver lining: thanks to rapidly changing demographics and the insanity of their current positions, Republicans will possibly lose their majority in 2014. Until then progressives (not all Democrats, including President Obama) in Congress must hold true to their convictions of advocating for all Americans, not just the wealthy, and helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The nation that is supposed to be that Shining City on a Hill, that beacon of hope to all the world, the global example for what democracy looks like, has descended into utter chaotic stupidity. Until Americans become more concerned with the state of the country and planet rather than the vapid lives of celebrities and the latest results from reality television shows, this epidemic of stupidity will continue. Until we demand that our leaders govern in reality and in our interests at the ballot box, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Congress Sucks

Congress sucks. Literally. Progress, governance and any faith Americans put in their legislature has been steadily sucked out and replaced with deep cynicism and distrust…and for good reason.

The use of the filibuster – essentially debating a bill to death – has been used more over the past two years than in all previous Congresses (for those who don’t know, the present Congress is the 113th Congress). Even historically non-controversial bills like infrastructure funding have become bitterly partisan fights. The overall number of bills that have passed is historically low, making the 112th Congress the least productive in American history.

This lack of productivity has also translated into a historically low approval rating; the 112th Congress (2010-2012) had the lowest yearly average of all Congresses, finishing 2012 with a mere 15 percent, according to Gallup. In January of this year – at the start of the 113th Congress – congressional approval was even lower, at 14 percent.

Most of the problem lies in the House of Representatives, where far-right, tea party Republicans have waged war on their very duties to govern since taking office.

Back in 2010, the GOP took control of the House thanks to a poor economy and anti-government fervor fueled by the then-new Tea Party, a faux “grassroots” movement fostered by the billionaire Koch Brothers (“Koch Industries, Inc.”) and conservative media outlets like Fox News.

This brand of conservatism and the Conservative Movement at large see government itself as a problem to be fixed. Safety regulations? That’s repressive to the economy! Returning federal income tax rates to the historically low Clinton tax rates for the wealthy, where taxpayers in the top bracket paid 39.6? It’s a pinko-commie plot to destroy America, or something! Closing tax loopholes that allow large corporations to dodge paying taxes? That will hurt the “job creators!”

This attitude has wreaked havoc on the country. In 2011, America nearly defaulted on its debt after Republicans in the House refused to raise the debt ceiling until the last minute.

This close call shook the economy, which had been steadily improving, and resulted in a downgrade of the nation’s credit rating. The reason for this refusal to budge: Planned Parenthood was receiving federal funding (none of which went toward abortions, by the way).

Congress was barely able to raise the debt ceiling and agree on new tax rates for the wealthy last month. Thanks to pressure from members of their own party, Republicans in the House agreed to raise the debt ceiling…..but only for three months. The Clinton tax rates were restored….but only for those making over $400,000 annually.

The debt ceiling has been raised several dozen times since the 1930s and without controversy. It’s Congress’ way of saying, “We will pay off the debt we have racked up. No problem. On to the next proposed bill.”

During the presidency of George W. Bush, Congress racked up trillions of dollars of debt via large tax cuts and two wars – all unpaid for. When President Obama took office and the far right had a meltdown (“He’s a Kenyan, Marxist, possibly gay, foreign-looking dictator!”) government spending itself became unfathomable and unacceptable.

It should be noted that the private sector is doing well, having added nearly five million new jobs since early 2009. However, the public sector (teachers, police, firefighters, post office workers, etc.) has been devastated. Over 700,000 jobs have been drained from the public sector during the same period of time, a number that could mean the difference between a recovering economy and a healthy economy.

Even the United States Postal Service, set in place as a public good, has suffered from mismanagement and neglect. Later this year, the USPS will end a 150-year-old service and no longer deliver first-class mail on Saturdays. It will rely more on part-time workers rather than full-time employees and it will end overtime pay as a way to cut costs and survive thanks to an unresponsive Congress.

These cuts in public sector jobs are mostly due to an irresponsible Congress that has demanded the cuts above all else. You want to raise the debt ceiling and keep the government running? Cut government jobs and “spending” (public investments) and maybe we’ll talk. The fact that over $200 billion has been cut from the deficit since 2009 means nothing to the House. It isn’t enough for them.

The country cannot function under this extremism and refusal to govern. Americans of many different political persuasions are tired of the stubbornness and grow increasingly annoyed with members of Congress refusing to do their jobs. How can we trust politicians whose view of reality is so warped? Why did we just re-elect many of the same extreme congresspersons back in November?

We’ve been steadily recovering from the Great Recession and the world continues to change daily. We need a legislature that is serious about its responsibilities. We need sensible congressmen and congresswomen who understand the dynamics of compromise and governance. We need November 2014 to be here already.

House Speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama

House Speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama

Rich/Poor Gap Widens, America Declines

Poverty in the United States is on the rise. According to the 2010 US Census, the poverty rate in the United States rose to 15.1 percent, the highest it’s been in 17 years. Obviously, this means the median annual income also dropped…by 2 percent and down to $49,445. In fact, during the past decade, the Middle Class saw rather mediocre income growth, the poor saw virtually none and the rich saw a steady rise (in the face of large tax cuts for America’s wealthy).

The 2001 Bush Tax cuts brought the highest marginal tax rate down from 39.6 percent to 35%. During President Bush’s term, America also entered two expensive wars….and did not raise taxes to help fund them. We lost several thousand American troops in the fight to weaken al-Qaeda and take out Osama Bin Laden. We’ve done that and yet the war(s) rages on. Rather than end the wars (or at least vastly reduce the number of service members),  Uncle Sam decided to cut services. Oh, we also [still] have service members in Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan and South Korea. The last time I checked, WWII and the Korean War ended.

Had it not been for unemployment insurance, the poverty rate would undoubtedly be higher.

I am not trying to instigate a class war. To the contrary: I hope to be rich some day! The ability to reach one’s dreams through hard work and talent is one of the greatest things about this country. Millions flock to America for the chance at making it big. However, I am against policies and actions that make things better for the well-off at the expense of everyone else. That is the very definition of irresponsible.

It is irresponsible to maintain the status quo in healthcare availability, for example, while entire families go uninsured because they cannot afford even basic care. It is irresponsible to leave a person’s teeth to rot in their mouths because they cannot afford a procedure at the dentists’ office. It is irresponsible for intelligent and hard-working young people to have to drop out of college because they cannot afford it. I have personally witnessed all of these situations (and lived through the last one – thankfully, I’ll be returning to college this coming Spring 2012 semester).

I’m not an expert and I don’t have all the answers. However, I do wonder where our government’s priorities have gone. My simple proposal is this: return tax rates to what they were under President Clinton (39.6% as the highest marginal tax rate), end the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and actually bring the service members home and invest in extremely valuable things like education, jobs programs, infrastructure and science and technology. Poets and authors predicted that the 21st century would be golden. Let’s fulfill their prophecies.

Politics Before National Security

Senator Jon Kyl should be ashamed of himself.

Back in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, negotiated a nuclear nonproliferation treaty known as “Trust But Verify.” This treaty called for both nations to reduce the amount of nuclear warheads they had. It also allowed both superpowers to “verify” that warheads were, in fact, being reduced through inspections. Not only did this help avoid a nuclear holocaust but it also drastically reduced the amount of nuclear weapons in the world.

Unfortunately, inspections are no longer taking place (the treaty expired on December 5, 2009). Now, the United States has no way of knowing whether or not Russia is providing terrorists with nuclear arms.

Last year, before the treaty expired, Republicans and Democrats alike were very concerned. Senator Kyl had this to say last November (2009)

The U.S. will lose a significant source of information that has allowed it to have confidence in its ability to understand Russian strategic nuclear forces.

Another treaty was made and nearly signed earlier this year…until it was slapped down in the Senate by Republicans. Really.

This is one of the reasons why partisans and wing-nuts don’t belong in Washington. They get obsessed with doing the opposite of whatever their perceived mortal enemy does so they can be re-elected. They are willing to put our nation’s security on the line for their jobs.

If President Obama likes PB&J sandwiches and The Beatles, Senator Kyl and those like him cannot stand PB&J and The Beatles. If the President kisses a baby, they refuse to kiss babies. If the President is close to reviving a nuclear nonproliferation treaty for the sake of global and national security, Senator Kyl and his friends team up to jeopardize it. Disgraceful.

 

Michele Bachmann’s Crazy World

I didn’t really pay much attention to far-right Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann until I read some of the things she’s said.

Now, I’m sure she’s a nice person and I’m pretty certain she means well. But some of her outlandish statements cannot be ignored…so I decided to write a blog post on the more “memorable” ones.

This snippet explains her view – and denial – of global warming…

“Carbon dioxide is portrayed as harmful. But there isn’t even one study that can be produced that shows that carbon dioxide is a harmful gas.”

Okay, so she ignored the mountains of evidence from countless experts in their respected fields in the area of climate change. But wait…it gets better…

‎”I find it interesting that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out under another, then under another Democrat president, Jimmy Carter. I’m not blaming this on President Obama, I just think it’s an interesting coincidence.”

I should note that during the 1976 outbreak, Republican President Gerald Ford was in power.

Then, there’s her insistence that many Nobel Prize-h0lding scientists believe in Intelligent Design (aka “creationism”)…

‎”There are hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel Prizes, who believe in intelligent design.”

Since the overwhelming majority of scientists who hold Nobel Prizes are either not religious or atheists, I find it incredibly hard to believe that there are several who are creationists. Regardless of how you feel about the issue, Bachmann should have done her homework before citing imaginary statistics.

Another fumble-with-the-facts statement made by Bachmann…

‎”I don’t know where they’re going to get all this money because we’re running out of rich people in this country.”

Interesting: studies over the past half century have actually shown that of the three groups – rich, middle class, poor – it has been the rich who have been the best off. During good times and bad, the rich are able to survive better than any of us…although they may have to “sacrifice” a yacht.

And of course there’s Ms. Bachmann’s not-so-subtle homophobia. She’s made some rather insulting remarks about homosexuals over the years, essentially calling them mentally ill degenerates. But the following quote reveals how deep her paranoia is…

“…what a bizarre time we’re in…when a judge will say to little children that you can’t say the pledge of allegiance, but you must learn that homosexuality is normal and you should try it.”

So, in a society where an overwhelming majority of the population is heterosexual and portrayals of romance in the media are overwhelmingly heterosexual, Bachmann believes that treating all people equally under the eyes of the law will lead to judges telling us to try gay sex. Makes perfect sense…

As comical as this list of quotes is, it is also frightening. These wacky statements were not made by a town drunk, Glenn Beck or Tony Perkins but by a congresswoman. This woman is one of the few people running the country. My two cents: That should scare anyone.

Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN)