Wednesday, January 26, 2011

My royal SOTU

I watched all three of the speeches last night. Obama, of course, gave a good speech. He's a great speaker and his major speeches are always well written. I think he did a good job of boxing in the Republicans by sounding reasonable and co-opting some of their themes (not that it will matter by the time another day has passed). I was disappointed, but not surprised, by his caving in to the debt and deficit fear mongers. Paul Ryan turned out to be a good speaker. His speech was long on dog whistles and short on specifics. He repeated some long-since debunked lies, but only hinted at his scary slash and burn approach to the social safety net. Michele Bachmann's speech was amateur night.

Let's play a game. What would you do if you were made total monarch of the United States for one year? I'm not talking about becoming god. You won't have magical powers to make people be nice to each other. But if you had total, autocratic control of the political system for one year, what would you do? What program would you have announced in your SOTU. Major and minor political initiatives, pet peeves, and constitutional amendments are all fair game. After your year, Congress will not be able to undo anything you did for ten years.

Here are some things I would do.
  • Provide funding to extend unemployment for another twenty-six weeks for the long-term unemployed (the 99ers).
  • Create a process for older unemployed workers to start Social Security and Medicare early.
  • Abolish the death penalty. I would order the states to review the cases of everyone on death row and re-sentence them to life or finite terms.
  • Institute cap and trade carbon limits with a schedule for the cap to gradually tighten up.
  • Fill all of the judicial, regulatory, and administrative in the federal government.
  • Review both the list of positions that can be appointed by a new administration and that are subject to Senate approval with an eye to reducing both and filling more positions with non-political civil servants.
  • Reinstitute barriers to media conglomeration and break up recent media monsters.
  • Reinstitute New Deal regulations on the banking and financial industries.
  • Order a six month moratorium on home foreclosures during which banks will be required to fix their paperwork and prove their ownership of any home they plan to claim after the moratorium is over. Furthermore, banks will be required to take physical possession of homes and maintain them within community standards once the repossess them.
  • Order the Justice Department to actually enforce laws against fraud in the financial industries. This means indictments and jail time for a lot of people who have committing crimes.
  • Reinstitute Clinton era tax rates for income over 250k and add a new tax bracket for income over one million.
  • Raise the tax rate for capital gains to 18 or 20 percent.
  • Eliminate Cayman style tax loopholes for corporations. All money made in the US will be taxed in the US, regardless of where a company is legally incorporated. Once this loophole is closed, the on-paper tax rate for corporations should be able to be lowered about five percent while still increasing revenue.
  • Eliminate subsidies for the oil industry and corporate farms. Review all other industry subsidies and tax exemptions to identify and eliminate outright giveaways to healthy industries while preserving incentive programs for new industries (such as clean energy).
  • Raise the price of grazing and logging leases of public land so that it matches the market price on private land.
  • Return the estate tax to Clinton era levels (adjusted for inflation).
  • Reduce the military budget by 25% over the next five years. This will be achieved by getting rid of unnecessary new weapon systems, including star wars and nuclear weapon programs that violate the spirit of our treaty obligations; by eliminating no-bid contracts; by closing some overseas and at home bases; by not replacing some ships as they end their period of service; and by winding down the war in Afghanistan. VA hospitals, mental health, and enlisted personnel pay will not be on the chopping block.
  • Change the payroll tax (Social Security) so that the rich contribute for their entire income, including capital gains. If that isn't enough to guarantee that the system is fully funded until 2060, raise the payroll tax and cut income tax by an equivalent amount for the middle and working class.
  • Create a massive investment/jobs program focused on the transportation infrastructure, especially bridge safety and railroad expansion.
  • Increase the budget for Pell Grants, student loans, and other programs to make college affordable.
  • Order Congress to create a single payer basic healthcare system to be fully functional in five years. A robust public option must be in place by the end of the year as a transitional step.
  • Get rid of any restrictions on abortion that are not on any other legal procedure. In effect this means, yes, Medicaid and the new national health insurance will pay for it. Individual pharmacists will not be allowed to refuse to fill legal prescriptions if their pharmacy stocks the drugs. I'm open to suggestions about how to deal with parental notification for minors.
  • Ban assault rifles and long clips. Make it harder to buy hand guns. Allow states and cities to have tougher laws if they want (there's your 10th Amendment, tea partiers). Close the gun show loophole. However, I would not require registration of all guns or institute a total ban on handguns.
  • Coordinate with the Mexican government to stop the flow of guns into Mexico and drugs into the US.
  • Legalize and tax domestically grown pot. This move would hurt the drug cartels in Mexico, reduce the number of Americans in prison, create a new crop for tobacco farmers, provide revenue to the federal government, and make those nice hemp shirts cheaper.
  • Reduce prison and jail time for drug possession and transfer more people into treatment programs.
  • Create an easy path to citizenship for adults who came here illegally as children and a process for undocumented adults with clean records to get legal immigrant status without risk of deportation.
  • Get rid of the enemy combatant concept. POWs are entitled to all of the rights established by the Geneva Accords and other treaty obligations of the United States.
  • Reinstitute all of the rights guaranteed under the 4th through 8th Amendments. Everyone subject to US jurisdiction is entitled to a Miranda warning, an indictment, and a swift trial under civilian laws. This includes non-citizens and people suspected of terrorist connections.
  • End Warrantless wire-tapping and internet eves-dropping.
  • Repeal the Defense of Marriage act and all state laws and constitutional amendments against gay marriage. Legalize gay marriage. Make abundantly clear that legal marriage contracts have nothing to do with religious marriage.
  • Get rid of the Office of Faith Based Initiatives and wind down all of its contracts.
  • Order the Pentagon to make sure that the separation of church and state is scrupulously observed in all branches of the military. This means getting rid of the spiritual fitness exam in the Army, punishing religious based harassment, and pensioning off any members of the Chaplin's Corps who do not acknowledge that their mission is to give comfort to enlisted members who seek it, not to carry out some evangelical agenda of their own.
  • Order the DOJ to enforce laws against electioneering by churches and revoke the tax-exempt status of churches that refuse to obey the law.
  • Reverse the Citizens United decision and order full funding disclosure by groups engaged in politics.
  • Hold a statehood vote in DC and abide by their decision.
  • Revise the Senate rules to get rid of holds--except for the old style two-senator veto on Judaical appointments--and eliminate the filibuster for everything except final floor votes, and then require a single member spoken filibuster.
  • Increase NASA's budget for unmanned exploration and space based telescopes.
  • Open trade negotiations with Cuba and get rid of all barriers to travel.

All of these items are matters of policy and law that could be done by the right administration and congress. There is nothing on my list that is petty or personal or that would fall under any of the traditional definitions of tyrannical (if I was going to do that, I would round up most of the Washington pundit class, Fox News talking heads, and talk radio loudmouths, stick them in small apartments in blue cities, and force them to try to get with only non-union, minimum wage work for the year). No changes to the constitution or to our system of government would be required to accomplish any of these things--with the exception of reversing a Supreme Court decision.

I'll leave constitutional and structural changes for another post. What's in your SOTU?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What's your damn point

By now you've probably heard that the House Republicans have finished their healthcare repeal stunt. Maybe they'll be able to milk another round of Sunday talk shows out of it or maybe not. But then what? It's a stunt. Nothing practical is going to come of it. The Senate is not going to pass the necessary equivalent legislation for the healthcare bill to be repealed and Obama would veto the repeal even they did. In effect, they've wasted two days of the taxpayers' time and money to hold a party pep rally. The vote is a propaganda exercise and not a very good one at that. They needed to hold this repeal vote to show the base and the tea partiers that they are good for their promises. With the rest of the electorate, this stunt may actually hurt them. They backed themselves into a corner by having made this a major campaign promise.

As campaign rhetoric, Republican talk of death panels and bureaucrats getting between us and our doctors worked well enough; I have no doubt that their fear mongering gained them a few votes among less informed and easily panicked voters. Voters usually give politicians a break on campaign hyperbole. We're less forgiving when the lies continue after the election. As part of the lead up this stunt, Republicans have continued to spew those tired lies and added a new one about the healthcare bill: it will cost 650,000 jobs. Having used the phrase "job killing" in the title of their bill, they needed a number to throw around. They chose a nice big one that is, however, based on nothing.

While this bit of theater allowed the Republicans to claim that they delivered on one promise, that have failed on another. Their promise was to "repeal and replace." They have no replacement legislation lined up. None. They have accepted, at least partially, the idea that the healthcare system in America needs improvement, but they are totally silent on what they would do to improve it. Suppose they had won a veto and filibuster right out of the gate, what would they be doing now? Nothing. This is the sad state of the Republican Party these days. Ever since the Gingrich-DeLay revolution of 1994, the Party has not only moved to the far right, but the leadership has changed from politicians who understood issues and who could make policy to those who can only manage politics. Boehner, McConnell, and the others in leadership positions are adept at keeping the caucus in line and on theme, but they are unable to make legislation. During their 2001-07 majority, they were only able to push through legislation handed to them by others. They carried out orders issued by Bush's people or by lobbyists from privileged industries. All they have right now are orders to tear down the accomplishments of the last congress. Cut taxes. Get rid of regulatory protections. Dismantle and privatise the social safety net. These are all negative actions. They don't have a positive program for anything.

Now their lies, theater, and lack of ideas are going to begin to hurt them. The Senate is not going to pass its own repeal bill and the program is going to stay on the books for the next two years. During that time, people are going to get used to the better provisions of the bill. As seniors get used to having the hated donut hole finally out of their way, the Democrats will keep reminding them that it was the reform bill that got rid of it and that the Republican repeal would have re-opened it. If the Republicans say they also wanted to close the hole then the Democrats will ask, then why did you vote both against closing it and for re-opening it. The same conversation will be had over pre-existing conditions and over parents keeping their young adult children on the family policy. Over the next two years as the death panels, total socialistic takeover, and 650,000 lost jobs* fail to materialize, their hyperbole will be revealed for the ridiculous scare mongering that it is. By the next election cycle, the Republican position will be a definite liability with all but the most conservative and partisan constituencies.

If the Democrats are smart--and, against all precedent, they are showing signs that they might be--they will continue to harp on the destructive nature of the Republican program and on the popular aspects of the bill. The election of 2012 is not something that we can ignore until next year, after the presidential primaries. The internet empowers us all to be opposition researchers and fact checkers. It is our job to remember what the Republicans say and do and hold them accountable. We need to be the ones to press them on this every time they appear in public. When Democratic challengers appear next year, we need to make sure they pursue these points. Even if we live in in nice Democratic districts, we can harass Republicans with letters to the editor in their hometown papers and through all the channels that the Internet provides us. Never forget. Never forgive.

* I almost hate to say this out loud, but there is a small silver lining for the Republicans on that point. Kieth Olbermann and others have already taken to greeting John Boehner with a rousing chorus of "where are the jobs?" every time he shows his face. The economy suck and it's going to continue to suck for a long time. But there has been some small improvement and things are glacially moving in a better direction. After claiming that everything wrong with the economy over the last two years was the direct result of Democrats being in power and that everything would get better if they were returned to power, they now have to deliver. Jon Kyl already made a comical effort to pad their score by taking credit for all of the improvements of the last year. His "logic" is that the tax policies they are going to enact later this year, encouraged businesses last year--or something like that. Boehner might be able to use their failure to repeal the healthcare bill as cover for his inability to generate any significant numbers of jobs. He can claim that he really did create the jobs, but that his achievements were cancelled out by the job killing healthcare law. Watch for it.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Let's congratulate the GOP on their new chairman

Reince Priebus. That doesn't sound very American. Has anyone checked his birth certificate?

Thursday, January 06, 2011

They said, please crawl away and die quietly

Currently, it takes a laid off worker over 55 five weeks longer to find a new job--if they find one at all--than it does someone under 55. Many experts tell us we should just get used to the fact we will never work again. That's nice for those securely employed experts to say. They don't tell us how to keep our homes or even how to live if we never work again. I'm 54 and unemployed.