Oct 062010
United States Senate Action on Cloture Motions.
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Article first published as Can Republican Obstructionism be Morally Justified? on Technorati.

In 2008, our nation experienced the most devastating blow to the economy in nearly 80 years. When President Obama took office, the country was hemorrhaging nearly 600,000 jobs per month, and instead of helping address the crisis, the Republicans in the Congress united to obstruct any and all actions taken by Democrats. This complete refusal of an entire party to participate in the process of government is without precedent. Is there really any moral justification for self-serving obstructionism?

The only action taken by the Congress that enjoyed widespread Republican support was the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), which was initiated under President Bush and served mostly to save the Wall Street banks and protect the profits of the very wealthy. But once Obama took the helm, regardless of the fact that unemployment was already at 7.6% and climbing, the Republicans, to the person, decided that their chances for reelection and a return to power were better served by blocking or at least stalling any legislation to promote economic recovery.

The Stimulus was the first major effort of the Congress to help middle and working class Americans. With 3.6 million jobs already lost in the recession, the Democrats were quick to assemble some form of relief. The legislation could certainly have been better formed, but instead of offering thoughtful amendment, instead of participating in the process of government they were elected to serve, the Republicans sat on the sidelines and used the media to launch every form of unsubstantiated ridicule and criticism they could muster. Even to this date, and in spite of the widespread acknowledgment of positive impact by economists, Republicans still attack the stimulus without substance.

But this was just the beginning. On and on the story went, with Republicans in both chambers working against anything that might prove beneficial to the average American. With 47 million people not covered with health insurance, the Republicans fought healthcare reform, and arguably prevented a system that could have reduced costs from being implemented. With the financial system that created the collapse of the economy still intact, Republicans fought against legislation to plug the holes and prevent a similar crash from occurring in the future.

Republicans in Congress fought against job aid to the states. They blocked lifting of the cap on liability for BP’s Gulf oil disaster. They obstructed the closing of loopholes to prevent further offshoring of American jobs; they filibustered small business stimulus; they’ve even set records for the blocking of presidential appointments. There really is no doubt that the Republican agenda, as set by the Party leader when President Obama was elected, Rush Limbaugh, is to do everything in their power to ensure that the President fails — no matter what the cost to average Americans.

Without a filibuster, House Republicans have been unable to obstruct at the level of their party brethren in the Senate. As a result of this discrepancy, the current Congress has passed 420 pieces of legislation through the House of Representatives that are presently stalled in a Senate where the Republican minority filibusters anything and everything, just because it can.

The Senate filibuster, which was insightfully omitted from the Constitution by the Founding Fathers for exactly the reasons of obstruction we now see being played out, has only existed in its present form since 1917.  But after decades of sparing use, the last two Republican minorities have made the filibuster much more prevalent in the Senate than the vote. The last Republican minority set the all-time record for filibusters at 139, but the present crop wasted no time in trying to keep up. Those 420 blocked bills are the result of 118 filibusters through the middle of September.

Over the course of going on two years of a Democratic Presidency and Congress, the Republicans have found nothing that they could support as a party. They have been the categorical “Party of No,” and have not joined the majority in passing a single piece of major legislation to address the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression. Things are so bad that the Republican minority even recently blocked defense spending.

The only thing that Republicans have joined together to support since Bush’s TARP is the extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. But of course, even this support only materialized in opposition to the Democratic position to extend the cuts for only the middle class.

Republican voters need to ask themselves whether or not they really want to support a party that will fight to protect the rich, that will even promote the falsehood that tax cuts for the rich benefit anyone but the rich. They need to ask themselves if they really want to support a party that will deliberately obstruct the very process of government they are sworn to protect. And most importantly, they need to ask themselves if they can support the utterly immoral tactic taken by Republicans to sit idly by and allow Americans to suffer so that they could improve their chances of regaining political power.

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Oct 012010
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The Tuesday debate between Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman illuminated the drastic contrast between the two candidates. It was a classic battle of public servant versus business tycoon. The two combatants presented diametrically opposing views on most topics, but nowhere was the contrast more stark than in their divergent commitment to honesty.

To his credit, Jerry Brown shared his beliefs and priorities in a direct and sincere manner. It’s unlikely that he won over any supporters with his eloquence or flawless articulation, as he did spend a fair amount of time sputtering and at times trailed off into incomplete thoughts. But all things considered, it’s hard to see how viewers who hadn’t already made up their minds would not be at least somewhat captivated by his frankness.

The current Attorney General spoke on both his past record and his plans for the future with openness and candor. When asked about his personal pension, currently due to be over $78,000, he replied that at age 72, he was “the best pension buy California has ever seen,” and he added that should he win in November, the buy would get even better. And at only 20 minutes into the debate, Brown was just getting warmed up with a personable style that would show throughout the event.

Brown’s absence of guile even touched the sharp edge of fumbling when asked why Californians should trust his commitment to the state in light of his past flirtations with the presidency. The former 3-time presidential candidate’s response was a candid “Age! You know if I was younger, I’d run again.” But Brown didn’t leave it there. Instead, he continued, “Now I have a wife, so I’m home at night and don’t try to close the bars in Sacramento.” Endearing? Possibly. Foot in his mouth? At least a couple toes. Honest? There is no doubt.

Most of the debate proceeded in similar fashion, with Brown often shooting from the hip and Whitman being more scripted and sticking to her talking points. But the real fulcrum for revealing their individual veracity came on a question from a college student asking Brown if he would roll back UC and CSU fee hikes from recent years. Brown’s response was “Not my first year, not with a $19 billion deficit. We have to get real here.” His answer was certainly not what the student wanted to hear, but it may have very well been music to the ears of those who want real solutions.

When the same question was posed to Whitman, the former eBay CEO seemed to forget about the state’s deficit and spoke instead of her plans to add $1 billion to higher education. She did take the time to elaborate on the topic, revealing that she would get the money from cuts in welfare, but failed to explain why she wouldn’t apply the savings to the budget shortfall. She also failed to be honest about the situation with welfare in California.

Whitman’s spin on the welfare issue is indicative of her general attitude toward the truth. California’s welfare state being a talking point of her campaign, she reiterated her “facts” on the matter at the debate. The situation according to Whitman is that the welfare problem in California is so bad that there are five times more welfare cases than in New York but only double the population. This really does reflect a problem, only the problem is with Ms. Whitman’s penchant for skewed “facts” and wild spin.

California’s population is indeed roughly twice as large as New York’s, but that’s about the full extent to which Whitman’s “facts” and the truth actually coincide. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there are a whopping 1.4 million recipients of welfare in California and only 389,586 in New York, for a ratio of 3.6:1. Still significantly higher than the corresponding population ratio but not the 5x multiplier pushed by Whitman. The truth is that Whitman’s deception is based upon completely ignoring New York’s separate state welfare program (SSP) and looking solely at their TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) recipients — a completely disingenuous comparison, since the combined TANF/SSP totals are what impacts the state budget.

And Whitman’s skewing of the caseload numbers doesn’t even begin to convey the degree of her dishonesty. Misinformation Meg relies on the New York welfare comparison to frame a picture of an out of control California government and the dire need for fiscal reform. She uses a distorted caseload number to make her point but oddly never mentions expenditures. Why? Because based on the most recent data available, New York spent nearly as much on public welfare as California. The 2008 totals were $33.4 million compared to $35 million. New York’s per capita expense was $1,710, and California’s a comparatively meager $955.

This much focus on Whitman’s distortion of the welfare story may seem a bit much. If it was an isolated instance, it could appropriately be overlooked, but such is not the case. The truth is that Queen Meg’s deception has been evidenced consistently throughout her campaign. Her ads openly attack Jerry Brown on his record as governor, lying about his records on taxes and jobs. She pretends to be factual on his record as mayor of Oakland but instead presents a fictitious tale of slander. She lies about state spending, talks out of both sides of her mouth on immigration, posits fallacious nonsense about tax cuts and job creation, spins some seriously illegitimate yarns on California’s business situation and does it all with conviction and a smile.

Politicians in general are not known for their truthfulness, so maybe Meg Whitman has just come down with a serious case of politi-deception-itus. Whatever the case, the Red Queen seems completely unable to curtail her deceit and refrain from perverting the truth. When it comes to Whitman, the old joke seems to fit like a glove: how do you tell when Meg Whitman is lying? That’s right — just look and see if her lips are moving.

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Sep 302010

Tuesday night Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman met for the first time in a political debate at U.C. Davis. Immediately thereafter, pundits and bloggers far and wide started offering their opinions on the outcome. Although, since there really was no clear winner, the pundit’s opinions are rather irrelevant. Fortunately for Californians, winner or not, there was clear direction.

The two candidates vying for the office of Governor of California presented near polar opposite positions and proposals for how they would govern. Jerry Brown touted his long career in politics and his extensive experience working with government. Meg Whitman positioned herself as a political outsider well suited to effect change. Both spoke to their concern over the state budget and jobs, but each shared drastically different approaches on how they would deal with the issues.

Jerry Brown talked about cutting red tape, focusing on green technology and protecting education. Meg Whitman also said she would cut bureaucracy, but focused on her plan to cut taxes for the rich, suspend environmental regulations and was largely silent on K-12 education. Both candidates were light on details, which can be expected in a debate, but neither left any doubt as to the approach they will take as governor.

The Brown plan to address the budget will begin with bringing representatives from all state agencies together to discuss how 15% to 20% can be cut from operations. Brown stated that he knows the inner workings of Sacramento and will lead the way with an 18% reduction for the governor’s office. He also cited the need for a state salary commission to address compensation issues.

Whitman offered no details on how she would reduce state spending, other than cuts to welfare and state jobs, but repeatedly made references to how she would bring Silicon Valley managerial expertise to Sacramento. This sounds good at first blush, although one might be left wondering how said “expertise” might fit in a government environment. The tech center’s claim to fame doesn’t stem from legendary efficiency or frugality but rather from high pay, 100% paid healthcare, and happy employees. Does she plan on bringing Google style cuisine and open pet policies to state offices? Perhaps eBay’s de-stressing and meditation rooms will help reduce costs?

When asked about the issue of escalating state pension costs, which have increased from 12% of total spending to 13.9% over the past decade and continue to grow, Brown reminded voters that he pushed for a 2-tier system back in 1982, and that when he left office, retirement was calculated based on a 3-year salary average, not the present single highest year. The former governor stated clearly that retirement ages would have to go up.

Ms. Whitman responded to the same question by first attacking Brown’s ability to address pensions while receiving campaign donations from employee unions. When asked again what she would do, her response was to raise the retirement age from 55 to 65 and implement a “401K type” system to replace the current defined benefits. When pushed for how she would make this happen, she said that she would try to negotiate. But then taking one from Arnold’s failed playbook, she suggested that a ballot initiative would serve as her backup plan.

The candidates displayed vastly different styles, with Brown being the much more personable and Whitman seeming canned and rehearsed, but the true contrast was even more evident on the topic of jobs. Brown proposed a continued focus on investment in the green sector, claiming that California was once the leader in renewable energy and can be again. He talked about building out the grid, and when pushed on jobs outside of green, spoke to the cumulative effects of roofing and other energy-based retrofits, which would fuel construction jobs — the place where California is hurting the worst.

According to Meg Whitman, jobs are her main focus. But her plan is vintage Bush — the president with the worst job creation record in modern history. The former head of eBay claims that her plan will create 2 million jobs, yet its single most significant proposal is a cut in capital gains tax. The cut would take as much as $10.8 billion from state revenues, of which, according to Brown, 82% would be pocketed by people making over $500,000. Both economic theory and historical record refute Whitman’s claim that such a move will have any significant effect on job creation.

The entire debate went back and forth in a similar manner, with Brown relying on his record, and Whitman taking every opportunity to defame it. Brown repeatedly asserted that Whitman is the best friend of the rich, and Whitman fought back that Brown was married to employee unions. Other distinctions were made including Brown’s support of a path to legalization for illegal immigrants and Whitman’s opposition, but the real dividing line was drawn along the traditional Democrat/Republican positions.

In the end, other than reinforcing concerns regarding Queen Meg’s continued proclivity for half-truth and distortion, the debate should have solidified existing voter opinion on the two candidates. All Californians know that jobs and the budget are our most important concerns, so the decision will likely depend on who appears more capable of addressing the issues.

Come November, voters must decide between a very pro-business, champion of the wealthy who still purports to believe in trickle-down economics, or a career politician with an excellent record for fiscal conservatism and a commitment to advance California’s leadership in renewable energy and green technology. The choice couldn’t be more clear.

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