Saturday, August 16, 2014

TFP Column: Getting Off The Bus

(Contrary to all logic and reason, I have decided to put new material up on this blog, but only in the form of the columns that I have done for the Toledo Free Press.  This is done for the benefit of those with time to waste, who likewise do not spend their time reading the website of this award winning weekly newspaper, and I will go back and add efforts that were published earlier this year.)

This particular effort was published on 02/10/2014.

There’s news on the street that in spite of putting forward a position paper two weeks ago on the ground rules for taking on comprehensive immigration reform legislation in the current session, Republicans have reconsidered and are now saying that it’s unlikely such legislation will occur this year.

Some believe that the difficulty lies in tackling such an effort in a year when most Congress members (Democrats and Republicans alike) are far too busy raising money for re-election campaigns.  Others say Republicans are refusing to take up legislation likely to add voters to Democratic voting rolls. Still others believe there’s no point in passing new legislation on the subject when its likely the president will take up his pen, his phone and his Justice Department in the selective enforcement of whatever makes its way to his desk for signature. (Can you say Dream Act?)

Like the multiple reasons that may now be standing in the way of its passage, such comprehensive legislation is often known by a variety of names. Omnibus, for example. The term may seem rather innocent, being often defined as an anthology of works or laws related in theme. In the hands of a twisted national legislature however, a more malevolent interpretation has been adopted. Washington D.C.’s nefarious definition of Omnibus in fact, instead seems to mean:

“A comprehensive list of rules and regulations ostensibly related to a given subject (however tenuously) in such a way so as to obscure both its original meaning and ultimate purpose so well that often even those who propose them no longer have any idea what they mean, nor of the laws of unintended consequences that will inevitably subvert and outweigh any potential benefits that might have accrued as a result of its passage.”   

Why, it was only last week that the president signed the latest bipartisan example of such a nightmare in the form of a 949-page, $956 billion Farm Bill. Twenty percent of the almost $1 trillion over 10 years will serve as belated Christmas gifts to the top four percent of the nation’s corporate agribusinesses for producing things like rice, peanuts and catfish  (with a little left to help Christmas tree farmers). A closer examination might reveal  enough pork included in this particular bus to make it ride more like the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile.

As for the other 80 percent of the funding, it’s reserved to cover the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (known as the SNAP, or the food stamp program). While this latest version surprisingly cuts the budget for SNAP, it does so only after allowing it to become a program whose costs have increased 358 percent (from $17 billion to $78 billion) since 2000.

Many however, still wonder why two such dissimilar routes are served by the same omnibus.  It’s said that Democrats like massive entitlement programs and hate subsidies while Republicans can’t resist corporate handouts and hate entitlements. Combining them therefore insures its continued bipartisan support.

Some however, try to deny the political machinations involved. It cannot be denied for example, that some of the things bought with SNAP cards are in fact food. Likewise, some of the agribusinesses receiving subsidies (unlike Fruit of the Loom) actually grow it. Similarly, like all large government programs, this one serving two masters shares the common issues of enormous waste, gross mismanagement and significant fraud.

Of course for those who may have forgotten (which hardly seems possible), we’re still dealing another example of Omnibus legislation: “The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” commonly know as Obamacare.  Almost three years after this 2,400 page health care conveyance was created in March 2010, it has run off the road, crashed and burned and probably had more riders thrown under it than carried by it (only after picking them up late).

One can’t help but wonder then why some complain Congress doesn’t pass as many laws in each session as they used to nor take up as much comprehensive legislation. Equally surprising is their disappointment when the Omnibus process for something as important immigration reform stalls. 

Some call it failure and the natural result of the bitter partisanship in a divided Congress. Others call it the inherent laziness of politicians more concerned with keeping their jobs than doing them. While both are probably true enough, I instead consider it a fortunate circumstance indeed when either party decides to step back from the curb and refuse to get on yet another omnibus. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

TFP Column: Contradictory Laws Equal Confused Country

(Contrary to all logic and reason, I have decided to put new material up on this blog, but only in the form of the columns that I have done for the Toledo Free Press.  This is done for the benefit of those with time to waste, who likewise do not spend their time reading the website of this award winning weekly newspaper, and I will go back and add efforts that were published earlier this year.)

This particular effort was published today on 08/11/2014.

Many will tell you that the United States is the greatest country in the world. They believe so in large part because this nation, (at least in theory) under the framework of the Constitution, lives under the “Rule of Law.”

Now for those unfamiliar with this principle, this means this nation is governed under the pre-eminence of its laws, and not under the primacy of any individual or group of individuals. Laws however, have an internal supremacy of their own.

Municipalities like Toledo, for example, have city councils with the ability to write and pass laws, which go into effect if the mayor signs and doesn’t veto them. Those rights are guaranteed under the principle of “Home Rule,” granted under Article XVIII of the Ohio Constitution. Article XVIII however, states: “Municipalities shall have authority to exercise all powers of local self-government and to adopt and enforce within their limits such local police, sanitary and other similar regulations, as are not in conflict with general laws,” — which is written vaguely enough to make it a constant subject of judicial, if not political, interpretation. Translated from “lawyer-speak,” it means that a city can write laws for itself only as long as the state and nation agree that such laws don’t conflict with state or federal law.

Confused yet? Then let’s talk about the state level, where legislators play much the same game. Like their municipal counterparts, laws can be whatever is passed by the state legislature and signed by the governor. Once completed, however, state law has the potential to make local laws obsolete or superfluous, under the conflict portion of Article XVIII. But that’s not the end.

The efforts of the states in turn are themselves subject to the same fate under the supremacy of federal laws under Article VI of the Constitution. Known in fact as the “Supremacy Clause” it states: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.” (I know, blah, blah, blah …) Remove the legal gibberish however, and it makes clear that when under judicial review, federal law shall deemed the Supreme “Law of the Land.”

This is where it gets even more confusing. Not only does the president, like the governor at the state level, have the ability to sign or veto legislation submitted to him by the legislature, but lately he seems to feel he has the power to change or delay implementation of certain politically inconvenient provisions in spite of “shall vs. may” language within it (something we’ll have to go into in another effort). More importantly, it’s the executive branch and the president’s attorney general at the Department of Justice (DOJ) that’s ultimately responsible for enforcing federal law.

During the current administration there’s been some confusion, contradiction and what might even be seen as arbitrary behavior where such enforcement is concerned. The current DOJ sees no voting rights violation when a couple of Black Panthers with clubs stand outside a polling place in Pennsylvania, but does see it in a Wisconsin requirement for photo ID and in Ohio where providing absentee ballots and 28 days of early voting is apparently insufficient protection.

The DOJ challenged Arizona (and won) for passing a state law to allow its local and state constabulary to enforce existing federal immigration law when the federal government seemed unable or unwilling to do so. (Texas’s governor just recently deployed the Texas National Guard to assist border enforcement in his state and we have yet to see if this too will be challenged.)
And then there’s pot …

The DOJ insisted on the supremacy of federal drug laws early on when challenging “medical” marijuana use in California, but has recently seemed rather timid regarding recent state laws for recreational use in Colorado and Washington.

Inconsistent and contradictory federal enforcement of the Supremacy Clause seems the most generous way of describing the current situation. Does this erratic and unpredictable legal philosophy leave us confused as a nation, one ripe for both abuse and for legal challenge? Yes. Worse yet, it also makes it more likely that regardless of what you do (even if that’s nothing at all), you could well be guilty of something.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

TFP Column: Climate Change Denier

(Contrary to all logic and reason, I have decided to put new material up on this blog, but only in the form of the columns that I have done for the Toledo Free Press.  This is done for the benefit of those with time to waste, who likewise do not spend their time reading the website of this award winning weekly newspaper, and I will go back and add efforts that were published earlier this year.)

This particular effort was published on 03/07/2014.

I hereby freely admit to being a climate change denier. I’ve listened to all the accounts, from the news readers to the opinions of pundits, and have read some of the limited amount of scholarly work on the subject. I find nothing in this body of work to convince me the issues involved are anywhere near settled. Further, I deny that the arguments put forward on the subject appear to have any merit.

This is not to say I disagree that the climate is changing. Instead, I’m convinced the changes occurring are little more than trends and natural movements that occur over time. Little if any of this movement appears to be man-made nor do man’s actions seem to have any significant effect on it.

Now for those of you already composing hate mail to me or to TFP Editor in Chief Michael S. Miller and canceling your free subscription, I’m talking about the political climate.

In spite of the endless stories (especially recently) regarding this notion of political climate change, little of it seems to actually be occurring. Some insist that the apparent cooling coming from the “Alphabet Fallout” cloud of the NSA and the IRS must surely prove the theory. Others are sure the “Benghazi Effect” and what it’s done to heat things up before the next election should be proof for all to see. Still others disregard these contradictory temperature claims and instead talk about the growing holes in the “Obamacare Layer” as proof that far-reaching and permanent political climate change is imminent. Nonsense!

Some even erroneously cite so-called statistical proof, using the alarming disapproval rate earned by Congress. Such claims are greatly exaggerated. While it’s true the current legislature carries a spectacularly low approval rating of 17 percent, the dirty little secret is Congress’ approval rate has seldom risen above 30 percent in the past 40 years.

Don’t get me wrong. The political tide certainly appears to be rising for the GOP, but this movement hardly seems permanent and may be a trend that ends with the 2014 election cycle (if not sooner). Part of this is because Democrats (and their media minions) seem far better at telling their story than their opponents, even when that tale is largely fiction. The rest, however, is because of the unfailing ability of the GOP leadership to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. (Can you say John McCain or Mitt Romney?)

Scholars have for years attempted to tell us that our nation is a center-right electorate. History shows us, however, that when the current group of neoconservatives in the Republican Party wins, they celebrate by apologizing to their opponents before moving in their direction, making that victory little more than a Pyrrhic one.

Instead of becoming evidence of change, such results are more likely to prove its absence. They highlight the inability of today’s political climate to show real change, regardless of who’s in charge. This entire process is reinforced by a plurality of low-information voters who seldom look beyond name recognition in choosing candidates, regardless of party affiliation or prior performance.

Available data, as determined by the length of Congressional service, tends to support this. Rep. Marcy Kaptur’s interminable 31 years in office, for example, doesn’t even rank in the top 100 on the historical “Groundhog Day” list of service in the national legislature. Michigan Rep. John Dingell currently holds the title of Congress’ “never-ending gobstopper,” but plans to retire this year after an uninterrupted 59-year tenure. Rumor has it his legacy will likely be carried on with his younger wife (a lobbyist) attempting a move from understudy to title role, and cashing in on said name recognition in her run for the open seat.

The climate of politics is not something easily influenced by the rhetoric of its participants, the heat of the issues nor the apparent coolness of the electorate to its representatives. It is perhaps far too placid (if not flaccid) to have its tides easily stirred. Those of you thinking you see a sea change coming, with a permanent rise in the depth of the Republican Party (especially that of some of its conservative elements) — think again. Wild and unproven theories may continue to exist, but real political climate change can and should be utterly denied.