Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Bridge to Nowhere: Are “Earmarks” All That BAD?

I have fallen way behind in reading the hard copy magazines that I get. The Nov. 3 issue of Newsweek, that arrived in late October, contains a very useful and informative explanation of the most famous earmarked project in the last decade or so: the doomed “Bridge to Nowhere.”

Its author is the newly elected Mayor of Ketchican, Alaska, the 14,000 resident town that the bridge would have connected to its airport across the narrows – and connected the town to the only developable relatively flat land anywhere near to Ketchican. Ketchikan, as small as it is, is the fourth largest city in Alaska. I have no particular brief for this project and its outlandish expense, but it is worth reading a well thought out, courteous and clear article from “the other side.” You can read this short article HERE.

As the mayor-elect, Dave Kiffer, points out, earmarks were once not seen as simply “pork” but as a way that the elected Representative or Senator from an area could try to meet, in a timely fashion, the felt needs of his or her constituents. They were seen as a way to meet urgent needs that the Federal bureaucracy was both too slow and too unspecific to process in an efficient way.

Earmarks, he says, currently account for only about 1% of the total Federal Budget. I didn’t track the veracity of that remark, but it sounds about right. During the campaign for President, critics of John McCain argued that his pledge to eliminate earmarks and pork, while a noble idea, could, at best, eliminate only about $18 billion dollars of expense a year. That is not an insignificant amount but it pales in comparison to the annual Federal Budget.

Long before I read Kiffer’s article I have thought that, for me at least, the issue of earmarks and so-called pork was less about the need to take a general stand against this “evil,” but rather the problem was that some earmarks seemed to be, and probably were, frivolous, or worse, payoffs to lobbies and corporations for favors done for the congressman/woman.

Concurrently, I felt that there is a gross unfairness as to who is able to get earmarks and who is not. Committee Chairmen are in position to easily get earmarks, particularly those of the Appropriations and Ways and Means committees. And seniority plays a huge roll in deciding who gets a cut of the pie. Junior and short term members of Congress usually get just a few, relatively low cost, projects. They have, it seems, to ‘pay their dues” and “do the time” to get a larger piece of the pork pie. Part of that paying of dues over time turns into mutual backscratching and gaining access to the system to know which bills to attach the pork to and which bills are going nowhere.

The best bills to attach earmarks to are, of course, bills that are urgently needed for other important and popular causes which means that, since the President does not have an line item veto authority, those bills are likely to get passed and signed. It has been a rare President indeed who would risk, for example, vetoing a bill that, if vetoed would literally run the government out of money. It has happened, but it is rare.

A line item veto would be of some help, but is not the panacea that many think. For example, when the same party controls both the White House and the Congress it is possible to laden an otherwise good bill with tons of pork with the assurance that the line item veto would not be used.

I would be interested in hearing from OS members their ideas about what should be done about pork barrel projects and other earmarks.

Keeping in mind that our representative democracy is founded on the assumption that our representatives and senators know best the needs are of the area they represent, should earmarks be done away with totally?

Here is a possibility that I think might be worth trying. Rather than doing away with all earmarks and pork, why not allocate a sum of money each year to each Representative and Senator to be spent on projects that he or she thinks would best meet the urgent needs of his or her constituents? The amount could be based on some formula, like the population of districts and states, with a minimum amount per state and district so that even the smallest states and districts would get some money to spend. Its just a thought, and its not thought through, but something along these lines could solve the problem of backscratching and inequitable allocation of earmarks that we see today.

What do you think about this whole issue?


Obama, the CENTRIST: How will the Liberal Left Feel?

Yesterday Randy Smith blogged "Chill, conservatives...Obama wont be as bad as you suspect." He is certainly correct in that assessment. But there will be some very right wing nuts who will think Obama is the incarnation of Satan and will hate the very idea of him being President, regardless of the good he may do.

Frankly, I really have very little patience or tolerance for fools, so that doesn't bother me much.

What I am concerned about is how some in the far left liberal base in the Democratic Party will feel that Obama somehow "owes" them something since they supported his candidacy from the earliest days. I would remind them that so did I and many others who are simply slightly left of center.

These far left voices are the same voices who clamored so loudly back in the primaries and during the nail biting times in the general election for him to be more harsh in response to Republican attacks, and to be more specific about precisely what leftist social and economic agendas that he supported. These are the ones who were sure that he was squandering the chance to win and that he was going down in flames if he did not do what they insisted was the "right" way to handle this campaign.

What interests me most is that Obama himself never, ever, said or did anything that should have led them to conclude that he would govern very far left of center. In fact his entire campaign championed the need to move away from red and blue stereotypes toward a more unified America. That was the essence of his speech at the convention in 2004 and that was the essence of his speech last night.

The canard that he was the "most liberal" senator in the nation was mostly a product of Republican talking points and totally ignored what Obama himself always said about that: that the vast majority of those votes were cast because Bush was always pushing a neo-con agenda and trying to shove the country ever further right.

A President Obama owes us no more and no less than what he promised: a uniting of the nation, a fair deal to the working and middle classes, and the renewal of an America that engages the world with both strength and a willingness for cooperation among friends, and a hostility to those who would do us harm.

If anyone doubts that Obama will govern only a small distance left of center, but clearly with a left/center lean, I would just suggest that they go to the Obama/Biden web site and click on "issues." In my almost 70 years on this planet I have seen no other candidate outline as clearly as Obama has just what he intends to do. And what he intends cannot make every left liberal happy. But their unhappiness cannot logically come because "they didn't know” that Obama was so moderate.

In a way it reminds me of when I worked in the Executive Office of the President under Kennedy and Johnson: many were surprised at how hawkish Kennedy was and how liberal Johnson was. Johnson was the one who was able to carry to fruition the languishing Kennedy legislative agenda. Many then were shocked at how Johnson governed. But he, like Obama, was always up front about his stances on civil rights and other vital social issues.

It will be interesting to watch Obama work with both parties and to begin to rebuild a true and effective center to our political system. For the last 8 years our center has collapsed in on itself and partisanship has ruled, resulting in a nastiness within the body politic which has been both unseemly and disgusting. My hope is that those days are over.


New Stimulus Package Should NOT Go Directly to Individuals

From my Open Salon Blog: OCTOBER 31, 2008 11:35AM

Paul Krugman has an interesting column in today's New York Times called "When Consumers Capitulate." You can read the full column HERE.

He argues that consumers are beginning to do the long term right thing by tightening their belts and paying down debt, but that, ironically, they are doing it precisely when the health of the economy needs them to spend. Krugman concludes:

"The capitulation of the American consumer, then, is coming at a particularly bad time. But it’s no use whining. What we need is a policy response.

The ongoing efforts to bail out the financial system, even if they work, won’t do more than slightly mitigate the problem. Maybe some consumers will be able to keep their credit cards, but as we’ve seen, Americans were overextended even before banks started cutting them off.

No, what the economy needs now is something to take the place of retrenching consumers. That means a major fiscal stimulus. And this time the stimulus should take the form of actual government spending rather than rebate checks that consumers probably wouldn’t spend.

Let’s hope, then, that Congress gets to work on a package to rescue the economy as soon as the election is behind us. And let’s also hope that the lame-duck Bush administration doesn’t get in the way."

I think he is right and that history has something to say to us about that. Specifically the first term of Roosevelt's New Deal involved huge incentive programs that built infrastructure and directly provided jobs. The WPA (Works Progress Administration) and CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) are the most clear examples of programs that put people directly to work on major projects. Even artists were employed to paint murals in public buildings.

I am not arguing that the US now needs to have projects that directly employ workers, although I am not opposed to the concept of that. But I am saying that this nation has not had the discussion of the FORM of any "middle class stimulus" as Sen. Obama calls it. Congress will likely place the emphasis on further direct stimulus checks to individuals. It is clearly the approach that the Congress will think will be best received by the public.

The problem is that, as Krugman says above: "...the stimulus should take the form of actual government spending rather than rebate checks that consumers probably wouldn’t spend." That is a much harder sell politically.

It would be to everyone's great advantage to not push the next stimulus package through in a great grandstanding crisis. We have already done that once this Fall. But if we really want to stimulate jobs and have something to show for it (infrastructure improvements) then the stimulus must be one that creates jobs, and moves the country toward solving some big public problems by improving deteriorating infrastructure and helping states whose budgets are reeling from the slow down in the economy.

As I have written before, the 800 pound gorilla in the room that we ignore at our peril is that we have to spend our way out of this recession. But we need to take that knowledge one more step and have a national discussion on how best to do that.

The Right Wing Filth and Smut is Just Starting

From my Open Salon Blog: OCTOBER 29, 2008 7:34PM

I just watched Chris Matthews allow Tom Delay to slime and slander Barack Obama for over ten minutes in the opening of Hardball. Chris allowed him to spew his vitriol without even one challenge.

Delay called Obama a Marxist, a communist, a socialist, and worse. He said Obama would essentially destroy the constitution by "packing the Supreme Court", brought up Ayers and Wright as "proof" of his wild accusations. He said that Obama would not give any tax cuts and, working with the Democratic Congress, actually raise taxes to 90%.

And I have noticed that main stream papers and so-called liberal leaning web sites are opening themselves to whatever junk the right wants to spew, in an attempt to be "fair and balanced."

Trouble is, the unstated Republican premise is that "the end justifies the (sic: ANY) means." And the main stream media is afraid to call them on it. If we think we have already seen the worst of the smears we are wrong. This is just the begining of a filth and lie strewn week.

The simple truth is that if we do not stand up to this crap we all deserve what we get. Personally, I'm sick of trying to be "nice" and "tolerant" to bigots, fools and single digit IQ neandertals. I'll likely lose a few friends if I start calling them out, but at least I will be able to live with myself.

The 800 lb. Gorilla in the Room that Obama can't Admit

The 800 lb. Gorilla in the Room that Obama can't Admit

Sen. Obama has been tracking to the center ever since he got the nomination as the Democratic candidate for President. And while that gives many on the left side of the party considerable heartburn, it has been the correct move because it appeals to independents and moderate Republicans, and, accordingly, expands the pool of voters he needs to win the election.

Liberals, including me, always get heartburn every time we are asked to sacrifice part of our sacred ideology by answering the dirty and messy question: "Do we want to be self-righteous and lose; or do we want to compromise and win?"

As Obama has tacked closer to the center his poll numbers have risen. One answer to the now commonplace question, "Why is he not winning by an even larger spread than he has?" is that he has very gradually tacked to the center and, with each step, picked up a point here and a point there, leading to his now almost double digit lead in both national and state polls.

One side effect of this new "centerist" position is the sacrifice of a truth that he may or may not know, an 800 pound gorilla of truth that he will have to acknowledge and explain to the public, but only after he is elected: we are going to have to spend our way out of the recession.

And that means that we are not going to be balancing the budget in the first term, and maybe not even in the second term. Yet Obama insists that every dime of his almost one trillion dollar spending program will be paid for by specific cuts in expenses elsewhere: Iraq, cutting some fat out of government programs and increasing the tax on the wealthy, etc.

The truth, however, is that all those allegedly "offsetting" cuts take a lot of time to enact, or implement, and will have to be phased in over several years. But, a significant amount of the spending has to be immediate if we are to shorten the current recession to only a couple of years. The spending has to create jobs now, as well as down the road several years.

The irony, of course, is that we have to spend in order to set up the national economic health that will generate the revenues to save in the future.

I am not faulting Obama for ignoring this gorilla in the room until after the election. In fact, I have no idea whether or not he even sees the gorilla. He should, but he may not. What I am strongly recommending is that we don't act as if we are naively unaware that the first several years of the new administration will actually, and necessarily, increase the deficit.

I wish we lived in a world where a candidate could just level to the electorate, and we, the voters, would be smart enough to understand the tough trade offs that lie ahead. In this case: that we have to spend our way out of this recession. But the political truth is that were Obama to admit that now, McCain and Palin would jump on that and promise not only no new taxes but argue that it is insane to increase spending at this time. And they would win in a landslide. It doesn't matter one whit that they would be lying and would not be able to balance the budget either.

So, the bottom line is that the gorilla is real and necessary, but will remain invisible for the next ten days or so.


Why Liberals Need the Pat Buchanans of the World

Most of us political junkies have, both by design and by accident, chosen our television “news and commentary” sources from a very narrow ideological spectrum that we find comfortable. In my case, as an ideological liberal with centrist tendencies, I get most of my TV updates and opinion from MSNBC.

In the evening I get out my laptop and place it on my lap (imagine that!) and watch Hardball, Countdown, Rachel. (I can’t stand David Gregory’s flaccid attempts to be “fair” so I watch CNN’s Situation Room when Race for the White House is on.) After Rachel I switch for an hour of CNN’s 360.

While I’m “watching” these sources I am simultaneously going through my bookmarked internet sources: The Washington Post, The New York Times, Salon, Politico, Huffington Post, Newsweek, Time, MSNBC internet, CNN internet, and, given my political position, the Obama web site.

Now to a true leftist, that is a pretty commonplace and even boring lineup. But at least by watching those center to left leaning television networks and internet sites I will occasionally get some information from the “other side.” The trouble with that during a presidential election race is that most people interviewed are simply spewing out the party line. There is precious little “news” or, heaven forbid, “new opinion” to be had.

What I, and others who are center to left in their ideologies, need is someone who is a true conservative with the balls to take on the left and center positions even in their own lairs. Pat Buchanan, who I have often thought long ago needed to be put out to pasture, simply refuses to leave, hangs around to call them as he sees them. That irritates me no end.

Most of the time I think he is off his gourd, but every two or three days he hits one out of the park. This week, for example, he hit the nail on the head about the utility of the Sarah Palin pick to the McCain campaign. He says that without Palin this election would not be nearly as close as it is.

Palin appeals to the Republican base, the social and populist conservatives that McCain inherited, and who do not trust McCain. She does not guarantee that McCain will win, but she preserves the base for a new attempt in 2012. Since she represents just about everything that I loath, without Rachel’s old “Uncle Pat” there is no way I would ever have taken the time to even think about her “usefulness.”

And, one last example, when Joe Biden put his big foot in his mouth again about Obama being tested internationally, only the good old Neandertal, Pat Buchanan, called it the gaffe that it was and did not try to justify Biden’s words. Meanwhile most of the liberal commentators, including our own Joan Walsh, whose opinions I greatly respect, were saying Biden was making a generic point about ANY new president being “tested,” which is true in general. But it was NOT what Biden said. Even Obama was clearly miffed and felt, this morning, that he had to reinvent Joe's remarks after saying that "Joe is sometimes given to rhetorical flurishes."

Most of the time I can’t stand Buchanan. But - most of the time I need to hear Pat Buchanan. If for no other reason that he reminds me that there are still a lot of amoral people out there on the right that believe that, in politics, the end always justify the means.

Buchanan stands for just about everything I have rejected long ago. But he also represents a large part of the American electorate that sees a far different country, and its future, than I see.

Which is precisely why I need to listen to the Pat Buchanans of this world.

It Only Takes One: Inviting Violence

From my Open Salon blog: October 21. 2008

I moved to Washington DC in July, 1963. A bright eyed and anxious 23 year old, I was nearly overcome by my good fortune to be invited to work in the Executive Office of the President, Bureau of the Budget.

I was the low guy on the totem pole and often got the duty of covering the phones when others went out to eat, or to work at the agencies we reviewed for budget and legislative consistency with the President's goals.

One day in late November I was half listening to some elevator music playing on the radio when an announcement interrupted to say, "The President has been shot!" I was of course stunned, and decided that I had to tell someone so I ran down to the Division Director's Office. He wasn't there, so I ran down the long hall in the Old Executive Office Building, up the stairs and barged into the Office of the Director of the Budget Bureau.

There was a meeting going on in the conference room and I, out of breath and likely hyperventilating, shouted, "The President has been shot!"

Two of the White House political staff were there as was the Budget Director, the Deputy and several Division Directors. The Deputy Director, Elmer Staats, who knew me, looked at me with disgust and said, "Monte, that is not funny. How could you even think to say something like that?"

While that was going on, someone turned on a TV that was in the room and the fact was confirmed. About the same time the two White House staffers were calling across the alley to the West Wing to confirm.

There are certain times when the world turns inside out; times when we will remember where we were and what we were doing when a major event happens. For much younger people than me, and most are, a day that is sealed in their memories, and mine, is September 11, 2001.

Unfortunately, by the time the '60s were over those of us who lived through those years would add the April 4, 1968, assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, and the June 5, 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.

Those years were years of great political division in this nation, and until now, we have seen nothing like the kind of bitter, hateful rant that fueled the hatred then, and fanned the flames of intolerance.

We would all like to think that we have, as a nation, gotten past all of that. And, had we not been witnessing the fanning of the flames, the desperate acts of spinning a great lie about Barack Obama; a lie about his "otherness," "Un-American," "Socialist," and, today, "Communist" leanings.

These purveyors of hate continue to foment the unrest and play to the prejudices of race and class warfare. The litany of false descriptors piles up, lie upon lie: "Palling around with Terrorists," "Terrorist," and "Traitor."

Mainstream media, even the so-called liberal left media, allow such words to go unchallenged saying such things as, "Well. Its all that McCain has left to do." As if that makes it OK to scream "Fire!" in a crowded theater.

We have succumbed to something we would tell ourselves to our dying day that we do not believe: "that the end justifies the means." In a stupefying attempt to be "fair" we have turned our heads and allowed the intolerant rants of hate to be "tolerated."

If I had not lived through the short few years when three leaders of my hope for our nation were destroyed, when I, and the rest of the nation, had to grow up and realize that there is evil in this world, perhaps I would not feel so uneasy, and could just let it go as "Well, its just the politics of desperation."

Unfortunately, it only takes one nut, one crazy who is sent over the edge by the talk of terrorists, traitors, socialists, communists and the questioning of patriotism, to destroy the best hopes of us all.

It only takes one.