Sunday, July 31, 2011

Elements in the Debt Ceiling Agreement

Here is an outline of the debt ceiling agreement announced by President Obama tonight. 
A White House fact sheet distributed to reporters shortly after the president spoke laid down the specific elements of Sunday night's deal to raise the debt ceiling:
·        The president will be authorized to increase the debt limit by at least $2.1 trillion, eliminating the need for another increase until 2013.
·        The first tranche of cuts will come in at nearly $1 trillion. That includes savings of $350 billion from the Base Defense Budget, which will be trimmed based off a review of overall U.S. national security policy.
·        A bipartisan committee with enhanced procedural authority will be responsible for pinpointing $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction from both entitlements and tax reform, as well as other spending programs.
·        The committee will have to report out legislation by November 23, 2011.
·        Congress will be required to vote on Committee recommendations by December 23, 2011.
·        The trigger mechanism -- should the committee's recommendations not be acted upon -- will be mandatory spending cuts. Those cuts, which will begin in January 2013, will be split 50/50 between domestic and defense spending. Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries and "low-income programs" would be exempted from those cuts.
The fact sheet goes on to note that there is another enforcement mechanism that the president possesses.
"The Bush tax cuts expire as of 1/1/2013, the same date that the spending sequester [the trigger mechanism] would go into effect," the fact sheet reads. "These two events together will force balanced deficit reduction. Absent a balanced deal, it would enable the President to use his veto pen to ensure nearly $1 trillion in additional deficit reduction by not extending the high-income tax cuts."
-- Sam Stein, The Huffington Post

Saturday, July 30, 2011

28th Amendment Email a Distraction

Since the congressional debate about health care reform in 2009, the following proposed amendment to the Constitution has circulated around the internet, nearly always with the suggestion that if you send this on to twenty friends and they do likewise that very soon it will be in every citizen’s hands and that our Senators and Representatives’ elite status days will be numbered because a 28th amendment to the Constitution will be passed. If I’m not mistaken, the original proposal started making the rounds as a way to punish legislators who supported the health care reform that became legislation.

The email is being circulated now as the “Congressional Reform Act of 2011.”  I’ve received it several times in the past couple of weeks. Apart from the idea of it making us feel better in the midst of the current debt ceiling debacle, there are several reasons not to take it seriously. Here is the one I received today:

Congressional Reform Act of 2011 

1. Term Limits. 12 years only, one of the possible options below.
A. Two Six-year Senate terms
B. Six Two-year House terms
C. One Six-year Senate term and three Two-Year House terms

2. No Tenure / No Pension.
A Congressman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they are out of office. 

3. Congress (past, present & future) participates in Social Security. 
All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately. All future funds flow into the Social Security system, and Congress participates with the American people. 

4. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do. 

5. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise. Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%. 

6. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people.

7. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.

8. All contracts with past and present Congressmen are void effective 1/1/12. 
Serving in Congress is an honor, not a career. The Founding Fathers envisioned citizen legislators, so ours should serve their term(s), then go home and back to work. 
The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen. Congressmen made all these contracts for themselves. 

I suspect that this email is circulating now out of the frustration all of us feel about Congress’ inaction on solving the debt ceiling crisis.  Believe me, I am also frustrated and fear for what may happen to the nation, but I believe that circulating this email is a not helpful way to deal with our frustrations, and in fact is a distraction from the crisis we face.

Why?  First, I want no part of punishing all of Congress because of the debt ceiling debacle. We have this crisis because Republicans have found a way to force spending cuts in government that they could not get passed in the House or Senate. The debt ceiling crisis is a way to impose not only their economic but also their social agenda. As I have written elsewhere, the Democrats have many “sins” for which they will have to answer, but the debt ceiling crisis is not one of them. They have been insisting that the pain of cuts be shared. That's what I want them to do.

Second, and you who know me will understand, this email fails the identity test. There is no name or organization attached to the email. If the author(s) don’t have enough confidence in what they wrote to say who they are, what they write doesn’t deserve my attention.  (I apply this rule to ALL circular emails.)

Third, not only is this simply and “idea piece” and not proposed legislation that we can seriously consider, it is flawed by numerous mistakes of fact pointed out in this Snopes link, and, in my mind, others of poor judgment, sufficient to overshadow the couple of good ideas in it. 

On the issue of term limits, we may be able to mandate limited terms for members of Congress, but not congressional staffs and lobbyists. I know the power of incumbency, but it seems to me that to have limited terms for our elected representatives simply makes them more dependent than they already are on those who don't have them.

I'm not sure I know what number eight means. Does it mean that retired legislators cannot serve as lobbyists. Does it mean they can't serve in the judicial or executive branches? 

I like the idea of Congress not being able to give themselves pay raises. Having them tied to increases in Social Security wouldn't be a bad idea.Please check out the Snopes link to see the inaccuracies in this email. Then, consider sending it back to the people who forwarded it to you.  

Now, it's back to waiting to see what happens in Washington.  

-  Milo

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Debt Ceiling Debacle - Death Watch?

Connie was on the other side of the room when I said I was going to post a note on "Debt Watch." She didn't quite hear and said "Death Watch"? Not hearing what I did say, she nonetheless may have it right. 

We are six days away from uncharted economic waters that most Republican and Democratic legislators, as well as most economists, agree that we must not test. Forget Michele Bachmann and other "Know Nothings"! I need not list sources for the broad consensus that a genuine crisis lies ahead if the debt ceiling is not raised and serious steps are not taken to reduce the national debt. 

Tonight, I was reminded of what I learned once in high school Civics: money bills must start in the House. (Article 1, Sec. 7) Speaker Boehner is having a difficult (impossible?) time getting a bill that will pass the House and go on to the Senate, where with any such bill's draconian cuts in programs and services is doomed to fail. I understand that if the House passed a bill, the Senate could amend it and it would go to a conference committee. (Please correct me if I've got this wrong.) 

The bottom line is that we are moving perilously close to default. I doubt that the friend in financial management who told me a week ago that this whole controversy was "much ado about nothing," would say the same thing tonight.

In the great scheme of things, there are many "sins" for which the Democrats have to answer, but in my view this debacle is not one of them. The Democratic leadership has insisted that there be no cuts without the wealthiest sharing the pain. The Republicans, cowering from the threats of their Tea Party members, refuse to ask the wealthy do anything but continue to enjoy their tax breaks and loopholes. 

I have written my Representative and Speaker Boehner, who insisted that he was the Speaker for all Americans. I have also made calls.

Last night, when I asked what more we should do, one friend suggested I take a vacation (he was probably weary of hearing from me about this). Another friend suggested it was time to leave it to God. My response was: 
"I have a suspicion that God might say, 'You got yourselves into this mess. You'd better work your tails off to get out of it.'"
 To that end, tomorrow I will begin another round of letters and phone calls.

 What will you do?

- Milo

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Remembering Our Roots - Honestly

[For weeks this blogger has been preoccupied with personal matters and has had no time to write anything worthy of putting before you. As we approach the Fourth, I thought you might be interested in these reflections on religion and our Founding Parents that I wrote some time ago. I'll get back to my regular blogs, but not yet. Thank you for your patience.]

Would Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin have been in church on Sunday? The short answer is yes, no, and maybe.

During that hot summer of 1776 in Philadelphia, when you try to imagine the core leadership of that Continental Congress, without whom the Declaration of Independence might not have been written and approved unanimously by the delegations from the thirteen colonies, what names come to mind? I know that we and historians could debate this for a long time without consensus, but I suspect few would leave out these three: John Adams from Massachusetts; Thomas Jefferson from Virginia; and Benjamin Franklin from Pennsylvania. Would you agree?

This takes us back to the question I asked at the outset: would these three patriots have been in church when Independence Day fell on a Sunday? There is much made of “the faith of our founding fathers” that is much more a myth of how some folks wish it had been with these giants in our history than how it actually was.

In an email that a number of folks sent to me over the past few days was a copy of an illustrated article titled, 
“Forsaken Roots.” In fact, I have received email copies of it every year for the past seven or eight years, as people seek to remember and reclaim their roots. The claim in the article was made that 52 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were “orthodox deeply committed Christians,” the first in a long list of “facts” demonstrating that our nation was in its beginnings a “Christian nation.”

There was no author nor were there references to support the claims. Those of you who know me, know that it makes me very uneasy when anonymous documents make claims I don’t think can be supported by fact and when I see history being misconstrued and used as propaganda. In truth, there was such a diversity of faith perspectives among the “founding fathers” and “founding mothers,” some despaired of ever agreeing on the status of religion in the new country. Because the three giants I mentioned represent this diversity, I thought it perhaps useful on this Independence celebration week to be reminded of their religious perspectives and what they contributed to the nation that came into being on July 4th, 1776.

John Adams and Abigail, his wife and best counselor, were devout Christians and independent thinkers who saw no conflict between the two. As well as the Bible, John loved the classics and scholarly reflection. He always carried a book of poetry in his pocket, telling his children, “You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket.” He was one of the most sensible and powerful forces at the Continental Congress; it was John Adams that persuaded Thomas Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence and John who persuaded the Congress to allow Thomas to do it. Adams became the second president of the United States. John was 
in church at least once on Sundays and often two or three times. He visited Anglican Churches, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Moravians, and at least on one occasion a Roman Catholic mass. But his own was a Congregational Church in the Puritan tradition in Massachusetts. Adams was committed to the principle of everyone’s having the freedom to worship as they chose, but felt it was everyone’s duty to worship. There really had to be a crisis for the Adams’ not to be in church on Sunday. I think we would be safe in saying that the Adams family would have been in church, even when Independence Day fell on a Sunday.

Thomas Jefferson, unlike Adams, would not likely have attended church on July 4th any more than he attended any other worship services. Jefferson was the one who wrote the Declaration of Independence and became the third president of the United States. Those who put religious labels on would consider Jefferson a Deist, those who believe that God created the world and then left it to run on the laws God had created. As suspicious as he was of the unchecked power of government, and he was, Jefferson was even more suspicious of the power of unchecked religion to coerce others. He knew well the history of the intolerance of churches that were “established” or identified with the state in Europe and he feared for what might happen in America. He wanted a high “wall of separation” between church and state so that neither infringed on the responsibilities of the other. In 1817 when Congress passed the Elementary School Act, Jefferson
insisted on this provision:
"No religious reading, instruction or exercise, shall be prescribed or practiced {in the elementary schools} inconsistent with the tenets of any religious sect or denomination."
Given this founding father’s deep suspicions of organized religion, I think we can safely conclude that he would not have been in worship on a July Fourth that fell on a Sunday.

Benjamin Franklin, was more casual about faith than Adams but not nearly as wary of it as Jefferson. Franklin’s creed was simple: serve God by serving others. Much has been made of Benjamin Franklin's suggestion that the Constitutional Convention in 1787 open its morning sessions with prayer. His motion was turned down, however, and not again taken up. Franklin 
himself noted that
"with the exception of 3 or 4, most thought prayers unnecessary."
What distinguished Franklin from Adams and Jefferson was his “good-natured religious tolerance.” Franklin was not a member of any church but supported them all. In his hometown of Philadelphia whenever a new church would be built he would give to their building funds. It is little wonder that on July 4th, 1788 when Franklin was seriously ill, two years before his death, and couldn’t get out, the clergy of the city of Philadelphia including a Jewish Rabbi paraded arm in arm right under his window, a first not only for Philadelphia but perhaps a first in the history of Christianity.

Franklin biographer, Walter Isaacson, 
concludes that Franklin’s
“good-natured religious tolerance was in fact no small advance for civilization in the eighteenth century. It was one of the greatest contributions to arise out of the Enlightenment, more indispensable than that of the most profound theologians of the era… In a world that was then (as, alas, it still is now) bloodied by those who seek to impose theocracies, {Franklin}] helped to create a new type of nation that could draw strength from its religious pluralism. As Garry Wills argued in his book Under God, this ‘more than anything else, made the United States a new thing on earth.’”
Those who are interested in examining the accuracy of the claims in “Forgotten Roots” can check 
George F. Smith’s “History Remembered” or the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (not to be confused with the Southern Baptist Convention).

Remembering our roots is a good exercise for observing Independence Day, but we do ourselves no service if we remember them as we wish they had been and not the way they were. We will also do well to remember some of our other roots that we are still working to overcome: the way our nation treated Indians, slaves, and women. We might recall the words of 
Frederick Douglass, freed slave and newspaper editor:
“What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year the gross injustice to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license…”
Unlike whoever wrote “Forgotten Roots” and those who are fearful about what has happened to our “Christian nation,” I believe that we will have forgotten our roots if we adopt their view of our nation’s history. An honest reading of our history will better equip us to understand how we could have invaded Iraq on such flimsy evidence and how precious civil liberties have been sacrificed in the name of fighting terrorists.

I am grateful that the heritage from our “founding fathers and mothers” had within it the seeds of diversity and tolerance. Can we respect those who don’t worship the way we do, and those who don’t choose to worship at all? Can those who don’t worship respect those who do? Diversity and tolerance are precious gifts. Cherish and nurture them.

Remember that tomorrow as you and your friends barbeque ribs, grill brats or TVP burgers. Happy Fourth of July!

- Milo