There’s a piece in Politico today (a publication that exhibits all that is wrong and twisted about political coverage with its superficial and cynical repackaging of what is pretended to not be conventional wisdom), that says it’s time to do away with the annual State of the Union speech. I could not disagree more.
I will admit that in the hours leading up to the event last night, I was kind of dreading the tediousness of it all; the 75 interruptions for applause with the one side clapping while the other sits on its hands, the requisite heroes in the audience sitting with the First Lady, the tiresome glad-handing and back-slapping that occurs as the cabinet and the Joint Chiefs and the Supremes and, finally, the President, enter the chamber.
But sometimes the event- the speech and its reactions- surprise you.
There were several moments that made it all worth it to me. In every case, it was when unity unexpectedly filled the chamber. Hope for the future of the Republic!
Unity Incident #1: When the President spoke about America as a place that offers unending possibility and opportunity.
It’s how the daughter of a factory worker is CEO of America’s largest automaker; how the son of a barkeeper is Speaker of the House; how the son of a single mom can be President of the greatest nation on Earth.
The line about Speaker John Boehner was classy and it was greeted in the chamber by a standing ovation by both parties. And when the President delivered the line about himself being the son of a single mom, Boehner, in turn, graciously stood and clapped for him.
Unity Incident #2: Ok, granted it was kind of minor, but when the President riffed on the importance of equal pay for equal work he offered this great line:
It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a “Mad Men” episode.
Boehner’s reaction was a genuine smile. Clearly the Speaker has taken in a few episodes of Don Draper, Peggy Olson, Pete Campbell, and company. It was kind of like an athlete tipping his cap to an opponent; a “well-played, sir” kind of thing.
Unity Incident #3
The amazing moment that involved one of the heroes sitting with the First Lady, Army Ranger, Cory Remsburg. It just could not get more poignant:
I first met Cory Remsburg, a proud Army Ranger, at Omaha Beach on the 65th anniversary of D-Day. Along with some of his fellow Rangers, he walked me through the program – a strong, impressive young man, with an easy manner, sharp as a tack. We joked around, and took pictures, and I told him to stay in touch.
A few months later, on his tenth deployment, Cory was nearly killed by a massive roadside bomb in Afghanistan. His comrades found him in a canal, face down, underwater, shrapnel in his brain.
For months, he lay in a coma. The next time I met him, in the hospital, he couldn’t speak; he could barely move. Over the years, he’s endured dozens of surgeries and procedures, and hours of grueling rehab every day.
Even now, Cory is still blind in one eye. He still struggles on his left side. But slowly, steadily, with the support of caregivers like his dad Craig, and the community around him, Cory has grown stronger. Day by day, he’s learned to speak again and stand again and walk again – and he’s working toward the day when he can serve his country again.
“My recovery has not been easy,” he says. “Nothing in life that’s worth anything is easy.”
Cory is here tonight. And like the Army he loves, like the America he serves, Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit.
The applause in the chamber was deafening. And lasted for at least five full minutes. Forgive me for abandoning my usual snarky cynicism, but that, was a deeply moving experience.
And it’s moments like those- the ones that belie the divisions and anger and hatred, that are good for the country to see. Yes, it’s mostly predictable and the ritual, for some, gets annoying. But there’s a, perhaps, naïve side of me that gets damn near misty-eyed when I see Americans standing together united by…anything. We need to see more, not less of that.
So the President is throwing the issue to Congress. From the White House perspective, it’s so crazy it just might work.
It was looking bad. Like the president had painted himself into a corner with his own words about “red lines” being crossed if there were ever to be proof of chemical attacks in Syria. Astoundingly, the British parted with their American cousins for the first time since
Lexington the War of 1812 and refused to go along.
The United Nations, which President Obama generally decried as feckless today, was a dead end with the Russians and the Chinese exercising veto power in the Security Council. Plus, uselessly, the U.N. inspection team that just left Syria is charged only with confirming that a chemical attack occurred, not which party was responsible for initiating it.
The vote in Congress on whether the U.S. will strike Syria in response to the Assad regime’s alleged involvement in the gassing of hundreds of its own citizens is not going to be along party lines. Strange bedfellows will be plentiful as hard core, dovish liberals join forces with folks like Republican, Rand Paul, whose libertarian views render him a foreign isolationist. Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner will be working for the President.
Commanders in Chief don’t have to do this and Mr. Obama, protecting Oval office power as best he can, says he could have moved on his own but insists he has an important moral case to make and that we may as well have a public debate about it. This is a good thing for democracy. Historians may argue Obama has just seriously diluted Presidential authority.
This move also gets the President off the hook. If Congress balks, it was them. More than that- it was the “people.” If they approve, he has the moral high ground he’d never have received from the United Nations anyway. The stunning defeat of a pro-American resolution in the British parliament had to have affected this move by the White House as well. It didn’t look good that the Brits could debate this but our Congress couldn’t. It also didn’t square with Senator Barack Obama’s own views years ago that Congress should have a say on matters involving military action.
Former Vice President Dan Quayle probably doesn’t have the greatest legacy for gravitas, but he was a savvy politician and it was he who suggested to George H.W. Bush that Congress get a vote on approving the use of force in the first Gulf War in the early 1990’s. The resolution passed, the nation was united on the military action and within months President Bush would be sporting a 91% approval rating.
In his response to the President today, Republican Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell said the nation is at its best when President and Congress act together in common voice and he is right. There is much more riding on the coming Congressional vote than just a few surgical cruise missile strikes in Syria. The debate will encompass the totality of American foreign policy; the U.S. as global policeman, the lines that can and cannot be crossed in regard to how we respond to future atrocities- the proof needed to determine they happened and who was behind them.
Impressive throughout the debate has been the prominence of the Iraq experience in coloring the world perception of U.S. intervention in foreign affairs. The blow to American credibility has been severe. It was Iraq and the wild goose chase for weapons of mass destruction that led the Brits to decide that this go round- no thanks.
So the debate to come is also about how we, ourselves, come to terms with Iraq. Does the U.S. become reticent, like in the post-Vietnam period, to project power on the world stage forever more? Can exceptions be supported when there are issues of genocide and crimes against mankind that shock us and shake our consciences. Do we even have an international conscience?
All worthy questions to be debated in the days ahead. For President Obama, good move from a civics lesson point of view. And brilliant move, politically.
Even the lawmakers who say they “get it” don’t really “get it.” For them it’s an abstraction. They think they know what those poor middle-class people care about.
They are advised by their aides and consultants that the failure to extend something like the payroll tax cut would hurt the finances of the regular people. But they don’t really know because, by any standard- our lawmakers are very wealthy people who live in a world far different than most of their constituents.
Here are the figures. There are 535 members of Congress; 100 Senators and 435 members of the House. Between them, there are 261 millionaires. Last year, the Center for Responsive Politics found that the median wealth of a House member was $765,000. The median wealth of a U.S. Senator was $2.38 million. And during the worst of the Great Recession, lawmaker’s median wealth increased 16% between 2008 and 2009.
For a $50,000 a year income, repealing the payroll tax cut costs that worker $160 monthly or $40 a week.
So what‘s $40 to somebody worth a million or ten million or a hundred million? Not even couch change. It’s nothing.
– Half a tank of gas for an SUV? They wouldn’t know. They don’t drive cars, they have drivers.
– A little extra money to buy prescription drugs? They wouldn’t know. Congress has the best health care coverage in America. They’ve never had to use an HMO and they certainly don’t have to worry about paying out of pocket for medications.
-Eight roasted chickens at Costco? They wouldn’t know. Forty bucks barely covers the tip for a couple of steak dinners and several cocktails at Morton’s.
-Nine gallons of milk/ Ten 20-ounce loaves of bread? Actually, they do know these figures because they get briefed on them by aides so they won’t get embarrassed if some wise-ass reporter asks them.
– Half the price of a one-way ticket on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional for the holiday visit to grandma’s in New Jersey? They wouldn’t know. They take the Acela. 1st Class.
– A really cheap pair of shoes? They wouldn’t know. A pair of Ferragamo men’s shoes goes for about $600. The low end of Manolo Blahnik’s for women go for about $700.
Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t mind being rich myself. But when they fight for us regular people, it’s usually because doing so helps ensure they remain on the pathway to power and wealth. After all, it’s the little people who elect them. I’m not saying they don’t care. It’s just that when they consider the tough times most people are going through, they have to imagine that world. They certainly don’t inhabit it.
Some would accuse me of waging class warfare. I would respond that it’s not war when one side has all the weapons. But it is class cluelessness.
Ok, I’m beginning to panic. The political system is broken but these people are gambling with our money- our retirement savings. Do I sit here like a moron, do nothing and just watch Wall Street collapse next week? Can we change to a Parliamentary system?
I’ve never seen anything like this. Congress is supposed to pass increases in the debt ceiling automatically. There’s been hardly a peep about this from lawmakers in the past. Oh, there have been a few symbolic votes against raising the debt ceiling by a handful of lawmakers including Barack Obama when he was a junior Senator. But the outcome was never in doubt and that’s why some took the liberty to make political points by voting nay.
But this time…is different. There are two proposals being floated right now; one by Democratic Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid. No one thinks it has the votes to pass the House. Republican House Speaker, John Boehner, has a plan that can’t pass the Senate and has been rebuked by the Tea Party folks in his own party.
There is currently no plan that can pass. Yet- since 1962, the debt limit has been increased 74 times. It’s been raised ten times over the past ten years. Routine votes. Not even a news story.
Now, Pandora’s box has been opened. Attaching conditions to something as important as raising the debt ceiling means either party not holding the White House will be using this tactic for their respective causes every time the nation needs to increase the limit on the national credit card. Why didn’t this President insist on clean passage with no strings, like every President has before him? Why did he allow this to become a political football? Maybe he didn’t have a choice- I don’t know.
But you can’t run a country this way. Much less a country whose currency and economy have been the underpinning of the world economy for the past 70 years or so. This is a recipe for economic catastrophe. Even if they burn the midnight oil all weekend as they’re expected to do and maybe solve it this time…what about next time? Is this going to become an annual event? Or maybe we’ll be flirting with economic ruin every six months. Or we could make it weekly and turn it into a TV reality show.
A New Form of Government?
Could our Founding Fathers have messed up with this system of government? Were their assumptions that lawmakers would eventually reach compromise a silly, altruistic notion? Did they not foresee a time when divided government might utterly fail the people?
With a parliamentary system- you cannot have such deeply divided government. A party wins a majority and its legislative leader becomes Prime Minister. That person stays in power until the day comes they can’t preserve their majority on one issue or another then there’s a vote of no confidence and it’s off to new elections. Or if a party can’t reach a majority, the plurality party cuts a deal with a minority party and they form a coalition government. They only stay in power if they work together.
And under a Parliamentary system, you generally have fewer national elections too. The way our system works, the presidential campaign season is basically every two years- and now lasts for two years. Most true legislative progress occurs between a Presidential election and the mid-term election because everyone knows that once the calendar turns on the two year-mark- the day after mid-term elections-it’s political silly season; all posturing, no substance.
And we can Americanize it. We can call the Prime Minister “President,” keep the Supreme Court and do away with the House of Lords.
So based on the current tea leaves that point to economic calamity next week, I am poised to liquidate my mutual funds and stocks then write my Congressman and beg him to introduce a Constitutional amendment to change the American form of government which is not working so well at the moment.
Final Historical Footnote
I pointed out the day after the mid-term elections last November that the last two occasions in American history that the U.S. Senate was controlled by Democrats and the House of Representatives was controlled by Republicans, the following happened; the American Civil War and the Great Depression. Go ahead, look it up.
Looks like we’re sort of getting both. No bloodshed, but a deeply divided nation and a potential economic calamity.
Because we are in the midst of great peace and prosperity and because the world is so tranquil and free of problems at the moment, a Congressional committee is taking time today to consider a resolution that will reaffirm the phrase “In God We Trust” as our national motto.
Virginia lawmaker, Randy Forbes’ resolution also encourages using the motto in schools and public buildings. It’s not specifically mentioned in the legislation, but I am assuming we will want to keep using the phrase on our currency as well.
Here are some other well-known phrases and words we also need to reaffirm right away:
E Pluribus Unum
This one could be controversial. It’s kind of foreign-sounding. And it means “Out of many, one.” I see some trouble brewing there, but as it would be difficult to remove from every seal of the United States, it has a chance of remaining with us for awhile. But just to make sure, we should reaffirm it.
It’s not just a food. It is the main thing that things are as American as. Something tells me I have just committed a grave grammatical offense in that last sentence there. But I digress. It is urgent we reaffirm the importance of this historically significant dessert.
One, Two, Three Strikes, You’re Out
The key phrase sung by millions of Americans in between the top and bottom of the 7th inning of the game that used to be known as the national pastime. Also, what may eventually occur to lawmakers who continue to propose legislation reaffirming well-accepted American phrases and mottos.
I am for God. I fully support God. Though he and I have an extremely complicated relationship, we talk all the time and, in the end, he always seems to treat me way better than I probably deserve. So when it comes to God, I, like, totally trust him.
Representatives of the Tea Party movement will be reading the Constitution into the Congressional Record on the first day of the new legislative session and I heartily concur that more people need to know about this remarkable document.
For the record, I am not a member of any organized party or movement, and I too revere the American Constitution. We have our freedoms because of it. We have fought wars and spilled blood to protect it. I got a Kindle for Christmas, by the way, and one of the first things I downloaded were the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. I have actually read them. Recently.
Times were different then and some of it is a little anachronistic- especially the parts dealing with the tricky issue of slavery.
I am curious as to which version of the Constitution will be read into the record. For example, there is a sentence in Article 1, Section 2 about how to determine the make-up of the House of Representatives and apportionment of taxes.
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other Persons.
In other words, you count free white citizens plus indentured servants, no un-taxed Indians, and slaves count as three-fifths of a person. In retrospect- not one of our prouder moments.
You don’t have to actually read that sentence, though, because it was technically eliminated by the 14th amendment. We fought a really horrible and bloody war that settled all this and so it was that on July 9th, 1868, we took out the part about indentured servitude and “three-fifths of all other Persons” since, by then, slavery had ceased to exist (see the 13th amendment passed three years earlier).
So if you leave out the reading of the “three-fifths” sentence then you have to read the entire 14th amendment that replaced it and which enumerated the following right- in the very first sentence:
All persons born or naturalized in the Unites States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.
This could be a little awkward as there is a burgeoning movement within some elements of the Tea Party to repeal the 14th amendment which would end automatic citizenship for, say, the children of immigrants just because they were born on American soil.
Now I understand the frustrations posed by illegal immigration and amending the Constitution is a totally constitutional act. But the reason the Constitution has been embraced as the guiding philosophy of the Tea Party movement is because of the belief that strict interpretation of the document should be adhered to and has been continually violated through the years.
If you believe in strict interpretation of the Constitution, then why would you want to amend it? Unless you want strict adherance to the Constitution, except for the parts you don’t like. In any event, I suspect some lawmakers will be reading the 1st sentence of the 14th amendment through gritted teeth, though it will go by quickly.
In the interests of full disclosure, I will admit I have a personal though indirect stake in this debate. As a 1st generation American born in New York City, if the 14th amendment had not existed, I would never have been granted automatic citizenship.
And there’s a good chance there would have been one less American carrying the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence in their Kindle.
As Congressmen and Senators flail about trying to figure out whether or how or if to extend unemployment benefits for millions of out-of-work Americans- the class divide between our lawmakers and those they represent has never been so evident.
They do not understand our world because they are not of it. Nearly half of all our national lawmakers are millionaires; 261 of them. In the real world, only 1% of us can claim millionaire status. A new study by the Center for Responsive Politics finds the median wealth of a U.S. House member is $765,000. The U.S. Senate is a more exclusive club, of course, and the median wealth there is $2.38 million.
Interestingly enough, while the economy has been in the crapper, the average wealth of our national lawmakers increased by more than 16% between 2008 and 2009.
The Harsh Reality for Some
Here, now, some numbers from that part of the world that is so foreign to our well-to-do representatives:
The National Employment Law Project says 26 states will be phasing out extended jobless benefits between December 4th and January 1st. The Labor Department figures 635,000 people will be cut off from unemployment benefits by December 11th, more than 1.6 million by Christmas and 3.29 million by the end of January.
The number of food stamp recipients, already at a record-high of nearly 42 and half million, is likely to soar.
And people have never been jobless this long…ever before. Those who have been unemployed for six months or more now make up 45.5% of the total of unemployed Americans. There are approximately 5 job seekers for each job-opening in the country.
This is why people are running out of unemployment benefits and soon to be applying for food stamps, seeking help from family and friends, applying for community resource and state programs like TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families).
The Comfy Reality of the Elite Political Class
What happens to the poor politician who gets thrown out of office or retires? Here’s a clue: It doesn’t involve food stamps.
No, generally, they have a brand, spanking new career ahead of them as lobbyists or CEO’s or become members of various boards of directors of large multi-national corporations.
There is a ridiculously feeble law that prohibits lawmakers from cashing in within the first year of leaving office- but after that it’s easy pickings.
Here are but a few examples:
After his re-election defeat, former Senate Majority Leader, Tom Daschle, promptly took a position with the K Street lobbying firm of Alston & Bird. For that 1st year he couldn’t be an actual registered lobbyist, he was appointed a “special policy advisor.” Alston & Bird’s clients include CVS Caremark, the National Association for Home Care and Hospice, Abbott Laboratories and HealthSouth. Between January and September of 2008, the firm was paid nearly $6 million to represent these companies and associations before Congress and the executive branch. In 2008, Senator Daschle reportedly made $2 million. He was recommended for the position at the lobbying firm by an old buddy, former Senator Minority leader, Bob Dole. They take really good care of each other.
Before he became Vice President, based on his experience as a Congressman ,White House Chief of Staff and Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney became CEO of Halliburton which, of course, makes its money getting government contracts. Cheney’s net worth, reported to be between $30 million and $100 million, came mostly from the Halliburton gig as well as his gross income of nearly $9 million.
Former Louisiana Congressman Billy Tauzin resigned from his seat and went on to head up the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America or PhRMA, a trade group that represents pharmaceutical companies. He left last June and pulled in a cool $2.5 million a year. Tauzin had other options. The Motion Picture Association of America offered him $1 million a year to lobby for the film industry but got outbid by PhRMA.
Former House Majority Leader, Dick Armey, left Capitol Hill to join the lobbying team for the law firm, DLA Piper as a “senior policy advisor.” He reportedly made $750,000 a year there. He then joined FreedomWorks, a conservative political group with a simple motto: Lower Taxes, Less Government, More Freedom. As of 2008, he was making $550,000 a year there, and if that sounds low, it’s deceiving. He made $250 thousand a year from FreedomWorks, toiling for 18 hours a week. The other $300,000 came from related organizations, according to IRS filings.
Former House Majority Leader, Dick Gephardt ended 30 years of service in Congress in 2005 and started his own lobbying firm, the Gephardt Group. He joined the EMBARQ Corporation board of directors in June, 2007. In March 2009, Mr. Gephardt was named to the board of directors at the Ford Motor Company. A couple of months ago he was named to the board of directors of Amerilink Telecom, a U.S. distributor of products from Huawei Technologies, a giant Chinese telecommunications company. I don’t have his income figures, but food stamps are not part of the picture.
I’ve got nothing against public service. In fact, it seems like a great deal, with an inescapably obvious and lucrative career path. But the world these men and women live in, while in office and after they leave it, resembles nothing like the lives led by normal, average Joe Six-Pack Americans. By the way, I’ve also got nothing against millionaires and if I could figure out a way to become one, would gladly do so.
But if you wonder why these folks seem tone-deaf sometimes…if you wonder why they don’t seem to care all that much about people who are unemployed and are about to lose their jobless benefits- their last source of income in this world….if you wonder why they are SO disconnected from the lives of ordinary, hard-working Americans- it is because their lives and, most likely, yours- have very little to do with one another.