Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Bailing out California?

I read this today. And then I wrote this, a copy of which, I assure you, will find its way to my Congressman and each of my Senators:

Mr. President,

I just read that the State of California is looking to have the United States Government basically act as a co-signer on its borrowing, with money from the TARP backing the loans. Sir, as a resident of Virginia, I could not be more outraged that any state would even ask Congress and the presidency to act in such a manner.

This is a state that has overspent, overtaxed, overleveraged, and overextended its own money; and now they propose to do so with money from the other states. Governor Schwarzenegger has been derelict in his responsibilities, as has the legislature of California, and now they want a de facto bailout from the federal government.

Mr. President, I have never supported bailouts of any kind. I've never bought the argument that businesses can be "too large" to fail. In the words of Senator John McCain, "does that mean some businesses are too small to save?" California needs relief, and it needs a rescue, but not from the federal government and not from my tax dollars.

Lest you think I have no sympathy or empathy for Californians, I believe they should receive assistance from the government, but I believe they should receive it directly. This, I feel, should be the mentality. Businesses and governments shouldn't receive bailouts, no matter how big or small they are, or how much money will be given, or in what form. The federal government isn't responsible for the operation of businesses or state governments. It's responsible for the citizens of the United States.

Mr. President, if you want to help the people of California, then help the people of California. They deserve your help; they need your help. The State of California, though, shouldn't receive a dime from you; and they certainly shouldn't have the federal government co-signing for them.

Sincerely,

Stephen Monteith

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

I almost forgot about those guys

We're not just electing a governor in Virginia this coming November. We also have a lieutenant governor and attorney general to elect. I'm guilty, I confess, of forgetting about the down-ticket. I meant to write about them, but like last week's laundry, I simply forgot to do it. Thank goodness the Richmond Times-Dispatch didn't.

You know, you really don't think about these people anymore. Especially in the post-national election craze, people expect the second-in-line to simply wait around for the executive to kick off. And the attorney general at the national level isn't even elected. He's chosen by the president, and confirmed by the Senate. Here in the Commonwealth, though, that's all just a little different. We'd all do well to keep that in mind.

The lieutenant governor, first of all, isn't just the governor's running mate. They run on separate tickets, so candidates for governor and lt. governor don't even need to have the same platform, technically (though, for party unity, it would certainly be a good idea to get along with each other). Currently, we have a governor, Tim Kaine, of one party and a lt. governor, Bill Bolling, of another, so you don't even need to vote for the entire ticket. I'm sure there are many in this country who would have voted for Sarah Palin in November but not John McCain if they could have. (Imagine a country with President Obama and Vice President Palin.)

The attorney general is also chosen by the voters. This gives us the chance not only to decide who we want to lead us politically and economically, but in terms of law and order as well. Bob McDonnell was our Attorney General until he recently resigned in order to devote his full attention to his campaign for governor.

If you've read my earlier posts, then you know that McDonnell is unopposed in the Republican primaries, while the Democrats are in a threeway fight for the nomination. That's just for the governorship, though. For lieutenant governor, Bill Bolling is also unopposed on the right, while there is currently a face-off between Democratic contenders Mike Signer and Jody Wagner about who will fill the second slot on the ticket. There were others, but they've dropped out and supported one or the other. As for the attorney general contenders, it's reversed. There's only one Democrat in the race, Stephen Shannon of Fairfax County, who will face one of three Republicans in the general election.

The separate conventions, Republican and Democrat, take place in a matter of weeks. Unless you're a delegate to one convention or another (which would be kind of cool, I admit, having you read my blog *grins*), then there's not much I can say about one of these "down-ticket" candidates or another that will make much difference in who is selected to contend for them. But remember the importance of the offices for which they strive.

And don't just think of them, either. Look even farther down the ticket. There are delegates and state senators and local elections all over the Commonwealth. Keep your eyes open for information about the candidates, no matter which party they are or which party you support. Government doesn't just exist at the national or state level. Every one of us is represented by literally dozens of elected officers, and it is our responsibility to know who they are and what they will or will not do for us.

So, whether you are a Virginian or not, whether you will vote for someone this year or not, don't adopt the attitude that whatever happens will happen without you. Are you tired of thinking that there's nothing you can do? It starts with knowing who represents you.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor

The president has named a replacement for retiring Justice David Souter to the Supreme Court. She is Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

Judge Sotomayor seems like a slam dunk, so to speak. She was originally appointed as a federal judge by President George H.W. Bush and placed on the Second Circuit by President Bill Clinton, so there's a certain air of "bi-partisanism" about her. She has more experience as a judge than any of the justices currently serving, including the high profile Major League Baseball strike in 1995. She sided with players over owners, leading to the claim that she "saved baseball in America". And, though this makes no difference to me at all, she's also a woman, and would be the first Hispanic to be appointed to the highest court in the land.

She's also earned a certain amount of controversy, though. Recently, she sided with the city of New Haven, CT in a classic affirmative action case. The city completely refused to promote qualified firefighters because candidates for promotion were predominantly white. The candidates were chosen based on test scores, and there weren't more "minority candidates" because more minorities didn't test high enough to warrant promotion. The city threw out the test results, though, and the firefighters sued the city. That case, which failed to find justice in the appeals court, is now on its way to the Supreme Court.

There was also a news conference where she made the inflammatory statement that the appeals court is "where policy is made". She quickly retracted, noticing that she was on video and quickly declaring "I should never say that, because we don't make law." I'm a fierce opponent of judicial activism in any form, and have never been comfortable with the president's statement that he wanted a new justice who would allow for empathy as well as knowledge of the law in his or her decision-making. That, to me, seems unwise, since the Supreme Court is charged with defending the Constitution, not the people. Judge Sotomayor seems like what the president wants in a jurist; but she's not what I want.

No one can doubt her qualifications. Obviously, she's a brilliant woman with a great love of the law. But will she follow it, or try to shape it? There are many, certainly, who will stand by her in this long confirmation process. In the interests of justice, though, someone needs to examine her negatives. I've already written to both of my Senators, and I urge all of you to do the same.

Dear Senator,

By now, I'm sure you know of President Obama's selection of Judge Sotomayor to replace Justice Souter on the Supreme Court. Senator, if you have any influence during her confirmation hearings, then I hope you will use it.

There’s always at least one case that provides a backdoor to a judge’s (or politician’s) true ideology. In Judge Sotomayor’s case, ruling that minority quotas are more important than ability to save lives in the New Haven firefighter case shows where her priorities lie. As I understand it, that case will soon find its way before the Supreme Court, in a strange twist of fate.

Beyond this, there's the troubling assertion she made once that policy is "made" in the Appeals Courts. This statement, made on video while sitting on the Appeals Court bench during a hearing, suggests a troubling level of activism.

Senator, I've written before on the subject of judicial activism. This, combined with her ironic position on affirmative action, is a serious concern for me. While you may not think they disqualify her for the highest court in the land, I hope you will use your influence to at least have them addressed. Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Stephen Monteith

Monday, May 25, 2009

Separation of Church and State gone amok

Congressman Nye,

I am writing this letter to strongly urge you to co-sponsor H.R. 268.

Congressman, I could not be more outraged at the recent reports of the Pentagon collecting and destroying Bibles that were legally given to and privately owned by American soldiers. These Christians had their freedom to worship trampled under the feet of religious extremists and anti-religious bigots. This travesty was carried out under the approving eye of Admiral Mike Mullen, and while it is reprehensible, it is also irreversible. Whether you come out against this heinous act or not is up to you.

But H.R. 268, designed to protect the rights of chaplains to pray according to their consciences, I do expect you to support; either with co-sponsorship or a simple yes vote should less-right thinking members of Congress even allow it to a vote.

Sincerely,

Stephen Monteith

For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about in this letter, let me give you the short version.

The Pentagon has seized and burned (yes, burned) Bibles written in local Afghani languages and donated to sevicemen in Afghanistan. Christian soldiers were given these Bibles, but later had them confiscated when the local Arab press, backed by atheist groups in American, claimed that the Bibles were intended for purposes of proselytizing, which is forbidden of American soldiers. The Arab media had video of these soldiers holding copies of the Bibles while listening to a sermon that encouraged "personal evangelism". The Pentagon confiscated the Bibles and destroyed them.

Obviously, it's too late to get the Bibles back. However, it's not too late to stand up against such abuse of our soldiers' religious freedom in the future. There are groups, specifically the benignly-named Military Religious Freedom Foundation, that expressly call for the court-martial of any soldier or chaplain who talks publicly about his or her faith. Ironically, in the name of "personal freedom", many of the same people are calling for a repeal of the infamous "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which prohibits gays and lesbians from serving "openly" in the military. How can the same people call for open homosexuality in the military, but not open Christianity?

There is an insidious tendency in those who strive to protect the rights of the minority; and that is, to ignore the rights of the majority. We would all love to live in an "enlightened" society where no one's rights are infringed, and everyone is free to worship and live how, where, or when they may. I don't know when exactly we reached the point when the rights of Christians needed to be protected, but I can tell you without hesitation that it has come and passed.

I've written to my Congressman, and now I've written a blog. I guarantee you, these will not be the last steps I take. What will you do?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

"Red-white-and-blue jobs"

That's the new catchphrase, if I and Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming have our way.

The senator makes the case that "green" jobs simply won't support the country's energy demands. Also, he says that proposed new energy policies would drive up the cost of energy production, making us more dependent on foreign energy; particularly foreign oil.

Sen. Barrasso is from a coal mining state. Virginia isn't as famous for coal mining as our sister state, West Virginia, but we do okay. Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell has proposed a new "clean coal" plant in Surrey. Unlike wind power, which barely covers one percent of the nation's power supply, coal represents thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in revenue for every state that mines it. If the federal government raises environmental and energy standards, it will cause a massive deficit in energy independence for the United States.

I've said for a long time now that energy independence is a national security issue, as much as it an economic issue; and I'm not the only one who says it. As the senator points out, there is no need to focus solely on green jobs in this country. In a time when people are desperate for work, and when people of every political stripe agree that we need more American energy sources, we need to create more jobs in the energy sector; what Sen. Barrasso calls "red-white-and-blue jobs". "American energy means American jobs", he reminds us. Clean coal is one such potential source of these red-white-and-blue jobs.

Another alternative source is nuclear energy. The Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia hosted a debate on energy policy this week, which featured panelists: Christine Todd Whitman, former governor of New Jersey and head of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush; James Woolsey, director of the CIA in the Clinton administration; John Podesta, head of President Obama's transition team and chief of staff for President Clinton; and Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy. PBS reports on the debate:

Governor Whitman points out that nuclear energy accounts for 20% of the country's energy, though no one really wants to admit it. She says that, though we might wish it, there is no "silver bullet" that will solve the energy problem.

Director Woolsey reminds us that the infamous Three Mile Island disaster was thirty years ago, and that nuclear energy is now clean, safe, and relatively inexpensive to operate. The main problems with it, in his view, are the cost of getting plants running and the fact that countries that use nuclear power tend to create more nuclear weapons. "We do not want the United States with a pro-nuclear policy, particularly one that it extends to exports, to become the Johnny Appleseed of nuclear proliferation by traveling around the world." Governor Whitman responds by saying that not building a new reactor in three decades hasn't stopped countries like North Korea and Iran from trying to develop nuclear weapons.

The cost of developing a nuclear plant is again raised, by John Podesta, as the real reason no one has submitted a fully developed plan for building a new plant. But Karen Harbert tells us that no fewer than 20 companies have applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for permission to build new plants, so there is what she calls an "industry appetite" in this country. Right here in Virginia, as I've written before, is one of the proposed sites for a new plant.

One thing that no one on the panel denies is that, though building a nuclear plant costs money, it will in the long run cost very little. That's a principle that both Democrats and Republicans should find familiar. And both in the short and long runs, it will create thousands of jobs; jobs right here in the good old U.S.A.

The Energy and Commerce Committee in the House of Representatives just approved a bill that would impose a cap-and-trade plan on power plants, oil refineries, and dozens of manufacturers to curtail their emissions. This measure is part of the fight to protect the environment. It will also, in the long run, drive up the cost of doing business in this country, which will eventually trickle down to every American. The "green revolution" is supposed to offset that; and maybe one day, it will. For now, though, the energy bill still has a long way to go before the full House even votes on it, let alone the Senate.

Which means there's still plenty of time to write to your Congressmen about these issues.

Negative campaigning in Virginia

During last year's Republican presidential primaries, I said that if Mitt Romney received the nomination, then the other Republican candidates would sound pretty foolish trying to campaign for him. After all, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, and especially John McCain had said on plenty of occassions that Romney was unfit to be president (basically). It's hard to rebuild a bridge once you've burned it down.

Terry McAuliffe finds himself in pretty much the same situation that Romney was in. Brian Moran and Creigh Deeds, his opponents for the Democratic nomination, have begun attacking him directly as the time draws near for Virginia's Democratic primary.

Some of the attacks echo complaints that McAuliffe is not as "Virginian" as others, since he's spent most of his time away from the Commonwealth while the other candidates were serving in state government. Other attacks claim he's not as "Democratic", since he campaigned for then Senator Hillary Clinton against then Senator Barack Obama. Every attack shows that both Moran and Deeds are concerned now, since all three seemed to be tied in the race for the nomination, and McAuliffe has the most money coming in for his campaign.

If McAuliffe becomes the candidate, then Moran and Deeds will need to do some pretty sharp 180's. They've pretty much avoided attacking each other, and McAuliffe hasn't really attacked either of them; so Moran or Deeds as a candidate could easily be endorsed by the other two. Not the case with McAuliffe, though.

What do you think is worse? Partisanism, or infighting?

Friday, May 22, 2009

New numbers in the Virginia Governor's race

The National Journal wrote an article about the current status of each of the contenders for governor. Daily Kos/Research 2000 reported yesterday that Bob McDonnell, the presumptive GOP nominee, is viewed as either favorably or very favorably by about 53% of Virginians. Those numbers are comparable to Barack Obama's numbers late in his campaign, the article points out.
The article goes on to mention that each of the Democratic candidates is viewed significantly less favorably. Terry McAuliffe is seen favorably or very favorably by a combined 37%, and Brian Moran and Creigh Deeds are both at 35%. The poll goes on to say that, in head-to-head general election matchups, McDonnell would beat Moran 42% to 35%, McAuliffe 44% to 34%, and Deeds 45% to 32%.

I think this poll says more about the Democrats in the race than it does McDonnell. As the article points out, McAuliffe has low favorables and high unfavorables despite such high profile endorsements as former President Bill Clinton and hip-hop star Will.i.am. Deeds has been airing television ads for a while now, while I can't even remember seeing an ad by Moran. And yet, Moran enjoys comparable favorability ratings with the others, despite his lower visibility, and according to the poll stands the best chance against McDonnell in the general election. Also, the primaries are usually packed with the devout and the politicos, which for the most part have supported Moran above the other Democrats.

Obviously, this poll is by no means definitive or final. During the presidential election last year, I just shook my head at the daily, almost hourly, polling reports. The Democrats haven't even chosen a nominee yet, and as I've said before, you can expect an "all-star" turnout once they finally do. Virginia is a crucial indicator, I feel, of the direction the country wants to go. No one in the DNC, least of all its chairman Governor Kaine, will forget about the Commonwealth this year. We'll see which way the numbers go once the general election campaigns officially start.

There are still a few weeks to go to the Democratic primary, but I predict Moran for Democratic candidate; and McDonnell for Governor.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Whose fault is that?

Brian Moran, a contender for the Democratic nomination for Governor of Virginia, has announced his plan to expand benefits and rights of veterans and active duty military in the Commonwealth. Some of these deserve more than just a second look, like his proposal to exempt overseas active duty income from state income taxes. One provision of his "bill of rights", though, seems like little more than grandstanding to my eyes:

"If Virginia state employees are called up for military service, the state should make up any lost income if their military pay checks are less than what they earned in state government."

And why, exactly, is that? These are former service members. If they are recalled to duty, then it is the job of the federal government to compensate them for their services. The Commonwealth basically will have had one of their employees taken from them by the federal government. At the least, they'll lose the services of that employee for the duration of his time in the military, and will be forced to replace any recalled employees. On top of that, Brian Moran wants the Commonwealth to keep paying them? Even if it's just "making up the difference", Virginia would be paying two people for each of these positions they would need to refill; and one of those people wouldn't even be working.

Mr. Moran's plan, obviously, is still in the planning stages. He hasn't even announced how he would pay for these expanded benefits. I'm sure we'll hear more as it becomes more ... refined.

Liberty for all?

President Obama spoke earlier today about the need to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. There are many things I could say about the president and his policies, especially on this issue. For now, though, I have only one thing to say: I disagree with him.

Here is an excerpt from the president's speech:

"Finally, there remains the question of detainees at Guantanamo who cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people.

"I want to be honest: this is the toughest issue we will face. We are going to exhaust every avenue that we have to prosecute those at Guantanamo who pose a danger to our country. But even when this process is complete, there may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States. Examples of that threat include people who have received extensive explosives training at al Qaeda training camps, commanded Taliban troops in battle, expressed their allegiance to Osama bin Laden, or otherwise made it clear that they want to kill Americans. These are people who, in effect, remain at war with the United States.

"As I said, I am not going to release individuals who endanger the American people. Al Qaeda terrorists and their affiliates are at war with the United States, and those that we capture – like other prisoners of war – must be prevented from attacking us again. However, we must recognize that these detention policies cannot be unbounded. That is why my Administration has begun to reshape these standards to ensure they are in line with the rule of law. We must have clear, defensible and lawful standards for those who fall in this category. We must have fair procedures so that we don't make mistakes. We must have a thorough process of periodic review, so that any prolonged detention is carefully evaluated and justified."

I'm not a lawyer; just a young man who grew up on lawyer shows, like Ally McBeal, The Practice, Law & Order, and Boston Legal. Aside from the characters and all their flaws, the one thing that the writers seem to want to make clear in every episode is that justice is paramount. The characters defend, in properly dramatic fashion, the rights of rapists, drug dealers, murderers, and more than a few corrupt politicians. The ideal seems to be that, no matter how despicable a person may be, the law must be upheld in pursuing, prosecuting, and punishing them.

In the case of the suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, I say there is no reason we should not already be actively investigating and determining the guilt or innocence of every detainee. Whether it's done in civilian courts, military tribunals, or an international war crimes commission, I don't really care. Once the investigations are over, though, and every potential enemy combatant has had his "day in court", comes the moment when the jury says either "guilty" or "not guilty". The guilty are sent back to prison; the not guilty are free to go.

No one, I'm sure, wants a potential suicide bomber walking the streets, or worse, boarding a plane. The president has rightly identified the most difficult decision he must make in this area: what to do with those people we know, but cannot prove, are terrorists. Perhaps we would all like to do what the president seems to propose, and what his predecessor did: indefinitely hold these "unproven" terrorists until we're sure they will never harm anyone ever again. That is not justice, however. I'll say it again: no matter how despicable (or even dangerous) a person may be, the law must be upheld. If you can prove guilt, then incarcerate them; execute them, if you feel it's appropriate. If you cannot, though, then set them free. Set spies and satellites and Special Forces to watching them for the rest of their lives, but set them free.

There are many things the president has said, done, and proposed in the war on terror with which we can all take strong issue. Personally, I have many objections to his policies. For each of those policies, though, he seems to fight on the side of justice for all. Only in this area does he seem prepared to ignore that ideal.

I object.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"Why Government Can't Run a Business"

John Steele Gordon, writing for the Wall Street Journal, today lays out seven reasons why the government, if it had to actually compete in the free market, would soon find itself bankrupt (oh, wait, isn't it already?). It has to be the best article I've read on exactly why Congress (in general) makes a lousy board of directors, and why presidents are lousy CEO's. I'll give you some highlights, but I encourage you to read the full article.

First of all, as the subtitle reads: "Politicians need headlines. Executives need profits." Mr. Gordon illustrates the main difference between businessmen and politicians: their goals. The businessman is motivated by the desire to make money. This will drive him to reduce costs, increase efficiency, and provide superior goods and/or services in order to remain competitive in the market. Businesses that fail to do so, fail.

Politicians, on the other hand, are driven by the desire to remain in office. This sort of motivation leads even the most reasonable men and women to sometimes abandon principle in favor of political expediency. As a character in the popular series The West Wing once noted to the president: "I think Lincoln did what he thought was right, even though it meant losing half the country. I think you don't do what you think is right if it means losing Michigan's electoral votes." And by the way, government programs almost never fold, no matter how costly, inefficient, and inferior they are.

Mr. Gordon gives several instances of this in the government's history, including its takeover of the steel and phone industries during the early decades of the last century. To this list, I would also like to add the U.S. Postal Service, which has yet to alter its practices in decades (only its prices), despite the superior private market alternatives FedEx and UPS. You would think, given President Obama's recent argument that a government-run health care industry would be competitive with private insurers, that he would also promise to overhaul the postal service to make it competitive, as well. After all, if the government is going to be in the business of business, then it should demonstrate its ability to innovate.

Like I said, it is a very insightful article. As a free market advocate, I couldn't be happier to discover such a well-reasoned argument against government expansion into the private sector; and, not incidentally, against government-run health care.

Monday, May 18, 2009

You'd better watch out, you'd better not cry ...

... you'd better not cheat on your taxes, or you'll go to jail for up to 25 years and pay over half a million in fines.

The Senate just passed the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act of 2009, and it's in front of the House right now. They'll vote on it sometime around six this afternoon, so it's probably too late to write to your congressman, but here's something you should keep in mind:

"Under S. 386, the act of tax evasion itself—without the need or any subsequent financial transaction—would be treated as 'money laundering.' Thus, tax evasion would be punishable both under the tax code (which treats it a felony), and under the federal money laundering statute, which carries far greater penalties (20 years imprisonment and $500,000 fine, versus five years and $100,000)."

I don't know how many of you out there are "tax evaders", and frankly I don't want to know. But if you are, then you'd better watch your back, your front, and everything else you have, because the government's coming to town.

It's a school, for cryin' out loud

Apparently, the state legislature is considering requiring the University of Virginia to accept a higher number of applicants from inside the Commonwealth than it already does. Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and a former UVA professor, spoke out against the legislation at commencement yesterday.

Does this sound at all to anyone else like affirmative action? Requiring colleges to favor a particular type of student from a particular background?

UVA, like all colleges and universities, keeps its doors open with tuition money. Out-of-state tuition, as everyone knows, is higher than in-state. If they can draw more money from a student living in Maryland or Kentucky or California, then let them.

And what's the rationale behind the legislation, anyway? Protectionism? Virginians are more worthy of an education there than residents of other states? I'm not quite sure I understand why they need this legislation. Don't colleges want to draw students from other states? Some, like Duke University and UNC, aggressively recruit from all across the country.

I'm a little biased, I suppose. I personally consider Virginia to be one of the greatest states in the nation. I want more people to come here and see what a great place the Commonwealth is. I want them to stay for a few years, and then go back to their homes and make the rest of the country more like us. But, that's just me talking. It's hardly a rationale for sound admissions regulations.

Still, since I can't exactly fathom what the current rationale is, I can't really say that it's superior to my own. *shrugs*

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Deja vu all over again

Is the Democratic Party headed for a civil war?

Relax. It's not as bad as all that (probably). Democrats are just going through what Republicans went through in the early years of the new millenium. It happened faster than I thought it would, actually. Disorganization, and dare I say disunity, kept Democrats in the minority for years. They came together in 2006 to take control of Congress, and despite a lengthy primary battle, they came together again in 2008 to win the White House.

But did the rifts actually heal, or were these instances of bandages across chasms? Their leadership, including several Cabinet members and committee chairs in the House of Representatives, have had to deal with scandals, like the Republicans did. Sure, it's over taxes and not sex, but it still doesn't make me want to vote for them. Hypocrisy is hypocrisy.

Which brings us to the most powerful woman in Washington. Most people aren't aware of the "inside politics" in the House of Representatives. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi may have engineered a victory for the party in 2006, but she also stepped on a few toes (and even a few backs) on her way to the top. She backed a few horses that didn't quite win their races, most notably Rep. John Murtha over Rep. Steny Hoyer for Majority Leader. With the recent controversy over whether or not she knew and did nothing about torture at Guantanamo Bay early in the war on terror, her opponents on both sides of the aisle have begun to smell blood in the water.

Barack Obama has his own problems with the left since becoming president. Last year, as sort of a joke, I asked if then Senator Obama was actually a closet Republican because he had supported a Supreme Court decision to strike down a D.C. gun ban and as senator had voted for the Bush-Cheney energy plan and to reauthorize FISA. Last autumn, he sided with President Bush on TARP. And since becoming president, he has apparently sided with Bush on Iraq, Guantanamo, and military tribunals. He's practically a Republican on national security issues right now. And it's driving the left crazy.

The Speaker of the House and the President of the United States are both Democrats; and Democrats across the country are angry and lashing out at both of them. Is this a simple case of politicians versus the public, or is the left coming down with an acute case of buyer's remorse?

Well, at least now they know how Republicans feel.

Friday, May 15, 2009

"Fiscal Suicide Ahead"

David Brooks, writing for the New York Times, laments that President Obama started the recent deluge of spending in the hopes that entitlement reform, particularly in the area of health care, would provide him the necessary capital to keep his spending programs afloat. Whether or not that idea was feasible, Brooks writes that none of the president's proposed health care or other entitlement initiatives will actually save that much money over the years. He warns that, unless the president can eliminate costs quickly, we may be heading for "fiscal suicide".

I can think of a great way to eliminate costs: get out of the entitlement business. Yes, there are many people out there who simply have no alternative but to turn to the government; but as even President Bill Clinton understood, you cannot keep people on the government dole forever. You need to help them a little at first, and then wean them onto self-reliancy. With President Clinton, the issue was getting people off the welfare system. With President Obama, it MUST be getting people onto affordable, non-governmental health care plans.

Can anyone doubt that, as more people adopt private insurance plans, the health care industry will boom? More people will get jobs in the health care sector, thus growing the economy as we grow coverage. Not only will costly entitlement programs fall into disuse, but more people will be paying taxes.

I haven't always been a free market advocate. It was actually George W. Bush's plan to incentivize private savings funds as an alternative to the Social Security problem that got me thinking about the role of government in our lives. I tried to come up with arguments against the former president's plan, but I kept coming back to the issue of personal responsibility. Eventually, I realized that, while we may need the government sometimes, we should never rely on it to fix our problems; or to run our lives.

It's the old "give a man a fish, teach a man to fish" argument all over again. The government needs to get out of the health care business. Regulate it, maybe; run it, never. If you agree, then please, write to your representatives in Congress; and to our representative in the White House.

For all you Facebook users ...

You can now follow me on Facebook, as well:

http://apps.facebook.com/blognetworks/blog/a_free_exchange_of_ideas/

I think that link will work. Let me know if it doesn't.

President to begin military tribunals

President Obama has stated today that he intends to restart military tribunals for the suspected terrorist detainees at Guantanamo Bay; with some revisions to the tribunals.

This is an encouraging position for those of us who have wondered in just what light the president views the war on terror. His Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, famously refused to even use the word terrorist, or the phrase 'war on terror'. Just a handful of days into office, the president signed an order to close Guantanamo Bay, without even a clear plan about what to do with the more than 200 prisoners held there. He had made grand promises all throughout his campaign to become president to end the war as soon as possible once he became president, setting what seemed to be completely arbitrary timelines about when to withdraw all of our troops from Iraq.

Recently, though, he has taken what many see as a far more practical approach to fighting this war. Instead of drastically lowering troop levels in Iraq, he has actually begun to raise them in other parts of the Middle East. Instead of releasing literally thousands of damaging and embarrassing documents relating to steps taken in the past to fight the war, no matter how right or wrong those steps may have been, he has opted on the side of national security and the security of those fighting to protect this great country. And now, rather than charging ahead with a half-conceived closure of a facility that no doubt houses some of the most dangerous people in the world, the president will begin proceedings to determine which of these detainees are actually dangerous and which were merely in the wrong places at the wrong times.

I couldn't be happier, myself. I've said for a long time that we need to sort the guilty from the innocent. Guantanamo may be a controversial place, but it's not about location; it's about treatment of the people there. We've needed, for a long time, to answer the question of who really belongs there and who should be sent home. The president is taking the first steps towards doing that.

His decision has drawn sharp and frankly unforgiving criticism from organizations like the ACLU and Amnesty International, who say he is not only backtracking on his campaign promises, but on his commitment to justice. I don't mean to downplay the sympathy these organizations feel for the plight of the detainees; but I would suggest to them, and everyone, that when persons such as Barack Obama and George W. Bush find themselves in agreement on any issue, it is worth considering that they may actually be right.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Just between us Virginians

Will.i.am, front man for the hip hop group Black Eyed Peas, has endorsed and is campaigning for Terry McAuliffe in the race to be Virginia's governor.

I don't think much of celebrity endorsements in general, but in presidential elections I tend to not say anything. After all, everyone is entitled to campaign for whoever they like. In this case, though, I'd prefer if we just left this among Virginians. Will.i.am is basically here for the weekend. It's like Paul McCartney coming over to endorse a candidate for president; he and the rest of the world may be interested, but we're the ones who do all the voting, so let us make up our own minds.

Now, Will.i.am is more than just an entertainer. He started the IAM organization, a fund setup to help teenagers who get accepted to colleges but cannot afford to pay tuition. He also helped campaign for Barack Obama and other Democratic candidates, so he's not exactly a stranger to the election scene.

He's not from Virginia, though. This is our contest, our election, and our governor. We have to make the decision, and we have to live with the result. Celebrities are still people, and they may actually be interested in who becomes governor; but they shouldn't be stumping for candidates for whom they cannot even vote. And yes, that applies to Republican "stars", too.

Politicians from other states, I feel, are a special case. I didn't mind so much, for example, when former President Clinton appeared alongside Terry McAuliffe. We're talking about the business of running a government, after all. A former chief executive's opinion is one that may actually mean something. We can most likely expect President Obama himself to visit the Commonwealth, once the Democrats in Virginia have settled on a candidate.

But how can you compare the word of a singer, with no governing or legislating experience, who's not even from Virginia or living here, to that of a president or former president?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Credit Cardholder's Bill of Rights

I just read H.R. 627, the Credit Cardholders' Bill of Rights Act. It just passed the House of Representatives, and is on its way to the U.S. Senate for consideration.

It's a good bill, actually. I was wary when I first heard that Congress and the president wanted more regulation for the credit card industry. I'm not a complete anarchist, but I do believe in minimal government interference, especially in the free market system. Let the buyer beware, and all that. Still, the bill isn't that bad. You can read the full text of it here (just be careful of the Washingtonese *winks, grins*).

I did have a couple of concerns, and I've already written to my Senators about it; hopefully in time to catch them before they vote on it. I'd encourage anyone else to do the same.


Dear Senator,

I just finished reading the text of H.R. 627. I approached it with some skepticism, as per the reasons I stated in an earlier email. It took a moment, I admit, to become accustomed to the language of the bill, but once I had, I felt that this was largely a good bill.

I am concerned, however, by a few elements of the proposed Sec. 127B. Specifically, as outlined in section 2, subsection b., paragraph 1, credit card companies are allowed to continue imposing certain rate increases under certain conditions. However, the following subsections seem to systematically supercede each of those conditions. This makes it practically impossible for credit card companies to impose sanctions against abusers and offenders, at least during the first year.

Section 4 seems a little ambiguous to me. In proposed subsection m, paragraph 1, it says that a consumer may elect to permit the creditor to complete transactions in excess of the authorized credit limit. In paragraph 4, it says "the election ... shall be effective until the election is revoked by the consumer orally or in writing." What it doesn't make clear is whether that refers to transactions within the same billing cycle as the original transaction in excess, or if it extends to other billing cycles.

Also, proposed subsection o prohibits over-the-limit fees in cases where exceeding the credit limit was due to a credit hold. I would suggest instead, Senator, requiring credit card companies to inform consumers of holds in a timely manner, and, if a consumer then attempts to make a purchase before the hold is resolved, an over-the-limit fee or other penalty be imposable.

Reading this bill, Senator, it seems that it was written more to protect credit cardholders, which is certainly in keeping with the spirit of the title. However, as a former businessman, I'm sure you would agree that corporations, especially lending corporations, have rights as well. As I wrote before, all individuals assumes risks when they sign their names. I largely feel this is a good bill; but I think, with respect to the principles of a free market system, it is the buyer who should beware.

Thank you for your consideration, Senator.

Sincerely,

Stephen Monteith

Friday, May 8, 2009

Health Care being considered in the Senate

Yesterday, I posted former Governor Mitt Romney's plan for providing a national, market-driven universal health care initiative. Two days earlier, the Senate Finance Committee heard testimonies from a wide panel that included executives from many health care providers. Next week, according to an Associated Press report, the committee will meet in closed session to consider three different versions of a government health plan.

This will be my third post on this subject. Those who have read my previous posts know that I'm in favor of a free market health care system, one that is run by doctors, patients, and the market, rather than a government-run system. That is a view held by many in the country, and I hope the committee will keep that squarely in mind, as well as all the pros and cons of any health care system, while they meet together.

The three versions the committee will debate include a Medicare-like system, run by the Health and Human Services department; a similar plan, but one run by an outside party so the government is not in direct control; and a plan that would call for individual states to create and provide plans for their residents.

I have to say, of the three, the third is the only one I could remotely see myself supporting. First of all, the HHS department is run by political appointees; meaning that any health care administered under such a plan would be shaped by the ideology of whatever Secretary, and therefore whatever President, we happen to have at the moment. The second plan I do not see as being much better. Even if the "outside party" is given full autonomy, which I frankly doubt, the government will still hold the purse strings. When your sole benefactor is the government, you do what the government tells you to do.

The third proposal seems more in line with conservative principles. After all, the Founders wanted a weak central government; as weak as possible without leaving the country in anarchy. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution clearly states that any powers not granted to the federal government would be retained by the states. That would seem to make the states responsible for the health care of their residents, anyway. However, if you support a liberal interpretation of the Constitution, then you may conclude that health insurance constitutes interstate commerce, and therefore it is Congress' responsibility to involve itself.

Some government-run health care advocates, as the article states, claim that the option would keep private insurance companies "honest". In the free market system, though, competition is what keeps companies "honest". If you're doing a poor job of insuring people's health, then a higher-quality, lower-cost company will take your place.

I'm going to share some excerpts from the testimonies given to members of the Senate Finance Committee. If you don't recognize the names of these people or even the companies they run, then I hope you'll recognize their sentiments:

Scott Serota, President and Chief Executive Officer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, Washington, DC:

"With over 80 years of experience, Blue Cross and Blue Shield Plans offer individual, small employer, and large employer market products in every zip code. We also partner with the government in Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and the Federal Employees Program. As such, the Blue System has a unique perspective on how to improve our health care system."

Recommendations

"We believe that the most effective way to expand coverage is to build on the employer-based system – which already provides coverage to more than 160 million people today. Our proposal, The Pathway to Covering America, seeks to expand coverage, rein in costs, and improve quality through five recommended steps:

1. Encourage research on what works by establishing a permanent, independent
comparative effectiveness research institute;
2. Change incentives to promote better care instead of more services;
3. Empower consumers and providers with information and tools needed to make more
informed decisions;
4. Promote health and wellness by encouraging healthy lifestyles to prevent disease and managing and coordinating the care of those with chronic illnesses; and
5. Foster public-private coverage solutions to make sure everyone is covered, with
subsidies for individuals and small employers to purchase private coverage, as well as targeted expansions of Medicaid and CHIP."


Stuart M. Butler, Ph.D., Vice President, Domestic and Economic Policy Studies, The Heritage Foundation, Washington, DC:

"I believe Congress can achieve a broad consensus for action on coverage. But I am very concerned about two proposals that have entered the picture: a 'competing' public plan and a federal health board. These are like nuclear landmines on the road to broad agreement. They could be lethal to the prospects for consensus and even to the passage of any significant legislation.

"Some say that within an exchange there must be a default plan that will be a 'safe harbor,' and that plan should be a public plan – perhaps one modeled on Medicare. But it is important to remember an old sporting adage – if the umpire works for one of the teams you should be suspicious of the score. The simple fact is that if the government is sponsoring a competition within an exchange, and also is the owner of one of the plans, there can be little doubt that the rules and regulations promulgated by Washington will favor the government-sponsored plan. A 'competing' public plan as a choice will inevitably become a public plan for all, and is unacceptable."

These are just a handful of paragraphs from just two of the testifying members of the panel. As you can see, though, there are plenty of reasons to be wary of a government-run system. Even in the total absence of partisanism, there is great potential for abuse of the system. I'm sure I do not need to remind anyone of the scandals we've had in Washington "on both sides of the aisle".

You may say that companies are even more prone to corruption than Washington is. You may even be right. But before you allow another massive expansion of government powers, before you allow another large and untried government program to be created (one that could potentially cost billions of taxpayer dollars that we already don't have), please read the testimonies found at the link above. Please ask yourself if we can afford a "new new deal". And please ask yourself, with the obvious alternatives available to us, if we even need it.

I'll be writing to my representative, and to both of my senators. I encourage all of you to do the same.

Gitmo detainees? Not in my back yard

One of Barack Obama's first official acts as president of the United States was to sign an executive order closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. More than a hundred days have passed, though, and he has not submitted a full plan for doing so. Of course, the president has been fairly busy these last few months, trying to save the economy and attending meetings around the world. The biggest problem with shutting the doors on the prison, I feel, is the question of where to send all the detainees.

I think it's safe to say that not everyone being held at Gitmo, as Guantanamo Bay is sometimes called, is a terrorist or even a terrorist sympathizer. Some of them are, though. We've already released some detainees, under President Bush I might add, who have committed confirmed acts of terrorism since being released. These aren't people who became terrorists in prison, either. Some proved to be what you might call officers in the terror war. Personally, I feel we should start proceedings immediately, if we haven't already, to determine who is and who isn't an "enemy combatant" before we release another prisoner.

Still, Gitmo is closing. The president wants it closed, the people want it closed, it's going to close. So the question is, where do we keep all the detainees until their status is determined? I don't relish the idea of a potential terrorist in Norfolk, VA, which believe it or not is one of the places being discussed as a holding site, along with another site in my home state. Two sites in Virginia, no matter how secure they are, is frankly two too many for me. At least Gitmo was an island surrounded by Marines. If a terrorist escaped, then he still had nowhere to go. If a terrorist escapes into Norfolk, though, he won't be surrounded by Marines; he'll be surrounded by civilians.

I'm not unsympathetic to the innocents being held at Gitmo. They should have their freedom again. But they are not my primary concern. My primary concern is the ones who are actually a threat not just to my life but also the lives of even more innocents. That's why I support distinguishing who is and who isn't a terrorist, and doing it quickly. In the meantime, though, I don't want terrorists in my state, no matter how many guards are around them. From the number of states that have basically told the president the same thing, and the amount of time it's taking to actually close Guantanamo, I don't think I'm alone in that sentiment.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, coincidentally from Virginia like myself, has introduced legislation in Congress that would require approval from the governor and legislature of a particular state before the president could relocate detainees to that state. The legislation, titled Keep Terrorists Out of America Act, includes several provisions:

Affirming Congress’ Opposition to the Release and Transfer of Terrorists. The bill affirms Congress’ opposition to transferring or releasing terrorists held at the Guantanamo Bay prison into the United States. Most Americans do not support releasing these terrorists from Guantanamo Bay prison and transferring them into the United States. The bill gives Congress an opportunity to show that it stands with the American people on this critical matter, and opposes the release and transfer of these terrorists.


Governor & State Legislature Pre-Approval. The measure prohibits the Administration from transferring or releasing any terrorist detainees at Guantanamo Bay to any state without express approval from the state’s governor and legislature, and certifies to Congress that strict requirements have been met. For example, the Administration must certify to the respective governor and state legislature that the detainee does not pose a security risk to the United States. The certifications must be made 60 days before any transfer or release.


Presidential Certification Requirements. The measure prohibits the President from transferring or releasing a terrorist detainee into the United States unless he provides the following notification and certification to Congress regarding:

The name of the detainee and transfer/release location in the United States.
The release/transfer would not negatively impact continued prosecution of the detainee.
The release/transfer would not negatively impact continued detention of the detainee.
The ability of federal judges to release detainees into the United States.

I'll be writing to my representative, Congressman Glenn Nye, and both of my senators, Senators Warner and Webb, asking them to support this legislation. The president has many options at his disposal in dealing with suspected terrorists. The option that he shouldn't have is forcing any town, city, or state to house the suspects while he sorts it all out. He can ask us to; but we can certainly say no.

Update: Congressman Nye's reply

Dear Mr. Monteith,

Thank you for contacting me about the movement of Guantanamo Bay detainees to prisons located in the continental the United States. It is helpful to learn the views of my friends and neighbors in Tidewater, and I appreciate having your input.

Please know that I do not support the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo to the Hampton Roads area. We lack the facilities to hold these presumed terrorists, and this would set a dangerous precedent for the movement of other combatants to our area.

Again, thank you for contacting me. Please feel free to call on me in the future if I may be of service to you or your family. If you would like more information about the issues I am working on in Congress, or if you would like to sign up to receive my monthly e-newsletter, I encourage you to visit my website at http://www.nye.house.gov/.

Sincerely,

Glenn Nye
Member of Congress

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Real universal health care

Recently, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney wrote an article for Newsweek detailing how we can have a universal health care initiative in America that is not run by the government. I'm going to list some of the highlights, including his six-point plan for implementing such a system. You can read the full article here:

Governor Romney starts by listing the ideals of a universal system, one that would "cost less, have the highest quality, and see that it extends to all Americans--even when they lose their jobs or when they're sick." He points out that free markets have a much better history of reducing costs and improving quality and productivity in any enterprise than governments do. He points to the United States Postal Service versus UPS and FedEx as a prime example, and says "If you liked the HMOs of the '80s, you'd love government-run health care".

He then outlines his plan for a market-driven universal health care initiative, drawing on the plan he developed as governor as a template:

1. Get everyone insured. Give tax credits, vouchers, or coinsurance to low income households. For those who can afford it, require them to either buy insurance or pay for their own care; if they do neither, then they get no tax credit, or they lose a deduction. Help pay for it by redirecting the tens of billions that now go to pay for free care at hospitals. "No more 'free riders'."

2. Make health insurance affordable and portable. Tax credits for consumers who purchase their own insurance, plus insuring everyone, will reduce costs significantly. This would also help Americans who change or lose jobs keep their insurance.

3. Give people an incentive to care how expensive and how good their health-care treatment will be. In France and Switzerland, he points out, the insured pay a given percent of the entire bill, up to a certain amount. This type of coinsurance keeps the insured's eye on costs, unlike with deductibles.

4. Provide citizens with information about the cost and quality of providers and the effectiveness of alternative treatments. "This transparency, when it's combined with a meaningful personal financial incentive, will help health care work more like a consumer market."

5. Reform Medicare and Medicaid, likewise applying market principles to lower cost and improve patient care.

6. Center reforms at the state level. "Open the door to state plans designed to meet the various needs of their citizens. Before imposing a one-size-fits-all federal program, let the states serve as 'the laboratories of democracy.'"

I'm a free market advocate. I believe in capitalism and the power of the market to drive down prices and raise quality of service. Haven't we seen it in practically every business venture? Don't the low-cost, high-service companies tend to do better than high-cost, low-quality ones? Why shouldn't we give insurance companies the incentive to operate the same way? It would mean fewer taxes for everyone, an actual tax credit for people who make less, and most importantly, quality coverage for everyone.

An (almost) unintended benefit of market-driven health care would be the benefit to the economy. Can anyone deny that the more businesses arise, the healthier the economy will be? If the health insurance industry booms under such a plan, as it inevitably would, then not only would more people have insurance, but more people would have jobs.

Democrats in recent months have tried to brand the Republican Party as the party of no; more specifcally, as the party of no ideas. The problem with that, as I've said before, is the irony behind it all. As Governor Romney points out, "Republicans have introduced bills in Washington that promote these and other consumer-driven policies. In every one, the patient and doctor guide care, not the government--and that makes all the difference." The irony is, every time a Republican presents an idea to Congress, it is either derided, dismissed, or just plain ignored. I'm not a Republican, but I know they have ideas. This is definitely one of their better ones; and we would all do well to study it more thoroughly before we accept the conventional wisdom that government-run care is the only option.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Higher quality education, not higher quantity

Recently, Arne Duncan, the United States Secretary of Education, suggested that we need longer school days, longer school weeks, and longer school years (thank goodness he didn't suggest a longer school month, too). His argument is, "It doesn't matter how poor, how tough the family background, socioeconomic challenges ... Where students have longer days, longer weeks, longer years -- that's making a difference."

I grew up here in Virgina Beach. For thirteen years, from Kindergarten through my senior year in high school, I attended public schools; and I tell you, it was quality education. We had art, music, and drama. We had student athletics. My high school offered advanced placement courses and other college level classes in many different subjects. One thing we didn't have was overcrowding in the classrooms. Growing up, I never understood people on television who would complain about the quality of public education, about how impossible it was to learn anything, or to take a decent arts program, or to find a classroom where the students weren't crammed "like sardines".

I get it now. Not every community has that level of quality available to them in their schools. They don't have proper teaching materials. Their buildings are actually crumbling. The textbooks are outdated, and sometimes not even grade level-appropriate. Not least of all, the teachers are overworked, underappreciated, and (some would say rightly) cynical in their daily tasks. We've all seen the movies and TV specials about the brave inner city teacher or coach who resolves to never quit on his or her students, and, against all odds, actually makes a difference in their lives. Unfortunately, that is the exception to the rule.

And the Secretary of Education thinks the solution is to make students go to these types of schools LONGER?

Michael Jordan, generally considered to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time, once spoke about the need to focus on the fundamentals of the game if you hope to excel: "It comes down to a very simple saying: There is a right way and a wrong way to do things. You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way. Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise."

What are the fundamentals of education? First, you need a teacher who is dedicated and motivated to teaching and improving the lives of his or her students. It's hard to be dedicated and motivated, these days. With the economy in its current situation, state governments are finding that one of the best ways to save on costs (in the short run, at least) is to cut education funding. That's like a company that's losing money because of lousy customer service marks and trying to boost profits by cutting the customer service program. Teachers are the most important part of the education system; the foundation, without which, we wouldn't need any other part. They need proper training, proper support from the government and communities, and most of all, proper compensation for their services.

Second, you need proper teaching materials, such as textbooks that are up-to-date and appropriate to the grade level in which they are being used. When I first heard of schools where tenth-graders were being taught with sixth, fifth, or even fourth grade textbooks, my first thought actually was "You MUST be joking!" The quality of education doesn't suffer because students aren't staying late enough; it suffers because we aren't giving them what they need in order to learn.

Third, you need proper facilities in which to teach them. I'd hear of "crumbling schools" on the news and then go to a freshly painted building the next day. And all those students crammed "like sardines" into classrooms? I simply had never experienced anything like that growing up. I would go to school the next day after hearing something like that on TV and look at my classmates stretching out in their seats. I'd go to Phys. Ed. and play basketball, or run on the track, or lift weights, and think to myself "How can there be schools that don't have all of this?"

Fourth, and this cannot be stressed enough, the community itself must be invested in the success of the school. Strong community involvement, such as regularly held and attended PTA meetings, city council discussions, and well-funded and advertised extracurricular programs will demonstrate to the parents, and (not incidentally) to the students, the importance of having a good, quality education. These extracurricular programs may include athletic programs, school chorus and orchestral presentations, or dramatic productions. Students should find a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that comes from more than just a report card with good grades on it. They should be allowed to put their creative and physical energies to work producing plays, works of art, and yes, even touchdowns and three-pointers. Can anyone dispute that a happy, well-rounded, and appreciated student is more likely to pursue higher education than a student who merely sits in a classroom all day?

The problem, of course, is money; no money to pay the teachers, to buy new textbooks and lab supplies, to fix the schools, or to fund a football game or a school play. We'd all like there to be more money available for these and more issues, and we all shake our heads because "there just isn't enough". Well, here's an idea: how about actually reining in all the runaway spending in Congress, the multi-trillion dollar bailout funds that aren't really helping businesses anyway, and instead of politicians raising money in the seven, eight, and nine-figure ranges to get themselves elected, we raise money to send our children to decent or even adequate schools?

I'm sending a letter to Secretary Duncan and the president, including my above response to his policies, and my proposals. I guarantee, if he takes proposals like this to the American people, he will see a much better response than he did when he suggested going to school longer. We'll all see a much higher graduation rate, as well.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Justice for all

Justice David Souter is retiring from the United States Supreme Court later this year. His vacancy will be filled with by presidential appointment, approved by the U. S. Senate. President Obama has promised to select an appointee who has empathy for Americans and will be guided by that empathy in his or her rulings. His statement was praised by members of Congress who are looking forward to more diversity and compassion on the highest court in the land.

Here is where I and "members of Congress" part ways. The United States is a republic. In a republic, you elect people to represent your views and needs in government. The legislative branch, Congress, writes and passes the laws. The executive branch, headed by the president, enforces the laws. In both branches, compassion and empathy for the public is expected and required; and if it is absent, the public has the opportunity every few years to completely replace every sitting member of both branches.

The judicial branch, though, is the one branch where compassion and empathy only hinder the performance of duty. In the halls of the Supreme Court, everything is black and white. Either a law passed by Congress is unconstitutional, or it isn't. Either the president, in the course of his duties, has violated the Constitution, or he hasn't. Personal feelings or ideology have no place in determining whether the Constitution has or has not been violated.

The issue was illustrated in an episode of "The West Wing" in which the president, interviewing a candidate for the Supreme Court, asked if he would have any objection to a state banning the use of cream in coffee. The candidate replied, "I would have strong objection, as I like cream in my coffee ... but I would have no constitutional basis for striking down the law." That, I felt, summed up the issue rather neatly. Justices cannot rely on anything other than their understanding of the law when they rule on a case.

We've all seen the lawyer shows where the attorney stands up at the end and makes a passionate appeal to the jury's feelings, pleading for the client's freedom and sometimes his life. What we do not see is what happens in a real courtroom: after the attorney sits down, the judge instructs the jury to decide only whether or not the law has been broken. Lawyers prefer jury trials because they can appeal to the emotions of ordinary people whose lives have not been spent rigidly observing the law. They cannot count on a judge to ignore the law in favor of emotion. Hopefully, no one of us will ever be able to count on that, either.

This is a diverse nation. It is also, I feel, a compassionate one. That diversity and compassion should be reflected in our elected officers. In our judges, though, only one thing should be reflected: the rule of law.

Here is a copy of a letter that I sent to both of my state's senators, who will share responsibility with the rest of the U. S. Senate for confirming Supreme Court nominees (I sent a similar letter to President Obama:


Dear Senator,

After Justice Souter confirmed that he will retire this year, President Obama promised to nominate a justice with "empathy and compassion" for the average American; someone with "real life" experience, who has seen how these laws directly affect people's lives. While I feel those are admirable qualities for an elected official such as a senator or even a president to have, I do not feel it is something a Supreme Court justice should have.

Senator, the judicial branch is the one branch of the three that calls for a lack of personal philosophy or ideology when making decisions. As I'm sure you're aware, a justice's responsibility is to adhere to the United States Constitution when ruling on a particular case. The experiences and emotions of the people involved would only cloud the issues. For justices and judges, the rule of law is the only consideration.

Another point, Senator, was raised during the appointment of Harold Koh to the position of legal adviser to the State Department. Mr. Koh's views and his embrace of international and "transnational" laws raised concerns that he would advise the Secretary of State in ways that would favor international law above the laws of our own nation. When news of Justice Souter's retirement broke, Mr. Koh was mentioned as a possible candidate to replace him. Senator, nothing would anger me more than to have a justice on the Supreme Court who favored the laws of other nations above our own.

The principle I mean to impart, Senator, is one against so-called judicial activism. Justices and judges are charged with protecting the Constitution and the rule of law against legislators and executives whose actions would violate that law. Sympathy and empathy are important in writing and enforcing the law; not in ruling on it.

I would appreciate, Senator, a pledge from you to only support a candidate for the highest court in our land who will focus on the law as it is written, not as it "should" be written.

Sincerely,

Stephen Monteith

The Party of Me

In the wake of Senator Arlen Specter changing political parties, and growing dissatisfaction with the perceived inability of politicians to simply "get along" with each other, the question again arises of how far a party should go to protect its own principles. Why shouldn't a political party be "pure"? Why shouldn't a group, any group, set its own rules and boot anyone who doesn't adhere to them exactly?

There are more than 200 million adults in this country. Is it even possible to have everyone's philosophies represented perfectly by specific political parties? Perhaps in theory; but in practice, there's only one way to ensure that your party represents you perfectly. It's the old adage: "If you want something done right, then you must do it yourself". A party that represents all of your views and your views only will be a party of one.

The Republican Party, many say, is at a crossroads now. They can choose to become ideologically "pure", purging itself of moderates and liberals and embracing an entirely conservative agenda; or they can be more inclusive, embracing more moderate stances on certain social, economic, and security issues. There are pros and cons of each choice, of course. The more moderate stances a party espouses, the higher its membership will likely be. The trade off is that the party potentially must abandon some of its defining issues in the process. Imagine, for example, if the Democratic Party abandoned the issue of gun control entirely so they could win the support of the National Rifle Association. How much support from those who believe in gun control would they lose?

What is the solution, then? To compromise? Conservatives deserve to have their values represented, as I've posted before, just as liberals do. If the Republican Party were to become more moderate, then they could rightly anticipate having more conservatives leave the party, possibly in favor of another. Surely, that would please certain Democrats to no end. Not only would the GOP be less conservative, but it would also be less powerful.

Those who have read my earlier posts know that I have never thought much of political parties. The country faces so many challenging issues today that are only hindered, not helped, by politicians playing politics. Some are perennial social issues, like abortion, gay rights, immigration, education, and crime and poverty. Others are seemingly recent and yet hauntingly familiar, such as terrorism, the right to privacy, and war in the Middle East. More still, including the economy, entitlements, energy production, and the environment, are always on our minds, but no two people seem to agree on the "right" way to address all of them. The problem with joining a political party is that you will almost always find yourself at odds with one plank or another in the party's platform. When that time comes, you are forced to choose between disloyalty to party or disloyalty to self.

Eric Cantor, the House Republican Whip, along with a number of GOP "stars" have begun the National Council for a New America, a nationwide effort to "remake" the image of the Republican Party. Branded recently as the party of no, they're working to present their ideas to the American public and receive ideas from the public in return; not just ideas on how to benefit the nation, but to revamp the GOP at the same time. Trying to expand the Republican Party to cover all of the people that the Democratic Party doesn't represent would be futile, not to mention foolish. Abandoning its core principles would be even more foolish. I don't believe the NCNA is doing either; they just want to talk to ordinary Americans about solutions to American problems. Where does that leave conservatives, though, who may feel that the "new" Republican Party represents them less and less? In the same place every American is left on election day: with only their conscience to guide them.

Democrats are in roughly the same position. Moderates and even conservatives exist within the Democratic Party. I'm sure they cause headaches for the leadership and vice versa. In recent years, rifts within the party seem to have been closed as Democrats united to first "take back" both houses in Congress and then to win the White House. The first cracks have already begun to reopen, though, as flaring tempers over bailouts and the proposed budgets have prompted hasty action at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

I'll say it again: it is practically impossible to have enough political parties in this country to represent the views of all 200 million Americans. How do you determine which political party or candidate to follow? Make a list of how many issues on which you agree or disagree and just go with the column that holds the most pluses? No; because the number of pluses and minuses will always change. The only permanent solution, I feel, is compromise; the one solution that is completely inconsistent with the ideal behind political parties in the first place.

You have three choices in a republic: support a candidate, become a candidate, or do nothing. Whatever you do, always follow your own conscience. It's your party, after all.