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Obama Does Not Want to Kill Your Grandma: Health Care Speech Thoughts

September 16, 2009 by Michael Hayne, Writer · 2 Comments 

After capping off an important but casual speech to American school children in Virginia about the benefits of injecting socialism into their water fountains, Big O headed back to Washington to deliver perhaps the biggest and most important speech in his presidency regarding the particulars of his seemingly intractable plan for health care reform. The president appeared aplomb and firm as he impassionedly explained to an incorrigibly skeptical Congress the dire need for a complete overhaul of the broken national health care system, which did not include how he wishes to kill millions of grandmas with poisoned dentures. After all, such a system would be akin to every filthy, socialistic European country, and everybody knows that Europe is stagnant.

“We are the only democracy — the only advanced democracy on Earth — the only wealthy nation — that allows such hardship for millions of its people. There are now more than 30 million American citizens who cannot get coverage. In just a two-year period, one in every three Americans goes without health care coverage at some point. And every day, 14,000 Americans lose their coverage. In other words, it can happen to anyone.” ~President Obama

Looking to quell all the seemingly endless fusillade of flagrant misinformation and irrational rumors that imbued the circus-like health care town halls this summer, President Obama politely threw his halo at all of his Republican critics by beautifully refuting the outrageous, unsubstantiated rumors with a heaping pile of delicious Baroccoli:

Some of people’s concerns have grown out of bogus claims spread by those whose only agenda is to kill reform at any cost. The best example is the claim made not just by radio and cable talk show hosts, but by prominent politicians, that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens. Now, such a charge would be laughable if it weren’t so cynical and irresponsible. It is a lie, plain and simple. There are also those who claim that our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false. The reforms — the reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally. ~President Obama

The President must have mistaken the adult congressional lawmakers for the elementary children he addressed the day before, because of course one congressional Republican man-child jumped up and interrupted the President’s speech by shouting “You lie!”

Notwithstanding the visceral disruption, President Obama chugged along with his speech and reached great heights in the realm of civility and harmony when he used a beautiful letter written by the late Ted Kennedy to touch upon the greatness of Liberalism and how it historically existed alongside other schools of thought.

“You see, our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem. They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, and the vulnerable can be exploited. And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter – that at that point we don’t merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.” ~ President Obama

Come on, Mr. President! Once again, you’re assuming  you’re talking to adults who place a high value on history and the divergent but intelligent differences that once separated the two parties. Moreover, if you really want to sway today’s circus tent of insane Republican wingnuts, just  announce the public option comes with a free AK-47.

Hoots and Hollars from Joe the Interrupter notwithstanding, President Obama has been awfully vague and mealy-mouthed in terms of where he stands on the health care debate. It’s as if he comes out every morning on the White House lawn, licks his finger, and see which way the wind’s blowin’ (emanating from Wall Street and Fox News Headquarters) today, then changes his agenda and message accordingly in spite of the millions of ordinary Americans and those who worked tirelessly for the Hope Man and agent of change.

Perhaps this latest speech is an indication that a sudden dip in President Obama’s popularity among his die-hard supporters and independents might have sparked Campaign Obama back into gear.

In short, President Obama clearly (and finally) delineated the classic philosophical differences between the two parties and flatly showed his drooling critics that liberalism (not socialism) isn’t on par with bestiality. Therefore, the President publicly pantsed the lunatics that comprise today’s GOP while inviting them to have tea. It was about time.

If Republicans Won’t Play Along on Health Care, Who Cares?

April 27, 2009 by Mark Wilson, Editor · 2 Comments 

The Republicans bluffed and lost in February when they complained that the stimulus bill wasn’t “bi-partisan” enough. Okay, so House and Senate Democrats acquiesced to some of their demands, including tax cuts for businesses and removing provisions for “family planning” (the euphemism that refers to things like abortion and contraception). The Republicans responded to these concessions by voting against the bill.

Not a single House or Senate Republican voted in favor of the stimulus bill. They apparently believed that this would demonstrate to the American people their opposition to wasteful spending and fiscal irresponsibility. Trouble is, the American people didn’t much care what the Republicans thought; they’re in the midst of a financial crisis, where hundreds of thousands of jobs are being lost each month. Hell, yes, they want a stimulus!

Republicans were using a two-pronged approach to sway the public: (1) tax cuts are superior to government spending when it comes to stimulating the economy; and (2) the government is spending way too much. I won’t go into the merits of the arguments here, but suffice it to say that those were the counter-arguments to the Democratic spending bill (yes, “stimulus” = “spending.” Recall President Obama’s statement: “What do you think a stimulus bill is?”).

The public doesn’t much care for tax cuts when those tax cuts would benefit only the top earners in the country. Now, what does look like a good idea is investment in public works projects that have been long-neglected by Reaganites who believe that the government shouldn’t spend any money on anything that isn’t national defense.

Those four paragraphs were a flashback.

Interior — White House, Present Day.

President Obama is meeting with GOP leaders, reminding them that when they clamored for “bi-partisanship,” they abandoned it just as much as they accused Democrats of abandoning it. Between 2003 and 2009, Republicans were used to getting their way every time. Sure, Democrats have controlled Congress since 2007, but for some reason, Democrats spent those two years perfecting the fine arts of cowering and acquiescing. Whenever Republicans talked about “bi-partisanship,” they meant, “Give us everything we want or we’ll call you names. We’ll say you’re soft on terrorism. We’ll say you’re engaging in pork-barrel spending. And if that doesn’t work, then we’ll call you socialists and say that you hate America and want the terrorists to win. So you’d better give us all the things we demand, and if you ever try to put your own agenda forward, we’ll slap you down so hard you’d think Mike Tyson had taken Trent Lott’s seat.”

Well, the tables have certainly turned. And I’m pleased that Obama is prepared to shut Republicans out if they refuse to play ball. Hypocrisy? Not at all. I believe in universal health care. I think it’s absolutely necessary and I think it’s nothing but good. If Democrats are willing to embrace it and make it law, then I support them. When Republicans tried to stop SCHIP, I disagreed with them. It’s a matter of not only agreement and disagreement, but also of what’s good for this country. Quite honestly, the Republicans are not interested in governance. They’re interested in stalling until 2010. They want the wheels of government to grind to a halt so that they can then go back to their constituents in November, 2010 and say, “Look at what the Democrats have done for you! Nothing, that’s what! Aren’t you sorry that you voted them into office?”

And therein lies the fundamental difference: Democrats, including President Obama, are interested in doing something constructive. I will frequently disagree with the methods they use, but I largely agree with their philosophy that the government is going to need to spend money to improve the country. I agree that the wealthy should pay for the impoverished. And I agree that health care should be our right not only as citizens, but as human beings. I think the Democrats’ approach is superior to the Republicans’ approach, and that is why I believe that if Republicans are unwilling to reach an actual compromise with the Democrats, then they should be left behind. It is not the Democrats who should have to bend to appease the Republicans; the Democrats won, their ideas are better, and if the Republicans don’t want to go along with them, then it’s their own funeral. Congress doesn’t even need the Republicans.

I’m not the only one who believes this. The American people would rather the Democrats get on with their agenda instead of watering it down to please Republicans whose sanction they don’t need and whose contempt they will get in return for their efforts. In the New York Times/CBS poll referenced above, 56% of those surveyed said that they thought Democrats should stick to their policies, but 79% thought that it was Republicans who should be bi-partisan. That says a lot: not only do Americans want Democrats to do whatever it is Democrats want to do, but they simultaneously think that Republicans should do whatever it is the Democrats want to do.

Health care reform is way too important for Democrats to be chicken about. The last significant health care reform we had in this country was the prescription drug bill from 2005, which funneled a lot of money directly from the government into the hands of prescription drug companies. Sure, the bill could have included a provision for the government to use its significant bargaining power to get better deals on drugs — but then, that would hurt the drug companies’ revenue, wouldn’t it? At approximately the same time, Congress passed a bankruptcy bill that offered terrific terms for banks, credit card companies, and the very wealthy, but left middle- and low-income people in the dark.

The relationship between bankruptcy and health care is quite close; President Bush declared, in 2005, that we needed the bankruptcy bill so as to stop people from gaming the system and trying to get the rest of us to pay off their debts. To listen to him, you’d think Americans were going bankrupt after buying too many Faberge eggs. At the time he said that, though, fully half of bankruptcies in American were being caused not by frivolous over-spending, but by health-care spending. People were — and still are! — spending themselves into tremendous debt in order to stay healthy and alive. And since our health care system discourages regular check-ups, people are guaranteed to see a doctor only when the condition is serious, which means that it will cost more money to fix than it would have if a doctor had caught the condition earlier, during a regular check-up.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Republicans see health care as a political issue instead of a humanitarian one. In 1993, Bill Kristol wrote that Republicans couldn’t afford to let the Clinton health care plan survive; if it did, then the Republicans would be finished. Let me re-iterate that: to Bill Kristol, it was more important that heath care get defeated so the Democrats wouldn’t win re-election in 1994 than it was for people to have universal access to health care.

That’s what we’re up against. And that’s why I support the Democrats. And if Republicans don’t want to join, who cares? Let them explain to their constituents in 2010 about how they didn’t want those same constituents to have universal health care, all so that the free market could survive.

What Do You Think a Stimulus Is?

February 6, 2009 by Mark Wilson, Editor · Leave a Comment 

Yesterday, President Obama finally stood up to the Republicans. For the last week, Republicans have been doing what they do best: controlling the message. They have talked about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 only in terms of its negative components: how much individual elements cost, how there aren’t enough tax cuts. They have, as they always do, derided and made fun of specific parts of the bill, like the part that calls for moving the federal vehicle fleet to hybrid cars. In much the same way that Sarah Palin derided certain research projects during the election (research projects that, by the way, benefit the state of Alaska), Republicans have attempted to hold up individual programs and say, “Isn’t this stupid?” Of course, that message is only suucessful if the audience similarly agrees that the program is stupid.

Yesterday, at a Democratic getaway (which cost $100,000, by the way), Obama defended the stimulus plan and even — what’s that — improvised:

When you start asking, “Well what is it that’s such a problem, that you’re seeing? Where’s all the waste in spending? Well, you know, you want to replace the federal fleet with hybrid cars.”

Well, why wouldn’t we want to do that? That creates jobs for people who make those cars. It saves the federal government energy, it saves the taxpayers energy.

Then you get the argument, “Well, this is not a stimulus bill, this is a spending bill.” What do you think a stimulus is?  That’s the whole point. No, seriously. That’s the point.

Republicans have been pushing more of the same: tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts. For businesses and for the wealthy. But businesses have shown that they have no tolerance for spending money right now. They’ll take a tax cut and save it rather than use it for new production, or investment, or to hire workers. The wealthy have all the necessities of life they need. Rather than spend a tax cut on a new car or a new house, they’ll save it. The marginal value of a 10% tax cut is greater for a poor person than it is for a wealthy person. The wealthy person doesn’t need another Rolls. The poor person needs to eat.

Part of the Republicans’ problem with the stimulus package is that it involves the government doing things beyond fighting wars. It’s a generalization to say that Republicans hate government, but certainly part of what it means to be conservative is wanting “less government.” Grover Norquist is, of course, the proprietor of wanting to make the government so small he could drown it in a bathtub, which is why the government was so mismanaged for so many years. It’s hard to do a job well when you don’t think that job is worth doing at all. Given the choice between action or inaction, conservatives have preferred inaction (except, of course, when action increases businesses’ profits, as when Congress voted to take up United Airlines’ pension plan). One conservative pundit last week (who may or may not be able to speak for all conservatives and may or many not also be an idiot) claimed that the government has never created jobs, that government can only destroy jobs. It’s like dealing with an economic al-Qaeda: Republicans don’t want to negotiate, they don’t want to be bipartisan. They want to get exactly what they want, in full. They’ve grown accustomed to that after eight years. (Democrats have the exact opposite problem: they’ll capitulate at the drop of a hat. They’ll volunteer to capitulate if no one has asked them. There’s even a picture of Harry Reid in the dictionary next to the word “pusillanimous.” Someone needs to tell the Democrats that Ronald Reagan stopped being the president a long time ago.)

It’s true that, given enough time, the economy could probably fix itself (of course, John Maynard Keynes famously said that, in the long run, we’re all dead). But while we’re waiting for the free market to operate, people are getting laid off and losing their homes. Can we morally permit ourselves to let the economy remain in shambles for an unknown amount of time just to prove a point about capitalism? Of course not; it doesn’t make sense to do something just because it’s liberal or just because it’s conservative. We should do things because they work; Obama said as much in his inaugural address (though, admittedly, he was referring to more government versus less government).

Right now, the free market is broken. Consumers don’t want to spend at any price (and “any price” here means “any price that would be beneficial to the market”; certainly businesses could offer their goods for free, but that doesn’t exactly help us out of a recession). The cycle is supposed to work like this: a recession occurs, consumers stop spending, businesses lower their prices, consumers start spending again, business make more money, they start hiring people, consumers get employed again, business raise their prices, and we’re on our way back to 99-cent gas and Hummers at a 2-for-1 discount.

Our recession is working like this: consumers stop spending, businesses lower their prices, businesses lay more people off in order to save money, consumers stop spending even more as some of them get laid off, business revenue decreases, business lay more people off to save money, and so on. It’s a downward spiral that the market can’t correct. The market needs a fresh infusion of cash that just isn’t going to be coming any time soon.

Monetarism has failed. The discount rate — the interest rate that banks pay for short-term loans to other banks — is between 0% and 0.25%. It can’t go any lower, and banks still are reluctant to lend to other banks. This isn’t an issue strictly of price; it’s also one of psychology. Until businesses are ready to produce again, government must step in and fill the void to prevent the recession from getting any worse than it already is. Republicans criticize the size of the stimulus and bring up the issue of how we’re saddling future generations with this debt (these same people, by the way, were remarkably silent as the debt doubled under George W. Bush, Henry Hyde, Tom DeLay, and Bill Frist). They forget the other component of Keynesian economics: once the economy has recovered, the government must increase taxes and cut spending in order to pay back the money it borrowed. Let’s hope Congress doesn’t forget that part.

Update: Daily Kos has an interesting article analyzing media coverage of the stimulus bill. The Liberal Media, as it turns out, are not liberal at all. “Republican lawmakers outnumbered Democratic lawmakers 75 to 41 on cable news interviews.” In addition to Congressional Democrats themselves, cable news networks must be informed that Democrats won the election. Also, some of the Democrats who appeared on cable news networks were “Blue Dog” Democrats who side with Republicans on economic issues. And pretty much every other issue. Why are they Democrats, again?

The Legends Win in the End

On a rainy Saturday afternoon this past November, San Francisco said its final goodbye to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Or at least it said goodbye to the one veteran of the brigade who could make it – the hundred-year-old Hilda Roberts, one of about sixty American women who served the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. Apparently, a couple of other vets had planned on being there but the weather kept them away, and there’s not a large pool to draw on – only about twenty-two or twenty-four of the veterans are thought to still be alive.

The San Francisco event was a commemoration of a much larger leave taking that took place seventy years earlier, almost to the day. For that farewell, remembered in Spain as the Despedida, the crowd numbered in the tens of thousands, as Spaniards filled the streets of Barcelona for a last look at the departing International Brigades, the 35,000 or so volunteers from 53 countries who had come to defend the Spanish Republic from General Francisco Franco’s military uprising two years earlier. Among the departing were about 2,800 Americans – less about 800 who died in Spain – who subsequently became known as the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

At the time, Spain seemed a microcosm of all the world’s conflicting ideas on one peninsula in Europe. Within five years after the 1931 fall of the monarchy that ruled it almost continuously for centuries, Spain’s disparate points of view had crystallized into two opposing coalitions: The Popular Front of Socialists, Communists, and left-wing Republicans; and the National Front of Christian Democrats, fascists, and monarchists. Five months after the Popular Front’s electoral victory, the two sides would become transformed into the warring Republicans and Nationalists when army officers in the Spanish colony of Morocco began the uprising that would end democracy in the country for nearly four decades.

It is hard to convey today what Spain meant to the world in those days, but perhaps the title of Andre Malraux’s novel about the Civil War does it best: It is called Man’s Hope. And the fact the events, while certainly not clearly recalled or understood, have never entirely receded from popular memory came to the fore in the most recent presidential election when both Barack Obama and John McCain claimed Republican sympathizer Ernest Hemingway’s Spanish Civil War novel For Whom the Bell Tolls as one of their favorite books.

Just a few years ago, the Bay Area Veterans, while few in number themselves, were holding annual reunion events at the Oakland Hilton or the Kaiser Center that drew crowds in the high hundreds. Speakers like Ariel Dorfman and Molly Ivins talked of the relevance the Spanish war to the events of the day, and the whole audience joined members of the San Francisco Mime Troupe in singing “Viva la Quince Brigada!” and the other songs of the Spanish Republic. But seventy years is a mighty long time to keep an organization going when there’s no source of new members. A recent obituary for Jack Shafran noted that the 91 year old was “one of the youngest volunteers in the Lincoln Brigade.” So the decision was made to dissolve the Veterans, either upon the death of two of the group’s remaining activists, Moses Fishman and Abraham Sorodin or on the seventieth anniversary of the Despedida, whichever came first. The organization’s work would be continued by the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives.

By the time of the San Francisco event, both of those veterans had in fact died, so there no longer was an organization known as the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. The singing would be thin on the choruses of the old songs at the final event, and the 150 seat Delancey Street Theater was less than half full for a showing of a British newsreel on the Despedida apparently never before seen in the US. On the screen, Dolores Ibárruri Gómez, better known as La Pasionaria (or “the passion flower”), delivered her famous send off speech to thousands of the then young volunteers. As a rule, Ibárruri’s speeches included the Republican cry, “No pasaran!” – they shall not pass. But there were no such illusions on that day in Barcelona. Franco’s Nationalists had indeed passed and the Internationals were being sent home because the cause was lost. Instead, Ibárruri told them, “Sois la leyenda.” You are legend. And legends they would be, for the rest of their days. People used to cite the phrase “May you live in interesting times” as an ancient Chinese curse. It seems, however, that this widely cited bit of eastern wisdom may have originated in the east coast of the United States, for it appears to be neither ancient nor Chinese. In fact, the earliest date anyone can find evidence of its use is 1936, the year the Spanish Civil War began. And maybe that’s about right because the veterans of that war embodied this apparently modern curse as well as anyone ever has.

When the western democracies refused to aid Spain’s fight against the military uprising, the Internationals came without sanction of their governments. (The only significant foreign assistance the Republic received came from the Stalin-era Soviet Union.) Afterwards, some volunteers, like the Italians and the Germans who constituted the largest bloc, couldn’t go home. In Spain, they had fought against their own governments because, unlike France, the United Kingdom, or the United States, Mussolini and Hitler’s governments had not hesitated to assist their ally Franco – and take the opportunity to hone their military operations for the larger conflict on the horizon. Others like the Americans were able to return home but were now considered suspect as the times got ever more “interesting.” It seems they had been “premature anti-fascists.” They were anti-Hitler before being anti-Hitler was cool.

The interesting times continued. When US Attorney General Thomas Clark decided to warn the nation about the subversive organizations in its midst on 1947, he did so by releasing a list in alphabetical order, starting with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. And since a good number of the volunteers had, in fact been Communist Party members, they faced “are you now, or have you ever been” questioning for decades.

By the Vietnam War era, the Spanish Civil War was a largely forgotten event in the US. Most of the participants in the big antiwar demonstrations of the day would likely not have noticed the group of old men and a few women, marching behind a Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade banner. But they were always there, probably the most antiwar group of veterans you were ever going to meet. And an activist core continued on, and on, and on. When the Reagan Administration subverted the Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the 1980s, the Lincolns were well past the age of volunteering to fight the Contras, so they sent an ambulance down instead.

In her speech on that long ago afternoon in Barcelona, La Pasionaria went on to exhort the 13,000 Internationals who were there, “When the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves entwined with the laurels of the Spanish Republic’s victory, come back.” Considering the Republic’s desperate military position at the time, this seemed like so much bravado. And, at the time, it was. But not in the long run. As the viewers of Saturday Night Live would be reminded week after week, in 1975 General Francisco Franco finally died. And more importantly, with him died his dictatorship. Two years later, La Pasionaria, returned form exile, was elected to represent Asturias in the first post-Franco government.

Still, Spain was reluctant to revisit its Civil War in those first post-Franco years, and it would be nearly another two decades before the volunteer veterans were invited back. But in November 1996, sixty years after the war’s start and three years after Ibárruri herself had died, 400 of them returned to finally see the olive trees of peace and receive a hero’s welcome at the “Homenaje,” the homecoming. Twelve years later, a mere twenty-three of them were on hand for the seventieth anniversary Despedida commemoration in Spain, their numbers having plunged worldwide just as they have in the Bay Area.

But things have continued to change in Spain, and the reluctance to confront the crimes of the Franco has declined with the passing of those personally involved. A recently passed law mandates the removal of symbols of the Franco era from various public buildings and funds the unearthing of Civil War-era mass graves. And it begins the real Homenaje: As of the end of 2008, all descendants of those Spaniards forced to leave the country from the beginning of the war through 1975 will be allowed to claim the Spanish citizenship denied them by Francisco Franco’s war and dictatorship. And although most did not live to see it and had to content themselves with being legends in their own time, this is the final victory of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

Session in Order: Speakers and Old Tricks

Nobody does it like Texas. With appropriate pomp and circumstance, the 81st session of the Texas Legislature has come to order. While all the vestigial parliamentary rituals went off with minimal incident, some drama came from unexpected quarters.

The House

The tension and intrigue preceding the installation of Joe Straus as the 84th Speaker of the Texas House had largely played out about a week before commencement of the session. Tom Craddick, the Republican incumbent whose three reigns as speaker had been characterized and criticized as some of the most heavy-handed and partisan in Texas’ history, had dropped out of the race. Nine of the ten Democrats whose support he, ironically, relied upon for his reelection had jumped ship, thus irrevocably tipping the scales against him. Their change of heart had been motivated by a group of eleven Republicans, dubbed the ABC (Anyone But Craddick) gang, who had nominated Straus as a moderate alternative. In a narrowly divided house, 76 Republicans to 74 Democrats, Craddick just didn’t have the votes to win without the entirety of his party behind him, and when he lost the support of those few Democrats who embraced him, all hope was gone.

View from the floor of the Texas House of Representatives

View from the floor of the Texas House of Representatives

Apropos to both the spirit of bipartisanship and the re-consolidation of the heretofore fragmented Republican majority, Straus’ nominating speakers came from both sides of the aisle.

First to rise was Jose Menendez, a Democrat from Straus’ hometown of San Antonio. His selection to speak may have raised a few eyebrows from the anti-gambling conservatives in the House, suspicious of the new speaker from day one. Straus and his family have a big stake in a San Antonio pari-mutuel horse track, and have been long-time supporters of betting on the ponies. Menendez is in favor of legalizing Vegas-style poker in the state of Texas and has a bill before the house to make it so. Consequently, his appearance on the dais probably did little to quell the anti-gambling crowd’s concerns about Straus. They’re worried that he will abuse his influence as speaker to push through more relaxed legislation on gaming. Menendez praised Straus for his support of allocating funding to cord-blood banks, which is a big deal for the pro-stem-cell research crowd. A moderate, indeed.

Seconding the nomination was Houston Democrat Senfronia Thompson. Her own pre-session bid for speaker was only symbolic as she was in the minority party, but the fact that she got up to speak in support of Straus was poignant. Consider that Straus’ claim to the speakership was solidified when he got the pledges of 70 of the 74 House Democrats and 15 Republicans compared to Tom “Mr. Partisan” Craddick’s 87 Republicans to 15 Democrats in 2002.

In total, six representatives rose in support of Straus as the new speaker. Extolling his virtues were four Democrats, and two Republicans, including John Smithee who represented the waning vestiges of the Craddick camp. He had taken up the conservative mantle for speaker after Craddick’s abandonment of the race, hoping to form a coalition of now-freed Craddick supporters and bring both Republicans and Democrats crossovers back into the fold. That didn’t happen, and he too dropped out. His subsequent open support of Straus seems to have mended fences for the time being within Republican circles.

All in all, it was a smooth transition of power and a good start to business within the House of Representatives. Too bad it isn’t going as smoothly over in the East Wing.

The Senate

In short, the Senate Republicans are taking their cues from the Tom DeLay playbook chapter entitled “When We Don’t Like the Rules, We Just Change Them.”

The Texas State Capitol

The Texas State Capitol

As the Senate rules stand, it takes the approval of two-thirds of the Senators, the exact number is presently 21, to open up a measure to debate. Senator Dan Patrick, R-Houston, wants to change that to a three-fifths rule, which would lower the absolute number to 19. Guess what the Republican to Democrat ratio in the Texas Senate is: 19 Rs to 12 Ds.

The most pressing issue relevant to the rule change is a forthcoming voter ID bill that was passed in the House during the previous session, but died on the floor in the Senate because the Republicans couldn’t meet the two-thirds rule. It is likely to be reintroduced this session and is staunchly opposed by Democrats who fear the disenfranchisement of many traditionally Democratic voters by such a bill. Without the rule change, the Republicans would most likely be out of luck on passing this bill.

The subject of redistricting is even more nefarious. Some longtime followers of Texas politics may remember Senate Democrats leaving the state in 2003 to prevent a quorum, and thus a vote, on the gerrymandering of congressional maps. The Dems eventually came back and lost the issue, and the redistricting that ensued significantly favored Republicans in the federal House races that followed. While Texas is not presently up for redistricting, it’s not unreasonable to presume that many GOP senators want the state Senate voting rules changed now while they still hold a slight majority in the face of a state that is trending Democrat.

What’s Ahead

As always, the most looming issue facing the legislature this session is the budget. On this issue, the news this year is particularly bleak. Comptroller Susan Combs has announced a projected $9 billion drop in revenue over the next two years. She cites significant declines in car and cigarette sales tax revenue and lowered lottery earnings as the main culprits.

Legislators use the Comptroller’s numbers when writing spending and appropriations bills, and Combs’ figures represent about a 10.5% drop in available money from two years ago. Granted, there is the proverbial “Rainy Day Fund” of about $6.7 billion. Yes, it’s a lot of money, but to get at it, a super majority of both houses needs to approve, and its use would be sure to breed contention. In addition, in hard economic times, once the money is gone, replenishing it would be no easy task.

Expectations

With a House that is now seemingly united behind a young, charismatic moderate, many Texans echo Rep. Jim McReynolds’ sentiments that “we in this chamber want a workhorse, not a show pony.” The state Senate needs to take its cues from the “lower” chamber and intelligently set aside corrosive partisanship. It’s time to get down to the business of the state. With the gloomiest economic climate in decades, the decisions made by this legislature will bear heavily on the fiscal fitness of Texas through the coming financial tempest.

It’s the Public, Stupid!

In the throes of what could become the toughest economic times since the Great Depression, everyone’s worried about “saving the economy.” Perhaps this single-minded obsession is a throwback to the ’92 election—many of us will remember the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid”—but it’s time for a reality check.

Uncle Sam

Uncle Sam

This time, it’s not the economy… it’s the public.

On the basis of the current government’s ineptitudes, it’s best to break it down. First, there’s the war in Iraq. Irrespective of its validity or necessity, the United States has spent over $550 billion (as of August ’08) fighting to secure Iraq from insurgents, outside forces, and ultimately its own citizens. With the cost of the war growing by an estimated $200 million per day–that’s roughly $138,000 per minute—and an unknown number of belligerents and civilian casualties, the “liberation” of Iraq will ultimately cost the United States far more than the current $700 billion in proposed corporate bailouts. The damage we’ve caused to our international reputation and the fabric of the international system itself has yet to be fully felt, however.

The second major issue is the war in Afghanistan. While forgotten in many Americans’ eyes due to the overwhelming popularity of the “Bombs over Baghdad” campaign, we’re still shelling out blood and money to restore the country to normal operation. We spend $2.3 billion per month in Afghanistan —about a quarter of the Iraq War’s cost—with very little to show for it. Taliban fighters still make raids from safe havens in the mountains, or from Pakistan; at best, intelligence needs to be taken with a grain of salt; Afghani soldiers are far behind their Iraqi counterparts in training and discipline; warlords still maintain authority over many of the regions outside of Kabul; and insurgents have begun using American military tactics against our soldiers. In short, Afghanistan is analogous to the administration’s view of our economy: undervalued and teetering on the edge of the abyss.

…and then there’s the economy, with its strong “fundamentals” standing beside its collapsing infrastructure. I’m not an economist, but common sense suggests that, when half a dozen of your economic powerhouses either collapse or need rescued from their own bad decisions, the fundamentals of the economy—measured risk-taking, a sound credit line, and long-term stability, in my opinion—are lacking. Amid this turmoil, taxpayers are being asked to spend more money (that many Americans don’t have, by the way) to bail out the corporations who squandered our money in the first place. Taxpayers are also being asked to do this immediately, with no guarantee that such a corporate stimulus package will fix the problem. Oh, and to oversee the operation, Washington’s asking the taxpayers to trust the same government who lifted New Deal bank regulations and allowed such shady deals to progress on their watch.

Finally, the global demand for oil acts as a perpetual thorn in working-class America’s side. With gasoline prices surging twenty cents in a single day, then taking four weeks to return to normal, one must consider whether the record-setting profits made by petroleum conglomerates are indeed the result of peak production… or the result of taking their powerless consumers to the cleaners. Increased fuel charges, of course, trickle down through the economy: everything from food to pharmaceuticals now costs markedly more than it used to.

With all of these issues converging on the taxpayer, most people have started the Blame Game. Democrats blame the Republicans; Republicans blame Democrats; the banks blame everyone but themselves, and the public blames whomever’s closest. In reality, however, the public is the source of this mess. We’re the ones who bought into mortgages that were too good to be true; we’re the ones who put our government into office and allowed them to cow us into submission; we’re the ones who grumble at the gas pump and do nothing about it; and ultimately, we’re the ones who pay for issues that we shirk off, saying “there’s nothing I can do about it.”

And until we’re willing to fix our own mistakes, we’re right.