Livin' it up, American style

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Undermining American laws, one signing statement at a time.

Signing statements have been around for a while, but they have been used more and more frequently by recent presidents, with George W. Bush as the most profligate and controversial user of this power. A signing statement is used by the president when he gets a new bill to either pass or veto. Instead of vetoing the bill, the president can issue a signing statement next to the part or parts of the bill with which he disagrees. In this statement, the president says that he will interpret the law in a way that will not interfere with presidential authority. Or he can say that one part of the bill is just advisory, and not really mandatory like Congress wrote it to be. Basically, a signing statement is as if the president put an asterix next to a certain paragraph and said he is not going to enforce or follow this part of the bill because he's the president and these rules don't apply to him.

Never mind the whole Constitutional thing that says that only Congress has the power to MAKE laws, the Supreme Court interprets laws, and the President ENFORCES the laws. In order to enforce a law, the president kind of has to follow it. But in the case of the signing statement, the president can effectively pick and choose which part of a bill he thinks he will follow or ignore. These signing statements are virtually identical to a power called the line-item veto. With a line-item veto, the president would have the power to nullify certain lines of a bill. President Clinton was briefly given this power in 1996, ostensibly to control pork barrel spending. Well, Clinton only had this power for a few months, then the Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal. The Supreme Court has revisited this issue several times since, and has continually ruled it illegal. Bush even asked for the power of the line-item veto in his 2006 State of the Union address. I don't know why he even bothered, since he has been using signing statements in exactly the way he would be using the line-item veto.

The use of signing statements really took off during the Reagan administration, when a little known staff attorney in the Department of Justice, named Samuel Alito, recommended the use of signing statements to "increase the power of the executive to shape the law". Bush has taken that recommendation of a now Supreme Court judge to heart, issuing 750 signing statements so far. One of Bush's most outrageous signing statements was regarding the McCain detainee amendment in a Department of Defense bill. This amendment prohibited the use of inhumane treatment and restricted the use of torture on detainees and prisoners. But Bush didn't like that idea, so he just issued a signing statement saying that he would interpret this amendment as consistent with the authority of the president to "protect the American people from further terrorist attacks." In others words, he's still going to use torture if he wants to.

Americans need to be worried about the use of these signing statements. The US constitution lays out a division of powers among the three branches of the government, but signing statements allow a president to both make and interpret laws, a power he was not given. The system of checks and balances is being undermined, and the executive branch of the government is growing more powerful than it was intended to be. And unfortunately they are using this power to support torture and take away more and more American's rights.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

America, defender of democracy and freedom everywhere! Oops, I meant destroyer, not defender.

So there was this theory that when Saddam was gone, Iraq would get install/elect a new government, preferably a democratic one. This new democratic nation would become an shining example of Mid-East democracy, and one by one, all the surrounding nations would soon have to succumb to this wonderful type of government. This is similar to the idea that if Vietnam was to become communist back in the 60's, the rest of Asia would also inevitably turn communist. Well, that turned out not to be true, and we are also seeing that the exact opposite is happening in the Mid-East region. Because of America's invasion in Iraq, there is actually now less support for democratic reforms in the Middle-East.

Syria is now the last country that is run by the Ba'ath party, of which Saddam was also a member. Despite promises of democratic reforms, current president Bashar al-Assad has been very slow in enacting any new policies. There had been an active democratic rights movement in Syria, but they are now hampered by the war in Iraq. The normal people on the street who were once sympathetic to the idea of democracy have seen the chaos and civil war that 'democracy' brought in Iraq, and they don't want that in Syria.

These new anti-democracy sentiment has also emboldened president Assad. There is no longer a large public demand for democratic reforms. He has been cracking down on pro-democracy supporters and other critics of the government, and he can do this in the name of stability and public safety. While there may be restricted freedoms and no democracy, Syria is a stable country. There is no civil war, or daily car bombings. Syrians look around at Iraq and Lebanon and Palestine, and think that maybe they don't have it so bad, and reform really isn't that necessary.

So instead of bringing democracy to the region, we've brought an inevitable civil war in Iraq and less support for democracy among Syrians and most likely other Middle Easterners. Well, that's just great. Way to go, America. If you want more details on why Syrians don't want democracy and how Assad has been persecuting activists, read this Washington Post article.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Vladimir Putin, is he Stalin-redux?

Despite the US's mostly friendly relationship with Russian president Vladmir Putin (remember Bush looking into Putin's eyes and sensing his soul?), there have been several recent incidences that should cause the US to reconsider this friendship. It seems the former KGB man has not been able to move past the paranoia, suspicion, and repressive tactics of the Soviet Union.

Soon after Putin was elected president in 2000, he centralized the control of the federal government, taking away some autonomy from federalized terrorities and giving it to a few elected regional governors. In 2004, Putin decided that the regional governors would be nominated by the president, and then approved or disapproved by regional legislatures. This move was criticized as a step away from democracy and a return to the centrally run political apparatus of the Soviet era.

The Kremlin also controls most of the radio and TV stations in Russia, which came in handy during the 2003 parlimentary elections and then again in the presidential election of 2004, when the airwaves were filled with campaign ads largely for Putin and his party. Putin has been active in pursuing lawsuits against the biggest economic players in Russia, which is how he then gains more power for the Kremlin (like if the US government sued media mogul Rupert Murdoch, then made his FOX TV a government entity) and eliminates
political competitors. The Russian government has also recently banned, errrrr, made a "negative recommendation" against theaters showing the movie Borat, which is the first instance of censorship since the Soviet Communists used to run all artistic productions through state censors.

One of the more troublesome recent events was the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent anti-government journalist. She had written many newspaper articles and books about human rights abuses committed by the government, especially regarding Putin's crackdown in Chechnya. She was found shot 4 times in the elevator of her apartment on Oct 6, in what is suspected to be a contract killing. The next day, police seized her computer and investigative materials she had gathered for a story on torture practices used by pro-Russia Chechen officials. She was to have filed her story the day she was killed.

Today, inspiring this particular blog, was an NY Times
article about the suspected poisoning of a now deathly ill ex-KGB officer who was investigating her death. He was also a vocal critic of the KGB and President Putin. There are other incidences of people who were 'inconvenient' to the Putin administration getting conveniently poisoned, such as a KGB defector, and another journalist. Of course, none of these things can be traced back directly to Putin, but it is disturbing that these incidences are happening alongside a centralizing of government power away from the Russian people and towards the Kremlin and Putin.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The growing Latino vote is up for grabs. Who's going to get it?

Buried under a subheading on the Washington Post's homepage was an article about Latino voters and how they voted in the last election. It said that 30% of Latinos voted for the Republican party, down from the 45% of Latinos that voted Republican in the 2004 presidential election. Latinos have historically been a Democratic leaning party, but were basically a small voting segment just taken for granted. Neither party actively courted the Latino vote for decades, but that has been changing recently, as Latinos are a quickly growing bloc that are becoming more active in politics.

Bush is largely responsible for the Republicans winning almost half of the Latino vote in 2004. His nephew is part Mexican, and Bush was well known for speaking in Spanish at public events. He knew that as a largely Catholic group, the Latinos would identify with the more socially conservative Republican party. For a few years, it looked like the Latino vote would trend Republican, giving them the coveted votes of this growing demographic.

But this latest election showed that the Republicans may be isolating and losing its Latino voters. This is mostly due to the Congressional Republicans' stance on immigration. They have come out supporting more restrictive measures to control immigration and make it harder to legally stay in America (Ironically, President Bush supports fewer restrictions on immigration). An anti-immigration stance plays well with many Americans who somehow feel cheated that Latinos are taking all the good jobs cleaning toilets and mowing lawns. But this policy also alienates the immigrant community, which while currently commanding less votes than African-Americans, is growing more quickly. If one party consistantly suceeds at winning a decisive majority of the Latino/immigrant vote, they may become the dominant political party in American politics.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Let's see what's in the news today.

One of the main headlines of the day is Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi's (D-CA) failed attempt to get John Murtha (D-PA) elected as the Majority Whip in the House. This was a very odd battle for her to choose, especially as it was basically the very first thing she did after getting unanimously elected as Speaker of the House. She had first said that she would remain neutral and not endorse anyone for the position of Majority Whip, which is the second in line after Speaker and has the job of making sure party members are loyal and vote with the party. Then she came out very strongly for John Murtha, even though Steny Hoyer (D-MD) had been a very popular minority whip and was clearly the front-runner for the position (and was indeed elected by a large margin).

As Speaker of the House, Pelosi does have the right to strongly support someone, especially since the Whip and Speaker work together closely. However, it is odd that she choose to come out and endorse a black horse candidate. If Steny Hoyer had been an unpopular or ineffective whip, then I can understand Pelosi wanting to support someone else that she considered better. But Pelosi didn't really have many good reasons for why she preferred Murtha so strongly over Hoyer. Certainly one of her reasons is that it is well known that she and Hoyer don't get along, and haven't for 40 years, but she and Murtha are very close. She also said Murtha would be a better choice to get us out of Iraq, because he came out very vocally against the war about a year back, saying we need to start redeploying the troops. Well, Steny Hoyer's view on the war in Iraq is 'phased redeployment of the troops'.

I think that Pelosi did a disservice to the Democratic party in general. Her first move makes it look like there is dissension in the ranks, like the party is not very cohesive. I also think she did a disservice to her own reputation, by overestimating her popularity and power. There are several congressmen who have complained of her strong arm tactics to get them to vote for Murtha. Starting out her term as Speaker by going after a long-time rival for very flimsy reasons was not the best move for Nancy Pelosi, personally and politically.

Monday, November 13, 2006

What everyone needs to know before they run for political office.

So you're thinking of running for Congress. First, start low in lesser known offices that will still give you some name recognition and some campaign experience. You should start off in your county prosecutor, county commissioner type jobs. Then you work your way to being a state senator.
You'll have to work hard when holding lower political offices in the country and district level. You want to work on building your base of supporters, and finding some rich people and oil companies to make frequent donations, or use some of your family's money that they earned from being in the Youngstown mafia. But don't admit that, just say the money is from all the high-quality shopping malls your family owns. Stay as a state senator a few years, then decide if you want to run for the US House or the Senate.

If you're going the House route, state senator is an excellent springboard. Try running directly for the House from this position. If you want to run for Senate, it's going to take a little more work. Run for a state-wide office like state auditor, state attorney general, or secretary of state. After your term is up in that position, decide whether you want to just be a Senator, or if US president is more your thing. If you think you want to be president, then run for state governor. You'll have a much better chance of being elected president as a former governor than as Senator.

You can also just wait for your local House Rep or Senator to be involved in some kind of scandal, or dig up some dirty work he's done, or wait for him to retire, then run for office. You might fail the first time, but at least even more people would get to know your name. And try not to be involved in any scandals or say anything racist or sexist, unless you are calling your opponent a racist or sexist. That's ok to do.
It's also sometimes ok to have extramarital affairs, just don't get caught beating her. (See Don Sherwood) And if you do get caught in an indelicate situation, just appear on TV with your wife and apologize very sincerely, and talk about realizing how much you hurt your family, and be sure to mention God and the massive amounts of praying you are doing. That should get you out of trouble. Oh, and make sure it's not a gay affair, because you can't really apologize your way out of that. You pretty much blow all your chances of any political office with that mistep, specially if you built your reputation on a family values/gay-bashing platform. Watch out for the car accidents/involuntary vehicular homicide scandals too, only people with the last name of Kennedy and...and...ok, only Kennedys can still get reelected under those conditions.

One popular way to try to defuse a scandal is to admit alcohol and prescription drug abuse, and enter rehab, whether you were an addict or not. It helps deflect attention from the real scandal, and makes it look like you are sincerely trying to change for the better. This strategy helped House Rep Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) get reelected after crashing his car into a Capitol barricade and then appearing very drunk/drugged to the cops. But of course it doesn't always work, as the now disgraced Mark Foley and Rev Ted Haggard can testify. Maybe it's just a Kennedy thing. Having a very well-known last name will get you far too, like Kennedy, Bush, Schwarzeneggar, Dole, Clinton, Oscar Mayer. It's even easier if you can just win a position almost purely out of your connection to another famous person, or if your father or mother previously held the same seat you're running for. Heck, sometimes your daddy will even go ahead and give you the political seat you want, just ask Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) how that works.

But really, however you chose to go about it, I wish you luck in deciding to run for political office. And money, I wish you tons of money, cause otherwise you don't have a chance.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Congressional incumbency advantage was not so much of an advantage these past midterms.

In this past midterm election, 6 US Senators were not reelected to their seats, losing to strong challengers. It is unusual to see this many incumbents not get reelected, usually incumbents have a 97% chance of getting reelected, and only 1 or 2 senators lose a reelection race every senate election year. Sitting senators and house representative enjoy something political scientists call congressional incumbency advantage.

One of the main advantages of being an incumbent is that the perks that come with being a US Congressman can be used to run a reelection campaign. Congressmen get a budget that allows them to set up large offices with staffers in both DC and their home district. They get travel allowances for trips between DC and their home state. They also get to send letters to their constituencies without having to pay for postage. Having a free staff, free travel home, and free postage gives incumbent Congressmen some helpful advantages in running a reelection campaign.

While a large part of a sitting Congressmen's job is to schmooze with his constituency, his challenger may be holding another job and can't campaign full time and still pay their bills. A challenger also has to work harder to gain the name recognition that a sitting Congressman enjoys. Congressmen often appear on TV and in the media, so their public will know more about them than any challenger. Incumbents have already won one campaign, so they have valuable experience campaigning, and have a base of core supporters already. A challenger has to win over all of their supporters. And then there is the biggest difference- Money. Incumbents raise 2-3 times more money than a challenger.

There are ways to overcome the incumbent advantages. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) was a sitting US House Representative, and therefore had free travel and postage, plus a base of loyal supporters from his past election campaigns. Bob Casey (D-PA) had the advantage of built in name recognition across the state, as his father Robert Casey had been a governor in Pennsylvania. Many people who try to run for office have a lot of money already, so they don't have to worry about working another job at the same time. They can also put their own money into the race, and buy a few more dirty ads than their opponent who may be relying more on money from donations and the state and national party. A challenger can also make gains if the person they are running against is involved in some sort of well- publicized scandal, which definitely helped John Tester (D-MT) beat Jack Abramoff's buddy Conrad Burns (R-MT).
The general atmosphere of annoyance with Bush also helped mightily in the election of 6 new Democrats. Sometimes the time is just ripe for change, and not even once popular incumbents can survive, despite all their reelection advantages.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Let's see some checks and balances, people!

I'm waiting for someone, some brave Congressmen, to start the impeachment process against Bush. I mean, which is worse, perjury regarding a personal relationship with a women, or secretly and illegally running a wiretapping program aimed at American citizens? Or lying about the evidence to go to war? If Clinton's offenses were deemed impeachable, then this Congress for sure better start investigating the Bush administration. I wonder what Ken Starr is doing these days?

Sadly, Nancy Pelosi, the probably soon to be Speaker of the House, has said she does not want to start the impeachment process against Bush. She said this a few weeks before the election, so I am holding out hope that Tuesday's results may encourage her to rethink this position. Impeachment is one of the checks and balances that Congress holds to keep a rein on the power of the presidency. While I do not think Congress should abuse this power, like it may have been abused in 1998, Congress at least needs to take the first step and start an impeachment inquiry into the administration's actions.

The Bush presidency is notable for being responsible for the largest increase in the size of the US government since FDR (so much for small government Republicans). This administration has also increased and expanded the power of the presidency much more than any recent president. The Congress needs to show that it is still an active and equal branch of the government, and not just let the president get away with most anything he wants to. They need to show that they are alive and well in the role of presidential watchdog. If the Congress does not do this, no one else will. I'm not just being paranoid here, the Bush administration has greatly increased the power of the presidency, and has shown its disregard for the powers of the Supreme Court and Congress. I'll try to do a future blog on this.

Even if the Congress and the Democrats don't want to impeach Bush and throw him out of office, they need to at least take the first step and open an impeachment inquiry into his actions. They need to get the facts, to see if anything illegal has happened, and then proceed from there. All three branches of government have separate but equal powers, and it's time for the Congress to step up and do its job.

The times are a'changin.

Wow. I don't even know where to start after that exciting election day. The Democrats won the House quite decisively, and they are just barely leading in the Senate race in Virginia, which would give them control of the Senate. I was right in 3 of my predictions, Bob Casey and Sherrod Brown trounced their opponents in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and Bob Corker eked out a win in Tennessee. The Rhode Island race really surprised me; I had expected moderate Lincoln Chaffee to hold onto his senate seat, but he was beat by the Democrat. Winning in Missouri and Montana was also a pleasant surprise. Missouri and Virginia had been the closest races in the country. Now we're just waiting for the results out of Virginia which may not be settled for a few weeks. Democrats also picked up quite a few state governorships and now have a sizeable majority. So wow. Thus ends the Republican Revolution of 1994.

Things are already changing a little. Rumsfeld just announced that he is resigning as Secretary of Defense. Of course, things may or may not change depending on who replaces him. (Just say NO to Paul Wolfowitz) Nancy Pelosi is set to become the first female Speaker of the House, further 'breaking the marble ceiling' for women. That pretty much leaves just the Presidency, Vice Presidency and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court as the highest ranking positions that women haven't held yet.

Ah, Bush just announced that he is nominating Robert Gates, former Director of the CIA, to replace Rumsfeld. Currently he is the president of Texas A&M University, and sits on several corporate boards, including those of some oil drilling companies. I think to be appointed to a job in the Bush Administration you have to have the prerequisite of being sleazily connected to a huge corporation that will possibly benefit from you holding that job, despite all your denials that there will be no conflict of interest (like Haliburton/Cheney and Alcoa/O'Neill).

Gates definitely does have an impressive resume when it comes to working in the intelligence community; he started out in the Air Force for 2 years, then worked at the CIA for several years, then was on the National Security Council for 9 years, then went back to the CIA. It does seems like he knows his stuff. Unfortunately, 'his stuff' is the Soviet Union and the Cold War. Uhhhhh, ok, I'm sure he's really smart, but his knowledge is kind of obselete when it comes to today's military climate. This guy has pretty much been a college president since September 11. I guess I was hoping Bush could find someone a little more modern, who maybe, ya know, knew some Arabic, or is a China expert, or had served in the military a little more recently than the mid 1960's. Or maybe, I know this is just a crazy idea, but maybe Bush could even have chosen someone who hadn't also served in his dad's administration. Or maybe someone who's not an old white guy. Oh well.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Don't forget to vote!

I stand by my previous predictions; Sherrod Brown, Bob Casey, Bob Corker, Lincoln Chaffee and Jim Webb will be elected or reelected to the US Senate. I also think the Democrats will pick up one of the houses, but I'm not sure which, and it will only be by 1 or 2 seats. I wouldn't really be that surprised if they didn't win a majority in either house, but we'll see.

They're already reporting voting problems in several states. I don't understand why America has such problems with its voting. India can hold elections in a country of 1 billion people without near as many problems as America. But we have to have fancy computerized touch screen voting machines. Why can't ballots just be like the Scantron tests we would take in high school? You're given this half sheet of paper that is numbered through 100, and has 4 round bubbles with A, B, C, and D in each of them. Then you have a testing booklet that has all the questions or elections numbered and all the answer choices have letters, and you just fill in the corresponding bubble on the answer sheet. Then these answer sheets get zoomed through a machine, or checked by people to see who you voted for. It's easy, and it's a format that at least all younger people are very familiar with. You can also recheck your answers, and since you have to use a pencil, you can change any mistaken votes. So much more comforting then voting on a touch computer screen and never getting a paper receipt that confirms you voted for the right people.

I'm very disappointed that the trend in America has been to make voting more difficult. More and more states are requiring voters to have government issued ID's. At first that doesn't seem so difficult, I mean, everyone has a driver's license, right? Well, there are a few segments of the population that often don't have driver's licenses-poor people who may not own cars and rely on public transportation (remember Katrina?), and older people who can't drive anymore or live in nursing homes and don't get out much. They don't need driver's licenses. So are we not going to let them vote? Unfortunately, some people, usually Republican lawmakers, are saying they shouldn't get to vote. And really, it makes sense because these populations are not big Republican strongholds. (I'm not being petty here, it is overwhelmingly Republicans who are calling for all these restrictions on voters).

But, requiring a government ID is almost tantamount to a poll tax. It costs about $20 for a driver's license in Ohio and Tennessee, but you can only get one of these if you've previously owned a license in the past. A non-driver ID in Ohio is only $8.50, but $19.50 in Tennessee. You also have to have transportation to the nearest license bureau, which I've never lived closer than 15-20 minutes to one. Then you need to have the time to wait for your ID, because if you're getting your license in a big city, like Nashville, you will wait for hours on a Saturday, unless you want to lose money on a work day and take time off to get your license on a less busier weekday. Oh, and you'd better be able to speak English, or be able to bring a English fluent friend along. During my hours of sitting in the Nashville license bureau, I saw many Hispanics struggling to communicate with the license people who didn't speak a word of Spanish.

I just think there has to be a less restrictive way to let people vote. If we have to have ID's for national security or to prevent fraud or whatever, then why not include college ID'S, work ID's, passports, social security cards, birth certificates, expired driver's licenses, or an electric or water or rent bill with your name and address on it? We should make it as easy as possible for people to vote, not harder.