Monday, May 25, 2009

On the Republican Ship, Am I a Valued Passenger or Relegated to Steerage?

Over the past several years, the core of my Republican ideology has undergone a shift. Fiscally, I’m still extremely conservative, but I have become much more moderate when it comes to consideration of many social issues. So naturally, in the midst of the ongoing debate among the two wings of the GOP, I began to wonder – depending on how many more moderate members are driven out in the weeks and months ahead – what place there would be for me in the “big tent.”

A few days ago, I posed that question to an acquaintance that is much more conservative on every issue than me. This is the response I got: "What you're saying doesn't make any sense. You're either a Conservative or, you're a Liberal. You are for sale to the song & dance that makes you feel warm & fuzzy."

This was not at all the response I expected, and I certainly didn’t think that he would take that opportunity to insult me and accuse me of being for sale. The positions I hold were ones that I developed after a lot of careful thought, not because it was the “cool” thing to do. What this person did do, whether he realizes it or not, was reinforce to me the difficulties that the party is facing – and will face well into the future if certain self-proclaimed party leaders continue to drive folks away. Rush Limbaugh is certainly not the person to whom I hold allegiance, and it had come to the point where I was really feeling a great deal of sympathy for what Colin Powell has been put through in recent month.

The future of the party was a big topic of discussion on the Sunday talk shows yesterday, some of which I am still in the process of weeding through (thank God for iTunes and podcast subscriptions!!). However, I was pleased to see Secretary Powell, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, and Newt Gingrich all address the issue directly. Here are excerpts from their remarks:

Powell: I have always felt the Republican Party should be more inclusive than it generally has been over the years. I believe we need a strong Republican Party that is not just anchored in the base but has built on the base to include more individuals. And if we don’t do that – if we don’t reach out more – the party is going to be sitting on a very, very narrow base. And you can only do two things with a base: you can sit on it and watch the world go by; or you can build on the base. And I believe we should build on the base.

Ridge: It’s a matter of language and a matter of how you use words. It does get the base all fired up and he’s [Rush] got a strong following. But personally, if he would listen to me and I doubt if he would, the notion is express yourselves, but let’s respect other opinions and let’s not be divisive.

Gingrich: The Republican Party has to be a broad party that appeals across the country. To be a national party, you have to have a big enough tent that you inevitably have fights inside the tent.

Powell also raised some important points, some of which the right-wing of the party tends to be overlooking.

  • Lost the presidency by 10 million votes.
  • Both houses of Congress are more solidly under Democrat control.
  • Whole areas of the nation that were traditionally Republican have switched Democrat, including Virginia, Florida and Nevada.
  • The GOP is losing ground in every demographic: north; south; east; west; men; women; black; white; Hispanic.
  • The number of those who identify themselves as Republicans has fallen into the low 20s, and many of those are moderates and right-of-center Republicans who are concerned about the right wing of the party.

I recognize the fact that those who are looking to take the GOP further right are no less committed in their ideologies than I am in mine. What they seem to be overlooking, however, is that the harder they work to move the party to the right and exclude more moderate Republicans, the less relevant the party will become in the years ahead. Powell is right: the party does need to take a hard look at itself. I don’t think that flashy new public relations campaigns and listening tours are the way to do it; if party leadership was listening, they would already know where the concerns can be found and who the ones who are concerned are.

There are occasionally rumblings of a third party comprised of the moderate/independent segment of this country developing in the not-too-distant future; if this is the attitude the hardcore conservatives are going to take, then the creation of such a new party would not surprise me in the least.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Are You in the Market for a State?

Could a federal government bailout of the state of California be charging at us full speed? Put another way: are you and I about to pay for the financial mismanagement of that state’s legislature and governor?

There’s no firm answer at this point, but the warning signs are there. Voters in that state just rejected (overwhelmingly, I might add) a series of ballot initiatives that would have among other things significantly raised a variety of tax rates in order to compensate for the financial shortfall. The state’s ability to raise short-term funds as they do each year to make up for budget gaps looks to be in big trouble, as there is a significant level of discomfort over the security of their bonds. A budget proposal offered by Governor Schwarzenegger offers the possibility of significant cuts in education funding (with the accompanying layoff of thousands of teachers), reductions in health care funding, and turning the jurisdiction of state prisoners over to federal authorities.

And I’m sure the list of “we may have to” options doesn’t end there. So what happens now?

In his column today in the Washington Post, columnist George Will offers a possible scenario of what would happen if control of California’s finances is turned over to the Obama Administration:

These factions [unionized public employees and other parties responsible for these problems] will flourish if the state becomes a federal poodle on a short leash held by the president. He might make aid conditional on the state doing things that California Democrats and their union allies would love to be “compelled” to do: eliminate the requirements of two-thirds majorities of both houses of the legislature to raise taxes and pass budgets, and repeal Proposition 13, which voters passed in 1978 to limit property taxes. These changes would enable the legislature (job approval rating: 14 percent) to siphon away an ever-larger share of taxpayers’ wealth and transfer it to public employees.

Let’s review: massive, multi-billion dollar gifts to Chrysler and General Motors to help right those sinking ships, and yet they continue to sink. “Gifts” seems to me to be a very appropriate word, since part of any bankruptcy filing would be forgiveness of those debts. As one person said this week, why would you expect repayment from a company that you own?

Massive, multi-billion dollar injections into our banking institutions, and no sign that things are getting better. In fact, all we hear is Secretary Geithner saying that there are promising signs.

We’ll never see one dollar of any of these amounts returned. Are you willing to foot the bill for another potential takeover – not of a corporation, but of a state? And with a history of recall elections in California, where is the outrage of voters over the performance of those they sent to office and a threat to recall them and try again?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Few Thoughts on Waxman-Markey and Senator Kennedy

The Waxman-Markey climate change marathon markup is underway, and I have to admit that between reading the bill in its entirety and listening to the day’s worth of amendment debate I’m tapped out (or is it capped out?). It’s been an interesting session – sometimes heated, sometimes entertaining, but always educational for me, particularly since (as I’ve alluded in previous posts on this blog) the entire issue of climate change is one which I’ve only come to in recent months.

I have to applaud the members of the committee for their overall civility and – at this stage – a surprising amount of bipartisanship. Truthfully, I wouldn’t have expected any of the amendments to be approved on a 50-4 vote, and I would like to think this bodes well for the spirit, if not the content, of the debate in the coming days.

Or is that coming weeks? Earlier this afternoon, during debate on one of the amendments, I did a quick bit of math. There are roughly 440 amendments remaining, and Chairman Markey stated he intends to work well into the evening each day (so, figure 16-hour days). Debate on each amendment has been averaging roughly an hour. Taking all these factors into account, at its present rate the committee should be done with markup in about 27 days.

Granted, debate at this point is still focusing on Title I of the bill. The more contentious issues relating to allowance allocation, a potential border adjustment program, regulation of the allowance market, involvement of hedge funds and financial institutions, and many other areas are still to come. Although many folks (a recent poll had the number I believe at 72 percent) feel something needs to be done about the climate, and done soon, I’m sure that by and large they don’t understand the ramifications of what’s being done.

Is it a jobs-generating bill? Is it a jobs-killing bill? Will it result in higher taxes? Will it result in lower taxes? Is your power bill going up? Is your power bill going down? There are a lot of questions remaining, and depending on who you ask there are just as many answers. I’ll be posting my random thoughts here in the days ahead.
As an aside, there was a report this afternoon that Senator Kennedy’s brain cancer is in remission and that he will be returning to the Senate after the Memorial Day recess to take charge (in person; I think he’s always been in charge) of the upcoming health care overhaul legislation.

I’m no fan of his policies, but I am an admirer of his tenaciousness and his desire to see health care reform through to the end – and his desire to continue representing his constituents. I don’t know if I’ll like the bill, but I applaud his return and pray for his continued recovery.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Cap-and-Trade - Can Someone Explain This Week's Rush?

Ah, cap-and-trade legislation – the very mention of it brings a smile to my fa…. Oh, wait; no it doesn’t!!

Yes, I agree that the planet is an extremely important asset worthy of protection. Yes, I agree that perhaps we’ve waited far too long to address the major issues involving climate protection, greenhouse gases, energy intensive industry, green jobs, renewable energy – you name it.

But we’ve waited this long, so I ask, “Why the rush to push a flawed bill through so quickly?” Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman rolled out his “compromise” bill (“compromise” meaning that he got most if not all of the committee Democrats on board, but no Republicans) last Friday afternoon at 3:00, after members were headed to their districts. Just a short time ago, the planned five-day markup began with opening statements by committee members, with the actual amendment process beginning tomorrow morning at 10:00 a.m. And by God, he’s going to get this thing done by close-of-business on Friday.

How many people could have possibly read a 932-page bill since Friday night? I have a copy of it on my desk to read (for my job, not as someone who loves a ripping good piece of legislation) and have included two photos here so that you can see how large it is.

932 pages. A stack of paper four inches in height. Nearly two reams of paper just to print it out for review in-house.

Once again, Congress is about to vote on something they haven’t read – and that’s something at which they’ve gotten very good. Economic stimulus bill? Auto bailout legislation? TARP legislation? And now cap-and-trade?

I know; vote now, ask questions later. The problem is, it’s all of us who will be asking the questions…..

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

New Attention on the Environment - But at What Cost?

Don't let the title of this post fool you; there is no new global focus on environmental issues. No, the new interest in the environment is now my own - as you'll note by the new "Environmental Blogs" section on the right side of this page.

Historically, my interest in politics has been much more focused on the campaigns and the backroom deals and the impact of the good-old-boys system of doing things. The environment was never one of those sexy topics that drew my attention, despite all of the interest brought to the topic in recent years by such folks as Al Gore and his "Inconvenient" book and documentary and lecture series. With the new political makeup in Washington, however, and the push for the new Waxman-Markey climate bill - which will have an impact on me both at my job and in my home - I decided that perhaps the time for increasing my knowledge on environmental issues was starting to pass me by.

Putting away the competing opinions and the disparate research and all of the opposing views on whether global warming is real and whether we are to blame or not for the current state of the environment, I do agree that it is our duty to protect the planet. However, Waxman-Markey is far too ambitious a plan to try with the economy in its current state. It's taken decades to get to this point, and while I can understand the idea of striking while the iron is hot I think that a 648-page bill to address everything all at once is the wrong approach - particularly when the bill isn't even complete, no one can agree on what it should include, and the financial impact on consumers and businesses could be disastrous.

Problem number 1: the cost to families. Depending on the extent to which high-emitting companies are subject to either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, their increased costs will most likely be passed on to consumers. Power company X, for instance, pays a $15 tax for every ton of emissions; the increased costs are passed on to each of us in our monthly power bills. This won't even just apply to power companies; concrete manufacturers, as another example, will also incur increased manufacturing costs as a result of environmental fees, driving up the cost of those products to anyone looking to do construction and utilize their products. Where will the additional money that we need come from?

Problem number 2: additional cost to business. Aside from the potential for increased costs passed on to their consumers, businesses will also be forced with some difficult operational decisions. The amount of money they will be required to spend in taxes, the purchase of emission allowance certificates, and emissions monitoring equipment will have to come from somewhere - and after passing on the costs to others, the next place to look will be inward: employee salaries and benefits. How many jobs will the current bill end up costing? Some estimates indicate numbers as high as 2.5 million new unemployed by 2015.

I certainly believe that there are changes we can all make - simple things like keeping power usage to a minimum, replacing light bulbs with new eco-friendly brands, and any number of other things that are recommend to reduce our carbon footprints. I also believe that we should be looking for alternative sources of energy; wind is already used in certain areas, hydroelectric power is in use, and even nuclear power remains an option. Getting off foreign oil should be a priority - not a campaign promise; even the new President has echoed that argument in recent weeks, but I have a feeling that he - like all of his predecessor - will not necessarily rush to do so.

But is this legislative gamble worth it to make up for the decades of talk that we've heard but action that we haven't seen? Are the jobs and costs to American families worth having Congress push through a bill that at this point isn't even complete? I've read the bill, and I can't begin to tell you the number of places that are incomplete - places that essentially read "fill in later." In the past few days alone, Chairman Waxman has indicated that he will consider bypassing subcomittee markup and moving straight to full committee - and thus bypass all of those from both sides of the aisle, representing a diverse set of constituencies, who have great concerns about where the bill is headed and the impact it will have.

Again, we need to be concerned, but we need to be prudent and make sure that what we do to save the environment doesn't destroy the economy.