Friday, July 30, 2010

Charles Rangel Ethics Documents Here

Everything that you ever wanted to know about the investigation of Congressman Charles Rangel has been posted on the website for the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. It definitely makes for some entertaining reading, particularly since this is a man tasked with writing the laws regulating how we are taxed - and yet he found a way to not pay his taxes and "forget" to report income.

The documents are all available here.

Monday, April 26, 2010

More to Graham's Climate Backdown Than Meets the Eye?

Consider this sequence of events:

(1) The EPA releases a draft tailoring rule which will give the agency a framework for regulating carbon dioxide and GHG emissions by heavy industrial emitters in the U.S.

(2) Senators Kerry, Graham and Lieberman begin work on a revised version of climate change/cap-and-trade/environmental protection (what ever the word du jour is) legislation - rumored to include a provision which would hamstring the EPA's ability to regulate carbon emissions.

(3) The EPA submits its draft tailoring rule to the White House for final review, indicating that its finalizing and formal release could be imminent (per EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, most likely in May).

(4) Senate Majority Leader Reid - in a desperate gambit to save his seat in the November elections - shifts the priorities of the Senate legislative calendar from climate change to immigration reform.

(5) Senator Graham, angry at the sudden switch from climate to immigration, withdraws from negotiations, putting an indefinite pause on moving the legislation forward - and blocking the provision preventing the EPA from exercising oversight.

In the few days since Graham pulled back, there have been numerous columnists and bloggers theorizing that he took this action because of pressure from Republican leadership. I'm not sure I agree, and here's a wild theory I've come up with along those lines: he pulled out because of White House pressure. While the President publicly says climate change legislation remains a priority, could he privately want the authority to regulate heavy emitters in the hands of the Executive Branch? By pressuring the one Republican senator willing to negotiate on the Senate legislation (or was he promised something in return?) to step aside, the Administration could potentially have killed the bill and the provision taking away EPA oversight.

So perhaps everyone gets what they want: Graham gets some sort of payoff later on; Reid gets his immigration bill and (presumably) secures his reelection; and the Administration gets to control a big sector of American manufacturing. Far-fetched? Perhaps - but certainly plausible...

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Value-Added Tax (-man Cometh)

I can remember hearing it often: " I will not raise taxes on anyone making less than $250,000 a year." No how; no way. My family was not going to be hit with higher taxes; thank you, President Obama! I'm so glad to know that...

What? That's not true, you say? My taxes will go up? That can't be right - except I'm looking at numerous news reports saying that the President and his fiscal commission are considering the implementation of a value-added tax (VAT) that would hit everyone in the United States. I'm also reading how phenomenally the implementation of a VAT in Europe has worked out for our neighbors across the Atlantic. Let's look for a moment at excerpts from an April 15, 2010 story in the Wall Street Journal on this topic:

VATs were sold in Europe as a way to tax consumption, which in principle does less economic harm than taxing income, savings or investment. This sounds good, but in practice the VAT has rarely replaced the income tax, or even resulted in a lower income-tax rate. The top individual income tax rate remains very high in Europe despite the VAT, with an average on the continent of about 46%.

In the U.S., VAT proponents aren't calling for a repeal of the 16th Amendment that allowed the income tax—and, in fact, they want income tax rates to rise. The White House has promised to let the top individual rate increase in January to 39.6% from 35% as the Bush tax cuts expire, while the dividend rate will go to 39.6% from 15% and the capital gains rate to 20% next year and 23.8% in 2013 under the health bill, from 15% today. Even with these higher rates, or because of them, revenues won't come close to paying for the Obama Administration's new spending—which is why it is also eyeing a VAT.

One trait of European VATs is that while their rates often start low, they rarely stay that way. Of the 10 major OECD nations with VATs or national sales taxes, only Canada has lowered its rate. Denmark has gone to 25% from 9%, Germany to 19% from 10%, and Italy to 20% from 12%. The nonpartisan Tax Foundation recently calculated that to balance the U.S. federal budget with a VAT would require a rate of at least 18%.

Proponents also argue that a VAT would result in less federal government borrowing. But that, too, has rarely been true in Europe. From the 1980s through 2005, deficits were by and large higher in Europe than in the U.S. By 2005, debt averaged 50% of GDP in Europe, according to OECD data, compared to under 40% in the U.S.

Certainly, if the Administration were considering such a tax, they would come right out and say it. Hey, Austan Goolsbee, you'll be straight with us, won't you?

So there we have it - an official White House spokesman telling us ... absolutely nothing, although clearly demonstrating his ability to give fantastic non-answers to basic questions. What makes it worse is that he's an economist giving non-answers; where's Paul Krugman when you need him? At least he'd give you a straight answer...

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Votes for Sale in Congress

Doling out favors in exchange for votes on key legislation isn't anything new in the halls of Congress. One of the most notable examples occurred during the vote on the Medicare prescription bill several years ago, when Republican leadership in the House of Representatives allegedly offered campaign contributions to the candidate son of a congressman who was wavering on his vote. Today, it appears to have happened again; President Obama - in perhaps one of the wildest coincidences ever - nominated Scott Matheson to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

What's the coincidence? Only that Matheson's brother, Jim, is a congressman from Utah - and is a wavering vote on the health care reform bill.

If anyone tries to say this is just a coincidence after Matheson decides - after what I assume will be couched as "careful consideration and listening to the views of [his] constituents" - to vote yes, I won't be able to look at them with a straight face. The country is going broke, legislation that we can't afford gets passed almost daily, and votes are getting bought and sold like stocks in a Madoff investment portfolio. Madoff got caught for his Ponzi scheme and the fact that the taking of one person's money to pay off the dividends of others was a house that collapsed around him.

When will the congressional Ponzi collapse?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Labor Boss Redux: Andy Stern and the SEIU

As a brief follow-up to my post yesterday on the effectiveness and value of union leadership, I was interested to read a story on the website for the San Francisco Bay Guardian regarding leadership elections held for SEIU Local 1021. I think the headline says it all: "SEIU Members Oust the Old Guard."

According to the story, the defeat of the entire slate of candidates put up by SEIU president Andy Stern "was a stunning repudiation of the union leadership." And Stern's candidates didn't just lose; they lost big. The article continues, "In addition, it could roil SEIU's internal politics after a turbulent year, in which Stern created divisive clashes with his own local health care workers, UNITE-HERE, and the California Nurses Association."

A separate article on the website of the Alliance for Worker Freedom also questioned the disparities in the pension funding levels of SEIU workers. According to their analysis, "In 2006, the SEIU National Industry Pension Plan, a plan for rank-and-file SEIU members covering 100,787 workers was 74.9% funded. A separate fund for employees of SEIU had 1,305 participants and was 90.6% funded. The pension fund for SEIU officers and employees had 6,595 members, and was 103.3% funded. This inequity was not always the case. In 1996, the SEIU National Industry Pension Fund had close to 110% of the funds it would need to pay all promised pensions to its workers."

Further, "The problem of poor funding is not only in the national pension plan. Research by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce revealed that 13 SEIU local pension plans were all less than 80% funded. Six of them were less than 65% funded. In 1996, all of them were more than 65% funded, and half were more than 80% funded. While those who were in poor shape back in 1996 are worth significant concern, the Massachusetts Service Employees Pension Fund is perhaps of greater concern. It fell from nearly 110% to 70% funded in 10 years, and the SEIU 1199 Upstate Pension Fund fell from 115% to 75% since its inception in 1999."

Pension plan security for the leadership, and pension plan shortfalls for the rank-and-file members.

So again I ask the question: are union members - in this case the SEIU - really benefitting from their leadership? The folks in San Francisco don't seem to think so, and I wonder if those who are checking their pension coverage feel they are getting the best...

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Labor Bosses: Still a Friend to the American Worker?

The history of organized labor in this country has certainly been an interesting tale, and the personalities who have led the numerous trade and professional unions over the years have certainly become more and more "entertaining" as time has passed. During these many decades, it seems that the motives of the union bosses have changed as well.

I should interject here that I am not a member of a union, but union representation has been a fairly significant part of my family's history. My father, a teacher for nearly 20 years, was a member of the VEA and NEA, as were/are several of my relatives and friends who are currently teachers. My late paternal grandfather, a 42-year employee at a Virginia iron foundry, was (I believe) a member of the USW (I'm actually in the midst of a project attempting to learn more about that part of his life). I had a great uncle who was a career railroad employee, and I can only assume that he was part of a union as well. In short, unions have helped my family over the years.

Even though I have traditionally been fairly conservative in my political views, I can certainly see the value that labor unions provide for American workers. Just in the past 24 hours, I have seen several media reports about unions gathering to protect the 1,000-plus workers in danger of losing their jobs at a Whirlpool plant, several thousand employees at Continental who voted to become part of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the collaborative efforts of the AFGE and TSA employees to provide contract and benefit protections for those employees through membership in the federal employees' union. Even though nothing has been certain during this time of economic upheaval the downturn has affected union and non-union workers alike, I would think that being a part of a union would provide some sort of safety net - even if it is just networking through locals to try and find a new position, if not enjoying the protection of a solid contract.

The dynamics of unions have certainly changed over the past several years. While union membership within the federal government has gone up, private industry union representation has dropped. Whether it is a combination of right-to-work laws or employers who make an effort to provide strong salary and benefits packages to their employees so that a unionization effort is unnecessary, the shift in hard numbers for membership has changed.

And, as I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, so seemingly has the approach and style of union bosses.

To me - as a union outsider - it seems the glory days of unionization were during the era when the A. Philip Randolphs and John L. Lewises of the world were hard at work, forming trade unions, working for protections for train porters and steelworkers and coal miners, and setting up a network (the old AFL and CIO, pre-1955 merger) of locals around the country to ensure that American workers could achieve the dream of a comfortable, middle-class (or more) life. Over the years, though, it seems the motives of the union bosses have changed; first, there was Jimmy Hoffa and his ruthless drive to take over the Teamsters, including his close collaboration with members of organized crime. More recently, Andy Stern of the SEIU has drawn fire from a wide range of folks for the unlimited access he seems to have with the Obama Administration (read that as "unlimited influence," perhaps?), his alleged lobbying efforts even after dis-enrolling as a registered lobbyist, and now his appointment to the newly-created debt commission.

Now I don't know Andy Stern, and I have never met Andy Stern, but from the media I have read (and I will freely admit that much of it has been of the non-union variety) it seems that Stern has gradually become more concerned with his own success than that of his members. I seem to see Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO out in the field, supporting his workers, than I do Stern.

So using the SEIU leadership as an example, I have to ask: are today's labor bosses more concerned with the strength and stability of their members or with their own power and level of access. My perception of today's unions is certainly slanted; I read stories of the success of union locals and see how they continue to provide value for their members, but it is countered by watching what the big boys in Washington are doing.

I am hoping that union members and non-union employees alike will weigh in on this issue. I pose the question not out of anger, spite, or from a conservative tilt, but just to get a fuller sense of how people feel about today's union leadership. At the very least, I'm hoping that my research into my grandfather's professional life may give me a more complete picture of the importance of the USW on the stability of his family.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Virginia's Budget Crunch: Lots of Complaints, No Solutions

"So what do you think of your governor?" my youngest sister asked after the first month of Bob McDonnell's term in Virginia had come and gone. It seemed to be the predominant question on the lips of many folks after the details of the Governor's first budget were released last week - and it was a proposal that caused groups from across the political and social spectrum a great deal of heartache (heartburn, anxiety, stress, and gut-wrenching nausea are acceptable substitute terms based on what I've read and heard over the past several days). Never mind that once a governor or president is elected, that person is everyone's governor or president, regardless of whether everyone for that person or not.

In short, it called for massive cuts in education funding, state low-income insurance funding, subsidies for lunches for low-income children, and numerous other programs hitting families from all demographics and income levels. I'm a bit stunned that anyone would be surprised by this proposal; the Commonwealth's legislators and governors over the years - from both parties - have allowed a near-term $2.2 billion budget shortfall to develop, and without something being done it's only going to get worse.

So what should be done to address the shortfall without cutting programs? Surprisingly, no one has offered a single concrete answer (other than eliminating the Commonwealth's car tax, which was rejected by the Governor). Whenever situations like this arise, the agreement that something must be done to address our budgetary problems is unanimous - but when asked where the cuts should come, a circular firing squad develops and everyone starts firing away at everyone else. Naturally, there's always the option of raising taxes (awkward silence here, followed by the sound of crickets and the occasional cough among the audience).

Let's focus on education for a moment. With one child in public schools and one entering the system in just a few years, with a father who was a teacher for nearly 20 years, and with many friends who are current and former teachers, education is something that is very important to me. Anything that would result in depriving my children of a good, substantial education, or in eliminating a job held by one of my friends would be a difficult thing indeed. But the longer-term ramifications of doing nothing now to address the budget problems could be far, far worse; however, no one seems to be thinking beyond the next year and into the out years. If nothing is done now, what shape will schools in Virginia be in when both of my kids are in high school? At that point, how drastic will the cuts have to be to address the problem?

No one wants to cut education. Transportation funding is off-limits. Social program support is taboo when it comes to cuts. Low-income healthcare is forbidden. The list goes on and on.

So what do we do? I keep looking for someone to offer a solution and to this point haven't seen one. I even looked to the media to offer some sort of fix - and you know the cupboard is really bare when you even think about looking to them for a solution. A perfect example is today's Roanoke Times, with a several-hundred word column - fully one-third of the page - by editorial page editor Dan Radmacher entitled "McDonnell's Budget Cuts Too Deeply." As I expected, he did a great job of giving his opinion on the problem, but by the end of the column his complaining had yet to give way to something even remotely resembling a recommended solution.

When your car is broken, you look for a way to get it fixed. If your house needs repairs, you cut your budget wherever possible to pay for those repairs. It's just a shame we can't take that same common-sense approach to fixing our state.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

2012: Could We See Obama-Dean?

30 years ago, the Democrat party was in chaos. On the heels of rising inflation, rising fuel prices, and a presidential approval rating pegged at 28 percent by Gallup, Ted Kennedy threw his hat in the ring to challenge incumbent Jimmy Carter for the 1980 presidential nomination. Kennedy followers had long suspected he would run at some point in his career, although when he did their enthusiasm was quickly tempered by the fact that he never could explain exactly why he was running. To many observers, his battle with Carter was an unmitigated disaster, and the dissension within the party is credited by some as a major reason why Ronald Reagan won the general election in November of that year.

Fast forward to 2010, and there's a renewed sense of dissension within the Democrat ranks. Leading that dissension? None other than former Vermont governor and DNC chairman Howard Dean. In recent months, Dean had been making health care reform the major focus of his activities - but not in the way some would expect. Instead of spending 100 percent of his time leading the charge for reform, some of his effort has been expended in attacking President Obama and Democrat leadership in the House of Representatives and Senate for what he perceives as caving on key provisions that he has been advocating for health care legislation (chiefly the so-called "public option").

In a story published today in Politico, "The Resurrection of Howard Dean," writer Kenneth Vogel says that some of those closest to Dean think that his attacks on fellow Democrats about their approach to health care reform are just the beginning. According to Vogel, "Dean’s health care stand has infuriated party leaders, who have alternately tried to marginalize him and to bring him on board. Yet at the same time, his provocative approach has re-energized the political group he founded and thrilled legions of progressive activists, many of whom were drawn to politics by Dean's insurgent 2004 presidential campaign, then deflated when he didn’t land an Obama Cabinet post."

So let's think ahead three years, to the 2012 election cycle. If this dissatisfaction continues, and we see a regeneration of the tremendous enthusiasm among a wide section of the Democrat base that Dean brought about in 2004, could we see a repeat of 1980 and watch as Dean challenges Obama in the primary? Ever since his famous "taking back the White House/heeyaaah!" meltdown that marked the end of his campaign, a lot of folks -political pundits, voters, comedians, and many others - have thought Dean is just as crazy as he is unpredictable. And taken as a whole, a package of unpredictability, craziness, and grassroots enthusiasm, could motivate him to a position of mounting a serious challenge to Obama.

So sit back and enjoy the ride - the Howard Express could provide some exciting times in the next few years.