Sunday, January 27, 2013

Immigration Reform Now

Immigration is one of the great stories of America's history.  It is immortalized in the words penned by Emma Lazarus, and engraved on a bronze plaque that hangs on an inner wall of the Statue of Liberty, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

The United States is a nation built on the blood and sweat of immigrants; it is a great melting pot of cultures that together have strengthened the country, and have broadened its horizons.  America, the land of opportunity, of immense freedom, and of a generous people, has attracted millions of people from all over the world.  Nonetheless, immigration has been politicized for decades, and reasonable reforms have eluded Washington.

But now is the time to do something meaningful.  President Barack Obama will announce an effort to overhaul immigration Tuesday in Las Vegas, Nevada, a critical state where he carried the Latino vote this past November.   Leading Republicans, like Florida Senator Marco Rubio, are also leading reform efforts within that party, which have become a priority because Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney received less than 30% of the Latino vote.   

Appearing on ABC's This Week Sunday, Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J) said it is time for action.   “First, Americans support it in poll after poll. Secondly, Latino voters expect it. Thirdly Democrats want it. And fourth Republicans need it,” he said.  Senator John McCain (R-AZ) echoed that sentiment, “There’s a new appreciation on both sides of the aisle including, maybe more importantly on the Republican side of the aisle, that we have to enact comprehensive immigration reform.”

There are more that 50 million Latinos in the United States, and they are the fastest growing demographic in the country.  Every month, 50,000 Latinos reach the voting age.  But they also make up the largest portion of the 11 million illegals living in America's shadows.  And many Americans, especially Republicans, remain opposed to laws that would make it easier for illegal immigrants to stay in the country or obtain legal status.

According to the Washington Post, a bipartisan group of senators is nearing agreement that will normalize the status of illegals, allowing those with no criminal record to obtain work permits, and they will call for tighter border controls and verification procedures.   Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) told Fox News, “We’re at the talking points stage...we need to get to the legislation.”  So the devil is in the details.  

While there are huge Latino populations in California, Texas, New York and Florida, Latinos live in every state.  Latinos are successful small business owners; they work in homes and on assembly lines.  Illegal or not, they contribute to daily life in America.   Because of the recession, illegal immigration has slowed to a trickle.  Nonetheless, Pew Research projects that Latinos will make up nearly 30% of the U.S. population in 2050.  

Now is the time for immigration reform.  Let history be the guide for politicians in Washington because immigration has always enriched the fabric of America.  Think of the Statue of Liberty, in New York Harbor, and the words displayed on the bronze plaque, "From her beacon-hand glows a world-wide welcome."

Monday, January 21, 2013

Obama's Inaugural Address

“As times change, so must we,” President Barack Obama said in his eloquent and inspiring inaugural address, delivered to several hundred thousand witnesses gathered in front of the U.S. Capitol.  He continued, “Fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”

Mr. Obama’s address marked the beginning of his second term as president.  The remarks fell on Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and focused heavily on civil rights, equality and fairness for all.  We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal,” he said, “just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.”   

The president, citing and end of a decade of war, and the nascent economic recovery, said, “America’s possibilities are limitless.”  He then gave the nation a clarion call, “My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it – so long as we seize it together. “

House Speaker John Boehner and Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who were seated on the platform near President Obama, showed no emotion during the address.  But the president delivered a message intended for his opposition.  “The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us.  They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great. “

And, in reference to the partisan divisiveness that has created great turmoil in the halls of Congress for the past four years, Mr. Obama said, “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”

Yet some of the issues the president highlighted, in his nineteen-minute address, are sure to meet resistance from Republicans in Congress.  Mr. Obama devoted a paragraph to climate change, which wasn’t even debated during the presidential campaign.    Speaking of gun control, the president said, “Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.” 

Mr. Obama took on criticism of his handling of Iran’s nuclear program, “We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully – not because we are na├»ve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”

In many ways, President Obama’s speech was a continuation of his campaign to engage women, gays, immigrants and the middle class.  “For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.  We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.”  But he warned of tough choices ahead to reduce health care costs and the deficits.  Nonetheless, he said,  “But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.”

The president spoke confidently, with clarity and purpose.  His speech laid out a progressive agenda, yet it was grounded in the values and intentions of America’s Founding Fathers.  “Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life,” he said, “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time – but it does require us to act in our time.”

As President Barack Obama entered the Capitol building, following his address, he turned and looked out at the crowd, and the Washington Monument in the distance.  He then smiled.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Obama's Gun Reform

President Barack Obama moved quickly to respond to the "epidemic of gun violence" in America, which results in 30 thousand deaths each year, by signing 23 executive orders and calling on Congress to pass specific proposals, including universal background checks and a ban on military style assault weapons.  But he also acknowledged that getting Congress to act "will be difficult."

The president's heartfelt announcement came barely a month following the horrific mass murders by a lone gunmen in Newtown, Connecticut, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.  "In the month since 20 precious children and six brave adults were violently taken from us at Sandy Hook Elementary," the president said, "more than 900 of our fellow Americans have reportedly died at the end of a gun -- 900 in the past month."

Vice President Joe Biden and four young children, who had written the president following the shooting, joined President Obama.  The president read excerpts from their letters, including one from a boy named Grant, “I think there should be some changes. We should learn from what happened at Sandy Hook. I feel really bad.”  

The president had asked Vice President Biden to lead a task force and make recommendations to curtail gun violence.  Those recommendations were submitted to the president earlier this week, and the president used them as the basis for his announcement.   

President Obama called on Congress, "to require a universal background check for anyone trying to buy a gun."  Currently, there is a law that requires licensed gun dealers to do background checks.  But gun buyers can avoid a check by purchasing a weapon at a gun show or from a private seller. 

The president asked Congress to "restore" a ban on military-style assault weapons, and a 10 round limit for magazines.  Mr. Obama pointed out that a gunman using an assault weapon was able to shoot 70 people in "a matter of minutes" at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater last July, and killing 12.  "Weapons designed for the theater of war have no place in a movie theater" he said.  He also called on Congress to, "get tougher on people who buy guns with the expressed purpose of turning around and selling them to criminals."

The executive orders he signed are all focused on giving local officials and organizations the tools they need to reduce gun violence.  "We will help schools hire more resource officers if they want them, and develop emergency preparedness plans," the president said.  "We will make sure mental health professionals know their options for reporting threats of violence."  He also said he will direct the Center for Disease Control to study the cause of gun violence, and asked Congress to, "fund research into the effects that violent video games have on young minds."

In his remarks, Mr. Obama said, "I believe the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms. I respect our strong tradition of gun ownership and the rights of hunters and sportsmen. There are millions of responsible, law-abiding gun owners in America who cherish their right to bear arms for hunting or sport or protection or collection."  

Saying that with rights come responsibilities, the president shifted his argument from the rights of gun owners. "That most fundamental set of rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, fundamental rights that were denied to college students at Virginia Tech and high school students at Columbine and elementary school students in Newtown; and kids on street corners in Chicago on too frequent basis to tolerate; and all the families who never imagined they’d lose a loved one to -- to a bullet, those rights are at stake." Mr. Obama said,  "We’re responsible."

In advance of President Obama's announcement, the National Rifle Association posted a video on its web site that criticized the president as an "elitist hypocrite" for opposing its proposal to put armed guards in every school.  It said that the president's daughters have Secret Service protection.    This is an indication just how far the NRA will go to stop any gun control efforts.  The NRA and gun manufacturers make large political donations to members of Congress, and they will use this as leverage against reform.  

But Mr. Obama anticipated his critics: "There will be pundits and politicians and special interest lobbyists publicly warning of a tyrannical all- out assault on liberty, not because that’s true, but because they want to gin up fear or higher ratings or revenue for themselves."  He even cited President Ronald Reagan's support of a 1994 ban on military assault weapons.  But Rep. Tim Huelskamp, of Kansas, later responded by criticizing the Obama administration, "Apparently public safety matters only when there’s political gain to be had. How can we expect them to act on new laws if they cannot even enforce the ones that currently exist?”

President Obama should be applauded for taking quick action to reduce the plague of gun violence in America.  It will take strong and persistent leadership from the White House to get Congress to act on any of his proposals.  While polls indicate a majority of Americans supports action, many congressmen represent districts that strongly oppose any gun legislation.  The president recognized this in his remarks, "We’re going to need voices in those areas and those congressional districts where the tradition of gun ownership is strong to speak up and to say this is important."  

Perhaps they can start by reflecting on the words of young Julia, “I’m not scared for my safety, I’m scared for others. I have four brothers and sisters, and I know I would not be able to bear the thought of losing any of them.”


Sunday, January 6, 2013

Debt Ceiling Showdown

No wonder Congress is so unpopular. Last year's House and Senate teamed up to be the most ineffective Congress in decades. Sadly, the new Congress looks like it is going to underperform its predecessor.

In the next few weeks, Congress must decide whether to raise the debt ceiling. Under law, the debt ceiling limits the U.S. Treasury's authority to borrow money to pay for decisions already enacted by Congress and the president. In other words, the government needs Congress's approval to raise money to pay its bills.

If Congress fails to raise the debt limit, America will be in default. In 2011, the rancorous debate over raising the debt limit caused bond-rating agencies to downgrade America's credit. Though the debt ceiling was raised, the government (i.e. taxpayers) had to pay higher interest on money it borrowed.

The near crisis also had an adverse affect for America in the global markets.
So here Americans are again, after surviving the end of the world, supposedly predicted by the Mayans, and after avoiding the fiscal cliff, on the verge of yet another financial crisis. The fact that Republicans would use raising the debt ceiling as "leverage" to secure deep budget cuts, largely in entitlement programs, is irresponsible.

In his appearance on ABC's This Week Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell ruled out additional tax increases as part of a debt ceiling or deficit reduction deal. "That's behind us. Now the question is, what are we going to do about the biggest problem confronting our country and our future? And that's our spending addiction. It's time to confront it," Senator McConnell said. "The president surely knows that. I mean, he has mentioned it both publicly and privately. The time to confront it is now." Senator McConnell indicated he would not approve action on the debt ceiling without sizable budget cuts.

But, in his weekly radio address, the president, who was able to get Congress to pass tax increases on high-income earners, was adamant about not using the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip. "One thing I will not compromise over is whether or not Congress should pay the tab for a bill they've already racked up," President Obama said. "If Congress refuses to give the United States the ability to pay its bills on time, the consequences for the entire global economy could be catastrophic. The last time Congress threatened this course of action, our entire economy suffered for it. Our families and our businesses cannot afford that dangerous game."

America is in the midst of a slow recovery. Unemployment is still unacceptably high, and consumers are wary of the future. Yet who can blame them given Congress's erratic behavior. Most Americans feel a responsibility to pay back the money they owe in a timely manner. They full well know the consequences of failing to do so, including having their credit rating reduced.

If Congress fails to act it risks another downgrade of U.S. Treasury bonds. Brian Kessler, of Moody's Analytics, told MarketWatch, "For the last 60-ish years, U.S. Treasury bonds have been the foundational rock of the entire world financial markets. A second downgrade could be like an earthquake on that financial rock." He added, "I'm very nervous that people in Washington don't really take that seriously enough."

In the 2011 debt ceiling debate, The Economic Policy Institute said that failure to raise the limit would create, "a massive shock to the economy." It further warned, "Social Security checks would be cut, doctors would not be reimbursed in full for seeing Medicare and Medicaid patients, and private contractors doing business with the federal government would not be paid." Ditto for 2012.

Making matters even more complicated are upcoming debates over the "sequester" spending cuts to defense and domestic spending, agreed to as part of the 2011 debt ceiling deal, and a stopgap bill that will likely be needed in March to keep the government operating.

Congressional Republicans must act responsibly by putting country ahead of partisan politics. They must vote to raise the debt ceiling. American cannot endure another self-inflicted wound from Congress.

The U.S. Constitution defines the powers it grants Congress. They include: "The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States." If Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling it will weaken the country and fail to provide for the general welfare of the United States.