Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Gun Control Victory

Normally a Democratic Congressional primary would attract little national attention.  But the contest Tuesday in Illinois' Second Congressional District pitted two political giants against each other, the National Rifle Association and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. 

Democratic candidate Robin Kelly, a strong gun control advocate, handily won Tuesday's primary, which had a low turnout in part due to a winter storm.  “Robin Kelly couldn’t have been clearer about her position on gun safety,” said Stefan Friedman, a spokesman for Independence USA. “This sends an enormous message to the N.R.A.”

Independence USA is Mayor Bloomberg's super PAC, which he set up to spend money on candidates that share his views on issues he cares about.  Bloomberg's PAC spent more than $2 million on ads attacking Kelly's opponent, former Congresswoman Debbie Halvorson, who had previously been "A" rated by the N.R.A.

The Second Congressional District includes Chicago's South Side as well as some southern suburbs. The city has been plagued by gun violence, much coming at the hands of street gangs.  Already this year gun deaths are running 16% ahead of last year's tragic total.  Citizens from all walks of life are touched by the problem. 

The Congressional seat came open because of the resignation of Jesse Jackson Junior, whose career came to an end in scandal.  The district is overwhelmingly Democratic, so the winner of the primary is virtually assured of winning the seat in the April 9 general election. 

Ms. Halvorson had opposed bans on assault type weapons and high capacity magazine clips, while supporting universal background checks for gun buyers.  The N.R.A. spends millions of dollars on electing members of Congress who will stand up to gun control efforts.  But Bloomberg's blitz tapped into a growing national sentiment that something has to be done about senseless gun violence. 

Last month, 15 year-old Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed on a Chicago street one week after she traveled to Washington D.C. to participate with her high school band in President Obama's inauguration.  "As usual, the bad guy aims, but he never hits the other bad guy... He hits the one that hurts the most to lose," Chicago Police Officer Damon Stewart, Pendleton's godfather, told the Chicago Sun-Times. 

The head of the N.R.A. said, following the mass shooting in Newtown Connecticut, that a good guy with a gun is the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun.  So Hadiya should have had a gun too?  The N.R.A. considers any reasonable steps to curtail gun violence, like background checks, tougher restrictions on gun sales, bans against semi automatic weapons and high capacity ammo clips, as an assault on the Second Amendment.

But, the numerous mass gun murders , from Newtown to Tucson, Arizona, from Aurora, Colorado, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, have become a call to action for many members of Congress.  And now a gun safety advocate from Chicago is one step closer to being elected to Congress, hopefully in time to vote yes on a historic piece of legislation that will be an important first step in making America's streets safer.     

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Sequester Insanity

It is doubtful that Congress and the White House will reach a budget agreement in time to avoid the deep mandatory cuts, known as the "sequester", from going into effect at the end of next week.  The consequences, according to many economists, could be disastrous for the already anemic American economy. 

Conventional wisdom currently is that the sequester deadline will pass and then Washington will come up with some sort of compromise solution.  Perhaps just in time for the next self-inflicted crisis, the threat of a federal government shutdown on March 27 if Congress does not approve funding. 

At the heart of this crisis is the debate over how to reduce the annual deficits that Washington continues to rack up. The national debt is currently $16.5 trillion, or about $50,000 for each citizen.

On Tuesday, Erskine Bowles and former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson released their new deficit reduction plan, which they say splits the difference between President Barack Obama and House Republicans. Their plan would reduce the deficit by $2.4 trillion dollars over the next decade.

Bowles worked in the Clinton administration, and Simpson was a highly respected Republican Senator.  They served as co-chairmen of the White House's 2010 deficit-reduction panel, which put together a bipartisan package of tax and spending changes that was rejected by both the administration and Congressional Republicans.

The Bowles-Simpson plan includes $600 billion in cuts from Medicare and Medicaid, $600 billion in new tax revenue from ending or reducing deductions and breaks, and $1.2 trillion in cuts to discretionary spending, along with cuts in cost-of-living increases for Social Security, the farm program and civilian and defense retirement programs.  Bowles-Simpson 2.0, as it is being called, sharply reduced tax revenues from their original plan, perhaps in an effort to win over some Republicans.

In the current deficit debate, the White House favors a $1.5 trillion package that includes smaller cuts in social programs, investments in education, new technologies and infrastructure, and additional revenues achieved by closing tax loopholes.   Republicans say they will propose a $4 trillion package of cuts that they claim will result in a balanced budget in 10 years, although they have not provided details.  But Republicans have ruled out any further tax revenues. 

Meanwhile, some economists question making deep cuts in federal spending at a time when the nation's economic recovery is so weak.  They point to failed austerity measures in European countries, like England, which slipped back into another recession.

A compromise like the Bowles-Simpson plan seems appropriate for the country to avoid further calamity.  "Our plan is not perfect, but it can serve, we believe, as a mark for a bipartisan deal," Mr. Bowles told reporters Tuesday morning.  However, it is unlikely that the plan will receive any traction in Washington.

So, at the end of next week, the sequester is likely to go into effect.  It calls for $85 billion in across the board cuts, and gives the government little discretion in how to enact them.  The president called it a "meat cleaver" approach, warning that national security and vital services will be reduced, resulting in furloughs for border patrol agents, first responders, teachers and air traffic controllers. 

With Congress on a break, no negotiations are underway.  Instead, Congressional leaders are pointing fingers and playing the blame game.  On Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner said, "Words alone won't avert it. Replacing the president's sequester will require a plan to cut spending that will put us on the path to a budget that is balanced in 10 years.  To keep these first responders on the job, what other spending is the president willing to cut?"

No wonder a recent Quinnipiac poll showed that 72% of American registered voters disapprove of the way Congressional Republicans are doing their job.  And now Republicans are ready to bring the country to its knees rather than compromise on a more balanced budget deal to avert the latest Washington manufactured crisis.  This is insanity.


Monday, February 18, 2013

Cleo and Cassie

A dog may be man's best friend, but two can sure raise a ruckus!  That is the lesson we have learned when we expanded our family by one dog. 

Cleo is a sweet and docile Maltese who has lived with us for more than seven years.  From the very beginning she was a wonderful and loving pet.  While she was feisty and playful as a young puppy, she settled down into a quiet and loving routine as she grew older.  Of course, being a lap dog, she craves human companionship.  Since our family members have very busy schedules, she relies on the care of our live in nanny on weekdays.  We call our nanny the "danny", or dog nanny.

Cleo only barks when the doorbell rings.  Then she offers each visitor an opportunity to scratch her back.  It is always funny watching her back up into a stranger's leg.  Most shopkeepers and neighbors know Cleo, and say hello. Meanwhile, Cleo has cultivated friendships with other neighborhood dogs, made during her daily walks.

Cleo also loves to travel.  She is quiet and calm on airplanes for hours at a time.  She is an annual guest at the Hilton Hotel in Ft. Collins, where she enters confidently, walking in and out of automatic doors with purpose.  It is an amusing site to see.  She navigates the snow and frigid temperatures of Vail, Colorado, although it can be hard to detect her whereabouts in the white snow. 

Cleo was the queen empress of our household.  But that changed this past September.

Cassie and Cleo on Valentine's Day
Enter Cassie, a purebred Pomeranian puppy.  Cassie is brash, endlessly curious, overly energetic and tireless.  This dog thinks she is the center of the universe.  At seven months, she is already a bit taller than Cleo, although much of her mass is hair.  She is a puffball.

She loves to play fetch.  She yips and whines to get attention.  She barks shrilly when someone rings the doorbell, competing with Cleo's more traditional bark.  Together, their dissonance can be grating.

Getting these two polar opposites to come together can be quite challenging.  Cassie pokes Cleo with her nose, prodding her for a play date.  Cleo, already jealous about having to share her family with this intruder, responds by diving under a nearby sofa or bed.  If Cleo is trapped, she growls and lunges at Cassie with great ferocity.  Of course, Cassie thinks it's a game.  So human intervention is constantly required.

The dogs now pretty much live separate lives in the same house on different floors.  At least twice a day the dogs are placed in the same room together.  While there has been some progress, we have a long way to go.  Cassie is an early riser; she sounds the alarm by 6am.  Cleo is content to sleep late.  Cassie will chew on anything in reach, pens, paper cups, and even shoes.  Cleo has no interest in such trivialities.

I have taken the dogs on walks together on several occasions.  Cassie walks with swagger, her nose held high in the air, as she pulls me forward.  A nearby shopkeeper calls her sassy.  Cleo walks with caution, her nose to the ground, as she lags way behind me.  Cassie bounces and darts from one point to the next.  Cleo is methodical and predictable.  At times they crisscross and tangle up their leashes.  One thing for sure, these ladies just don't ever agree on anything.

Cleo will celebrate her eighth birthday this summer, while Cassie celebrates her first.  A joint birthday party is planned--although it may be held on separate floors.  

So it goes with our perky Pomeranian and mellow Maltese.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Same Old Party

President Barack Obama will give his State of the Union address Tuesday evening, the first of his second-term.  American voters may have hoped that their elected officials had gotten the message that they should put partisanship aside and work together solve the myriad of problems facing the nation.  Not so fast!

The president has his hands full.  Unless Washington acts, in three weeks the country will be hit with the “sequester”, mandatory cuts to the federal budget that will be devastating to the U.S. economy because several hundred thousand people will be furloughed or lose their jobs.  Instead of working to avoid disaster, members of both parties are busy blaming the mess on their opposition.  

Everyone in Washington thinks the deficits are a serious problem.  But Republicans, having gone along with raising tax rates on the rich to temporarily avoid the "fiscal cliff", are demanding deep cuts in the federal budget, especially in entitlements and social programs, while rejecting raising any additional revenues.   The president is proposing raising some more revenues by closing tax loopholes that favor the wealthiest, along with making targeted budget cuts.  The GOP has rejected his “balanced approach”.  

While the country has been careening from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis, Republicans, who are still licking their wounds from last November's election defeats, are in a period of reflection and reexamination.   One outcome has been for the party to begin reaching out to Latinos, African Americans, Asians, and women, all demographics the party did poorly in last election.   

Republicans had been the party of "self-deportation" and impregnable border fences.  However, earlier this week House Majority Leader Eric Cantor actually did a flip on the Dream Act when he said the U.S. should, "provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home."  He also called for, "creating a workable guest worker program."  Meanwhile, Republican spinmeisters have hailed Florida Senator Marco Rubio as the leading voice for Hispanic Americans and immigration, while saying the president has failed to lead on the issue.  But Latinos won't be fooled. 

Immigration reform and gun control have been among the many hot topics consuming most legislators’ attention these past few weeks.  But the largely Republican opposition to any truly meaningful steps on either issue is certain to assure only minimal changes will be enacted.  

Meanwhile, Republican Senator Lindsay Graham has threatened to block two of President Obama's cabinet nominations until he receives satisfactory answers from the White House about what happened during the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, last September which left four Americans dead.  The appointees, Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, and John Brennan for CIA Director, were subjected to tough, some say personal, questions in their respective committee appearances.  Republican Senators John McCain and Rand Paul had previously made fools of themselves trying to beat up on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her testimony on Benghazi. 

While most everyone expects the president's nominees to be confirmed, leading Republicans are coming out of the woodwork to talk trash.  Former Vice President Dick Cheney criticized President Obama to a gathering of Wyoming Republicans, "Frankly, what he has appointed are second-rate people."  These words from a second-rate political hack who misled the world to start a war in Iraq, who authorized illegal torture, and who was a major player in the greatest recession since the Great Depression.  Remember, Cheney can't shoot straight. 

The Republican Party is out of touch with mainstream America.  They want to make deep cuts in federal spending, even though similar austerity efforts by England and other European have been an economic disaster.  They are against banning assault weapons and high capacity ammunition clips.  They are opposed to a path to citizenship for America's eleven million illegal immigrants.  They are on the wrong side of most social issues.  They are the architects of restrictions on voting meant to suppress African-Americans, Latinos and the elderly, who are largely Democratic voters.

The GOP can try to repackage their party by reaching out to all demographics.  But for many Americans the GOP is the same old party.