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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Tea Party's Real Colors Showing Already?

Candidates and supporters of the Tea Party have been loudly celebrating their victories and those of the Republicans in the recent elections. I have been publicly skeptical that Tea Party candidates are really any different than mainstream politicians. However, even I am surprised by how quickly these candidates seem to be exhibiting the "corruption" of power and office.

My evidence? Three of the most well known Tea Party candidates, all vocal and consistent critics of government spending, especially for "social welfare" programs, have all rejected appointment to the critically important House Appropriations Committe. For those who are unaware, this is the committe responsible for the actual budgeting of the federal government. They determine spending priorities and evaluate spending bills and decide what spending bills will be sent to a vote.

Why would Michelle Bachman (MN), Steve King (IA) and Lynn Westmoreland (GA), all of whom are adamant about controlling spending and reducing taxes pass on what has always been a prestigious assignment? Because it's easy to be critical of others who make spending decisions. It's easy to decry the abuse of social welfare programs. It's easy to attack popular programs to which you are opposed. It's quite another thing to have the courage to stand up and say I'll help make those difficult decisions. It takes courage to put yourself on the line when you know every decision you make will be criticized by someone. These three, and many others like them, lack the courage to put their political career on the line to do the right thing, regardless of how hard and uncomfortable it may be. Throughout the campaigns they adroitly avoided giving any specifics about where to cut spending and to preserve this ambiguity requires they avoid a position on this committee. There they would have to have actual ideas, actual alternatives and stand on real principles. Take this as the first of many examples of the Tea Party embracing politics as usual.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Is America Really Ready For "Change"?

Much has been made of the dramatic Republican surge around the nation in the 2010 elections, particularly in Congress. The new Republicans, especially those running under the Tea Party label, all made gaining control of government spending and debt the centerpiece of their campaigns. Very few people object to financial responsibility, though many are skeptical given how many times we have heard this from both parties over the last couple of decades. I, myself, am actually less skeptical about the willingness of the politicians to address the issue (and my skepticism is considerable), than I am about the willingness of the American people to make the sacrifices that will be necessary to make genuine progress.

If the United States is going to really gain control of spending and the ballooning national debt, Americans are going to be required to sacrifice in ways that haven't been seen since the Great Depression. The question is, given the partisan nature of our politics and the seemingly self-focused and entitled nature of the American people, whether these sacrifices will be accepted by enough people to make them a reality.

Anyone who believes that we can tax our way out of the problem without reducing spending (the liberal view) isn't being realistic. On the flip side, anyone who believes we can just cut spending to solve the problem (the conservative view) is equally unrealistic. People need to view the current spending/debt problem of the government the way they would a family with the same problem. Ask anyone who has climbed out of debt and they will tell you it took both increasing income (taxes) and reducing expenses (cutting spending). This requires sacrifice and commitment, and yes, pain. While there are clearly individuals who have the strength to successfully negotiate this process, I am not certain that the American people as a whole are ready to face this challenge.

A major problem we face in this dilemma is the partisanship rampant in our politics, where both sides see compromise as a weakness, and in some cases as something to be avoided no matter what the cost. With so much of our government spending already pre-determined because they are "entitlements" based on set qualifications, discretionary spending is actually a relatively small part of the national budget. This means sacred programs will have to be cut and every program will have to reduce spending, no exceptions.

Let's be honest...the structure of programs like Social Security and Medicare will have to be seriously re-evaluated. Military spending will have to be subject to cuts. Incentive programs to corporate America will have to be scaled back. Farm subsidies, oil subsidies, manufacturing subsidies, etc. will need to be reduced or eliminated. Congress will have to take the lead and reduce the number of staffers, committees, hearings, and foreign trips. Individuals will need to be willing to forgo the pork barrel projects in their district (which is how they choose most of their representatives in the first place). Tax rates may have to increase at least for the duration until real progress is made on the debt. Corporations and investors may have to lower their expectations for what is a reasonable return on investment (which has been outrageous in the last two decades).

Finally, individual Americans need to understand that their participation in the necessary sacrifices is not optional. Americans need to take an honest and objective look at their lifestyle and adjust expectations until we have met this challenge. We will have to consciously choose to build smaller homes (and stay in them longer), drive our cars more miles before replacing them, eat out less often, conserve energy to reduce utility bills, avoid indulging our children with every desire of their hearts, and stop paying exhorbitant prices for ordinary goods because they have the right "brand label". In other words, Americans are going to have to make many difficult, heart wrenching, sacrificial choices.

Getting the politicians to accept this challenge is actually the easy part of meeting this challenge. The difficult part is convincing the American public to accept the "medicine". To most people, sacrificing means "others", not themselves. As I said, I'm skeptical.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

An Open Letter To My New Congressman

Congratulations on your election to the United States House of Representatives! I am a moderate independent who, quite honestly, did not vote for you. However, now that the election is settled, I am one of your constituents.

Given that you now represent my interests in Washington, D.C. (and therefore work for me), I would like to suggest to you how I believe you ought to approach your responsibilities and what your first priorities should be.

First, DO NOT spend the next two years exclusively obstructing President Obama. Disagree where you feel obligated to, but make a genuine effort to look for areas where consensus and compromise are possible. I imagine you teach the children you so love that when they are fighting they must find a compromise position to actually solve their problem. Compromise IS NOT a dirty word and was THE key in the foundation of our great nation, for without it the Constitution could not have been written.

Second, recognize that sacrifice is going to be crucial in effectively addressing the challenges that face the United States. However, the people expect their representatives to spread the sacrifice around. If programs for the indigent and poor must be reduced or eliminated, there ought to be corresponding reductions in programs that benefit the wealthy and powerful. Remember that approximately 98.5% of the people you represent earn less than $250,000 a year and about 95% earn less than the $174,000 salary you will earn in Congress. The majority of people you represent are smart enough to understand that our financial problems are so deep that both spending cuts and tax increases will be required of any serious effort to reduce the national debt.

Third, DO NOT prostitute yourself to big business interests. The fact that a business (or individual) has more money available to influence you should not make their interests more important than mine. I am the representative ordinary American, earning right at the 50th percentile, with three children, and a mortgage on a home I can afford. Respect me enough to care enough about my interests at at least the same level as the interests of the millionaires and billionaires that you will begin to see on a daily basis.

The VERY FIRST thing you and your fellow Congressman should do is to quickly and clearly eliminate ALL laws, rules and regulations which allow American businesses to profit from moving jobs overseas! I am not saying that you should prevent them from moving jobs, they have the Constitutional right to do that if they choose. However, they should in no way profit at the expense of hard working Americans or the United States Treasury. It is time to recognize that one of the reasons that small, hometown businesses are suffering so severely in this recession is that large multi-national corporations are destroying local economies by moving jobs out of our nation and pocketing billions of dollars that would previously have flowed through hundreds of thousands of workers into those struggling local enterprises. It will not solve all our economic woes, but it would be a significant first step.