Monday, 31 October 2005

Anticipating the Firestorm

The emails have not yet started to flood in. I'm sure the advocacy groups are currently working overtime collecting the data on Samuel Alito's judicial decisions so that they can make their case to their constituents to oppose or support his nomination to the Supreme Court. MoveOn was quick on the trigger, though, and have already launched their campaign to collect a quarter million signatures in 48 hours in opposition to Alito's elevation to the Supreme Court.

Really though, the firestorm I am anticipating is not the predictable one which will be waged in public among the various interest groups and their constituents, but the more subtle one which will take place in the Senate Judiciary Committee and if approved there on the floor of the Senate. I figure it is time to dredge up last May's Memorandum of Understanding on Judicial Nominations which was brokered in the famous compromise of 14 to avoid the rancor of the nuclear option. The agreement is only binding upon the 7 Republicans and 7 Democrats who signed it, and is not as broad as some would have us believe. Specifically the Democrats agreed:
Signatories will exercise their responsibilities under the Advice and Consent Clause of the United States Constitution in good faith. Nominees should only be filibustered under extraordinary circumstances, and each signatory must use his or her own discretion and judgment in determining whether such circumstances exist.
A frequent misreading of this document is that since the earlier section of the document exempted the use of the filibuster by the signatories against non-Supreme nominees Janice Rogers Brown, William Pryor, and Priscilla Owen, that there is an implicit acknowledgement that their nominations do not constitute extraordinary circumstances. Such a reading would equally imply that the Republican signatories were acknowledging that William Myers and Henry Saad did exemplify extraordinary circumstances which the Democrats would have a right to filibuster. No, Part I of the compromise, was just that - a compromise to avoid the protraction of debate on the then current set of judicial nominees, so that business could proceed and the threat of the "nuclear option" could be deferred at the least.

Nuclear Option: dispensing with the Senate rule that 60% of the Senate is required to stop discussion (invoke cloture) and force a vote on a nominee.

It does mean that any of the (Democratic) signatories who do take part in a filibuster are on the hook to defend their perception of a candidate's nomination as an extraordinary circumstance, as any of the (Republican) signatories would be on the hook to claim otherwise before ceding to any Republican attempt to invoke the nuclear option. These Senators actually know each other well enough to have a pretty good idea if the others are being disingenuous, but I really think the Democrats have the upper hand here. If one or several make a sincere case that a nomination is extraordinary - and note that the memorandum does not exclude ideological considerations - then any of these more moderate Republican signatories will be hard pressed to cry foul. Further, the weakened Presidency and embattled Republican party has already spent its political capital for this kind of fight. Now it's true that the Republicans, if they are otherwise united, only need to peel off two or three of their signatory fellows to reverse the cloture rule, but it's an even more risky game for them given the higher likelihood that they will become the minority party in 2006 or 2008.

Alito may not be the firebreather that Bork was, nor the lightweight that Miers was perceived to be, but he has a long record which won't play well among civil libertarians, consumer advocates, or the suburban social moderates. Roberts and Alito may not be that different, but Roberts record was shorter and afforded him better play under questioning. His confirmation without any recorded cloture vote - a voice vote I'm guessing - with only 22 Nays in the final tally also establishes that the Democrats are playing nice, so far.

My sense is that the fight is upon us, and with the weakening of public support for Bush and the GOP, right now I'm betting against his confirmation. He may not even get out of committee if Specter decides that it's time to stand up to the right wing of his party.

Thursday, 27 October 2005

Activists Take to the Streets

I wasn't able to join yesterday morning in the action at Seattle's downtown viaduct which generated publicity for the opponents of the potentially deadly Initiative 912, but I was there in spirit. Darryl at Hominid Views posted a nice article about it. Thanks you all for getting off your duffs and making a statement.

Progressive Tax Reform Introduced

Ron Wyden, Oregon's Democratic Senator, should earn special kudos for his bold tax plan, the “Fair Flat Tax Act of 2005”, which he introduced this morning. Here is a bold approach to real reform of the tax code which has much to recommend it to both progressives and fiscal conservatives.

Wyden doesn't cave to the flat tax purists, retaining a three tiered progressive rate structure. He also retains the most popular deductions, such as home mortgage (a political necessity, though not truly progressive), child tax credit, and charitable deductions, but does away with a lot of the gratuitous special favor exemptions which have complicated the code over the years. The claim is that those making under $150,000 will see a tax break with this plan, and yet the budget gains $100 billion dollars over all. A large part of this increase is due to the plan's institution of a flat corporate tax rate which would undo the myriad of exceptions currently in place, as well as taxing dividend and capital gains income at the same rate as earned income.

Of course the investment community will squawk about any increase in capital gains taxes, and how that will dampen investment, but I don't believe it for a minute. Those inclined to invest and trade stocks are not going to stop simply because their gains will be taxed at a somewhat higher rate, and those who have modest gains will no longer have to wade through convoluted worksheets and formulas on their Schedule D all for the possibility of saving $17.13. For great specifics on the actual economic impact of this plan, I recommend Steve Novick's excellent article at Blue Oregon. Novick notes that "Studies of capital gains tax cut proposals at the Federal level have repeatedly disproved the economic arguments for capital gains tax cuts", and cites some details of several of these studies.

Other positive features are a credit against state income and sales tax which can be taken advantage of without itemization, and a simplified form that will enable many taxpayers to file a one page return. Now I would have liked (scroll to bullet points) to see charitable contribution deductions to move off of the itemized page as well, but I did not see that mentioned in the summary on Wyden's Senate page.

I don't think Wyden's plan has much chance of passage as long as the Republicans control both houses, but it can be a rallying point for Democrats in the upcoming campaigns, and in staving off unfounded charges that they lack ideas.

Thanks to Kari Chisholm of Mandate Media for alerting me to this wonderful proposal.

Wednesday, 26 October 2005

They Just Don't Get It

Our Vice President can't let go of the idea that torture stay on the table as a weapon against terrorism. Facing an explicit ban on torture, passed by the Senate by a 90-9 vote, Cheney and CIA director Porter Goss met with Senator McCain in a last ditch effort to exclude from the torture ban clandestine counterterrorism operations overseas by agencies other than the Pentagon "if the president determines that such operations are vital to the protection of the United States or its citizens from terrorist attack."

Proponents of such exceptions like to dream up hypothetical situations in which torture might be the leverage needed to extract information that could directly avert an act of terrorism. The problem is that information thus obtained is unlikely to be any more correct than what could be obtained otherwise. Furthermore these exceptions never are confined to such hypothetical cases, but are left to the discretion of those who have the power. Having such power inevitably leads to abuse and creates a culture of acceptance for the unacceptable.

Have we learned nothing from Abu Ghraib?

Washington Post editorial

[UPDATE: Far better than the Washington Post editorial, I just found this excellent posting by the Doctor over at]

Tuesday, 25 October 2005

Schadenfreude, Fitzmas, & Plamegate Frenzy

It would have been so much cleaner if America (or that critical 10%) had woken up one year earlier and decisively changed regimes at the ballot box.

While much of the left awaits in excited anticipation of what indictments may be handed down, I share Jack Whelan's trepidation about what that will actually mean for our nation's future.
I'm worried. It just seems that the country is particularly vulnerable right now, that things are being held together with paper clips and duct tape. If these guys go down, they are not going down without a fight. Things could get pretty messy.

Americans convinced themselves in electing this administration they were putting the grownups back into power, but they're discovering now that instead they put in a callow frat-boy who might be the only one left standing when all the dust settles. I don't know about you, but that makes me pretty nervous. He's got three more years. It's one thing to pop the country's balloon about what they really have in this man, but once the balloon is popped, there he is. ...

When abstractly considered, being rid of Cheney and Rove would seem to be a good thing. But their boy in the oval office is in over his head in the best of circumstances. How confident do you feel about his stability and his capability to deal with the kind of firestorm it looks like his administration is about to face?
When I gave my speech to my County's Democratic Convention 18 months ago, friends had advised me to cut the line about "blowing the cover of CIA operatives for political payback" as news that was 'too old'. But it seemed central to me as a cornerstone of this administration's shameless mendacity. Suddenly that old news is revived, and everyone is on pins and needles. Well it's 12 months too late.

Don't get me wrong - I'll take the scandal and hope it finally destroys their credibility as Watergate did for the much tamer Nixon - but I have no illusions that the scars left behind won't be painful.

Monday, 24 October 2005

Rosa Parks

On the day of her passing, we thank Rosa Parks for her important role in bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice. But we also thank those who came before her, those who worked with her, and those who have come since.

The Rosa Parks story is frequently taken out of context, and there is a misimpression that it just happened one day out of the blue. Parks earned her renown after years of involvement. From Paul Loeb's article:

[the] familiar rendition of her story had stripped the Montgomery, Ala., boycott of its most important context. Before refusing to give up her bus seat, Parks had spent 12 years helping lead the local NAACP chapter. The summer before, Parks had attended a 10-day training session at Tennessee's labor and civil rights organizing school, the Highlander Center, where she'd met an older generation of civil rights activists and discussed the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision banning "separate but equal" schools.

In other words, Parks didn't come out of nowhere. She didn't single-handedly give birth to the civil rights efforts. Instead, she was part of an existing movement for change at a time when success was far from certain.

This in no way diminishes the power and historical importance of her refusal to give up her seat. But it does remind us that this tremendously consequential act might never have taken place without the humble and frustrating work that she and others did earlier on. It reminds us that her initial step of getting involved was just as courageous and critical as the fabled moment when she refused to move to the back of the bus.

As a white male in 2005, I live in greater freedom to the extent that oppression has been lifted from others. One of Martin Luther King Jr.'s great insights was in recognizing the oppressive effect of oppression not only on the oppressed, but also on the oppressor and upon those expected to take the role of the oppressor. To the extent that inequity was still palpable in the sixties when I was growing up in Georgia, I can tell you that it was unpleasant for me. Of course it was ever so much worse for those on the other end of the inequity.

[Addendum: For additional background on Rosa Parks's action, the role of others, and the Montgomery bus boycott, please see Sheelzebub's excellent post at Preemptive Karma.]

Disaster Fatigue, but remember Pakistan

It's been barely over two weeks since a natural disaster which in most ordinary years would be the deadliest of the year. The enormity of the tragedy, though, took a few days to impinge on my consciousness, and then I was off for a week to attend a high school reunion, and realized just this week that the whole event had slipped my mind.

Over 80,000 confirmed dead, hundreds of thousands homeless, disaster relief the most difficult ever, and it had slipped my mind? What is wrong with me? What is wrong with our media? Did someone make an executive decision that Americans were just too fatigued by disaster, and we would spare them the 'hype' of this particular set of unfortunates?

I just scanned the major news outlets on the web, and most of them don't even have a link from the front news page related to this tragedy. Sure Wilma is bearing down on Florida, and deserves the top spot right now, but over a dozen other stories are sharing its headlines, while this deadly quake has been shoved to a scant mention and link on the World page. If I recall the tsunami remained front page news for weeks, yet here with a tragic dearth of emergency response, the major news media seem to be choosing to just skip this inconvenient tragedy.

A recent diary by media girl at DailyKos decries the lack of attention being paid to this by bloggers as well. Well, it's not too late to help, so let's get creative and think of ways to challenge others to dig deep, even as we challenge ourselves to do the same.

I know I am suffering from donation fatigue myself this year, with the tsunami, West Africa and Southern Africa famine, and Katrina already making this a record donation year for me. But Mercy Corps and other relief agencies are still out there ready to turn our cash into relief, so I am recommitting myself to fundraising for Pakistan two or three times as much as I shelled out myself for tsunami relief. If your company matches your donations, and you are not already at the limit of what they will match, I urge you to dig deep yet again and be a part of alleviating this suffering.

Saturday, 22 October 2005

Local Elections

My ballot for the November elections came in the mail yesterday, along with the Washington State Voters Guide to the array of Initiatives and ballot measures up for vote. I've already written about my opposition to the foolish Initiative 912, and will be joining my fellows who are distrustful of the insurance industry in voting against I-330. I've not yet decided to vote for I-336, the lawyers alternative to 330. I like its promotion of transparency, but worry about the possibility that it may be too punitive of doctors in high risk fields. Both initiatives are outrageously long. It's amusing to see the 330 proponents try to leverage public distrust of lawyers in fighting for their initiative, as if there weren't a whole team of lawyers in the middle of putting it together.

One can do a lot worse than simply to reflexively vote against every initiative, as there is a solid argument that in a republic we ought to elect competent representatives whose job is to hammer out the details of public policy. I don't share the faith of some who think it's better to put everything up to a direct vote of the people, when so many rely on sketchy information to make these far-reaching decisions which often tend to bankrupt their states. In Washington State, the Resolutions coming out of the Legislature are a different matter, as the hammering out has already been done in a bipartisan setting. Certain legislative changes require public approval, however, and in the absence of compelling information that something is amiss with them, I tend to vote in favor of those. This year we have a Senate Resolution which I see passed the state legislative bodies with 46-0 & 90-2 majorities. Nobody is going to convince me that our legislators are that bad. Unlike the Patriot Act, which passed Congress by a similar margins, this bill is quite short, so there should have been time to understand it fully.

Our Republican Secretary of State, Sam Reed, who oversees the elections, seems reasonable enough, but I do take issue with this statement in the guide:
I urge you to research the issues, to prepare for voting changes, and most importantly, to exercise this great privilege.
He's included the right list, but if voting itself is granted a more important status than researching the issues we doom ourselves to undesirable results. It should read:
I urge you to prepare for voting changes and to exercise this great privilege, but most importantly to research the issues, so that you may make an informed decision. You may abstain on any measures or candidates about which you are unsure, and the rest of your votes will still count!
Happy voting, everybody! Let me know about the initiatives which may be threatening solvency or civil rights in your state.

Thursday, 6 October 2005

So Much News

So Little Time

These days it would be a full time job to do blogging any justice. I've never felt obliged to comment on all major current events here, but when everything seems to be happening at once, it's just overwhelming. So let me recommend some other sites:

For great insights on the Plame case and Rove's upcoming testimony, check out Firedoglake, where Jane Hamsher has recently teamed up with ReddHedd to deliver all the sinister speculations as the wheels are coming off BushCo. Great Photoshopping of Rove's recent trip up, Jane! ;-)

Ordinarily I'd be anxious to deliver some commentary on the excellent vote coming out of the Senate last night. John McCain has disappointed me frequently in the past year, but this is the arena where I expect him to shine, and he did not disappoint. 90-9! Way to go Senators! Oklahoma is the lone state of total shame on this one. My heart goes out to all you believers in human decency in the Sooner State.

With the Supreme Court season coming into full gear and a nomination still on the table, don't forget to check in on SCOTUSblog for all the latest.

There has been a lot of tragic local news in the Puget Sound area recently, with the crash of a Medic Helicopter carrying the pilot and two nurses, the death of two scientists, crushed by logs rolling off a truck on Tuesday, and the usual assortment of fires and crime.

That and a friend of mine is prominently featured on Grist, where he is ready to take all questions on the impact of Mangrove destruction and how we can help in the fight to abate it. Go Alfredo!

Finally, speaking of how we can help, here is a long overdue tip of the cap to one of the most positive blogs I've encountered, so what can I do? which always looks to action rather than complaint in encountering the injustices of the world. Karama Neal, the host, is currently celebrating the blog's anniversary by pledging a donation to three worthy organizations for each comment left here.

Wednesday, 5 October 2005

Death With Dignity Before the Court

Chief Justice Roberts was immediately thrust into presiding over a highly controversial case today. The ability of doctors in Oregon to legally prescribe lethal doses of medication to terminally ill patients is being challenged by the U.S. Attorney General's office. In his very last day in office, Attorney General Ashcroft drew my ire by ruling that under the Controlled Substances Act, doctors' licenses to prescribe drugs could be revoked if they prescribed lethal doses for terminally ill patients meeting the qualifications of Oregon's Assisted Suicide Law, approved twice by Oregon voters, most recently by a wide margin.

The case is controversial, but it boggles my mind why it should be. Common decency and compassion dictate that patients enduring great pain, or facing terminal conditions should be able to obtain prescriptions making it possible for them to painlessly hasten their own passing. Assuming that we get past the current push toward theocracy in our country, one can easily imagine a day when people of the future will look back on this case as we currently look back on the Dred Scott decision. They (hopefully) will shake their heads in amazement and ask "You mean back then you could only get those prescriptions in Oregon?!"

Early indications are that Roberts is leaning toward ruling for the Attorney General's office. Supreme Court scholar, Jan Crawford Greenberg was quoted tonight on PBS' Newshour:
Chief Justice Roberts asked lawyers on both sides of this issue very aggressive questions; he saved most of his aggressive questions for the lawyer for the state of Oregon who was defending Oregon's law.
Souter, O'Connor, and Ginsberg were clearly more aggressive in questioning DOJ lawyer Paul Clement. But O'Connor may not get to rule in this case if her replacement is confirmed before a decision has been written, and previous precedent has been that such decisions are deferred in cases where the retiring justice would render a deciding vote.

Onlookers are split in reading how the court is likely to rule on this one, with Greenberg calling it too close to say, death with dignity activists Compassion & Choices writing "the Court is unlikely to uphold the Ashcroft Directive", and SCOTUSblog seeming to lean toward believing the feds will prevail. The calculus is that Souter, Ginsberg, and O'Connor will likely be joined by Stevens and/or Breyer, while Kennedy is more likely to join Thomas, Scalia, and Roberts in upholding the Attorney General's strictures against these prescriptions. Precedent would then hold the decision up until Miers joined the court, where immediately we would have a test of whether Bush has succeeded in tilting the court toward a ruling for the religious right. Perhaps Thomas or one of the conservatives could surprise us by allowing states' rights considerations to trump their cultural conservatism.

Compassion & Choices provides a full set of links at their summary page which goes on to say
The Justices appear reluctant to read the Controlled Substances so broadly. Several Justices repeatedly asked how Congress had empowered the Attorney General to preempt Oregon's law. With no sufficient answer, it seems clear the Attorney General exceeded his authority.

While I appreciate concerns for abuse of any death with dignity law, the Oregon law has multiple safeguards, and the history of its application bears out that it has not been abused, with those taking advantage of its provisions being exactly the sort of cases for whom it was designed. Concerns that it might be applied disproportionately among the poor or those whose primary motivation is to not be a burden on their families have not been borne out. It has also provided great comfort to many who know they have the means to choose for themselves when enough is enough.

In my view, concern for the patient should trump all other considerations in determining medical care. When the patient cannot be made comfortable and is expected to die within six months, it strikes me as the height of audacity and hypocrisy for anyone else to shake their finger at the sufferer and tell them they have no right to hasten their own death. If an animal is suffering we consider it an act of kindness to put them out of their misery. How much clearer it is in the case of a human being who can cogently express their desire to hasten their death, to allow them a dignified and painless method of doing so.

Doctors opposing this law point to their oath "to do no harm." If they cannot save the patient or alleviate their suffering, then they ARE doing harm by denying the patient a painless way out.

Monday, 3 October 2005

Culture of Corruption

The cynics are certain that power will win, always finding a way to circumvent what should be the consequences of corruption. The naive believe that justice will eventually triumph. Reality is a bit of a crap shoot, but by exposing corruption and exposing it relentlessly, we can at least increase the odds that justice will prevail.

Thanks to Evergreen Politics for pointing out the new Jonathan Alter article in Newsweek, which provides historical context for the current culture of corruption.

Sunday, 2 October 2005

Congress Critter Calling Campaign

With Republicans reeling, there's no better time I can imagine for the concerned public to start hammering their representatives in Congress for reform and passage of a few bills that Tom DeLay managed to keep from ever coming to a vote.

It may be hard to generate public outrage over inappropriate procedural power in the hands of the majority leader, but the public can easily understand flagrant mistreatment of guest workers, and perhaps the need to limit corporate consolidation of media ownership. These are two bills that I know of which were proposed in the House of Representatives, which had bipartisan support and a high likelihood of passing, but which were never brought to a vote because DeLay had political debts to uphold, and was able to use his position to keep them off the floor.

Now is the time for Democrats, and Republicans for that matter, to re-introduce these pieces of legislation and insist that they get a fair hearing in Congress. I don't trust them to act on their own - we need to start a nationwide calling / letter writing / leafleting / emailing campaign to let our Congress critters know that we DO care about having popular measures getting a vote in Congress. George Miller has introduced the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2005, which one site lists as bill 2429 and another lists as 3732. But 3732 appears at another location to be a Republican sponsored bill to credit employers of tipped minimum wage earners. I'm looking into the discrepancy.

At any rate, we need to push Congress at this critical time to take on the issues that DeLay pocketed, and bring more public scrutiny to the process.

[UPDATE: The George Miller bill which includes an increase in the minimum wage is H.R. 2429; and a nearly identical bill introduced by Sherwood Boehlert of New York is H.R. 3413. Both are now stuck in the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, where DeLay apparently used his influence to keep them parked there. I have sent an email to my Congressman, Jay Inslee, seeking his advice on how citizens might most effectively have a voice concerning bills which are stuck in Committee. Certainly contacting your Representative is always appropriate, but those on the relevant committee may be the best to contact. I'm especially thinking of any Republicans there who are in contested Districts. I'll report back with further info.

ALSO - If you have any information on the particular legislation from much longer ago which had been proposed to limit media consolidation, but which the Majority Leader used his power to keep from coming up, PLEASE let me know with a comment here.]