A tale of two unions: America and The Land Of Make Believe.

In the heat of the presidential election, determining fact from fluff can be a challenge. Both candidates seem to tell a tale of two unions, vilifying each other in the process. Every spoken word is dissected and thrown into the spin cycle by political pundits in every form of media. When President Obama has had to defend his record on the campaign trail, he was met with bitter rivalry and absolute rejection. Mitt Romney, John Boehner, and basically every Republican in Congress have all condemned the President's chosen path to recovery, claiming it had done more harm to the nation than good. As far as the economy is concerned, their party platform was based on claims of out-of-control government spending, complaints of high taxes and a failure to create jobs. Alas, if it is the truth you seek, skip the networks and go straight to the data: therein lies what Republicans have ignored, and the reason President Obama won reelection.

First: the 2012 jobs reports. These monthly reports are evolving things, as precise results do take time to compile. Today we saw final revisions to the November and December numbers, which added 146,000 and 155,000 jobs respectively. This brings the total number of jobs created in 2012 to 2.17 million. That's the best year in job creation since 2005, and bests the numbers from 7 of the 8 years of the Bush years. President Obama's own jobs bill - The American Jobs Act - which Republicans flat-out rejected, was applauded as "a significant boost to GDP and employment." Had it passed, 2.1 million more jobs would have been created. All of this considered, Republican claims of inaction are a tough sell. 

Second: the January 2013 jobs report. The addition of 157,000 jobs in January was expected, as was the basically unchanged unemployment report, ticked up to 7.9% from 7.8%. What was revealing in this report was a continued trend of job losses in the public sector, or government jobs at local, state and federal levels. In the last three months of 2012, government employment dropped by 24,000 jobs. January brought that number to 33,000. This is a result of something obvious: cuts in government spending, a federal tightening of the belt. Failed austerity measures in the Eurozone have not helped to change the opinion that this is the most effective way forward, yet it is how Republicans propose we deal with our own recession. In fact, history has not helped sway their opinions either. Indeed, in the past, efforts to recover from economic downturns have been dependent on a boost in public sector employment, as the government is always capable of expanding its workforce to aide the recovery process along. This time, claims that the government is too big under Barack Obama have led to staunch opposition to such an approach. The irony here is that government spending and employment have dropped drastically under President Obama, compared to President Bush (who?) and even the Republican deity, President Reagan, as shown below:

School teachers, police officers, firefighters have taken the brunt of the cuts, along with about 1.1 million other government workers over the course of the past 3 years. Of course, not every one of the jobs cut provided essential services, so not every cut made was a bad decision. It is, however, an extreme misrepresentation of the facts when one claims that President Obama refuses to negotiate.

That brings me to the third point: taxes under President Obama. In February of 2012, the President announced a $4 trillion deficit reduction plan, which acknowledged demands for spending cuts but also included tax increases on the wealthiest Americans. (it was argued that how this would be achieved was dishonest, but economists (and I) disagree, and I won't get into that debacle here.) The revenues side of his proposal included over a trillion dollars in deficit reduction, and at a time when the distribution of wealth drastically favors the top 20%, it seems a fair suggestion that historically low taxes go up on those lucky few. Revenues, supplemented by spending cuts, was the approach favored by Democrats; cuts alone were favored by Republicans, who saw no value in the $1.3 trillion loss of revenue due to the Bush Tax Cuts. This was a major debate during the 2012 election, but the American people reelected President Obama, showing clear support for a balanced approach to dealing with our deficit. In recent public sector jobs numbers, we see proof of the effect of cuts alone: contractions in the economy and stifled growth. Why, as a nation which prides itself on being a world leader, would our government choose to ignore necessary infrastructure investments or an ability to create jobs, and hope sudden stinginess on all fronts will lead to growth?

The real question here is not whether one party is truly fighting to end this recession and get Americans back to work; it is simply how each party plans to make that happen. Where Republicans favored austerity, Democrats favored investments. Plain and simple. Luckily for President Obama, history shows that investing in infrastructure, raising revenues and boosting social programs have been the major factors contributing to growth in economic recoveries. Projections of future growth under his plan mirror that. On the flip side, the majority of Republicans in Congress have chosen to ignore history and basic arithmetic in their approach, and have successfully convinced their constituency to do the same, so they may continue living in their land of make believe, where a Kenyan, Muslim, socialist runs the show, cooking the books monthly and hating American values. 

Harry Reid fails to reform the filibuster

From "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," James Stewart employs the "talking filibuster"
From "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," James Stewart employs the "talking filibuster"

Compromise is not a dirty word when it entails two parties discussing their preferred options resulting in a deal being made, progressing the agendas of all involved. It is a filthy word, however, when a person who had made a promise to represent a popular demand, instead allows a complete failure of action, misrepresenting their constituency. Such is the story of filibuster reform and Harry Reid. 

In recent years the filibuster has been more commonly used than ever before. It was intended to be a rarely employed device the minority could use to block legislation they held strong opposition to. To either party, when in the minority, this is a comforting option to have at their disposal. But it was never intended to be used in the way it has been since President Obama came to office, when Presidential nominations and routine legislation were blocked by overuse of the filibuster. This means that a 60 vote threshold is necessary for a bill to advance; a requirement that has led to entirely ineffective sessions of Congress, dubbed a "do-nothing Congress."

Let's be clear about something: the filibuster is used in the worst of ways by both Democrats and Republicans when they find themselves in the minority. But it is the current Republican minority that has abused the rules at historic levels. Still, it is a bi-partisan problem when such a tactic is so easily and frequently accessed. That is precisely why reform of its rules was so essential to restoring the effectiveness of our Congress. I certainly do not believe eliminating the filibuster was the path forward, because even the party in the minority deserves a role in our legislative process, but no serious consideration of complete elimination was on the table. Rather, the "talking filibuster" was one example I thought would be a common sense change to the rules, as it simply required anyone who wished to filibuster legislation 1) be present at the time of the filibuster, 2) be ready to explain reasons for objection, and 3) find 41 members who support your filibuster publicly, so as to substantiate your position. As it stands currently, even after yesterday's so-called "reforms," one may silently block a piece of legislation without providing reason or showing party support for the objection. How does that keep our government honest or effective? It seems so contradictory to the entire democratic process! If you are not willing to explain your position to your colleagues and your voters, why should your objection stall an entire body of government, a nomination of a position vital to our courts, or passage of a full budget?

Imagine going to your job and hearing that a majority of the people you work with planned to do something you were not entirely keen on, so when it came time to hear your opinion, rather than speaking and negotiating with your peers, you could silently dissent and block that plan completely. That does not happen. Why is it that simple in Congress? Because both parties are afraid to ever lack the power to silently dissent, should they find themselves in the minority, and that is an absolute shame.

Gone are the days of passionate debate, but only because so many of our politicians are afraid to lose a debate and, subsequently, the next election. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Tom Udall of New Mexico and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts are the exceptions to that sad truth, as they faced the threat of being unpopular for the sake of the greater good. Harry Reid used to be one of them. As recently as December of 2012, Mr. Reid stated, "We are going to change the rules." Alas, when that chance came yesterday - less than a month later - he said, " I''m not personally, at this stage, ready to get rid of the 60-vote threshold."

So President Obama is ready to fulfill promises he made to America during the campaign, with the issue of gun control already being addressed. Harry Reid had the chance to make that process more honest by reforming the rules of the filibuster. Instead, the "compromise" yesterday led to the ability to speed up the process of legislating (as if speed makes governing more effective?), and members from both parties may now propose amendments to bills with fewer restrictions from party leadership. But both parties may still abuse the filibuster as we've seen recently, so get ready America, for another do-nothing Congress mired in it's own confusion and frustration. 

Who is protecting our embassies? Check their voting records.


By now, I'm sure you've seen extensive footage of our departing Secretary of State defending the State Departments role before, during and after the attack on our embassy in Benghazi, Libya. Hopefully you took away from it more than the New York Post offered, but just in case you missed it, here's a look at how the day went:

Yesterday, Hillary Clinton did a few things at the Benghazi hearings: 1, she shot down bizarre claims that she suffered a "diplomatic illness" by faking the discovery of a blood clot in her head to avoid having to testify in the hearings before stepping down from her post at the State Dept (those making such claims were clearly, woefully unaware of a legality demanding her account); 2, she spent five and a half hours recommending that members of the House Foreign Relations Committee and House of Representatives read the classified version of the State Department Accountability Review Board (ARB), which they all had in front of them, and which answers the question of "who attacked our embassy and why," the the farthest extent the Intelligence Comunity (IC) can currently answer. Clearly because it is classified, it is not an answer which can be provided in a public forum; and 3, she proved rather skilled with a fly swatter, holding off obvious attempts to besmirch her otherwise stellar record as the country's top diplomat. 

Historically, these types of hearings are tragically common as attacks on our embassies abroad have plagued us for decades: 1979, our embassy in Tehran was stormed; in 1983 our embassy in Beirut was bombed; In 1987 a car bomb hit our embassy in Rome; 1998 our Kenyan and Tanzania embassies were simultaneously bombed (by Osama bin Laden). You get the point. After all of those attacks, a committee has been formed to gather intelligence from every agency in the IC and a hearing is held to make public the story behind what led to the attack, and why we did not know the plot sooner. In this timeline, the obvious takeaway is that our ability to gather intelligence, and use it to defend our government workers abroad, as well as our own borders, works 99% of the time, but terrorism persists because those abilities are not perfect. Nothing is perfect, and though it may lead to tragedy, it is a sad yet unavoidable fact of existence. We cannot know everything. 

Data that is readily available to us though, needing no extensive investigation nor formation of a committee, are the voting records of our elected officials. Therein lies the twisted irony behind part of yesterday's hearings, because another question persists: "Why was there not more security in Benghazi?" Well, looking at the budget proposed by the administration in 2011 for embassy security, $128 million was cut by GOP leadership in the House; in the 2012 budget (affecting security at the Benghazi Embassy at the time of the attack), $331 million was cut by the same House leadership. Once that budget reached the Senate, $88 million was restored to those cuts, but still proved to be insufficient. To be fair, in the hearings on Wednesday, Hillary did blame both parties for the cuts, calling it "a bipartisan problem," as Democrats and the Obama Administration did negotiate with Republicans to agree on a budget somewhere between what both parties had proposed. (In the proposed Paul Ryan Budget for 2014, more than $400 million would have been cut from requested embassy security funds.)  So there you have the answer. The same information sitting in front of members of the House Foreign Relations Committee in the ARB holds the answers to the questions they threw at Mrs. Clinton anyway. Their own voting records hold those answers. In the classified version of the ARB was all available information collected by the Intelligence Community which could not publicly be shared, as it would reveal information vital to ongoing investigations that could lead to the arrest and prosecution of those behind the embassy attack in Benghazi. Based on the numbers, who is concerned with embassy security here? 

Another aspect often overlooked in this investigation happened immediately following the attack on our embassy in October of 2012. Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa insisted that the first line of questioning be held in an open forum, shown live on C-SPAN, and invited State Department officials to map the events of the infamous attack. When an aerial photo of the embassy was brought to the attention of the committee, Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah interrupted, "“Point of order! Point of order!” We’re getting into classified issues that deal with sources and methods that would be totally inappropriate in an open forum such as this.” A building included in the photo was called to attention. “I totally object to the use of that photo. I was told specifically while I was in Libya I could not and should not ever talk about what you’re showing here today.” Suddenly an otherwise negligible detail in the aerial photo was brought to the attention of the committee - and anyone watching C-SPAN. Darrell Issa insisted that the photo be removed, as it revealed the location of a secret CIA annex, there to help defend the nearby embassy and collect intelligence in Libya following the overthrowing of Muammar Gaddafi. The New York Times reported that a number of C.I.A agents had been rescued from the embassy, raising the question of why the C.I.A was present in the first place, but the Obama Administration was careful to avoid revealing the answer. One might assume that any member of a committee with access to classified information would carry that responsibility with careful respect, making sure to avoid mentioning any detail of it for the sake of national security, no?

So again, various House committee members had information readily available to them relevant to the attack on Benghazi, yet they claimed conspiracies and negligence on the part of State Department leadership whom they thought were attempting to cover up the story behind the attack. Simultaneously, the CIA and FBI was fighting to withhold public release of the details leading them to those responsible for the attack for the sake of an undisturbed investigation. 

Lastly, I will highlight another line of questioning posed to Secretary Clinton: "What has been done to prevent this sort of tragedy in the future?" Well, to be honest, not a lot. Because a full budget has not been passed under House GOP leadership, pieces of legislation requiring House approval have been broken into pieces and voted on individually. In the bill that would have approved the appropriation of $60 billion to clean up after Hurricane Sandy, $1.4 billion was tacked on, taken from unused, House-approved funds from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and redirected to the State Dept to bolster security at all of our embassies abroad. That funding was stripped from the final passage of the relief package. As Mrs. Clinton pointed out several times yesterday in both hearings, the House still refuses to grant those funds. Surely a country capable of outspending every other nation's military spending combined can allocate funds intended to save American lives.

Global Military Spending, 2010

Global Military Spending, 2010

It seems to me like Republicans are gearing up for a Presidential run from Hillary and are prepared to do whatever it takes to leave a bad taste in the mouths of potential voters. In that effort , they failed. 


Defense Secretary Leon Panetta Lifts Ban On Women In Combat

In a surprising, but most welcome shift in US policy, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced today that the ban on women in combat has been dropped, making available almost 240,000 positions on the front lines. In future deployments, this move will make the already-overworked members of our 1.4 million member armed forces less likely to redeploy so often, as has been seen in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Yay.

Organizing For Action encourages direct participation in government

The campaign organizing apparatus of President Obama is now well-known to be the key to his victory. Throughout the 2008 and 2012 election seasons, Obama For America reached out to voters in unprecedented fashions; through nearly every form of social media, their own app for sharing information on campaign events, and even by allowing supporters to create their own fundraising page, the Obama campaign blew out of the water every attempt by John McCain and Mitt Romney to keep up with their savvy outreach efforts. Following his reelection, President Obama fully realized the value in having direct access to his supporters and announced how he would keep that line of communication open: Obama For America was transformed into Organizing For Action [OFA], intended to help promote the policies of President Obama's second term, and the continued fight for progressive causes even further down the road.

Formed as a hybrid PAC, Organizing For Action may accept unlimited donations (which will be disclosed)  from supporters who hope to influence the legislative process. As First Lady Michelle Obama said of OFA, "to build on the work we've already done by training and empowering the next generation of leaders and supporting the grassroots organizing that you want to do on the issues that matter most to your communities and our country." To me, this is the truest support of democracy a President can provide, as I do believe a general lack of interest and understanding of how our government functions had taken hold of so many Americans during a time when their full attention was so vital. Sure, every generation experiences the sort of polarization of the parties we've become accustomed to, but that is not how our democracy was intended to function. Rather, this was a country founded on the enthusiasm and involvement of its people, whose votes elect those who represent them, and whose direct actions should shape the course of every presidency and congressional session as well. Organizing For Change offers that ability, where easy access to these opportunities had been mystified before.

Though it is still unclear exactly how OFA will function, current supporters of Obama For America received a message from campaign manager Jim Messina, who will run the non-profit, regarding action on gun control:

"People like you spoke out and demanded action. Your input, along with ideas from leaders and policymakers across the political spectrum, went into the President’s plan. Learn more about the plan, and say you stand with President Obama in tackling this critical issue.”

Encouraging people to voice their opinions directly to the White House, their state and local representatives as well as their friends & family is valuable advice for frustrated citizens who feel that their vote alone has not produced results they expected. It is the public response this administration has received which highlights the downfall of the gun lobby's influence. Groups like the NRA have been highly criticized in their response to recent shootings, and the Obama administration has cleverly threaded in the personal stories of those affected by gun violence to justify his stance on gun control. This is how a President engages their citizens. This is representation. This is the sort of executive power we sorely need to see employed more often. This is the voice of the people commanding the conversation, and it drives home President Obama's promise for change.

This past weekend, Obama For America staff members met to discuss key elements to the success of the 2012 campaign. A 96 page legacy report was released, which sheds a bit of light on the possible structure of Organizing For Change. The main focus therein is the invaluable work of volunteers:

"PERHAPS THE BIGGEST SECRET TO OUR SUCCESS is that once we started building this historic campaign in 2007 through one-on-one conversations, community by community and block by block, we never stopped. In many states we never pulled up the stakes, continuing to empower the supporters who cultivated a movement known for its strong heart, selfless vision, tenacious spirit and commitment not just to win an election, but to prove that millions of voices are more powerful than a few billionaires. Emulating the same kind of grassroots organizing President Obama practiced on the South Side of Chicago, we proved that change still comes from the bottom up."

Another bit of foreshadowing for how Organizing For Action will function came on January 19, 2013, dubbed the National Day Of Service. In honor of Martin Luther King Jr., President Obama encouraged citizens to seek out local and national efforts donate their time to, and offer help to communities in need. Here on Long Island, a major focus was put on revitalizing areas devastated by Hurricane Sandy; thousands of people participated. In fact, the day was such a success, there is now a permanent hub one can access to find volunteering opportunities in your area. I'd imagine this sort of organizing will be a major part of OFA going forward, and thank goodness for that, because I do believe that nothing serves a community as well as the community serves itself. When we can rely on our neighbors in the most trying of times, a sense of sustained togetherness grows and helps us move on together. This is not socialism; this is democracy at work.

So the American people have a choice - YOU have a choice: will you participate in Organizing For Action to offer your perspective in a range of national issues? How? Will you volunteer yourself and promote service to your community and others in need? How? I'd truly love to hear from you. In the four years ahead of us, climate change, gay rights, gun control and the war in Afghanistan will be major focuses for this administration and we can take part in how those decisions play out. At the very least, let's say we the people tried to nourish the soul of this democracy by engaging our fellow citizens, and let's be glad our President sees the value in our efforts, not just what happens in government.