Monday, February 26, 2007

It's The Extremists Who Are Extremely Worked Up

That was my proposed headline, but the editor went wordier, but I don't know if it was to better effect. And what's really weird is that the newspaper version only ran a picture of one of the legislators, and it was Konopnicki, not Sinema, which isn't what anyone really interested in boosting circulation would have done.

East Valley Tribune, Feb. 25, 2007

State Reps. Bill Konopnicki (R-Safford) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Phoenix) don’t have much in common. Konopnicki is a married, rural, Mormon Republican who owns several restaurants and other businesses, and who favors conservative suits and ties. Sinema is single, a former Nader-for-President campaign staffer turned Democrat who is a former Mormon, who did relief work in Africa, and is a lawyer wearing "distinctive glasses, eye-catching clothes and [four-inch] heels" (the other newspaper’s code for "She’s a babe").

Mostly, what Konopnicki and Sinema share is receiving highly personal, offensive, and anonymous threats. For her part, Sinema sponsored a bill that would have classified border vigilantes as domestic terrorists. She then received numerous threatening emails and web postings, some with charming references to rape, kidnapping, and killing in response to a bill she’d introduced in past sessions and which went nowhere, and which will go nowhere this session as well. That’s what happens to 99 percent of the bills sponsored by Democrats in the Republican-controlled House anyway, and HB 2286 would be no exception -- even if the GOP leadership didn’t call a special four-hour committee hearing just to kill it extra-dead.

For his part, Konopnicki opposed in committee a bill that would have imposed sanctions on employers caught hiring illegal aliens. This position shouldn’t be unusual for a GOP legislator; they usually hyperventilate at the merest thought of a potential burden that somehow might fall someday on business. But Konopnicki forgot that with illegal immigration, the usual rules don’t apply.

Konopnicki spoke on the House floor (h/t: Ted Prezelski) last week about how after his vote -- which he described as an "honest difference of opinion" over the bill's potential unintended consequences -- emails began circulating that he had voted against tougher employer sanctions for bad reasons. Maybe people assumed that as the owner of restaurants, he had a personal interest in the issue; maybe somebody just made up something entirely false. But those emails slamming his vote quickly led to threats, by both email and letter, against him and his family.

It’s one thing for bad behavior in central Phoenix; urbanites are used to a certain level of hostility and bad driving, and it takes something over the edge, like the gruesome threats against Kyrsten Sinema, to draw attention. But Safford is a stable small town where everybody knows everybody else -- and where the people used to making and receiving violent threats are in the local federal prison and not eligible to vote anyway.

Konopnicki had to pause several times to maintain his composure during his speech. He probably never thought that as a low-paid legislator, doing public service would make him fear for his and his family’s safety. (He reported the threats to the Department of Public Safety, the security for the Legislature, which told him that "you have to treat all of these things seriously.") But Konopnicki didn’t count on the vehemence of those styling themselves as activists fighting illegal immigration.

Konopnicki noted that the willingness to assume the worst -- and to threaten to act upon it -- is greatest in the illegal immigration debate. (He may not have done it in the most effective way, however; in addition to using the famous Joseph Welch quote from the Army-McCarthy hearings, Konopnicki quoted, as a paragon of moderation and decency, Richard Nixon. But in Safford, maybe Nixon counts as a moderate.) But nobody has contradicted Konopnicki on this point; there’s no other issue that brings out the crazies and the threats like illegal immigration.

Here in Arizona, we have numerous tax cheats, and polluters, and military deserters in our midst. All of these individuals have broken the law -- laws, in most cases, with far more serious penalties than illegal immigration. But none of the people so worked up over illegal immigration see those scofflaws as threatening our way of life. It’s another data point, as if we needed more, that it’s not just about wages or breaking the law; the talk about doing "whatever it takes" to stop illegal immigration is cultural. If only they didn’t speak Spanish, then maybe we could all get along.
Family News

When retired MIT professor and former provost Francis E. Low died earlier this month, the university press office obituary, to show how important he was to modern physics, cites three of his most famous students, one of whom currently chairs the Department of Physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As they say (numerous times, each and every basketball/hockey/football game), Go Badgers! Please note that Prof. Low was "known among friends for his ability to sing tunes by Cole Porter," which I expect readers to find much more impressive now.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Big 10, a prominent State College (Pa.) businesswoman is still stirring things up--by taking on the local newspaper in the local newspaper. It's a quintessential Coppersmithsonian move, where you use the local power structure to fight the local power structure even though a lot of people think you are part of the local power structure.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Hooray for Harry!

Truman, that is. The Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation has released the list of 200 Truman Scholarship Finalists for 2007. You may find a familiar name among the four Arizona finalists. Mom and I are so proud we could plotz. Hooray indeed!

Monday, February 19, 2007

More of a Mistake Is No Way to Fix a Mistake

My suggested title is above, but the editor went in a different direction. He also insisted on adding "Vice President Dick Cheney" in case you were wondering which Vice President I was discussing.

If you want to read the rest of the Shadegg "Dear Colleague" letter, it's available here.

East Valley Tribune, Feb. 18, 2007

Not even Republicans wanted to defend the Bush administration last week. As U.S. Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., wrote to his GOP colleagues, "If we let Democrats force us into a debate on the surge or the current situation in Iraq, we lose."

Nice. Even defenders of the war don’t want to defend the war. Republicans refused to defend the President’s escalation, except to repeat the lie that nobody else has another plan. There are plenty of alternative plans -- but they require admitting that Bush and Congress were mistaken to invade Iraq as we did, so Republicans don’t like those plans.

Instead, Republicans argued about the war on a most abstract level. Like the baby boomer he is, Shadegg insisted that Iraq is part of a struggle against "the global threat of the radical Islamist movement" -- a threat far greater than any our nation has faced in the past. We boomers are so incredibly unique, of course we face a historically unprecedented threat.

I agree that last week’s debate was fundamental, but in a different way. Now, the argument is about democracy. Not about bringing democracy to Iraq, which even war supporters don’t mention anymore, but about our democracy.


Consistent with the boomer view that our problems are so much more important than our parents’, much of the GOP apparently believes that the world is too dangerous for democracy. That we can’t trust the American people to do the right thing, that debate and dissent are too dangerous. That the judgment of the American people in last year’s elections, and the judgment of their elected representatives in this month’s debate, are luxuries that we no longer can afford. That Americans just aren’t warlike enough. That "terrorism" has made democracy outmoded.

I disagree, vehemently. I recall what it’s like trying to convince Americans of something that they know isn’t true. To paraphrase Lincoln, in the short term, you can fool many people for a long time, but eventually, facts will overcome spin and cooked-to-order "intelligence."

If you believe in democracy, then you must yield to the voters’ judgment. You can try to change that judgment through debate and advocacy, but eventually, you must trust that people know what is best. Last November, the political marketplace spoke -- and it recognized what so-called experts just can’t seem to admit, that more of a mistake is no way to fix a mistake.

The administration, like a failing company’s management, is trying to argue that people are undervaluing their assets and emotionally overreacting to bad news. But the voters have made their judgment, and a democratic government must respect it -- even when a minority passionately believes that the people are wrong.


We have little choice but to trust the American people to get it right in the long run. If you insist that the government disregard the people’s judgment, then you don’t believe in democracy. You prefer a different form of government, where a group of experts, or even one man -- we’ll leave it to historians to determine whether that was Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney -- decides.

Sometimes it hurts, and many times I voted differently, but eventually a democratic government must submit to the voters’ will.

The voters concluded that we cannot transform Iraq by military force into something that it’s not -- and that we need to allow the people of Iraq to determine their future, just as we would insist that the Iraqi people have no right to tell Americans how we govern ourselves.
If the administration and the Republicans could persuade the American people to give this failed policy one, two, three, or countless more "last chances," then we should respect that decision.

But the hot air has finally leaked out of this balloon. The people, and their elected representatives, have spoken. Democracy requires that their government listen and act accordingly. That’s what a representative democracy, the republican (small r) form of government, means. And whatever happens in Iraq, it shouldn’t end democracy here.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Earmarks: Threat or Menace?

I spent this past week at the University of Akron, for my participation this year in the Congress to Campus program. I worked with former Rep. Mike Parker (D-MS, then R-MS). Ohio, and then Pennsylvania, were in the middle of a major cold wave; Mike and I did a radio interview one morning, and the announcer cheerfully said it was 6 degrees outside, so I decided against walking 8 blocks across campus to check out the recreational pool. Why they sent a guy from Mississippi and a guy from Arizona to Akron when it was 6 degrees, I don't really know. But it was a lot of fun; I'm a big Zips fan now, and Mike Parker is an amazing storyteller, one of those guys who makes everybody else funnier, too.

And now I'm filled with zeal for the Article I branch. The working headline was "Earmarks: Threat or Menace? Dressing Up Politics In 'Good Government' Clothes" but my editor liked the Shakespearean theme instead. He also let me keep the prunes analogy (Are three enough? Are five too many?) The newspaper version is live for 13 more days.

East Valley Tribune, Feb. 11, 2007

I come not to praise earmarks, but to bury them. The evil that earmarks do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with earmarks.

It's the latest seemingly-neutral good-government reform cause, stamping out special congressional spending designations in appropriations bills. They're wasteful, inefficient, not transparent, and relentlessly political. And like many things in government and in life, they certainly can be -- and were -- widely abused.

But after spending three days with a former GOP member of the U.S. House who served on the Appropriations Committee (as part of the College-to-Campus program, talking with college students about politics and about public service), the contrarian in me wants everyone to reconsider the current blanket condemnation of earmarks.


My GOP friend noted that one cabinet department's appropriations bills have had zero earmarks: The Department of Homeland Security.

But is there a worse-run federal department? The 22 agencies within the department still don't have a secure email system. Without basic communications, information still stays in silos. And their priorities still elude me; we don't screen cargo but they're keeping us safe from airplane passengers carrying coffee.

If your congressman believes that an executive branch agency is acting stupidly, there are two ways to fix it. Congress could pass a law, which is always difficult; the system is designed, in the Constitution itself, with many ways to stop anything from happening, all of which have to be overcome for action. The shortcut, which only works in cases where funds have to be appropriated, is for Congress to insert a provision in a spending bill. An earmark!

The Homeland Security email system problem could be fixed by the Bush administration, but they're not doing it. Congress could put an earmark into the Department's annual appropriations bill that would cut off all funding if the Department didn't create a secure email system within 90 days, and that certainly would focus the executive branch's energies on that priority. But with the internal congressional decision to ban earmarks for homeland security, Congress took itself out of the game.

A total ban on earmarks is a shift in power from the legislative to the executive branch. If you think that the executive is the source of all wisdom, and that elected representatives in Congress only detract from the perfection of the president's management, then you should ban earmarks. But the Bush administration doesn't seem to spend much effort on detail-oriented management of federal agencies, so perhaps they could benefit from additional insight from other sources, particularly elected representatives from a co-equal branch of government? Sure, there's no guarantee that Congress will do better, but since the standard for comparison is the "heck of a job" Bush administration, the bar is set pretty low.

Why do people who complain most bitterly about Washington decision-making and the need for local control simultaneously want to centralize all spending decisions in Washington by eliminating the most effective way for elected representatives from the rest of the country to change those priorities at the margin? It's because they prefer the executive branch to the legislative branch, because they think they'll control the executive but not necessarily the legislative.


It's just like term limits, a 1980's fixation when conventional wisdom held that the GOP had a lock on the White House but Democrats always would control Congress. But once Republicans took the majority in 1994, term limits disappeared -- although if Democrats hold control of Congress in 2008, just watch them return into vogue.

There are certainly stupid and wasteful earmarks, just as there are stupid and wasteful executive spending decisions. And like prunes, too many earmarks aren't good for the system. But the claim that eliminating all earmarks will improve the quality of government decisions isn't ideologically neutral; like term limits, it's also a political gambit to shift power from the legislative to executive. People who see the politics in everything else should recognize it in the anti-earmarks campaign, too.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Super Bowl Sunday Column

I forgot one absolutely apt comparison: Buddy Ryan is Don Rumsfeld. Yes, you've got a winner in town. To my surprise, no comments yet about the Iran as the new taxpayer-funded stadium joke.


East Valley Tribune, Feb. 4, 2007

You know how coaches, color commentators, and couch potatoes love to say football is like war? Here in Arizona, home of the allegedly professional Cardinals NFL organization, we understand that actually, the Iraq war is like football. The coaches and players keep getting blamed when it’s really management’s fault.

General George W. Casey, Jr., for the past 2½ years the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, is the latest coach to take the fall. He’s been a good soldier, not asking for additional troops when the Bush administration didn’t want to send additional troops. He stayed on message, claiming that chaos was a good sign, that more bloodshed and violence really meant that we were winning.

Because that’s what our national version of Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill kept saying. President Bush insisted in October and November of last year that yes, we were winning in Iraq. "Absolutely we’re winning....We’re winning and we will win, unless we leave before the job is done....I believe that the military strategy we have is going to work," he said on October 25. "We got a strategy that helps us achieve victory," he said on November 3. (Hat tip: Greg Sargent)

But last week, Bush gave an interview to The Wall Street Journal editorial board. They asked him: "Was there a moment in the war when you said we have to make a major change in the way we’re doing things in Iraq?" "Yes, there was," Bush replied, "September/October." Of course, in September/October, Bush still was telling voters that we had the right strategy and were winning in Iraq -- but apparently that was just spin, trying to keep fans in the seats through the November elections.

Now following the voters’ harsh judgment in the midterms, the Bush administration and its supporters, like Sen. John "More War!" McCain -- who plays the Michael Bidwill role here (with Edgerrin James as "The Surge" and Iran as a new taxpayer-funded stadium) -- have made their previous assessments inoperative, and now proclaim, with equal fervor, that we had a terrible strategy in Iraq and weren’t winning. And guess what? It’s the coach’s fault.

Poor George Casey, the ultimate good soldier, who kept saying everything he said in line with existing administration policy -- we have enough troops, the Iraqi military and police forces are being trained and will stand up as we stand down, there are lots of empty places in the desert where there isn’t any violence -- becomes the designated scapegoat. Casey was greeted going in like the coming of Dennis Green -- a players’ coach, an offensive guru, a no-nonsense winner! -- and going out, like the fired coach, he’s undisciplined, he’s headstrong, he’s a loser.

At Casey’s confirmation hearings as Army chief of staff, McCain derided him for his "unrealistically rosy" assessments. McCain said that over the past 2½ years, "things have gotten markedly and progressively worse, and the situation in Iraq can now best be described as dire and deteriorating." Of course, that’s not what McCain was saying during that time.

In March of last year, McCain said, "I think things are getting better. I think they are progressing." In September, he described our situation as "two steps forward, one step back." Only now, Gen. Casey having finished his thankless tour of duty, has reality intruded and McCain’s view of Iraq has become "dire and deteriorating."

So we’re replacing Gen. Casey with the new fair-haired boy, Gen. David H. Petraeus, who is just like Ken Whisenhunt, the new Cardinals coach. Everybody loves him, he was successful as an offensive coordinator, he’s the opposite of his now-hated predecessor, he even plays golf! And we’ll keep loving Whisenhunt-Petraeus, until even they can’t make chicken salad out of the chicken-related substance that both the Bush administration and the Bidwill family keep dishing out.

At least there’s one bright side in this comparison. In politics, we can throw the rest of the bums out in 2008. In football, we’re pretty much stuck with the Bidwills forever.