Changes We Need in the Senate

The 2014 election will soon be upon us, and there are many senate seats up for grabs. The Senate (and Congress and a whole) is unpopular, and deservingly so. The partisan gridlock has prevented any meaningful legislation from passing, and the blame for this is shared by both parties. And the people of this country are not happy with the current state of affairs, but many Americans feel this will not change. In saying so they forget that they control the Senate and the House, and this November they have a chance to let their grievances be heard. In the Senate there are many races to keep track of, but a few are of great importance to our future as they feature candidates who are not career politicians.

Ben Sasse was depicted in the National Review as a rising star. The magazine was right to give the Nebraskan attention, because he is a person to watch and would make an excellent Senator. Unlike many candidates he has a background in academia. At the relatively young age of 37 he became the president of Midland University, a college in a steep decline that some said was on the verge of closing down entirely. But Sasse managed to increase freshman enrollment, balance the university’s budget, and has put the college on the road to a brighter future. That kind of leadership and know how is what the United States of America sorely needs. Nebraska is a solid red state, so there is a strong chance that we will see Mr. Sasse in the Senate soon. The Republican senate caucus has been revitalized by young, bold, and intelligent new figures such as Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, and Ted Cruz of Texas. These senators, and many others with similar backgrounds, are providing the majority of the new ideas to the Senate. Rubio made a brave push for immigration reform, Paul stood up to the NSA, and Cruz and Paul reached across the aisle to work with Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand to address the problem of military sexual assault. If Sasse joins the Senate, he stands a good chance of joining this club of rising stars.

In Alaska, the Begich family stands tall in state politics. Nick Begich was a US Congressman in the early 1970s before disappearing while on a small airplane in the Alaskan wilderness. Mark Begich, son of Nick, is Alaska’s current senator. In 2014 he will be challenged by, among others, Dan Sullivan. Sullivan has experience in a wide range of fields from the military (he’s a former Marine) to foreign affairs (in the early 2000s he was a National Security advisor), to law and energy, the latter two he encountered while being first Attorney General and then National Resources commissioner in Alaska.

Begich’s campaign slogan declares that he is “as independent as Alaska”. Alaska does indeed have an independent spirit. There is something unique about Alaskans, perhaps derived from the remote and wild nature of their northern state, that leads to a healthy skepticism whenever Washington DC claims that it knows best. Begich claims that he reflects this, but his record does not. If ever there was a state for which the Affordable Care Act was ill suited for, the Last Frontier would be it. The long distances between towns makes a centralized health care program ineffective. Yet Begich voted for the health care law. Alaska has a gun culture that is logical considering the vast game reserves present in the state. Yet Begich has an extensive record of voting for gun control measures. While oil exploration could be harmful in some states, its potential impact in Alaska is much less than in the lower forty eight; Alaska has a robust environment, vast areas of which are protected in the forms of state and federal parks and reserves. Dan Sullivan, more than any of the candidates (Begich as well as his primary rivals Joe Miller and Mead Treadwell) embodies the interests of Alaskans. The main criticism of Sullivan is that he was not born in Alaska, he was born into a very rich Ohio family that made its fortune with the RPM Corporation. That point in valid. But when the question of what candidate has the best interests of Alaska at heart, birthplace means much less than political positions and results. An objective look at the question suggests that Dan Sullivan is the candidate best for Alaska.

Every two years America has the chance to change course. If you live in Nebraska or Alaska (among other states), you have a prime opportunity to made a change this November.


Hobby Lobby Hysteria

Recently, Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a statement on the ruling in the Hobby Lobby case handed down by the supreme court. Pelosi said that “we should be afraid of this court” before proceeding with a narrative that has been often repeated in the media, particularly the left leaning parts of the media. Pelosi made several claims. Firstly, the California Democrat claimed that “five guys” were “determining if forms of contraception were legal or not”. The five guys she is referring to are the five justices (all male) who voted in the majority in the decision: Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, John Roberts, and Sam Alito. This claim is completely untrue. Prior to the ruling, there were twenty forms of birth control approved by regulators. All twenty remain legal today, and companies are still required (and willing) to pay for sixteen of those, a sizable majority. These sixteen were not even a part of the Hobby Lobby case, and Hobby Lobby continues to provide these for its employees without objection. The Green family (who owns the craft store company) objected only to four methods that terminated a fertilized egg. Their view was that this was akin to abortion, something that, we are told time and time again, most doctors disagree with. This is undoubtedly true. However, we should be weary of “scientific consensus” on the subject of birth control and abortion, because there is also a scientific consensus that a fetus can feel pain by the third trimester of pregnancy, and many experts say fetal pain can occur as early as twenty four weeks. This conclusion, if transferred into politics, would logically lead one to believe that if Democrats completely trusted medical science they would whole heartedly support banning late term abortions as well as legislation such as the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act.  However, Pelosi claimed that “as a practicing and respectful Catholic, this [late term abortion] is sacred ground to me.” I do not claim that Ms. Pelosi is somehow incorrect in her beliefs (that are clearly based in faith) that conflict with medical science. However, this makes it rather hypocritical of her to criticize others for their faith-based views that also conflict with medical science.

Pelosi also repeated the claim that such matters as birth control were “not her boss’s business”. They are not. Which is why if a woman’s boss has a valid religious objection to some forms of birth control, he or she can simply choose not to pay for it and stay out of the matter entirely. The employee is still allowed to buy contraception herself or purchase additional insurance coverage that does cover contraception. If the supreme court ruled that a woman could be fired for using contraception that would be a horrendous violation of civil liberties. But the supreme court did not do that. Perhaps the only decent point made by Nancy Pelosi is that all three female justices were against the ruling. That is a valid observation, and there is indeed something very unsettling about men making decisions on women’s birth control. That being said, it is not surprising that all three voted against it, as all of the females currently on the supreme court were appointed by Democrats. If Sandra Day O’Connor was still on the court, or if Harriet Miers had been confirmed as a justice, Pelosi may very well have been robbed of her talking point.

Nancy Pelosi is trying to stoke up fear and resentment within her base and is hoping to scare female voters into overlooking issues that render the Democrats in a difficult position in November. If she thinks this will work, she is underestimating the intelligence of American women.


Why We Need Sentencing Reform

 

I’m not usually one to take the political content of Rolling Stone magazine very seriously. Not long ago they offered up “Five Economic Reforms Millennials should be fighting for”, which included guaranteed work for everybody and guaranteed income for everybody, then called landlords “free riders” (the irony is not lost on me) and then when on to suggest making everything owned by everybody. Which is interesting, because whenever that kind of system is put in place, everything of value seems to come into the possession of an unsavory character like Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, or Nicolae Ceausescu. The article finished with the refreshingly reasonable proposal to have a public bank in every state, but this brief relapse of sanity was too little too late.

However, Rolling Stone had a fascinating story in a recent issue. It was the story of Jesse Snodgrass, a California teen suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome (a condition that put him on the Autism spectrum). The local police were doing an undercover operation at Snodgrass’s high school, which in California has been a tactic used to bust those selling drugs to teens. Largely because of his social awkwardness, Jesse had difficulty making friends and although he tried boost his popularity by working out and trying to fit in, it was to no avail.

So Jesse was delighted when a new student named Daniel befriended him. Daniel told Jesse (as well as several other students) that he was struggling with a difficult situation at home (and absent father and an unkind mother if I remember correctly) and desired some marijuana to escape from it all. When Daniel asked Jesse to hook him up with some weed, Jesse agreed, wanting to keep this new friendship going. He tried to delay and delay and wasn’t entirely sure where to get the marijuana in the first place but eventually pressure from Daniel led him to buy and then sell a bag of weed to Daniel for $20. As it turned out, Daniel was an undercover narcotics officer.

Jesse was arrested during a class and now faces some very serious charges. But the fact is that Jesse would have never bought marijuana nor any other drug if Daniel hadn’t have pressured him into doing it. These undercover operations, while they can be useful in finding drug dealers, seem to have evolved into a method of making criminals, not catching them.

This isn’t the first time Rolling Stone has called “entrapment”. They claimed in an article from May 2012 that the five Occupy activists who plotted to blow up a bridge in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park were set up by the FBI. To be fair, nobody has reported the other side of the Jesse Snodgrass story. But it is exceptionally difficult for me to imagine what good came of this young man’s arrest. Especially in California, which has a very serious problem with its prison system.

The California prison system is built to house 81,000 inmates. Currently, those facilities are home to 117,000. Additional inmates are being housed in private facilities or even being sent to other states. This is costing the state of California, which is already deep in debt, a staggering sum of money. At the 2014 CPAC panel on criminal justice reform, Grover Norquist, a longtime activist for fiscal conservatism, made an interesting point: In order to get credibility, it can’t be the blue states that lead on this issue. He compared it to Richard Nixon’s trip to China. Norquist also said that many mandatory minimums were the result of a congressman or senator trying to score political points by being “tough on crime” on a particular offense. It seems like the red states are stepping up to the challenge.

One of the more significant reforms made happened in of all places Texas, a state that once faced a problem in many ways similar to the one occurring in California now. In Texas, when George W. Bush was governor, the state actually opened new prisons at a rate of three per year at one point. Today, Texas governor (and a member of the same discussion panel Norquist was on) Rick Perry has proudly proclaimed that the introduction of non-prison options for drug offenders and the reduction of mandatory minimums have been a great success. In fact, the state actually closed down a prison, saving the state government money.

That said, there is an ill-advised alternative direction that unfortunately many states (often red states but also blue ones) are turning toward. This is the rather bizarre practice of privatizing prisons. In some cases, this can be beneficial. But handing total control over to a private entity with relatively little oversight can spell disaster. In Mississippi, the privately run Walnut Grove Correctional Facility that was such a center of abuse and mismanagement that the state of Mississippi cancelled all contracts with the GEO Group, which ran the prison. One Mississippi judge called the facility a “cesspool”. State officials were left largely in the dark by prison management, and it took a federal investigation and a report filed to the governor to bring the horrific conditions at Walnut Grove to an end.

In reality, the best way to solve prison overpopulation is to put less people in prison. Right now, there are people in federal prison for selling a whale’s tooth on eBay. I can see how such action would warrant a heavy fine, but is such a person really a threat to society? It is a similar story to that of Jesse Snodgrass. Is this young man a menace to the American public because he allowed a friend to talk him into buying a bag of marijuana? And is it a proper use of government money to lock such people up in prison for long sentences where they often become hardened criminals? I doubt it.

 

 


The Volkswagen Union Vote

Earlier this week, the United Auto Workers (UAW) held a vote on whether to unionize a Chattanooga, Tennessee Volkswagen factory. After a three day voting period, the unionizing measure was defeated, and the plants workers chose to remain non-union. There was a claim made by several on the left (including by the well-known internet talk show The Young Turks) that Volkswagen was unfairly influencing the election. That claim is untrue. Volkswagen publically supported the union. The Volkswagen Group is owned by the state government of Saxony, Porsche, and several smaller stakeholders. The company has a works-council in Germany which gives unions and workers a greater say in the direction of the company. There was a media firestorm of criticism aimed at Senator Bob Corker, who voiced his opposition with the union plan and encouraged workers to vote against it. MSNBC host Chris Hayes said that his comments were government interfering in the affairs of a private company. In reality a government official spoke his opinion about an upcoming vote in a private company. To be fair, several Tennessee legislatures pondered withholding incentives for the company, and this is absolutely reprehensive.

However, the claim that non-union car workers are making low wages with no benefits is simply false. Another German car company, Mercedes-Benz, has a plant in Alabama where they produce several of their SUVs and the C-Class luxury sedan. At that plant, the average worker’s salary is $75,151 annually. At BMW’s factory in South Carolina, the average salary is $68,000 (Salary List). Many foreign automakers have opened factories in the South and Midwest such as Honda in Ohio, Nissan in Mississippi, and Hyundai in Alabama. These factories have had a good impact on the economy of these states. Ultimately, the union vote in Tennessee was an open election and the workers chose to reject the union. There are good jobs to be had, even if they are non-union jobs, and people want them.


The Modern Day Slave Trade

Most people in America think that slavery ended in 1865, when the thirteenth amendment abolishing the barbaric practice was adapted into the US Constitution. We’ve come a long way since 1865. Today, we have an African American as our president and even South Carolina, the first state to leave the union, is represented by Tim Scott, an African American. But slavery still exists in America. Not slavery based on race but based on gender. I am referring to human trafficking.

This weekend millions of Americans will watch the Super Bowl, held in New Jersey, on TV, radio, or in person. But there’s a dark underside to this American tradition. Statistics are hard to come by but it is believed that the Super Bowl is the biggest gathering of trafficked individuals in the United States, and possibly in the world. It’s not just this Super Bowl either. In 2011, when the Super Bowl was held in Texas, the Lone Star State’s attorney general Greg Abbott told USA Today that the Super bowl is “commonly known as the single largest human trafficking incident in the United States.” Abbott wasn’t kidding: there were 133 arrests in Dallas for underage prostitution that year. A report by Forbes magazine stated that around 10,000 prostitutes were in Miami for the 2010 Super Bowl. Fighting this disturbing trend are a dedicated group of activists, many of whom were formerly trafficked individuals. One organization has partnered with hotel chains to put trafficking hotlines on bars of soap in hotel room bathrooms to help trafficked women escape.

Fortunately, politicians in America are finally taking notice. Recently, New Jersey Congressman Christopher Smith as well as Governor Chris Christie have taken a stand to stop the exploitation that seems poised to occur in their state. Smith didn’t hide the issues his state has had with trafficking, saying “New Jersey has a huge trafficking problem. One Super Bowl after another after another has shown itself to be one of the largest events in the world where the cruelty of human trafficking goes on for several weeks. Speaking at a recent event was Lexi Smith (no relation to the aforementioned congressman), a former sex slave. “The chains of modern day slavery are in the mind, not the hands and feet”, she said.

New Jersey state officials have been training policemen as well as civilians on how to identify signs of human trafficking. The state has partnered with community organizations, local businesses, and churches to combat this trend. But as many of the tireless activists fighting this issue will tell you, it’s not just a Super Bowl problem. It is a constant presence all over the country.

New Jersey isn’t the only state fighting trafficking. Ohio has launched a “war on human trafficking” and it seems to be working. Last year, Governor John Kasich began a new initiative to end human trafficking in the state. In an emotional speech launching the project Kasich drew from his own family life “I’ve got two twelve year old daughters. But all those twelve-year-old girls across the state are in a way my daughters. They’re all of our daughters. They’re all in our families. Can you tell me, how a thirteen year old kid can be snatched, blackmailed, drugged, raped, in our state; in our country. One of the greatest men who lived in the history of Great Britain was William Wilberforce […] William Wilberforce spent his entire life fighting the slave trade business; fighting slavery. And he was savaged for his work. He’s buried in Westminster Abbey. […] Sometimes people say I push really hard. Is there anything we should push harder for than the abolition of the slave trade amongst our teenagers in our state? I can’t think of anything.” This new crusade has yielded impressive results. A few days ago, Gregory Krajnyk was sentenced to thirteen years in prison for running a human trafficking ring, which he had operated for four years. The sting also brought down Cuyahoga County Prosecutor William F. Kaczmarek.

This issue of modern day slavery is present all over the country. We should all get together and encourage our elected officials of both parties to follow the example of Smith, Christie, and Kasich and fight this evil.


All of the Above Education Reform

            When we think of a crisis situation in public education, we often think of decaying urban neighborhoods plagued by crime, unemployment, and drug use. Such areas are the sights of problems in education, but there is a strikingly similar phenomenon occurring in a vastly different location. Rural America, particularly in the South, has a colossal problem on its hands. This is evident in Mississippi. In other areas, Mississippi seems to be doing well. A number of high-tech and engineering companies have expanded in the state. Rolls Royce, for example, has opened an airplane engine plant in the state. Borg Warner recently made a sizable investment as well. This aerospace development spurred the creation of a saying in Mississippi: man will walk on the moon but first he’ll walk through Mississippi. However, good economic news cannot hide the fact that the state’s schools are a mess. One half of all third graders are not proficient in reading. The state as a whole has a 17% drop out rate in high school. Mississippi is continually ranked near the bottom in rankings on subjects from reading to math to history. A paltry 11% of Mississippi students who took the ACT met all it’s college readiness standards.

            Governor Phil Bryant has made a push for action on this. “We must make reforms now; so that our citizens can be productive contributors to our communities and less reliant on social welfare programs”, he said in his State of the State Address. It’s been this way for decades. An old adage in Arkansas used when Bill Clinton was just a candidate for governor stated “Thank God for Mississippi,” as Arkansas was often ranked 49th in various rankings (often concerning education), beating only its neighbor to the Southeast. It really is a shame that Mississippi’s education system is in such a state of disarray. The state could have a bright future: the economy is on the upswing; it has year round good weather, and has ready access to both its namesake river and the Gulf of Mexico. Yet it is constantly held back. The education mess is a likely culprit. Bryant introduced a series of “Education Works” policies to try to turn around this system.

            One of these has been termed the third grade gate. This idea has be implemented elsewhere in the country (including here in Ohio). It would end a phenomenon termed “social promotion,” where a student who from a strictly academic standpoint should repeat a grade is promoted to the next to prevent them from feeling that they have failed. Social promotion fits nicely with the self esteem movement, which is now being widely discredited as actually having a negative impact on young people’s self esteem. Under the new system, third graders would be held back a year if they are unable to read. This is an important step. As educators say, in the first years of schooling you learn to read, after that you read to learn. If a child cannot read, how can they be expected to thrive in forth grade and beyond?

            Bryant has put the state’s money where his mouth is, asking the legislature to appropriate fifteen million dollars to assist in literacy programs for public schools. Spending this money is a wise move, because it will reduce the increasing cost of remedial education in a student’s later years.

            Merit Based Pay is an idea that has been often talked about by proponents of education reform. Despite this, it has rarely been implemented. Where it has it has often met fierce resistance from teachers, many of whom lose their salary. Bryant has taken a different and more effective approach. Firstly he has dictated that no teacher will see a salary cut as a result of this program, which has quelled a fear often expressed by educators. The Merit Pay reform plan has been implemented in four districts to test its effectiveness. If it succeeds, Bryant plans to implement it statewide. The standards for new teachers has been raised to at least a 21 ACT score and a 3.0 GPA. Even this raised standard seems relatively easy for any capable aspiring teacher to achieve, and raises the rather disconcerting question of what the standards were previously.

            The state is also introducing a scholarship program with an innovative way to attract good teachers to their state. The state will give full ride scholarships to 200 high school seniors who want to be schoolteachers if they will commit to teaching in the states public schools for five years. Many often talk about attracting bright minds to education – here’s a way to do it.

            In the same State of the State Address, Bryant announced a new plan allowing districts to accept students from other schools if they wanted to in a ploy to help students in failing school districts get a better education. He spoke of a wall keeping students from better schools and said “Mississippi legislatures – let’s tear down those walls.”

            Bryant didn’t stop there. He announced a series of “opportunity scholarships” for underprivileged students and directed 3 million to early childhood education. The legislature is doing their part as well as they are making an effort on charter school legislation. There’s a new program for dropout prevention and another one for workforce training. Bryant quoted Ronald Reagan, saying that the parents who work hard to give their kids a better life are the quiet heroes of America. “It is for these quiet heroes we strive,” said the governor in his notable Southern accent. He may be on his way to being something of a quiet hero on his own. Many governors strive to be “The Education Governor”. Few, aside from Jeb Bush and Bobby Jindahl, have been successful. But without much fanfare, Phil Bryant, a man few people outside of Mississippi have ever heard of, is putting together a fairly amazing package of education reforms. Every idea that’s gained widespread support: third grade gates, merit based pay, attracting the brightest students to teaching, charter schools, school choice, early childhood education – has been recently implemented or is on the verge of being implemented in Mississippi (the plans for charter schools, third grade reading standards, and teaching scholarships were signed in 2013). So while the current state of the state’s education system is dismal, the future just might be brighter than ever before.


When Government Works

Bipartisanship is a rare thing these days. Examples are everywhere. A government shutdown ensued when Democrats and Republicans were unable – or unwilling – to find an agreeable way to fund the government. There is fiery rhetoric from both sides, from Ted Cruz’s marathon filibuster to Alan Grayson’s rather infamous likening of tea party activists to the KKK. But without much fanfare, there is a small group of legislators passing good legislation with broad support across the political spectrum. The leader in this is Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

Gillibrand recently took one of America’s most pressing and least addressed problems head on: infrastructure. She forged a coalition to pass the Building and Renewing Infrastructure for Development and Growth in Employment Act, or BRIDGE. The name is a mouthful, but the substance of the law is worthy of praise. It establishes an independent organization to put money toward infrastructure projects. Sponsors of the bill included Democrats Mark Warner, Roy Blunt, Gillibrand, Chris Coons, Amy Klobuchar, and Claire McCaskill. They were joined by Republicans Lindsey Graham, Dean Heller, Mark Kirk, and Roger Wicker. Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, was particularly pleased with a provision ensuring that rural states received funding. “I am particularly pleased that the legislation sets aside dedicated funding to rural states, such as Mississippi,” Wicker said. “Attracting private investment in infrastructure is oftentimes too cumbersome and complex for many small towns and counties. This bill would address that problem by streamlining the process and providing much-needed assistance for these rural communities to get the funds they sorely need,” Wicker said in support of the bill.

A statement from Gillibrand’s office said that the law helps to address the nation’s alarming investment shortfall in maintaining and improving our transportation network, water and wastewater systems and energy infrastructure. The legislation would provide an additional financing tool for states and localities which can create new jobs here at home while also increasing our nation’s economic competitiveness.

The group of supporters covers the entire political spectrum and would address several issues with infrastructure spending. Firstly, by having an independent organization control the finances it would cut down on the rather corrupt practice of senators and congressmen inserting funding for their district – and often to their donors – into legislation. This bill will do much to prevent another “bridge to nowhere”. As Wicker mentioned, the bill contains language specifying that considerable money goes to rural states. This is a rarely reported on but very serious problem. Large cities and metro areas are often home to powerful corporations and unions which can use their considerable sway over politicians to bring public works projects to their cities. This bill, if properly implemented, could bring better infrastructure and new jobs to areas of the country hit hard by the recession.

The BRIDGE law is not the only piece of bipartisan legislation championed by Gillibrand. She had long sought to bring attention to the recurring problem of sexual assault in the military. This is, sadly, a daunting issue in our armed forces, and the method of dealing with it currently in place is ineffective. For many years, sexual misconduct was reported by the victim to their superiors, who would then be responsible for taking action. It’s easy to see the flaws in this system; it is very possible that the commander involved could be close to the victim or the accused person. This unfortunate situation makes it difficult to reach a sound judgment. It is heartbreaking that many of our bravest young people have to deal with abuse while serving the country. Many said that a solution couldn’t be found and that there was little enthusiasm for the bill. But Gillibrand kept fighting. The fight was joined by Democrats Claire McCaskill and Carl Levin. Soon the bill gained widespread Republican support from Susan Collins, Chuck Grassley, and Lisa Murkowski. More recently, a pair of tea party backed conservatives, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, became two of the bill’s strongest supporters. Gillibrand said she expects a vote to occur in January, and judging by the broad bipartisan support she has received, it seems to stand a strong chance of passing.

All this seems to prove that bipartisanship isn’t impossible. Gillibrand is the leader of a quiet revolution to make government work. It’s a change that’s occurring all across the country and supported by politicians of all ideologies and parties. This rejuvenation may be taking hold; a bipartisan budget bill was recently passed in the house. Neither side was fully satisfied, but both agreed it was a good start.