Archive for June, 2011

Is a Debt Ceiling Unconstitutional?

Interesting perspective from the Huffington Post today.

Does the language of the 14th Amendment (one that trips up the far right quite frequently) give a good reason to ignore the partisan calls to default on our debts? Here is the relevant piece of the 14th Amendment:

4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

Clearly this amendment is in response to the Civil War, but our courts have upheld the universal meaning of the words used. So, this whole summer theater regarding the debt ceiling may be utterly irrelevant. Good thing, too, because the only purpose of challenging the debt ceiling at this time is to champion the severe austerity rhetoric favored by the right, which is absolutely the wrong direction to go in times of economic depression.

So what about it, Tea Party?

Legislation to Legalize It

On Thursday, Barney Frank and Ron Paul will introduce legislation to end the federal war on marijuana and let the states set their own laws on it. The legislation is technically bipartisan, but Ron Paul is the only Republican sponsor of the bill. Other Democratic Party sponsors include Rep. John Conyers (MI), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN), Rep. Jared Polis (CO), and Rep. Barbara Lee (CA).

Here’s a chance for the right to put their money where their mouth is regarding states’ rights. But they won’t, of course. As I argued in an earlier post, the whole states’ rights canard is a huge distraction; the right is all too happy to push for federal control over the areas they care about. Usually this involves telling other people how they should or should not live their lives, eroding individual civil rights, denying equality under the law across all groups, and so forth.

This legislation may not have a realistic shot of making it through Congress, but it does have a real chance to advance the anti-prohibition narrative in the media. Last week’s damning report about the failure of the international war on drugs and President Carter’s excellent editorial piece on the matter both provide a solid framework for discussing legalization or decriminalization of marijuana.

It’s time to start taking marijuana legalization or decriminalization seriously. Border security, the deficit, American manufacturing, and prison overcrowding are all issues that will be improved by marijuana legalization or decriminalization. Let the states go their own way with marijuana legalization or decriminalization, and the evidence will speak for itself.

Is the US Senate Completely Broken?

I don’t understand how the US Senate, a legislative body vital to the functioning of our nation, has become locked down by tyrannical, undemocratic procedural traditions.

The NY Times had an article the other day demonstrating how the GOP is able to block basically any Presidential appointment. Fed board members, a Commerce Secretary, a head of Fannie Mae / Freddie Mac, and many other positions remain unfilled due to Republican objects. (The most galling of these, in my opinion, is the new head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a much-needed anti-fraud watchdog agency that the GOP would not hesitate to scrap if they could.)

What’s the big deal, you say? Senators have done that throughout history, you say? What is unprecedented this time is the blanket approach taken by the GOP. They are not confirming any nominees at all:

Senators have long exercised their constitutional prerogative to derail nominations. And, for just as long, the party in the White House has accused its opponents of abusing that power. But several of the current standoffs differ in at least one respect: Republicans have said they are not opposing a particular nominee but rather any nominee, whoever it may be.

And the White House continues to cave to demands issued by these Senate Republicans, only to have new demands made in their place. It’s like trying to negotiate with your mugger: you produce your wallet only to have your jewelry taken next.

Sen. David Vitter, who really should resign because of his habit of booking prostitutes from the Senate floor, held up an appointment to demand 15 new offshore drilling permits. After these were granted, another GOP Senator blocked the appointment with a different set of demands. After THOSE were granted, a third GOP Senator issued a new set of demands and blocked the appointment. And on and on it goes.

Similarly, Senators can put a hold on bills they don’t like. Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma is notorious for abusing this “gentlemanly” privilege.

Has the day-to-day running of the US Senate gotten so bad that it can no longer function? I think we have arrived at that point.

Creeping Fascism in Florida

Starting July 1st, Florida will begin mandatory drug testing of applicants to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients is a terrible idea on many levels.

First, there’s the matter of basic human decency. The modern conservative is so infuriated at the thought that someone somewhere is getting help (and THEY JUST MIGHT NOT DESERVE IT) that they are willing to override any sort of altruistic instinct or beneficial social safety net to satisfy their desire for revenge against the anonymous cheater out there. This is exactly why the myth of the welfare queen became part of the right-wing worldview under Reagan. Demonizing our most vulnerable citizens provides right-wingers with a scapegoat for their problems, gives them the satisfaction of feeling better than someone else, and “confirms” what they want to believe anyway. It disgusts me.

Let’s look at reality under a worst case scenario: someone applying for TANF in Florida tests positive for drugs. They still have a family that needs food, clothing, and shelter! Now that family will not have its most basic needs met.

One final insult to human decency tops off this law: applicants to TANF in Florida must pay the cost of the mandatory drug test out of their own pocket, regardless of whether they receive any benefits. (They are reimbursed later if they pass the drug test and qualify for benefits.) In other words, it costs money to demonstrate that you have no money: a ridiculous catch-22.

Second, this mandatory drug testing law is unconstitutional. I believe it violates the 4th, 5th, and 14th amendments to the Constitution.

The 4th Amendment protects against unreasonable searches of one’s person. No crime has taken place, and no indication that a crime might occur is present. There is no “probable cause” to conduct a search. I can already hear a chorus of “if you’re not doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to fear” brewing out there. That sentiment has led societies to authoritarian ruin throughout history.

The 5th Amendment protects one from bearing witness against oneself. Submitting to a drug test outside of probation — a punishment for a crime — or employment — a voluntary agreement between employer and employee — is an example of forced witness.

The 14th Amendment guarantees these protections (and all of our civil rights) to each of us, including those of us who happen to receive welfare. Carving out exceptions to the 14th Amendment sets a dangerous legal precedent that we should avoid. Unfortunately, today’s right-wingers are eager to toss out the 14th Amendment under cover of “State’s Rights” as they fight to replace our Constitution with what they imagine the Constitution means. (The best illustration of this concept is an Onion article that hits a little to close to the mark to be just humor.)

Of course, it’s also all about the money for Florida Gov. Scott. Private drug testing companies, like the walk-in clinic company co-founded by Gov. Scott, will reap the benefit of this law. I find it true in most cases that calls for privatization of existing government services usually involve corrupt funneling of public money to well-connected private companies. Usually these companies return the favor to corrupt politicians by donating to their campaigns. Readers of this blog will likely agree: this is an especially big problem in Texas.

Fascism begins to seep into a society when civil rights protections are removed from the most vulnerable citizens. Exception by exception is how it starts, and we need to stop it.

The Not-So-Special Session

Thanks in part to a heroic filibuster by State Sen. Wendy Davis (D - Fort Worth), we have a special session called by the guv to address the following:

  • SB 1811 - School funding and other fiscal matters
  • SB 8 - Health Care
  • SB 23 - Health and Human Services
  • HB 5 - Interstate Health Care Compact
  • HB 12 - Immigration
  • HB 272 - Texas Windstorm Association
  • SB 12 / HB 400 - “school flexibility”
  • HB 1937- “groping” bill
  • HB 900 / SB 308 Congressional redistricting

Needless to say, none of the above bills are good bills; although, I am sympathetic to the TSA anti-groping bill.

Also, have a look at the proposed Congressional redistricting map. Just look at it for a minute. This map is an ode to packing and gerrymandering. Travis county is split among 5 districts (Doggett is an obvious target, with a district running clear down to San Antonio), Harris County looks like a pinwheel, and the Valley is done up in pinstripes like a 1980s stock broker. No wonder they waited until a special session to release this turd of a map.

Thank goodness the Department of Justice — under a Democratic administration during redistricting for the first time in 50ish years — will have a say in this redistricting map. Public testimony against this map will go a long way toward helping DOJ correct it in the end, so keep your ear to the ground for opportunities to make your voice heard as part of the official record.

Along with this slate of bills, the Lt. Governor is asking Gov. Perry let bills pass in the Senate be by majority vote only. This is because they didn’t have the votes to pass the above bills during the regular session, so they are doing an end-run around their own rules to jam them through.

I am surprised that the special session has started so soon, with basically a call to order and then adjournment 30 minutes later on Tuesday. I still predict that a special session in July will be necessary, though the GOP (and Perry for President) would love to avoid one.

The toll free number to the capitol is 1-888-836-8368. It’s time to let your representatives know how you feel about this not-so-special session.

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