hardline political news and analysis

Month: August, 2013

Set on Freedom

There was an oddly familiar atmosphere to the pre-demonstration activities: a houseful of college-era friends, makeshift sleeping arrangements, a hurried breakfast before piling into cars and Metro, and heading off to the National Mall. But there we were, significantly grayer of hair and slightly achier of joints, though no less committed of mind. Our antique buttons of the civil rights era had been dug out of boxes and drawers and faithfully affixed to our shirts and jackets. The 50th anniversary of the iconic March on Washington had arrived, and we were part of the commemoration.

Even for historians – and there were four of us in our little group – it is difficult to conceive the sweep of changes that had taken place over the past half century in the area of civil rights law. Not only African Americans (who heard the word “Negro” on Wednesday more than at any time in the past four decades) but women, the disabled, LGBT, immigrants and others could hardly have imagined the multiple ways America would alter its laws and views on the rights of Americans to equal opportunity in the years following the original March. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and exhorted the country to embrace change, none could have foreseen the force of the transformations and tragedies about to engulf us in the ‘60s and beyond: church bombing, Goodman-Schwerner-Cheney, multiple assassinations, Vietnam, Watts, Chicago, Watergate – a few of the words whose impacts changed our lives dramatically in the months and years to come. Certainly none could imagine that the President addressing the Anniversary March would be the offspring of a union that was, at the time of the original demonstration, illegal in many states.

Wednesday’s celebration of the 1963 March was an instructive example of the value of a nation’s historic sense of itself. In the coverage of the March, particularly the press and media stories describing the America of mid-1963, we were reminded of a seemingly antiquated world that existed well within the lifetimes of tens of millions of Americans, the remnants of which are persistent reminders that the struggle is far from complete.

One of the stunning reminders was the rebroadcast of the Meet the Press program of Sunday, August 25, 1963 in which a panel of white, male reporters questioned and challenged the guests, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Roy Wilkins. The two guests were among the leaders of the imminent March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and were not yet recognized as the transformational leaders we now recognize them to have been. The interview was a revealing look into the anxieties of most of white America, with many of the questions focused (politely, for the most part) on the suspicions of Communist influence in the ranks of civil rights leaders, and suggestions that the pace of change endorsed by March organizers was too hurried.

King and Wilkins, of course, were having none of that, and gently but unwaveringly reminded the reporters, and the Nation, that appeals for moderation in defense of Constitutional rights was unlikely to find much sympathy among millions of black Americans who, having suffered slavery, violence, discrimination and denial for three and a half centuries, had found their voice and their footing. If anyone needs reminding of the courage it took for black people to challenge a racist legal system and indifferent power structure in 1963, you need not look to the billy clubs and dogs of Birmingham but to the atmosphere in the NBC studio that Sunday morning.

The absence of Republicans from the events on Wednesday was a stark reminder of the party’s deep indifference to those still struggling for equality and opportunity. Actually, “indifference” is a generous term for a party that is aggressively engaged in rolling back some of the basic achievements of the civil rights era, particularly voting rights. Republicans have also reverted to the antebellum principle of Nullification, either by statute or by defunding mechanisms, to defy and undermine lawfully enacted statutes with which they disagree. A party that tolerates and encourages efforts to deny citizens the right to vote has abandoned any credible claim to leadership, not to mention signing its own electoral death warrant in multiple swing states where minority and youth voters cannot comprehend the politics of exclusion.

As incomprehensible as such behavior is in the states, things are no better in Congress. Just this week, a Democratic congressman told me that his effort to add a non-controversial civil rights amendment to a House bill was rejected by his committee chairman despite the acquiescence of the Republican subcommittee chair. The reason: no amendments would be allowed. No discussion needed.

Hopefully, this utter indifference to the needs and demands of millions of our fellow citizens is rooted only in misguided political calculations rather than some deeper-seated mentality, not that it makes any practical difference. Of course, it is also egregiously self-defeating since you do not need a Ph.D. in statistics to chart the changing electoral demographics in states like Florida, Texas, North Carolina, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Virginia and Ohio, and several more. If one or two of those states becomes reliably Democratic in presidential and Senate elections due to the rapidly rising numbers of new voters, Republicans face a daunting challenge to find 270 electoral votes. Little wonder Republican legislators believe their only, and perhaps last, line of defense is to keep these citizens from voting, but that doesn’t sound like a strategy destined for success. And while they may be able to retain a disproportionate number of House seats thanks to gerrymandering that dilutes minority voting strength in these same states, they will face retribution on that front as well in 2020, if not sooner.

One of the reasons that 50 year old Meet the Press program was so powerful was because it so starkly reminded us that in the America of 1963, the struggle for civil rights was anything was easy. People risked, and lost, their lives challenging the very biases so evident in the questioning of those skeptical reporters. What many now remember as a national moment of coming together on the Mall was, in fact, a severe challenge to the status-quo in a country that still widely embraced legal segregation.

The issues that flowed from the basic victory of the civil rights movement – an end to legal discrimination based on race – were complicated, and more difficult to address than we had hoped: economic opportunity, equality of education and health services, inequity in prison sentencing, housing, persistent poverty, many of the issues which President Obama and other speakers referenced on Wednesday. But on the basic issue, the equality of all Americans under the Constitution, there is far less disagreement than there was in 1963, and that is an achievement in and of itself. In 50 years, we have ventured far from the 350 years of systematized brutality and exploitation that preceded it, thanks to citizen activism and a willingness to challenge the powers that be. It shouldn’t be this hard, and it shouldn’t require unrelenting struggle, but as the song advised us, “we shall overcome someday.”


The Raisin Mavens

For millions of Americans, the greatest controversy involving raisins is how many are in a box of cereal or bag of trail mix.  Even the maddening marketing of the little dried grapes as dancing entertainers a generation ago failed to capture the public’s imagination for long.  So I admit it is chancy, at best, to write about raisins.

Except that raisins are so much more than dried grapes, especially now, when they have become central players in an ongoing debate about the allocation of power, money and water, that most vital of all resources.

There is some history to my fascination to the raisin revolt launched by an unlikely revolutionary, Marvin Horn.  Horn is the California raisin rancher who has chosen to defy the dictates of the Raisin Administrative Committee, a 64-year old federally-sanctioned, industry run board that decides how many raisins Mr. Horn can legally sell.  

“What!” you cry.  “Somebody is telling a hardworking, salt-of-the-Earth raisin farmer that he can’t take his shriveled little grapes to market and sell them?” What is this – one more example of left-wing, Obama-style socialism intruding into the private marketplace and dictating the supply of essential commodities? First health care, now raisins!

Well, actually no.  I have no inside knowledge, but I am going to go out on a vine here and bet President Obama has never really focused on the details of Marketing Order 989.  In any event, he has no culpability in the raisin revolt that I am aware of.

The conspirators who are manipulating the raisin crop are none other than raisin growers themselves, authorized by a New Deal era federal agricultural law to organize their industry, manipulate the crop, maximize profits, and control the flow of fruit to market — all, of course, in the name of “protecting the consumer.”  (There is one consumer among the 47 members on the Raisin Administrative Committee.) To accomplish their mission of consumer protection, they are challenging one of their own, Horn, who has insisted that other growers, i.e., his competitors, should not be empowered to restrict his ability to market the crop he produced. 

I have seen this movie before.  Back in the very early 1980s, I was chief of staff for Congressman George Miller of California, who has made a career of fighting for the modernization of federal water policy.  Since a hugely disproportionate amount of the heavily subsidized water impounded, transported and sold by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in California goes to support irrigated agriculture, often to grow crops that are water-consumptive, subsidized or surplus, Miller has earned the enmity of much of the state’s farm community, especially in the bountiful Central Valley.

So it happened that Miller’s office received a call one day from a small, Harvard-educated orange grower named Carl “Skip” Pescosolido – not a grower of small oranges (which might have been a relevant issue as the story unfolded) but a fairly small player in the world dominated by the Sunkist and Pure Gold cooperatives.  Pescosolido was being bullied by the Navel Orange Administrative Committee, which was sanctioned by the same federal law allowing certain producers of food to create government-sanctioned cartels which would determine the quantity product that could be sold on the open market.  In The Grapes of Wrath, published half a century earlier, John Steinbeck had described how millions of pounds of oranges had been kept rotting in warehouses to keep prices up, even as people were starving.  

The orange powers warned Pescosolido not to sell a substantial portion of his crop;  tons of good quality fruit had to be diverted, allegedly to ensure the quality and volume of those that found their way onto the grocers’ shelves.  Also to keep prices artificially high, which the orange board admitted was one of its goals.

Pescosolido was not a predictable ally of Miller, a devout environmentalist despised by the farm community of which Pescosolido was a proud member.  In fact, Pescosolido was a conservative Republican, a free marketer who was furious that anyone – let alone his competitors – could dictate how he ran his business.  Miller was only too happy to link arms with Pescosolido, and as Miller’s water policy wonk, I shortly found myself standing alongside Skip out in the broiling California sun looking at mountains – and I am not exaggerating in the use of that term – of oranges left to rot in the desert on orders of the orange cartel.  Including Skip’s oranges.

I also visited the offices of the offices of the Navel Orange Administrative Committee where I learned that Pescosolido had it all wrong: oranges were being kept off the market because they were too small, or damaged, or otherwise unsuitable for sale.  Some were diverted to be crushed into juice, some were fed to cattle.  But one thing was for certain, according to the orange bosses: they were unsuited to human consumption.  Which was interesting because when we had Pescosolido box up some of his prohibited fruit and send it to Washington, where Miller served it to unsuspecting legislators in the Members Dining Room, we didn’t have a single complaint.  Until we announced what we had done, which brought angry denunciations from the orange directorate.

These flow-to-market restrictions were supposed to be modified following the war of the oranges, but as so often seems to be the case with agriculture policy, the big farm interests flexed their muscles to prevent congressional and administrative reforms.  In 1983, flow to market restrictions from the lemon bosses resulted in 20 million cartons being destroyed or abandoned.  In fact, more lemons were diverted from the market that year than sold, forcing the importation of foreign lemons.

So, over 30 years later, here is Marvin Horn and the raisin revolt.  According to the reports on NPR, the raisin politburo is not taking Marvin’s protest lying down; they’ve gone to war with him, hiring detectives to spy on his activities, and hauled him into federal court.

Unless you are an aficionado of the dried grape, perhaps you think this entire issue has no relevance to you.  You would be wrong, and not only because such practices limit consumer choices and artificially plump up prices.

Miller asked the General Accounting Office in 1981 to study whether any of the oranges being kept from consumers might have been grown with federally supplied irrigation water.  That water is heavily subsidized by the same taxpaying consumers who were thoughtfully being protected from orange oversupply.  While neither GAO nor the Bureau of Reclamation (which runs the Central Valley Project) could identify which oranges in the box were the progeny of federal irrigation water, GAO concluded that of the 83,000 tons of oranges in the 1980-1981 year diverted to cattle feed, 72,000 tons of that total were grown on trees irrigated with taxpayer subsidized water.  That’s nearly 90%.

So, taxpayer money was being spent to subsidize water that was used to irrigate farms, the yield of which was destroyed or diverted so that fruit prices for consumers would be higher.  That, in a nutshell (or orange rind) describes our misguided farm and water policies.

Now the reason this is highly relevant is not just because of Farmer Marvin’s ongoing battle with the raisin mavens, but because the West is going through a massive drought that is going to become chronic thanks to of climate change.  The aforementioned Bureau of Reclamation just announced the deepest reductions in releases from Lake Powell in history.  Those who are addicted to the federally supplied subsidies are demanding that taxpayers pretend this is 1935 or 1955, when interest-free money was flowing like water for public works projects, and build – get ready – tens of billions of dollars in new water projects to deliver more subsidized water to continue to grow not only vital food and fiber, but also crops we are subsidizing others to grow, that are surplus, or that farmers won’t be allowed to sell. 

There are many proven and cost-effective alternatives to building dams, canals, diversion tunnels and the like including recycling, conservation (including improvement of aging water infrastructure), waste water reuse and groundwater replenishment.  Some areas, like urban areas in southern California, see the likelihood of huge new projects evaporating and are embracing more modern water management strategies, but there is still massive resistance in agriculture (which uses more than 70% of water in California) and water bureaucracies like the Bureau of Reclamation.  Congress shares a big part of the blame, failing to use longstanding authority to fund water recycling projects that could reduce the need for costly and controversial storage and transportation facilities which, in any event, face decades of delays because of financial, environmental and legal complications.

Hopefully Marvin Horn and the raisin revolution will once again focus attention on the need for serious reform of agriculture and water policies, reforms that will focus on the legitimate needs taxpayers and consumers instead of mainly catering to the implausible demands of special interests.  Perhaps those fiscal conservatives running the House of Representatives, the ones who can’t figure out how to pass a farm bill without lavishing subsidies on farmers and denying food to hungry Americans, will end once and for all the right of special interest cartels to dictate how private farmers market their crops.  Maybe, but don’t count on it.  Two years after Miller’s revelations about the navel orange marketing order, Congress by law prohibited the Office of Management and Budget from examining the impact of marketing orders.  That was one year after Skip Pescosolido had died in a car accident.  He was 55.

The Clandestine Congress

Occasionally, an idea emanates from the hallowed halls of Congress that is so boneheaded, so insulting, and so at odds with the concept of democratic government that even a thick-skinned Capitol Hill veteran has to gape in amazement.  Surely, no more inane idea has appeared in recent memory (and that is saying a lot) than the Senate Finance Committee’s scheme for developing a “reformed” tax code.

Here’s a word of advice to the uninitiated, fashioned from 38 years on Capitol Hill: when Members of Congress profess that secrecy will enhance the quality of a legislative product, pay careful attention. If that legislation relates to tax policy, be particularly forewarned: evil is threading its way through the corridors of power like the smoky Angel of Death through the Hebrew slave camp in The Ten Commandments.

By all reports, the Congress is working on changing the tax code (I say “changing” rather than “reforming” because, as an historian, the term “reform” typically connotes an intention to making politics more open and equitable).  Several weeks ago, Chairman Max Baucus and senior Republican Orrin Hatch announced their intention to scrap the entire tax code and require senators (and others) to make an affirmative case for adding back specific tax breaks and other expenditures.  

There may never have been a better plan for ensuring that senators will be able to vacuum up crates of campaign money.  This aspect of the Baucus-Hatch strategy means that every single interest must now worm its way into Senate offices to reassert the value of whatever provision of the tax code it cherishes.  I can’t imagine how they might help pry open the doors to those Senate offices, or which interests will find it easier to schedule appointments.

But that wasn’t good enough for Baucus and Hatch, who recently proposed that senators’ specific recommendations for deductions, credits, loopholes and giveaways be kept secret.  For 50 years.  Buried in the National Archives, with each special interest-generated loophole given its own identification number and locked away in tightly restricted servers and impregnable safes.

No chance for special interests to influence the lawmaking process there!  No way constituents or the press could be kept from knowing if a senator is trading off tax proposals for contributors or cronies.  All we need to do is wait until 2064 and hold the rascals accountable.

The author of this plan, Max Baucus, incidentally is the same senator who held up passage of the Fiscal Cliff law last New Year’s Eve by insisting, at the last stages of the negotiations, on a massive and unjustified giveaway for a handful of immensely wealthy constituents.  While most Democrats were content to rescind the Bush tax cut for the wealthy and extend the cuts for the rest of Americans, Baucus demanded that the $10 million threshold for the estate tax not only be continued, but indexed for inflation.  So each year, those with estates worth $10 million will enjoy a cost of living bump in the level at which taxes kick in.  (Incidentally, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi’s effort to secure an identical inflation adjustment for poor, working families claiming the Child Tax Credit was summarily rejected.)

To Baucus and Hatch’s credit, they did not keep their proposal as secret as senators’ tax proposals will be.  A Committee aide sent a memo noting that Baucus and Hatch are going out of their way to “assure their colleagues they will keep the submissions in confidence.”

That same aide reportedly justified the clandestine tax cuts plan by asserting that such a process is “standard operating procedure for sensitive materials, including investigation materials.”  No it isn’t!  I served as staff director for two committees of the House, for a total of nearly 13 years, and I do not recall a single instance where we invoked any such protection for Members offering amendments.  A material’s “sensitive” nature typically relates to its implications for national security or law enforcement, not because its disclosure might embarrass legislators who are fronting for special interests.

In fact, the records of committees, unlike those of personal offices, are considered official public records and are the property of the Archives, not the chairman or individual members of the committee.  This distinction highlights the need for the public to be able to scrutinize the files and correspondence of committees to evaluate how particular provisions of law were fashioned.  The Baucus-Hatch secrecy arrangement would frustrate this goal by disguising the authors  of policy recommendations.

According to The Hill newspaper, Baucus has implied that those senators who participate in the secretive process will have “greater influence” in the design of tax legislation.  Senators, I suppose, should be on notice that those who insist upon offering their amendments publicly, and justifying them to constituents, may incur the wrath, or at least indifference, of the powerful committee chair.  Of course, if some senators do conduct themselves with transparency, as virtually every other committee must, those who choose to take the clandestine route may be judged more skeptically by the public, and with good reason.

To his enormous credit, Sen. Harry Reid, the Majority Leader, has said he will not participate in the surreptitious Baucus/Hatch scheme. “I’m not going to do it,” Reid declared. “I’m not even going to consider it.”

Let’s be clear: tax breaks (or loopholes, to be more pejorative) constitute spending just like appropriations or entitlements.  In all, the tax code contains a trillion dollars worth of tax breaks, some unquestionably good because they reward constructive behavior, many bad because they were enacted as the price some legislator (like Baucus) extracted for a vote on a crucial issue.  In a perfect world, we would start from a completely blank slate and build up the exemptions and breaks from scratch. Capitol Hill is not quite perfect, however, and this approach creates an opportunity to milk lobbyists and contributors desperate to retain their provision in the code.   Add the secrecy overlay Baucus and Hatch propose and you have an almost perfect congressional Petri dish for misbehavior to flourish.

The proposal is especially revealing in what it says about the senators’ view of their constituents right to know.  A quick reading of the historical literature will demonstrate that the Founders believed that the elected representatives of the people should actually be accountable to those they purport to represent.  Voters should be able to evaluate the performance of officeholders based on their votes, on the bills they submit, and the amendments they offer.  A process that is devised to keep knowledge of a legislator’s specific policy proposals and recommendations secret from the electorate is completely antithetical  to the concept of representative government. 

Transparency is especially important in dealing with tax policy, where provisions confer millions and billions of dollars in benefits, often with little fanfare.  Tax writers and lobbyists long ago became adept at writing provisions to camouflage the beneficiaries of a credit or deduction, sometimes referencing only the date on which an unnamed company was incorporated as creating eligibility for a particular benefit.    Tax language, which is designed to be indecipherable to a non-expert, can easily serve the very narrow and lucrative interests of a particular beneficiary, providing windfall benefits or an unfair competitive advantage.  Add Baucus and Hatch’s special sauce – secrecy – and you have one of the best opportunities for inequity and infamy ever conceived, with a total absence of accountability.

So if this “no fingerprints” process is such a stupid idea, where did it come from?  According to one report, the secrecy process was created “to alleviate the concerns of senators.” There’s a surprise: senators don’t want to be held accountable for the tax breaks they promote, or fail to promote.  From such secrecy, we are supposed to believe, will come better, more taxpayer-friendly laws. 

It goes without saying that legislators would love to live in a world where they did not suffer consequences for the votes they cast or the legislation they propose, but such a scheme is simply inconsistent with the most basic concepts of good government.  If you can’t cast an unpopular vote, explain your rationale, and live with the consequences without cringing before an disapproving electorate, you probably are in the wrong business.  Voters cannot make intelligent decisions about candidates if they are kept in the dark about the policies advocated by their representatives.

At least give Baucus and Hatch credit: they have found one way to restore bipartisanship in an age of intemperate interparty conflict.  Not surprisingly, the two senators found common ground with a plan that insulates all senators, enables special interests, and insults taxpayers.  Maybe they think it is necessary to destroy democracy in order to save it.