Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Gun Control Legislators Face Colorado Recall

As the Colorado General Assembly, guided by an unflinching Democratic leadership, moves to become the second State to adopt gun control legislation since the Newtown tragedy, the Basic Freedom Defense Fund  has set its sights on recalling the President of the State Senate and at least two other legislators, prominent proponents in the State’s pending gun control efforts.
in mid-January, the New York State Assembly moved fast and clean to approve the country’s most stringent gun control legislation barely one month after the Newtown tragedy, including limits on assault weapons, mental health requirements and ammunition magazines.  Barely one month after the Newton tragedy, New York efforts shrewdly occurred so swiftly as to preclude effective opposition with Governor Andrew Cuomo signing the legislation one hour after passage.
In what is may be a warning to other state legislators across the country and even Members of Congress acting on similar legislation, the BFDF, a tax-exempt organization based in Durango, Colorado has begun circulating petitions against politically vulnerable State Representative Mike McLachlan as local affiliates of BFDF have formed a committee to unseat State Senate President John Morse (D, Colorado Springs) and Senator Edie Hudak (D, Denver).   According to Kjersten Forseth, legislative aide to Morse, Colorado State Statute requires each petition to have signatures from 25% of last year’s Presidential vote to qualify for a recall ballot initiative.   
After recent testimony before the Colorado House Judiciary Committee by former astronaut Mark Kelly, the country’s most famous husband  to a wounded wife, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford, Colorado’s legislative package took shape including a prohibition on gun ownership to individuals with domestic violence convictions, a limit on ammunition magazines to 15 rounds, requirement for gun owners to pay for background checks, an expanded background check process and required training to receive a concealed weapon permit.
Home of a state that has experienced the horror of the Columbine attack in 1999 and the Aurora Theatre shooting last year, Anthony Garcia, who is organizing the petition effort on behalf of the BFDF, said that the gun control efforts were ‘an affront to the second amendment, an affront to the Constitution.”  
With a Democratic majority (23 – 12), Forseth confirmed that the Senate had finalized their legislative efforts on Monday evening, approving all five bills with the required fee legislation on the way to Governor Hickenlooper’s (D) desk for signature.   According to Forseth, the other four bills go back to the State House (with a 39 – 26 Democratic majority) for approval and then onto the Governor.   In a sign of desperation, Republicans have promised to filibuster final passage.  
Senator Morse, a strong supporter of the gun control package said “I wasn’t expecting things to get this divisive.  I really thought that after Sandy Hook that even the NRA recognized we’ve got to do something. “   Commenting on the effort to recall him, Morse added “that‘s why politicians around the country don’t want to stand up for this issue.“ 
As if writing a new chapter to Profiles in Courage, Colorado Democrats might teach Congressional Dems a thing or two including Morse who said he is willing to lose his seat and accept whatever the public decides but that he “will not back down”.   In a recent development Wednesday evening, the State House approved a bill limiting ammunition magazines to 15 rounds (34 – 30) that is now headed to the Governor for his signature.  The endangered State Representative McLachlan from a swing district who won election by less than 800 votes, voted Yes in the face of “threatening and disparaging emails against his family” stating that “I’m not going to let them bully me. I’m not going to let them hold out a recall as a way to make me abandon the principles that I stand for and the reasons people elected me.”

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Holder tells Senate Commitee President will Speak on Drone policy

During Attorney General Eric Holder’s  March 6th testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee,  in response to Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s dissatisfaction with the Administration’s lack of transparency on intelligence matters, Holder informed the Committee that President Obama would, within a  ‘relatively short period of time,’ be publicly speaking to explain that ‘we do these things reluctantly in conformity with international law, with domestic law and with our values as American people.”

Feinstein, who also serves as Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, cited the need for ‘vigorous oversight’ regarding the “legal underpinnings” of clandestine activity and has previously urged the Administration to be more forthcoming.  Feinstein told Holder that she believed the Administration ‘had good solid legal rational for the use of drones” with ‘very sound’ legal opinions and, referring to Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster underway on the Senate floor, did not believe it was ‘true or correct’ that an American citizen “walking down the street or eating in a café in this country can be targeted for elimination.”  Paul’s filibuster was prompted by a loosely-worded March 4th letter from Holder attempting to outline Administration policy regarding the use of drones domestically on American citizens.   
Holder, who was not sworn in prior to his testimony (usually providing an essential legal framework for any Congressional witness), further agreed that there is a ‘greater need for transparency’ and "appropriately sharing information".  Assuring the Committee that “I have heard you, the President has heard you,” Holder stated that the President “feels strongly” and, within the next few months, will be ‘speaking about this’.  
It is not every day that Republicans in the Senate give a good reason to applaud their legislative behavior but Holder’s Committee appearance provided an opportunity for the newly-elected, already-controversial Sen. Ted Cruz  (R-Texas) to question the Attorney General on the Administration’s drone policy:
Cruz:  “I’d like to start with the topic of drones.  In your response to Sen. Paul yesterday, you suggested there may well be ‘ circumstances in which it is permissible to use drones to target a US citizen on US soil.   I’d like to explore those circumstances; in particular you pointed to two, Pearl Harbor and 911 – both of which were extreme military attacks on the homeland.  I want to ask a more specific question.  If an individual is sitting quietly at a cafe in the United States, in your legal judgment, does the  Constitution allow a US citizen on US soil to be killed by a drone?”
Holder:   …” for sitting in a café and having a cup of coffee?”
Cruz:  “If that individual is not posing an imminent and immediate threat of death or bodily harm, does the Constitution allow a drone to kill that individual?”
Holder:  “On the basis of what you said, I don’t think you can arrest   that person."  
Cruz:   “The person is suspected to be a terrorist, you have abundant evidence he is a terrorist, he is involved in terrorist plots but at moment he’s not pointing a bazooka at Pentagon. He’s sitting in a café; overseas the United States government uses drones to take out individuals when they are walking down a path, sitting in a café.   If a US citizen on US soil is not posing an immediate threat to life or bodily harm, does  the Constitution allow a drone to kill that citizen?”
Holder:  “I would not think that would be appropriate use of any kind of legal force.   We would deal with that in the way that we typically deal with a situation like that ….”
Cruz:  “With respect General Holder, my question wasn’t about appropriateness or prosecutorial discretion.  It was a simple legal question.  Does the Constitution allow a US citizen on US soil who doesn’t pose an imminent threat to be killed by the us government?”
Holder:  “I do not believe, again, you have to look at all the facts but on the facts that you’ve given me, this is a hypothetical. I would  not think that in that situation, the use of drone or legal force would be appropriate because….”
Cruz:  “General Holder, I have to tell you I find it remarkable that in that hypothetical, which is deliberately very  simple,  you are unable to give a simple one word, one syllable answer - no. I think it is unequivocal that if the US government were to use a drone to take the life of a US citizen on US soil and that individual did not pose an imminent threat that that would be deprivation of life without due process…”  
Holder:   “Maybe I’m not being clear.  I said the use of legal force; ….use of drones, guns or whatever else  would not be appropriate in that circumstance.”
Cruz:   “You keep saying appropriate. My question isn’t about propriety. My question is about whether something is  constitutional or not.  As Attorney General, you are chief legal officer of United State.  Do you have a legal judgment  on whether it would be constitutional to kill a US citizen on US soil in those circumstances?”
Holder:  “A person who is not engaged as you describe, this is the problem with  hypotheticals; the way in which you have described it, this person sitting at a café not doing anything imminently, the use of legal force would not be appropriate,  would not be …”.
Cruz:    “I find it remarkable you will still not give an opinion on the constitutionality. Let me move on to the next topic.”
Holder:   “Let me be clear.  Translate my ‘appropriate’ to ‘no’, I thought I was saying no, all right?”
Cruz:   “I am glad that, after much gymnastics,  I am very glad to hear that it is the opinion of the Department of Justice it would be unconstitutional to kill a US citizen on US soil if that individual did not pose an imminent threat.  That statement has not been easily forthcoming. I wish you had given that statement in response to Sen. Paul’s letter asking you it.  I would  point out that I   will be introducing legislation in the Senate to make clear that US government cannot kill a US citizen on US soil absent an imminent threat and I hope,  based on that representation the Department will support that legislation.” 
Holder: “Well, that’s totally consistent with the letter I sent to Sen. Paul.  I talked about 911 and Pearl Harbor - those are the instances where I said it might possibly be considered but other than that, we would use our normal law enforcement authorities along those lines…...”
Inexplicably, the Attorney General appeared unable to grasp the distinction between his use of what is ‘appropriate’ and what is Constitutional.  

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

FDR, the Budget Control Act of 2011 and Pentagon Spending

In the summer of 1935, at the height of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt  signed the Revenue Act into law to pay for New Deal programs.  The Act raised tax rates from 59% to 75% on those Americans earning more than $5 million and raised corporate taxes from 13% to 15% on businesses earning over $50,000 annually.

In the summer of 2011, as President Obama’s $4 trillion ‘grand bargain’ with Speaker Boehner fell apart, the now-discredited Budget Control Act (BCA) was adopted on a bipartisan vote  to avoid an immediate economic default.   It was assumed that the sequestration portion of the Act which proposed mandatory cuts to military and domestic programs were so egregious that those reductions would never be allowed to occur.   The fact that Congress and the Administration were willing to take that gamble raises the inevitable question of whether the existing political structure is competent to run the country – especially in times of crisis.
Politically incoherent from the outset, the BCA which contained almost $1 trillion across-the-board cuts, brought the debt ceiling crisis to a conclusion while establishing a Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (aka Super Committee) with twelve equally apportioned members of Congress.    If the forced negotiations failed to achieve a consensus on an additional $1.5 trillion cuts and increased tax revenue, then the BCA allowed a mandatory trigger of that amount to occur over the next ten years.   Of course, the Super Committee was doomed from the start – why would a dozen members of Congress  willingly commit political suicide by assuming  total responsibility  for determining the economic  future of world’s number one super-power.
As the  bipartisan finger-pointing and blame game continues, it is important to acknowledge that an enforced budget-cutting mechanism dubbed ‘sequestration’ originated with the Gramm Rudman Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Reduction Act of 1985.  At that time, Rudman referred to sequestration as ‘a bad idea whose time had come.”   Whether its current incarnation came from Jack Lew, current Treasury Secretary  or Gene Sperling, White House Economic Council Director  as Bob Woodward cites in Politics of Power (pg. 215) remains open to speculation.
Once the politically-generated ‘fiscal cliff’ stalled in January with modestly raised tax revenues while cutting unemployment benefits , the first sequestration $85 billion budget cut (coincidentally the same amount that the Fed Bank distributes monthly to the banks) kicked in on March 1st despite a White House list of potentially horrendous cuts to education, transit, health care, housing, infrastructure projects and other essential people programs. 
Meanwhile, as Republicans sputter in protest over a $45 billion cut to Pentagon spending which represents only a softening of the edges, there is every reason to believe that the reduction will be watered down  in the name of ‘national security’ in the next  Continuing Resolution.   Since even before the fiscal debacle of 2008, the  tactic of Republicans to undermine and destroy the credibility of the Federal government, only to turn around and point to the result of their own actions as proof of why there is a breakdown in the Federal government’s performance, has proven to be shrewdly successful.   
For their part, today’s  Democrats bear little resemblance to past Democrats who constructed  the country’s once-sacrosanct social safety net.    Erroneously assuming Republicans would resist any military cuts and be forced to negotiate, the White House seriously misread the tea leaves as the party of Thomas Jefferson backed themselves into a tight corner with little room to maneuver.   

At the February 12th Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the potential impacts of sequestration on the Department of Defense  with all five Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) in attendance, Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-Mich) opened the hearing with one example of ‘devastating’ sequestration impacts:   the Army had requested  $36.6 billion for 2013 but will only receive $30.6 billion (same as 2012 budget) with  sequestration cutting an additional $6 billion.  Levin went on to inform that since the Army has already spent $ 16 billion for 2013 with only $8 billion remaining for fiscal year 2013.   With “unexpected high operational demands requiring $6 billion to be spent overseas,”  left the Army with only $2 billion for domestic operations and maintenance for the next six months  - which, Levin pointed out, was originally budgeted at $20 Million.
As Committee members, regardless of political affiliation, expressed their empathy with the military’s need to pull in its belt for the first time in over thirty years, there was little evidence of a vibrant two party system  – until  tea party favorite Sen.  Mike  Lee of Utah had the last word.   Citing former Senator Chuck Hagel’s December 2012 Financial Times interview, Hagel was asked about  Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s quote that sequestration would be ‘disastrous’ to national defense.  Lee quoted Hagel as stating that Defense “in many ways has been bloated”, “they have gotten everything they wanted in the last ten years”, that the “waste and fraud has been astounding” and that “they have taken priorities, taken dollars out of State Department and other agencies and put them in Defense”.   
In conclusion, Lee invited each Joint Chief “down the line” to respond  whether they agreed with Hagel’s general characterization.   After a few nervous twitters, only Ashton Carter, deputy Secretary of Defense responded, woefully failing the straight face test, citing Secretary Gates’ efficiency initiative to reform and improve the acquisitions system, how management problems occurred when it was easy to reach for more money to solve technical problems, that habits had accumulated over decades  and that “we have accommodated a substantial budget adjustment relative to  a few years ago.”   
In his first term, Lee,  who has shown a populist streak on occasion, responded that Carter’s answer appeared “inconsistent” since “Hagel’s statement was made just recently - in December.”