Saturday, February 21, 2009

Correcting Congress

I am becoming increasingly annoyed at members of Congress who bandy the word “billion” when they speak about taxpayer money. Look at the poorly named Stimulus Packages under debate. Each item is all about billions, so much so that $17 billion to give one-time $300 payments to Social Security recipients do not seem like that much. With little exception these members, Democrat and Republican, are the same people who let Bush have his war and allowed our economy to fail. The present debate demonstrates that the governing class has long ceased to represent the constituencies that elect it because its job is only to get re-elected. It is not about representation. We need term limits.

The Founders did not intend government to be a career. They intended governing as a volunteer position for a set amount of time and then it was time to go back home. They also debated limiting terms. Washington and Jefferson argued in support of term limits, while Madison and Hamilton opposed them. Not much came of the debate for about a hundred years since members often voluntarily chose to leave Washington and return home. Long-term Congressional incumbency was rare, but times have changed.

There is only one term limit. The 22nd Amendment to the United States Constitution placed a limit of two terms on Presidents in 1951. There are no term limits for Vice Presidents or members of Congress, whether Representatives or Senators. Politicians, lobbyists and special interest groups continue to combat term limits for those offices.

Fifteen state legislatures have
term limits in effect today and most have experienced a complete turnover in their membership. Term limits have prevented more than a thousand experienced legislators from running for reelection. New legislators have to learn their jobs in less than six years, chair important committees in their first term, and even serve as Speaker of the House after just two or three years in office. The leadership, culture and organization inside those legislatures have had to adjust to limited terms in office, not to mention adjustments of outsiders such as governors and lobbyists.

Voter initiatives of the 1990s are responsible for states adopting legislative limits. In an online column, Wall Street Journal columnist Steve Moore wrote that “limits on politicians' time in office were enacted or reaffirmed by enormous margins nearly everywhere they were on the ballot in what might have been the loudest referendum for term limitation by voters ever.” The Republicans hopped on the bandwagon.

Many Republicans seem to have forgotten that part of their 1994 platform included term limits on Congress. For the first time in more than 40 years, they had gained a majority in the House and their platform, called the "Contract with America," included a pledge to impose term limits. They brought a constitutional amendment to the House floor that limited members of the Senate to two six-year terms and members of the House to six two-year terms. Republicans held 230 seats in the House and got a simple majority vote easily. Unfortunately for them, they needed 290 votes for the two-thirds majority required for constitutional amendments.

The U.S. Constitution sets no term limits on congress. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution assigns to the states and their citizens all powers not reserved to the federal government. This distribution of powers is seen to create a strong constitutional opportunity for congressional term limits. The Seventeenth Amendment restates the first paragraph of Article I, section 3, of the Constitution and provides for the election of senators by replacing the phrase "chosen by the Legislature thereof" with "elected by the people thereof."

States have tried to extend term limits to members of Congress. However, in 1995 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that states cannot impose qualifications for prospective members of the U.S. Congress stricter than those specified in the Constitution. U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton [514 U.S. 779] invalidated the Congressional term limit provisions of 23 states. Congress failed to achieve the required two-thirds majority needed to pass a term limit constitutional amendment and the matter did not come up again.

Calls for government reform come with the territory. Just over a hundred years ago, William Randolph Hearst championed the cause of direct election as he expanded his publishing empire. He hired a veteran reporter named David Graham Phillips to portray Senators as pawns of industrialists and financiers. A series titled "The Treason of the Senate" appeared in several monthly issues of the magazine Cosmopolitan in 1906. Similar calls can be heard today and term limits is one of them.

“Term Limits would also hinder corruption and the effects that lobbyists have upon the government by breaking the established connections between lobbyists and the legislators in power, and by reducing the sway future campaign donations have,” Duncan Quirk wrote recently in the Huffington Post. “Establishing Term Limits would also promote a meritocracy by reducing the number of career politicians and the influence of political families, consequently curbing nepotism and the grooming of future politicians for office.”

Dan Greenberg wrote for the Heritage Foundation, “Term limits would change Congress. They are supported by large majorities of most American demographic groups; they are opposed primarily by incumbent politicians and the special interest groups which depend on them,” “Term limits would ameliorate many of America's most serious political problems by counterbalancing incumbent advantages, ensuring congressional turnover, securing independent congressional judgment, and reducing election-related incentives for wasteful government spending.”

You might ask about the criticism that the committee and legislative processes take many years to master. Such an argument is more about the legislative process than about the legislator. Patrick Basham, a senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute, wrote, “The bottom line is that the workings of our legislatures are far more complex than is necessary. Remember that legislatures aren't the only place to gain useful experience. The private-sector experience that many newcomers bring to term-limited legislative committees may prove more valuable for the general welfare.”

With less than a 10% turnover rate, to think that our best interests are being represented in Congress is naive. The data does not support such a conjecture. Though the election made me tire of polls, they make two things pretty clear – we do not approve of what Congress does and we keep electing the same people. The problem is that we have effectively lost control of a true representative government that the Founders intended. Instead we have a political class that represents itself and not the people.

We need new people in government with responsible, well thought ideas for the military and economic wars we face. Establishing term limits for members of Congress can make it happen and that requires a Constitutional Amendment. Amendments happen when a national public movement demands it. It has been done before – Women’s Suffrage (19th Amendment, 1920), Poll Tax Barred (24th Amendment, 1964), and Voting Age set to 19 (26th Amendment, 1971) to name a few. It can happen again. Establishing Congressional term limits is not a red versus blue issue. It is a we the people versus them the governing class issue, and its time has come.
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Originally published in Blogcritics Magazine, February 10, 2009

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Fairness: the Fake Debate

Someone needs to explain why it is that conservatives continue to insist that liberals want to reinstitute the FCC’s 1949 Fairness Doctrine. While it is true that the old regulation is brought up from time to time, it has no traction in either the House of Senate. The administration is opposed to it. The Supreme Court would rule against it. Still, conservative talk radio continues to chant about the “Hush Rush Bill’ as if were a real threat with real backing. It isn’t, it doesn’t and it’s not going to happen. Nor will the sky fall.

Before you start to write your commentary about Nancy Pelosi, stop for a moment. The speaker of the House has been quoted as saying she supported the Fairness Doctrine by John Gizzi, Political Editor of Human Events, which calls itself the “Headquarters of the Conservative Underground.” He asked a yes-no question and she said yes at a Christian Science Monitor luncheon they both attended. She also said no, she didn’t think it would come to the floor for a vote. It is an issue for which the speaker does not express a majority opinion.

Perhaps someone can also explain how it is it that conservatives (“disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change”) use the word liberal as an adjective of derision as in the term liberal media or liberal socialist agenda such as “state aid for the betterment of the working classes.” That socialism is some kind of evil.

How could mainstream media be anything other than liberal (“favorable to or in accord with concepts of maximum individual freedom possible, esp. as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties”)? Being liberal minded requires reporting both sides of any issue, which defines fairness in and of itself without any regulation to be fair.

The conservative mantra that their champion Ronald Reagan struck down the Fairness Doctrine is incorrect. His son Michael claims in his blog, Michigan Redneck II, “My dad, President Reagan, killed the ‘Fairness Doctrine.’ As a result, this rule change allowed Rush, Hannity, and me to have radio talk shows — that’s why the new proposal to bring it back is being called the ‘Hush Rush’ bill. Now the liberals are dying to shut us up.”

No, the president did not. The
FCC overturned the regulation. What President Reagan did was to veto a congressional attempt to make the regulation a law. The Supreme Court set the stage for the FCC to dump the regulation in 1984 (FCC v. League of Women Voters, 468 U.S. 364). The regulation came up again in 1993 and failed. Neither Congress nor the Clinton administration supported it.

There is a difference between a regulation and a law. Section 315 of the
Communications Act of 1937 was federal law passed by Congress. It required broadcast stations to offer "equal opportunity" to all legally qualified political candidates for any office if they had allowed any person running in that office to use the station. The Fairness Doctrine was simply FCC policy, a regulation the FCC dumped as unconstitutional in 1987. After Meredith Corp. v. FCC, the Supreme Court declared that the Doctrine was not mandated by Congress and the FCC did not have to continue to enforce it.

For the record, as an independent regulatory agency, the FCC has the power to reimpose the Fairness Doctrine at anytime without action by either the executive or legislative branches. It should not be confused, but often is, with the Equal Time rule. The Fairness Doctrine deals with matters of public importance, not political opinion. The Equal Time rule only deals with political candidates.

Nonetheless a fake debate about the Fairness Doctrine continues. “In 1980 there were fewer than 100 radio talk shows nationwide. Today there are more than 1,400 stations entirely devoted to talk formats. Liberals, not satisfied with their domination of academia, Hollywood and most of the mainstream media, want to kill talk radio, where liberals have been unable to dent conservatives' dominance,” George Will wrote in the Washington Post.

Will’s colleague
Michael Gerson wrote that “three hours of Rush Limbaugh on a radio station would have to be balanced by three hours of his liberal equivalent. This may sound fair and balanced. But it would destroy the profitability of conservative talk radio and lead other outlets to avoid political issues entirely -- actually reducing the public discussion of controversial issues.” They also both wrote that in 1987 President Reagan “eliminated” (Will) or “overturned” (Gerson) the 1949 FCC regulation.

While they are both wrong about Reagan, they do not demonstrate much knowledge about radio. If conservatives dominate talk radio, it is because it’s cheap. Talk radio doesn’t cost a radio station anything except electricity. Typically the air-time is brokered and the talker pays for the time. Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham and Dr. Laura Schlessinger, for example, are not so much radio personalities as they are media companies. Their concern about the Fairness Doctrine is literally lip service.

They do have large audiences and wield influence. Sometimes their influence works against them. One of my former radio colleagues, Gary Nelson of WFOR TV4 Miami, recently wrote, “About the vitriol on talk radio, in doing a piece the day after the election, on Bush losing the Hispanic vote, I interviewed a Colombian-American voter who said he had been a Republican all his life and had never voted for a Democratic presidential candidate. He said the ‘mean-spirited’ attacks on Obama changed him. ‘Rush Limbaugh cost John McCain my vote,’ he said.”

President Barack Obama is expected to appoint longtime friend Julius Genachowski as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Mr. Genachowski also has a Harvard background as a legal scholar and was a Supreme Court law clerk. That may lead him to play a stronger role in determining legal strategy on FCC court cases, normally a Justice Department task. When Genachowski does become FCC chairman, his biggest immediate task will be working on the digital TV transition. The Fairness Doctrine does not appear on his docket.

As to the conservative assertion that the White House will sign Fairness Doctrine legislation, that is far from likely. The President opposes it. As he said in his inaugural address, “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history.”

The broadcast media of 1949 has its own chapter in history, as will the Internet sixty years from now. Today we have right wing and left wing media. Some are even in the middle. There is one thing that Rush and both Lauras have to fear about being silenced: listeners changing stations. As to a new, improved, rebranded Fairness Doctrine, forget about it. It is not going to happen.
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Originally published in Blogcritics Magazine, February 1 2009

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Hypocrites Lose and Other News

There is new information for several stories I have posted here in the Premise Loft and elsewhere. For those keeping score, here are some updates on Proposition 8, banks taking tax money, and the digital television conversion date.

Initially I wrote that the California’s Proposition 8 amounted to legalized bigotry. It received almost 200 comment postings at
Blogcritics Magazine after it appeared on New Year’s Day. On March 5, 2009, the state Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a series of lawsuits seeking to overturn Proposition 8. After the court's seven justices hear those arguments, they have 90 days in which to issue a ruling.

For me it is difficult to fathom the amount of money supporters and opponents spent on the proposition. During the contest's closing days, elected officials, businesses, churches and individuals poured more than $28 million into the race. In all more than $83 million went to the ballot initiative that abolished same-sex marriage in California.

Of the supporters of Proposition 8, the money attributed to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints now has a dollar amount. According to the church's report, nearly $190,000 went to its role in getting the initiative passed. $97,000 of that money went to the Utah-based Mormon Church staff for their time devoted to the Yes on 8 campaign.

In the follow-up article I wrote that the Proposition’s backers demonstrated their hypocrisy by petitioning the state Supreme Court to overturn a different ballot initiative than theirs. Citing a potential for harassment, supporters wanted the court to grant a preliminary injunction to remove the contributors’ identities removed from the secretary of state's Web site. The court told them No and noted that most of the activity the plaintiffs called harassment, such as threats of boycotts, was actually protected free speech.

I took banking accountability to task in two articles, especially in Broke Banks Mounting. The president has capped executive pay, but there is a lot more to be done. Bank public relations took yet another hit recently after a torrent of criticism that Wells Fargo was misusing $25 billion in federal taxpayer bailout money. Calling it a “recognition event,” Wells Fargo had booked 12 nights at two of the most expensive hotels in Las Vegas— the Wynn Las Vegas and its sister hotel, the Encore Las Vegas. The bank cancelled the junket.

Wells Fargo spokesperson Kevin Waetke defended the cancelled trip. “This year, we have the unique opportunity to bring together our Wells Fargo and new Wachovia mortgage consultants to focus on continuing to do all we can for U.S. homeowners.” Continuing to do all we can to U.S. homeowners would have been more accurate.

$25 billion TARP recipient Morgan Stanley had been planning to send its top employees to Monte Carlo along with a similar event in the Bahamas. They cancelled those trips. Likewise Bank of America, which purchased Wall Street financial house Merrill Lynch and mortgage giant Countrywide, canceled all employee incentive trips.

Finally, there is new information about the digital television conversion date delay, although it might have gotten lost. In No Viewer Left Behind I concluded, “The Obama administration may know who its friends are, but millions of viewers are now left behind.” House Republicans blocked the postponement. Supporters of the postponement could not make the two-thirds majority when it came to a vote. However, under a "closed rule" vote prohibiting new amendments, the House held the full floor vote and passed the Democratic-backed bill to delay the mandatory shutdown until June 12. President Obama urged the delay and is expected to sign the bill.

I appreciate your comments and invite you to join the conversation at Blogcritics, where the Fairness Doctrine is being debated.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

No Viewer Left Behind

I objected when Monday Night Football moved from over-the-air broadcast television to cable/satellite ESPN after 35 years on ABC. Making fans have to pay to see televised football is nothing short of un-American, I argued to no avail. I objected last year when the NFL channel kept exclusive rights to broadcast a Thursday night game only available on satellite, which you cannot receive if you do not have a southern exposure for a dish. The once public airwaves ceased to be public. What next, I thought: the public will have to pay to watch public television? I hate being right.

Congress mandated the conversion from analogue to all-digital television broadcasting presumably because all-digital broadcasting would free up frequencies for public safety communications such as police, fire, and emergency rescue. The government says that DTV technology will allow broadcasters to offer “television with movie-quality picture and CD-quality sound.” In addition, the switch frees up valuable chunks of wireless spectrum for public safety and those airwaves can also be used for commercial wireless services, which are private interest.

When the legislation originally came up, television stations were supposed to broadcast analog and digital signal in parallel until 2017. The Bush administration dropped that stipulation and the FCC auctioned the airwave spectrum. The wireless biopoly of AT&T and Verizon Communications paid a collective $16 billion at the FCC auction. Back in 2005 when the Republican Congress passed the legislation requiring the conversion, they set February 19, 2009, as the conversion deadline.

However, a glitch occurred. According to the Nielsen Company more than 6.5 million homes are still unprepared to receive digital signals. The government said 1.4 million households are on a waiting list for an equipment subsidy that is financed by the FCC auction. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an arm of the Commerce Department, said it had hit its $1.34 billion funding limit set by Congress to pay for converter box coupons. In other words, the government subsidy for converter boxes ran out of money.

At that point the Obama administration decided to push for a delay because the government is not doing enough to help Americans prepare for and navigate the transition. The issue seemed to especially affect rural, poor or minority communities. The Senate GOP opposed the delay. Congressional lines in the sand began to appear.

Enter Senator John Rockefeller of West Virginia, the incoming chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.”Over 2 million Americans are waiting to receive a coupon to help them offset the cost of equipment that will help them manage the transition,” he said. “Millions more don't have the proper information they need." Rockefeller contended that delaying the transition by three months would give the federal government time to fill a backlog of consumer coupon requests and also to give the government and the FCC more time to prepare for the change. This week a unanimous Senate voted to postpone the upcoming transition from analog to digital television broadcasting.

The House had its own proposal but was expected to go along with the move that was proffered by the Obama administration. Enter Representative Henry Waxman of California, Chairman of the House Energy & Commerce. His bill sought to change the DTV Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005 to insert the new date. It would also move the expiration date of any DTV-to-analog coupons that have expired to Sept. 15, 2009.

The Consumers Union weighed in and wrote to Waxman’s Committee, “We are concerned that millions of at-risk consumers, including rural, low-income and elderly citizens across the country could be left with blank television screens.” In addition to consumers having “fewer resources than ever” to buy converter boxes, this is “not the right time to ask consumers to dig deeper into their own pockets to pay for the miscalculation by the federal government."

The House Bill failed by 26 votes and GOP members claimed victory, warning that postponing the transition would confuse consumers. The 258-168 vote did not clear the two-thirds threshold needed for passage. The February conversion stands, at least until the House Bill comes to the floor again. By regular majority vote, Democrats have sufficient votes to pass the legislation and send it to the President.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration had almost 3 million coupon requests on a waiting list last week and those people will not receive their coupons before February 17. The NTIA is sending out new coupons only as older, unredeemed ones reach a 90-day expiration date and free up more money. To date, more than half of coupons that have reached their 90 day cycle have been redeemed and more than 13 million coupons have expired.

Although a minority, many of our elderly folks for whom rabbit-ear-antenna television is their entertainment may be looking at black screens next month. The AARP’s advice is pragmatic – “get a special converter box that will make your analog set work” or “subscribe to a cable, satellite or other pay service for all the sets in your home, or buy a new TV that will receive digital signals.”

While I can buy into the public safety aspects of using analogue television frequencies for public safety, I cannot buy into making people pay for public airwaves. The same House legislators who defeated a three month delay also decide Public Television and the National Endowment for the Arts funding. The Obama administration may know who its friends are, but millions of viewers are now left behind.
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Originally published in Blogcritics Magazine, January 29, 2009