Biden’s speech

Last night, President Biden addressed a joint session of Congress, although only a fraction of the members and a few guests and the press were present because of COVID limits on large indoor gatherings.

The real intended audience, though, is the American public among whom the president’s speech was well-received. A CBS/YouGov poll found 85% approval among Americans who watched the speech.

For me, it was easy to see why.

For over forty years, the federal government has been characterized as an obstacle rather than a solution to the problems everyday Americans face. We were told that tax cuts for wealthy corporations and individuals would “trickle down” to create more jobs, that spending on public projects was wasteful “pork barrel”, that our education and health systems were unparalleled, that hard work led to personal prosperity, that is was okay for Republican administrations to run huge deficits – in part to wage unfunded wars – but not for Democratic administrations.

Although many of us understood that the country was in trouble before the pandemic, 2020 revealed the weak state of our national government and the precariousness of most people’s lives. It showed the nation how dependent we are on what are now called essential workers, most of whom are poorly paid and who often don’t have even basic benefits like paid sick leave and health insurance. We saw the rates of illness and death, staggering in and of themselves, disproportionately higher among people of color and those in the lowest socioeconomic circumstances. We saw that most of our school buildings could not be made safe for staff and students and that many students and families did not have the proper resources available for remote learning. We saw our medical systems pushed beyond their limits. We saw vast inequality in outcomes among states because the Trump administration refused to lead in a time of national and international crisis.

I could go on but I think that this sets the stage for those who may not be familiar with life in the US.

After a major presidential address to Congress, the opposition party gives a response. Last night, this task fell to Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina. He claimed that, as Biden was inaugurated on January 20th, the nation was on the upswing. If the Republican leadership truly believes that, they are delusional. January 20th was only two weeks after the insurrection that breached the Capitol building where they meet for the first time in over 200 years. The country suffered 4,380 COVID deaths on January 20th, on its way to what would become the deadliest month of the pandemic in the US to date.

The country was in a fragile, precarious state.

One hundred days of competent and compassionate national leadership makes a huge difference.

Experiencing that change is what made Biden’s speech so popular and, more importantly, what makes his policy proposals and how to pay for them popular, as well. The American people want good transportation systems, water/sewer systems, electrical grid, communication systems, and fast internet service. They want high-quality affordable health care. They want a strong education system available to everyone regardless of where they live. They want high-quality care for children, elders, and anyone who is sick or vulnerable. They want to be treated with dignity. They want to live in safety. They want to be paid wages that can support themselves and their families in the present and that enable them to save for the future.

They see other advanced democracies manage to do those things, while the United States has been falling behind. Instead, wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the top 1% of individuals and corporations, some of whom pay their executives huge sums while some of their employees need public assistance programs to have enough to eat and to pay rent. Many of the wealthiest people make most of their income from investments rather than from salaries, so they pay tax at a much lower rate.

This is why the Biden proposals to raise revenue from the highest income earners are popular with the public. All of the revenue for the programs would be raised from those with income over $400,000. The changes in the capital gains rates would only impact those over $1,000,000 in income. There is also a proposal to increase audits for high-income earners and to make it harder to avoid income taxes by using off-shore tax shelters. The corporate tax rate which was slashed by the Republicans in the 2017 tax bill would rise, although not to the level it was before that bill was passed.

This all strikes most Americans as fair.

We are in a bizarre situation where many Republican voters and local/state officeholders are in favor of Biden’s proposals but Republican members of Congress are opposed. The national Republican party is beholden to rich donors and is going to need to decide if they want to get on board and seriously negotiate with Democrats on these bills and then support the final product to benefit the people of their districts or if they are going to obstruct everything the Democrats try to do.

Now is the time that each member of Congress needs to remember that they are sworn to uphold the Constitution and are there to serve the people, not their party leadership.

It’s time to fulfill their promise in the Preamble to “promote the general welfare.”

filibuster update

Here at Top of JC’s Mind, I sometimes – and more frequently in recent years – wade into the political waters of the US. Last October, I mentioned the Senate filibuster and my hopes that is would be reformed, tangentially in this post and fleshed out a bit in the comments.

Remarkably, these early weeks of the Biden administration have given rise to a lot of public discussion of the filibuster and how this arcane Senate rule might be reformed or eliminated so that legislation can pass the Senate by majority vote rather than needing 60 of 100 senators to end debate and proceed to a vote. This is called “invoking cloture.”

For decades, filibusters and cloture votes were rare. Maddeningly, filibusters were used to attempt to derail legislation on civil rights, voting rights, labor rights, and anti-lynching. (Republican Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell has tried to argue that the filibuster was not used as a racist tool, but this twitter thread from Kevin Kruse proves him wrong with a long, but not exhaustive, list of past racially-motivated filibusters.)

During the Obama presidency, McConnell and the Republicans frequently used the filibuster to slow or prevent approving appointments and to keep legislation from reaching the floor for a vote. This was possible because all a senator needed to do was to say they wanted to filibuster and it would take sixty votes to end it, which, with all the Republicans sticking together, meant that there were never enough votes to invoke cloture and proceed to a vote. This led to a rule change that appointments were not subject to the filibuster, though other kinds of legislation still were.

One of the reforms to the process currently being discussed is to require that a senator wanting to filibuster must stay on the Senate floor and speak on the bill being debated. This revives the practice that was in place until 1975, although senators then weren’t required to speak on the bill and could read from the phone book or cookbooks or talk about totally unrelated topics.

There is also a proposal to change the cloture vote. Rather than needing sixty votes to end the debate, which puts the burden on the majority, the new rule would be that 40 or 41 senators would need to vote to continue the debate. This preserves the ability of the minority to put forth their arguments on something they feel strongly about but requires them to put forth effort to do so.

The hope is that these two reforms would break the stranglehold on bills that became so stark during the Obama administration. It might also engender more bipartisan bills actually making it to the Senate floor for a vote. (Mitch McConnell famously once filibustered his own bill when it became clear that President Obama would sign the bill into law. McConnell valued gridlock over governing.)

Or, given that it is just a Senate rule and not a law, the filibuster could be eliminated. Many think this would be the simplest path, but a few Democratic senators are vehemently opposed to ending it totally, although the impetus for reform is definitely gaining momentum.

While I had hoped that, under President Biden who was a long-time senator, some of the more moderate Republicans would want to vote for common-sense and popular bills such as the American Rescue Plan, we have yet to see that happen. The American Rescue Plan, despite its popularity with the public and its many provisions that benefit people in their states, garnered no votes from Republicans in Congress; it passed with a simple majority in the Senate due to special budgetary rules that prevented a filibuster.

There are now some popular and much-needed bills that have passed the House that will become test cases on whether or not bipartisan support is possible or whether it will take filibuster reform or elimination to get them on the floor for a vote. The For the People Act (H.R. 1/S. 1) addresses voting rights, campaign finance reform, government ethics, gerrymandering, and election security. Further voting rights issues are addressed in the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would help to restore provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act which the Supreme Court struck down in 2013, on the grounds that these racial provisions were now obsolete. Sadly, we have seen evidence that they are not, as efforts are now underway in 43 states to restrict voting access to certain groups of people, including by making it harder for people of color to vote or by making it more difficult for students or elders to register and vote by mail.

There are two House-passed gun safety bills, one on universal background checks and one extending the time the FBI has to vet purchasers to ten days instead of the current three. Both of these measures have broad public support, including among Republicans and gunowners. An increase in the federal minimum wage is very popular with the public, as are bills to re-build our infrastructure, increase our production of goods and green energy to create sustainable jobs, and to increase taxes on the very wealthy.

If bills like these pass the House and appear on the Senate floor, what will the Republicans do? Will they vote yes in accord with their constituents? Will they filibuster to stop a vote from occurring? If they do decide to filibuster, they risk the Democrats reforming the filibuster, voting that certain kinds of bills such as voting rights are not subject to it, or eliminating it all together.

Fingers crossed that whatever scenario unfolds, these laws will be enacted for the common good. We have been waiting for Congress to actually participate in governing in the way the Constitution sets before them.

Calling on Republican Senators

As I write this, the US presidential race has not yet been called, although it is likely to be called later this weekend for Joe Biden. This would mean that Kamala Harris, as vice president, would preside over the Senate, with the power to break tied votes.

We also don’t know what the final make-up of the Senate will be and we won’t know until January as the state of Georgia, in a highly unusual circumstance, will have run-off elections for both of their Senate seats in January.

Regardless of the final composition of the Senate in 2021, I am making a plea to those Republican senators who actually want to help craft legislation and govern the country rather than engage in obstruction under the leadership of Sen. Mitch McConnell.

I think that those senators should form their own caucus. Their first act would be to vote for Sen. Chuck Schumer as majority leader, so that House-passed legislation would actually be considered in the Senate rather than gathering dust on McConnell’s desk as it has been.

They would then meet with the Democratic caucus on a regular basis to offer their ideas for advancing bipartisan solutions to the nation’s problems, which could then be enacted and signed into law. I’m sure that the Democrats would gladly agree to this solution to the Senate gridlock that has prevailed for years.

In my mind, some senators who might consider such an initiative are Sen. Romney of Utah, Sen. Collins of Maine, Sen. Murkowski of Alaska, and Sen. Toomey of Pennsylvania. Perhaps Sen. Sasse of Nebraska. They would not necessarily have to leave the Republican party to become independents, although some with strong support in their home states might be able to do that, thus obviating the threat of a primary challenger.

A lot would depend on what becomes of the Republican party without Trump as president. Will it attempt to revert to being a traditional conservative party or continue in the rather haphazard counter-factual populism it has exhibited in recent years? Would even the willingness to engage in bipartisanship be enough for the Republican leadership to kick out any senators who dared to attempt it?

In the House, the Democrats will still hold a small majority, but there might be some Republicans willing to form a similar caucus to help craft and advance bipartisan legislation.

Joe Biden has a long history of bipartisan cooperation as a senator and as vice president and has been speaking for months about restoring unity to our deeply fractured country.

Republican members of Congress, how do you respond to this call? You swear an oath to the Constitution which proclaims that our government is to “form a more perfect union” and to “promote the general welfare”.

Are you willing to act for the good of all people or only that segment that voted for you?

Update: A few minutes after I posted this, Joe Biden was projected the winner and is now President-elect. This will mean Vice-President Kamala Harris will preside over the Senate and have the power to break tie votes.

indictment of Russian military officers

I am appalled at DT siding with Putin against the very real evidence of crimes against the American people around the 2016 election by members of the Russian military.

The indictment is detailed and, of course, the grand jury, ordinary United States citizens doing their civic duty, saw the evidence behind the counts listed.

Russia will not extradite the officers to stand trial, so the trial will need to be held in absentia.

All members of Congress should speak up and support the Justice Department and courts as this process moves forward. They should also pass legislation to secure the 2018 and future elections.

They must also denounce the president for taking the side of Putin and Russia against the United States. I can barely believe the depths to which DT has sunk, as he denigrates our long-time allies while praising authoritarian leaders.

The Congressional oath of office begins, “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic…” I call on all members of Congress to fulfill their oath and protect our democracy.

US Healthcare Update

Overnight, the Senate defeated the Affordable Care Act repeal bills. It wasn’t pretty, with 49 Senators willing to take health insurance away from millions of Americans, but 51 Senators stood up for us.

Now, we need Congressmembers from across the spectrum to engage with each other to craft legislation that improves and expands the Affordable Care Act so that everyone has access to affordable, quality health care. There are already some bill drafts that do that available as a starting point.

Let’s go.

Plan C? Seriously?

Last night, more Republican Senators made it clear that they would not vote to open debate on the latest version of the health care bill.

Within a couple of hours, Majority Leader McConnell announced that he would bring up a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but delay its taking effect for two years, during which time the Congress would need to pass a replacement plan for the president to sign.

This is a bad idea.

The last time the Congress tried something similar was during a budget impasse. They put in place a sequester program that capped budget allocations for both discretionary and defense spending. The theory was that both parties would want to cooperate so they could allocate more money for their budget priorities. The reality was that no agreement was reached and there were some years that Congress didn’t even pass its appropriations bills, but used a series of continuing resolutions to fund the various departments.

This does not give high confidence that Congress would pass a replacement bill before the deadline.

Insurance companies and health care facilities are upset because this would create so much uncertainty for them.

The general public is concerned because the repeal is expected to immediately raise premiums and reduce the number of people who can afford insurance.

There are senators across the political spectrum calling for a new process to begin, involving input from all senators, along with public health professionals and the public, to craft health care reforms that will increase the availability and affordability of health care.

I hope that Senator McConnell will choose to engage in this more cooperative process which is in line with the way the Senate has traditionally operated.

Open letter to Congressional Republicans

Dear Republican Members of Congress,

During the Independence Day recess, please reflect on the the Preamble to the Constitution.

How well do you think you are carrying out the tasks that “We the People” have set before you?

You are in Congress to represent all of us, from my newborn granddaughter to the 108-year-old neighbor of my parents.

You do not just represent other Republicans.

Or people who voted for you.

Or your party apparatus.

Or your political donors.

“…in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”

Other than the common defense, these goals are mired in either inaction or regression.

Exhibit A is your attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act which would increase the number of uninsured, decrease coverage, raise premiums and deductibles dramatically for older adults, force small rural hospitals and hospitals and nursing homes that treat large numbers of lower income folks into bankruptcy, and squeeze spending on Medicaid which pays for health care for those living in poverty, people with disabling conditions, and long-term care for the elderly and ill.

It does not “promote the general Welfare.”

It is opposed by a large majority of “We the People of the United States” whom you are supposed to be representing.

Even worse, you are trying to pass it under budgetary rules, making spending cuts that will hurt millions of Americans in order to give a large tax break to the wealthiest taxpayers. And, by the way, precluding the possibility of a filibuster in the Senate.

You have also used a totally anomalous process to create this legislation, forgoing the usual months of committee hearings, expert testimony, public discussion, revision, and amendments. And you seem to have forgotten that the Affordable Care Act followed that regular order process and that the final bill included Republican amendments and met the threshold of sixty votes in the Senate.

Your excuse that you have to adjust to being a governing majority party is disturbing. You have been in the majority in Congress for years, but instead of crafting legislation that would serve the American people, pass in both the House and Senate, and be signed by the President, you chose partisanship over actual governing, eschewing the tradition of other Congresses where the majority party was not the party of the president.

You have proved in the last few months that you can’t even govern with a president from your own party, albeit a president, who, as a candidate, campaigned against much of the Congressional Washington agenda, and who, as president, sends mixed signals of his priorities and opinions.

We the People deserve better.

During your Independence Day recess, I call on you to reflect on your duty to the American people and return to Washington ready to serve all the people in a way that really does “promote the general Welfare.”

Sincerely yours,
Joanne Corey
July 4, 2017

Guest viewpoint on gun control

A guest viewpoint that I wrote has appeared in the Sunday edition of the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin. It is available here: http://www.pressconnects.com/story/opinion/2016/07/29/guest-viewpoint-gun-control/87703872/.  I will also copy the text at the end of this post because there is a paywall after a certain number of free articles per month.

I did not write the headline. I am not going to read comments, which, thankfully appear on a separate page on the web. I am sure some of them will be nasty; there are even a few people from my facktivist days who make it a point not agree with me about anything, including if I write that grass is green.

Regular readers here at Top of JC’s Mind will not be surprised at the content.
*****
Congress Should Act on Gun Control

On June 15, Sen. Christopher Murphy, of Connecticut, took to the Senate floor to lead a 15-hour marathon talk on the need for the Senate to vote on gun control measures.

While some amendment votes were held the following week, none passed; currently under consideration is a bipartisan bill, authored by Sen. Susan Collins, of Maine, on preventing those on the no-fly and selectees lists from buying guns.

On June 22, the Democrats of the House of Representatives, led by Reps. Katherine Clark, of Massachusetts, and John Lewis, of Georgia, held a sit-in with the goal of bringing gun violence prevention legislation to a vote in the House. During the 25-hour sit-in, many members told stories from their districts of those affected by gun violence; some shared personal stories, as well. Many held signs with the names of those killed by guns as they gathered on the House floor.

Speaker Paul Ryan adjourned the House early for the Independence Day break rather than hold a vote.

Many polls show that the vast majority of Americans — and of American gunowners — favor legislation to keep potential terrorists, domestic abusers, those whose mental illness predisposes them to violence, and criminals from obtaining guns. Many also oppose selling military-style weapons and ammunition clips to the public. Yet, Congress has not acted.

Some say that enacting any gun control measure violates the Second Amendment, but it does not. The Second Amendment was enacted at a time when there was no standing army; it clearly labels the context by beginning with “A well-regulated militia … .” The courts recognize this.

The Supreme Court recently upheld a federal law keeping domestic abusers from owning firearms. The ban against owning fully automatic weapons has stood for decades. No one expects to have a private anti-aircraft battery or missile silo in the backyard.

None of our freedoms is absolute. The right to free speech and freedom of the press are not license to libel or slander. The free exercise of religion does not permit human sacrifice or physical assault.

When the House reconvenes, the Democrats plan to continue their efforts to pass gun control measures. I call on my representative, Richard Hanna, to speak on the floor in remembrance of the victims of gun violence in our district, especially those who died or were injured in the American Civic Association shooting. Perhaps the fact that he is retiring will give him courage to break with the Republican leadership and vote to protect the safety of the public in accord with the will of the people, acting as a final legacy to his career as a public servant.

Our most fundamental right is the right to life. No perceived right to bear arms should trump another person’s right to live.

Joanne Corey, of Vestal, is a member of the Catholic Peace Community of the Southern Tier.

Update: While on the perssconnects website there is a photo of guns accompanying my piece, in the print edition there is a photo of Paul Ryan waving the Constitution at a press conference on why the Republicans oppose voting on gun measures. I would not have chosen either of those. A photo of the House sit-in or of Rep. Lewis would have been more appropriate to the content of the piece.

The House’s Turn

Following up on Senator Murphy’s almost 15-hour Senate marathon. There were four amendments on various aspects of gun control in the Senate on Monday, all of which failed. There is a bipartisan group of Senators trying to craft something that might pass.

Today, the House of Representatives is having an old-fashioned sit-in to force a vote in the House, vowing that they will not go on a planned break next week unless there is a vote on gun issues. Some Democratic senators have come over to support the House members.

It is great that Rep. John Lewis is leading the sit-in. A veteran of many civil rights sit-ins and protests, he is the perfect voice to lead this action.