The American Jobs Plan

At the moment, the Biden administration is meeting with Republican officeholders, including members of Congress, to revise his American Jobs Plan to gain bipartisan support. While many local and state level Republicans support the measure, Republican Congressional leaders are opposing it.

The plan is often referred to as the infrastructure bill and much of the debate has revolved around the definition of infrastructure. Merriam-Webster’s first definition of infrastructure is “the system of public works of a country, state, or region also the resources (such as personnel, buildings, or equipment) required for an activity.” The Congressional Republicans have been using the more narrow “public works” definition and complaining the bill goes far beyond “roads and bridges” which is true, but, while we certainly do need investment in car/truck transportation, the country needs much more than that.

In the transportation sector, we need to upgrade airports and railways, subways and bus systems, and charging systems for electric vehicles. Our electrical grid is antiquated and fragile, leading to horrible consequences such as the Texas blackout this part winter. It needs to be modernized to better incorporate distributed and utility-scale renewable energy and storage, which will make energy systems cheaper and more reliable. Water and sewer systems need massive overhauls to eliminate lead pipes, avert leaks, and bring clean drinking water to places that still do not have access. (One of the truly heart-breaking deficiencies in our water systems brought to public notice during the pandemic was that many people living on Tribal lands do not have access to clean running water needed for the recommended hand-washing protocols and daily life in general. The infection and death rates among indigenous peoples were higher than average, due to the ongoing lack of resources and medical care.)

The pandemic also pointed out the inequities in our communication systems. With so much learning and so many jobs going online, fast and reliable internet access became essential. Those with low income and rural folks suffered when they didn’t have those services available. This deficit has been obvious for a number of years and a few states, such as New York, have been working on it, but it is better to have the federal government involved to make sure that no one is left out.

The US also needs a lot of upgrades to buildings. Many of our schools, hospitals, and housing units are deficient in their heating/cooling/ventilation systems and need insulation and energy efficiency upgrades. Some also need structural work and renovation. Sadly, this impacts low-income areas more than high-income areas. Again, the federal government needs to step in to make sure that all people have safe, functional buildings.

The part of the plan that Congressional Republicans object to the most is support for our care system. There has long been a dearth of high-quality, affordable caregivers for children, elders, and people with debilitating illnesses or conditions, due in part to the low wages paid for this kind of work. During the pandemic, many child-care centers and schools closed, leaving parents with the tasks of 24/7 childcare plus tutoring, often combined with paid jobs. This impacted mothers more than fathers, with many more women leaving the workforce or cutting back hours of paid work to tend to caregiving duties. Now that more employers are wanting people to work on site, parents are faced with difficulties in trying to find child or elder care that they can afford. It’s also worth noting that the US is woefully behind other advanced economies in supporting social needs. The greater support for caregiving, health, and education in the UK versus the US was an important factor in my daughter and son-in-law deciding to settle their family in the UK.

The American Jobs Plan has provisions to support caregiving, such as paying good wages to people who provide care and good wages to other workers so that they can afford to pay for care if they need to. It also offers free access to pre-school for three- and four-year-olds and community college for high school grads. Somehow, Congressional Republicans have twisted this into a negative, arguing that the Plan is against family caregiving and would force more years of mandatory schooling. The pre-school and community college funding is available to all, but not compulsory. The option to choose family caregiving would expand if one salary can support the household, leaving a second adult free to engage in unpaid caregiving or to take an outside job without having all the money earned go to pay the cost of care. For households with only one adult, affordable, high-quality care availability makes it possible to work and support their family. One of the difficulties with the pandemic economic recovery is that many employers are not offering enough hours at a high enough wage for workers to be able to cover living expenses, often including caregiving costs. The answer to this problem is not to cut off unemployment payments as some have suggested; the answer is to pay living wages for all jobs. If a business cannot afford to pay its workers a living wage, it does not have a viable business plan and should not be operating.

What strikes me about the Congressional Republican position is that they favor jobs, like construction, that are predominantly filled by males, while discounting jobs, like caregiving and education, that are predominantly filled by females. In many areas, caregiving jobs are held predominantly by women of color. The Congressional Republican approach to the American Jobs Plan seems to be that physical objects like roads and bridges and the workers that make them are more important than people and the work to care for and educate them.

This is unfortunate. The Plan’s comprehensiveness is one of the things that impresses me the most. It integrates employment with addressing social, environmental, and justice concerns. For example, it creates jobs for workers displaced by the winding down of fossil fuel extraction to cap abandoned wells and clean up mines. It creates a Civilian Climate Corps to help us conserve land and prepare for future conditions. There are provisions to support US research and development and manufacturing within the country to boost employment and make sure we have supplies of important products made here to avoid shortages, especially in crisis situations. We all saw what happened in the early months of the pandemic when masks, gloves, and other medical equipment were in short supply because they were almost all imported goods. The Plan also looks to increased membership in unions which traditionally facilitate good wages and worker protection measures.

While the American Jobs Plan has majority support among the public, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says that no Republicans will vote for it. I don’t know if that will change after negotiations are complete. If the vote fails in the Senate after negotiations because Republicans still are not on board, then the Democrats should pass the original bill under budget reconciliation rules.

I should also point out that the Plan includes a way to pay for the costs over time, mostly through corporate tax reform and enforcement. The Republicans don’t like that. The public does. When pollsters ask about the American Jobs Plan and include the payment mechanism in the description, the approval rating rises even higher.

I do have a Republican representative in Congress and I ask her and her colleagues to think about whether they are there to serve their constituents or their corporate donors. We’ll be able to tell their answer by how they vote on this bill.

what?

After the January sixth insurrection and the inauguration of Joe Biden, I thought that most Republican members of Congress would decide to fulfill their Constitutional duty and cooperate in governing the nation.

I was spectacularly wrong.

Instead, the vast majority of the Republican members have decided to lie about the fact that the insurrectionists were supporters of Donald Trump who injured police officers and sought to intimidate and harm the vice president and Congresspeople. They are also lying about the integrity and outcome of the election, despite the fact that there were Republican observers and officeholders who oversaw the election and certified the results in every locality and state.

Joe Biden is the duly elected and serving president of the United States under the Constitution and the laws of the United States.

Any member of Congress who does not give assent and support to that should resign immediately as they have sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution.

For the House members, all of whom run for two-year terms and so were also in races in November 2020, how can they say with a straight face that the results in the presidential race were fraudulent but that their own elections were valid? They ran on the same ballot.

The few Republicans who are standing up for election integrity are being maligned by their colleagues and the state Republican apparatus. The most salient battle at the moment involves Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming. She is the current House Republican Conference Chair, the third highest leader of the caucus. She is also the daughter of Dick Cheney, who was vice president under George W. Bush. She is very conservative, which used to be a hallmark of the Republican party. Because of her principles, she weighed the evidence and voted to impeach Donald Trump for inciting the insurrection. She also acknowledges that Joe Biden won a free and fair election and is now legitimately serving as president.

Although she retained her leadership post in a secret ballot of the caucus in February, there is likely to be another vote in the coming week that will remove her from the House leadership.

Given that the Republican party has overwhelmingly turned into the Trump party, I think that Liz Cheney and the handful of other Republicans in Congress that have retained their Constitutional and conservative principles should create a new conservative Congressional caucus. This caucus could engage in good faith negotiations with the Democratic leadership to give input and amendments to legislation with the prospect for voting in favor of the legislation when it gets to the floor.

While there are currently some Republican members of Congress talking to the Democratic leadership and the White House on bills, the Republican leadership, especially in the Senate, have made clear that no Republicans will vote in favor of any legislation proposed by Biden and the Democrats. I don’t know what would happen if Cheney in the House and Senators Romney, Collins, and/or Murkowski in the Senate formed a conservative caucus. The Republican party might throw them out, saying they could no longer run as Republicans in their states. In that case, they could either run as independents or form their own conservative party. Indeed, Murkowski has previously won an independent write-in campaign in Alaska and Collins, who just won re-election and won’t be on the ballot again until 2026, serves the state of Maine whose other senator, Angus King, is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.

Anyone who joined the conservative caucus might lost their next election because of it.

At least, they would lose knowing that as public servants they had stood up for their country and their principles at a time when our democracy is under grave threat.

It’s what patriots do.

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.”

Political labels

The two political/ideological labels that one hears most frequently are liberal and conservative.

I think we should stop using them.

The Oxford Languages definition of liberal is “relating to or denoting a political and social philosophy that promotes individual rights, civil liberties, democracy, and free enterprise.” The definition of conservative is “(in a political context) favoring free enterprise, private ownership, and socially traditional ideas.”

It’s interesting to me that free enterprise appears in both definitions.

In the United States, the Democratic party is considered liberal and the Republican party is considered conservative but there are several ways in which the definitions above don’t apply. For example, the Republican party is very vocal on upholding certain individual rights, such as gun ownership, while opposing others, such as the right to make one’s own medical decisions.

In this last election cycle, the Republicans repeatedly accused Joe Biden and the Democrats of being “socialist,” thus frightening some people into voting for Republicans. For the record, the definition of socialism is “a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.” To be clear, President-elect Biden and the Democratic party as a whole are capitalists. No one needs to worry that the United States will not continue to be a capitalist country where businesses are owned by individuals, families, small groups of people, and/or stockholders, not buy the society as a whole or the government.

I admit that one of the things that confuses me about the Republican party is that they are inconsistent. They think that deficits and increases to the national debt are terrible when there is a Democratic president, but when there is a Republican one, they pass tax cuts that push the budget deficit and national debt higher.

These last four years have confused the identity of the Republican party further. A number of traditional conservatives have left the party altogether.

I have no idea what comes next for the Republicans as a party.

I don’t think that they do, either.

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.

My US Supreme Court plan

In a comment to this post on my refraining from watching the Amy Coney Barrett hearings, I promised my thoughts on the future of the United States Supreme Court, so here is my attempt to weigh in on a very fraught civics topic. Please note: This is my personal opinion as a citizen. I am not a lawyer or someone with a degree in public policy. This is my brainstorming on the basis of common sense, fairness, and trying to codify what had previously been expected to accord with good governance and ethics.

In the design of the Constitution, the judicial branch is co-equal with the legislative branch (Congress) and the executive branch (president and executive agencies). Its function is to interpret the Constitution and laws. In recent years, the courts have been politicized. The impartiality of their judgements is called into question by the machinations of the politics around their appointment by the president and confirmations by the Senate.

The process as written in the Constitution is that the president nominates individuals for open seats on the various federal courts with the Senate’s advice and consent. Since Mitch McConnell has been Republican majority leader of the Senate, he has failed in his Constitutional duty to give Senate hearings and votes to nominees made by Democratic president Barack Obama, most (in)famously in the case of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland but of dozens of nominees to lower federal courts, as well. During the Trump presidency, McConnell has busily filled those seats with Trump’s very conservative nominees, even when those people have been rated “not qualified” by the American Bar Association.

This is an unfair practice but not technically illegal because there are not specific statutes on how the Senate gives advice and consent. My plan begins with codifying what had previously been expected, timely consideration of a president’s court nominees. I propose that all nominees to the federal bench have their Senate hearings begun within sixty days of their nomination and a confirmation vote by the full Senate for those who are advanced by the Judiciary Committee taken within ninety days. The exception would be for a vacancy to the Supreme Court in a presidential election year. A vacancy that occurs on July first or later would be held open for the winner of the presidential election that November.

My sense of fairness also calls for some remedy to the McConnell machinations that have skewed the federal courts to having more Republican appointees than there should have been. If Biden is elected, I think he should be able to make two immediate nominations to the Supreme Court, one for the seat that should have been considered for Merrick Garland because Antonin Scalia’s death was prior to July first in 2016 and one for the seat that will presumably be filled by Trump after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September. This basically applies the principle that would be codified in the new law. I envision these two seats as temporary. Going forward, Supreme Court openings would be filled by Democratic (or independent) presidents as usual; Republican (or another conservative party that might arise out of the current maelstrom) presidents would forfeit the next two openings that occur during their presidencies, gradually reducing the Supreme Court back to nine justices.

A similar remedy might be able to be applied to the other federal courts, looking at seats that McConnell blocked from being filled by President Obama as a basis.

This is not a perfect solution, as it will not restore the balance and integrity that the courts would have had without these abuses of power, but it would at least give a legal structure to prevent a repeat in the future and some measure of accountability to the parties that acted unfairly.

Another court reform that is being discussed is to put a term length on what are now lifetime appointments. I have mixed feelings about this. I like the concept of lifetime appointments because it removes any thoughts of a justice deciding in a certain way in order to influence their re-appointment for an additional term. On the other hand, it bothers me that there are justices who were rated as “not qualified” or who have been credibly accused of sexual harassment or lying under oath who will serve for a lifetime on the federal bench. If a term of service is imposed, it should be long, on the order of eighteen or twenty years. I would leave the option available for the president to re-nominate a justice for Senate confirmation. As much as I might like to apply a time limit retroactively, I don’t think this is a good idea. For better in some cases and worse in others, those approved as lifetime appointments should be able to remain in those positions.

For the record, there has been much talk about the Democrats, if they control Congress and the presidency, “packing the Court” meaning adding seats permanently to the Supreme Court. This term is meant pejoratively. I think the Democrats will definitely pursue court reform which is needed to prevent what Aaron Blake of the Washington Post has termed “court-stacking” – the Republican gamesmanship that has resulted in the current skewing of the courts toward justices nominated by Republican presidents.

The idea of temporarily adding seats and exacting a penalty against future Republican/conservative presidents is something that I dreamed up on my own, not something that I have seen proposed elsewhere, proving once again that you can never tell what might be top of JC’s Mind.

By the way, in tangentially related Senate procedure, I propose that the filibuster return to its traditional role as a tool to convince other senators to support one’s position. If a senator wishes to filibuster a nomination or piece of legislation, they may take the floor to talk about the issue as long as they wish. When they finish, debate ends and the measure is brought to the floor for a vote. In a body that already gives outsized influence to states with small populations, forty-one of one hundred senators should not have the ability to permanently block what the majority of senators wants to enact.

Biden/Harris

A few days ago, former vice-president of the United States Joe Biden announced that he has chosen Senator Kamala Harris of California as his running mate. Their nomination will be formally adopted at the Democratic convention, which will be held virtually this week.

Choosing Sen. Harris to run for vice-president is historic. She is the first woman of color nominated by a major political party, the first black woman, and the first Asian-American woman. She has experience in the judicial branch as a district attorney and attorney general in California, executive experience as attorney general in our most populous state, and national legislative experience as a Senator. She was part of the astonishingly large and diverse group running for the Democratic presidential nomination, so she has been part of national campaigning and debates. The daughter of immigrants, her mom from India and her dad from Jamaica, who met at civil rights rallies, she has a compelling personal story. She graduated from a historically black college and belongs to a strong black sorority.

I should be excited and energized about the ticket, but I’m not.

Let me be clear that I am 100% committed to voting for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and hope and pray that they have the opportunity to govern and begin to guide the country out of the stifling morass in which we currently find ourselves. I’m looking forward to celebrating the 100th anniversary of US women’s suffrage with, at long last, the election of a woman to national executive office. As someone with family members who have roots in Africa and Asia, I appreciate the value of seeing a BIPOC woman in a position of executive leadership in the United States.

But I’m not excited.

Some people have described the ticket as a “dream ticket” for Democrats, but I’m not a Democrat. I’m an independent who is a progressive. My dream ticket from the people running in the Democratic field was Elizabeth Warren/Julian Castro, which would have been a historic ticket in different ways. Many people thought they were too progressive to be elected, but the pandemic and ensuing economic disaster have highlighted the issues of income inequality, gaps in our health care system and social safety net, and the impacts of systemic racism, sexism, immigration status, state residency, rural/suburban/urban residency, etc. on the lives of individuals and families. Biden and Harris are both moderates, but the circumstances at the moment and, increasingly, the will of the electorate will probably make their governing style more progressive. As others have pointed out, many elements of #BuildBackBetter are similar to the Green New Deal, melding climate/environmental/social justice with economic rejuvenation.

I’m steeling myself for the continuing onslaught of sexist and racist attacks directed at Sen. Harris. There is already a ridiculous attempt to say that Harris isn’t qualified to run because her parents were immigrants; the Constitution is very clear that the president must be at least 35 years old and a natural-born citizen. Kamala Harris was born in California. End of story.

I think the biggest reason, though, that I’m not excited is that I’m too overwhelmed with anxiety. The president and the Republican party are putting up as many roadblocks as possible to having a free and fair election from interfering with the postal service to unjustly purging voter rolls to closing polling places in neighborhoods with more people of color or Democrats to court challenges against state rules to make it easier to vote by mail during the pandemic. We also know that Russia, China, and other countries are interfering in our election process and helping to spread disinformation. The administration is acting in increasingly authoritarian ways, trying to silence critics, violating freedom of speech and of the press, and violently attacking peaceful protesters. They have removed dedicated civil servants without cause, including the inspectors general who investigate allegations of wrongdoing within the executive branch departments. People are suffering from the pandemic and the economic fallout and the Republican Congressional leadership and the administration are not doing anything to help those most affected; while the richest people and companies in the country are doing well, most people are struggling.

When the votes are counted and Biden and Harris have been elected, that is when I will be be excited. Until then, I’ll keep doing what I can to spread the truth about the candidates and make sure that my vote and all the votes are counted accurately.

Sad stats

The horror show that is the United States and coronavirus continues.

My state, New York, was the world epicenter in the early spring. Through good leadership informed by science and metrics and residents who took the policies seriously, we were able to get the pandemic under control. Through a careful, phased, and data-driven process, we have also been able to keep our transmission rate low as we have opened more of our economy.

Still, when the map of case numbers would be released every day, New York, the fourth most populous state, showed the highest number of total cases, over 400,000, because our initial outbreak had been so severe.

Until this week.

California, which is the most populous state, passed New York this week on confirmed COVID case numbers. (All the public health experts agree that the actual case numbers are much higher, but the official count uses only testing results and death certificates.) While California had had early success in containing the virus, it re-opened businesses too quickly and many people abandoned needed precautions like masks. Hence, their caseload is soaring. I’m hoping that New York will continue to keep the virus from resurging so that we never again reach the top number of cases, but Texas and Florida, second and third most populous states, are also in the midst of major outbreaks and might surpass California’s numbers in the coming weeks.

It’s appalling.

What saddens me is that it didn’t have to happen this way. New York and some of our partner states in the Northeast learned a lot of lessons through our experiences this spring and, in the absence of a national program, have been offering to help other states deal with the virus and the economic/social fallout. This has resulted in some positive news in the states being hard-hit now, for example, the mortality rate is lower, in part because of improved treatments for the severely ill. Most of the news, though, is bad: overwhelmed hospitals, people not wearing masks and attending large gatherings, bodies being stored in refrigerated trucks because mortuaries are backlogged, more and more states where the number of cases is rising.

Meanwhile, there is still no national plan. The House of Representatives, led by the Democrats and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, passed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act or the HEROES Act in mid-May, which would address some of the current problems with testing, contact tracing, and treatment of COVID, as well as a host of economic and social impacts on individuals, families, businesses, agencies, and state and local governments. The Senate, under the leadership of Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, didn’t act on the bill this spring and just returned from a three-week break without their own version of a bill and, after a week’s work, they still don’t have a Republican proposal, much less a bill that has been negotiated with the Democratic and Independent senators so that it is ready for debate and vote.

Meanwhile, people are sick and dying, out of work, not knowing how they are going to be able to pay their bills, scared, and bewildered about their country’s dysfunctional state. The United States has become an object of pity around the world.

I’m disappointed that, even when the crisis is monumental, the Republican leadership can’t muster the will and/or competence to do their job and govern for the good of the people. If they had integrity, they would resign to make way for leaders who can and will serve the people and the Constitution. Resignations would be less disruptive than the current inaction.

political parallels?

We were in London when the United Kingdom had their election in December, so we saw some of the television coverage of it.

As we know, the Tories (Conservatives) won, Boris Johnson retains his post as prime minister, and, at midnight tonight Brussels time, the UK will officially leave the European Union, a process shorthanded as Brexit.

Right after the election, some pundits who were looking at this as possibly predictive of the upcoming United States elections later this year, posited that the lesson learned was that you can’t have a very liberal person representing the opposing political party.

That was not my takeaway from the situation. I was, instead, stuck by the parallels between UK and US politics, despite the differences in our governmental systems.

First, you have a similar urban/rural divide. In the US, the Democrats are stronger in urban areas and are represented by blue on electoral maps. The Republicans are stronger in rural areas and states and are represented by red. In the UK, the divide between Labor and Tories is similar, but the map colors are reversed.

Of course, the electoral map in the UK is much more complicated as there are more parties involved, such as the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists. There is a real danger that Scotland and Northern Ireland, who do not want to leave the European Union, may in the future vote to leave the United Kingdom. The United States is not about to break apart depending on the outcome of elections.

Another similarity is that the pivotal elections that brought us to this point were influenced by the Russians. Both the Brexit vote four years ago and the 2016 presidential election won by Trump are known to have suffered interference by Russian operatives. A number of GRU officers have been indicted in the United States for their election interference. (The GRU is the main intelligence agency in Russia.) Both the Brexit vote and the 2016 presidential election were close votes. There is no way to quantify the influence of the foreign interference, but it does call into question, in such close votes, if foreign interference tipped the scales.

Both the UK Tories and the US Republicans are historically conservative parties. They had certain principles that they held for decades. They have both turned away from those principles to follow an unconventional leader. In the US, this is sometimes referred to as a “cult of personality.” Any party member who disagrees with the leader is either badgered into falling back in the party line or leaving the party or not running for reelection.

I was also struck by how often Johnson and Trump are called out for lying. This is very distressing. In the US, it has led to some people denying facts in order to believe the lies. Some people even contend that there are no such things as facts or truth. This is dangerous, not only in politics but also in other topics. “Believing” something does not make facts disappear.

No one knows what will happen next in either nation. The UK leaves the European Union tonight, but there are no permanent plans in place for what that looks like. As I write this, I’m listening to the arguments for and against subpoenaing witnesses and documents in Trump’s impeachment trial. Even though most people think they know how the trial will turn out, no one knows what additional facts will surface and how the public will react.

Uncertainty seems the only constant.
*****
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testimony

I have spent (a lot of) hours over the past two weeks listening to testimony in the Trump impeachment inquiry.

I was particularly impressed with Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, and Dr. Fiona Hill. They were all knowledgeable and forthright, despite attacks on them personally by the president and his allies. The White House instructed nearly all the witnesses not to testify, even though they were under Congressional subpoenas. It was brave of them to appear, first in closed door depositions and later in public testimony.

Some of the Republicans complained about the closed door depositions, but they proved to be very valuable. It meant that each witness could share what they knew without being influenced by another person’s testimony. As it turned out, most of the witnesses’ recollections jibed with all the others, except for EU Ambassador Sondland, who amended his deposition after reading some of the others’ when they were released publicly. For the record, it is not true that Republicans were shut out of the depositions. There were three committees involved and the Republican members and their legal counsel had equal opportunity to question the witnesses. Some also complained that the White House lawyers were not involved, but their role will come later, if there is a trial in the Senate. The House is investigating possible articles of impeachment, which are like an indictment in the courts. The House committees are, essentially, acting as a grand jury would in gathering evidence and deciding to bring charges or not. Defense lawyers do not take part in grand jury proceedings.

Because the (hours and hours of) deposition transcripts were released prior to the public hearings, it was assumed that the hearings would be pretty routine, highlighting certain aspects of the depositions. However, new information emerged. One noteworthy incidence of this was when Ambassador Bill Taylor testified that a member of his staff had told him that he had overheard a phone call dealing with Ukraine between Ambassador Sondland and President Trump. This led to the staff member, David Holmes, flying from Kyiv to Washington to give a deposition and public testimony about it.

Another big surprise was when Ambassador Sondland acknowledged very plainly that there had been a quid pro quo; the administration in the US had withheld military aid and a promised White House meeting for the new Ukrainian president in order to get him to announce in public that he was launching an investigation of former US vice-president Joe Biden and his son Hunter, as well as an investigation of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, despite abundant evidence and indictments of Russian, not Ukrainian, operatives. The president and many of his allies have been saying for weeks that there was no quid pro quo, so such a frank admission from Sondland was startling.

Sondland was full of surprises. Another big one was that he implicated President Trump, Vice-president Pence, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as all being “in the loop” about the situation. He also said that the president was directing their actions, which demolished the theory that some individuals were doing these things as rogue elements.

It would be helpful if documents, such as memos, contemporaneous notes, and call records, were available to the committees, but the White House is refusing all requests for documents, as well as blocking witnesses from testifying. This is bad. It seem like a coverup and obstruction of Congress/justice. Obstruction appeared in articles of impeachment for presidents Nixon and Clinton.

I was also perturbed by some of the statements and questions from the Republican members of the committee. They sometimes listed as facts things that are not. They kept asking about things that are not relevant to the impeachment inquiry and already debunked conspiracy theories.  They also insulted some of the witnesses by asking questions about unpatriotic behavior without any basis in fact. I remember during the Watergate hearings that there were Republican members of Congress who took their responsibilities very seriously, even though Nixon was also a Republican. In particular, I remember Senator Howard Baker.

Interestingly, Intelligence Committee chair Representative Adam Schiff in his at times impassioned closing remarks asked “Where is Howard Baker?” At the moment, no Republican members of Congress appear to be fulfilling their Constitutional role to discover and act on the truth, as Howard Baker did. Rep. Schiff concludes his remarks invoking the recently deceased Representative Elijah Cummings, “We are better than that.”

I hope we, as a country, are still able to uphold the Constitution and our highest ethical principles. If Republicans can’t imagine themselves as above partisanship, perhaps they can imagine how they would have reacted had President Obama acted the way President Trump has and then lied about it. During the eight different Congressional investigations into what happened in Benghazi, the Obama administration provided documents and testimony over and over, even after it was clear there was no conspiracy or crime involved. How would Congressional Republicans have acted if the Obama administration had stopped cooperating? Are they treating the Trump administration’s lack of cooperation in the same way? If the answer is no, they need to look at their duties to the country and their oath of office and consider if they are fulfilling them.