03 July, 2014

The Opposite of Progress


A joking, anonymous quote, asks "If con is the opposite of pro, is Congress the opposite of Progress?" As often happens, things said in jest convey a good deal of truth.

The only problem is flippancy is not a guarantor of accuracy. Congress has institutional and procedural characteristics that make it susceptible to paralysis, but it also has many dedicated public servants who sincerely struggle to do what needs to be done. Unfortunately, the good intentions and worthy efforts of these people can impaired, impeded, or thoroughly invalidated by the actions of a fractious faction that seeks not to actualize government of, by, and for the people, but to maximize their own or their parties gain.

In the 21st century battle lines have been drawn along partisan lines. The Republican Party has become the party of NO. NO in this context means – no legislation; no cooperation; no constructive engagement; no partnership in governance. The Democratic Party is not without flaws, but it is the party of governance and it tries almost to a member to govern. For all its scars and all its shortcomings, it is the only national political organization regularly trying to implement governance of, by and for the people.

If Congress is to be anything but an imprecise punchline, filibusters must be curtailed and the Hastert Rule must be scrapped. Filibusters are far more likely to be used by Republicans when they are in the minority in the Senate. The Hastert Rule is a creature of the Republican Party entirely. More than these procedural details, however, the Republican ideology has become virulently anti-government. This is shown by the number of Congressional Republicans who consider default on the full faith and credit of the United States a trivial matter and who urge shutting down the government whenever they are not catered to. As President Clinton has said, “A major American political party is for the first time rooting for the American government to fail.” 

As things now stand, Congress could shed the characterization as the opposite of progress by attending to six critical items. 

1.    Restore Employees’ Right to the Free Exercise of Religion
90 percent of corporations are considered to be "closely held." In his majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that "a corporation is simply a form of organization used by human beings to achieve desired ends" and claimed there was nothing radical about extending rights "whether constitutional or statutory" to for-profit secular corporations. His opinion conflated these businesses with non-profits just as right-wing media had urged. The religious rights of employees are now held hostage by their employers' moral objections, but this did not appear to make much of an impact on the Court's conservative majority. It was enough for Alito that the Greens "sincerely believed" that the contraceptives at issue in the case are "abortifacients" -- echoing right-wing media's constant confusion of the two -- even though they really, really aren't.

2.    Restore the Voting Rights Act
As of now, a few months before the 2014 midterm elections, new voting restrictions are set to be in place in 22 states. Ongoing court cases could affect laws in six of these states.  Unless these restrictions are blocked, citizens in nearly half the nation could find it harder to vote this year than in 2010. Partisanship played a key role. Of the 22 states with new restrictions, 18 passed entirely through GOP-controlled bodies, and Mississippi’s photo ID law passed by a voter referendum. Race was also a significant factor. Of the 11 states with the highest African-American turnout in 2008, 7 have new restrictions in place. Of the 12 states with the largest Hispanic population growth between 2000 and 2010, 9 passed laws making it harder to vote. And nearly two-thirds of states — or 9 out of 15 — previously covered in whole or in part by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act because of a history of race discrimination in voting have new restrictions since the 2010 election. Social science studies bear this out. According to the University of Massachusetts Boston study, states with higher minority turnout were more likely to pass restrictive voting laws. A University of California study suggests that legislative support for voter ID laws was motivated by racial bias.

3.    Enact Principled, Humane Immigration Reform
President Obama said he Speaker John Boehner last Tuesday at a White House event honoring professional golfers, said he would not be bringing an immigration bill to the floor “at least for the remainder of this year.”  Speaker Boehner’s office confirmed the discussion. House Republicans are aware of the problems with existing immigration laws but are unwilling to take action. This dishonors fundamental American ideals and cause real and severe problems for both immigrants and American citizens.

4.    Expand and Improve Veterans Benefits
Senate Republicans derailed a sweeping $21 billion bill that would have expanded medical, educational and other benefits for veterans — in another chapter of the ongoing feud over amendments, spending and new sanctions on Iran. Democrats came up four votes short of the 60 needed to keep the bill moving forward on a procedural budget vote, 56-41. This stalling and obstruction simple exposes the hypocrisy of many members of Congress who seek to use veterans and active duty military personnel as props at photo opportunities, but do nothing to help them or their families. Let us care for those who have borne the brunt of battle!

5.    Restore Emergency Unemployment Compensation
In December, Congress allowed federal unemployment benefits to expire, cutting off aid to more than 1 million people who had been out of work for 27 weeks or longer.
Since then, that number has tripled to 3 million Americans who would qualify for the jobless benefits, creating an economically marginalized and increasingly desperate subset of people struggling to make ends meet as the economy slowly recovers.

6.    Ensure the Ongoing Solvency of the Highway Trust Fund

The Department of Transportation (DOT) predicts that the Highway Trust Fund, which has traditionally drawn its revenue from the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, will be depleted by late August. The funding that states get from the federal government for highway projects - about 45 percent - will start to shrink. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx warned that letting the account expire could lead to 700,000 Americans losing jobs in road work, bridge-building and transit maintenance as 112,000 highway projects and 5,600 transit projects underway will come to a screeching halt. This will be economically disruptive and will endanger people who travel on deteriorating and structurally unsound roads and bridges. 

It is not that these six things would address all the pressing issues that rile and rend our society now, but they would keep us from perpetuating gross insults to our most fundamental ideals in the first three, and bolster economic activity in the last three. If the Republicans in Congress would abandon their relentless obstructionism and perform the duties they swore a solemn oath to as faithfully and well as they are able, real progress toward being one nation, indivisible with equality, justice, liberty, and prosperity for all could be enabled.  

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