The Battle of Midway Island

Yesterday, 4 June, marked the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway Island in 1942 where the U.S. Navy defeated the Imperial Japanese Navy and reversed Allied fortunes in the Pacific campaign. Prior to the battle, the Japanese were on the offensive throughout the Pacific area.  Following the battle, they fought a series of defensive operations and steadily retreated back to the home islands.

In a nutshell, the battle entailed an all-in strategy by the U.S. commanders, Commander-in-Chief Pacific Admiral Chester Nimitz and the tactical commanders Rear Admirals Raymond Spruance and Frank Jack Fletcher.  Thanks to cryptologists that broke the Japanese code, the U.S. was aware of the Japanese plan to attack Midway Island and presumably, remove the U.S. from any further ability to thwart Japanese expansion.  The attack on Midway was accompanied by a nearly simultaneous (due to circumstances the attacks were actually a day apart) on the Aleutian Islands in Alaska — an attempt to remove U.S. Army Air Corps aircraft from being in range of the Japanese home islands.

In the battle four Japanese aircraft carriers went up against three from the U.S. Navy.  In short, all four Japanese carriers — Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, and Soryu — sank, along with the resulting loss of airplanes, pilots and crews.  They also lost a heavy cruiser, a destroyer, and other ships were badly damaged.  The Japanese Navy was never able to recover from those losses as their industrial capacity simply could not replace what was lost, along with the lack of seasoned pilots.  The U.S. Navy lost one carrier, the USS Yorktown and one destroyer.  Military historians such as John Keegan call the victory “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.”

Without going into all the details of the battle, it is apparent that there many instances of heroic actions. In our present days of troubled times and divisive political arguments, I find it worthy to focus on a small, but significant portion of the battle.  I trust that today, we can find men (and now women) that hold the same high level of selflessness, courage and devotion as those of the torpedo squadrons of the Douglas TBD Devastators from VT-3 on Yorktown, VT-6 on Enterprise, and VT-8 from the Hornet. These airplanes flew low and slow in order to attack surface ships with torpedoes.  In order to get the torpedo on target, it meant a long, slow, straight approach into the teeth of the Japanese air defenses.

The Devastators were on their own due to inexperience on the part of the American commanders coupled with the desire to strike the Japanese first.  Therefore they launched their aircraft piecemeal which resulted in an uncoordinated attack by the torpedo bombers without fighter escorts.  They were doomed.  Of the forty-one aircraft launched, thirty-five were lost attacking the targets, with no hits against the enemy.  On each of those airplanes, a three-man crew piloted and fought the aircraft.  A heavy loss of life.  The aircraft was never used again in battle in the Pacific.

Their sacrifice secured the victory because while the Japanese were preoccupied with the torpedo bombers, they became confused as to the big picture.  This allowed the Navy’s dive bombers and remaining fighter escorts to arrive over their targets virtually undetected and caught the bulk of the Japanese aircraft on the deck of the carriers while refueling and rearming.  Three Japanese carriers were destroyed in about five minutes and the fourth sank from its damage later in the day.

The pilots and crews of the Devastators did not think that they were on a suicide mission.  No one expects anything bad to happen to them, individually, when on a mission.  Yet, they understood the odds and that they weren’t good.  By the time of the battle, the U.S Navy knew that the aircraft was obsolete and vulnerable, but no replacement aircraft had yet made it to the fleet.  Additionally, once over the Japanese fleet they knew that they were alone, without fighter escort, and had no idea where the dive bombers might be.  They knew that the plan, a coordinated attack with all forms of aircraft striking the Japanese simultaneously was out the window. They were on their own.  And yet, they went forward, alone.

As we argue over less important issues today, it serves us well to remember the sacrifices made by those that went before us.  They knew that they were involved in a cause bigger than their individual lives, and they knew that only true sacrifice would carry the day.  Along with our thoughts as a grateful nation, we should also step back and think of our own lives and ability to follow in their foot steps.

We can all benefit from their selfless example.


But Do They Have A Football Team?

Much has been written and discussed lately concerning the Electoral College.  Some argue that it is an anachronism that outlived its usefulness.  Others argue that it is integral to the foundation of our republic and must stay in place.  There are strong arguments on both sides of the issue and it seems that most people’s opinions are colored by whether they see our country as one nation, indivisible — as stated in the Pledge of Allegiance — or whether they see it as a collection of united states.

Although the discussions surrounding the Electoral College pop up every four years in conjunction with presidential elections , they are more noticeable this time around given that we have two presidents out of the last three (George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump) that lost the popular vote but won in the Electoral College.  There are only three other times in our entire history where this happened.  John Quincy Adams became president in 1824 through a vote in the House of Representatives.  Although Andrew Jackson won more Electoral College votes, he did not win enough to get a majority as required under the Twelfth Amendment (more on that later) and the House elected Mr. Adams.  In 1876 Rutherford B. Hayes became our president despite having lost the popular vote and the Electoral College vote — until 20 disputed electoral votes were changed under a compromise between Republicans and Democrats and awarded to Mr. Hayes.  This despite the fact the his opponent Samuel J. Tilden not only had more popular votes, but had a majority of the vote (just over 50%).  And we think our current election was contentious.  The only other time that the Electoral College victory came despite losing the popular vote was in 1888 when Benjamin Harrison defeated the incumbent president Grover Cleveland by campaigning to keep trade tariffs high to protect American jobs.  Some things don’t change.

For the next 124 years there were no instances of a candidate losing the popular vote but still winning the Electoral College vote.  And now in the first sixteen years of the 21st century it happened twice. Thus the argument over whether it is still a valid way to elect our presidents.

To fully understand the issue, a quick history of the reasons for the Electoral College are in order. Briefly stated, it was established because our esteemed Founding Fathers did not want the citizens of the new United States to elect the president.  Remember that their ideal for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was really meant for white wealthy males.  The pursuit of happiness meant property, and wealth meant education.  The masses were considered unfit and untrustworthy to elect the “real” leaders of the nation. Thus the president was elected by the Electoral College and United States Senators were elected by the legislatures of each state.  The House of Representatives was the “people’s house” — the safety valve for allowing the average citizen to participate.  Note that Senators are elected for six years (designed to provide stability and experience) and the House is elected every two years, making it easily changeable.

Article II, Section 1, Clause 3 of the Constitution created the Electoral College as the means to elect the President and the Vice President.  In practice it did not work out so well and the procedure was modified through the Twelfth Amendment when it was ratified in 1804.  All subsequent elections have been carried out under that amendment.  Clearly a precedent was set that if our method of electing the president is not efficient or effective, then it can be changed.

Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution was replaced by the Seventeenth Amendment when it was ratified in 1913 and provided for the direct election of Senators, vice having them elected by state legislatures. This is another precedent that our voting procedures can change with the times.

Both of these changes are relevant to the arguments for and against the continued use of the Electoral College.  The arguments are cogent on both sides of the issue, although passions sometimes run rampant rather than logic or historical facts.

Some of the arguments for eliminating the Electoral College, or to significantly change the way that it works, include the following.

  • Our presidential election process is not democratic.  It is the only national office where “one person, one vote” does not apply.  As has happened, the voice of the people can be muted or eliminated by the electors choosing someone who did not win the popular vote.
  • Originally Senators were picked in a manner very similar to the Electoral College voters. That process was changed with an amendment to the Constitution to allow direct voting.  If that can change because the original purpose for state legislators to vote for Senators changed, then that same argument for the purpose of the Electoral College is no longer relevant. We now have an educated citizenry with easy access to communications and an understanding of the issues.
  • The Electoral College was meant to be a check on the whims of the citizens.  Most states now require the electoral voters to match the results of the popular vote in their state, thus the original purpose of the college is no longer followed.
  • Too much power is invested in smaller states relative to their population.  For example, one electoral vote in Wyoming equals 142,741 people whereas in New York one electoral vote equals 519,075 people.  One can argue that this is patently unfair to all voters, and gives disproportionate power to states with small populations.
  • The House of Representatives could elect the next president and in doing so totally ignore the wishes of the electorate.  This would happen if the Electoral College vote ends in a tie, a mathematical possibility unrelated to the national popular vote results.  The vote in the House is by state — one state, one vote — thus giving Rhode Island the exact same say in choosing a president as Texas.
  • It solidifies a two-party system and precludes the possibility of other candidates making a meaningful run for president.
  • A president may punish a state that voted for his/her opponent even though many citizens of that state voted for the winner.
  • Presidential candidates ignore states that are safely in their camp or that they believe will not vote in their favor.  They end up not visiting large states (no serious campaigning by either candidate in New York, California, Texas for example) and small states (no serious campaigning in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming for example).  They only campaign in a handful (about ten) of swing states.

Some of the arguments for keeping the Electoral College as it is include the following.

  • The Electoral College protects states rights.  Small states would lose their voice in presidential elections in favor of states with large populations.  Candidates would only focus on states such as New York, California, Texas and Florida.
  • The two-party system is preserved.  Such a political system is proven to be the best form for governing in the United States through competing political parties and their ideas .  If the Electoral College is eliminated in favor of directly voting for candidates, multiple candidates could conceivably run and splinter the popular vote.  This could allow a candidate with only 20 or 30% of the vote to win.
  • The Electoral College embodies our nation’s principle of federalism and eliminating it could be the first step in dismantling that system of governing.
  • Only the “coastal elites” in large cities would get presidential attention.
  • No one should mess with what the Founding Fathers created.  They knew what they were doing.
  • To change or abolish the Electoral College would require a Constitutional Amendment.  This process may open the door to other changes to our Constitution.
  • A victory in the Electoral College gives the president the legal authority to govern all of the states and all of the population.

To me, the strongest argument for changing or eliminating the system is that states with small populations have a disproportionate impact on the election.  The strongest argument for keeping our current process is to prevent a candidate from winning in a race with multiple candidates and garnishing only a small percentage of the popular vote.

Additionally, given the current political climate in our nation, any attempt now to change the Constitution would probably open a Pandora’s Box of other issues that could fundamentally change our Constitution and thus our way of life.

Although it goes against my preference, I reluctantly conclude that keeping the Electoral College is, at least for now, the best thing for our country.

And no, the Electoral College does not have a football team.  And that’s too bad.


What a Great Country!

As we wake up on the morning after one of the most divisive campaigns in our life times, some of us are elated, some disappointed and a lot of us are probably simply amazed at the results.  Whatever we feel, as is our custom and history, it is time to move on and actually get things done.

Yesterday I had a big dose of what is best about our country.  I was a sworn election judge in the state of Maryland.  Other states may have other titles, or you may simply know us as poll workers.  It was a great civics lesson and a great lesson in what makes this country continue to be great.

It was a very long day (nearly 15 hours on the job) but a very positive day.  Election judges in Maryland are regular citizens who come forward every two years to work for their country and for their fellow citizens.  They cover the spectrum of our national make up.  Young (one can be a judge at 17) and old, from every ethnic group and socio-economic status, and of differing political parties, the judges are a true cross-section of America. Throughout our training and while on the job, each and every person I met was courteous, friendly, conscientious and dedicated to doing the job correctly.  It was inspiring.

I can also assure our fellow citizens that the election judges on the job, at the individual polling places, are serious about the importance of their work and that they took joy in doing the job the right way.  I can also assure you that both the polling process and those working on site are dedicated to allowing for each and every qualified citizen to vote.  It is a great, and dare I say, satisfying process.

Even as the day wore on and we all began to sag a bit in body, there was never a let down in spirit or determination to do things correctly, by the book, and in compliance with the law.  It may surprise a voter who has not had this opportunity to know the meticulous way that the process unfolds. Maryland uses paper ballots that are electronically scanned.  There are three ways that they can be counted and compared and the paper ballots are retained in case of a recount or an anomaly in the electronic tabulation.   There are written procedures followed meticulously that include keeping track of each and every ballot, with double and triple checks and balances and total chain of custody requirements.  Every scrap of paper (ballots, multiple forms for record keeping, and polling material) are accounted for, catalogued and returned to the Board of Elections.  Every two years, these workers take time off from school, work, retirement or whatever to serve their fellow citizens and to help them through the process. It was a good sign for the future of our nation.

Equally gratifying was to work with and observe the voters that came into our precinct to vote.  Just as the workers represented a cross-section of our nation, so did the voters in every way imaginable. That includes the processes to ensure the visually impaired, physically challenged, and just about every other condition imaginable was able to cast their ballot.  Uniformly, the voters were cheerful, excited about exercising their right to vote (even if not uniformly excited about the campaigns themselves), and demonstratively appreciative of the work being done by us at the polling place.  In a particularly memorable way, whenever a young person came in and was identified as a first time voter, the judge working with them would announce it to the rest of us and all of the judges (there were about twelve of us) would shout and clap in congratulations.  The smiles on those first time voters when we did that was priceless.  In a campaign season that did not always highlight the best of our nation, it was exciting and refreshing to see that the voters, our neighbors, were understanding of how little acts of courtesy and kindness can transform a situation.

As we move forward into somewhat uncharted territory in our nation’s history, my hope is that the values, spirit and cooperation that I observed on election day continue as we move on to the next great adventure in our national life.

 


Cold War II

Lost in all of the U.S. presidential campaign news, one may be forgiven for missing the increasingly worrisome activity in northern Europe where the Russian bear is flexing his muscles.  While there have been numerous incidents of Russian military ships and aircraft harassing North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other friendly nations’ aircraft and vessels, especially in and near the Black Sea, some of the most provocative have occurred in and around the Baltic Sea.

The number of incidents began to increase in the spring of 2014 and through out the rest of that year there were approximately nineteen serious or high risk incidents including a massive Swedish Navy search for a Russian submarine in the Stockholm archipelago and simulated bombing and cruise missile attacks against NATO countries as well as exercises perceived to be practice for invading the Baltic States. Throughout 2015 and 2016 there have been numerous additional close encounters with the Russian military, precipitated by the Russians and interpreted to be deliberate provocations.  This includes this past April when two Russian military aircraft flew a simulated attack 30 feet over the guided missile destroyer USS Donald (DDG-75) while in international waters.  A few days later Russian fighters intercepted a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft over international waters in the Baltic. And the (very long) list of such provocations goes on.

In the 1960’s and early 1970’s, at the height of the cold war, such incidents were frequent, and dangerous. In order to prevent misunderstandings which could lead to bloodshed and possible conflict, the United States and Soviet Union formulated the Incidents At Sea Agreement, signed by Secretary of the Navy John Warner, and his Soviet counterpart Admiral Sergei Gorshkov.  By providing specific protocols when U.S. and Soviet ships and aircraft were in proximity to each other it was designed to “enhance mutual knowledge and understanding of military activities; to reduce the possibility of conflict by accident, miscalculation, or the failure of communication; and to increase stability in times of both calm and crisis.”  Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the withdrawal of much of its military back to the homeland, there was very little need for the agreement and it ceased to be useful.  It may be time to update it and renew it.

The real question, however, is what is going on?  Why are the Russians resuming their provocative maneuvers against NATO and other western powers?  The answer may be found in one of two names, or more likely a combination of two names:  Vladimir Putin and Ukraine.  Putin wants to rebuild the Russian Empire and by that we mean that he is looking for good old-fashioned respect as a world and military power.  The incidents are meant to remind the West that he is the major player in his part of the world and that he can (and may?) do whatever he desires.  To paraphrase the old adage, “Russia is back!”  In 2005 he made a major speech to the Russian people where he is translated as saying:

“Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.”

Remember that this was a large part of his justification for entering Ukraine and in annexing the Crimea. He argues that he is protecting Russian citizens and “ethnic” Russians and thus fulfilling his duties as head of the Russian state.  During the time of the Soviet Union, many now independent nations around the periphery of the old Soviet Union were “colonized” by Russians and many also settled there for economic and other reasons.  They and their descendants remain.

This background is important in understanding the current state of affairs in the Baltic States — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — and to a slightly lesser degree, Poland.  The Baltic States were part of the Soviet Union and Poland was part of the Warsaw Pact dominated by the Soviet Union.

Geographically they are at a strategic disadvantage.  A look at a map reveals two important features. One is that between Poland and Lithuania is a part of the Russian state called Kaliningrad, a major Russian military outpost.  Second is that the border between Russia and Poland and the Baltic States is mostly flat ground with no significant defensible geographic features that would impede a ground attack from rolling across the border and deep into the country under attack.

I had the pleasure of making a short stop in Tallinn the capital of Estonia recently.  The people are very friendly, full of energy and eager to see their new nation become integrated into world affairs. They are also well aware that only a short time ago they were occupied by the Germans and then subjugated by the Russians as one of the republics of the Soviet Union.  They became an independent nation in March 1990 despite resistance to their independence by the Russians.  Their history is very fresh in their in minds and if they doubt the impact Russia can have on their new nation, they are reminded of it every day.  Directly across from their parliament building sits the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral built in the late 1800’s  as a Russian Orthodox cathedral during the time of Estonia’s inclusion in the Russian Empire.  It was part of the Russification efforts underway at the time to assimilate the Estonians. It purposefully occupies the most prominent position in the Old Town on top of a bluff above the town. Although it fell into decay during the Soviet era, it was beautifully restored in recent years but is still considered by many Estonians to be a symbol of Russian oppression.  It should also be noted that while Estonians consider themselves to be culturally different from Russians, approximately 25% of the population is Russian.

Needless to say, the combination of Putin’s desire to regain the “empire” coupled with his actions in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea makes the Russian military provocations in the Baltic area very meaningful to those that live there.  The Baltic States and Poland are among the twenty-eight members of NATO.  And that’s where it starts to get interesting.

Earlier this month, President Obama and the other heads of state met at a NATO summit in Warsaw. Many topics were covered ranging from Afghanistan to Ballistic Missile Defense to ISIS.  But a major topic, the one capturing the attention of those following it closely, was a key decision concerning the Baltic area.  For several years now, the United States and other members have rotated troops and fighter wings through the Baltic States as a reminder to Russia that NATO has a stake in their continued independence.  At this year’s summit, those provisional deployments were made firmer.  In response to Russian provocations, the NATO members decided to deploy ground forces (four battalions) on a rotating basis, but always there, in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland.  Additionally, air and naval forces will conduct periodic training in and near the area.  The point is much the same as our stationing of troops in West Germany during Cold War I.  Should the Russians make a move on one of these states, they will need to go through NATO forces to do it and thus risk war.  To be clear, the numbers of NATO forces there are a drop in the bucket and would not meaningfully impede a Russian advance.  They are there as a symbol of resolve.  Under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty (the creation of NATO) an attack on one member is considered an attack on all.  It is the principal of collective defense that has helped to keep the peace in Europe and provided the foundation for a period of economic and political stability that has lasted for roughly seventy years.  The first time in the history of NATO that Article 5 was invoked was following the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001.

The idea of collective defense coupled with the military capability and political will to back it up has been the cornerstone of American foreign policy since World War II.  There was never any doubt about the U.S. commitment to NATO and our allies.  It served as a major block to Soviet adventurism in Cold War I and is a serious warning to Putin’s adventurism as Cold War II begins to build.  Never a doubt.  Until now.

In a foreign policy interview published by the New York Times on 21 July, Mr. Donald J. Trump (R-Manhattan) threw that commitment into doubt.  You can read it for yourself using the link, but here is part of that interview:

SANGER: I was just in the Baltic States. They are very concerned obviously about this new Russian activism, they are seeing submarines off their coasts, they are seeing airplanes they haven’t seen since the Cold War coming, bombers doing test runs. If Russia came over the border into Estonia or Latvia, Lithuania, places that Americans don’t think about all that often, would you come to their immediate military aid?

TRUMP: I don’t want to tell you what I’d do because I don’t want Putin to know what I’d do. I have a serious chance of becoming president and I’m not like Obama, that every time they send some troops into Iraq or anyplace else, he has a news conference to announce it.

SANGER: They are NATO members, and we are treaty-obligated ——

TRUMP: We have many NATO members that aren’t paying their bills.

SANGER: That’s true, but we are treaty-obligated under NATO, forget the bills part.

TRUMP: You can’t forget the bills. They have an obligation to make payments. Many NATO nations are not making payments, are not making what they’re supposed to make. That’s a big thing. You can’t say forget that.

SANGER: My point here is, Can the members of NATO, including the new members in the Baltics, count on the United States to come to their military aid if they were attacked by Russia? And count on us fulfilling our obligations ——

TRUMP: Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.

HABERMAN: And if not?

TRUMP: Well, I’m not saying if not. I’m saying, right now there are many countries that have not fulfilled their obligations to us.

Regardless to say, this created a high level of anxiety throughout the capitals of our allies and seriously casts into doubt the viability of collective defense.  To be effective, Article 5 has to be an article of faith for every member and for every potential opponent.  Otherwise, it has little meaning.  As Cold War II develops, I’m sure Vladimir Putin was celebrating.

 


Taxation Without Representation

The title of this piece is the same as the motto that for years can be found on the license plates of vehicles registered in Washington D.C.  Most tourists, when they recognize it, are startled to see it and often ask about it, thus the reason for it being there in the first place.  The answer, however, while simple in response — “the District has no voting representatives in the Congress” — is far less simple in the context of the current political world.

To many D.C. residents, last Tuesday’s Democrat presidential primary in the District was symbolic of their plight in the modern United States.  While afforded the opportunity to vote for one of the nominees (Hillary Clinton won, while Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) won the Republican primary held in March), their votes were the last in the nation and of no significance since the nomination had already been decided.

It may be useful to put things in a quick historical context.  As we all learned in elementary school, Washington became the new capital city for the newly created United States.  Created by Congress through passage of the Residence Act in July 1790, the city’s location was the result of a compromise hammered out between Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.  The Constitution (Article I, Section 8) already provided for a federal district that was not a part of any state and that would be governed by the Congress.  Maryland and Virginia each donated land along the Potomac River that created a square-shaped jurisdiction and included the existing cities of Georgetown on the Maryland side, and Alexandria on the Virginia side.  In 1846 Congress returned Virginia’s donated land to the state (a complicated story in itself but it has to do with slaves as well as the city of Alexandria, and the fact that all federal buildings were constructed on the Maryland side) creating the current District’s size and shape.

For most of their history, D.C. residents had no say over how their city was governed.  The first significant change came in the early 1960’s with the ratification of the Twenty-third Amendment to the Constitution which gave the District three electoral college votes for president.  The votes are allocated according to population, but regardless, cannot exceed the number of votes allotted to the least populous state.

In 1973, Congress passed the District of Columbia Home Rule Act that allowed for the citizens of the city to elect a mayor and 13 Council members.  The first mayor was elected in 1975.

What is the significance of this brief history lesson?  Well, because of these cases and others, some legal scholars argue that, starting with the return of Virginia’s portion of the District, the Congress undid many elements of the original Constitution, thus setting a precedent that the District should be allowed home rule.

Here’s the real rub.  The District’s citizens resent that Congress over rides many of the laws that they pass within the Council or via referendum among the citizens.  Often, they are undone by conservative members of Congress that, according to many of the District’s citizens, use D.C. as a personal lab to push conservative causes that they cannot get done in their home state or in the Congress.  Additionally, when Congress is gridlocked, the District suffers because their budget, just like the Defense Department or the State Department is held hostage during the negotiations, making it difficult to run the city because even though they have the money (their own money, they argue) unless Congress authorizes them to spend it, they are not able to do so.

This is relevant today, as another major battle is brewing between the District’s government and Congress.  While D.C. supposedly has home rule, they must have their budget approved by Congress . This year the city government says that while they will submit it to Congress for review, they will not wait for approval and will spend the $13 billion dollars as they see fit. That budget breaks down to $4 billion in federal taxes and $7 billion in local property, sales, and other taxes.  (In the past, Congress would block spending on items or issues of which they did not approve. They also control all of the funds, including those through local taxes.) It is, as the Washington Post observed, essentially a Declaration of Independence by the city.  The Congress is not amused.  It may be a fight that D.C. cannot win, with threats of contempt of Congress and possible jail time for the mayor and Council.  Such activity directly in spite of Congress is deemed un-Constitutional.  In a vote in late May, the House voted to nullify the District’s voter approved measure to give themselves autonomy over their own city’s spending.

The real issue of course is whether or not Washington D.C. should become the fifty-first state.

Primarily, the desire of an increasing number of the city’s citizens is for autonomy in creating budgets and taking legislative actions, and gaining voting representation in Congress, just like the “other” states — 67% of voters in D.C. want statehood according to a poll last fall. (Currently the District has one representative or “delegate” in the House but that person cannot vote on legislation.)

The behind the scenes issue is that Washington D.C. voters are primarily Democrats and that giving the District two Senators and a member of Congress would add to the numbers of Democrats in those two legislative bodies.

As argued by the proponents of statehood, and delineated in the Post, Washington D.C. is not an economically backward city dependent on the federal government for its income.  For example:

  • The D.C. economy is bigger per capita than 16 states.
  • The D.C. budget is less reliant on federal funds than are those of 30 states.
  • D.C is actually a “donor state” along with states such as New York, Massachusetts, and California that pay more in federal taxes each year than the receive in services from the federal government.
  • D.C. has a larger population than Vermont and Wyoming.
  • Large portions of the city pay no local taxes as they are federally owned (Capital, White House, monuments, etc.) or are owned by tax-exempt entities.
  • D.C. has its own National Guard unit and its citizens serve in the Armed Forces of the United States without a say in how such forces are used.
  • Most federal workers live in Maryland or Virginia, paying no taxes in D.C., while the city has to bear the expenses of providing services (police, fire, sewer, etc.) to those workers.

The list goes on and on.  Washington D.C. has its share of arguments as to why it should become the fifty-first state.  And yet, there is that pesky little document called the Constitution.

Personally, I do not think that Washington D.C. should become a state.  However, clearly a compromise of some sort that gives the citizens of D.C. some say in their own, and their nation’s affairs should be reachable.  Past efforts at compromise have failed, mainly for political reasons that have little to do with city politics or policies and more to do with wielding power in the Congress.

Other proposals include giving the land back to Maryland and thus D.C. would have two Senators (Maryland’s) and gain representation in the House based on population.  Unfortunately, Maryland does not want to regain the city and the District does not want to join Maryland.

My thought is that D.C. is on the right track.  Allow the city to manage its own fiscal and legislative affairs, just like any other governmental entity in our country.  Make the “delegate” a voting member of the House and add (or subtract) Representatives based on population and the current census used to draw up representation in the House.  No representation in the Senate.

The original creation of Washington D.C. was a compromise.  It seems that a reasonable compromise is attainable in the twenty-first century so that all of our nations’ citizens have some form of representation in designating how their tax dollars will work.


Protecting First Amendment Rights

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

— First Amendment to the Constitution

I must admit that I am somewhat baffled by the string of new laws passed by various state legislatures pretending to protect religious beliefs as they pertain to same-sex marriage and to the LGBT community. Rightfully, several governors vetoed the work done in their legislatures, but others did not and signed them into law.  Taking it one step further, Tennessee passed a law making the Bible the official state book. (As of this writing, it is unclear whether the governor will veto or sign the bill.) In most, if not all, of these cases, legislators claim that religion is under attack.  In fact, they really mean that in their view, conservative Christianity is under attack.  If they felt that “religion” was under attack they would decry Mr. Donald Trump’s and Senator Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) proposals to ban all Muslims from entering the United States and to spy on those already here.  That is certainly a threat to Muslims practicing their religion.

So why do they feel that way?  The short answer is that I cannot pretend to know what is in their hearts. I will say this, however. I am a practicing Catholic with close ties to my local parish and in no way do I feel that my religion or my ability to practice it is in any kind of danger.  And Catholics know something about being discriminated against for their religion. Without going into a lengthy history lesson, let me remind you that Catholics in most of the original thirteen colonies were widely discriminated against, especially in matters of property, voting or holding office.  Even after the Revolution many of them had prohibitions against Catholics holding office, or requirements for them to denounce their religion before they could hold office. Other religions were equally mistreated.  With the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, freedom of religion as provided in the First Amendment became the law of the land, but it did not preclude suspicion and  intolerance of Catholics which carried into the Twentieth Century and included anti-Catholic criminal acts by the Ku Klux Klan. Some of that sentiment was a carry over from the Reformation.  Much of it centered on immigrants, especially from Germany and Ireland.  Other manifestations centered on a belief that American Catholics, if given a chance, would turn the country over to the Pope in Rome.  In my lifetime I remember the anti-Catholic sentiment directed at John F. Kennedy as he ran for president leading him to make a major speech that certified his loyalty to the United States rather than to the Pope.  There is more, but you get the idea.

So, yeah, I will say it again, I know a little something about “attacks on religion” and I most definitely do not feel that I am under attack.

I do feel that the separation of church and state ratified in the Constitution is under attack. State legislators, and those that support them, seem to feel that the government is forcing them to do something evil by treating LGBT folks as they themselves would want to be treated.  I will say up front, again, that I do not know what is in their hearts or the sincerity of their beliefs, I just fail to see the logic behind the idea that if one serves a same-sex couple a cake that one will then burn in hell. Just like I am not a Constitutional scholar, I am also not a theologian, but I have read the Bible (cover to cover — not bragging, just saying most people I know only read excerpts of it) and I do not see anything about serving cakes to same-sex couples.  I also do not understand the belief that by doing so, one condones the same-sex marriage.  By serving divorced people does one condone divorce?  By serving atheists does one condone atheism?  Of course not, especially since there is nothing to condone, condemn or otherwise get one’s knickers in a knot over.  It’s nobody’s business.

Some argue that the real issue is “protecting” young girls from predatory men in bathrooms. Thus the laws state that one must use the bathrooms designated for use based on one’s birth sex. Besides wondering how that will be enforced, because there is no use in passing a law if it will not be enforced (bathroom police?  which gives a whole new meaning to “drop ’em mister”), I see that issue as a smoke screen to hide much more ominous provisions of those laws that can lead directly to unabashed discrimination under the claim of religious freedom.

The heart of the First Amendment regarding religion is the Establishment Clause.  As interpreted and accepted as law, it is not only the idea that the government cannot establish an official religion, but also that it cannot pass any law that favors one religion over another and cannot pass laws that favor religion over non-religion or vice versa.  In that context, laws created ostensibly to allow religious tolerance can easily become religious intolerance laws as they push the tenets of one religion over others.

I also do not buy the “slippery slope” arguments used by some.  Serving cake to a same-sex couple is not going to result in the eventuality of the government forcing clergy to marry everyone or anyone in their community.  We will have much bigger problems to contend with prior to reaching that point.  It isn’t going to happen.

It seems that in the context of civility and mutual respect that we could survive in a “live and let live” world without having to pass laws over who does or does not get served based on one’s personal religious beliefs. Discrimination is discrimination, however one tries to justify it.

Same-sex marriage is now a reality in the United States and other countries.  With the Supreme Court decision in 2015 in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, same-sex marriages receive equal protection under the law. One may agree or disagree with the decision, but it is what it is and efforts to circumvent the decision by using state laws under the cover of religious tolerance is in my view an abuse of power, and I suspect, will also be shown to be un-constitutional.

I try to understand the real motivation behind such laws.  I am sure there are many that are truly concerned from a religious stand point.  (Which of course assumes that LGBT people are not religious, which is no more true than that all straight people are religious.)  More probably, I think that some of the legislators are really trying to score political points with their constituents.  By that I do not mean that they have listened to the religious concerns of those constituents.  I think instead they are really reacting to what they consider an “out of control” federal government and Supreme Court. They are really trying to show that they will not “tolerate” directions from a “godless” Obama administration.  And they have succeeded — they are ably demonstrating just how intolerant they are.


Happy New Year and Good Luck in 2016

As 2015 comes to a close, I wish each of you a wonderful new year in 2016 and hope that our country comes through the coming elections in better shape than what I fear may be the case given our experience over this past year.

I am normally an optimistic, the glass is half-full kind of guy, but I am discouraged by the political discourse of the last few months.  I am concerned that it will only get worse in the new year.  The rhetoric is depressing and may become more so as some candidates find that it works to their advantage to vilify others, and as some candidates become desperate to be noticed before they fade away.

I also learned long ago to stay out of the prediction game.  With the right knowledge and experience, it used to be feasible to make a meaningful, if not always correct, educated guess as to the direction of certain events and the resulting policy decisions that follow.  I do not feel that way anymore. Additionally, as I have expressed in previous pieces, I think that it is too early to begin discussing which candidates from which political parties will be our choices in November.  I have no idea who will make it through the spring and summer and emerge as a viable candidate.  Therefore, at this point in the process, I have no idea who I will vote for and I will try to keep my mind open as the campaigns progress.  That said, I have already decided who I cannot vote for no matter their popularity or the alternative candidate from the other party.  Out of the roughly 15 candidates combined in the Republican and Democrat parties still running (and sometimes it is hard to keep track) there are at least five that I know that I cannot vote for, no matter what.  Some fall into that category because of their hateful rhetoric and others because in my view, they are just plain unqualified to lead this country. Some fall into both categories.  Hopefully, they will not end up running against each other.

Logically, and historically, I know that we have experienced shameful demagoguery in campaigns past.  I know also that our nation’s history has had shameful periods of racism and bigotry that were considered main stream.  And as much as I would like to think that as a nation we have moved past those misguided beliefs, I know that some racists and bigots still exist in our country.

So the politics of racism, bigotry, hatred and fear — dealing in the mysterious “other” who are not like us and do not belong in our country — is, unfortunately, not new to this nation.  We now have at least two leading candidates, Mr. Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), that are experts at exploiting the fear and hatred of others and who also have little use for the truth should it not coincide with their narrative.  They seem to be very popular — although it is difficult to know whether that popularity will translate at the voting booth.  While I am deeply disappointed in their campaigns, it is really nothing new in our history.  What has truly discouraged me is the number of people who pollsters of all stripes tell us support their campaigns.  I knew there were bigots and racists out there, what is discouraging is the number that seem still to exist in the year 2015. And before someone gets their hair on fire, I recognize that not all supporters of Mr. Trump and Senator Cruz are bigots or racists.  I know that. However, too many seem to fit in that category.  By a lot. Anger and fear are powerful motivators, but when exploited for purely personal gain, it becomes dangerous.  Both Mr. Trump and Senator Cruz are well polished exploiters of those emotions.  I see their hateful ways reflected in all sorts of social media and other outlets.  Although I am never sure if the anonymity of social media creates more salacious comments “just because” — “trolls” that enjoy stirring things up — or if the anonymity of social media allows people to expose what is really in their hearts without fear of being considered haters, but whichever is the case, Mr. Trump and Senator Cruz through their speech and actions, make it okay to be anti-social.

Please spare me the accusations of “political correctness.”  For these two candidates (and others) claiming that they do not have to be politically correct has become a crutch.  It is an anti-intellectual and facile claim that assures that no substantive discussion of the issues is needed and that to be polite and not rude in political discourse is not necessary.  We are the worse for it.  Bigots and racists are given free rein to malign others.

Before Christmas, Danielle Allen wrote an interesting opinion piece about “political correctness.”  (It can be found here.)  The term, according to Professor Allen was first coined by James Wilson in 1793.  James Wilson was a representative to the Continental Congress and an influential member of the committee that gave us the Constitution and was one of the original Justices of the Supreme Court.  The first substantive case heard by the new court was Chisolm v. State of Georgia which established that individuals could sue states.  The decision was later effectively over-turned by the Eleventh Amendment. (I am not a legal scholar, but should one want to read an interesting analysis of the case, it may be found here.)  What is pertinent to this discussion, is that the rhetoric following a lazy interpretation of “politically correct” has subverted the original use of the phrase.  In some ways it may be better said as “correct politically” or Justice Wilson’s emphasis on “We the People” and his belief that sovereignty rested with the “people of the United States” rather than individual states.

This interpretation was presaged by a speech of his on July 4th 1788 following the achievement of the minimum number of states needed to ratify the Constitution.  In his speech he laid out the vision of the crafters of that great document, its importance and how it is up to us, the people, to vote for good leaders.  He emphasized how each vote was important (perhaps because his was the deciding vote for independence in the Pennsylvania delegation).  Or as he said in part in his stem-winder of a speech (original spellings used below, italics and bold are mine):

Allow me to direct your attention, in a very particular manner, to a momentous part, which, by this constitution, every citizen will frequently be called to act. All those in places of power and trust will be elected either immediately by the people; or in such a manner that their appointment will depend ultimately on such immediate election. All the derivative movements of government must spring from the original movement of the people at large. If, to this they give a sufficient force and a just direction, all the others will be governed by its controuling power. To speak without a metaphor; if the people, at their elections, take care to chuse none but representatives that are wise and good; their representatives will take care, in their turn, to chuse or appoint none but such as are wise and good also. The remark applies to every succeeding election and appointment. Thus the characters proper for public officers will be diffused from the immediate elections of the people over the remotest parts of administration. Of what immense consequence is it, then, that this primary duty should be faithfully and skillfully discharged? On the faithful and skillful discharge of it the public happiness or infelicity, under this and every other constitution, must, in a very great measure, depend. For, believe me, no government, even the best, can be happily administered by ignorant or vicious men. You will forgive me, I am sure, for endeavouring to impress upon your minds, in the strongest manner, the importance of this great duty. It is the first concoction in politics; and if an error is committed here, it can never be corrected in any subsequent process: The certain consequence must be disease. Let no one say, that he is but a single citizen; and that his ticket will be but one in the box. That one ticket may turn the election.

In other words, no government, no matter how well conceived and designed, can function properly unless good, educated, and competent people — not “ignorant or vicious men” — are elected.  The government is only as good as those elected to it.  In my view, we lost that principal and fundamental element to good governance with the likes of Mr. Trump and Senator Cruz.