Competitiveness Makes Pelosi’s Checklist

Originally published at Tech Daily Dose

Remember that competitiveness bill techies have wanted for so long, the one President Bush signed into law a little more than two months ago? Well, it’s now part of the checklist of items that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi uses to tout all that is right with the 110th Congress.

You can see the checklist at her blog, The Gavel, where the California Democrat included it in a post that bashed Bush for comments he made in a press conference today. The “innovation agenda promoting 21st-century jobs” is No. 4 on the list.

The competitiveness law also is a talking point in Pelosi’s pitch about the “New Direction Congress.”


Policy Storms Of The Century

Originally published at National Journal
By K. Daniel Glover

Meteorologically speaking, the hurricane that slammed into the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29 died days later in the northern part of the continent. Politically speaking, Katrina is very much alive, and its eye has settled over Washington for the foreseeable future.

Shortly after the storm, Congress cleared two emergency spending bills totaling more than $60 billion. And lawmakers, as is typical, are also trying to make sure that their pet policy ideas ride the hurricane-induced legislative wave moving through the capital. But the real test of Katrina’s staying power will be whether the storm spawns substantive changes in federal disaster mitigation, just as its most infamous atmospheric siblings have done in the past.

Throughout history, hurricanes have captured the attention of government leaders, and President William McKinley was chief among them. Raymond Arsenault, a historian at the University of South Florida, recently noted on the History News Network that the near-annihilation of Cedar Key, Fla., and the deaths of more than 100 people in an 1896 hurricane made a lasting impression on McKinley — one that eventually influenced his military strategy.

“I am more afraid of West Indian hurricanes than I am of the entire Spanish navy,” McKinley said at the start of the Spanish-American War some two years later. That fear inspired the president to order the creation of a hurricane warning system designed to protect vessels in the Caribbean Sea.

Congress, for its part, has long been responding to hurricanes and other disasters by providing monetary relief. In a 1950 document printed in the Congressional Record, Rep. Harold Hagen, R-Minn., charted such federal aid back to 1803. Lawmakers have provided aid in the wake of everything from “Indian depredations” in the mid-1800s, to “grasshopper ravages” in the 1870s, to the kinds of disasters more familiar today: tornadoes, droughts, earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, and hurricanes.

The earliest hurricane-related federal spending that Hagen recorded came in 1928, after a September storm hit Puerto Rico. Congress provided $8.1 million to rehabilitate agriculture and schoolhouses and to purchase seeds. Two years later, lawmakers allocated $1 million to cover repair work by the Puerto Rican Hurricane Relief Commission, and they gave the commission loan breaks in 1935. Another $5 million went toward forest rehabilitation in New England after a hurricane struck there in September 1938.


Toward Higher Wages And Bankruptcy Reform

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

The red-and-blue divide that separates America politically is as obvious online as on electoral maps, and these days the split is readily apparent in the different responses to Hurricane Katrina.

While many conservative bloggers have dedicated themselves to reawakening fiscal discipline within the Republican Party, the mini-blogging empire of liberal Joshua Micah Marshall has focused its energy on reversing two GOP-engineered policies that could impact the storm’s victims most directly: construction wages and bankruptcy reform.

Marshall is taking the lead on the first issue at his original blog, Talking Points Memo. Soon after President Bush used his emergency powers to waive the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires contractors on federal projects to pay workers the local “prevailing wage,” Marshall cried foul and rallied his grassroots readership to do the same with their lawmakers.

“I’m just curious to find out where everyone stands. … Ring up your representative or senator and ask,” he wrote. “Or if you see their position on their Web site or in the paper, send us the link. We’ll make a list and see where everyone stands on the president’s Gulf Coast Wage Cut.”

Over the next several days, Marshall posted about 20 entries on the topic. He linked to the press releases of lawmakers, whether for or against Bush on the issue, and he characterized as “wigglers” those who waffled when called by their constituents. Talking Points Memo even followed up one reader’s report with a call to the office of Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., to confirm its belief that she was “a finger in the wind” on the issue.

Post-Katrina: Pointing Fingers And Proposing Policy

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, the policy tornadoes that she spawned continue to churn. In the background, bloggers are working hard to see that those twisters hit the right targets and that the demolished houses of government are rebuilt the way they envision.

Some of the conversation has been punctuated by petty, partisan jabs over issues like whose Web site responded more quickly and appropriately to the disaster or how much Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., paid for a home renovation. Duncan Black of Atrios could not even make a plug for charitable donations without also taking a potshot at “the government” (read: President Bush).

But sober, albeit pointed attempts at punditry and persuasion have been just as common. Whether the issue is national or local, macro or micro, bloggers have opinions, and they are pushing them into the public sphere.

Instapundit Glenn Reynolds is among them. He published a nine-point treatise on the lessons to be learned from Katrina, and his readers added to the list. The ideas include not building cities below sea level, ensuring the reliability of critical infrastructures like communications system, and putting somebody in charge.

Former FCC chief Reed Hundt, meanwhile, sketched 10 principles for reconstruction in a post at TPMCafe. They include giving hurricane victims some say in how they spend disaster relief, providing the details of reconstruction contracts online, and not managing the work from Washington.

Other bloggers have been more focused on how Katrina will, or should, impact specific subjects, be it the demands on displaced schoolchildren, the voting rights of Louisianans, the access victims have to health care, or the potential for environmental hazard from pumping the polluted waters out of New Orleans.

Here is a sampling of issues being bandied about the blogosphere in Katrina’s wake:

Prison Labor: An Inside Job

Originally published at National Journal
By K. Daniel Glover

ALLENWOOD, Pa. — A 30-mile stretch of U.S. 15 on the way north to this village looks just like the road to prison. Pornography shacks, private clubs, and bars dot the landscape, and road signs blare ominous warnings like “D.U.I.: You Can’t Afford It” and “Target Enforcement Area.” Even the advertisement for Dr. Tom’s Leather Goods features a foreboding skull with a devilish half-smile.

But those emblems are far from where the highway meanders to the Federal Correctional Complex just north of Allenwood, where officials are equally concerned about the road away from prison. More than 41,000 federal prisoners nationwide have returned to the streets in each of the past three years, and no one in the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons wants to see them take a wrong turn onto Recidivism Road.

The desire to steer convicts away from repeat offenses is part of the rationale behind Federal Prison Industries, a quasi-governmental agency that trains inmates in various trades. FPI’s goal, said Joseph D. Dubaskas Sr., the associate warden of industries at the Allenwood complex and chief of its three factories, is to employ as many prisoners as possible and to “teach them a skill [and] a work ethic that they can take with them when they go to the street.”

“If they’re medically able to work and they want to work,” he said, “we put them to work.”

Some 200 miles away in Washington, the concept of prison labor is a far more complicated matter. Most believe that FPI serves a valuable function. The program keeps the prisoners busy and the penitentiaries more secure, and it teaches trade and business skills to people who may never have worked before. “We get people in here where their only job was to sell drugs on the street,” Dubaskas said.

Yet many lawmakers and interest groups have grown increasingly unhappy with the way FPI conducts its business. Twice in the past few years, Congress has voted to force FPI, which sells products such as furniture to the federal government, to compete with the private sector, and last fall the House overwhelmingly passed a bill that would mandate broader reforms. The measure would require FPI to compete for its contracts with federal agencies and to fulfill orders in a timely manner. It also would authorize money for inmate rehabilitation and training to address concerns that changes in FPI’s procedures could force prisoner layoffs and thus put a greater strain on prison security. The competing Senate bill, which focuses on forcing FPI to compete for contracts, is expected to move through the Governmental Affairs Committee early this spring. One of the panel’s subcommittees held a hearing on the bill on Wednesday. FPI has also been embroiled in a legal dispute with the Coalition for Government Procurement.

“The current management of FPI is full of deceptive, ineffective people,” said Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., a leading FPI critic. “The current management has shown no empathy in their business decisions for the impact they’ve had in the private sector.”


Coming To America

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

Presidential contenders woo them in their own language. Employers in both big cities and small towns recruit them to fill vacancies in a tight labor market. Communities nationwide celebrate their heritage every fall. Who are they? Latinos. And over the past decade in particular, “they” have become a larger part of “we, the people” — and thus a greater force in America.

Cuban Americans’ quest to keep Elian Gonzalez in the United States and Puerto Ricans’ battle to halt Navy bombing on Vieques are two high-profile examples of the growing impact of America’s Hispanics, whose population has grown some 30 percent in the past decade. But their interests and influence extend far beyond narrow, albeit heated, debates about Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and U.S. military operations on a remote island.

Hispanics are forcing WASPy America to confront an array of new issues — immigration and bilingualism are chief among them — and to look at familiar issues like education, health care and taxes from the perspective of an ethnic group that has the highest dropout and uninsured rates in the nation, and where low incomes are common. They also are reshaping schools, the workplace and communities from Rome, Ga., and Perry, Iowa, to Detroit and Milwaukee, as well as in traditional border enclaves like California and Texas.

Recent examples of the Hispanic influence include: the creation of a holiday to honor Mexican civil rights and labor leader Cesar Chavez; new educational programs like Denver’s “Soul of the Race” and Houston’s bilingual spelling bee; and a reversal of the long-time AFL-CIO opposition to amnesty for illegal immigrants in the workforce.

“The [Latino] impact can be seen in every walk of life,” says Judy Mark, communications director for the National Immigration Forum, whose mission is to make U.S. policies more welcoming to Latinos and other immigrants. “Latinos really are tremendously influential and will only grow in influence.”

Keeping the boom times alive
As of March 1, the Census Bureau estimated the U.S. Hispanic population, excluding the estimated 3.9 million people who live in Puerto Rico, at nearly 32.1 million, or 11.7 percent of the total population. That is up from some 22.4 million, or 9% of the total population, in 1990. Nearly two-thirds were of Mexican descent.

Hispanic-Americans accounted for some 37.3 percent of the nation’s population growth in the 1990s, a figure that is expected to climb to 44.2 percent between 2000 and 2020. The Census Bureau estimates that Hispanics will surpass blacks as the largest minority group in America by 2005 and that there will be 52.7 million Hispanic-Americans, or 16.3 percent of the total population, by 2020.

America, The Debtless

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

Talk of a balanced budget, and perhaps one in the black, would have been pure fantasy as recently as fiscal 1992, when the annual federal deficit hit $290 billion. Even now, with budget “surpluses” of $69 billion and $124 billion the past two fiscal years and expectations of larger overflows to come, it seems premature to ponder a national life of budgetary bliss when the debt is at $5.74 trillion and climbing.

That said, imagine an America free of public debt. Assume that President Clinton was right to predict in his Jan. 27 State of the Union address that with a little fiscal discipline, “we can pay down the debt entirely in just 13 years.” How would that circumstance alter the political and policy realities in Washington? And how long would the luxury of governing in a debt-free world last?

While it is impossible to answer such questions with any certainty, America’s history may offer some clues. Only once — during the second term of President Andrew Jackson in the 1830s — has the nation balanced its books and had to decide how to dispose of true budget surpluses.

Extinguishing the ‘national curse’
Jackson deserves much of the credit for helping America achieve what he, in his Dec. 3, 1833, annual address to Congress, anticipated would be “the rare blessing of a revenue sufficiently abundant.” Eliminating the national debt ranked high among Jackson’s goals as early as his unsuccessful 1824 presidential bid.

In that campaign, Jackson called the debt, which had climbed from a low of $45.2 million in 1811 to a record $127.3 million after a second war with Britain, “a national curse.” He vowed to pay the debt “to prevent a monied aristocracy from growing up around our administration that must bend to its views, and ultimately destroy the liberty of our country.” And when he won the presidency in 1828, Jackson made debt “extinguishment” a core principle of his agenda of “reform retrenchment and economy.”

A president remembered for his unprecedented use of the veto, Jackson constantly reinforced to Congress his desire for a debt-free America. In virtually every address to lawmakers, he lectured them about the need for fiscal discipline. And he sent perhaps his strongest message with a string of vetoes in 1830.

Near the end of its session in May that year, Congress sent Jackson several bills to fund “purely local” projects like the Washington Turnpike, lighthouses, beacons and other “internal improvements.” The bills, Jackson biographer Robert V. Remini wrote, “drove Jackson into a genuine fit of anger” because of the $1-million price tag and because Congress “knew the treasury was exhausted by former appropriations.” Jackson vetoed four bills, including one by pocket veto.

The Lost War On Poverty

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

Poverty is making a political comeback.” So said the Chicago Tribune in an Oct. 21 story that echoed a theme just about every media outlet has reported at some time over the past several months.

Although arguably unwarranted when you consider the White House’s Sept. 30 announcement about the declining poverty rate, the media emphasis certainly seems justified by the attention some policymakers and candidates have been giving poverty. President Clinton, for instance, heralded his poverty tour to Appalachia in July. And Vice President Al Gore recently upstaged Democratic presidential rival Bill Bradley by introducing his plan for attacking childhood poverty one day before Bradley announced his ideas.

No one, of course, ponders the state of poverty today without first recalling President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” in the 1960s. Whether for good or bad, it is the milestone achievement in the federal government’s quest to feed, clothe, house and employ the nation’s poor.

The three-legged stool of poor policy
Before Johnson’s presidency, poverty rarely was a cause for federal intervention. The “charity begins at home” mantra had shaped the nation’s thinking on the poor for much of its history. In his 1992 book “The Tragedy of American Compassion,” conservative Marvin Olasky, a key adviser to GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush, said the traditional approach to poverty consisted of “a three-legged stool of family, church and neighborhood.”

The admonition of colonial preacher Cotton Mather served as a guiding principle for more than two centuries. “Instead of exhorting you to augment your charity,” Mather told his followers in 1698, “I will rather utter an exhortation … that you may not abuse your charity by misapplying it. … Let us try to do good with as much application of mind as wicked men employ in doing evil.”

Even when the growth of cities made the three-legged-stool model less workable, the government was reluctant to get involved. In 1854, President Franklin Pierce vetoed a bill that would have authorized money for federally supported mental hospitals. His reasoning: “If Congress has the power to make provision for the indigent insane, it has the same power for the indigent who are not insane.” Pierce did not think it wise for the nation to head down that path, and Congress upheld his veto.

Fantasizing About Full Employment

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

Once upon a time, conventional American economic theory held that low unemployment and low inflation were mutually exclusive. Low unemployment necessarily meant a high rate of inflation; low inflation likewise all but guaranteed high unemployment. And the decline in one of those economic indicators presaged an increase in the other. The only question for policymakers back then seemed to be this: Which rate do the politics of the day demand that we address?

That theory has been losing favor throughout the 1990s, and with good reason. In only three years out of the nine this decade have the two economic indicators followed their traditional inverse relationship. What’s more, the inflation rate (as measured by the Consumer Price Index) has declined seven out of nine years while the unemployment rate also has dropped in six different years. In July, inflation was 2.1%, and unemployment held steady at a mere 4.3 percent.

But in the 1970s, the Phillips Curve was such a popular theory that even when Congress set goals of “full employment” and zero inflation, lawmakers and the president wrote so many escape hatches into the 1978 act that no one took it seriously. The law was symbolic at best, utter fantasy at worst. Few truly believed the nation could realize the dream of low employment and low inflation perhaps taken for granted today.

A liberal reading of ‘the right to work’
The debate about full employment — broadly defined as meaning the economy provides jobs for as many adults as want them, typically an unemployment rate of 3 percent to 4 percent — began during the 1940s. That decade’s wartime economy saw unemployment decline to a record low 1.2 percent in 1944, but a nation not far removed from the record high unemployment of more than 20% during the Great Depression longed for reassurance.

As early as January 1942, according to the first volume of Congressional Quarterly’s Congress and the Nation, the National Resources Planning Board outlined as an imperative “a positive program of postwar economic expansion and full employment, boldly conceived and vigorously pursued.” British author Sir William Beveridge even argued for a national budget to assure full employment. And early in 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt lent his voice to the cause by listing “the right to a useful and remunerative job” at the top of his economic bill of rights.

Republicans lambasted the idea of a full-employment budget and a government guarantee of jobs for all who wanted them as one of “planned deficits” that virtually assured astronomical inflation and financial ruin, and their opposition led to the 1943 dissolution of the NRPB. Democrats dominated the political scene, though, so the push for a full-employment law was inevitable.

The Rule Of Lawsuits

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

The image that investigative journalist Peter Pringle paints of the typical trial lawyer throughout his 1998 book “Cornered: Big Tobacco at the Bar of Justice” is not a flattering one. If Pringle is to be believed, the attorneys who ply their trade in civil courts are motivated not so much by altruism as by an irrepressible love of money, celebrity and the good life.

Unfortunately for today’s lawyers, many Americans seem to share that view. The public tends to rank attorneys among the likes of politicians, used-car salesmen and, yes, journalists. People think not of the glorified television lawyer Perry Mason but of the more recent buffoon Jackie Chiles of “Seinfeld” fame.

The animosity toward the legal profession is nothing new, of course. William Shakespeare gave voice to lawyer bashing centuries ago when, within “Henry IV, Part Two,” he penned these words: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” But the seemingly ceaseless outcry against attorneys has raised anew the question of what, if anything, should be done to curb the filing of civil lawsuits.

Understanding the discontent
Signs of mistrust in the current system of civil law, both among the public and the people who represent them, are abundant. Consider, for example, that Republicans rose to congressional power in 1995 in part because of their efforts at changing the rules of product liability suits, one of the 10 legislative goals of the “Contract with America.” And remember that in 1998, both the House and Senate conducted hearings on bills that would have altered the legal framework for punitive damages and class-action lawsuits.

“I am truly and deeply disturbed over what some members of our profession … have done to one area of the law,” former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh told a House Judiciary subcommittee last year. “To put it simply, they have found ways to pervert the class-action device and other aggregation tools, transforming them into their personal litigation lottery.”

There is also anecdotal evidence, including the emergence of grassroots groups like the Association for California Tort Reform, Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch and the Association American Tort Reform, which regularly identify what they see as frivolous lawsuits. Or type the phrase “litigious society” into almost any Web search engine and see just how trite it has become.