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Dancing with the Nukes: Rick Perry for DoE

rickperry

Is there any greater cynicism than nominating Rick Perry to head the cabinet agency that he once said he would abolish–if only he could remember which one it was?

Perry was perfect for Texas politics:  an affable good-ol’-boy manner, Marlboro Man looks, a fabulous head of hair, chummy ties with the oil-and-gas industry, and bedrock conservative views on almost everything.**

His sole qualification for Secretary of Energy, however, seems to be that Texas has a lot of oil.  And, of course, that appointing him to the cabinet is a kind of exquisite revenge for having denounced Trump in July 2015 as a “barking carnival act” and a “cancer on conservatism”.  Now look who’s sucking up to The Donald!

Perry initially seemed confused about the mission of the Department of Energy, one of whose primary functions is to guide the country’s nuclear policy, including managing the US nuclear weapons arsenal and international non-proliferation efforts.  The outgoing secretary, Ernest J. Moniz was chairman of the MIT physics department and an eminent nuclear physicist.  Moniz’s predecessor, Stephen Chu, was a Nobel laureate in physics.  Perry studied animal husbandry at Texas A&M (another ideal credential for Texas politics), where he reportedly earned Ds in his science classes.

As governor, Perry supported teaching creationism in Texas schools, and he doesn’t believe in climate change. When Texas had a historic drought in 2011, his response was three days of prayer for rain.

Moniz was one of the co-negotiators of the agreement to end the Iranian nuclear weapons program.  Trump has denounced that agreement, and Perry joined in the almost universal Republican opposition to the deal, because…you know,…Iran.  Perry has virtually no experience in international relations, unlike Bill Richardson (a former non-scientist Secretary of Energy) who had served as US Ambassador to the United Nations.

Perry has made much of the enormous growth of wind-generated energy in Texas during his tenure as governor, but it is unclear that he actually had much to do with that.  According to The Texas Observer (the state’s venerable watchdog journal), “the overarching theme of Perry’s environmental and energy record is a laissez-faire approach to regulation punctuated by heavy lifting for campaign donors and special interests.”

Perry used an executive order to fast-track approval for eleven coal-burning power plants for Texas’ largest utility, TXU Energy (now Energy Future Holdings), despite enormous and diverse opposition in the state.  According to the Texas Observer, Perry received at least $630,000 in contributions from TXU during this period. Three of the plants were eventually built.

Perry’s acquaintance with nuclear issues consists mainly of his cozy relationship with Waste Control Specialists (WCS), a company owned by the late Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, a big contributor to Perry but best known for funding the Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry.  Again according to the TO, in 2003 Perry signed a bill privatizing nuclear waste disposal that was specifically crafted for WCS, and then greased the permit process for the company to open a nuclear waste dump in West Texas, despite warnings from geologists about the danger of contamination of aquifers. Perry’s appointees have since approved expansion of the facility and the shipment of waste from other states. WCS now has a proposal before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to store spent nuclear waste at the facility which will be up for review in 2019.

Perry’s hostility toward the EPA is well-documented. Texas filed 19 suits against the EPA during Perry’s 14 years as governor, and he called the EPA “a cemetery for jobs.” He would almost certainly work hand-in-glove with Scott Pruitt to destroy that agency if they are confirmed.

Hell, read the whole Texas Observer report here!

Perry’s other political views (hostility to gay marriage and gay rights in general, relative (for a Republican) sympathy towards immigrants, etc.) are less relevant for the Energy job.

What is relevant is his spectacular lack of qualifications for the position.  If you agree, let your senators know it!  Info on contacting them is here.

**Disclosure:  I spent most of the first 30 years of my life in Texas, so I know something about the state.

Why is Lieberman a Shill for Betsy DeVos?

devos-with-lieberman

Admittedly this is a very minor thing given everything else going on, but I kept seeing pictures and videos of Joe Lieberman sitting next to Betsy DeVos at her confirmation hearings and wondered what he was doing there.

For those with short memories, Lieberman was a Democratic senator from Connecticut who was Al Gore’s running mate in the 2000 election. (Not that anyone would care, but I always thought he was a terrible and useless choice.) After he lost the Democratic primary for the 2006 senate race, Lieberman ran as the de facto Republican candidate (though officially as an independent) and won in a 3-man race.  Then in 2008, he shocked everyone by endorsing John McCain against Barack Obama at the Republican convention. Throughout all of this, the senate Democratic leadership suppressed their gag reflex and allowed him to continue to caucus with the Democrats. He could have been the crucial 60th vote to include the public option in the Affordable Care Act, but voted against it, leaving us with what we now have (perhaps not for very much longer). In 2012, the year he left the senate, he again refused to endorse Obama (or Romney).

Still, it surprised me to see him shilling for a right-wing ideologue like Betsy DeVos, ostensibly to show that she has some support among Democrats–which Lieberman clearly no longer is.

Lieberman failed to mention at the hearing that his law firm, Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman LLP, has represented Donald Trump in all manner of cases since at least 2001.

Lieberman also serves on the board of the American Federation for Children, DeVos’ D.C.-based PAC that SourceWatch describes as ” a conservative 501(c)(4) dark money group that promotes the school privatization agenda via the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other avenues.”

 

There may well be more to it than that, but that is probably about all the attention that this subject deserves for now.

I suppose there are those who consider Joe Lieberman a principled man who follows his conscience no matter where it leads.  But it sure seems to lead him to some pretty strange places.  For my money, he’s a slimy narcissist, which might explain why he has ended up supporting Donald Trump.

Killing the EPA…and the Environment

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Today two US agencies that compile data on climate change, NOAA and NASA, announced that 2016 was the hottest year on record worldwide.  This is  the third straight year that global temperatures have set a record.

In other news, Scott Pruitt–a climate change skeptic and ardent foe of the Environmental Protection Agency–is now having his hearings in the Senate to become [drumroll, please] the head of the Environmental Protection Agency!

Pruitt became the darling of anti-environmental forces as Attorney General of Oklahoma, where he built his reputation by suing the EPA to avoid compliance with its regulations. His mantra is that regulation should be left to state and local governments, not the federal government.  But his record in Oklahoma reveals little or no litigation to protect the state’s environment, but plenty to protect polluters and the oil and gas industry that dominates Oklahoma politics.

If you want to see the chapter and verse on his record, there are lots of places to look. You can start by clicking here or here.

The Republican dogma that regulation should be left to the states and localities is, of course, a ruse for doing nothing.  Many states, like Oklahoma, are dominated by industries that have a  vested interest in fighting regulation–take the coal industry which calls the shots in states like West Virginia, Wyoming, and Kentucky.  With a few exceptions like California, state governments lack either the resources or the inclination to oppose the interests of large corporations, whose annual revenues can equal or surpass the GNPs of entire countries.  State and local politicians are cheap dates for large corporations, and a few thousand or even a few hundred dollars in campaign contributions can insure favorable votes.

That leaves the federal government and, in particular, the EPA to fight the environmental battles. The flood of money from corporations and billionaires like the Kochs into national politics since Citizens United has already helped make any further legislation to protect the environment a near impossibility, which has meant that any action has had to be done through executive order.

Now Paul Ryan and his henchmen in the House have introduced three bills that would let Congress kill existing rules and block new ones.  These have received very little attention in the media and are exactly the kind of below-the-radar stealth attacks that have become the specialty of the Republican congressional Jacobins.  One would allow repeal of recent Obama administration regulations as a package rather than one by one.  The second says that a rule cannot become effective unless Congress votes to approve it, i.e., Congress could kill a rule by doing nothing. The third, the “Regulatory Accountability Act”, would impose dozens of new legal and procedural requirements on regulators and require them to adopt rules that are “least costly” to the industry being regulated, regardless of public benefits from stricter regulation.

And now we have an incoming administration that is aggressively hostile on environmental issues and which attacks the science that forms the basis for policies to address climate change. Trump has already stated his intention to rescind US implementation of the international Paris accords to reduce greenhouse gases.  If he follows through on that, the chances of stemming global warming and sea level rise drop to near zero.

If you think these issues don’t really affect you, think again.  For example, those of us who live in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale metro area are among the most threatened in the country by sea level rise.  Most of 6 million south Floridians live on land that is less than 10 feet above sea level, and we are already seeing increased flooding and sea water incursions during periodic “king tides”.  Miami Beach is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to raise streets and install pumps to deal with the problem.  Higher seas mean that the storm surge from a hurricane could be vastly more damaging. Salt water incursion threatens our drinking water that is drawn from the underlying aquifer.

And yet south Florida’s Republican representatives in Congress continue to deny that there is a problem, or if there is, that there is anything to be done about it.  Miami homeboy Marco Rubio still continues to profess ignorance about whether humans have brought about the sharp rise in global temperatures that NOAA and other climate scientists have definitively documented.

I think that is a betrayal of his constituents.  If you want to know why, you should probably follow the money.

 

Fear Factor: the Politics of Intimidation

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The notorious Omarosa, who achieved fame as the bad girl on the original “Apprentice” made the above statement back in September after Trump put her in charge of “African-American outreach”.  Earlier this month, she was officially named to Trump’s White House team as assistant to the President and director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison focusing on issues such as community outreach.  Wouldn’t you just love for her to reach out to you?

As chilling as her words may be, measures recently taken outside of the limelight by the Republican leadership in the new Congress could pose a much greater threat to free speech and the ability of federal employees to do their jobs free of partisan intimidation, as a New York Times editorial pointed out today.

Last week at the instigation of Rep. Morgan Griffith (R – VA), a member of the radical House Freedom Caucus, the Republican-led House revived the “Holman Rule”, which allows Congress de facto power to fire federal employees as individuals or in groups by attaching amendments to spending bills that either eliminate their positions or reduce their salary to virtually nothing.  It could also be used to eliminate targeted programs, offices, or entire departments by simply defunding them.  Or it could be used to kill programs that certain congressmen just don’t like.  For example, Rep. Griffith reportedly wants to use it to end a federal program for care of wild horses.

The rule originated in 1876 as a way for ex-Confederate southern Democrats to kill post-Civil War reconstruction programs of the Republican-led federal government.  Now, of course, the parties’ ideological roles have reversed, and it’s the neo-confederate Republicans who are grabbing at every possible legislative strategem or procedural instrument to impose their contemporary version of States’ Rights.

Proponents of the Holman Rule have tut-tuted that the only reason for invoking it would be to improve government efficiency, and it would never, ever be used to target employees or programs for political reasons.

That might have had some credibility if the first act of the new Congress hadn’t been to try to eliminate the Office of Government Ethics.  Or if, when that failed, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R – UT) hadn’t summoned the director of that office to answer questions by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in closed-door session the day after Walter Shaub had stated publicly that Trump’s plan for avoiding conflicts of interest didn’t cut the mustard. Or if Trump’s Chief of Staff Reince Priebus hadn’t warned  Shaub that he better “be careful.” Or if one of the first acts of the Trump transition team hadn’t been to demand a list of all Department of Energy employees who had worked on climate change.

A potentially even greater intimidation tool is a new rule giving the Republican chair of 19 permanent committees power to issue subpoenas to depose people without requiring a member of congress to be present.   Eliminating the latter requirement opens the door to virtually limitless interrogations by staffers and to greatly increasing the number of subpoenas.   As the Times editorial points out, “people who are summoned for depositions often rack up thousands of dollars in legal fees and are seldom reimbursed for travel expenses”, and such inquiries have lately been used to carry out endless partisan vendettas as in the case of the Benghazi hearings against Hillary Clinton.

Trump’s petty vindictive character by now has been amply revealed for all to see, and his appointments to head cabinet agencies raise serious alarms about stifling employees, programs, or studies in federal agencies that don’t conform to the Trump agenda.

However, the more insidious danger may lie in obscure changes in congressional rules and procedures that will not get much attention in the media and are too arcane for most of the public to care about or understand.

It might be instructive to brush up on how the Jacobins took power during the French Revolution through manipulation of just such rules and procedures and then used them to destroy a generation of patriotic democratic dissidents.  Paul Ryan may not quite be Robespierre, but even Robespierre wasn’t initially the icy killer that he later became as the Revolution slipped from his control.  Remember, he ended up on the guillotine, and the Revolution ended as a monarchy with Napoleon Bonaparte in supreme control.

We’re still a long way from The Terror, but I don’t want to see a Tea Party version of McCarthyism either.  I think this is scary shit!

“Putin’s Mouthpiece” (not my words!)

nato-in-flames

With so many frightening things happening right now, it’s almost impossible to focus attention on any one of them.  But here’s something that even conservatives should be scared about: Trump’s renewed trash talking over the weekend about NATO and the European Union.

Trump’s interview with two major European newspapers shocked leaders throughout Europe, who had already been rattled by his cavalier remarks during the campaign.  He expressed indifference to the fate of the European Union, which he called a vehicle for German interests. He put both Angela Merkel (a strong US ally) and Vladimir Putin (a despotic US adversary) in the same category. He said Brexit was a “great thing” and called NATO “obsolete” while doubling down on his previous remarks that European countries weren’t paying their share.  Asked about sanctions on Russia, he hinted in his usual incoherent way that perhaps they might be lifted as part of a “good deal” with Putin.

A conservative columnist for The Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin, was freaked out enough to write an op-ed headlined:  “Trump is Putin’s Mouthpiece”.  Here’s a bit of what she had to say:

Had the Russians never hacked the Democratic National Committee or John Podesta, had WikiLeaks not strategically released Democrats’ emails to damage Hillary Clinton, had President-elect Donald Trump not surrounded himself with a host of Russophiles (e.g. Mike Flynn, Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Boris Epshteyn), had Trump not complimented Russian President Vladimir Putin during the campaign and defended him from charges that he murders journalists, had his campaign team not changed (then denied changing) the GOP platform on Ukraine and had Trump uttered a syllable of criticism of Putin, his interview with the Times of London would have been a surprise rather than a reaffirmation of Trump’s creepy favoritism toward America’s most formidable foe. Surely, had President Obama rather than Trump made the remarks, Republicans would be calling for him to resign, or at the very least, questioning his sanity and patriotism.

Noting that Trump is attacking the foundation of the international order that has been in existence for 70 years, Rubin concludes, “Republicans in Congress have a clear choice: Putin/Trump or loyalty to their once strongly held principle that the United States must lead in the world to act as a check on malevolent forces.

And what have we heard from other Republicans so far?  Anyone?  Anyone?  [crickets]

While some of Trump’s cabinet nominees have made traditional reassurances about support for Europe and our international alliances, it is the president that sets both the tone and the agenda for foreign policy.  Once he is in office, cabinet heads are not going to be able to contain Trump’s aggressive recklessness.

So is there an actual strategy here, or is this merely Trump mindlessly riffing on his vast ignorance?  Does he seriously not realize that casual remarks by the President of the United States can set off shock waves around the globe?  Does he actually think that’s a good thing?

If there is a plan here, then one really does have to ask whose plan it is. Because the clearest beneficiary sits in the Kremlin.

A Meditation on Martin Luther King Day

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Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012 were dismissed by some of his critics as merely symbolic for African Americans. But there is nothing “mere” about symbols. The power embedded in the word nigger is also symbolic. Burning crosses do not literally raise the black poverty rate, and the Confederate flag does not directly expand the wealth gap.  Ta-Nehisi Coates

Last Monday, as I was stuck in a plane on the ground at Fort Lauderdale airport for hours on end, I was lucky enough to have bought a copy of The Atlantic featuring an essay by the brilliant writer Ta-Nehisi Coates entitled “My President Was Black.”

Coates examines the issue of race in today’s America and what Barack Obama has meant to him and other African-Americans now that his presidency is ending and being replaced with something that feels like its polar opposite. The writer has been critical of the president at times, as he admits. Both his feelings about Obama and the argument of his essay are complex, and he looks at all the racial ugliness of these days. But he concludes as follows:

And I also knew that [Obama] had been responsible for the only time in my life when I felt, as the first lady had once said, proud of my country, and I knew that it was his very lack of countenance, his incredible faith, his improbable trust in his countrymen, that had made that feeling possible. The feeling was that little black boy touching the president’s hair. It was watching Obama on the campaign trail, always expecting the worst and amazed that the worst never happened. It was how I’d felt seeing Barack and Michelle during the inauguration, the car slow-dragging down Pennsylvania Avenue, the crowd cheering, and then the two of them rising up out of the limo, rising up from fear, smiling, waving, defying despair, defying history, defying gravity.

I confess that reading that left me in tears.  If anyone still has the patience for something longer than a tweet or a Facebook post, I commend his essay to you. Read it and mourn what we are losing.

I thought thought about that yesterday, after I saw that Trump had sent out a blast of revenge tweets against congressman John Lewis, one of the true heroes of the civil rights movement. How far have we really come on race in this country?

What do we do when conservatives advance the perverted argument that Barack Obama made racial relations worse?  As if his very election did not unleash a torrent of white backlash. As if he and his exemplary First Lady were not caricatured in the vilest racist ways.  As if Mitch McConnell and the other Republican neo-confederates in congress did not openly conspire to cripple Obama’s presidency from the start regardless of the damage inflicted on the country.  As if Donald Trump did not flog the “birther” lie for years to delegitimize a president who won a majority of the vote in two successive elections.  As if Trump did not make it socially acceptable to be racist again.  Really? It’s Obama’s fault?

Why is it always the responsibility of black people to bring about racial reconciliation? Why do white people feel entitled to indulge these attitudes, while black people are supposed to turn the other cheek.

For that matter, why is there so much fear and hatred toward black people among whites? Logically, it should be the other way around.  Relatively few white people have experienced real racially-based mistreatment at the hands of black people–I know I haven’t.  But I don’t think any black American could say the reverse.

I think the truth is that most white people in this country still don’t really know any black people.  I mean “know” in the sense of socializing together, being in each other’s homes, worshiping together, participating in important life events like weddings, birthday parties, funerals, etc.  Think about it.  Just going to lunch with a bunch of co-workers doesn’t really count.

What that means is that white people consciously or unconciously tend to accept the sort of dysfunctional stereotypes as valid, largely because they don’t know any better.  So when someone like Trump repeats the most derogatory cliches about the “reality” of African-America life, white people nod and silently agree.  In general, I think it’s fair to say that white people know very little about black history or the range of African-American experience and achievement.

I grew up in segregated Texas and through college until I entered the Army, I literally didn’t know any black people.  Then I started meeting these interesting, smart, talented, funny, cool African-Americans who were just fun to be around.  They were all very different, but knowing them changed my life for the better in so many ways.  For one thing, I could dance better than any other white GI in Korea!  And it changed the way I looked at things.

But the way American civilian life is structured, that sort of intermingling still doesn’t happen very naturally, and change–through real–has come very slowly. Even though we may have co-workers of another race, after five o’clock we tend to go our separate ways to homes in neighborhoods that are mostly one color, and we don’t think much about or even much care what goes on there .

Nothing changes one’s thinking like personal experience.  We all are immersed from infancy in attitudes and beliefs that we absorb from family, friends, and neighbors, and many of those attitudes and beliefs can be malignant. If we remain in our own little orbits, the likelihood of adjusting them is much diminished.

I don’t really believe that most white Americans are consciously racist (although some certainly are).  But I do think that most white people are deeply ignorant–sometimes willfully so–about the past and present reality of the black experience in America.  Even though American society has changed tremendously in the last half century, the default setting is still “white”.

Let me say it plainly:  White people have been responsible for creating the institutional racism and white privilege that still pervade American society, and the onus is on us to see that and change it.  It is deeply perverse to blame black Americans for the inequalities in our country.

I don’t mean this as a guilt trip, but as an invitation to open our eyes at what is going on around us.  We white people will probably never experience the impact of racism in the visceral way that so many African-Americans do almost every day.  But–and I include myself in this–we can make  an effort to be aware and try to see things from a different perspective and then apply those lessons to our politics and our daily life.

I may not be “woke” yet, but I’m trying to wake up.

Price, the ObamaCare Slayer

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The Secretary of Health and Human Services is not usually a high profile post, but now that the Senate has taken the first step to repealing the Affordable Care Act, take a look at the man Trump has picked to oversee its demolition: Tom Price, Republican congressman from Geogia.

Price, who is also an orthopedic surgeon, has been among the most vociferous opponents of the ACA from the outset.  He has also proposed radical changes and cuts in Medicare and Medicaid that would eliminate or severely limit benefits for people currently covered under those programs.  Unlike Trump or the Republican congressional leadership, who have been unable to come up with any alternative for the ACA, Price has an actual plan, which he introduced as legislation in 2015.

The New York Times has an excellent summary of Price’s plan, which is definitely worth reading in full.  But here are the key points:

  • Rolling back the expansion of Medicaid under the ACA, which would strip health care coverage for 14 million people living in 31 states and District of Colombia.
  • Slashing government subsidies to people who purchased insurance under government exchanges.
  • Eliminating the requirement for insurers to cover addiction treatment, birth control, maternity care, prescription drugs and other essential medical services.
  • Limiting coverage for pre-existing conditions only to people who had uninterrupted insurance coverage for at least 18 months, i.e. if you had a gap in coverage between jobs, you could be out of luck.
  • Converting Medicaid funding to block grants to the states, which would then determine what was covered and how much, i.e., many states–particularly those run by Republicans–would likely reduce the number of people covered (beyond those eliminated by repealing ObamaCare) and cut benefits.
  • Turning Medicare into a voucher program with a set stipend, leaving seniors responsible for paying all expenses beyond that amount out of their own pockets.
  • The net effect of all of these changes would likely be higher health care costs to most people and loss of coverage for up to 20 million Americans.

Even insurance companies (whose interests were accommodated under the ACA) are troubled by Price’s ideas.  They are particularly concerned by his plans to require insurers to accept billing by any doctor, not just those in their network, and “balance billing” which would allow doctors to charge more that what the insurer or Medicare allows.  They say that this would lead to major increases in health care costs.  And, of course, it opens lots of opportunity for fraud in what would be a much less regulated market.

Most people will have no idea about what the impact of any of these changes will be on them personally until they are actually implemented.   They will probably be in for a shock!

Some Republican congressmen are starting to have qualms about repeal because their constituents are realizing what it would mean for them.  But the party leadership is so committed ideologically to repealing ObamaCare and they are so invested in the disinformation campaign they have carried on against it, that the momentum is probably unstoppable.

Aside from ACA repeal, Democrats in the confirmation hearings have zeroed in on allegations that Price traded more than $300,000 in shares of health-related companies over the past four years while sponsoring and advocating legislation that potentially could affect those companies’ stocks.  According to the Wall Street Journal, this could be a violation of a 2012 law—the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act—that bars members and employees of Congress from using “any nonpublic information derived from the individual’s position…or gained from performance of the individual’s duties, for personal benefit.”  So far, Price has declined to provide detailed answers about any of this.

But we can hardly expect a Trump administration to be concerned with or even notice such relatively petty corruption, when Trump himself refuses to disclose his holdings or place them out of control of his immediate family to avoid conflicts of interest.  Like the rest of Trump’s cabinet nominations, Price seems determined to pervert the mission of the department he would head from serving the interests of the American public to increasing the wealth of members of a narrow and privileged group.

If you don’t think this is a good thing, let your senators know.