Politics Archive

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Response to E-mail: Congressional Reform Act of 2010

Politics - Can't We All Just Get Along?I got another e-mail forward that I responded to. This one was a proposed 'Congressional Reform Act'.

As usual, I've interspersed my comments in with quotes from the e-mail.

THIS IS HOW YOU FIX CONGRESS!!!!!

A friend sent this along to me. I can't think of a reason to disagree.

I am sending this to virtually everybody on my e-mail list and that includes conservatives, liberals, and everybody in between. Even though we disagree on a number of issues, I count all of you as friends. My friend and neighbor wants to promote a "Congressional Reform Act of 2010." It would contain eight provisions, all of which would probably be strongly endorsed by those who drafted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

I know many of you will say "this is impossible." Let me remind you, Congress has the lowest approval rating of any entity in Government. Now is the time when Americans will join together to reform Congress - the entity that represents us.

We need to get a Senator to introduce this bill in the US Senate and a Representative to introduce a similar bill in the US House. These people will become American heroes.

There's not much to respond to in this introduction. I'm not sure the Founding Fathers would necessarily agree with all of these proposed provisions, but I'll get to that below.

**********************************
Congressional Reform Act of 2010

1. Term Limits.

12 years only, one of the possible options below..

A. Two Six-year Senate terms
B. Six Two-year House terms
C. One Six-year Senate term and three Two-Year House terms

This probably couldn't be implemented by a simple Congressional Act. In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton that state imposed term limits were unconstitutional. So, this provision would probably require a Constitutional amendment.
Wikipedia.org - U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton

This also seems like a band aid to fix a more fundamental problem. There already is a system in place to get rid of elected officials that we don't like - the election process itself. The problem is that incumbents have such an advantage, that it's difficult to vote out a bad official. This e-mail is proposing that the solution is to just do away with incumbents. But what if the person really is a good representative for their state? I know that I'm personally a more valuable employee now that I've been working at my job for a few years, and I'd imagine it's the same for politicians. Think about all the experience they acquire, and all the connections they make that allow them to do their job better. A different solution to this fundamental problem would be to try to level the playing field in elections, so that incumbents don't have such an undue advantage, and then let the election process work the way it's supposed to.

The idea in this e-mail is also a bit anti-Democratic. Consider what Justice Stevens wrote in the case mentioned above, "Finally, state-imposed restrictions, unlike the congressionally imposed restrictions at issue in Powell, violate a third idea central to this basic principle: that the right to choose representatives belongs not to the States, but to the people."

2. No Tenure / No Pension.

A Congressman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they are out of office.

I'm not sure what the e-mail means by tenure. Politicians aren't guaranteed their positions for life. They have to continually win re-elections.

As far as pensions, I'm not really sure what the problem is with an employer providing a pension plan. Lots of businesses do it. It's how my own grandfather supported himself and my grandmother after he retired. Why should federal employees be forced to come up with individual retirement plans? This also overlaps a bit with Point 4 below, so I'll say a bit more there, as well as at the end of this response.

3. Congress (past, present & future) participates in Social Security.

All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately. All future funds flow into the Social Security system, and Congress participates with the American people.

I'm not sure I follow this point. Congress members already participate in Social Security. That's been the law since 1984 - 26 years ago. It seems a bit silly for a 'Reform Act' to specify continuation of the status quo. (I also wonder how the author of this e-mail intends to go back in time to force congress members from the 'past' to participate in Social Security.)
FactCheck.org - Do members of Congress pay Social Security taxes?

4. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.

Congress doesn't have their own 'Congressional Retirement Plan'. They participate in the Civil Service Retirement System, which is open to all federal employees. Like most retirement plans, they contribute a part from their salary, and their employer (the government) contributes a part.
Senate.gov - Congressional Research Service Repoert: Retirement Benefits for Members of Congress (pdf)

And like I already said, many employers provide retirement or pension plans for their employees, so I don't see why it's a problem when the government does it.

5. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise. Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.

I'm not sure I follow the first sentence in this point. Congress doesn't vote themselves pay raises. Since 1989, the raises have been calculated based on cost of living, and the raises have been applied automatically. In fact, a couple times since that law was passed, Congress has voted to suspend their cost of living raise for that year. Maybe whoever wrote this e-mail wants to propose a different method of calculating the cost of living increase, but that doesn't seem like a very grandiose reform – more of a refinement.
Congress.org - How Congress sets its own pay (note this is .org, not .gov)

6. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people.

Just like with their retirement plan, there's no special health care system just for Congress or the Senate. They participate in the same health care plan as other federal employees. I'm not sure exactly what the problem is with an employer providing a health care plan.
FoxNews.com - Myths About Congress Exposed

If the author of this e-mail wants the federal health care plan to be available to everybody, that would be a much bigger proposition than simply reforming Congress. It would also be difficult to get such a proposal past all the people who would immediately call such a plan socialist.

7. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.

This is another point that doesn't make much sense. Congress members already do have to follow the law. Why would a ‘Reform Act’ specify that people keep doing what they’ve been doing?

8. All contracts with past and present Congressmen are void effective 1/1/11.

The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen. Congressmen made all these contracts for themselves.

I'm not sure what this even means. What types of contracts? Any contract? Their mortgages and car loans? The author of this e-mail would have to explain just what types of contracts they're referring to before this point could be evaluated.

Serving in Congress is an honor, not a career. The Founding Fathers envisioned citizen legislators, serve your term(s), then go home and back to work. If you agree with the above, pass it on. If not, just delete.

I'm not sure that's what the Founding Fathers envisioned. James Madison, for example, was Secretary of State for 8 years, followed by another 8 years as president, not to mention everything he did during the founding of the nation. Thomas Jefferson, after being involved in the Revolution, served as a state legislator in the Virginia House of Delegates for 3 years, before becoming governor of Virginia for 2 years, followed by a year in the Congress of the Confederation, after which he was elected a minister plenipotentiary, then served 4 years as Minister to France, followed by 3 years as Secretary of State. After a short 3 year break from politics, he was vice president for 4 years, and then president for 8.

And those were literally the first two founders I happened to look up. If they didn't intend for people to make careers out of politics, it must have been in a 'do as I say, not as I do' sort of way.
Wikipedia.org - James Madison
Wikipedia.org - Thomas Jefferson

This 'citizen legislators' point also seems to run counter to points 2 and 4 from this proposal. Assuming a politician serves at least 12 years (the term limit set in this proposal), that's still a significant chunk of an adult's working life - around a quarter. If we want these positions to attract the best and brightest (as I'm hoping most people do), we have to make the compensation worth their while. I'm not saying that people should get rich off of being elected officials, but it at least needs to be enough to support them in a comfortable lifestyle, while providing for their future. Otherwise, there just wouldn't be any incentive for the talented among the middle class, and the only people who would run for office would be those who are rich enough that the salary doesn't matter, or those who are poor enough that they'd have nothing to lose. For that reason, I don't have a problem with elected representatives getting a decent salary and decent benefits.


After reviewing this, it doesn't really seem like a serious proposal for a new law. One of the points is unrealistic for what can be accomplished by regular laws (term limits), two of the points didn't make sense (tenure & contracts), several of the points wouldn't actually change anything (Social Security, pay raises, obeying the law), and the remainder are simply taking away the job benefits of politicians (health insurance & retirement). And just for good measure, the e-mail threw in a couple questionable references to the Founding Fathers.

I know everybody likes to complain about politicians, myself included, but I don't think we'll improve anything by making the job so unattractive that nobody wants to do it.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Response to E-mail: Respected Columnist Cal Thomas Endorses Dr. Jeffress' Comments [on Islam]

ReligionI received an e-mail forward the other day. It was a reprint of an article by Cal Thomas. The article and video were the typical anti-muslim bigotry that has become common. I wrote a reply, which I've adapted for this entry.

Thomas's article was short enough, that I'll quote it here in its entirety.

September 13, 2010

There is a lot of talk about Islam from our government officials, to apologists for terrorists, to the dupes who think it's great to build the Ground Zero mosque, to those who promote Islam as a "religion of peace."

The best rejoinder to all of this are comments by Dr. Robert Jeffress, Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. In a recent interview, Dr. Jeffress spoke the truth about Islam and what he called its "35 sword verses."

I have no seen anything as good as this. Dr. Jeffress synthesizes in less than six minutes what we face and the arguments thrown up at Christians about our supposed violent past.

I encourage you to watch it. You'll find it at youtube.com. Just type Dr. Robert Jeffress in the search box. And then pass it along to everyone on your email list.

Dr. Jeffress talks about the Crusades and he is unafraid to say what Islam is all about and where it leads. Again, go to youtube.com and watch this video of Dr. Robert Jeffress. You will be very glad you did.

I'm Cal Thomas in Washington.

The video Thomas was referring to was this one, Dr. Jeffress Tells The Truth About Islam

Okay, there are two things to address from this – Thomas's comments in his opening paragraph, and Jeffress's comments from the YouTube video.

Since it's shorter, I'll start with Thomas. First of all, who are these political figures who are apologists for the terrorists? The past two presidents and Congress for the past several years have continually funded the war in Afghanistan, and actually initiated a troop surge since Obama took office. I hope that with 'apologists', he's not referring to the people who try to understand the underlying motivation of the terrorists, since they're doing it so that we can better counter the forces that create terrorists.

On the 'Ground Zero mosque', I can't believe there are people so opposed to the First Amendment that they would even consider disallowing a place of worship. That's outright religious discrimination, and is a reason many of the original colonists left oppressive governments in Europe to begin with. Or do those people think the First Amendment only applies to their brand of religion?

Thomas's comment on Islam as a religion of peace blends well with the discussion below, so I'll address it there.

Jeffress made a few specific claims that I wanted to discuss. First, Jeffress did mention the Crusades, but then he slightly shifted the subject to say that many of the bad things done by Christians have been overblown, using the Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials as examples. But if you're going to talk about horrendous acts done in the name of Christianity, it's very hard to ignore what still remains to many people the very epitome of evil, the Holocaust. I'm not saying that Christianity necessarily caused the Holocaust, but that it was used as a justification, and that many Germans, through their interpretation of the religion, believed they were carrying out God's will. Consider this line from Mein Kampf, which Hitler later used in a 1938 speech, "I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Creator. By fighting off the Jews. I am doing the Lord's work", or this line from a 1922 speech, "In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was his fight against the Jewish poison." The actual religious views of Hitler himself are unclear, but it is clear that he was using Christianity to motivate the German people to commit atrocities (for more info on Hitler's stance towards Christianity: Straight Dope discussion on Hitler and Christianity or Extensive list of religious quotes of Hitler).

For a modern-day example, look at what's going on in Africa right now – Children Are Targets of Nigerian Witch Hunt. Evangelical Christian pastors, in addition to performing exorcisms, are accusing people, and often times children, of witchcraft. The accused are often beaten, or worse, killed.

There are two points to the above two paragraphs. First, any religion can be used to justify violent actions. Second, and more importantly, when one group acts in the name of a certain religion, you can't assume that other people of that religion share their views. We don't blame all of Christianity for the Holocaust. We rightly blame the Nazis. Similarly, we shouldn't blame all Muslims for the acts of al Qaeda or the Taliban.

Jeffress also made a claim that there's no call for violence in the New Testament. This depends on your interpretation. For every person who quotes Matthew 5:39, "But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also," someone else will quote Matthew 10:34, "Don't imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword" (Luke 19:27 is another of the passages that can be interpreted violently). There's also the way Jeffress is splitting hairs by focusing on the New Testament. After all, Matthew 5:17-18 says, "Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved." Many people interpret that as meaning that Old Testament laws still apply. And a skim through those books reveals a very violent set of rules, indeed. As just one example, consider Leviticus 24:15-16, which also shows that some rules were applicable to those outside the Jewish faith, "Say to the people of Israel: Those who curse their God will be punished for their sin. Anyone who blasphemes the Name of the Lord must be stoned to death by the whole community of Israel. Any native-born Israelite or foreigner among you who blasphemes the Name of the Lord must be put to death." For discussion of Christians who really do want to re-institute Old Testament laws, read the following articles:

So, while Jeffress's interpretation of Christianity may be nonviolent, not all Christians interpret it that way. This is the same situation in Islam, and is why some can consider it a religion of peace, while others can use it as a justification to fly a jetliner into the World Trade Center. Considering how many different ways the scriptures of religions can be interpreted, what's more important is the way people practice the religion.

There were a couple other points Jeffress made that I wanted to discuss, but this response is growing pretty long, and I'd rather not inundate you with so much information that you won't read it. So, I'm just going to give links to further sources, if you're interested.

On the subject of oppression of women:
http://www.religioustolerance.org/ofe_bibl.htm

On the subject of religiously condoned pedophilia:
http://www.wikisposure.com/CBLF

In all this discussion, it would be easy for a Christian to fall into the ‘No True Scotsman' fallacy. I could imagine that Jeffress might say that the Christians who have done the horrible acts I've mentioned above are interpreting the religion incorrectly, and might go so far as to say that they're not true Christians. But who gets to make that call. Catholics, for example, may say that Jeffress is the one misinterpreting Christianity. If a person honestly believes they're following a given religion, then what other term should we use to classify them? And I'm sure there are moderate Muslims who would like to use this same tactic – saying that the Islamic terrorists aren't true Muslims.

My point in all this is most definitely not to defend terrorists, or to say that Muslims never do bad things (the reaction to the Danish cartoons is certainly a good example of widespread bad behavior by more people than just terrorists), but to put this into perspective. There is diversity in the practices of Muslims just as there is in the practices of Christians. You can find good and bad people in both religions. Some of the worst actions we see coming from Muslims are similar to some of the worst actions we see coming from Christians. But, since the majority of people in this country are Christians, they haven't been demonized in the same way Muslims have. But it's no more right to tar all Muslims because of the actions of extremists than it would be to tar all Christians because of the actions of extremists.


This isn't directly related to Tomas's or Jeffress's comments, so I'm adding it as an addendum. I think that focusing on Islamic terrorism removes focus from other terrorist threats. When you look at the terrorist attacks in the U.S. last year, only one was carried out by a Muslim (although it was the deadliest attack of the year). And in fact, many people argue that this was more the act of an individual than organized terrorism, as are some of the other cases I listed.

Here are some of the terrorist acts on U.S. soil that I found with just a little bit of googling. I don't expect that this list is exhaustive. And that's only last year - I've left out domestic terrorism or attempted terrorism from previous years.

There were also a few acts of vandalism that border on terrorism. These examples are all from the Foundation for Biomedical Research.

  • September 6, 2009 - property damage only - ALF Vandalization of Car
  • February 2, 2009 - property damage only - H.A.A.N.D. Vandalization of 2 Homes
  • January 19, 2009 - Hackers Against Oppression Attack on Websites

Friday, September 3, 2010

The 2010 Texas Republican Platform

Republican ElephantI just posted a rather lengthy review of the 2008 Texas Republican Platform. As I noted at the end of that entry, my procrastination in completing the review resulted in a newer platform being released before I posted that entry. Now that I've looked over the new 2010 Platform, I have a few comments on it.

For the most part, the new platform was very similar to the old platform, with some sections actually being verbatim matches. So, there's no need for me to repeat everything here that I wrote in the previous review. My comments in this review will be directed at new additions to the platform, or sections that I might have missed from the previous platform (it was 25 pages, and I only skimmed through the thing).

I think the thing that struck me the most this time was just how much the platform was influenced by nonsense. I mean, there are legitimate political debates - the balance of power between federal and state governments, the rights that should be granted to a developing fetus at different stages of development, the balance of personal freedom & privacy versus public safety, parental authority versus welfare of the children, etc. But many of the planks in this platform are the types of baseless arguments you'd normally expect to come in an e-mail forward or to hear from the lunatic fringe, such as the 'birther' nonsense, the support for alternative medicine, the paranoia of a one world government, and the questioning of evolution and global warming.

Before getting started with my own review, I'll note that there's a decent review at Capitol Annex, which gets a bit more into the motivation behind some of these planks, and points out some of the hypocrisy.

Continue reading "The 2010 Texas Republican Platform" »

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Texas Republican Platform, or Why I'm Not a Republican

Added 2010-08-30 I've made a few revisions to this entry from when I originally wrote it. I was in a hurry to get this post online before the end of the week, so I didn't take enough time to proof read and revise. None of the revisions, though, significantly affect the meaning of this article.

Republican ElephantAs I've said before on this blog, I'm a political independent, but between the two major parties, I definitely lean more towards the Democrats. My view of the Republican party in general is pretty low. But I wondered, am I being biased by certain factors that cause me to think the Republicans are worse than they actually are? After all, I watch the Daily Show quite a bit, and they only show the worst of political parties. Ditto for the more liberal blogs that I read regularly. The numerous right wing e-mail forwards I receive , with all their propaganda and false claims (like this one, don't reflect too well on the right wing, either.

So, rather than look to second hand sources, I figure I ought to look at what Republicans officially endorse. I did receive an official survey from the RNC a few months ago in the mail. I had plenty of problems with that, but that wasn't a full statement of their principles or the laws they would like to see enacted. So, to be thorough, I figured it might do me some good to take a look at the party platform. Since I live in Texas, I downloaded a copy of the official 2008 STATE REPUBLICAN PLATFORM PLATFORM* for Texas (here's a pdf copy). There's actually quite a bit that I do agree with. It's just that on some of the points where I disagree, it's a huge disagreement. The official platform, if anything, made me think even less of the Republicans as a political party. The G.O.P. is going to have to make quite a few changes if they're going to ever make me lean more towards their party, and now that I know what the platform actually states, candidates are going to have to come out and disagree with the worst parts explicitly if they want to get my vote.

From the opening sections of PRINCIPLES and LOCAL AND STATE PRIORITIES, I'll address individually each of their points. But because the platform is so long, I can't do that for the whole thing, so I'll just pull out some highlights - most of the excerpts from areas where I disagree strongly, but a few from where I actually agree with them.

Continue reading "The Texas Republican Platform, or Why I'm Not a Republican" »

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Proposition 8

Defend EqualityI've been browsing through the comment thread over on Bad Astronomy in the post on Prop 8. Aside from the religious and bigoted arguments, one of the most prevalent I've seen from opponents to marriage rights is that this goes against democracy - the people voted, and now a judge has overturned it. One person even called it 'unconstitutional'. I've got to wonder - do these people even know how our government works? To spell it out for them, we have legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Legislative legislates laws. Executive executes laws. And judicial judges laws. I know - pretty complicated. So, when a law gets passed, even if it's voted on by the people, higher courts can determine whether the law itself is unconstitutional. It's part of that whole balance of powers thing. Now, if you don't like the Constitution, you can pass ammendments to have it changed, but I kind of like the idea that the Constitution limits the authority of government.

To tell the truth, though, I just can't think of any good reason why gay marriage shouldn't be allowed. I've already written about this extensivey (while I was still a Christian, no less). Although I have slightly different views now (without using the Bible as a basis for morality, I no longer see any problem at all with homosexuality), I don't think it would be worth writing something new on this, so I'll just link to those previous essays I've written on the issue.

Legality of Homosexual Marriage, Part I
Legality of Homosexual Marriage, Part II

I included this link in that second entry, but it's definitely worth pointing out here.
10 Reasons Why Gay Marriage is Wrong (Satirical)

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