Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Pelosi quashes I-word -- for now -- March 14, 2019 column


The front-page headline in the New York Post blared: “PELOSI BLINKS.”

A smaller one read: “`He’s just not worth it,’ says speaker.”

He, of course, is President Donald Trump. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made headlines Tuesday when she said, “I’m not for impeachment.”

Did she blink? Hardly.

Pelosi has been playing down impeachment talk since she became speaker, urging Democrats to wait for various investigations to yield hard evidence before rushing to impeach.  

Her comments made news because the interview with Joe Heim in The Washington Post Magazine, published Monday, was the first time she stated her position so succinctly to a reporter.

Some in Trump’s camp evidently felt comforted by Pelosi’s comments.

“I’m glad she sees what the rest of us see, that there is no reason, no cause for impeachment,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said on Fox News, typically mischaracterizing what Pelosi said.

Trump, taking the role of victim, cries harassment and calls all investigations a witch hunt.

No one should labor under the delusion Pelosi is giving Trump a Get out of Jail Free card.

Asked if Trump is fit to be president, she said no, he is “ethically unfit. Intellectually unfit. Curiosity-wise unfit.”

Pelosi wants Trump out, but the canny strategist wants to oust him the old-fashioned way – through the electoral process.

She also wants Democrats to retain control of the House and regain the Senate. The last may be wishful thinking, but none of her goals has a prayer if Democrats lose sight of their policy agenda and alienate a wide swath of the electorate, especially 
independent and moderate voters in swing districts.

Impeachment would draw attention away from such Democratic goals as reducing prescription drug costs and ending gender discrimination in the workplace.

So Pelosi has slowed the impeachment train, although some congressional Democrats, like Rep. Al Green of Texas, who first introduced an articles of impeachment resolution in January 2017, and some House freshmen vow to continue their efforts.

Pelosi’s statement provides political cover for Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, who heads the House Judiciary Committee, and other Democratic chairmen who face pressure to impeach.

Billionaire activist Tom Steyer, who reportedly plans to spend $40 million in the 2020 election cycle to get Trump impeached, has run ads in Nadler’s and others’ districts, urging them to get on with it.

Nadler launched a sweeping investigation into possible wrongdoing by Trump and has said he believes Trump has committed obstruction of justice. But Nadler said he needs to gather evidence.

The constitutional grounds for impeachment are not whether one finds the president personally odious or his policies wrong-headed. The grounds are “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

It takes time to build a case and the necessary public support for such a wrenching take-down. President Richard Nixon held on and did not resign until Republican congressional leaders broke the bad news that he was about to be impeached. 

Voting to impeach Trump prematurely would be the political equivalent of downing a large piece of chocolate lava cake while dieting – delicious in the moment but ultimately a self-defeating indulgence.

The reality is even if the House were to vote to impeach Trump, a trial in the Senate would not remove him from office, not at this point with a GOP majority, and failed impeachment could redound to the benefit of Republicans.

Pelosi was in the House when Republicans impeached President Bill Clinton, failed in the Senate to remove him from office – and lost seats in the next election.    

Pelosi did leave the door ajar for impeachment of Trump someday, but said it’s so divisive it should be avoided “unless there’s something so compelling and bipartisan.”

Compelling and bipartisan are good standards. There’s also a question of timing. 

Unless impeachment proceedings take place this year, 2020 may be too late. Impeachment proceedings would take over the campaign and incite Trump voters.   

Pelosi likes to quote Lincoln: “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.”

If Democrats want to succeed, they should listen to and trust the experienced Nancy Pelosi.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

First Hispanic Supreme aims not to be the last -- March 7, 2019 column


As a child growing up in the South Bronx projects, Sonia Sotomayor never dreamed of being on the Supreme Court.

“You cannot dream of something you don’t know about,” she said, adding, “That has been the most important lesson of my life.”

Sotomayor, the first Hispanic and the third woman justice on the U.S. Supreme Court in history, has made it her mission to inspire children with words we seldom hear anymore from anyone in public life.  

“Everything in life is hard. To get anywhere, to do anything, you have to work at it,” she said March 1 in a conversation with actress Eva Longoria Bastón at George Washington University.

The auditorium was filled not with college students but schoolchildren, many of them Hispanic, and Sotomayor spoke Spanish as well as English.

“You’ve got to work hard, you have to study hard, you have to do a lot of things you don’t want to do, but there can still be hope,” she said. “And I want every child to live in the world knowing dreams can come true.”

She’s been on tour to promote her latest book, “Turning Pages: My Life Story,” a children’s picture book in Spanish and English, which she called, “a great way to learn Spanish or if you have to learn English.”

Showing photos in the book of her family and herself as a child, she said: “I look like a lot of you – don’t I?”

When President Barack Obama named Sotomayor to the court in 2009, he called  her “an inspiring woman who I believe will make a great justice.”

His choice sent a powerful message to the Latino community and all minorities that America still can be the land of opportunity – a message needed even more today than a decade ago.  

Sotomayor, 65, was born in New York City, where her mother, an Army veteran, and her father relocated from Puerto Rico. Her dad, a tool-and-die maker, did not speak English; her mom, a nurse in a methadone clinic, was fanatical that Sonia and her brother learn English and get a good education.

After her father died when she was 9, young Sonia went to the library to escape the sadness at home.

“Reading is the key to your success in life,” she said.

Asking if her young listeners had library cards, she said: “Make your parents take you tomorrow to sign up.”

As part of her mission, she also promotes civics -- “the most important class you can ever take in school.” She serves on the board of iCivics, founded by retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, which teaches civics through video games.

In her pre-video game youth, Sotomayor was inspired by watching “Perry Mason” on TV. The first iteration of the popular TV legal drama and who-done-it ran from 1957 to 1966. 

Sotomayor attended Princeton University. Her first job out of Yale Law School was as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan. She was named a U.S. District Court judge by President George H.W. Bush and to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by President Bill Clinton.

“Yes, it’s a little bit harder when you come from a background a lot of other people don’t come from,” she said.

But asked how her Puerto Rican heritage influences her, she credits it with instilling her identity and values.

“It’s not just food or music or poetry, it’s the way you learn to love one another as a family,” she said. 

When Obama nominated her, critics said she wasn’t “smart enough” to be a Supreme Court justice, she told the kids.

“That hurt me a lot,” and she started to doubt herself. But she didn’t let her doubts stop her.

She had faced fear at an early age. At age 7, she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and, terrified of needles, had to learn to give herself insulin shots.

She steeled herself to the task by emulating a character in her favorite comic book.

“Maybe I can find the bravery Supergirl has,” she thought at the time.

She urged her young listeners not to let fear stop them from pursuing their dreams.

“We all have courage inside us.”


Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Time to scrap Selective Service System -- Feb. 28, 2019 column


Few may have noticed when a federal judge ruled that requiring only men, and not women, to register for the draft is unconstitutional now that all military jobs are open to women.

“While historical restrictions on women in the military may have justified past discrimination, men and women are now ‘similarly situated for purposes of a draft or registration for a draft,’” U.S. District Judge Gray H. Miller wrote.

The ruling issued Friday in Houston doesn’t change anything, but it does raise a larger question: Why should anyone – male or female -- have to register for the draft in 2019?

The last man was drafted into military service in 1973. And yet today, male citizens and residents of the United States ages 18 through 25, including documented and undocumented immigrants, still must register for the draft – or risk fines and prison time. On paper, anyway.

No one has been prosecuted for failing to register since 1986, the Congressional Research Service reported in January in a study of selective service and the draft issues for Congress.

Many young men register for the draft automatically when they get their driver’s license or apply for federal student aid. 

The Selective Service System -- 124 full-time employees “complemented with a corps of volunteers and military reservists” -- keeps a database in a Chicago suburb with 78 million records, CRS reported.

The data – names, addresses, Social Security numbers -- are retained until a registrant turns 85 – yes, 85! -- in case the information is needed to certify someone is eligible for federal student aid, training, government jobs and security clearances.

The Selective Service annual budget of nearly $23 million is peanuts by federal standards, but it’s wasteful to spend even that much on an unused and unneeded agency. The rationale that we might need to mobilize manpower quickly with a draft is antiquated in the age of modern warfare, critics say.

And the Pentagon?

“We don’t want a draft,” then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, who opened all military jobs to women in 2015, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2016.

“We don’t want people chosen for us. We want to pick people. That’s what the all-volunteer force is all about. That’s why the all-volunteer force is so excellent,” Carter said.

The Trump administration hasn’t taken a stand, but Congress has wrestled for decades with the Selective Service System and the draft. It finally punted.   

Congress created the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service in 2017 to come up with recommendations. As the name suggests, the commission is charged with finding ways to weave various kinds of service into the fabric of American life.

The commission spent last year listening to people across the country and has more hearings scheduled. A final report and recommendations are due to Congress in March 2020. Read more at

“Our conversations underscored that while service is encouraged by many families, schools and communities, there is no widely held expectation of service in the United States,” commission Chairman Joe Heck, former Republican congressman from Nevada, a physician and brigadier general in the Army Reserves, wrote in an Interim Report in January.

“As a result, military, national and public service is the exception rather than the rule,” he wrote.

While many agree that shared voluntary service for young people especially is a worthy goal, the report laid out challenges.

Whether someone wants to join the military or not, it’s a national disgrace that only about 30 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds meet the physical, mental and moral requirements for the military.

The Army failed to reach its recruiting goal last year for the first time since 2005, partly because fewer young people even think of joining the military.

As for national service, few Americans know about the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and Teach for America, the report said.

So, if the Selective Service System is a dinosaur – and it is – let’s scrap it and dedicate our resources to making voluntary service a shared expectation.

Let’s return to a time-tested, 20th century ideal: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” That would make America truly great.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Say yes to bees in your backyard -- Feb. 21, 2019 column


If you’re gloomy about the way the country’s headed, there is something you can do to make things better.

And it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat, Republican or independent.

It’s not voting or running for office – though the first is necessary and the second admirable. Nor do you need to contribute to a candidate, make calls, collect signatures or march in the street. 

This transformative act is simple, close to home and far more effective than fulminating on Twitter: Choose to have a garden and plant native plants.

Tending a garden won’t solve the political mess, of course, but it will get you outside, and, more importantly, it will help bees.

You might not think a backyard garden would amount to more than, well, a hill of beans in our helter-skelter world of stressed bees, declining insects and changing climate, but biologists say what you do on your patch of the planet matters.  

“Bees need just a little space,” says Sam Droege, wildlife biologist at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, part of the U.S. Geological Survey, and one of the nation’s top experts on bees.
“Bees are tiny; one bush or one clump of perennials is often all it takes to foster native bees in your yard,” he writes in his article “Quick Background on the Mid-Atlantic Region’s NativeBees.”
“Within a mile of your yard (urban or rural) there are at least over 100 species of bees looking for the right plants,” he writes.   
When Droege, an evangelist for bees, and naturalist Alonso Abugattas spoke in Arlington the other night on bee-friendly gardening, the meeting room was packed.
The basic buzz: Plant the right flowers and flowering bushes, and native bees will come.
This might be a good time to mention that most native bees don’t sting.

They aren’t aggressive and would rather fly away than attack. Most nest in the ground, so you likely have stepped on thousands upon thousands of nesting bees over time, without knowing it, Droege said.

The plight of the honey bee worldwide is well known. Colony collapse disorder made news in 2006, alarming scientists, the government and the public. Honey bees are farmed in hives, are important pollinators in agriculture and provide honey.

Of the more than 4,000 species of wild, native bees in the United States, about 450 species have been identified in Virginia. Native bees were here long before the European honey bee was brought to Jamestown in the 1600s.

Unlike European honey bees, native bees are solitary and don’t live in a hive with a queen. Native bees are more interested in pollen than honey bees who really go for nectar.

Native bees actually are better pollinators than honey bees and are important for fruits and vegetables.   

The orchard mason bee is a super pollinator. One of these native bees can visit up to 60,000 flowers in its lifetime, Eric Day, entomologist at Virginia Tech, writes in his article “Native and Solitary Bees in Virginia,” adding that this bee is very docile and suitable for urban settings.

Some native bees can become a nuisance, however. Leafcutter bees like to build their nests in door or window frames, and beneficial bumble bees sometimes nest near and get in houses. Day writes.

Native bees prefer native plants – asters, coneflower, goldenrod and a host of others. 

About 35 percent of native bees are specialists, meaning they will feed only certain pollen to their young.

For a bee-friendly garden, choose your sunniest spot and plan your garden so 
something is always flowering. A rule of thumb is it takes five flowers to support one baby bee.

If you can part with some of your lawn, so much the better. You can even leave a patch of bare dirt for the bees. Avoid insecticides and pesticides.

Consult your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office, public gardens, Master Gardeners, Master Naturalists and their reliable websites for advice, lists of bee-friendly plants and how-tos on building nest structures for the 30 percent of bees that do nest above ground.  

Everybody wins when we make our backyards better for bees.  

©Marsha Mercer 2019. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

McConnell sets Green New Deal trap -- Feb. 14, 2019 column


Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been in the Senate longer than Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York has been alive.

That imbalance became clear Tuesday as McConnell set up a vote to make Democrats pay for their reckless embrace of the Green New Deal.

McConnell, who turns 77 Wednesday, arrived in the Senate in 1985. Ocasio-Cortez was born in 1989.

At 29, she is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, a wizard at social media with 3.1 million Twitter followers. A video of her House Oversight and Reform Committee “Lightning Round” take-down at the of lax ethics and campaign finance rules is an internet sensation.

But her rollout of the much-anticipated Green New Deal was a disaster.

To recap, her office released and then retracted a frequently-asked-questions sheet that included the goals of economic security for people “unwilling to work,” and eventually ridding the country of flatulent cows, airplanes and various industries.

None of those ideas is in the actual resolution, H. Res. 109, but they were the first many people heard about the Green New Deal. Ocasio-Cortez didn’t help matters when she falsely said there were “doctored” FAQ versions on the internet.

The resolution is non-binding but would indicate support to set the federal government on the path of a “10 year national mobilization” to fight climate change and remake the economy.

Among the goals: “Meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.” It also guarantees jobs, education, food and health care for everyone.

Such sweeping changes need serious consideration with months, if not years, of hearings, and compromises. By rushing out a resolution in her first month in office, Ocasio-Cortez delighted her fans but walked into a trap.

The conservative media and President Donald Trump quickly blasted the Green New Deal as ridiculous.

“It sounds like a high school term paper that got a low mark,” Trump said at a campaign rally in El Paso. “I really don’t like their policy of taking away your car, of taking away your airplane rights, of ‘Let’s hop a train to California,’ or you’re not allowed to own cows anymore!”

Ocasio-Cortez rightly could have said her manifesto wouldn’t do any of those things. It doesn’t include any specific proposals. But she lobbed her response by tweet: “Ah yes, a man who can’t even read briefings written in full sentences is providing literary criticism of a House Resolution.

Meanwhile, McConnell, a veteran of many political wars, was setting the trap.

He looked like the cat that swallowed the canary when he announced the Senate would vote on the Green New Deal resolution. A resolution identical to Ocasio-Cortez’s was introduced by Sen. Edward Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts.

“We’ll give everybody an opportunity to go on record and see how they feel about the Green New Deal,” McConnell told reporters. 

Mischievous Mitch used to say he would only bring measures to the floor that would get Trump’s signature. This time he means to get Democrats on the record so Republican candidates can hammer them during 2020 campaigns.

Half a dozen Democratic senators are running for president, and nearly a dozen Democrats face tough Senate re-election bids.

The botched rollout has made more than Ocasio-Cortez look amateurish. So too do the presidential hopefuls who jumped on the bandwagon. 

Six cosponsors are announced or likely presidential contenders -- Sens. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who may run again, is also a cosponsor.

In contrast, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 78, a wily congressional veteran who came to the House in 1987, has kept the Green New Deal at arm’s length.

“It will be one of several or maybe many suggestions that we receive,” Pelosi told Politico. “The green dream or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?”

Pelosi saw early what’s now dawning on less savvy Democrats: The Green New Deal wasn’t ready for prime time. It created a political opening for Republicans and a liability for Democrats.   

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Fair pay law for women early test for Democratic Congress -- Feb. 7, 2019 column


The most memorable visual from the State of the Union was the most joyous.

We’re used to Republican members of Congress popping up from their chairs and dutifully applauding President Donald Trump – and to Democrats, with rare exceptions, sitting glumly.    

On Tuesday night, though, dozens of Democratic women wearing “suffragette white” to show solidarity and to honor the legacy of the suffragette movement, became a wave of celebration.

The women were largely quiescent until Trump began touting the economy.

“No one has benefited more from our thriving economy than women, who have filled 58 percent of the new jobs created in the last year,” he said.

The women – many of them newcomers to Congress – perked up. Smiling, they looked around, stood and applauded, pointing to themselves and each other. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi beamed.

“Don’t sit yet. You’re going to like this,” Trump said. “And exactly one century after the Congress passed the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote, we also have more women serving in the Congress than ever before,” he said.

At that, the women -- many of whom ran for Congress and won because of their outspoken opposition to Trump’s policies – rejoiced in their triumph with energetic fist-pumps, high fives and hugs. Their jubilation was infectious.

Now they need to harness their enthusiasm to succeed in the hyper-partisan capital. 

The Democratic House must deliver on promises to make Washington work for everybody.

It’s exciting to think the new members actually will build coalitions and pass bills that better the lives of women and families. Even Trump says he favors paid family and medical leave, although there’s nothing to show for it.  

One of the first tests for Congress is ensuring women get equal pay for their work. Finally.

Equal pay has been the law of the land since the 1960s, but the gender pay gap – the difference in median earnings of a man and a woman each working full time -- persists.

A woman in 2017 earned about 20 percent less than a man, according to the most recent Census Bureau figures. The wage gap is worse for black women and Hispanic women.

This isn’t a fluke or women working in “women’s” jobs that pay less. Men’s median weekly pay exceeds women’s in almost every occupation -- from chief executives to janitors and building cleaners, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

The Paycheck Fairness Act was first introduced more than a decade ago. It would close loopholes in the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and make employers more accountable for their pay practices.

It would end pay secrecy and retaliation – workplace rules that keep workers from asking about others’ wages and disclosing their own; allow workers to sue for damages from pay discrimination; strengthen penalties for equal pay violations, and update the federal role in education, research and data-collection to combat gender discrimination.  

The House first passed Paycheck Fairness in January 2009, but the bill died in the Senate. It has been reintroduced repeatedly and has always failed.  

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, and Sen. Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, reintroduced the measure Jan. 30.

In the House, every Democrat and one Republican are cosponsors. In the Senate, there are 45 cosponsors – all Democrats and Bernie Sanders, independent. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of Virginia are cosponsors.

Rep. Bobby Scott, Democrat of Virginia, is now chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, and plans to fast-track the legislation with a hearing this month and a House vote soon after. The goal is to have a bill on Trump’s desk by early April.

But passage is hardly assured. Even though more women serve in Congress than ever, they still make up only about a quarter of the total membership.

What’s needed is a thaw in the Republican-controlled Senate. Republicans oppose the bill as unnecessary, saying it burdens employers and could even harm women,  if employers are reluctant to hire them.

But surely in 2019 equal pay for women doing equal work is an issue we all can agree on.

It’s time for Congress – new members and veterans – to turn to the hard work of governing and get the job done.

  ©2019 Marsha Mercer All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Meddling in 2016 election just a warm up for 2020 -- Jan. 31, 2019 column


So, you see a video of President Donald Trump doing something truly outrageous, what do you do?

Or, you hear an audio clip of Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris saying something beyond the pale, what then?

Rush to share it. Fly into a furious tweetstorm. Post and rant on Facebook. I know, it happens all the time.

But what if the video or audio you sent ’round the world was fake, bogus, a trick?

I don’t mean fake news but a deepfake: digital audio or video created by artificial intelligence so realistic we can’t tell it’s fake.

In our brave new cyberworld, voters should know what we see and hear may not always be real. As in, no, you can’t believe your lying eyes – or ears.

In 2016, Russia and others used fake web sites and impersonated Americans on social media to divide us and sow discord. As if we needed help in that department.

By 2018, Russia, China and Iran all tried to manipulate and polarize us. Fortunately, they were unable to compromise the elections, the U.S. government says.

But that likely was just a warm-up.  

“We expect (foreign actors) to refine their capabilities and add new tactics as they learn from each other’s experiences and efforts, suggesting the threat landscape could look very different in 2020 and future elections,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned the Senate Intelligence Committee Tuesday.  

One big, new threat is deepfakes, which made news in 2017, when people swapped actresses faces for porn stars and made sex videos.

Almost anyone can make deepfakes now, and they have the potential for creating havoc on the national and world stage.

Today, while the algorithms are complex, “there are user-friendly platforms that people with little to no technical expertise can use to create deepfakes,” Charlotte Stanton, director of the Silicon Valley office of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, wrote in a report released Monday.

“The easiest among these platforms allow anyone with access to the internet and pictures of a person’s face to make a deepfake. Tutorials are even available for people who want step-by-step instructions,” Stanton said.

Canadian start-up Lyrebird claims it creates “the most realistic artificial voices in the world” from just one minute of speech. To show how realistic – and scary this is – the website has sample “voice avatars” of Donald Trump and Barack Obama. You’d never guess they’re fakes.

Make no mistake, there are laudable uses for such technology. Lyrebird works with ALS patients to create a digital voice copies so they can still communicate in their voice if they lose the ability to speak.

But the bad guys are out there, and the Pentagon and academics are researching how to identify and stop deepfakes. The AI technology evolves so fast it makes detection ever more difficult.
Congress is alarmed, and some lawmakers are weighing legislation, although it’s important not to create new problems while fixing one. Sen. Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, wants to make it illegal to create or distribute malicious deepfakes.

“Deepfakes – video of things that were never done with audio of things that were never said – can be tailor-made to drive Americans apart and pour gasoline on just about any culture war fire,” Sasse told Axios.

Government can’t save us from being gullible. Each of us needs to guard against those who want to weaken our democracy and make truth a relic of the past.

What can we do? First, be skeptical. As always, consider the source before you share.
Look closely. In some deepfake videos, the people don’t blink -- but blinking doesn’t guarantee one is legit.

And take a breath. It’s easy to fly off the handle and repost the things that confirm our worst nightmares.

“Let us remember that while Russia can amplify our divisions, it cannot invent them,” Sen. Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, co-chairman of the Intel committee, said at Tuesday’s hearing.

“When a divisive issue like the `take a knee’ NFL controversy or a migrant caravan dominates the national dialogue, these are issues that can be – and are – taken advantage of by Russian trolls. Let’s not make their work easier,” Warner said.

Excellent advice. It won’t be easy, but we need to unite on this one thing: stopping deepfake tricks in their tracks.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.