Thursday, March 25, 2010

Pelosi's big gavel -- March 25, 2010 column


“Whenever men screw up, they call on a woman to bail them out.”

That line comes from Saturday night’s Gridiron Club show, a spring rite in which Washington journalists poke fun at politicians and themselves. It was referring to the time 35 years ago when the all-male club finally invited its first woman member, the redoubtable Helen Thomas.

But the line also sums the news about President Barack Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and passage of health-care reform.

After it looked like Obama had let reform slip away, Pelosi raised it from near death, giving the president the victory he sorely needed.

Attaining her goal made Pelosi the poster child for anti-Washington fervor. Days before the House passed and Obama signed health care reform, just 11 percent of people surveyed by CBS News thought favorably of Pelosi, and 37 percent regarded her unfavorably.

The good news for Pelosi, if you can even call it that, was the 36 percent who said they hadn’t heard enough about her to make a judgment and the 15 percent who were undecided. The poll was even worse for Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who had an 8 percent favorable rating.

Fortunately, despite the fatuousness of our politics, Congress doesn’t run on polls or popularity. It runs on power.

Pelosi carried a symbol of her power – an over-sized gavel -- on a walk Sunday through angry crowds to the Capitol for the final vote. She marshaled her power to keep 219 antsy Democrats in line and passed the biggest social measure since Medicare in 1965.

While Republicans couldn’t kill the bill, they did beat it to a bloody pulp. Their scare talk about death panels and a government takeover of one-sixth of the economy took its toll with the public.

In the aftermath, Obama celebrated and then hit the road to give the new law a new image. Republicans raked in almost $1.5 million in a fundraising campaign aimed at dumping Pelosi.

On, an unflattering picture of Pelosi with her fists clenched was set against a flame background. The headline: “FIRE PELOSI.”

Perhaps more telling, the Republican National Committee also promised “40 Seats Means No More Madam Speaker.” Returning the House to Republican control not only means the end of the Pelosi era but also putting a man back in charge, a return to “Mister Speaker.”

For some reason, the most powerful women in politics – Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton and Pelosi – provoke more hatred among both sexes than powerful men do.

Pelosi is a latest female lightning rod. The left sees her as a strong and courageous leader, praised by a grateful president. Commentators and political analysts gush that she’s the most powerful woman in American history, the most powerful speaker in 100 years, the next Ted Kennedy.

The right sees her as a machine politician, an archenemy whose name – like Ted Kennedy -- brings out pens and checkbooks

House minority leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said, “She is a strong (House) speaker, there isn’t any question about that.” But he added, “So you pass a very unpopular bill. You shove it down the throats of the American people and you lose your majority. How good is that? How smart is that?”

For her part, Pelosi, mother of five and grandmother of 10, seems unfazed by vitriol or adulation. Gracious in triumph, she praised Obama’s commitment to reform.

When Diane Sawyer, the first female anchor of ABC’s “World News” asked Pelosi about being called the most powerful woman and House speaker, Pelosi laughed and said, “That sounds good.” And she added, “I don’t take it personally – except I take it as a compliment for all women.”

Nor, apparently, does she take the attacks personally.

“I’m in the arena,” she told Sawyer. “You’re the target.”

When Pelosi was sworn in as the first woman House speaker in 2007, she acknowledged that she had made history. “Now let’s make progress,” she said.

This woman bailing out a man has now made both history and progress.

And, as Women’s History Month ends, it’s worth noting that even if Republicans win the 40 seats and take back the big gavel, they can’t put the genie back in the bottle. There will be more Madam Speakers.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Census hitches million-dollar ride on NASCAR -- March 18, 2010 column


Every 10 years since 1790, the federal government has counted Americans, and every 10 years some of us wail that the census is a new and nefarious plot to invade our privacy.

And so, every 10 years the government seeks creative ways to sell us on filling out a census form.

The 2010 Census is the most accommodating and, at $14.7 billion over 10 years, the most expensive ever. Its questionnaire is one of the shortest in history.

Now, after its TV ads during the Super Bowl and the Olympics, the census hopes to ride the popularity of NASCAR. This Sunday, Greg Biffle will drive the 2010 Census-sponsored No. 16 Ford Fusion at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee. Next stop: the Martinsville (Va.) Speedway March 28.

The $1.2 million NASCAR sponsorship is part of a $300 million communications campaign aimed at prodding people to answer 10 inoffensive questions, a task that takes about 10 minutes, and then mail in the questionnaire.

Of the $300 million budget for communications, $140.4 million will go to paid media advertising, up from $110 million 10 years ago. This is stunningly costly outreach at a time of soaring federal budget deficits.

For some perspective, however, consider that Microsoft spent $300 million on a 2008 ad campaign to counter Apple’s “I’m a Mac” ads. And $140.4 million is how much the tobacco industry spends marketing in West Virginia in one year, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Still, can spending so much on census ads possibly be worth it? We won’t know until all the data are in, but it appears that people are getting the message.

In 2000, the census participation rate was about 72 percent, an increase from the mid-60 range.

Today, almost everybody knows about the census, almost nine in 10 people say the census is very or somewhat important to the country and that they plan to send in the form, according to a survey the Pew Research Center released Tuesday.

The proportion of people saying they’ll definitely participate has increased 12 points since January, Pew reported. That’s good news because the Census Bureau says each 1 percent rise in household participation saves $85 million.

Those who want to resist the census should remember that it's going to count you -- or keep spending money trying. After mailing each household an announcement letter, a census form and a reminder postcard, the census eventually will send enumerators to the homes of non-respondents. This personal service cost about $57 per visit in 2000 and could cost $72 per visit in 2010.

No electronic census reporting is yet available because the Census Bureau hasn’t worked out the technology, which is odd. We file taxes and bank electronically, and people eagerly spill their innermost secrets online.

Even in our tell-all society, though, when the government asks once a decade who lives in the house, it goes against the grain. Among those who threaten to boycott the 2010 Census are tea party activists, Libertarians, Hispanic groups and even a few outliers in Congress. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., declared last year she wouldn’t fill out a form, but she changed her mind. Bachmann now supports a House resolution urging participation.

Some Hispanic groups fear that undocumented residents could be identified, but the census can’t ask – there’s no question about immigration status -- and can’t tell. Under federal law, the census cannot share any information – not names, addresses or GPS coordinates, phone numbers, anything – with anyone. This includes the FBI, CIA, IRS and law enforcement. Census employees take an oath for life to protect privacy.

The main function of the census is to reapportion members of the House of Representatives. It also determines how to allocate $400 billion in federal funds annually. Ads stress sending in the forms as a way of bringing back money for hospitals, schools, bridges and tunnels and other goodies.

Self-interest isn’t the only motivator, of course. Eight in 10 people told Pew participating in the census was a civic responsibility, although the sentiment was far stronger among older people. The decennial census is required by the Constitution.

My guess is most people would participate without Greg Biffle and his No. 16 Ford Fusion. I hope NASCAR gets others on track.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

On Obama, the grumpy chief justice and cake -- March 11, 2010 column


First, President Barack Obama scolded the Supreme Court in his State of the Union Address. Then, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. suggested that the annual address has “degenerated into a political pep rally,” and he might stop attending.

Sounds like it’s time for another “beer summit” at the White House.

Last summer, Obama invited a black Harvard historian and a white Boston police officer to talk over glasses of Sam Adams and Blue Moon. Maybe the president should invite Roberts to the White House – but the refreshment of choice could be birthday cake.

Yes, birthday cake. Overlooked in the news coverage of Roberts’ remarks is a personal detail that may help explain his ruffled feathers. Obama’s State of the Union address took place on Jan. 27. That was John Roberts’ birthday. He turned 55.

It’s not hard to imagine the chief justice feeling grumpy as he put on his black robes that Wednesday night. The State of the Union gives the president an hour or so in prime time to pitch his legislative goals before a joint session. Members of Congress turn it into partisan theatre with their high-spirited whoops, cheers and jeers. Front and center throughout are the Supreme Court justices, sitting impassively.

Justices like to think of themselves and the court as apolitical. That’s a fiction, of course, but it’s their fiction. Being a justice must be the best job in government. It’s a lifetime appointment, and they answer to no one. There are no TV cameras in the courtroom, so most Americans don’t know what justices do or even what they look like. Occasionally, a high-profile case grabs people’s attention, but the justices remain distant

Roberts may have thought he had better ways to spend his birthday than making a cameo walk-on appearance on the undignified political stage.

As he later described it, the scene was uncomfortable even before Obama said of the decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, “With all due deference to the separation of powers, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests – including foreign corporations – to spend without limit in our elections.”

At that, Justice Samuel Alito shook his head and seemed to say, “not true.” The chief justice and the four other justices just sat.

On Tuesday, Roberts was at the University of Alabama law school in Tuscaloosa when someone asked during a Q&A whether the State of the Union address was the “proper venue” for the president to chide the court.

Roberts said anyone can criticize the court at any time and “some people have an obligation to criticize what we do, given their office, if they think we’ve done something wrong.”

But, he went on, “On the other hand, there is the issue of the setting, the circumstances and the decorum. The image of having the members of one branch of government standing up, literally surrounding the Supreme Court, cheering and hollering while the court – according to the requirements of protocol – has to sit there expressionless, I think is very troubling.”

Roberts didn’t pick the fight. He didn’t bring up the State of the Union in his lecture, and he declined to answer a question about the Citizens United case. Nor did he mention his birthday.

Chosen by President George W. Bush, Roberts joined the court two days after his 50th birthday in 2005. He attended Bush’s State of the Union addresses, none of which fell on Jan. 27.

People often say that turning 50 gives them the freedom to say no to things they don’t want to do.

“I’m not sure why we’re there,” Roberts said about the State of the Union speeches. Justice Antonin Scalia already ducks them.

Tradition is a large part of it. Aside from presidential inaugurations, the State of the Union is one of the rare times the three branches of government gather. The picture from the House chamber every year is a reassuring tableau of the unity of government, even if the event itself is more of a show.

The world would not end if Roberts and other justices stayed home. But it would be another sign that the government is fractured. Bring on the birthday cake summit.

(c) 2010 Marsha Mercer. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Why no-mail Saturdays should be a dead letter--March 4, 2010 column


I’m surprised how easily people embraced the idea of no-mail Saturdays.

In news reports since the U.S. Postal Service announced March 2 it would try – again – to stop Saturday delivery, the consensus among customers around the country has been, sure, why not? Who needs it?

It’s as though everybody’s afraid of being called a Luddite. But wait a minute. This isn’t about the joys of e-mail.

Stopping Saturday delivery may be a good way for the Postal Service to save money, but it’s a bad civic idea. The last thing we need in the 21st century is a new disconnect between Americans and the federal government.

Since the Continental Congress named Benjamin Franklin postmaster general in 1775, the government has been helping us keep in touch. For many people, mail delivery is the only tangible sign the government is working for them.

OK, the Postal Service isn’t, strictly speaking, the federal government. It’s an independent agency of the executive branch. Its operating budget comes from the sale of stamps and other products, not tax dollars, but this is a quibble.

E-mail, while ubiquitous, is not yet universal. Snail mail remains the shared American experience. No matter how rich or poor people are or where they live, the government brings us our mail. Senior citizens especially rely on it.

It’s no news flash that many people don’t trust Washington. What may surprise is that they do trust the Postal Service. In surveys over the last five years, the Postal Service has ranked as the most trusted government agency for protecting personal information.

Unfortunately, the Postal Service has been losing money since 2007. The volume of mail processed has dropped 17 percent decline in three years. The Postal Service is projected to lose $238 billion over the next decade. It has cut costs by $43 billion since 2002, causing long lines and frustration at post offices.

The next proposal will ask Congress to approve cutting Saturday delivery for everybody, everywhere. Eliminating delivery on the lightest day would save $40 billion over 10 years, officials say. Besides workforce reductions, the Postal Service’s financial plan involves raising stamp prices and mailing fees and closing more post offices.

For some rural communities, though, the post office is the federal government’s stamp of approval. When the post office closes, the Zip code goes, and the community’s identity is lost.

Life’s hard, you say, so what’s new? This is a slippery slope. If we don’t need mail on Saturday, do we need it on Wednesday? Maybe we could do with delivery three days a week, or two.

When Congress began a national mail system in the early 1800s, mail was delivered seven days a week. That continued until 1912, when religious leaders complained, according to author Garry Wills. Until the early 1950s, postmen, as they all were then, delivered mail twice a day.

What will be up for discussion next – the quaint notion of free delivery to every address?

People who live at the bottom of the Grand Canyon get free mail service, same as people in a high-rise apartment building in New York. And yet, because some mail going into the canyon is perishable, the Postal Service keeps freezers to store packages at the Peach Springs, Ariz., post office.

Members of Congress have enough trouble with angry voters without taking on mail delivery issues. There are other ways for the Postal Service to save money besides lopping off letter carrier jobs in a recession.

Congress should first stop requiring the Postal Service to pre-pay retiree health benefits. That alone will cost the Postal Service $5 billion a year through 2016, the postmaster general says, and it’s something no other federal agency or business does.

Congress also needs to look at compensation at the top.

Postmaster General John E. Potter received 40 percent in pay raises between 2006 and 2008 for a total compensation package of more than $800,000, the Washington Times reported last year. That’s more than twice President Barack Obama’s salary of $400,000.

To be fair, if the Postal Service were a business, it would be the sixth largest in the country. We know what CEOs make.

But this is not any big business. This is our business. This is our mail.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.