Thursday, January 27, 2011

New round: GOP fights federal funding of arts, humanities -- Jan. 27, 2011 column


Few things are as reliable in Washington as Republicans’ trying to abolish funding for the arts and humanities.

They tried it in the 1980s and 1990s, and as soon as Republicans regained control of the House this year, they again began eyeing the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities for extinction.

The Republican Study Committee, a group of 175 conservative House Republicans, wants to do away with the two agencies, known as the NEA and NEH. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., chairman of the Republican Senate Steering Committee, is onboard. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., includes the NEA and NEH in his own package of to-be-terminated programs.

The actual dollar amount involved in the so-called “spending reform” is miniscule -- $167.5 million a year each for the NEA and the NEH. Together, that’s barely more per capita than the cost of two postage stamps.

Also on the chopping block is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports 1,300 local public radio and TV stations. The CPB receives federal aid equal to slightly more than three postage stamps per American per year.

But of course this is about more than money. Republicans see the bloated federal deficit as a helpful tool in reshaping government. They see NEA and NEH, public broadcasting and legal services as liberal monuments that should be toppled. This is the “Groundhog Day” of Washington budget-cutting.

Conservatives have been arguing since Congress created the NEA and NEH in 1965 that the government should have no role in supporting the arts. The critics are philosophical descendants of the people who once said publicly funded libraries were a waste of money. They knew books are liberating and therefore free access is dangerous.

It’s unclear how popular funding for the arts and humanities is these days. A USA Today/Gallup Poll this month, before the State of the Union address, asked people whether they favor cuts in various government spending programs. Unfortunately, the poll lumped arts and sciences together, so the results are muddy. Still, 52 percent said they oppose cutting the arts and sciences. In contrast, 67 percent opposed cuts in education, and 64 and 61 percent opposed cuts in Social Security and Medicare respectively.

You could say the NEA and NEH exist because President Lyndon B. Johnson knew how to stroke the egos of politicians. The persuasive Johnson, father of the Great Society, told lawmakers, “This Congress will consider many programs which will leave an enduring mark on American life. But it may well be that passage of this legislation, modest as it is, will help secure for this Congress a sure and honored place in the story of the advance of our civilization.”

Presidents just don’t talk that way anymore. In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama talked about education and jobs and making America competitive, but he didn’t reach for the rhetorical stars of advancing civilization. In fact he didn’t even mention culture or the arts.

During the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration, many Americans are reflecting on his and first lady Jackie Kennedy’s focus on culture. Less than a month before he was assassinated, JFK said in a speech, “I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all our citizens.”

That’s one of the quotes engraved in the marble walls of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. Another is from his 1963 State of the Union address: “This country cannot afford to be materially rich and spiritually poor.”

Over the years, some of the decisions NEA and NEH have made have offended some. Culture wars have resulted in the endowments’ budgets waxing and waning. But the agencies have survived.

Livingston Biddle was chairman of NEA when Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980. When Biddle learned Reagan’s transition team wanted to abolish NEA, Biddle named Reagan pals, actor Charlton Heston and brewer Adolph Coors, to an NEA task force. They persuaded Reagan to keep the agency, Biddle later wrote.

In 1997, faced with Republican calls to eliminate the NEA and NEH, President Bill Clinton said in his State of the Union address, “Instead of cutting back on our modest efforts to support the arts and humanities, I believe we should stand by them.”

That’s a message the current president needs to send loud and clear as Republicans once again fight federal support of the arts and humanities.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

War on tobacco winnable? Health care law helps -- Jan. 20, 2011 column


Progress in the war on tobacco has slowed. One in five Americans still smokes, and more than a thousand Americans die of tobacco-related illnesses every day.

So why does the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call tobacco a “winnable battle”? Dr. Thomas R. Frieden says he’s partly encouraged because the new Affordable Care Act provides greater access to free tobacco-cessation programs through insurance plans and Medicare.

Yes, that’s the same, so-called “job-killing” health care law the Republican-controlled House voted Wednesday to repeal. Not that they were thinking about the fight against tobacco, or most of the other individual provisions in the law. The exercise was pure political theater. President Barack Obama would veto repeal, should it pass the Senate, although the Senate’s Democratic leaders say the measure will never come up.

Both political parties believe the health law derided by Republicans as “Obamacare” can be a potent issue in the 2012 campaign. Cheering from the sidelines, Republican strategist Karl Rove wrote in the Wall Street Journal Thursday, “In 2010, Democrats got their law. In the process, Republicans got their issue.” Democrats in turn are using the moment to showcase success stories of the new law, also with an eye to the next election.

This is business as usual in the nation’s capital. Fortunately, while the political animals strut and fret, some in government are actually thinking about how to improve Americans’ health.

Anti-tobacco forces have a strong ally in Dr. Frieden, who became director of the CDC in 2009 after serving since 2002 as health commissioner of New York City. Among his successes is a crackdown on smoking in public places that he says led the ranks of adult smokers to decline by 350,000 and of teen smokers to drop by half.

If there’s one health-related issue on which all Americans should agree, it’s that smoking kills. It’s costly to the economy and in lives. Tobacco use is the country’s leading preventable cause of death, according to the CDC, which calculates the cost of tobacco-related medical bills at $193 billion a year.

Tobacco-cessation programs are among several new disease prevention provisions in the Affordable Care Act. About 70 percent of smokers say they want to quit. Studies have shown that just three to five minutes of personalized advice from a health-care provider doubles the likelihood that a smoker will quit.

The government’s fight against tobacco use was gaining ground until four years ago when the decline stalled at one smoker in five. The 2009 tobacco law bars tobacco companies from marketing to young people. Tough, new warning cigarette labels are to start next year.

What’s also new is the emphasis on smoking as a disease. U.S. surgeon general Regina M. Benjamin issued the 30th surgeon general’s report in December. It said any exposure to tobacco smoke, even occasional smoking or secondhand smoke, causes immediate damage that can lead to illness or death. This matters because 40 percent of adult nonsmokers and 54 percent of children ages 3 to 1 are exposed to secondhand smoke, according to the CDC.

Dr. Frieden this month issued “Health Disparities and Inequalities in the United States – 2011,” the CDC’s first examination of gaps in health between racial and income groups. It found higher smoking rates among American Indians and Alaska natives. Smoking rates decline significantly with increases in income and education, the report said.

Besides tobacco, the CDC has identified five other domestic “winnable battles” in public health. These are healthcare-associated infections affecting one in 20 hospital patients; HIV; motor vehicle injuries; obesity, nutrition, and food safety; and teen pregnancy. The CDC predicts progress on these fronts in one to four years, although it does not plan to redirect resources to pay for the battles.

Among the next steps in the fight against tobacco are raising the price of tobacco products, supporting 100 percent smoke-free environments and increasing awareness through the news media and advertising.

The CDC also wants to work more closely with states. But a new report by the American Lung Association said almost all state anti-smoking efforts are failing because they lack funding. Cash-strapped states are using revenue from cigarette taxes for other programs.

The war on tobacco deserves better.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

After Tucson tragedy, no kumbaya moment -- Jan. 13, 2011 column


Not too hot and not too cold, President Barack Obama’s eulogy at the memorial service in Tucson struck many Americans as just right. He was inspiring and personal as he urged Americans to “be better.”

“The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better. To be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors and coworkers and parents,” the president said.

And if the horrendous toll – six dead and 14 wounded, including a member of Congress -- helps “usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy – it did not – but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation,” he said.

Sounds good. Now what?

The divided Congress is going back to work on highly contentious issues, including repeal of the health law. Partisanship in a two-party system isn’t going away. In short: Don’t expect a kumbaya phase or even a kumbaya moment.

On Thursday, back at the White House after the Tucson trip, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary who soon will be leaving for Obama’s re-election campaign, said, “We are not going to remove disagreement from our democracy. And we shouldn’t.”

Obama says he hopes people can disagree without being disagreeable. Gibbs stressed, “I think you’re going to see plenty of opportunities in the next few years where you have those disagreements.”

If Obama’s rhetoric Wednesday night was soaring, Gibbs’ remarks Thursday reflected thudding, earthbound reality. Changing the tone in Washington and the nation will be nearly impossible, even after an event as horrible as the tragedy in Tucson.

Anyone who has ever made a new year’s resolution knows that vague generalities to be better -- “I’m going to watch my eating!” – don’t work. To change, people need to set specific goals. “I’m going to keep a food diary and eat fish twice a week.”

To be sure, the memorial service was not the time for Obama to go into detail about next steps. But, going forward, those who want to help change the tenor of life will need to seize opportunities to flex our better muscles.

For example, many Americans will spend Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday rededicating themselves to the country through a “Day of Service.” Special volunteer activities are taking place in all 50 states, but people don’t need to stop after one day.

Several online organizations – including, and – invite volunteers to enter their Zip codes and find local volunteer activities. When I typed mine, I found more than a thousand places needing help within 20 miles.

Here’s another idea. To show they’re serious about putting civility first, House Republicans should scuttle plans to hold multiple votes on repealing the new health law, and Obama should delay the launch of his re-election bid.

The president says he wants to build on bipartisan progress from the lame duck session, but news reports indicate Obama plans to launch his 2012 campaign in Chicago by the end of this month. Doing so certainly would shout “politics as usual” at a time when everyone needs to use his or her “indoor voices” to tackle the country’s challenges.

The State of the Union address Jan. 25 offers an opportunity for partisan theatre to take a night off.

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., wrote the Senate and House leadership proposing that “House and Senate members from both sides ought to cross the aisle and sit together. As the nation watches, Democrats and Republicans should reflect the interspersed character of America itself. Perhaps by sitting with each other for one night, we will begin to rekindle that common spark that brought us here…”

If members of both parties sat together, viewers would be spared the tennis match effect of watching Democrats on one side cheering and leaping to their feet while Republicans sit glumly silent on the other, highlighting all that divides the nation. Udall has a petition at his Senate Web site – – that people can sign to “Help Bridge the Partisan Divide.”

The senator concedes it’s symbolic, but it’s a gesture that puts Congress on the track to change.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

AARP Bulletin: How boomers get their groove back

As the first wave of boomers turns 65, I talked with boomers from around the country about their second acts. Check out my story in the AARP Bulletin.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Who's crying now? In House, symbols change first -- Jan. 6, 2011 column


In the new Congress, Republican House Speaker John A. Boehner dabbed his eyes liberally, something his Democratic female predecessor from San Francisco never did.

House Democrats and Republicans finally agreed on something -- they love the U.S. Constitution! –- and celebrated with a bipartisan, round-robin reading.

Next, they plan to share the pain of cutting their office budgets 5 whole percent.

Isn’t political change great?

The new, Republican-controlled House gets an A on the symbolism of change. The substance? That’s another story, yet to unfold. It won’t be easy for Republicans to avoid gridlock and change how Washington actually works. The Senate and White House are controlled by Democrats.

But the atmospherics of change pervaded the theatrical debut of the 112th Congress.

In the House, slogan change accompanied regime change. “Cut and grow” replaced “pay as you go.” From now on, new spending increases are supposed to be offset by spending cuts. In the old days of the 111th Congress, spending was supposed to be offset by higher revenues, and the federal deficit soared. Is “cut and grow” real change or merely verb change?

Facts – those pesky things – interfered with orchestrated theater of change.

The Republicans’ “Pledge to America” campaign manifesto promised to slash federal spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels, saving “at least $100 billion in the first year alone.”

The whoosh of backpedaling began almost as soon as Boehner banged his big gavel. Republicans suddenly realized that three months of the fiscal year have flown. Did they say $100 billion? Make that $50 billion. Maybe.

Health care reform – a potent campaign issue -- has come to the House to roost.

The “Pledge to America” states: “We offer a plan to repeal and replace the government takeover of health care with common sense solutions focused on lowering costs and protecting American jobs.”

Well, not exactly. House Republicans do plan a vote Jan. 12 on whether to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but it’s repeal-only, not repeal and reform. The Republican leadership says no changes in the bill will be allowed.

Departing White House press secretary Robert Gibbs called the House vote “a bit of huff and puff” as it has no chance of becoming law. Neither the Senate nor President Obama will go along with repeal.

Then there’s the inconvenient fact of the cost. The Congressional Budget Office said Thursday that repeal would increase the federal budget deficit by roughly $145 billion between 2012 and 2019. Add in another $80 billion to $90 billion for 2020 and 2021, and the total pricetag of repeal jumps to $230 billion. Details. Republicans disputed the numbers and vowed to march forward.
Needless to say, Democrats are watching all this closely. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee trumpeted “HYPOCRISY ALERT” this week after it asked freshman House members who ran against health care reform whether they were enrolling in the government’s health care plan. The DCCC found only four freshmen who had told news outlets they won’t take the generous insurance benefit. Most freshmen stayed mum.

Staying mum is not an easy task in this tweetful time. Which raises another question. Should hard-working taxpayers be footing the bill for members of Congress to tweet? In the spirit of savings, shouldn’t members pay for their own BlackBerrys, as many Americans do?(

On a related note, by how much have you cut your personal budget since the financial meltdown? My guess: It’s more than the 5 percent the House promises to cut its operations. Just sayin’.

In a sign of budget struggles ahead, Republicans are vowing not to allocate money for the new food safety law President Obama signed Tuesday. The Food Safety Modernization Act is the first major overhaul of the nation’s food safety laws in 90 years, and it’s aimed at preventing foodborne illnesses that sicken 48 million Americans annually.

The new law gives the Food and Drug Administration greater authority over most of the nation’s food supply, including the power to order food recalls. It also requires FDA to step up food facility inspections.

All that won’t come cheap. The measure is projected to cost $1.4 billion over five years.

Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., told The Washington Post, “No one wants anybody to get sick, and we should always strive to make sure food is safe. But the case for a $1.4 billion expenditure isn’t there.”

Proponents of the law are mobilizing for a fight.

Some things don’t change.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Now in AARP Bulletin: Seniors in Va. help ease nurse shortage

It's a national problem: The growing senior population means fewer nurses for more patients. An RX from Virginia: AARP chapter's classic car show raises money for nurse scholarships. Read about it: