Thursday, July 28, 2011

Spare a dime? Paying for government that helps millions -- July 28, 2011 column


Maybe the question should be who in America doesn’t get a break from Uncle Sam.

It’s not just the fat cats, Big Oil and General Electric that get special indulgences. The generous uncle makes life sweeter for ordinary folk too, although few even realize it.

Sixty percent of people who take the home mortgage deduction on their income tax returns say they haven’t used a government social program. Forty-four percent of Social Security recipients deny they’ve received any benefit as do about 40 percent of Medicare recipients, according to a study by Cornell University political scientist Suzanne Mettler.

A review of the role of government is in order -- before lobbyists swarm Capitol Hill to “help” Congress make program cuts totaling hundreds of billions of dollars. Remember: We’ve seen only overall framework numbers – not specific spending cuts. Those decisions will be made later – trust us, lawmakers say.

Here’s a stunning stat: The federal government sends out 70 million checks a month, says President Obama. No, it’s closer actually to 80 million, says Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

Even 80 million doesn’t begin to define the government’s scope. The Washington Post figured that in all some 211.8 million checks were payable -- in June alone.

The Post’s analysis of who gets the 80 million checks, or electronic payments, found the largest group was Social Security recipients – 56 million. The disabled, veterans, federal workers and retirees received payments as did non-defense contractors, railroad retirees, coal miners with black lung, IRS vendors and taxpayers receiving refunds from the IRS.

Besides those checks are 100 million Medicare payments to doctors, hospitals, labs and other providers, more than 21 million households receiving food stamps, 6.4 million active and retired defense personnel , and 1.6 million defense travel and other invoices. Medicaid, the health program for the poor and elderly run by states, wasn’t on the Post’s list, but the Census Bureau reported that there were 58 million Medicaid beneficiaries in 2008.

Everybody assumes the cuts will affect someone else, lop off waste and fraud, hit the less deserving. Nobody wants to go back to the days when getting old meant living in poverty and sickness.

But constitutional conservatives do like to quote James Madison, who said he couldn’t lay his finger on the article of the Constitution that granted Congress the right to spend the money of constituents on “objects of benevolence.”

Madison was talking about aid to French refugees from what’s now Haiti – not about medical care or benefits to seniors. But tea partiers and others who think government should shrink to the limited powers explicitly granted in the Constitution seize on his statement as vindication for ending Social Security as we know it and dismantling safety net programs. Even Obama said Social Security and Medicare were on the table. Everybody says changes won’t touch anyone 55 and older.

Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas., a presidential hopeful, contends that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are all unconstitutional because the Constitution doesn’t specifically call for social insurance programs. He discounts the 1937 Supreme Court ruling that found Social Security constitutional.

Critics of government would like to forget that the Constitution also says government was established to promote the general welfare. They say liberals have misconstrued the phrase.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt cited the “general welfare” in June 1934 when he proposed a new social insurance program that would help shield people from the “hazards and vicissitudes of life.”

“Fear and worry based on unknown danger contribute to social unrest and economic demoralization,” he wrote. “If, as our Constitution tells us, our federal government was established among other things ‘to promote the general welfare,’ it is our plain duty to provide for that security upon which welfare depends.”

These days the angry talk in Washington is more about getting political advantage in 2012 than promoting welfare for generations to come. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., holds fast to his declaration that his chief job is to limit Obama to one term.

Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that the role of Congress is to thwart a president’s future or that the president’s role is step aside and keep his collar and cuffs clean for his re-election bid.

Unfortunately, neither this president nor congressional leaders are likely to say, as Roosevelt did, “Among our objectives I place the security of the men, women and children of the nation first.” Millions who rely on Uncle Sam face uncertainty.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Family's gift of Civil War portraits shows America's best side -- Column of July 21, 2011


Here, finally, is a story to make you feel good about Washington. And, no, that’s not impossible even in this summer of dysfunctional government.

It does mean that for today this space will be debt-free, politician-free, tax-and-spend-free and, I hope, migraine-free.

With Washington sweltering and cranky, I headed to the cool marble of the Library of Congress. If there’s a more beautiful public building in America, I’ve not seen it.

“The Last Full Measure” is billed as an exhibit of Civil War portraits – but that doesn’t do it justice. Unlike other collections of Civil War photos, the nearly 400 images are not of famous generals and politicians, and there are no camp scenes or soldiers dead in a field.

These are portraits that ordinary Union and Confederate soldiers paid to have taken of themselves with what then was the latest technology. Two-thirds of the exhibit pictures are ambrotypes, underexposed images on glass placed against a dark background, and the rest are tintypes, images on thin sheets of coated iron.

Each picture was framed with an ornate brass mat and cushioned with a facing pillow of brocaded velvet. The treasure was then encased in a leather or plastic box.

It’s shocking how young these soldiers were. Many of the solemn faces into whose eyes we look 150 years later can’t be more than 14 or 15 years old. With a change of clothes, they could be boys we see on the street. Their names mostly are lost, their identities only hinted by a button, hat or belt buckle. Many died much too young. Three million from North and South marched off to war, and 620,000 didn’t come back.

Choosing how they wanted their “shade” or “shadow” captured, some soldiers sat with friends or family members, others atop trusty steeds. Some held a gun or sword -- or a sword and a gun.

One heart-breaking portrait is of a sad-eyed girl of about six, in whose hands are a picture of her deceased father. Another portrait comes with a scrap of lace and a note saying it was taken from the hand of a dead Rebel after battle.

Photographers were much more plentiful in the North, so there are many more pictures of Union soldiers. The exhibit has five cases of Union pictures and one with Confederates.

Intriguing is an unidentified Confederate soldier from Co. E “Lynchburg Rifles,” 11th Virginia Infantry Volunteers, who looks like he has stepped from the pages of a catalogue. He holds an 1841 “Mississippi” rifle, Sheffield-type Bowie knife, canteen, box knapsack, blanket roll and cartridge box, according to the description. The pictures is only 2 ¾ inches by 3 ¼ inches. Who is he?

The exhibit inspires gratitude for a family’s philanthropic vision and to technology, modern and 19th Century. The Liljenquist family of Virginia donated 700 portraits to the library with a request that the photos be digitized and high-resolution scans made available online. The small pictures are so sharp because photographers used more silver in those days, creating a sharper image, experts say.

Tom Liljenquist – pronounced LILLY-en-kwist – and his sons began collecting Civil War relics in 1996 after finding a Civil War bullet in a park near their house in Arlington. They discovered a Civil War portrait in an antique store and began combing shops, shows, estate sales and eBay to add to their collection.

In 2003, the hobby took a more serious turn when The Washington Post began publishing the faces of fallen soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Liljenquists hoped their collection could honor Civil War dead in a similar way.

Last year, with hundreds of portraits at home and in Tom Liljenquist’s jewelry stores in the Washington area, sons Jason, 19, Brandon, 17, and Christian, 13, offered the collection to the Library of Congress.

If you can’t make it to Washington by Aug. 13 when the exhibit closes, don’t fret. You can experience it online through The online exhibit is rich in detail, and it was easier to call up individual pictures from home than to use a kiosk in the gallery.

Here’s more good news. The Liljenquists are still collecting Civil War portraits. They plan to keep giving them to the Library of Congress -- and to all of us.

©2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Why blaming LBJ and the Great Society won't fly -- July 14, 2011 column


As we approach the 46th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing Medicare into law on July 30, the Blame LBJ Club is still open for business.

The same people on the political right who complain bitterly that Barack Obama and the Democrats should stop blaming George W. Bush for the rotten economy he bequeathed in 2009 are all too happy to blame Lyndon Johnson, who left the White House in 1969, for the country’s financial woes.

LBJ has been a target of conservative ire since before he declared a war on poverty in 1964 and long after Ronald Reagan quipped in 1988 that “poverty won.” The Great Society has become a great scapegoat.

Rep. Spencer T. Bachus III, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said Wednesday the nation is suffering from a crisis of confidence that’s impeding economic growth. OK so far.

Then the Alabama Republican said the crisis’ origin is debatable. The Great Recession may contribute to it -- may? -- but he believes the “seeds of this lack of confidence were first sown in the well-intentioned programs of the 1930s and the Lyndon Johnson Great Society.”

A discussion about an aging society and the need to rein in entitlement costs is one thing. Bachus’ gripe something else. He basically faulted LBJ for treating seniors like family.

Opening a hearing with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Bachus quoted from LBJ’s taped phone calls with his press secretary, Bill Moyers in 1965. Bachus had seen the comments in a June 28 commentary by Thomas G. Donlan in Barron’s magazine.

Talking about the “average worker,” Johnson said, “I've never seen one have too much health benefits. So when they come in to me and say, 'We've got to have $400 million more so we can take care of some doctors' bills,' I'm for it on health…None of them ever get enough. "They are entitled to it. That's an obligation of ours.”

As only he could, Johnson invoked his mother: “It’s just like your mother writing you and saying she wants $20, and I’d always send mine $100 when she did. I always did it because I thought she was entitled to it,” he told Moyers.

“And I think that’s a much better reason and a much better cause and I think it can be defended on a hell of a lot better basis. We’ve just got to say that, by God, you can’t treat grandma this way. She’s entitled to it, and we promised it to her,” LBJ said.

Johnson was as savvy a political operator as ever was, and he knew how to sell an idea. He also believed in the power and responsibility of government to help improve people’s lives. His critics argue in effect that if Johnson wanted to send his own mother a hundred bucks, fine, but why should he make everybody else send Benjamins to other people’s moms?

And yet it’s exactly that cooperative, in-it-together spirit that makes our social compact work. Obama affirmed the ties that bind us in April when he said America wouldn’t be a great nation without the commitment to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and unemployment insurance.

He also emphasized that spending must be contained. He even put Medicare on the table as part of long-term debt reduction. That was a surprise because it’s always easier for politicians to give than to take away.

In 1965, Medicare covered only people 65 and over, and previously only half the seniors had any health insurance. Presidents and Congress have expanded Medicare repeatedly without worrying how to pay for the expansions – another reason it’s odd to blame LBJ for today’s costly entitlements.

Bachus’ remark didn’t go unchallenged. Rep. Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, said that Bernanke had warned when he appeared before the committee in 2008 as an appointee of President George W. Bush that the country was on the verge of economic collapse.

To say that the series of terrible economic events, the worst since the Great Depression, may be just a contributing factor to today’s problems and that it’s Lyndon Johnson’s fault seems “very odd history at best,” Frank said.

Frank was right, but it won’t stop the right from blaming LBJ and the Great Society.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Digital divide: Obama's tweet and Gerald Ford's watch -- July 7, 2011 column


In December 1974, President Gerald R. Ford made news by becoming the first president to wear a digital wrist watch.

Writing about the digital watch, the great newspaper columnist Charles R. McDowell Jr. quoted a United Press International news story in its entirety:

“President Ford today wore a digital wrist watch. The watch, which shows the time in numerals, appeared on his left wrist when he chaired a meeting of his Domestic Council in the Cabinet Room. It was the first time they had seen the President wearing a watch without the big and little hands, some White House aides said.”

About this “strange little item,” McDowell wrote, “The significance of this story remains unclear to me after several readings and much deep thought. I suppose it should be taken at face value and with tolerance for the journalistic tradition that nothing is too trivial to report about the President of the United States.”

I was privileged later to work and be friends with Charley McDowell, who retired in 1998 and died last year. I came across the column in a booklet of some of his favorites. How I wish he were here for the news of Barack Obama’s big tweet.

President Obama made news Wednesday by becoming the first president to live tweet. Sitting on a tall stool in the East Room under the watchful gaze of the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, Obama typed a question in 140 characters.

The Washington Post, New York Times and other organizations providing news and commentary on platforms not even dreamt of in 1974 covered the milestone. A picture on the front page of The Wall Street Journal showed Obama next to a screen grab of a tweet from House Speaker John Boehner.

I’m not saying the first presidential tweet or the first Twitter Town Hall from the White House is trivial, but both seem puny compared with Franklin D. Roosevelt's appearance on TV in 1939, Jimmy Carter's installation of the first computer in the West Wing in 1978, or even George H.W. Bush's first presidential email in 1992.

Obama is no stranger to technology. He’s the first president to use a BlackBerry and a frequent online guest.

In April, he did a Facebook Town Hall with Mark Zuckerberg. In January, he answered video questions submitted by YouTube users in a town hall-style event sponsored by Google. More than 40,000 video questions were submitted.

Last October, he took questions from young people via Twitter in a live town hall sponsored by MTV, BET and CMT. In 2009, he did an online town hall with questions from YouTube, Facebook and Twitter users.

For his first tweet, Obama typed, “In order to reduce the deficit, what costs would you cut and what investments would you keep – bo.”

Alas, the Twitter Town Hall went downhill from there. It proved that real-life town halls have a lot more going for them than the virtual variety. With a real-life town hall, there’s a chance, slim though it may be, for an unscripted moment between president and citizen.

In this case, Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter and an amiable fellow, read the tweets to Obama. Dorsey made a point of saying that neither he nor Obama knew what the questions would be, as if that added drama. The questions – chosen by “curators” around the country – were safe and surprise-free.

The one near-surprise came when Dorsey said there was a question from “someone you may know.” Speaker Boehner’s tweet: “After embarking on a record spending binge that’s left us deeper in debt, where are the jobs?”

Obama patiently explained in his professorial style that Boehner is a Republican, so the question was “slightly skewed.”

If this was boring video, it was brilliant as a political organizing tool. The White House reported that by noon on the day of the event, more than 60,000 tweets had been sent to the hashtag #AskObama. Just think of all those fans, friends and followers.

In his Twitter debut, the president didn’t try to respond in 140-character tweets. He stuck to lengthy verbal responses. And so, another milestone awaits.

Obama still can become the first president to tweet a response. It’s no digital wrist watch. But if he does, you know it’ll make news.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.