Thursday, December 27, 2012

Holiday goodwill and the grammar police -- Dec. 27, 2012 column


Over brunch last weekend, nobody mentioned the political dysfunction in the nation’s capital, the jumpy stock market or the preposterous idea of turning schools into armed camps.
Everybody needed a dose of holiday goodwill.

Our lively conversation ranged from the Olympian who moonlighted as a high-rent call girl to questions of grammar. I know which topic interests you most, so I’ll go straight to pronouns.

No? OK, we’ll detour to track star Suzy Favor Hamilton, the 44-year-old wife and mom who led a secret life as a $600-an-hour escort for a year. She played by her own rules.
“I am not a victim here and knew what I was doing,” she tweeted.

I hope she can beat the depression she says prompted her risky behavior. Let’s leave her story there, although I expect news soon of a big, fat book contract and made-for-TV movie.

Nobody yet has discovered how to make grammar rules sexy and lucrative, but a lot of people care about how we use language, I learned this year.

In April, I wrote about the tweet from the Associated Press Stylebook announcing this update: “We now support modern usage of hopefully: it’s hoped, we hope.”

Granted, this wasn’t an earth-shattering event, but I was disappointed the self-styled “journalist’s bible” caved to popular misuse. Wrong is wrong. Emails started arriving from readers who shared my chagrin.

“I bemoaned your news that the wrong use of hopefully is now accepted,” Susie in Richmond, Va., wrote. “I feel betrayed.”

And Susie pleaded, “Please tell me that pronoun abuse is still a no no!” She couldn’t bring herself to write “between you and I” even as an example.

Well, Susie, “between you and me” is still correct, but people often make the “I” mistake. Even President Obama occasionally slips and says, “between Michelle and I.”
For a “recovering English major” named Dan, the line in the sand is using “none” as a plural subject.  It’s correct to say “none of the students uses this form correctly.” Many people incorrectly think “students” is the subject and say, “None of the students use this form correctly.” No.

Other grammar sticklers weighed in on dangling modifiers and the confusion between it’s and its, they’re, there and their and you’re and your.

If worries about grammar seem out-dated in a world of 140-character tweets, consider Kyle Weins, CEO of iFixIt, an online repair company in California. Weins wrote a blog post in August for the Harvard Business Review titled “I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why.”

“If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me. If you think a semicolon is a regular colon with an identity crisis, I will not hire you,” wrote Weins, who requires all job applicants to take a grammar test.
Weins is no fossil. He and a friend formed iFixit in their college dorm room in 2003.

“Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in emails, and on company websites, your words are all you have,” Weins wrote.

Yes, but should standards be, well, flexible? E.B. White, the English usage guru, wrote in The New Yorker in 1937, “Usage seems to us peculiarly a matter of ear. Everyone has his own prejudices, his own set of rules, his own list of horribles.”

Did you notice anything about that last sentence? White correctly used “his” three times. “Everyone” takes a singular pronoun. He didn’t even think of using “their.”

At brunch, two men insisted that they use the gender-neutral pronoun intentionally out of respect to women. They know and deliberately break the rule to emphasize equality and inclusiveness.

Thank you, but for me that’s an unwanted present. Hearing someone say “their” instead of “his” or the clunky “his or her” doesn’t warm my heart; it makes me cringe.

Times and language do change, however. Sensitivity in how we talk to each other is important, especially now, and I know other women do appreciate the gesture.
Here’s more wisdom from E.B. White: “English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment, and education – sometimes it’s sheer luck, like getting across the street.”

Here’s to luck getting across the grammar street in 2013.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Why we need more than Obama to stop gun violence -- Dec. 20, 2012 column


About 85 people every day are killed with guns in America, but we’ve become almost accustomed to the casualties.
Only after horrific, high-profile shooting sprees do we talk about tightening gun laws. Typically, politicians in the thrall of the powerful gun lobby simply stall action wait for the outrage to fade.
But perhaps the massacre of 20 innocent children and six adults on a December morning will do more than restart the gun control conversation one more time.
Opponents of gun control say the murder rate is actually going down and no law can stop someone bent on mass destruction. OK, fine, but assault weapons and large capacity magazines – those holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition – make it easier for monsters to carry out their unspeakable plans.

Laws can make it harder. We owe our fellow citizens that much safety.

“This time,” the president finally said, “the words have to lead to action.”
Obama appointed Vice President Joe Biden to bring a set of concrete proposals within a month.  
“I will use all the powers of this office to help advance efforts aimed at preventing more tragedies like this,” Obama told reporters. “It won’t be easy – but that can’t be an excuse not to try.”

Even those who wish Obama had stepped up earlier or that he’d given Biden less time should recognize this as a major step forward. We can hope Biden’s proposals will lead to meaningful legislation, not laws riddled with loopholes.

In the Senate, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., vows to introduce next month a ban on assault weapons. A military-style rifle was the weapon of choice for Adam Lanza in Connecticut and other mass murderers in shooting rampages.

And then there’s the House.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., incoming chairman of the House Judiciary committee, which has responsibility for gun laws, flatly said he won’t move any gun control legislation through his committee, despite what happened in Newtown, Conn.

“We’re going to take a look at what happened there and what can be done to help avoid it in the future, but gun control is not going to be something that I would support,” Goodlatte told CQ Roll Call newspaper. Goodlatte has an A rating from the National Rifle Association, which endorsed him for re-election.

Goodlatte later said in a written statement that he’ll “listen to and carefully review suggestions made by the president’s task force and other groups to see what we can do to prevent a terrible tragedy like this in the future.”

We’re accustomed to this same old standoff—the gun rights people in their corner and the gun control folks in theirs.
For the president to make good on his pledge, though, he needs to move Goodlatte and other House Republicans. The NRA says it wants to be part of the conversation and will offer “meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.” We’ll see.

Now comes Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, with the outline of a compromise. A 2008 Supreme Court ruling that disappointed gun control advocates could pave the way for gun control legislation.  

The Supreme Court in D.C. v. Heller struck down the District of Columbia’s handgun ban, saying the right to bear arms is constitutionally protected. But the court also said that reasonable limits can be imposed. The Supreme Court has upheld laws that prohibit possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill and that regulate gun sales.

Schumer, who grew up in Brooklyn and went on his first hunting trip only three years ago, says pro-gun groups should be more flexible, knowing that the court has affirmed the right to bear arms. Progressives, he says, should stop hoping a future court will overturn Heller and work within the ruling to enact gun control laws.

“The truth is, it was bad strategy to ever deny an individual right to bear arms and, similarly, the special place that guns hold in our culture,” Schumer wrote in an op-ed in Thursday’s Washington Post.

We’ll need more than the president and a senator from New York to change minds on this most polarizing issue, but Obama is onboard at last and Schumer has found a possible starting point. As Obama says, passing gun control won’t be easy, but that’s no excuse not to try. 

Nobody wants to see so many tiny white coffins ever again.

(c) 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The triumph of one woman who cares about words -- Dec. 13, 2012 column


Even in an age when loose talk bombards us, one woman’s voice can change what’s literally etched in stone. 
Were it not for Maya Angelou, the renowned poet and author, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall would always need an asterisk, a footnote of explanation.

I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness, it says on the north face of the granite memorial. But not for long. 

“The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit,” Angelou, then 83, complained after the memorial opened in August 2011.

Starting the 10 words with I makes it sound like a quote, but it’s a paraphrase, an unfortunate one that raises questions about what kind of man King was. Angelou insisted that King was anything but arrogant, and that he was always careful with his words.

“Some say speech is the mirror of a man’s soul, and it certainly was for Martin Luther King,” she told CNN in 2011.

The 10 words are a shortened version of four sentences from a sermon King delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta just two months before he was assassinated in 1968.

In what sounded like his own eulogy, King said: “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

The memorial’s designers originally intended to have the full drum major quote on the memorial’s south face, which visitors see first. But the designers belatedly decided Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope – a line from the “I Have a Dream” speech -- better introduces the theme of the 30-foot statue, according to Washington Post.

Sculptor Lei Yixin had already prepared the north face for the shorter passage and the complete drum major quotation would not fit there, the Post reported. So the designers whittled the 47-word drum major passage down to 10 words. Nobody consulted Angelou, who was on the memorial’s advisory committee.

 “In the case of the statement on the sculpture as it stands, it is not an apt reportage of what King said,” Angelou said on CNN.

Angelou knew and worked for King. Long before Bill Clinton asked her to read a poem at his first presidential inauguration in 1993, long before she published 30 titles, Angelou accepted King’s offer to be Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She was devastated when he was assassinated on her birthday, the biography on her website says.

“He had no arrogance at all…it makes him seem an egotist,” she said of the slain civil rights leader.
Her words moved the federal bureaucracy.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced in a news release Tuesday that the 10 words would be removed “by carving striations over the lettering to match the existing scratch marks” on the south face. The sculptor recommended removing the words instead of replacing them as the safest way to ensure the structural integrity of the memorial, Salazar said.

The King family says it would have preferred the entire drum major quotation but appreciates the care the government took to get the memorial right.

The memorial will remain open when the work begins in February or March, after Obama’s inauguration and the commemoration of King’s birthday. The $700,000 to $900,000 cost reportedly will be paid from a maintenance fund raised by the MLK memorial foundation and given to the National Park Service.

In August 2011, when I first visited the memorial, a National Park Service guide standing nearby explained that the drum major words were a paraphrase. But a memorial for the ages shouldn’t need an asterisk or an explanation. Angelou was right to speak up, and the government was right to correct the problem in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the memorial.

Words and context count. Thanks to one woman who cares about words, this time what’s written in stone isn’t forever.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Why the GOP is a minority party -- Dec. 6, 2012 column


Four weeks after the GOP lost the White House and seats in both the U.S. Senate and House, Senate Republicans thumbed their noses at virtually every veterans group in the country.

They ignored the pleas of many disabled Americans and prominent war heroes in order to appease home schoolers, the Christian right and Tea Party types worried that “unelected foreign bureaucrats” are poised to push American parents around.    

The Senate’s vote Tuesday rejecting the United Nations disabilities treaty crystallized why the GOP is the minority party and why, if it keeps on its current path, it’s likely to remain so.    

All the Senate’s Democrats and eight courageous Republicans voted to approve the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but 38 Republicans said no. The 61 to 38 vote was five votes shy of the two-thirds needed to ratify a treaty.

What made the vote shocking is that the treaty was based on the long-established Americans with Disabilities Act. The vote should have been non-controversial.

Here’s Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass:  “What this treaty says is very simple: It just says that people can’t discriminate against the disabled.

“It says other countries have to do what we did 22 years ago when we set the example for the world and passed the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Kerry said.

The treaty was a rare bipartisan effort -- endorsed by George H.W. Bush, negotiated by George W. Bush and signed by Barack Obama in 2009. The Chamber of Commerce and 328 groups representing the disabled and veterans supported it.

And yet it became a casualty in the American culture war.    

Former senator and Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum brought his daughter Bella, who was born in 2008 with a rare genetic disorder, as a prop to a Washington news conference. He claimed the United Nations would tell parents of disabled children what they could and couldn’t do.   

“He either simply hasn’t read the treaty or doesn’t understand it or he was just not factual in what he said,” Kerry shot back on CNN.

Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kansas, 89, released from a hospital just a week earlier, made a special trip to Capitol Hill to appeal for the treaty. Former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., pushed her husband’s wheelchair into the Senate chamber so he could talk to senators peronally. 

Bob Dole is an authentic war hero. He suffered serious injuries in Italy in World War II and lost the use of his right arm. Senate approval of the treaty would have capped his lifetime crusade for the rights of the disabled.

Treaty critics were polite but unfazed. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., claimed the treaty would undermine United States sovereignty and allow “unelected foreign bureaucrats” to interfere with parents’ rights to decide what’s in the best interests of their disabled children.

 “This would especially affect those parents who home-school,” Inhofe charged, although he conceded later it would not.    

Opponents flooded their senators with emails. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said his office received 1,000 letters against and only 40 for the treaty. He warned that “international hypocrites will soon demand that the United States do this or that. Many other mischievous actions will certainly arise to bedevil our country.”  

Kerry and other supporters insisted the treaty would not change American law or obligate the United States to do anything differently. Nor would it open the doors to federal courts.  One thing it would do is improve conditions for disabled veterans and other disabled Americans who travel overseas.

Dan Berschinski, a West Point graduate whose legs were blown off in Afghanistan, wrote a moving op-ed in The Washington Post, urging the Senate to ratify the treaty to “improve the lives of our 56.7 million disabled U.S. citizens, including 5.5 million disabled veterans like me, when we travel and work abroad.”

Only by voting for the treaty, Berschinski wrote, can the Senate “truly honor the sacrifice of those disabled while answering this nation’s call.”

In the end, a minority of the Senate kept the United States from improving the lives of our disabled citizens or honoring our veterans’ sacrifices.    

But, vowed Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was injured as a POW in Vietnam, “This issue is not going away.”

Will the Senate do its duty by veterans and the disabled or will the GOP stay a minority party?   

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Up against the cliff -- what words tell us -- Nov. 28, 2012 column


What if it hadn’t been a cliff that Ben Bernanke conjured up last February?

The Federal Reserve chairman used the phrase “fiscal cliff” to describe the drastic effects on the economy of automatic tax increases and spending cuts that will take place after Jan. 1, if Congress and the White House fail to agree on a deficit reduction plan.

He could have said, as some liberal Democrats do now, fiscal slope or curve or hill. Progressives hope downplaying the danger of the cliff will give President Barack Obama more spine in negotiating with the Republicans. 
Bernanke’s use of cliff in testimony on Capitol Hill seemed fresh, but it was a 1970s retread.

Ben Zimmer, the language columnist for the Boston Globe, tracked fiscal cliff to a Dallas Morning News editorial on June 16, 1975: "Who hasn't looked with horror at New York City's financial plight? The nation's biggest, richest city is about to go over the fiscal cliff if the state and federal governments don't lend a helping hand." 

Zimmer found other newspaper writers had climbed the fiscal cliff in the 1980s to describe their local budget battles.
With his visit to the cliff, Bernanke endowed with horror the prospect that Washington again will fail to deal with the nation’s economic problems. Naturally, the phrase caught on. It’s our own Mayan end of the world. 

Nobody imagined we’d still be staring into the canyon nine months later.

Calling it a curve instead of a cliff might not make reaching compromise in Washington any easier, but a more benign metaphor might prevent a sense of rising panic in some Americans.

The stock markets are nervous, and some people reportedly were so anxious about the looming consequences of cliff diving -- recession and unemployment over 9 percent – that they stayed home on Black Friday. Friends, that is no way to jumpstart the economy.

For many of us, fiscal cliff evokes the last scene in the movie “Thelma and Louise,” only now, 21 years later, we’re in the back seat of the Thunderbird, about to sail into the abyss.  

We stand by helplessly as talking heads say that the president and the House speaker again today did not meet face to face. The countdown continues to cliffageddon.

The fiscal cliff is the latest in a series of cinematic terms with political impact. Ronald Reagan brought us welfare queens, Barack Obama the bitter people clinging to their guns and religion, and Mitt Romney the 47 percent on the dole who see themselves as victims.

It’s possible the fiscal cliff won’t disappear with the New Year’s confetti. The president and Congress could do just enough to get us through the crisis and resume negotiations on the debt ceiling and tax and entitlement reforms next year. 

Speaking of entitlement reform, Republicans say Democrats must embrace cuts in safety net programs to reach a budget deal. Only a few months ago, though, the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee urged GOP candidates to steer away from the very words entitlement reform.

“Do not say ‘entitlement reform,’ ’privatization,’ ‘every option is on the table,’” the campaign committee advised in an email in August, shortly after Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan, the House budget chairman, as his running mate, Politico reported. “Do say: ‘strengthen,’ ‘secure,’ ‘save,’ ‘preserve,’ ‘protect.’”

The goal was to distance Republican candidates from some of Ryan’s “reforms” of Social Security and Medicare, which were unpopular with older voters.

This week, Drew Altman, head of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank on health policy issues, suggested that news organizations resist using the phrase entitlement reform, even though politicians do.

The phrase makes any changes in Medicare and Medicaid that Democrats and Republicans agree on “sound more palatable and forward thinking,” Altman wrote on his blog.

Altman, a former welfare commissioner of New Jersey who worked on state and national welfare reform, said he’d been pleased years ago when reporters wrote of “welfare reform.”

“Welfare ‘overhaul’ would have been a much more neutral description but I admit that when I was selling my welfare reform program…I was more than happy for the media call it reform,” he wrote.

Words do matter. Now, can we reform the cliff?

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Women in Congress are no fad -- Nov. 21, 2012 column

For most of the last century, no more than two women served at the same time in the U.S. Senate.
In the 1980s, women House members were not allowed in the House gym.
After the 1992 election, headline writers broke out the phrase Year of the Woman to describe the vast crowd of women coming to the Senate – six. The phrase annoyed at least one senator.
 “Calling 1992 the Year of the Woman makes it sound like the Year of the Caribou or the Year of the Asparagus,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., complained at the time. “We’re not a fad, a fancy, or a year.”
Women weren’t a fad, but they’re still a distinct minority in Congress. In January, 20 women will serve in the Senate, 16 Democrats and four Republicans. One in five -- that’s the most women ever in the Senate.
In the House, there will be a record 78 women, about 18 percent of the members. Fifty-eight are Democrats, 20 Republicans. At least three of the new women in the House are in their 30s.
For the first time, women and minorities will outnumber white men among Democrats in the House. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., celebrated the Democratic caucus milestone, saying it would be “the first caucus in the history of civilized government to have a majority of women and minorities.”
That’s impressive, but it’s unclear how having more women and minorities in Congress will affect policy. Republicans still control the House, and the Republican caucus is dominated by white men. Their goal is to shrink the size of government and cut entitlements.  
 In earlier times, women in Congress worked to avoid being pigeon-holed as interested in “women’s” issues. In fact, when the Women’s Caucus was formed in the House in 1977, “it met with considerable resistance even among women members,” according to a history on the House clerk’s Web page.  
Political scientists who have studied women in elective office are divided on whether women have different legislative priorities than men. While some studies find women more likely to support certain family and workplace issues, other studies find no trend.   
 For one thing, there’s been a blurring of what women’s issues are. Plus, family-work balance, pay equity, education and health care mean different things to different people, whether men or women. Someone’s political party can be more predictive of his or her stand than gender.    
While some Republican women in Congress supported certain benefits in the health care overhaul -- such as not allowing health insurance companies to charge women higher premiums than men -- not one Republican, man or woman, voted for final passage of the Affordable Care Act.
“Based on my experience, just because you’re an elected official and a woman, that doesn’t mean you’re going to vote” for women’s issues, Rep. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., says in Madeleine M. Kunin’s “The New Feminist Agenda,” published in April.
As the title suggests, Kunin, who was the first woman governor of Vermont and served as ambassador to Switzerland, is calling for another social revolution ‘’not for the benefit of women alone,” she says, “but for the sake of the family.” 
She argues that while women have made great progress in the workplace, the country needs social policies that support families. The United States is the only country in the developed world that fails to offer paid maternity leave or paid sick leave.
A poll of international gender specialists in June ranked the United States the sixth-best country for women -- behind Canada, Germany, Britain, Australia and France. In France, new mothers get 16 weeks of maternity leave at full pay.
The panel, which looked at the G20 developed countries, cited poor access to health care and the debate over reproductive rights for the U.S. rank, the poll by TrustLaw, a legal news service run by Thompson Reuters Foundation, reported.  
We’re No. 6? That doesn’t sound right. It’s time for women and men in Congress to support working parents and stand up for families.   
No worries about the Year of the Woman or asparagus. Call it the Year of All of Us.  
 ©2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The definition of insanity -- Nov. 15, 2012 column

Psychologists reject the popular definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Insanity is just a legal term, they say.

Fine, but they should hang around the nation’s capital. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to see we’re living in a nutty time.

We just endured a $6 billion election – the costliest in American history – that failed to reset Washington. For the last two years, as gridlock reigned, people kept saying “after the election, after the election...”

Finally the election came and went and we still have the same key players in the White House and Congress. We hear talk of compromise, but at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue the players seem to be digging in their heels, saying many of the same things about the same looming problems as they did before voters went to the polls.

One big difference now: Time is running out to fix a fiscal crisis that could plunge the country back into recession and bring misery to millions. Unless President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans agree soon on a deficit reduction plan, a package of $500 billion in tax increases and spending cuts will kick in automatically in early January.

Obama is sticking to his campaign pledge to raise the income tax rates on the top 2 percent of individuals and top 3 percent of businesses. That’s what the election was about, he says, and he won. He’s right.

Election Day exit polls found that 47 percent of voters approved of raising taxes on people with incomes above $250,000, as Obama proposes, the Associated Press reported. Only 35 percent wanted no tax increases for anyone and 13 percent favored higher taxes for all.

But Obama can’t go it alone. He must enlist balky House Republicans. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, says Republicans flatly refuse to raise tax rates. They favor closing tax loopholes and limiting deductions, which Democrats won’t raise enough revenue.

There was a glimmer of rationality after Obama’s first post-election news conference. The president seemed open to a smaller increase in tax rates on high incomes than he had called for previously. Boehner seemed to suggest the possibility of a deal, but other Republicans were dismissive. We’ve been down this road before, when Obama and Boehner failed to agree on a “grand bargain” last year. 

Speaking of insanity, almost every Republican member of Congress has signed the no-new-taxes pledge championed by Grover Norquist, founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform.

“The problem is too much spending,” Norquist declared on CBS the other day. “The problem is not that the peasants aren’t sending enough money to Washington.

But it’s not the peasants who would send in more money; it’s the princes.

Anyone who would like to see Washington work for a change hopes that Norquist’s influence is waning. But Americans for Tax Reform just poured nearly $16 million into the general election campaign, according to an analysis by the Sunlight Foundation.  
The Taxpayer Protection Pledge obliges signers to oppose any effort to increase marginal tax rates or to reduce tax deductions and credits, unless matched dollar-for-dollar by further reducing tax rates.  
I’d like to say that Americans trust Obama and Congress to do their jobs and steer the country away from the fiscal cliff. Alas, no.

About half of us expect that the two sides will not reach agreement, and only 38 percent think they will, a post-election survey by Pew Research-Washington Post found.

The poll shows how little faith people have that Washington can function. Still, failing to reach a deal could prove risky to Republicans’ political health. Asked who would be to blame if no deal is reached, 53 percent said congressional Republicans and only 29 percent said Obama.  

Congress and the president need to do their jobs. Anything less is insanity.

©2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Poll workers are Election Day heroes -- Nov. 8, 2012 column


As another election goes into the history books, let’s agree on three things: No one should have to stand in line for hours to cast a ballot, voting machines should work and election officials should be competent.

But if it’s election-bashing you want, you won’t find it here. Today, this space is devoted to praising the heroes of American elections: the poll workers. These volunteers make up a grassroots army in service to democracy. They work long hours for minimal pay.

We owe poll workers gratitude, not blame, even when the system doesn’t work the way it should. Localities need to buy reliable voting machines and provide quality training to poll workers. State legislators should consider the real-world effects of complicated voting laws and encourage early and no-excuses absentee voting.
I’ve spent many an Election Day outside polling places, asking people for whom they voted and why, but this time I wanted to see an election from the inside. I applied to be an election officer, or poll worker, in Alexandria, Va.  Poll workers are city or county employees for the day and are apolitical on Election Day; they’re different from poll watchers who represent the political parties and candidates.

After filling out a sheaf of application papers, I got called for training. I spent about three and a half hours at in-person and online training. At the unholy hour of 4:45 am. on Election Day, I reported for duty, coffee thermos in hand, at Precinct 102 in City Hall.

Virginia poll workers stay at the polling place for the duration – they may not leave the premises until the election is over and all reports have been completed and signed. Over the next 15-plus hours, my job included monitoring the check-in line to keep it moving smoothly, greeting voters and giving them information about the ballot process, and checking voters’ IDs.

People worried that Virginia’s new voter ID law might cause problems, and reportedly it did elsewhere. But no voters showed up at our precinct without an ID.
 Chief Election Officer Jeff Herre, calm and collected, set the day’s tone. Only a few of the 18 workers were first-timers. Herre administered the oath of office, called us a team and urged us to help each other. My fellow election workers were smart, courteous, efficient and kind – and they had fun.  

Alexandria had returned to paper ballots, but there were no hanging, dimpled or pregnant chads. Voters marked ballots with pens provided in the voting stations and fed their ballots into a scanner.

One of our two scanners malfunctioned, causing a slowdown until an IT person made repairs. An initial rush when the polls opened at 6 a.m. resulted in a line that snaked around the corner, and some voters reported waiting half an hour in the cold. After that, though, there were no long lines.

But some voters’ names weren’t in the computer poll book and they had to see Herre or his assistant to find their correct polling place or fill out address or name-change forms.

At times, half a dozen voters and election officers stood in line, waiting for Herre to solve their problems, but Herre, 66, a retired CIA analyst, never lost his cool or raised his voice.

I spent part of the day at the door with Deborah Cureton, a retired government auditor and veteran poll worker. Cureton enjoys seeing neighbors and meeting new ones, and when the precinct’s election results finally print out, “you know where you fit in the whole event of worldwide importance,” she said.  

Of the roughly 118 million votes cast in the 2012 presidential election, 1,481 came from Precinct 102  Tuesday and 752 absentee ballots were cast earlier.

Around the country, poll workers in 176,000 precincts see elections from the grassroots. The largest group of poll workers is between 61 and 70 years old, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.  Efforts to recruit younger workers and college students are ongoing.  

As a student, Chris Kurowski, 36, helped his mother, an election official in Newport News, Va.

“Elections are a social event; they’re like a reunion,” he said, recalling home-made casseroles and desserts poll workers there shared.  Kurowski worked his first Alexandria election mostly outside, even dog-sitting while pets’ owners voted.

Nobody gets rich working the polls. Localities set the rate of pay, and in Alexandria election officers receive $100 and the chiefs, who also must pick up and deliver equipment, $200.  

So, next time you go to vote, don’t forget to thank the poll workers who make it happen.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Compete in the Electoral College Bowl -- Nov. 1, 2012 column

Every four years, Americans are confronted with the Electoral College, a vestige of the 18th century that still stalks our elections.  Test yourself on the Electoral College and why it matters with our 10-question quiz. Good luck, no peeking at the answers below, and may the best person win – without recounts.

1. On a presidential Election Day, voters elect:
A. The next president and vice president, stupid
B.  Members of Congress and federal officials who actually elect the president and VP  
C.  People other than in Congress and federal office who elect the president and VP  
D.  People legally bound to vote each state’s popular vote  

2. True or False:  “Electoral College” appears in the Constitution.   

3. What’s the Electoral College got to do with the Holy Roman Empire?
A. Nothing. Are you kidding?
B. The founders borrowed the election concept from the Holy Roman Empire
C. The term “college” comes from the Latin “collegium,” a group that acts as a unit, as in the college of cardinals
D. Both B and C

4.  Where is the Electoral College?
A. New York City
B. Washington
C. Philadelphia
D. None of the above

5. There are 435 members of the House of Representatives and 100 senators. How many electors are in the Electoral College?
A. 100
B. 435
C. 535
D. 538
6. True or False: A presidential election is over when a presidential candidate makes a concession speech.

7.  It takes a majority of electoral votes – 270 -- to win the White House. What happens if no candidate gets a majority?
A. The Senate elects the president
B. The House of Representatives elects the president
C. The Supreme Court elects the president
D. The 50 governors elect the president

8. How often has the winner of the nationwide popular vote for president not won the electoral vote?
A. Four times
B. Twice
C. Once
D. Never    

9. Who administers the Electoral College process?
A. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
B. U.S Department of Justice
C. Office of the Federal Register at the National Archives
D. None of the above 

10. True or False. There have been more proposals for constitutional amendments to change the Electoral College than on any other subject.

Bonus Question:  What happens on Dec. 17?

1. C.  The Electoral College, not the nationwide popular vote, determines who wins the election. The Constitution prohibits U.S. senators, representatives and anyone holding “an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States” from being electors. Neither the Constitution nor federal law requires electors to follow the popular vote; many states have such laws, but not all.  
2.  False. “Electors” appears in Article II and the 12th Amendment. But “electoral college” is not in the Constitution. The term came into use in the early 19th century and now is in federal law.
3. D. The founders were well educated.   
4.  D. Electoral College is a process, not a place. There’s no campus, no football team, no cheerleaders.
5. D. Each state’s electors equal the number of its U.S. House members and senators for a total of 535. The District of Columbia is treated as a state and gets three electors, thanks to the 23rd Amendment.  
6.  False. A concession speech has no bearing on the Electoral College process.
7. B. Each state’s House delegation gets one vote. The Senate elects the vice president, with each senator getting one vote. 
8. A.  In 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000.
9.  C. The office also provides the official text of all federal laws and presidential documents and runs the constitutional amendment process.  
10. True. More than 700 proposals have been introduced in Congress to reform or eliminate the Electoral College.
Bonus Question: That’s the day electors meet in the states to elect the president and VP.

SCORING:  10 points for each correct answer, plus 5 points for bonus.
85 to 100 -- Congratulations, you win the Electoral College bowl!
70 to 85 – Professor, tenure at the Electoral College is yours.
55 to 70 – Learned scholar, go to the head of the class.
55 to 70 – Politicians crave numbers like these.  
40 to 55 – Your insight is blog-worthy.        
25 to 40 -- Keep tweeting. Rome and the Electoral College weren’t built in a day.
Below 25 – There’s always 2016.

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, briefing by Thomas Neale of Congressional Research Service at Washington Foreign Press Center,, the New York Times, “The Framing of the Constitution” by Max Ferrand.

 -- Compiled by Marsha Mercer

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A swing voter explains his switch to Romney -- Oct. 25, 2012 column

If Mitt Romney wins the White House, he can thank voters like Dayle Mauck of Fredericksburg, Va.
Mauck, 57, is a swing voter in a key battleground state. He voted for Barack Obama four years ago, but he’s backing Romney Nov. 6.
“My theory is Obama is a good man and he means well, but he and Congress just butt heads,” Mauck told me. “Romney has been in business. He knows what it’s like. I’m looking for who can get the economy rolling again.”
Political commentators toss around the slogan “it’s the economy.” Voters like Mauck live with it every day, and it’s not pretty. He’s a home builder -- or was -- until the recession hit.  Today he’s a home improvement contractor, waiting and hoping for a turnaround. 
“Four years ago, I had 40 employees; now I have one. Four years ago, I had an office; now it’s in my home. I love to build houses,” he said as he took a break from updating my bath. “I don’t mind home improvement, but I love to build houses.”
Mauck prospered during the housing boom – building 15 or 20 houses a year and doing framing contract work for larger builders. He was able to pay his two sons’ way through college. But he also knew the crazy-good times couldn’t last. He recalls a day when 17 clients sat in a sales office in Fredericksburg, all ready to buy townhouses.
When the bottom dropped out of the housing market, he had to tell his sons, “You’re on your own. Get a loan.” 
 “I’m a construction worker. I’m not a tech person,” he said. “And there are a lot of guys like me out here. A ton of them are out of business and the rest are just hanging on and hoping the economy comes back.”
After 40 years in construction, Mauck is no stranger to economic downturns. When recession hit in the 1980s, he grabbed his tools and headed to Alaska for a few months. After that, he figured the Washington area was recession-proof but, he says, he was wrong. 
White men without college degrees like Mauck back Romney over Obama  65 percent to 32 percent, according to the latest ABC News-Washington Post poll. Pollsters say this group more than any other has propelled Romney into a tight race with Obama on handling the economy.
 “Those billions and billions in stimulus – they didn’t do anything as far as I can tell,” said Mauck, who thinks a billion or two should have gone to buy down mortgages so people could have stayed in their homes.  
No fan of either political party, Mauck is an independent.  Almost four in 10 voters now say they’re independents, up from 32 percent in 2008 and 30 percent in 2004. Self-described Democrats are 32 percent of the electorate, and self-described Republicans are 24 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.
But many who call say they’re independents vote the same party nearly every election. Mauck isn’t like that.
He gave his first presidential vote to Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976, voted twice for Republican Ronald Reagan and then for George H. W. Bush.  In 1992, Mauck thought Bill Clinton “the best and the brightest” and voted Democratic. In 1996, he went with Republican Bob Dole. In 2000, he voted for Democrat Al Gore and in 2004 for Republican George W. Bush.  
Four years ago, Mauck and his wife Tana, an elementary school teacher, helped Barack Obama win Virginia and the White House. This time they’ll cancel out each other’s votes. Tana Mauck is sticking with Obama.
His friends at the Moose Lodge give him a hard time about voting for Obama, so “I just don’t mix politics and beer,” Dayle Mauck said.
He wishes he could still have good-natured political arguments, but when he and his buddies pile into his truck to go hunting, he has one rule -- “no politics and no religion.”
And what does he make of the charge that Romney is so rich he can’t possibly understand the problems of people like Dayle Mauck?  
“I never knew a poor guy to give a man a job,” he said, with a hint of a smile.
© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Poverty: costly, forgotten and worse than ever -- Oct. 18, 2012


In July 2007, candidate Barack Obama stood in a poor Washington neighborhood and quoted Bobby Kennedy on poverty in America.

“How can a country like this allow it?” Kennedy asked in the Mississippi Delta that day in 1967. Obama echoed the question in Anacostia four decades later.

“We can’t afford to lose a generation of tomorrow’s doctors and scientists and teachers to poverty,” Obama said. “We can make excuses for it or we can fight about it or we can ignore poverty altogether, but as long as it’s here it will always be a betrayal of the ideals we hold as Americans. It’s not who we are.”

Some War on Poverty programs were ineffective, Obama conceded, but it was wrong to conclude there was no role for the federal government in fighting poverty. The government can make a difference with programs like school lunch and prenatal care, he said.

And there was stick with the carrot.

“It makes a difference when a father realizes that responsibility does not end at conception; when he understands that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one,” Obama said. “It makes a difference when a parent turns off the TV once in awhile, puts away the video games and starts reading to their child, and getting involved in their education.”

People love mild scolding, especially if it’s directed at someone else. Last time around, people loved the candidate Obama who they thought would bridge the gaps between Democrats and Republicans.

Five-plus years after Obama’s Anacostia speech, both President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have largely ignored poverty in their presidential campaigns. We hear a lot about the 1 percent, the 47 percent and even, lately, the 100 percent. But the 15 percent who live in poverty? Almost never.

Romney mentioned the rise in poverty under Obama’s watch in the last debate but offered no specific plan for tackling poverty. Obama was silent on the subject.

Even if people were begging the White House and Congress to do more for the poor – they are not -- Washington knows only how to turn the spigot on and off. But spending alone, like words, won’t end poverty.

Wouldn’t it be great if someone could come up with a few rules young people could follow to nearly guarantee a life free of poverty?

Trick question. Yes, it would be great, and, yes, the rules do exist.

Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution studied poverty and Census data and came up with three rules to avoid poverty. Here they are:

One, finish high school.

Two, work full time.

Three, wait until age 21 and get married -- before having a baby.

That’s it. People who follow all three rules had only a 2 percent chance of being poor, Haskins told the Senate Finance Committee in June. But those who violate all three rules have a 77 percent chance of being poor.

People often think getting a job is the key to success, but in America, it’s very possible to work full time and still be poor. A single mother of two on her own who works full-time all year at the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, takes no vacations and no time off for sick days or to take care of sick kids, would earn $15,080 – about $2,500 below the poverty level for a mom with two kids, Haskins told the committee.

Our leaders need to do more to make it cool to stay in school, to work full-time and to wait to start families. It won’t be easy, but it would pay huge dividends.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Behind those jobless numbers -- Oct. 11, 2012 column


Back in 2003, an up-and-coming economics professor cried foul when the government reported a surprisingly low annual unemployment rate. It was 6 percent.

“The unemployment rate has been low only because government programs, especially Social Security disability, have effectively been buying people off the unemployment rolls and reclassifying them as ‘not in the labor force,’” Austan Goolsbee of the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business wrote in The New York Times.

“The government has cooked the books,” he declared.

Nine years later, Jack Welch and other critics of President Barack Obama jumped on Goolsbee’s “cooked the books” comment to bolster their attack on what the former CEO of General Electric called “unbelievable” September jobless numbers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the unemployment rate declined three-tenths of a point to 7.8 percent and non-farm employment increased by 114,000.

Goolsbee, who chaired Obama’s White House Council of Economic Advisers in 2010 and 2011, denies he was being partisan in 2003. His words were taken out of context, he says. He’s right.

His op-ed said government policy loosening eligibility for disability payments had created “invisible unemployment” that benefits both parties. He did not accuse the Bush administration of phonying the numbers the way Obama’s foes have accused him.

“The point is not whether every person on disability deserves payments,” Goolsbee wrote then. “The point is that in previous recessions these people would have been called unemployed. They would have filed for unemployment insurance. They would have shown up in the statistics. They would have helped create a more accurate picture of national unemployment, a crucial barometer we use to measure the performance of the economy, the likelihood of inflation and the state of the job market.”

Goolsbee’s point is even more relevant today than it was nine years ago. The Social Security disability program has grown by leaps and bounds and now consumes nearly 20 percent of the Social Security budget. It’s on track to become the first safety net program to exhaust its trust fund – in 2016.

Getting stuck on one month’s unemployment numbers is pure political theater. BLS stresses that one month can be a fluke and revises numbers all the time.

Does anyone think a 7.8 percent unemployment rate is something to cheer about? Not when 12.1 million people are officially unemployed and unemployment would be so much worse without the disability safety net.

The disability rolls have doubled over the last decade. There were 10.6 million disability beneficiaries at the end of last year, 8.6 million of whom were disabled workers. The rest were dependents. The average monthly disability payment was $960, and disability recipients qualify for Medicare after two years. The average age of a disability recipient is 53.

As the economy soured and workers lost jobs and couldn’t find new ones, applications for disability soared. Over the years, eligibility for disability has been expanded to include mental conditions and back pain.

Congress started the disability program in 1956 to provide payments to disabled workers – that is, those unable to engage in “a substantial gainful activity in the U.S. economy.”

At that time, employment and disability were seen as mutually exclusive states, David H. Autor and Mark G. Duggan wrote in a 2010 paper on disability reform for The Center for American Progress and The Hamilton Project. The definition still stands, even though the nature of work has changed dramatically.

The disability program provides “strong incentives to applicants and beneficiaries to remain permanently out of the labor force, and it provides no incentive to employers to implement cost-effective accommodations that enable employees with work limitations to remain on the job,” Autor and Duggan wrote.

To fix disability’s financial crisis, Congress is considering a range of unpalatable options: raise the payroll tax, tighten eligibility and lower benefits.

Many who receive disability payments would rather be earning a paycheck and feeling like productive members of society. With some help from employers, many could work.

Instead of arguing about the unemployment rate, our leaders need to find ways to encourage work in the 21st century for all Americans, including those with disabilities.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Debating an 'October surprise' -- Oct. 4, 2012 column


We have an “October surprise,” and it’s Mitt Romney. He lives.

An October surprise is an unexpected event that could change the outcome of a presidential race. It’s premature to say Romney’s strong showing against President Barack Obama in the first presidential debate will alter the course of this election.

But Romney is not the dead man walking he seemed just a week ago.

Republicans are thrilled and Democrats chilled by the Denver debate. If Romney was the winner, who was the biggest loser?

Not Obama, who earned his party’s scorn for his lackluster performance, or even Big Bird, endangered as he’d be in a Romney administration. Romney said he’d cut PBS funding, even though he loves the Sesame Street character.

The biggest losers were TV viewers hungry for clarity on issues facing the country. They went to bed without supper.

Presidential debates are aimed at winning undecided or swing voters. About 6 percent of voters supposedly are still up for grabs. Their presidential decision got harder, not easier, after a debate that raised more questions than it answered. Romney and Obama batted erroneous facts and figures at each other like tennis balls.

Commentators across the political spectrum agreed that Romney shone and Obama stumbled Wednesday night. Point by point, Romney shed his image as Prince of the Remote Rich, coming across as smart, deft and worried about the middle class. Who knew?

Supposed front-runner Obama looked uncomfortable. It obviously has been a while since anyone questioned or challenged him up close. The next day, though, he was on the campaign trail, pounding Romney.

Analysts chewed endlessly on the night’s great bafflement: How could Obama go 90 minutes without once mentioning the magic words “47 percent,” the group of Americans Romney recently said feel they are victims, entitled to government handouts and will vote for Obama.

As surprising as it was to see an aggressive Romney take it to a defensive Obama, though, political theater won’t help anyone pay college tuition, find a job or cope with real life problems.

After the debate, fact checkers gloried in the wealth of inaccurate and untrue statements from both Obama and Romney.

“We found exaggerations and false claims flying thick and fast,” reported nonpartisan

“The debate was wonky without being especially honest,” the Washington Post editorialized.

Obama and Romney “spun one-sided stories in their first presidential debate, not necessarily bogus, but not the whole truth,” said the Associated Press.

Obama claimed that Romney has a plan to cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans by $5 trillion. Not so, Romney declared, insisting that he will curb tax breaks to make up the costs. He hasn’t said which ones.

Romney claimed Obama doubled the deficit. Fact checkers say he didn’t.

Obama claimed health care premiums have gone up more slowly than any time in the last 50 years. Nope, say fact checkers.

Viewers knew early that the ever-smiling Romney was on his game when he likened the president to a prevaricating lad.

“Look, I’ve got five boys. I’m used to people saying something that’s not always true, but just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I’ll believe it. But that is not the case, all right?” Romney said.

About Romney’s tax plan, Obama said, “For 18 months he’s been running on this tax plan. And now, five weeks before the election, he’s saying that his big, bold idea is `Never mind.’”

Romney, honed by a countless debates during the GOP primaries and extensively prepped, trotted out three- and four-point plans galore. Obama showed the rust of not debating in four years.

David Axelrod, a top Obama aide, said on MSNBC that Obama was trying to have a conversation with the American people and he was “treating the American people as adults.” Really?

Adults deserve – and should demand -- substance from their politicians. This election isn’t over. There’s time for policy details. The vice presidential debate is Thursday in Kentucky and the two remaining presidential debates are Oct. 16 and 22 in New York and Florida.

Stay tuned. October could bring more surprises.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, September 27, 2012

Food fight! Nanny state vs. national security -- Sept. 27, 2012 column


The nanny state was undiscovered territory when Congress passed and President Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act in June 1946.

The law was good for children and farmers, the president said. The military wanted it because it was good for national security.

During World War II, more than 40 percent of rejected military recruits were sent home because they were malnourished.

Today, our platter-sized plates and our gargantuan soda cups runneth over. Rather than being too malnourished, our young Americans are too overweight to enlist. One in four can’t qualify for service.

Obesity, not malnourishment, is our national security issue. More than 300 retired generals and admirals joined a group called Mission: Readiness to goad Congress into taking steps to try to stem the childhood obesity epidemic by improving nutrition in schools.

The group’s 2010 report, “Too Fat to Fight,” pressed Congress for healthier school lunches. For once, Congress listened. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, supported by first lady Michelle Obama, reforms the school lunch program for the first time in 30 years.

New rules requiring more fruits and vegetables, lower-fat milk and less bread and condiments went into effect this fall in schools around the country. It’s America so naturally there have been protests. Students and teachers at a school in Kansas produced a video that has gone viral. Critics are eager to map -- and disarm -- the nanny state.

''This is the nanny state personified,'' declared Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who said constituents tell him their kids are starving in school and are being rationed on calories. King wants to repeal the law.

Really? Under the new rules, a high school lunch must not exceed 850 calories, compared with 825 calories under the old guidelines. Elementary pupils, in kindergarten through fifth grade, now get up to 650 calories at lunch.

Mission: Readiness wants Congress to take more action to curb obesity. This week the group released a follow-up report, “Still Too Fat to Fight,” asking that the government expel junk food from school. Schools sell more than 400 billion empty calories a year, outside the lunch program, in school stores, snack lines and vending machines, the report said.

Again, the brass says, it’s a national security issue.

The military leaders recognize that parents are their children’s first teachers and role models, but parents can’t control junk food at school. America’s children consume up to half their daily calories at school, so stopping the flow of junk food there could be significant.

For the military, overweight isn’t just a recruitment problem. The United States has the highest rate overweight and obese men among major countries -- three in four men are overweight or obese. The Defense Department spends $1.1 billion a year treating diabetes, heart disease and other medical problems related to obesity for service members, their families and veterans.

And problems with staffing the volunteer military go beyond weight, says Richard B. Myers, a retired Air Force general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“When weight problems are combined with other disqualifying factors, like failing to finish high school or being convicted of a serious crime, an estimated 75 percent of Americans age 17 to 24 are not able to join the military,” Myers wrote in an op-ed in Politico.

Three in four young Americans can’t qualify to serve? That’s appalling. We must do more to help kids stay in school and qualify for the military training and personal confidence that service can provide.

We can start with soda.

Three studies in the latest New England Journal of Medicine link obesity to sugary sodas. The American Beverage Association insists that the industry already has reduced sales in schools and no single food or drink is responsible for the obesity epidemic.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York has riled many with his quest to ban gigantic sodas. Starting in March, unless a judge intervenes, New Yorkers will not be able to buy supersized sodas at restaurants, on the street or in movie theaters.

To hear some conservatives, you’d think our God-given rights include the freedom to scarf and guzzle vast quantities of anything and everything without any government interference whatsoever.

Seriously, does that make sense -- with health care costs skyrocketing, with three of four American men overweight or obese?

Does anyone really need more than 16 ounces of a soft drink at a time? The original Coca-Cola bottle held about 6 ounces. If you’re still thirsty, drink water.

In this great country, there will always be another soda. But we don’t have to drink it right now.

©2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.