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.