Thursday, May 30, 2013

A big fish, good karma and the news -- May 30, 2013 column


On a Saturday afternoon in May, a fisherman in Nags Head, N.C., reeled in a 34 ½ inch, 19 pound cobia. Travis Kemp attributed his catch to “good karma” because he had helped free an entangled brown pelican minutes earlier.

The Outer Banks Sentinel ran a photo of Kemp holding the big fish with the headline, “Cobia karma.” That’s news people like to read.
I saw the newspaper while on vacation and had an idea. If a simple good deed can bring such quick and positive results, let’s convene Congress on a fishing pier on the Outer Banks. The president can provide rods, lures and bait. Surely our elected leaders would accomplish more fishing there than they do posturing in Washington.

Getting away can bring a new perspective. While they’re visiting North Carolina’s beautiful beaches, members of Congress and the president could slow down and watch brown pelicans cruise the shoreline for fish. These impressive birds with 4-foot wing spans and long bills fly single file or in V-formation close to the ocean, occasionally diving straight into the water for their supper. They know what to do and they do it. (Hint, hint.)

The denizens of Washington could even learn from the lowly sand crab, called ghost crabs because of their translucent shells. These finger-sized creatures scurry about their work. They have rotating eyes with 360-degree vision – an enviable trait – and zip around at 10 mph. They dig tunnels 4 feet into the sand. The sensible sand crab stays in its burrow when it’s hot outside and emerges when it’s cool to dine on dead fish, plant matter and whatever else is handy.

To take the time to watch the brown pelican and the ghost crab is to see nature in harmony. The pelican is graceful and ruthlessly efficient; sand crabs are jerky and industrious. Dogs may bark at the pelicans and people of all ages chase sand crabs, but it’s good karma to let the beasties stay on task. They perform the admirable task of keeping the beach clean.

No one, it seems, is keeping Washington clean. The nation’s capital wears bad karma like cheap perfume. We face many problems, but our elected leaders seem content to jockey for political gain.  

Americans, understandably, are fed up with business as usual in Washington. The reputation of the IRS is in tatters after it targeted conservative groups seeking tax exempt status, but nothing has been done – except talk. Allowing Steven Miller, the acting head of the IRS, to retire early and paying Lois Lerner, the head of the division that handles tax exempt requests, to stay home are soft penalties, if they’re penalties at all.   

Lerner was put on paid administrative leave after she pled the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify before a House committee. She has a right to avoid self-incrimination. She also has refused to resign. It’s unclear whether she can even be fired under Civil Service employee rules.

Taxpayers who are paying her salary and politicians in both parties are outraged, but no one can act. It’s maddening.

Fortunately, it’s nearly summer, and Washington’s summer “scandals” are predictable. Next may be the Obamas’ vacation plans. First lady Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia are eyeing an extended vacation at Martha’s Vineyard, the Boston Globe reported. They also plan to accompany the president on a trip to Ireland for a summit June 17 and 18. The Obamas are unwilling to give up their frequent vacations, despite criticism from the right.

For the record, about 40 percent of American workers don’t get any paid vacation time, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Other surveys indicate that among those who do get paid vacation time, more than half fail to take all the days they’re entitled to.

Americans need a diversion from the troubles in the capital, and perhaps politicians could also benefit from a diversion. The president could make arcade games part of his summer routine.  Everybody loves teddy bears.

During Obama's joint appearance with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on the Point Pleasant Beach boardwalk, rebuilt with a $2.1 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Christie won the prize on his first football toss and gave it to Obama. Good karma.

With practice, Obama could improve his football aim before a rematch. That too would be good karma.

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

We're all one disaster away from Moore -- May 23, 2013 column


After the horrific tornado in Oklahoma and as another Atlantic hurricane season starts, it’s a good time to think about federal disaster aid. You may have heard politicians in Washington insist that there’s no debate about funding disaster relief. Don’t believe it.

Everyone wants to help the 12,000 families whose homes were destroyed in Moore and Oklahoma City, Okla. The path of devastation is as heartbreaking as the victims’ spirit is inspiring. Fortunately, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster fund can handle whatever part of the estimated $2 billion in damages is not covered by insurance.

That’s great, and it means nobody in Congress has to cast a difficult vote against aid to people who obviously need it. Now let’s think ahead. We still could have more tornadoes. The hurricane season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30. Activity in the Atlantic is expected to be above normal.

The good news for Oklahomans is that FEMA’s disaster fund has $11.6 billion, more than enough to cover expected tornado losses. What happens if we have more tornadoes and a bad season of hurricanes? In the current austerity environment, no one should be surprised to see a repeat of previous squabbles on Capitol Hill about disaster aid.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., ran into a buzz saw of criticism this week when he said that he “absolutely” would require any disaster relief for his state to be offset by spending cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. At least he seemed consistent.

Coburn and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., were among 36 Senate Republicans who voted no earlier this year on a $50.5 billion emergency funding bill for victims of Superstorm Sandy.  The lawmakers objected because the costs weren’t offset by spending cuts and because the bill included extraneous measures for other states.

When Coburn said he’d apply the same standard to his own state, he got creamed in the social media. He issued a rebuttal and went on the media circuit, claiming he has always supported disaster aid – as long as it goes to the victims of disasters and not to other projects.

“I supported a scaled-down $25 billion version of disaster aid for Sandy, but I strongly opposed a $50 billion package that was an all-you-can-eat buffet for politicians and politically connected contractors,” Coburn wrote in an op-ed on

Coburn also contended the news media had created an issue where none exists. Because the money is already in the FEMA fund, no funding bill exists and no vote is required, he said. You could get whiplash trying to follow such arguments.

For his part, Inhofe argued that relief for Oklahoma would be “totally different” from the Sandy relief Christmas tree bill. People in Oklahoma wouldn’t exploit the tragedy as people in other states had done, he explained.

Contrast Coburn and Inhofe with Rep. Tom Cole, the Republican who represents Moore in the U.S. House. Cole supported the relief bill for Hurricane Sandy victims. He said his hometown was only “one tornado away from being Joplin.” He was referring to the 2011 tornado that tore apart that Missouri city.
“I just didn’t know it’d be quite this quick,” Cole told NPR in an interview this week. His own home in Moore is only a minute’s walk from the path of destruction, he said, but it was spared this time, as it was in the equally horrific tornado of 1999.

If Moore was one tornado away from Joplin, and we know it was, we’re all one disaster – tornado, hurricane, earthquake, fire, flood -- away from Moore. We don’t know when the worst might come. We want to believe Congress will be there for us.  

And so we’re back where we were last October when Hurricane Sandy hit. Congress eventually approved emergency supplemental funding for Sandy victims, but only after adding some extraneous projects. The additional projects weren't directly related to the need, but they insured that the bill passed.

When the next need arises -- as it inevitably will -- cannot Congress do what is legitimately needed without the histrionics of insisting that it be paid for immediately?

Congressional Democrats and most Republicans like to say that disaster aid is in a category of its own, and victims need help when they need it. We may learn in the next six months whether the politicians mean it.

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Three cups of tea and the IRS -- May 16, 2013 column


We’ll eventually find out what the IRS employees in Cincinnati thought they were doing when they subjected tea party groups to special scrutiny. We already know that they did accomplish one thing, unintentionally. They breathed new life into the tea party movement. 
That irony will haunt Democrats and President Barack Obama in the 2014 elections. It’s an old, but good, lesson for anyone involved in government: Avoid even the appearance of a partisan fishing expedition, especially if you’re in the federal agency most Americans fear and hate most.

As of now, it seems that a few overworked, misguided IRS employees in Cincinnati, whose job it was to make sure groups applying for tax-exempt status met certain legal criteria, used a shorthand guide to check groups. This was a Be On the Look Out, or BOLO, system to give special scrutiny to groups that had tea party, patriot or 9/12 in their names.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. The IRS needs to be scrupulously nonpartisan. Still, imagine that fewer than 200 overworked employees faced more than 70,000 requests for non-profit status a year.  They might want to find a quick way to assess who was eligible.
Still, going after conservatives wasn’t the solution. Even worse, the IRS’ boss said to stop using the criteria but the employees apparently didn’t stop, according to the Treasury Department Inspector General report. Groups that may have been totally legitimate were subjected to ridiculous reporting requirements. At least one was asked which books its leaders were reading.

Watchdog groups have long warned that some groups, conservative and liberal, were abusing the tax-exempt privilege. Congress needs to clarify just how much political activity is allowed.

After last November’s elections, many analysts wrote off the tea party movement. Several tea party-endorsed Senate candidates washed out, and Michele Bachmann, the tea party darling and victor in the Iowa Republican presidential caucuses, barely won re-election to her House seat in Minnesota.

Bachmann, chairwoman of the House Tea Party Caucus, was back in front of a microphone. She set up a news conference outside the Capitol Thursday that turned into a tea party rally. She even espoused the crackpot notion that health care could be denied under the president’s new health care program because of people’s beliefs.

“Could there potentially be political implications regarding health care — access to health care, denial of health care — will that happen based upon a person’s political beliefs or their religiously-held beliefs?” Bachmann asked.

She conceded that these questions would have been considered “out of bounds a week ago,” but with the IRS enforcing the penalty for those who refuse to purchase insurance in 2014, she said, it’s “more than reasonable and more than fair” for Americans to ask.

Well, no, it’s neither reasonable nor fair. It’s far-fetched, to put it politely. But this is what happens when an administration runs off the rails.

Don’t get me wrong. The IRS must be above reproach. People must trust that government actions are nonpartisan. Employees reviewing applications for tax-exempt status should never single out groups with partisan-sounding names for intense review, delaying processing. It was “inappropriate,” the Treasury Department Inspector General said. And it was tone deaf. The office that conducted the reviews “did not consider the public perception of using politically sensitive criteria when identifying these cases,” the inspector general said in his report.

The IRS did not deny even one request for tax-exempt status from these groups. Still, the IRS story was one of three that together were damning for President Barack Obama, who promised transparency and honesty.
Besides the IRS targeting, the State Department and other agencies offered confusing explanations about what happened in the attack last year on the mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four American diplomats. 

Plus, the Justice Department secretly seized two months of telephone records of reporters and editors of the Associated Press.

At his news conference Thursday, Obama said he "did not know anything" about an IRS inspector general's report on political targeting prior to media reports. The reporter had asked, though, whether anyone at the White House knew about the targeting.  We will know more later.

Michele Bachmann will make sure about that. 
© Marsha Mercer 2013. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Cleveland's horrors and good neighbors -- May 9, 2013 column


Three young women and a 6-year-old girl in Cleveland can finally breathe free because one of the women, Amanda Berry, refused to become resigned to a living hell. She risked losing her life for a chance of escape. 
Ariel Castro, a former school bus driver, has been charged with multiple counts of kidnapping and rape and is being held on $8 million bond. This is good news, although his jail time won’t be nearly as harsh as the conditions in which he allegedly held his victims.

That much we know, but the rest of the story of Cleveland’s house of horrors is still unfolding. How could Castro have kept three women imprisoned in a house in a crowded city neighborhood for a decade?
A neighbor, Charles Ramsey, is the Good Samaritan who became an internet sensation with his audacious TV interviews and excited call to 911. As everyone now knows, Ramsey was eating food from McDonald’s when he heard a woman’s screams.

“I figured it was a domestic-violence dispute,” Ramsey told a local ABC News reporter in a widely seen video clip. Ramsey didn’t turn away and refuse to get involved. He said he rushed to kick the door in, freeing Berry and her daughter. McDonald’s Corp, tweeted “way to go Charles Ramsey-we’ll be in touch.”

Alas, poor Ramsey’s shot at free Big Macs for life is in jeopardy. He may not have been the first rescuer on the scene after all. 

 “The truth – who arrived there, who crossed the street, who broke the door – it was me,” another neighbor, Angel Cordero, said in Spanish, according to a translation by a Cleveland TV station.

Plus, Ramsey’s sudden fame inevitably brought scrutiny and then news that he himself had been arrested three times for domestic violence from 1997 to 2003.

Ramsey’s tarnished folk hero status aside, it’s actually heartening to think that more than one neighbor responded to Berry’s cries. It’s great to see strangers doing the right thing, especially when it could be personally dangerous.

Had Ariel Castro come home before the rescue was complete, we likely would have had a sad story. No telling what the man would have done. He is accused of kidnapping Berry, Michelle Knight, and Georgina “Gina” DeJesus between 2002 and 2004, when they were 16, 20 and 14, respectively.

His method of capture was hideously simple. He offered Michelle a ride, told Amanda his son worked at the same Burger King she did, and offered to take Gina to visit his daughter, a school friend, according to news organizations that viewed police reports.

Castro reportedly kept the women in chains in the basement for the first few years then allowed them to move to locked rooms upstairs. They were allowed outside only a couple of times in all those years.

There were clues something was terribly wrong on Seymour Avenue. Neighbors in the close-knit Puerto Rican neighborhood saw Castro take a child to a playground but didn’t ask about her. One man told The Washington Post he didn’t want to be thought a “bochinchoso,” slang for gossiper.

Other nearby residents heard banging from the house and screams. A naked woman wearing a dog collar was spotted on all fours in the back yard. Someone saw a sad child’s face in an attic window. One or two neighbors now say they called police, but police say they’ve searched records and found no calls.

When the police dispatcher asked Charles Ramsey if Amanda Berry needed an ambulance, he heatedly replied that she had been kidnapped. 

“She needs everything,” he said. “Put yourself in her shoes.”

Everyone prays there are no nightmare cases like this anywhere else, but thousands of people go missing every year. The National Crime Information Center contained 87,217 active missing person records as of last Dec. 31. Juveniles under 18 made up 37 percent of the cases, and 17 percent were between 18 and 20.

The people on Seymour Avenue didn’t know a monster lived nearby. It’s heart-breaking to think that if the neighbors who saw something had said something, the victims might have breathed free years ago.

©2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

At it again: Congress plays politics and favorites with health law -- May 2, 2013 column


Two things people detest about Washington: when members of Congress play politics and when they play favorites, especially favoring themselves.
Well, pull up a chair and get your mad on. Both sides of the aisle are guilty in the flap over the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance exchanges.

Exchanges are the online marketplaces where people will compare and buy insurance starting in January. One of the selling points for the public is that members of Congress will participate. This is less because Congress wanted to do the right thing than because Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, added a requirement that Congress and staff enter the exchanges.

Members of Congress are notorious for making rules for the rest of us while exempting themselves, and Grassley has the novel notion that Congress ought not do that. He was also gigging Democrats and didn’t expect his amendment to survive. But Democrats surprised him and agreed to it.

With the online exchanges scheduled to open for enrollment in October, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., reportedly were secretly negotiating a way to exempt lawmakers and Capitol Hill staffers. When the news broke, the twitterverse lit up with outrage.

The congressional leaders denied they wanted to exempt themselves. They wanted only to fix it so the federal government could continue contributing its employer share to workers’ insurance premiums, they said. Maybe so, but the damage was done.

Now comes Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He upped the ante by proposing that all federal employees – from the president to groundskeepers – buy their health insurance on exchanges. He would exempt active-duty military and postal workers.

“If the Obamacare exchanges are good enough for the hard-working Americans and small businesses the law claims to help, then they should be good enough for the president, vice president, Congress and federal employees,” a Camp spokeswoman said.

President Barack Obama has said he will buy insurance through an exchange, although he has medical staff at his elbow in the White House.

Camp’s bill brought speedy condemnation from Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and the unions that represent federal workers.

“There is no need to kick over 2 million federal employees off their insurance plans in order to satisfy the cynical political urges of House Republicans, who have voted to repeal this law over 30 times,” a spokesman for Pelosi said.

Camp’s proposal is an over-correction, and federal workers are already political footballs under sequestration’s automatic spending cuts and furloughs. But his proposal does raise an interesting point. Should the government continue to subsidize federal employees’ health care the way private employers do?

If so, a mechanism for employer subsidies needs to be built into the exchanges. As currently envisioned, the exchanges are for people whose employers don’t offer insurance and for people who can’t afford the coverage that is offered.

The kerfuffle over congressional participation in exchanges came as most Americans seem to be hazy, at best, about the law. Four in 10 American adults don’t even know that the Affordable Care Act is still the law of the land, the Kaiser Health Tracking Poll reported.

Obama says the law is working fine, even if people don’t know it. He still believes that people will come to understand the benefits in time, although he also concedes there will be “glitches and bumps” along the way. Only 35 percent of Americans have a positive view of the law, Kaiser says.  

People are unlikely to embrace the law as long as Congress appears to disdain it. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., made news last month when he worried aloud that the rollout of the exchanges could be “a huge train wreck.” He’s retiring but other Democrats are worried that the exchanges will hurt them in the 2014 elections.

It’s evidently too much to ask Congress to show leadership on an issue that affects every American.   

For now, Democrats and Republicans have returned to their corners. But we’re likely to see more mischief making on the health law and more reasons to detest Washington.

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.