Wednesday, October 29, 2014

I can see (too) clearly now -- Oct. 30, 2014 column


Lost in thought while shopping solo on a Saturday afternoon, I suddenly became aware of a voice.

“You are very brave,” a woman said in a thick European accent. Who? I looked around. The sales associate was addressing -- me. “You are very brave,” she said again.

What on Earth was she talking about?

I was a shopper in a discount store, heading to the checkout. No heroics there. She gestured toward my intended purchase, a box containing a lighted magnifying cosmetic mirror that promised to show my face 10 times larger than normal.  

“Why?” she asked. “Why do you want this?”

I was speechless. None of your business, I did not say.

“What good will it do?” she persisted, “to see so much?” She obviously thought she was saving a sister from buyer’s remorse.       

“Well,” I said, knowing I couldn’t win, “you’re probably right.” I turned, walked the mirror back to its home on the shelf and slunk out. 

But this is America and we are not easily parted from the objects of our desire. I drove straight to another store and bought a nearly identical mirror – OK, with less magnification -- at a higher price.

I can see (too) clearly now.

Some mornings I can’t take the magnified me. I flip the mirror over to see my imperfections merely as they appear in real life. The flaws seem less daunting and more fixable then.

These days, most of us seem to be looking in mirrors that magnify imperfections, especially those of our government, country and culture. It shouldn’t be a surprise.

We’re subject to a steady stream of skeptical, if not cynical, talk from politicians and the media. We have a full-blown case of the malaise President Jimmy Carter worried about. Nobody uses the word, nor did Carter, but nobody’s singing “Happy Days are Here Again” either.

You know we’re in a sour mood when a mostly rising stock market is viewed as the prelude to a plunge. We resist good news.

Consider the difficulty President Barack Obama has in convincing people that we’re better off than when he took office in 2009. Many people simply won’t believe that the economy is improving and the Affordable Care Act – a.k.a Obamacare -- is finally working.

Neither is perfect, of course, and we have a long way to go in both areas. But we seem unwilling to see bright spots. Unemployment is at its lowest levels in six years and jobs are coming back at a decent clip of more than 200,000 a month. 

Ten million Americans who were uninsured a year ago now have health insurance. Health care costs nationally have moderated. Premiums are rising more slowly for the people who get insurance through their employers – that’s most Americans. And for those who buy their insurance on the exchanges, premiums are falling in some markets.

“While good, affordable health care might seem like a fanged threat to the freedom of the American people on Fox News, it’s turned out it’s working pretty well in the real world,” the president said at Northwestern University the other day.

And yet, more than half of Americans surveyed by Gallup still disapprove of Obamacare. Attitudes are “frozen in negative state,” Gallup reported.

Why? For one thing, the midterm campaigns have been especially bitter. Republicans demonize Obama for failures, real and imagined. Democrats run from the president, even after they’ve voted with him almost all the time. Tea partiers lash out at everyone.

News has always had a bias toward conflict and confrontation, but only recently have we all had front-row seats for every disaster anywhere in the world, whether it’s the rise of the Islamic State or fear of Ebola.

Fortunately the campaigns are nearly over. Whatever the outcome on Election Day, winners will be vested in change and a new start. 

We can stop magnifying our flaws and problems. They’re big enough in real life. We need to see clearly. Then we can begin to fix what’s wrong.

© 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Stop paying federal employees not to work -- Oct. 23, 2014 column

Here we go again, taxpayers. Get your mad on.
A new report from the Government Accountability Office reinforces a popular idea: We’re paying tens of thousands of federal employees not to work.  
It gets worse. The workers are staying home for months and even years, often while the government slowly investigates charges of misbehavior.
Employees receiving paid administrative leave continue to accrue vacation and sick leave, retirement and other benefits – as well as salary.  
The vast majority of federal workers take modest amounts of administrative leave, but 263 employees received pay for one to three years while at home, at a salary cost estimated at $31 million, GAO said in its report, “Federal Paid Administrative Leave,” released Monday.
That’s an outrage, and it should prompt immediate personnel policy reforms to insure that workers’ rights and taxpayers are both protected. Instead, members of Congress bluster. Nothing changes – except that taxpayers become more disillusioned. That’s a shame.
The U.S. government must find a way to restore trust, protect workers’ rights and handle personnel issues in a timely way.
A bit of background: Federal workers have many ways to be away from the office. Besides paid administrative leave, they can take annual leave, sick leave, leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, donated leave under voluntary leave transfer programs and military leave.
Paid administrative leave is an excused absence that kicks in when, for example, snow falls in the capital or an agency head dismisses employees early the day before a federal holiday. Workers can use it if they’re tardy. It can be used in the “rare circumstances” when an employee’s presence might pose a threat in the workplace or to federal property, according to the Office of Personnel Management.
In practice, supervisors use extended leave to put personnel problems out of sight and mind. The GAO found that 57,000 employees – 3 percent of all federal workers -- were sent home with paid administrative leave for at least a month in the three years from 2011-13. The Washington Post estimated the cost of those salaries alone at $775 million.
Still, 97 percent of federal workers took 20 days or fewer paid administrative leave and 90 percent took fewer than 10 days in the three fiscal years that ended in September 2013, according to GAO.
For its study, GAO analyzed payroll records generally and then selected for review five agencies that use large amounts of administrative leave. They were the Departments of Defense, Interior and Veterans Affairs; the General Services Administration and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Each federal agency sets its own paid administrative leave policies and reporting practices. Some common activities are covered – such as voting and donating blood – but there are wide variations.
Defense and USAID give paid administrative leave for rest and recuperation to employees who serve six months in Afghanistan; other agencies do not. Air Force commanders allow civilian employees to work out three hours during the week using administrative leave.
The hodgepodge of rules and situations is unfair to the employees who actually do their jobs – and have to pick up the workload of those who are staying home with pay.
Unfortunately, the GAO report is being used to fuel anti-federal government sentiment – as if we needed more. Republican Sens. Charles Grassley of Iowa and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Rep. Darrell Issa of California requested the study.
Coburn showcased paid administrative leave as the top item in his latest “Wastebook” catalog of wasteful spending, released Wednesday.
“Bureaucrats Gone Wild `Punished’ with Paid Vacations,” Wastebook trumpeted. It cited a dozen cases of workers who were placed on paid administrative leave in various scandals, ranging from drunk Secret Service agents in Amsterdam to the IRS official accused of discriminating against tea party groups that sought tax exempt status.
Wastebook says that a federal employment attorney calls administrative leave “the government’s dirty little secret.”
But it’s hardly a secret. The Post and other news organizations have reported for years on officials facing disciplinary action who are sidelined with pay.
Yet nothing ever gets done about it. Perhaps that’s because even this amount of outrage gets lost in a $3.8 trillion federal budget. But it looks like a great place to start. We deserve better.
© 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Third time's the charm for Romney? -- Oct. 16, 2014 column


Oh, Mitt, they need you.

No, not the out-of-touch, loser Mitt Romney of 2008 and 2012.  

What they want is the new and improved Mitt, version 2016, who would connect with voters by showing his compassion and his competence. And maybe his sense of humor. That, anyway, is the hope of establishment Republicans who have been trying for months to persuade Romney to make his third bid for the White House.

“Run, Mitt, run!” supporters chanted in Iowa last Monday.

As always with political nostalgia, the boomlet for Romney says more about current discontent than a true longing for the past. Romney is the Republicans’ national leader, and he looks positively statesmanlike next to, say, Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Showing their compassion, the Romneys will raise $50 million for the just announced Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases, which will bring 200 scientists together to study multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and other diseases. Ann Romney, 65, was diagnosed with MS in 1998; it is in remission. The center is scheduled to open in 2016 in Boston.

Even so Romney, 67, is an odd choice as the GOP’s next big thing. He was a terrible presidential candidate.
To recap, Romney in 2012 lost women, 18- to 29-year-olds, African American, Hispanic and Asian voters to President Barack Obama. Romney’s fan base was whites, people 45 and older and especially those 65 and above. Romney barely won college educated voters, but Obama took the post-graduate school set.
Romney’s defenders blame his advisers and insist voters never saw the real Romney. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Romney’s running mate in 2012, says he will forgo his own presidential run next time if Romney tries again.

“Third time’s the charm,” Ryan says.

For now, Romney is generating buzz by saying he’s not planning to run for president. His wife also says he has no plans to run. She told the Los Angeles Times the family is “done, done, done” with presidential campaigns.

But Ann Romney told The Washington Post, “Honestly, we’ll have to see what happens.” Romney himself recently conceded that “circumstances can change.” Aha!

Romney says he learned a lot from 2012, particularly that anything he says may wind up on the front page. At a Florida hotel in May 2012, he thought he was speaking only to donors at a closed fundraiser when he disparaged the “47 percent” of the electorate who are dependent on government, pay no income taxes and will vote for Obama “no matter what.” Mother Jones later obtained the video and put it online – where it lives in perpetuity.

Given that the video will live forever, consideration of Romney for 2016 has an air of desperation:  Who else could stop a kook like Rand Paul or Ted Cruz in the GOP primaries? Who else might stop the Hillary Clinton juggernaut? 

Jeb, of course. If former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush decides to run, the pressure on Romney to run could evaporate. Bush also hasn’t decided whether he’s in, although he now says his wife is supportive and his mother has moved to neutral.   

To prove he’s not running for office, Romney actually told a joke the other day. Advisers always tell candidates to avoid jokes. Here it is:

“President Obama went to the bank to cash a check, and he didn’t have his ID. And the teller said, `You’ve got to prove who you are.’

“He said, `How should I do that?’ She said, `The other day Phil Mickelson came in; he didn’t have his ID but he set up a little cup on the ground, took a golf ball, putted it right into that cup so we knew it was Phil Mickelson. We cashed his check.’

“`And then Andre Agassi came in and...didn’t have his ID either. He put a little target on the wall, took a tennis ball and racquet, hit it onto that target time and again. We knew that was Andre Agassi, so we cashed his check.’

“And she said to him, `Is there anything you can do to prove who you are?’

“And [Obama] said, `I don’t have a clue.’

“And she said, `Well, Mister President, do you want your money in small bills or large bills?’”

The crowd loved it. Meet the new Mitt. What a card.

© 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Losing control of the Senate no big deal? Really? -- Oct. 9, 2014 column


After months of dire warnings about what will befall President Obama and Democrats if they lose control of the Senate next month, something odd happened.

The opinion tide turned. The new take, even among progressives, is that a GOP-controlled House and Senate wouldn’t be so bad after all. Not for Democrats, who might emerge stronger in 2016, and not even for Obama, who might get more accomplished.

But make no mistake: Such revisionist pre-history can only hurt Democratic Senate candidates in tight races. 

Last November, Obama told worried Senate Democrats at a private White House meeting that losing the Senate would make his last two years as president unbearable, Politico reported.

“I don’t really care to be president without the Senate,” Obama said.

Back then, the litany of egregious actions congressional Republicans would likely take was long: Repeal or defund the Affordable Care Act -- for real. Dismantle protections for consumers and the environment. Block Obama’s nominations to federal agencies, boards and the Supreme Court. Possibly impeach the president.

At the very least, Senate Republicans would open more investigations into the Obama administration, especially the Benghazi affair. It’s easy to imagine split screen coverage of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a hearing and at presidential campaign events.

Sky-is-falling scenarios are common for both parties in the run-up to elections. Voters sometimes need a dose of fright as motivation to get to the polls

But now, with time dwindling and polls showing a Republican takeover of the Senate likely, the idea seemingly has lost its fear factor.   

One of the first silver lining pieces appeared Aug. 25 on the liberal-leaning American Prospect’s website. “Here’s the good news for Democrats: Even if Republicans take the Senate this year, Democrats will almost certainly take it back in 2016,” blogger Paul Waldman wrote.

Then, “Good News, Democrats, You’re Going to Lose!” trumpeted a headline in Politico on Sept. 30 over a column  that began:  “If the latest round of polls is accurate, Democrats will lose nearly every competitive Senate race, giving Republicans full control of Congress for the first time in 10 years. This is excellent news for Democrats.”

The Wall Street Journal on Oct. 7 proclaimed:  “Why a Senate Loss May Be a Win for Obama.” Columnist Gerald F. Seib wrote that eras when the Congress was completely controlled by one party and the White House by the other were marked by great productivity.

“And if you are a president yearning for elusive legislative achievements in the final two years of your term, anything that makes Washington more productive would be welcome, even if attaining some of that productivity required trimming your ideological sails,” Seib wrote.

We’ve not seen evidence that either Obama or Republicans will be inclined to capitulate on their principles, though. And Seib concedes that “Fights between Congress and the White House would erupt, brinksmanship would ensue, vetoes would be issued.”

Fun times.  

The Washington Post followed with “Could a Republican Senate actually help Obama?”

The Post’s Philip Bump reviewed legislative records of past Congresses on GovTrack and found that six of the 10 most productive Congresses since 1973 had a president of one party and Congress controlled by the other. But the Post didn’t delve into the content of those bills. How many merely named a post office or declared peach pie month?

Supposedly, when they’re in control, Republicans will lose their excuses for being a do-nothing Congress and will work with Obama on such important issues as immigration and the budget.  Or they’ll self-destruct.

Unless they don’t.  This is not the 1990s when Bill Clinton triangulated. If Republicans do win control, why would they then jettison the very obstructionist tactics they believe worked in their favor?

“If there is no public backlash against an utterly dysfunctional Congress and a near-complete lack of productivity, why rock the boat?” veteran Congress-watcher Norm Ornstein wrote in The Atlantic in March.  

In the last weeks of the campaign, Democrats should fight the impulse to downplay loss of the Senate. If Democratic voters believe ceding control to Republicans is OK, defeat becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Democrats will have only themselves to blame if they’re singing the blues come January.

© 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Just lock the White House doors -- Oct. 2, 2014 column


About midnight one spring night, a man climbed the iron fence at the White House and tried to force his way into a rear entrance. 

When caught, he was tugging frantically at the back door and shouting, “Francesca, it is I.” The man, described as “hatless and clad only in a coat of thin serge,” said he believed his murdered wife was inside. 

“It required six men to place him in a cell,” The New York Times reported on its front page. It happened May 12, 1905.    

The century-old news story reminds us that the White House has always attracted more than its share of nuts.   

Sixteen people have jumped the fence in the last five years, including six this year, Secret Service director Julia Pierson told a House panel on Tuesday. The latest on Sept. 19 involved an Army veteran with a knife who scaled the fence and sprinted to the front door and inside the White House.

I don’t know what was done to boost security after the 1905 incident. This time, technology to the rescue, the White House got brand new automatic locks on the front door. Someone was trying to hand lock the door when Omar Gonzalez burst in.

As the Secret Service investigates and members of Congress bloviate about the Gonzalez incident, there’s talk of building yet another ring of barricades and checkpoints around the White House. That’s a bad, knee-jerk, very dumb idea.    

Everyone agrees the breach shows many layers of failed security. But that doesn’t mean we need even more layers to keep citizens even farther away. Secret Service agents evidently need better training to make sure existing systems actually work. And no one should turn off the alarm for the sake of convenience. New leadership at the Secret Service should improve morale and purpose.
The goal should be to ensure the safety of the president and first family while preserving people’s access to The People’s House.
A bit of history: While the house was being built, so many people strolled around the construction site that the city marshal ordered the area closed to anyone without a written pass, according to the Treasury Department’s 1995 “Public Report of the White House Security Review,” which traces the separation of the people from the house.

The 1995 report followed an investigation of two security breaches in 1994. In September of that year, a suicidal man piloted his Cessna all the way to the grounds and crashed into the side of the White House. Six weeks later, a gunman fired 29 semiautomatic rounds at the mansion.  

From the beginning, the impulse was to make the president’s house accessible to the people. Early on, the grounds welcomed an open market. In Jefferson’s time, doors were closed only when the president was asleep or out of town. People wandered around the State Rooms, looking at exhibits Lewis and Clark had brought back from their expedition.

In the antebellum era, ”the iron gates to the White House grounds were open at 8 in the morning and closed at sundown. Almost anyone was likely to wander along the paths,” historian William Seale wrote in his two-volume history, “The President’s House.”  

Free access to the grounds during the day ended with World War II, and security has been tightening ever since. The current 7 ½ foot iron fence was constructed in the 1960s.

Following the terrorist attacks on the Marine barracks and American Embassy in Beirut in the 1980s. concrete Jersey barriers were installed, later replaced with reinforced bollards. Guardhouses dot the grounds.

Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House was closed to vehicles in 1995, following the Oklahoma City truck bombing. President Bill Clinton declared at the time:  “I will not in any way allow the fight against domestic and foreign terrorism to build a wall between me and the American people.”

Then, E Street south of the White House was closed to traffic after 9/11.

Presidents and citizens routinely lament “the bubble” presidents inhabit. Widening the moat around The People’s House would only make it worse.

©2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.