Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Connecting is hard to do. No lie. -- Feb. 26, 2015 column


Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert A. McDonald says that when he falsely told a homeless vet on L.A.’s skid row that he too had served in the Special Forces, he was trying to connect.

“What you try to do when you connect with someone is try to find common ground. And with veterans, my common ground is my veteran experience. So what I was trying to do is find a way to connect with that veteran,” McDonald told reporters Tuesday, apologizing for his mistake.

It happened last month when McDonald was taking part in the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count. Looking for veterans who needed help, McDonald asked a homeless man if he was a vet. The man said yes, and McDonald asked where he served.

“Special Forces,” the man said.

“Special Forces? What years? I was in Special Forces,” McDonald replied, animatedly.

A CBS News crew with McDonald captured the exchange and broadcast it Jan. 30 as part of a news story on homeless vets. The Huffington Post first reported the discrepancy Monday, and other news organizations naturally joined in, often mentioning the embellished accounts of war experience by NBC’s Brian Williams and Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly.

Headlines trumpeted McDonald’s misstatement as a lie. That’s a heavy word, but these days we throw it around lightly. Everybody loves calling out lies and liars. Back in 2003, “Lies And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them” by Al Franken, now a U.S. senator from Minnesota, zoomed to the top of bestseller lists.

And yet, to say someone lied is more than a quick way of saying truth was not his constant companion. A lie is a deliberate attempt to deceive. When we say someone lies, we assume moral superiority. You and I misspeak, but They lie.

We need to hold onto the distinction between intentional deceit and a mistake in the moment. We should give the benefit of the doubt to someone who chooses words poorly once in conversation as opposed to someone who repeatedly makes calculated attempts to mislead.

Unfortunately for McDonald, who is trying to rebuild the credibility of the scandal-plagued VA, this was his second widely publicized falsehood this month. On NBC’s “Meet the Press” Feb. 15, he claimed that 900 VA employees had been fired since he took office, 60 for manipulating wait times for appointments. In both cases, actual number turned out to be far lower, fact checkers reported.

The Washington Post Fact Checker blog gave McDonald’s firing claims four Pinocchios, its highest rating for “whoppers.”

The VA conceded that McDonald’s numbers were incorrect, but he has not explained how he went on a national TV interview show with faulty statistics, and that’s troubling. Was it bad staff work or something worse?

He was unequivocal, though, about the Special Forces blurt.

“In an attempt to connect with that veteran and to make him feel comfortable, I incorrectly stated that I too had been in Special Forces,” he said. “That was wrong, and I have no excuse.”

A 1975 graduate of West Point, McDonald, according to his official biography, “completed Jungle, Arctic and Desert Warfare training and earned the Ranger tab,” which indicates he completed Army Ranger training. He served in the 82nd Airborne but not in Army Special Forces. He was chairman, president and CEO of The Procter& Gamble Co. from 2009 to 2013.
At a time when many veterans feel isolated and alienated, McDonald should be applauded for trying to break down the government’s wall of bureaucracy. In his first national news conference, he gave out his cell phone number so vets could call him directly.

But he’s right that there’s no excuse for his over-zealous attempt to connect. He has apologized to the White House, members of Congress and veterans.

With two strikes, McDonald insists he will do better to ensure that what he says is accurate. He must deliver on that promise.

Americans can have charity for a stupid mistake or two but they won’t put up with repeated efforts to mislead. No lie.

© 2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Hillary Clinton's new baggage for 2016 -- Feb. 19, 2015 column


Hillary Clinton will bring baggage to the 2016 campaign that she didn’t have in 2008 and that Bill Clinton couldn’t have imagined in 1992.

It’s the price of success.  The Clinton Foundation is again raising big money from foreign governments for its global charitable programs.

The foundation has received large contributions from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the Canadian agency that is promoting the Keystone XL pipeline, and other foreign entities, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and other news organizations reported.

In all, the foundation received nearly $2 billion in donations and pledges from foreign and domestic contributors between its launch in 2001 to the end of 2013, said the Post, which reported that of donors who gave more than $1 million, a third are based outside the United States, and of those who gave more than $5 million, more than half are foreigners.

At least $48 million came from overseas governments, according to the Journal’s tally.  

The donations support global projects tackling environmental, health and economic development problems, and they appear to be perfectly legal. While it is unlawful for foreign nationals to give to U.S. political campaigns, Clinton is not a candidate.

But the contributions raise questions about a possible president’s ties to foreign interests, and Clinton’s foes will make sure no one forgets.

When Clinton became secretary of state in 2009, the foundation suspended fundraising from foreign governments at the Obama administration’s request. It was thought inappropriate for Bill Clinton to be raising money from other countries while his wife was the president’s top adviser on foreign affairs.    

When she left the State Department in 2013 and joined the foundation -- now called the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation – it resumed overseas fundraising.

“Now that she is gearing up to run for president, the same potential exists for foreign governments to curry favor with her as a potential president of the United States,” ethicist Kirk Hanson of Santa Clara University in California, told the Journal, which discovered the donations during a search of the foundation’s online database. 

Hanson and others urged the foundation to reinstate the ban on foreign funds. It should do so immediately to avoid the appearance of conflicts-of-interest.

The Post reported Thursday: “Foreign donors and countries that are likely to have interests before a potential Clinton administration – and yet are ineligible to give to U.S. political campaigns – have affirmed their support for the family’s work through the charitable giving.”

As Republicans pounced, calling for the foundation to return foreign funds, the foundation defended its “strong donor integrity and transparency practices that go above and beyond what is required of U.S. charities and well beyond the practices of most peer organizations.”

The news invites a closer look at Clinton, who’s widely regarded as the Democratic frontrunner if and when she enters the 2016 race. On one hand, the historical appeal of a first woman president remains strong, and Clinton has burnished her credentials as senator and secretary of state. Fans can argue that the family foundation’s fundraising success shouldn’t be held against her.

Many Democrats and even some Republicans remember fondly her husband’s presidency with its booming economy and budget surpluses. (Never mind that messy impeachment business.)

But hold on, Rip Van Winkle.  Hillary is not Bill. Heck, Bill isn’t even Bill. Critics will say the Clintons are as inside as insiders get. Hillary enjoys strong support, personal and financial, but she is s cozy with Wall Street. Her six-figure speaking fees from financial firms raise eyebrows. She is the Democrats’ future?

Yes, for now, anyway. Half of those surveyed this month said Hillary Clinton represents the future, the highest of seven potential presidential candidates. Nearly three in four Democrats and independents who lean Democratic thought so. Both Republican Jeb Bush and Democrat Joe Biden were seen as representing the past by nearly two-thirds of people surveyed in the CNN/ORC poll.

This matters because as Bill Clinton, who cast himself as a “New Democrat” in the 1990s, says, Americans are always about the future.

We may be about to see if a Clinton with new baggage can be the future in the 21st Century.

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Help wanted: leadership to save disability safety net -- Feb. 12, 2015 column


The nation’s safety net for the disabled will be forced to cut benefits by nearly 20 percent next year, unless Congress acts.

So what’s the new Republican chairman of the Senate Budget Committee doing about the problem? Blaming President Barack Obama.  

And what’s the top Democrat on the committee doing? Blaming Republicans.

Here we go again.

Obama’s “effort to paper over the problem is a classic example of Washington ducking a real American need,” charged Budget chairman Mike Enzi, Republican of Wyoming, as he opened a committee hearing Wednesday on the “coming crisis” in the disability insurance program.

But liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont countered: “Republicans are manufacturing a phony crisis in Social Security in order to cut the earned benefits of millions of the most vulnerable people in this country.”

Sanders, technically an independent, is weighing a presidential bid. He issued a report Tuesday with the provocative title: “Republican Efforts to Cut Social Security Benefits Pit Disabled Americans Against Senior Citizens.”

The disability program’s looming insolvency has been predicted since 1994. In December of next year, the disability trust fund will be depleted, triggering automatic benefit cuts of 19 percent for the nearly 11 million disabled workers and their families who receive disability payments.

“I don’t want to be dramatic,” acting Social Security Administrator Carolyn Colvin told the budget committee, but such a cut for disabled people whose average monthly benefit is $1,200 would be “a death sentence.”

Fireworks aside, helping the disabled is an issue on which Democrats and Republicans have agreed recently and can again, if someone – anyone – will take the risk of forging a bipartisan consensus.  

Last December, the Senate and House passed by wide margins and Obama signed into law the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act, which allows families with a disabled child to save for long-term care through tax-sheltered savings accounts similar to 529 accounts families use to save for college.

Action was far from quick; the ABLE bill was first introduced in 2006. But 85 percent of Congress signed on as cosponsors, even after the conservative Heritage Foundation complained that the bill was “a decisive step in expanding the welfare state.”

To shore up disability’s finances, Obama proposes reallocating a portion of payroll taxes from the retirement trust fund to the disability fund. Lawmakers have approved reallocations from one fund to the other 11 times, most recently in 1994.

But one of the first actions by House Republicans in the new Congress was to pass a rule making reallocation contingent on measures to improve Social Security’s overall solvency. Republicans say reallocation is merely robbing Peter to pay Paul and fails to solve the crisis; Democrats say the new rule is a stealth attack on Social Security.

Sanders says there’s no crisis because the Social Security trust fund has enough to pay all benefits to all recipients for 18 years. He also says it’s time to raise the income cap on the Social Security payroll tax to $250,000, from the current $118,500.  

Obama did not mention Social Security in his State of the Union address, but he has included proposals in his budget to encourage workers with disabilities to stay in the workforce, a goal many Democrats and Republicans support.  

The president proposed testing new strategies, including services to support those with mental impairments and incentives for employers, to help people with disabilities remain at work.

He called for reducing disability benefits to offset state or federal unemployment insurance payments and adding money for continuing disability reviews. These reviews, required every three to seven years, determine whether workers remain disabled. The Social Security Administration says the reviews save $9 for every $1 spent.

Republican Enzi said he was encouraged that “buried deep in the president’s budget are a few programs that might be a grudging acknowledgment” that more can be done to create a disability system that supports work.

But what was missing as Enzi opened the fight over disability was what steps he would take to stabilize the program.Obama’s proposals may be baby steps, but surely Enzi, who has a reputation as a level-headed legislator, could build on them to ensure that those who can return to work do so and those who are unable to work get the help they deserve.

(c) 2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Everything you need to know about vetoes -- Feb. 5, 2015 column


The vetoes are coming. The House plans to vote next week on a Senate-passed bill approving construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, and that likely will give President Barack Obama his first chance this year to use his veto pen.

After vetoing just two bills in six years, Obama already has threatened to reject at least 10 bills contemplated or under consideration by the Republican-controlled Congress.

That may sound impressive, but Obama is a veto piker compared with Grover Cleveland, the so-called king of vetoes. In his eight years as president, Cleveland wielded his veto authority 584 times.

But Cleveland takes second in total numbers to Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his 12 years in the Oval Office, FDR had 635 vetoes – and he had Democratic congresses his entire tenure.

As we haven’t seen any vetoes since 2010, here’s a quick refresher on what Woodrow Wilson (44 vetoes) called a president’s “most formidable prerogative.”

The word veto comes from the Latin “I forbid” and refers to the president’s power to disapprove a bill and prevent its becoming law. The word veto doesn’t appear in the Constitution, but the framers put the power in Article 1, Section 7 as a check on the legislative process.

A president has 10 days, excluding Sundays, to sign a bill passed by Congress for it to become law. With a regular veto, the president returns the bill to the chamber where it originated, usually with an explanation of his objections. Overriding a veto requires a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and the House.

If Congress adjourns during the 10 days, the president can’t return the bill. His decision to withhold his signature is a pocket veto, and Congress does not have the opportunity to override.

Since 1789, when the federal government was founded, 37 of the 44 presidents have used their veto power. In all there have been 2,564 vetoes -- 1,498 regular and 1,066 pocket.

The last president to serve two terms without a single veto? Thomas Jefferson.

Congress has overridden just 4 percent of vetoes, the Congressional Research Service reports, but the hurdle to overcoming a president’s objections has dropped in recent decades. Since John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, Congress has overridden 16 percent of vetoes.  

Democrats controlled both houses of Congress when Obama wielded his veto pen in 2009 and 2010, and neither veto was overridden.

You won’t be surprised that both veto threats and vetoes occur more often when the president and Congress are of different parties. Threats help the president shape legislation because the party in power knows it will need the support of two-thirds of the Congress to make law stick over a president’s disapproval.

“For highly consequential legislation drafted during divided party government, it is hardly an exaggeration to say the president keeps up a veritable drum-beat of veto threats,” Princeton University professor Charles M. Cameron wrote in an essay on “The Presidential Veto” published in 2009.

The vast majority of vetoes are inconsequential in that they have little public policy effect, he says. Congress has attempted to override about 80 percent of consequential vetoes during divided party government, with a success rate of 45 percent, adds Cameron, who is the author of the 2000 book “Veto Bargaining: Presidents and the Politics of Negative Power.” 

Democrat Cleveland had a Democratic Congress for only two of his eight years as president. Of his 346 regular vetoes and 238 pocket vetoes, only seven were overridden. Most of the regular vetoes in his first term disallowed bills to grant veterans benefits to people who didn’t qualify. Even considering their symbolic value, though, “Cleveland’s vetoes…didn’t amount to much,” Cameron writes.

George W. Bush was the first president since John Quincy Adams to serve a full term without a veto, but that was in the post-9/11 era when Congress was more deferential. Bush issued 12 vetoes in his second term – 11 when Democrats controlled the Senate and House – and four were overridden.

Dwight Eisenhower used the veto to force compromise with Democratic activists, and Bill Clinton forced House Republicans led by Newt Gingrich to moderate, says Cameron.   

So as the vetoes come once again, we’ll see if Obama can use his leverage to force this Republican Congress to moderate its demands.  

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.