Thursday, February 23, 2017

Trump faces test in speech to Congress -- Feb. 23, 2017 column


When President Donald Trump delivers his first speech to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night, he’ll see a House chamber as divided as the nation.

Dozens of Democratic members of Congress boycotted Trump’s inauguration, but they plan to turn the joint session into a mini protest. Many are bringing as guests Muslims, the disabled and other minorities who they say will be hurt by Trump’s policies.

So Trump faces a test: Will he be the combative campaigner people either love or hate or will he offer an olive branch?    

Trump gave Congress, even Republicans, the back of his hand in his inaugural address, failing to mention House Speaker Paul Ryan or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He castigated the same politicians he’ll address Tuesday in prime time.

“Their victories have not been your victories, their triumphs have not been your triumphs,” he said. “And while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.”

Stephen Miller, the aide who wrote the inaugural address, with its bleak picture of 
“American carnage,” is also writing the joint session speech. This time, though, the president will present an optimistic, positive vision, officials say.

Trump, who insists he inherited “a mess,” will talk about what he’s done so far and where he plans to take the country in broad terms.

“It’s important for the American people to know that he was an agent of change; he came here to get things done, and he didn’t waste any time,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Wednesday.

“In the drafts that I’ve seen so far, it is going to be a very strong blueprint of where he wants to take this country,” Spicer said.

While Trump has signed executive orders to achieve some of his goals, he needs legislation for many of the big items on his to-do list: tax cuts, infrastructure projects, health care reform and a secure border. That means working with Capitol Hill.

But Trump’s dismal approval ratings make it easier for Democrats, and perhaps some Republicans, to keep him at arm’s length. Just 42 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing, lower by far than any other president after a month in office, Gallup reports. A nationwide poll by Quinnipiac University released Wednesday found Trump with 38 percent job approval.

Rep. Jim Langevin, a Rhode Island Democrat, is leading the effort among House Democrats to bring as guests people who have faced discrimination and made positive contributions.

Langevin’s guest is Dr. Ehsun Mirza, a Pakistani-born critical care physician and naturalized citizen who is a leader in Rhode Island’s Muslim community. 

Trump’s speech is not officially a State of the Union address. The last five presidents have spoken to Congress early in their first year but have waited until the second year to deliver a State of the Union address.

After the bitter and protracted 2000 election, President George W. Bush addressed Congress Feb. 27, 2001, on his Administration’s Goals.

“Together we are changing the tone in the nation’s capital,” Bush proclaimed. He promised education would be his top priority.

“Let us agree to bridge old divides. But let us also agree that our good will must be dedicated to great goals. Bipartisanship is more than minding our manners; it is doing our duty,” Bush said.

Which reminds us that even if we like what a president says at such august occasions, we should take their words with a grain of salt.

In February 1981, shortly after he took office, President Ronald Reagan addressed Congress on his Program for Economic Recovery, calling for massive tax cuts, spending cuts on domestic programs and hefty increases in defense spending.

Warning that the national debt was approaching $1 trillion, Reagan offered a dandy word picture.

“If you had a stack of thousand-dollar bills in your hand only 4 inches high, you’d be a millionaire,” Reagan said. “A trillion dollars would be a stack of thousand dollar bills 67 miles high.”

But Reagan’s policies only exacerbated the debt. By the time he left office the national debt had nearly tripled. That stack of thousand dollar bills would have been 160 miles high.

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, February 16, 2017

Capital in confusion over Obamacare RX -- Feb. 16, 2017 column


President Donald Trump turned to House Speaker Paul Ryan the other day and said: “He’s working on Obamacare. It’s going to be very soon -- right?”

“Yes,” Ryan replied, as cameras rolled in the Oval Office.

More than a nudge from the president, Ryan could use some Lyndon Johnson-style arm twisting to make good on the Republicans’ long-term promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.   

Trump has left details of reforming health insurance to Ryan and other Republicans in Congress, but they are floundering in a sea of options.  

Trump still sounds like he’s an outsider on the campaign trail. When Humana became the latest major insurer to say it will stop selling coverage on Obamacare exchanges in 2018, Trump tweeted: “Obamacare continues to fail. Will repeal, replace and save health care for ALL Americans.”

Yet he has presented no plan of his own and the goal of replacement seems to be slipping farther into the future.

As a House member, Tom Price, the new Health and Human Services secretary, offered a plan, one of many. None of the other plans has galvanized widespread support even within the GOP, let alone with Democrats. It’s unclear what Senate Republicans will accept.  

Ryan went door-to-door, trying to build a consensus around his “Better Way” plan, but Republicans even disagree on timing -- repeal and replace at the same time or repeal first and take time on a replacement.

Trump has said repeal and replace will be “essentially simultaneous.”

But Ryan told reporters this week that reform “affects every person and every family in America,” and a deliberate, “step-by-step approach” is needed for stability.

House Republicans received plan options at a party caucus before they headed home for the week-long Presidents Day break.

Meanwhile, the House Freedom Caucus, a group of about 35 to 40 of the most conservative Republicans, wants to repeal the law now and is backing a plan by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Paul’s plan would undo most of the Obamacare rules, rely on expanded health savings accounts, allow people to buy insurance across state lines and join associations to increase purchasing power.  

Paul would also jettison the Medicaid expansion that was a state option under the Affordable Care Act. That’s a sticking point. It’s always easier to give people a benefit than take one away.

Before he left office, President Barack Obama urged Democrats not to “rescue” Republicans in their efforts to replace Obamacare. House Republicans voted scores of times to repeal Obamacare since the law was enacted in 2010 without a single Republican vote.

Despite the years of controversy over Obama’s signature law, it appears many Americans remain surprisingly uninformed. More than one in three either thought the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare are different programs or didn’t know whether they are the same or different, a poll by Morning Consult reported last month.

The Trump administration is taking actions that actually could make the law more palatable to critics. 

The Internal Revenue Service is relaxing a key enforcement mechanism scheduled to take effect this year. The IRS was to withhold tax refunds from people who failed to comply with the mandate to purchase health insurance or pay a tax penalty. Instead, IRS will process returns and refunds as usual.

In addition, HHS just proposed new rules aimed at stabilizing the exchanges to encourage insurers to keep offering coverage and customers more plan choices.     

Obama promised Americans if they liked their doctors or their health insurance plans, they could keep them. The claim turned out to be false and was a source of anger that motivated many voters.

Trump promised to get rid of Obamacare and put something better in its place while retaining the law’s popular provisions. 

People hate paying higher insurance premiums – which they blame on Obamacare even though premiums were rising before the law. But they like keeping children under 26 on their insurance plans and not being denied, or priced out of, coverage because of pre-existing medical conditions.

It’s a curious turn that, for the time being anyway, Republican dithering on Capitol Hill means Trump is keeping Obamacare alive.  

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Still celebrating Washington's birthday after all these years -- Feb. 9, 2017 column


Historians trace the first public celebration of George Washington’s birthday to the harsh winter of 1778 at Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War.

That’s when fifers and drummers from Proctor’s Continental Artillery band played for the general at his quarters.

For the first holiday in honor of Washington’s birthday, though, Americans can thank the French.

In 1781, Count Rochambeau granted the French Army in Rhode Island a day off and held a parade to celebrate Washington’s birthday. In those halcyon days before tweets, Washington thanked the count in a letter.

“The flattering distinction paid to the anniversary of my birthday is an honor for which I dare not attempt to express my gratitude,” Washington wrote.

Celebrations continued, but President Washington suffered the slings and arrows of a critical press. A newspaper writer blasted the Washington birthday celebration in Philadelphia in 1793 as a “monarchical farce” that exhibited “every species of royal pomp and parade,” Ron Chernow writes in “Washington: A Life.”

The federal government first gave its employees in Washington a legal day off to celebrate Washington’s birthday in 1879. Some were paid, others not. The government extended the paid holiday to federal employees everywhere in 1885.

History does not record, to my knowledge, when -- or why -- the first American decided to buy a mattress to celebrate the birth of the Father of our Country.

We tend to blame the 20th century for cashing in on Washington, but the practice started even while he was alive.  

“George Washington surely holds the record for the number of times the image of a historical figure has appeared on goods made for the American home,” art historian William Ayres wrote in an essay on the commercialization of the Washington image from 1776 to 1876 in “George Washington: American Symbol.”

Moderns, prodded by the tourism industry, made Washington’s birthday into a three-day weekend. 

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968, effective in 1971, celebrating Washington’s Birthday on the third Monday in February; Memorial Day on the last Monday in May and Veterans Day on the fourth Monday in October. Veterans were outraged, and the last was moved back to Nov. 11.

“It will enable families who live some distance apart to spend more time together. Americans will be able to travel farther and see more of this beautiful land of ours. They will be able to participate in a wider range of recreational and cultural activities,” LBJ said at the signing ceremony.

He didn’t mention shopping.

How the third Monday in February became known as Presidents Day is a bit of a mystery. Some blame President Richard Nixon, but his 1971 executive order does not mention Presidents Day.

Congress, in a rare stroke of genius, never officially changed the holiday from George Washington’s Birthday to Presidents Day.  

Most states adopted Presidents Day, even though it dilutes the Washington connection. Illinois has holidays for Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday Feb. 13 and Washington’s on Feb. 20 this year. Virginia sticks with George Washington Day. Alabama commemorates both Washington and Thomas Jefferson’s birthday on Feb. 20, even though Jefferson’s birthday is in April.

One enduring birthday tribute to Washington is the reading of his 1796 Farewell Address on the Senate floor. His letter from “a parting friend” warns the young nation against geographical divisions, political parties and foreign interference in domestic affairs.  

The address was read in 1862 during the Civil War in hopes of building morale, and every year since 1896 a senator has read aloud the entire address – 7,641 words. It usually takes about 45 minutes and often the senator reads to an empty chamber. 
Cynics say the reading is a charade since the Senate ignores Washington’s wisdom.

But his words draw us back to what matters, especially in times that pull us apart.

“The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity must always exalt the just pride of patriotism,” he wrote.

“With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together.”

Happy birthday, Mr. Washington.

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

`Hidden Figures' inspires with herstory -- Feb. 2, 2017


In the splendid movie “Hidden Figures,” astronaut John Glenn is about to blast into space and become the first American to orbit the Earth when he makes a request.

“Get the girl to check the numbers,” he tells NASA.

Katherine Johnson is the “girl” whose mathematical prowess Glenn trusts more than IBM computers to calculate the flight trajectory. She verifies the numbers and Glenn rockets into history on Feb. 20, 1962.

The story seems too good to be true, a Hollywood fabrication, but Glenn did ask for Johnson to do the math, NASA confirmed.   

“Hidden Figures” tells the story of three black women mathematicians who worked in the NASA Langley Research Center in Jim Crow Virginia of the early 1960s.

Even though President Barrack Obama in 2015 gave Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, most Americans were unaware of the hundreds of women whose calculations helped put America into space.

Now, special screenings around the country during Black History Month are introducing girls and boys to women who love math and persevere against formidable odds, undaunted by discrimination and unfairness.     

Based on real people and facts, the movie was inspired by Margot Lee Setterly’s proposal for the book “Hidden Figures.” Producer Donna Gigliotti was so impressed she bought the movie rights before the book was completed.

Growing up in Hampton, Va., Setterly knew Johnson and heard stories about working at NASA from her dad, a research scientist. What seemed like no big deal in her hometown was largely unknown elsewhere.  

At times funny and others sad, the movie lets the brilliance, determination and patriotism of the women unfold in sharp contrast to the era’s benighted attitudes about race and women’s roles.

As TV news brings the civil rights movement into their living rooms, the women struggle to thrive in an environment where the work areas, lunch rooms, restrooms and water fountains are all segregated and promotions rare.  

Setterly, a 1991 University of Virginia graduate who worked on Wall Street and published an English language magazine in Mexico, began her research in 2010.

“It probably took three years of just research for me to just figure out how to tell the story -- really digging into these different strands of Virginia history, the history of these women,” she told, a space history and memorabilia website.

Her hard work paid off. “Hidden Figures” tops the Feb. 5 New York Times bestseller lists for combined print and e-book nonfiction and paperback nonfiction.

The film, a box office blockbuster, won the Screen Actors Guild award for feature cast ensemble and has been nominated for three Academy Awards, including best picture and best writing for an adapted screenplay.

Oscar winner Octavia Spencer who plays Johnson’s supervisor, Dorothy Vaughan, was nominated for best supporting actress.

R&B star Janelle Monae plays Mary Jackson, who goes to court for the right to attend segregated night classes so she can pursue her dream of becoming an engineer. Kevin Costner is understated as Al Harrison, the decent boss who respects Johnson.

While some events and characters are fictionalized, the crux of the story is true, said director Theodore Melfi, who consulted during production with Setterly and NASA chief historian Bill Barry. Melfi took Taraji P. Henson, who plays Johnson, to meet the real Johnson, 98, to get a feel for her bearing and character.

The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the precursor to NASA, hired five white women as human “computers” in 1935 and brought in black women in the 1940s. Male engineers had done the calculations, but they hated spending their time that way.

“They realized the women were much more accurate, much faster and did a better job – and didn’t complain. And you could pay them less,” Barry said in a broadcast to schools. “That actually got put in a memo: `Isn’t this great? They do this great work and they’re cheap.’”

Great the work was, and so is “Hidden Figures.” There’s nothing cheap about the film. 

You could say seeing Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson as role models is pure gold – Oscar gold.

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.