Thursday, March 30, 2017

It's time for Trump to release his tax returns -- March 30, 2017 column


About once a week, House Democrats try to force President Donald Trump to release his tax returns, and about once a week House Republicans stop them.

Republicans Tuesday blocked a Democratic resolution on the House floor about the same time Republicans in the House Ways and Means Committee defeated a similar Democratic effort.

But why?  

Trump’s tax returns should not be a partisan issue – and if their release becomes a long-running battle, both parties will lose. To move ahead with his agenda, the president needs to release his returns now.

Most people want Trump to release his returns, polls show. Plus, nearly 1.1 million people signed a petition on the White House web site, calling for their release.

Many Republicans wish he had done so long ago, as his predecessors did for the last 40 years.

It’s “disqualifying for a modern-day presidential nominee to refuse” to release his returns, 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said during the campaign.

“Republican voters, GOP officials, and all Americans should demand that Donald Trump release his tax returns, something he refuses to do with the flimsiest of excuses,” National Review columnist John Fund wrote a year ago. 

If it was true then, why not now? Mainly because Trump is in the White House and he doesn’t want to.

“What’s he got to hide?” asked Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., who has led the effort to force release under a 1924 law that allows Ways and Means to obtain tax returns of executive branch officials.

With Trump about to start on tax reform, Democrats rightly argue that people have a right to know the president’s financial relationships and potential conflicts of interest. Republican House leaders counter that forcing Trump to release his returns would jeopardize his individual civil liberties and right to privacy.

Only two Republicans broke with their party – Reps. Walter Jones of North Carolina and Mark Sanford of South Carolina. Others have tried to have it both ways.

Constituents at a town hall meeting in February cheered Rep. David Young, R-Iowa, when he said: “You run for president, you’re president, you should release your tax returns. It’s a distraction and I think the American people should know,” the AP reported.

In Washington, though, Young voted against the measure. An aide dismissed the vote as a “partisan stunt.”

Trump initially said he couldn’t release his returns because he’s under audit by the IRS, although it’s up to him. Later he said the election proved people don’t care about his taxes.

That’s easy for him to say when people haven’t seen them. 

Trump’s refusal has gotten under Democrats’ skin. They need to be wary, though, of casting theatrical show votes for their base, as House Republicans did when they voted more than 60 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act during the Obama years, none of which succeeded.

Hillary Clinton said of Trump in a debate that “maybe he doesn’t want the American people – all of you watching tonight – to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes.”

“That makes me smart,” Trump shot back.

We got a glimpse of one year Trump paid taxes -- 2005. Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative reporter Donald Cay Johnston received two pages of the return anonymously by mail and went on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” March 14.

Trump paid about $38 million in taxes on $153 million in income for an effective tax rate of 24 percent. Even though Trump tweeted the reports were “FAKE NEWS,” the White House confirmed the numbers.

“Thank you Rachel Maddow for proving to your #Trump hating followers how successful @realDonaldTrump is & that he paid $40mm in taxes!” Donald Trump Jr. tweeted.

Trump and his wife Melania paid most of their income tax as an alternative minimum tax, which taxpayers must pay in certain circumstances if they claim many itemized deductions. Trump has called for eliminating the AMT.

It should come as no surprise that Trump favors tax policies that will help him and his supporters. More important is whether the policies also benefit most taxpayers.

Republicans and Democrats should work together to persuade -- or force – Trump to release his tax returns for the sake of trust and transparency in government. The people deserve to know.

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, March 23, 2017

A boy in full -- seeing George W. Bush in a new light -- March 23, 2017 column


One of the year’s biggest surprises so far is former President George W. Bush’s success as a portrait painter.

His “Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors” tops this week’s New York Times nonfiction bestseller lists. The book contains 66 oil paintings and a four-panel mural of veterans as well as their stories, written by Bush.

Unpopular when he left office, Bush has gained stature in retirement by keeping a low profile and devoting himself to his art and humanitarian causes. The book’s proceeds benefit Bush’s foundation that helps wounded veterans.

Even former first lady Laura Bush was surprised by her husband’s picking up paint brushes at age 66, four years ago. Had someone told her when they married that one day she would write a foreword to a book containing her husband’s paintings, Laura Bush writes, “I would have said, No way.”

But long before he started painting and before he left Texas for prep school and the Ivy League, Bush was a boy of 1950s America.

Just as “Portraits” presents the 43rd president as a compassionate artist, the George W. Bush Childhood Home in Midland, Texas, opens a window on a nostalgic view of American life and values in the post-war era.  

Docent Kay Manley, a retired oil and gas accountant, gave me a tour earlier this month. As a girl, she attended the same Methodist church and took piano and dancing classes with Laura Bush, a Midland native.

“Most people don’t realize the Bushes were such ordinary people,” Manley said. “Barbara Bush made her own curtains.”

The modest house – a 1,400-square-foot bungalow with blue-gray wood siding, three bedrooms, one bath and no central air -- was home to “two presidents, two governors and one first lady,” Manley said. “No other house can say that.”

Besides “W,” she was referring to former President George H.W. Bush, first lady Barbara Bush and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose nursery was in the sun room. Neil Bush was also born while the family lived in the house. Two other children came along later. 

The house has been meticulously restored to the way it looked when the Bushes lived there from 1951 to 1954. Georgie, as he was called, did his homework on a small desk in his knotty pine-paneled bedroom, rode his bike, played catcher on the Midland Cubs Little League team (his dad was manager), was a Cub Scout (his mom was den mother) and went to the Presbyterian church on Sundays.

Asked while running for president his fondest childhood memory, Bush said: “Little League baseball in Midland.”

The home avoids mentioning Bush’s policies and politics – topics best left to the presidential libraries and museums, said Paul St. Hilaire, director of the childhood home. Bush’s library and museum are in Dallas.

“We’re a cultural and historic site,” he said.

Papa Bush was on his way up in the oil business, and his young family was on the move. Young George, born in Connecticut while his dad was in college, lived in at least 14 different homes in three states and eight cities in his first 18 years, according to a National Park Service survey of the home for inclusion in the park system.

He lived longest on Ohio Avenue, and Bush often refers to the values he learned there. His childhood was also a time of sadness. His sister Robin died at age 4 of leukemia while the family lived in the house. 

The home is on the National Register of Historic Places, one of the first 1950s residential restorations. The attention to detail is remarkable – not just the turquoise fridge and TV with rabbit ears, vintage wallpaper and black dial phone but also period door hinges. More than 70,000 people have visited since it opened in 2006.

History buffs Lynn Hassler, 62, a retired teacher from Pennsylvania, and her husband Randy stopped by while visiting their son and grandchildren. She didn’t vote for W nor did she vote for Donald Trump. But Trump’s election has caused Hassler to reassess Bush.

“He’s looking a lot better,” she said.

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, March 16, 2017

Big Bend is no place for a wall -- March 16, 2017 column


You stand at the base of massive Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park, and dip your toes in the placid Rio Grande. Mexico is but a stone’s throw away.

Then you cast your eyes up and up and up. The rock wall so sheer only birds can negotiate it rises 1,500 feet – the equivalent of 150 stories. The canyon stretches 50 miles in Mexico and 10 miles in the United States.

“Looks like somebody already built a wall,” a 20-something visitor declared the other day. “Nobody could build a wall as good as God’s wall.”

To see the park and Santa Elena Canyon is to understand how a wall could ruin some of the most majestic scenery in the United States.

Yet President Donald Trump plans to wall off about 2,000 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, 1,250 miles of it in Southwest Texas along the Rio Grande. His budget proposes $1.5 billion to start on a project that could cost more than $20 billion.

“Splendid isolation” is how the national park describes its 800,000 rugged acres, as remote a place as any in the lower 48. It has mountains, desert, canyons, wildlife, millions of stars in an obsidian sky – and 118 miles of Rio Grande border.  

About 300,000 people a year make the considerable effort to go there. We flew from Washington to Dallas to Midland-Odessa, the closest airport. It’s a 220-mile drive to the park, if you go directly. We meandered, stopping at Alpine -- county seat of Brewster County, three times the size of Rhode Island, bigger than Connecticut and less than 10,000 people – and other towns.

Trump talks about his wall as if all that matters is who’ll pay for it. In the Big Bend region, you soon learn there’s so much more to his project than pesos.

People elsewhere argue whether the wall is necessary. In Big Bend, there’s no question natural barriers already exist. A manmade wall or fence, even a mile from the river like the one already in Brownsville, would mar Big Bend’s open landscape, protected as a national park since 1935.

From Presidio, a dusty, dilapidated border town, we took Farm to Market 170, called the River Road, one of the most beautiful stretches of highway anywhere. The road hugs the Rio Grande, little wider than a stream in the current drought, with Mexico the other bank, often less than 20 feet away.
Candidate Trump promised an “impenetrable, physical, tall” wall. His fans cheered, but in the Big Bend, people worry. As for the idea of an electrified and see-through wall that wouldn’t block the view?

“I think it’s . . . asinine,” said Evelyn Glaspie, 65, of Fort Davis, one of the communities that relies on tourism. Asinine wasn’t the first word she thought of, but it’ll do. “It makes no sense,” she said.

Rep. Will Hurd, the Republican who represents the Big Bend, has 820 miles of border in his district, more than any other congressman. He has called the wall “the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border.”

At a hearing in Washington last month, Hurd showed Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly a picture of Santa Elena Canyon. He tried to get Kelly to agree that the canyon was such an obstacle no wall was needed. Kelly demurred, saying he needed to talk with the Border Patrol.

“Secretary of Homeland Security does not rule out border wall in Big Bend National Park,” read the headline in the Big Bend Gazette’s March issue.

Santa Elena is not the only formidable barrier. At the Rio Grande overlook in the park, you can see equally intimidating rock walls and cliffs as the river winds through Boquillas Canyon.

An interpretive sign calls attention to the “Wilderness Without Boundaries.” Nothing in the sweeping landscape hints where one country ends and one begins.

“The two countries also share the river environment, a narrow oasis winding through the Chihuahuan Desert,” the sign says.

For now, they do – and in spectacular fashion. Let’s hope that landscape will be protected, and not spoiled, by man.   

(C) 2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Smarter than a congressman? Test yourself on foreign aid -- March 9, 2017 column


President Donald Trump’s budget for the fiscal year that begins in October likely will include a $54 billion hike in defense spending and drastic cuts in the State Department and foreign aid to pay for it.

But it’s far from a sure thing. The president’s budget is a proposal or starting point. Congress has the final word and will begin work on the budget later this month.

Americans believe we spend too much on foreign aid, polls show, although people have misconceptions about what’s called “soft power” – humanitarian relief, economic development and anti-poverty programs, among others.

Think you know foreign aid? Before the debate begins, test your smarts with our 10-question quiz. Answers are below. Good luck! 

1)    How much of the federal budget goes to foreign aid?
A.   31 percent
B.   26 percent
C.   15 percent
D.   1 percent

2)    Roughly how much will the United States spend this year on foreign assistance?
A.   $100.5 billion
B.   $75 billion
C.   $36.5 billion
D.   $20 million

3)    How many countries around the world receive U.S. foreign aid?
A.   50
B.   75
C.   More than 100
D.   More than 200

4)    Which country receives the most foreign assistance from the United States?
A.   Iraq
B.   Afghanistan
C.   Egypt
D.   Israel

5)    The United States provides more foreign aid than any other nation. How much of the world’s development assistance comes from the United States?
A.   24 percent
B.   30 percent
C.   50 percent
D.   65 percent

6)    The United States hasn’t always been the No. 1 donor. Which country provided more foreign aid between the years of 1989 and 2001?
A.   United Arab Emirates
B.   Japan
C.   Saudi Arabia
D.   Qatar

7)    Where does the money go? Pick the largest program category.  
A.   Peace and security  
B.   Humanitarian assistance   
C.   Health
D.   Economic development

8)    Where else? Which of these smaller categories distributes the most money?
A.   Environment  
B.   Education and social services
C.   Democracy, human rights and governance

9)    The State Department and USAID are two of the federal agencies involved in foreign aid. How many agencies in total provide foreign assistance?
A.   10  
B.   20
C.   25

10)           Name that tweeter: “Foreign aid is not charity. We must make sure it is well spent, but it is less than 1% of budget & critical to our national security.”
A.   Hillary Clinton
B.   Marco Rubio
C.   Barack Obama
D.   Mitt Romney

1       1)    D.  Foreign assistance was 1.3 percent of federal budget authority in fiscal 2015, the Congressional Research Service reported in June. Americans’ average guess is 31 percent, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found last year. Only about three people in 100 knew foreign aid is about 1 percent.
2      2)    C. Tallies vary from $31.3 billion to $39.9 billion, depending on the kinds of assistance included and how the calculations are made, according to PolitiFact. The $36.5 billion figure comes from, a federal site that collects data from federal agencies involved in foreign aid.
3     3)    C. Source:
4     4)    D. Israel -- $3.1 billion this year, increasing to $3.8 billion after 2017, followed by Egypt, Afghanistan and Iraq. (
5     5)    A. 24 percent in 2014 (Congressional Research Service)
6     6)    B. Japan took the lead when foreign aid spending by the United States declined after the Cold War ended. United States spending rose after 9/11, surpassing Japan. (Congressional Research Service)
7     7)    C. Health at $9.3 billion in 2017, followed by Peace and Security at $8.3 billion, Humanitarian Assistance at $6.0 billion, and Economic Development at $3.7 billion (
8     8)    C. Democracy at $2.7 billion, followed by Environment at $1.3 billion and Education at $1.1 billion (
9     9)    B. These include the departments of Agriculture, Defense, Health and Human Services, Labor and Treasury as well as such independent agencies as the Peace Corps and Millenium Challenge Corporation.
1     10)                       B. Sen. Rubio of Florida on Feb. 28, 2017.
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