Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Time to scrap Selective Service System -- Feb. 28, 2019 column


Few may have noticed when a federal judge ruled that requiring only men, and not women, to register for the draft is unconstitutional now that all military jobs are open to women.

“While historical restrictions on women in the military may have justified past discrimination, men and women are now ‘similarly situated for purposes of a draft or registration for a draft,’” U.S. District Judge Gray H. Miller wrote.

The ruling issued Friday in Houston doesn’t change anything, but it does raise a larger question: Why should anyone – male or female -- have to register for the draft in 2019?

The last man was drafted into military service in 1973. And yet today, male citizens and residents of the United States ages 18 through 25, including documented and undocumented immigrants, still must register for the draft – or risk fines and prison time. On paper, anyway.

No one has been prosecuted for failing to register since 1986, the Congressional Research Service reported in January in a study of selective service and the draft issues for Congress.

Many young men register for the draft automatically when they get their driver’s license or apply for federal student aid. 

The Selective Service System -- 124 full-time employees “complemented with a corps of volunteers and military reservists” -- keeps a database in a Chicago suburb with 78 million records, CRS reported.

The data – names, addresses, Social Security numbers -- are retained until a registrant turns 85 – yes, 85! -- in case the information is needed to certify someone is eligible for federal student aid, training, government jobs and security clearances.

The Selective Service annual budget of nearly $23 million is peanuts by federal standards, but it’s wasteful to spend even that much on an unused and unneeded agency. The rationale that we might need to mobilize manpower quickly with a draft is antiquated in the age of modern warfare, critics say.

And the Pentagon?

“We don’t want a draft,” then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, who opened all military jobs to women in 2015, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2016.

“We don’t want people chosen for us. We want to pick people. That’s what the all-volunteer force is all about. That’s why the all-volunteer force is so excellent,” Carter said.

The Trump administration hasn’t taken a stand, but Congress has wrestled for decades with the Selective Service System and the draft. It finally punted.   

Congress created the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service in 2017 to come up with recommendations. As the name suggests, the commission is charged with finding ways to weave various kinds of service into the fabric of American life.

The commission spent last year listening to people across the country and has more hearings scheduled. A final report and recommendations are due to Congress in March 2020. Read more at

“Our conversations underscored that while service is encouraged by many families, schools and communities, there is no widely held expectation of service in the United States,” commission Chairman Joe Heck, former Republican congressman from Nevada, a physician and brigadier general in the Army Reserves, wrote in an Interim Report in January.

“As a result, military, national and public service is the exception rather than the rule,” he wrote.

While many agree that shared voluntary service for young people especially is a worthy goal, the report laid out challenges.

Whether someone wants to join the military or not, it’s a national disgrace that only about 30 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds meet the physical, mental and moral requirements for the military.

The Army failed to reach its recruiting goal last year for the first time since 2005, partly because fewer young people even think of joining the military.

As for national service, few Americans know about the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and Teach for America, the report said.

So, if the Selective Service System is a dinosaur – and it is – let’s scrap it and dedicate our resources to making voluntary service a shared expectation.

Let’s return to a time-tested, 20th century ideal: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” That would make America truly great.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Say yes to bees in your backyard -- Feb. 21, 2019 column


If you’re gloomy about the way the country’s headed, there is something you can do to make things better.

And it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat, Republican or independent.

It’s not voting or running for office – though the first is necessary and the second admirable. Nor do you need to contribute to a candidate, make calls, collect signatures or march in the street. 

This transformative act is simple, close to home and far more effective than fulminating on Twitter: Choose to have a garden and plant native plants.

Tending a garden won’t solve the political mess, of course, but it will get you outside, and, more importantly, it will help bees.

You might not think a backyard garden would amount to more than, well, a hill of beans in our helter-skelter world of stressed bees, declining insects and changing climate, but biologists say what you do on your patch of the planet matters.  

“Bees need just a little space,” says Sam Droege, wildlife biologist at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, part of the U.S. Geological Survey, and one of the nation’s top experts on bees.
“Bees are tiny; one bush or one clump of perennials is often all it takes to foster native bees in your yard,” he writes in his article “Quick Background on the Mid-Atlantic Region’s NativeBees.”
“Within a mile of your yard (urban or rural) there are at least over 100 species of bees looking for the right plants,” he writes.   
When Droege, an evangelist for bees, and naturalist Alonso Abugattas spoke in Arlington the other night on bee-friendly gardening, the meeting room was packed.
The basic buzz: Plant the right flowers and flowering bushes, and native bees will come.
This might be a good time to mention that most native bees don’t sting.

They aren’t aggressive and would rather fly away than attack. Most nest in the ground, so you likely have stepped on thousands upon thousands of nesting bees over time, without knowing it, Droege said.

The plight of the honey bee worldwide is well known. Colony collapse disorder made news in 2006, alarming scientists, the government and the public. Honey bees are farmed in hives, are important pollinators in agriculture and provide honey.

Of the more than 4,000 species of wild, native bees in the United States, about 450 species have been identified in Virginia. Native bees were here long before the European honey bee was brought to Jamestown in the 1600s.

Unlike European honey bees, native bees are solitary and don’t live in a hive with a queen. Native bees are more interested in pollen than honey bees who really go for nectar.

Native bees actually are better pollinators than honey bees and are important for fruits and vegetables.   

The orchard mason bee is a super pollinator. One of these native bees can visit up to 60,000 flowers in its lifetime, Eric Day, entomologist at Virginia Tech, writes in his article “Native and Solitary Bees in Virginia,” adding that this bee is very docile and suitable for urban settings.

Some native bees can become a nuisance, however. Leafcutter bees like to build their nests in door or window frames, and beneficial bumble bees sometimes nest near and get in houses. Day writes.

Native bees prefer native plants – asters, coneflower, goldenrod and a host of others. 

About 35 percent of native bees are specialists, meaning they will feed only certain pollen to their young.

For a bee-friendly garden, choose your sunniest spot and plan your garden so 
something is always flowering. A rule of thumb is it takes five flowers to support one baby bee.

If you can part with some of your lawn, so much the better. You can even leave a patch of bare dirt for the bees. Avoid insecticides and pesticides.

Consult your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office, public gardens, Master Gardeners, Master Naturalists and their reliable websites for advice, lists of bee-friendly plants and how-tos on building nest structures for the 30 percent of bees that do nest above ground.  

Everybody wins when we make our backyards better for bees.  

©Marsha Mercer 2019. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

McConnell sets Green New Deal trap -- Feb. 14, 2019 column


Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been in the Senate longer than Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York has been alive.

That imbalance became clear Tuesday as McConnell set up a vote to make Democrats pay for their reckless embrace of the Green New Deal.

McConnell, who turns 77 Wednesday, arrived in the Senate in 1985. Ocasio-Cortez was born in 1989.

At 29, she is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, a wizard at social media with 3.1 million Twitter followers. A video of her House Oversight and Reform Committee “Lightning Round” take-down at the of lax ethics and campaign finance rules is an internet sensation.

But her rollout of the much-anticipated Green New Deal was a disaster.

To recap, her office released and then retracted a frequently-asked-questions sheet that included the goals of economic security for people “unwilling to work,” and eventually ridding the country of flatulent cows, airplanes and various industries.

None of those ideas is in the actual resolution, H. Res. 109, but they were the first many people heard about the Green New Deal. Ocasio-Cortez didn’t help matters when she falsely said there were “doctored” FAQ versions on the internet.

The resolution is non-binding but would indicate support to set the federal government on the path of a “10 year national mobilization” to fight climate change and remake the economy.

Among the goals: “Meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.” It also guarantees jobs, education, food and health care for everyone.

Such sweeping changes need serious consideration with months, if not years, of hearings, and compromises. By rushing out a resolution in her first month in office, Ocasio-Cortez delighted her fans but walked into a trap.

The conservative media and President Donald Trump quickly blasted the Green New Deal as ridiculous.

“It sounds like a high school term paper that got a low mark,” Trump said at a campaign rally in El Paso. “I really don’t like their policy of taking away your car, of taking away your airplane rights, of ‘Let’s hop a train to California,’ or you’re not allowed to own cows anymore!”

Ocasio-Cortez rightly could have said her manifesto wouldn’t do any of those things. It doesn’t include any specific proposals. But she lobbed her response by tweet: “Ah yes, a man who can’t even read briefings written in full sentences is providing literary criticism of a House Resolution.

Meanwhile, McConnell, a veteran of many political wars, was setting the trap.

He looked like the cat that swallowed the canary when he announced the Senate would vote on the Green New Deal resolution. A resolution identical to Ocasio-Cortez’s was introduced by Sen. Edward Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts.

“We’ll give everybody an opportunity to go on record and see how they feel about the Green New Deal,” McConnell told reporters. 

Mischievous Mitch used to say he would only bring measures to the floor that would get Trump’s signature. This time he means to get Democrats on the record so Republican candidates can hammer them during 2020 campaigns.

Half a dozen Democratic senators are running for president, and nearly a dozen Democrats face tough Senate re-election bids.

The botched rollout has made more than Ocasio-Cortez look amateurish. So too do the presidential hopefuls who jumped on the bandwagon. 

Six cosponsors are announced or likely presidential contenders -- Sens. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who may run again, is also a cosponsor.

In contrast, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 78, a wily congressional veteran who came to the House in 1987, has kept the Green New Deal at arm’s length.

“It will be one of several or maybe many suggestions that we receive,” Pelosi told Politico. “The green dream or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?”

Pelosi saw early what’s now dawning on less savvy Democrats: The Green New Deal wasn’t ready for prime time. It created a political opening for Republicans and a liability for Democrats.   

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Fair pay law for women early test for Democratic Congress -- Feb. 7, 2019 column


The most memorable visual from the State of the Union was the most joyous.

We’re used to Republican members of Congress popping up from their chairs and dutifully applauding President Donald Trump – and to Democrats, with rare exceptions, sitting glumly.    

On Tuesday night, though, dozens of Democratic women wearing “suffragette white” to show solidarity and to honor the legacy of the suffragette movement, became a wave of celebration.

The women were largely quiescent until Trump began touting the economy.

“No one has benefited more from our thriving economy than women, who have filled 58 percent of the new jobs created in the last year,” he said.

The women – many of them newcomers to Congress – perked up. Smiling, they looked around, stood and applauded, pointing to themselves and each other. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi beamed.

“Don’t sit yet. You’re going to like this,” Trump said. “And exactly one century after the Congress passed the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote, we also have more women serving in the Congress than ever before,” he said.

At that, the women -- many of whom ran for Congress and won because of their outspoken opposition to Trump’s policies – rejoiced in their triumph with energetic fist-pumps, high fives and hugs. Their jubilation was infectious.

Now they need to harness their enthusiasm to succeed in the hyper-partisan capital. 

The Democratic House must deliver on promises to make Washington work for everybody.

It’s exciting to think the new members actually will build coalitions and pass bills that better the lives of women and families. Even Trump says he favors paid family and medical leave, although there’s nothing to show for it.  

One of the first tests for Congress is ensuring women get equal pay for their work. Finally.

Equal pay has been the law of the land since the 1960s, but the gender pay gap – the difference in median earnings of a man and a woman each working full time -- persists.

A woman in 2017 earned about 20 percent less than a man, according to the most recent Census Bureau figures. The wage gap is worse for black women and Hispanic women.

This isn’t a fluke or women working in “women’s” jobs that pay less. Men’s median weekly pay exceeds women’s in almost every occupation -- from chief executives to janitors and building cleaners, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

The Paycheck Fairness Act was first introduced more than a decade ago. It would close loopholes in the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and make employers more accountable for their pay practices.

It would end pay secrecy and retaliation – workplace rules that keep workers from asking about others’ wages and disclosing their own; allow workers to sue for damages from pay discrimination; strengthen penalties for equal pay violations, and update the federal role in education, research and data-collection to combat gender discrimination.  

The House first passed Paycheck Fairness in January 2009, but the bill died in the Senate. It has been reintroduced repeatedly and has always failed.  

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, and Sen. Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, reintroduced the measure Jan. 30.

In the House, every Democrat and one Republican are cosponsors. In the Senate, there are 45 cosponsors – all Democrats and Bernie Sanders, independent. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of Virginia are cosponsors.

Rep. Bobby Scott, Democrat of Virginia, is now chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, and plans to fast-track the legislation with a hearing this month and a House vote soon after. The goal is to have a bill on Trump’s desk by early April.

But passage is hardly assured. Even though more women serve in Congress than ever, they still make up only about a quarter of the total membership.

What’s needed is a thaw in the Republican-controlled Senate. Republicans oppose the bill as unnecessary, saying it burdens employers and could even harm women,  if employers are reluctant to hire them.

But surely in 2019 equal pay for women doing equal work is an issue we all can agree on.

It’s time for Congress – new members and veterans – to turn to the hard work of governing and get the job done.

  ©2019 Marsha Mercer All rights reserved.