Thursday, March 31, 2022

Reform Electoral Count Act? Yes. Now. -- March 31, 2022 column


President John F. Kennedy said what any smart homeowner knows: “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.”

Kennedy used the line in his 1962 State of the Union address to urge Congress to pass his anti-recession economic legislative agenda. Sixty years later, it’s time to repair the roof of our democracy after the manmade disaster of Jan. 6, 2021, and to prevent another assault on the electoral process.

The violent mob that stormed the Capitol – with some protesters chanting, “Hang Mike Pence!” – wanted to overturn the presidential election. They were misinformed and misled by a president who could not accept defeat.

Donald Trump still falsely claims the Electoral Count Act of 1887, which sets timetables and rules for counting electoral votes, allowed Vice President Mike Pence to ditch state election results and install Trump for another four years. Pence did the right thing by refusing to bow to Trump’s power grab.

The Constitution “constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not,” Pence wrote that day in a letter to Congress. Under the 12th Amendment, the vice president, as president of the Senate, opens the certificates of electoral votes from each state, which are then counted.  

More than a year late, Pence rebuked Trump publicly.

“And I heard this week President Trump said I had the right to `overturn the election.’ President Trump is wrong,” Pence said in February in a speech to the conservative Federalist Society. “I had no right to overturn the election.”

Our system held, but one shudders to think what would have happened IF . . . if Pence had agreed with Trump and others who wanted to run roughshod over the will of the people.

So, what now? To ensure the peaceful transfer of power in the future, we must update and clarify the antiquated Electoral Count Act, once described in a Washington Post story as a “confusing word salad of run-on sentences.”

The Democratic staff of the House Administration Committee studied the law for months and concluded in a 31-page report in January the law is “badly in need of reform” to remove ambiguity about the vote count process. Ambiguity is the leak in democracy’s roof.

Sen. Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, announced in late January a bipartisan group of 16 senators, including Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia, is working on legislation to clarify the law, including the vice president’s role as purely ceremonial.

Trump showed his hand in a statement that said in part: “how come the Democrats and RINO Republicans, like Wacky Susan Collins, are desperately trying to pass legislation that will not allow the Vice President to change the results of the election?”

Better question: Why should a vice president have the power to overturn the votes of millions of Americans and the hard work of thousands of local and state election officials?

A group of Senate Democratic leaders also is involved in “discussion drafts” of reform.

One likely change would make it harder for members of Congress to challenge a state’s electoral votes and raise the bar for sustaining challenges. Currently, if only one senator and House member object to a state’s results, they can draw out the counting process. Also, the timetable for recounts and lawsuits in the states could be lengthened.

Updating the count act would make counting the votes more fair, but there’s concern that it would do nothing to make voting itself more fair.

Republican candidates still insist the 2020 election was stolen as GOP-run state legislatures tighten election rules and ballot access. House Democrats have tried to pass major voting rights legislation only to see it stalled in the Senate.

Some liberals fear updating the count act alone could make it more difficult to stop Republican state officials from negating elections their favored presidential candidate lost, leaving Congress locked into certification.  

The White House is “open to and a part of conversations about the Electoral Count Act,” but that reform should not replace larger voting reforms, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.

Congress needs to address these valid concerns now -- and reform the Electoral Count Act while the sun shines.

©2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Hope springs for near-normal times -- again -- March 24, 2022 column


We attended a concert last Saturday. The Alexandria Symphony Orchestra performed in a nearby church, and we walked over with neighbors on a mild spring evening.

It seemed like the Before Times – except that nearly everyone at the sold-out event wore masks and was supposed to be fully vaccinated.

I tried to remember the last time I’d sat in a room full of people, listening to live music – or, for that matter, in a church. The coronavirus robbed us of so many shared experiences we once took for granted.

Bach and Vivaldi are good for whatever ails, and the Ukrainian folk song the orchestra added to the program was haunting. I blinked back tears.

After two years of isolation, cancellation, fear and death, people are venturing out again. Concerts, festivals, sports and spring break travel are back. Thousands of maskless visitors swarm the Tidal Basin in Washington to enjoy the cherry blossoms.

And yet, while Putin’s vicious war in Ukraine has kicked the pandemic off the front page, the pandemic is not finished with us yet.

The orchestra’s website carries this dose of reality for concert attendees: “You understand that you may contract the virus . . . you agree that you understand the risks of COVID-19 exposure, the potential consequences of exposure, and you voluntarily assume the risks of attendance.”

Besides that, enjoy the show.

The good news is COVID-19 cases have declined significantly in the United States, although about 1,000 people every day die of the insidious disease. Most at risk of hospitalization and death remain the unvaccinated.

 With cases low and people out and about, it feels like the hopeful days of last spring, when President Joe Biden proclaimed a “summer of freedom.” Prematurely. Summer brought the deadly Delta variant. Then came Omicron.

Today, about 35% of new coronavirus cases in the United States are attributed to the new, highly transmissible Omicron subvariant known as BA.2, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It seems to cause less severe illness than previous strains, and vaccinations and boosters help immunity, although their effectiveness does wane.

We’ve not yet seen a surge in BA.2 cases as is occurring in Europe, and it’s not certain we will. The World Health Organization Tuesday blamed the increase in countries like Britain, France, Germany and Italy on their lifting COVID restrictions too “brutally.”

Most places here have also ditched mask requirements, and social distancing is mostly a memory. High-profile positive COVID-19 tests make news: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, second gentleman Doug Emhoff and White House press secretary Jen Psaki, among others.

Almost everyone I know has -- or has had -- COVID-19. Thankfully, their cases have been mild. No one can predict what mutations lie ahead or how they’ll affect us in the moment or later.

The Biden administration wants Congress to approve $22.5 billion in emergency COVID funds to purchase more vaccines and treatments. A second booster for those over 65 may be available this spring, but the administration says it lacks funds to stockpile enough boosters and treatments for everyone, should they be needed in a fall surge.

Republicans contend unspent, previously allocated COVID relief funds should be used first. The administration says it is difficult to redirect such funds.

Each person can order free, at-home COVID tests online. A household is eligible to receive two sets of four tests. Check out

Former CDC director Tom Frieden wrote an essay in The New York Times Tuesday titled, “The Next Covid Wave Is Probably on Its Way,” arguing we should use this lull to prepare.

First and foremost, get vaccinated and boosted. Some 60% of Americans are not up to date on their COVID vaccinations. That’s 15 million seniors at higher risk.

If you are older, have an impaired immune system, or are around people who do, wear a good, well-fitting mask, such as an N95, Frieden advises. In addition, communities should also monitor for coronavirus in wastewater, as they do for polio and other diseases, to detect outbreaks sooner and stop the spread.

“For now, most of us can enjoy the warm spring sun on our unmasked faces. But we can also do a lot more to control COVID,” Frieden writes. “How we play it will determine what happens next.”

Take care.

©2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, March 17, 2022

Permanent DST? Be careful what you wish for -- March 17, 2022 column


Daylight saving time is having its, well, day in the sun. 

After “springing forward” Sunday, senators surprised everyone Tuesday by unanimously passing, on a voice vote, a bill to make daylight saving time permanent. 

That Republicans and Democrats actually agree on something reflects the rise of a grassroots issue. People hate having to reset their clocks twice a year, and nearly every state has addressed whether to make daylight saving time permanent. 

Eighteen states have approved the change since 2018, but they can’t take effect until federal law changes. 

The Senate bill would make daylight saving permanent unless a state chooses to remain on standard time year round. Only Hawaii and Arizona, except for the Navajo Nation, now keep standard time year round. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi favors permanent daylight saving time and President Joe Biden, as a senator, supported it. At a subcommittee hearing March 9, Rep. Frank Pallone, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee, called for a Department of Transportation study on the effects of a permanent change to daylight saving time. 

The study may slow momentum, but a switch to permanent daylight saving time seems on track. If the House agrees, we could stop changing our clocks in November 2023. 

But wait. We’ve been here before, and it wasn’t pretty. 

After the oil embargo of 1973, Americans were gung-ho for permanent daylight saving time as a way to save fuel. With 79% of Americans in favor, Congress passed a bill that President Richard Nixon signed, starting a trial of permanent daylight saving time in January 1974. 

 Then people started living with dark mornings. The sun did not rise in January in Virginia, for example, until about 8:24 a.m. 

 Children around the country were forced to wait in the dark for the school bus, and several died on their way to school. The fuel savings weren’t as much as expected. Public support plummeted below 50%, and Congress ended the experiment after six months. 

Today, our devices change the time for us, but what isn’t so easy is resetting our biological rhythm. Medical studies link the transition to daylight saving time to increased strokes, heart attacks and teen sleep deprivation. 

 But here’s the thing: The choice need not be either permanent daylight time or the status quo of changing clocks twice a year. There is a third option: keep standard time year round. 

Seven in 10 people want to stop changing clocks, but 40% favor year-round standard time while 31% favor year-round daylight saving time, according to a 2019 AP-NORC survey. 

Permanent standard – not saving -- time “aligns best with human circadian biology and provides distinct benefits for public health and safety,” says the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, whose members include accredited sleep centers, physicians, scientists and other health professionals. 

The agriculture industry has opposed daylight saving time since it was first instituted during World War I. Farmers prefer to use the sun for their chores.

The nonpartisan Save Standard Time, whose members include medical, education and religious groups, also advocates for standard time year round. 

But the retail, golf and tourism industries are pushing for permanent daylight saving time. 

A bill to exempt Virginia from daylight saving time and keep standard time year around failed this year in the Virginia General Assembly. 

If the U.S. Senate bill were to become law, a crazy quilt of standard and daylight saving times, state by state, could result. 

Now is the time for people to speak up. 

“As we wait to see if/when this legislation is considered in the House, I want to know what you think,” U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat, said Wednesday in an email. 

 Her survey asks whether to make daylight saving time permanent, keep the status quo (change time twice a year) or “Unsure/Other.” That third choice indicates the House is not seriously considering keeping standard time year round. 

What time do you want it to be? I asked a year ago in this space. 

Between permanent daylight saving time and the status quo, I still would pick the status quo. I can put up with changing clocks to see daylight on winter mornings. 

Better would be to make standard time permanent since it suits our natural world. 

 © 2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved. 30

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Putin's war tests our resolve, patience -- March 10, 2022 column


The horrifying news from Ukraine has no end.

“Russian strike hits maternity hospital,” read the banner headline on page one of Thursday’s Washington Post.

“Conditions Worsen in Ukraine as War Enters 3rd Week,” was the dispiriting, early headline on The New York Times site. High-level talks between Russia and Ukraine failed again to agree on allowing civilians safe passage to escape the carnage, much less on a deal to end the fighting.

Meanwhile, more than 2.3 million people have somehow managed to flee the war-torn country, the U.N. reported Thursday.

In our nuanced age, few situations are black and white, but Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked, immoral, brutal assault on Ukraine has united most of the world against him.

President Joe Biden announced the United States will no longer buy Russian oil and gas, following stiff economic sanctions by the West against Russia and its oligarchs. Apple, McDonald’s and Starbucks, among others, have ceased sales in Russia.

All these actions are welcome but have not stopped Putin’s aggression.

What fresh hell is next? Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is everyone’s candidate for Person of the Year, but the “no-fly” zone he desperately wants is apparently a non-starter. The West cannot risk escalating the conflict with an unpredictable foe armed with nuclear weapons.

And so we watch, united in unalloyed anger, as the suffering intensifies. Public buildings glow blue and yellow. Blue and yellow ribbons wave on tree branches. The Ukrainian flag flies. A hand lettered sign in a window in my neighborhood reads:




That sums him well. I would add monster and madman.  

And yet our daily lives continue apace. Truckers drive around Washington’s Beltway to protest pandemic restrictions that are ending anyway.

Biden warned gas prices, which have been rising overnight, would rise still more with the cut-off of Russian oil.

The national average price of a gallon of gas was $4.318 Thursday, and the average cost for a gallon of regular in Virginia was $4.241, according to AAA. No one knows how high prices will go or how pain at the pump will affect tourism and other parts of the economy that were just starting to recover. 

So far, most Americans – 63% -- are willing to pay more at the pump to support democracy in Ukraine, a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken March 7-8 reported.

One in four said they’d pay “as much as it takes,” 11% said they’d pay $2 more a gallon than currently, 32% would pay $1 to $2 more and 31% said they were willing to pay less than $1.

One wonders how long support will last, though, if the cost of nearly everything keeps soaring. Prices rose 7.9% over the past year, the highest level in four decades. The February inflation report released Thursday reflects prices before the war in Ukraine.

Many Republicans condemn the Russian invasion, and even Biden’s predecessor  has stopped calling Putin “smart” and “savvy.” The Reuters/Ipsos survey also found 80% of Americans want political leaders to provide a unified front in support of Ukraine instead of attacking their rivals.

But political fighting has not taken a vacation. Congressional Republicans wrongly blame Democrats for high gas prices, claiming Biden’s cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline and other policies have hiked prices. Fact-checkers say those policies are not to blame.  

The National Republican Congressional Committee lashed out at Democratic Reps. Elaine Luria, Abigail Spanberger and Jennifer Wexton of Virginia for doing “nothing” about high gas prices. “Their war on American energy is to blame for the pain Virginians are feeling at the pump,” the NRCC tweeted.

Oh, please.

What can individuals do now? We can try not to complain (too much) about the price of gas and remember who really is to blame.

We can donate to charities that are bravely helping Ukraine and Ukrainians who have fled their country. Beware, though, despicable scam artists who use names similar to reputable charities to trick donors.

We can prepare to welcome the Ukrainian refugees who want to settle here. And we can steel ourselves to conditions getting worse, and maybe a lot worse, in Ukraine.

Now is the time to take a stand. If Putin wins in Ukraine, where will his lust for former Soviet territories stop?

And we can learn from Russian author Leo Tolstoy, who wrote in “War and Peace,” the two most powerful warriors are patience and time. Let them be on our side.

© 2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.



Thursday, March 3, 2022

Women's history -- We see it in the making -- Column of March 3, 2022


It’s hard to imagine a better start to Women’s History Month.

As President Joe Biden delivered his State of the Union address March 1, Kamala Harris, the first woman and first woman of color elected Vice President, and Nancy Pelosi, the first woman Speaker of the House, sat in the power seats behind him.

Next to first lady Jill Biden in the gallery was Ukraine ambassador Oksana Markarova. Prompted by Biden to show their support of the brave Ukrainians at war with Russia, the assembled leaders of the federal government gave the ambassador thunderous applause and a standing ovation.

Days before, Biden nominated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to the Supreme Court.

“For too long, our government, our courts, haven’t looked like America,” Biden said Feb. 25, announcing his first Supreme Court pick. “I believe it’s time that we have a court that reflects the full talents and greatness of our nation, with a nominee of extraordinary qualifications.”

If confirmed by the Senate, Jackson will become the fourth woman associate justice on the nine-member court. Her addition will not change the ideological makeup of six conservative and three liberal justices.

Biden has praised Jackson as “one of our nation’s top legal minds,” a “consensus builder” and her experience as a former federal public defender.

Jackson, 51, a Harvard University and Law School graduate, would replace Justice Stephen Breyer, who is retiring and for whom she was a law clerk early in her career.

Beyond being a historic first, Jackson, a former special counsel to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, would also bring to the court a unique personal and professional perspective on criminal justice.

Her uncle received a life sentence in 1989 for a nonviolent drug crime under a “three-strikes” law. Year later, President Barack Obama years commuted the harsh  sentence, The Washington Post reported.

Confirmation hearings are scheduled for the week of March 21, and a full Senate vote could take place in mid-April. That still would be more time than Republicans took to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the court in October 2020.

Confirmation requires a simple majority, but nothing is simple in a Senate that is split 50-50 between the parties. Jackson, a federal judge since 2013, was confirmed just last year to the appellate court 53-44, with support from three Republican senators -- Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

But Graham has indicated he now may oppose Jackson as the choice of the “radical Left.” Republicans are expected to concentrate their questioning on her judicial philosophy.  

If all Democrats and independents are present and vote in favor of Jackson, Harris could cast the tie-breaking vote, although Democrats hope a few Republicans will back Jackson. 

Confirmation would be a historic first for Biden, too. In his official proclamation of Women’s History Month, the president touted his Cabinet as “the most diverse and gender-balanced” in history, including the first women to serve as Treasury Secretary and Director of National Intelligence, the first Native American woman as Cabinet secretary, and women leading the Departments of Commerce, Energy, Housing and Urban Development.

Women have also made gains in state government. The most women ever serve in state legislatures, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

In Virginia, the 2021 election brought a record number of women – 35 – to the House of Delegates and elected the first woman of color statewide, Republican Winsome Sears, as lieutenant governor.

Women’s History Month gives us the opportunity to reflect and celebrate the contributions of women in American history and to inspire – much as a young Black girl was inspired years ago by Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman federal court judge.

“We were born exactly 49 years to the day apart,” Jackson said at the White House. “If I am fortunate enough to be confirmed . . . I can only hope that my life and career, my love of this country and the Constitution, and my commitment to upholding the rule of law and the sacred principles upon which this great nation was founded will inspire future generations.”

Let’s hope the Senate gives her that chance.

 ©2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.