Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Modest Proposal for the 21st Century

No man’s life, liberty or property is safe
While the legislature is in session.
— Attributed to Judge Gideon J. Tucker in the case of The Estate of A. B. (1866)

This week I use this space to offer a suggestion that will save the taxpayers money, increase the efficiency of government and enable those in Congress to more accurately reflect voters’ wills. The only surprising thing is that no one has come up with this idea before now. Its genesis is the comment of Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, following Antonin Scalia’s death. He said that since it had been 17 months since the voters last had a chance to express their opinions on how the government should function, it would be a mistake for the Senate to consider a Supreme Court nominee before the next election. After carefully considering his comment and the fact that his concerns apply to everything Congress does, henceforth Congress should only meet every other year. If Congress meets only during the 12 months immediately following an election, it can be sure it has a good sense of what the public wants and act accordingly. That will, obviously, make the democratic process more democratic.

One question that may be asked, if my proposal is adopted, is whether Congress can get its work done if it only meets every other year. That can easily be addressed by doubling the number of days it meets in the years it is in session. In 2013 the House of Representative was in session for 126 days, in 2014 113 days and in 2015, 132 days. In 2016 it is scheduled to be in session for 111 days. The Senate, on the other hand, was in session for 164 days and in 2016 is slated to be in session for 149 days.

If the every other year practice were already in effect, in 2017 the House would work 222 days. Although the Senate could not double the number of days it is in session, it is hard to believe it cannot compress its work into one year, Of course, if this is to work, there will have to be some changes in practices in both chambers. Senator McConnell has already shown how that can be done.

He has instructed his colleagues not to waste any time meeting with Merrick Garland, the person selected by the president to fill the seat left vacant by Justice Scalia’s death since too much time has elapsed between the last election and his nomination. That practice can be followed when other presidential nominations are made in election years. In addition, the House and Senate can limit the number of hearings they conduct. Consider the Benghazi hearings.

According to the Benghazi Research Center of October 14, 2015, there have been 32 Congressional Hearings before assorted Senate and House committees at a total cost of more than $20 million. During those hearings 2,780 questions were asked by members of the committees. If Congress only meets every other year it could cut such hearings by half or three quarters without making the hearings less effective since they’ve not produced any useful information thus far. Similarly, the House could save time by not, for example, voting 63 times to repeal Obamacare. One or two votes that fail without there being any change in the make up of the chamber is probably more than enough to make the point. Another way Congress can get all its work done in one year is to quit appointing multiple committees to investigate the same things.

In 2015, three congressional investigations were conducted into events that had not taken place but appeared to have taken place because of a fraudulent video about Planned Parenthood. The individuals who made that fake video have been criminally indicted by a Texas Grand Jury for their actions in producing that video. . After the three Congressional committees found no misconduct by Planned Parenthood, in October 2015 another panel was appointed and it conducted a public hearing on March 1, 2016, two months after creators of the video had been indicted. That sort of a hearing would probably have to be cancelled if Congress were only in session every other year.

Another suggestion is that Congress cut back on the number of hearings it conducts with administration officials. A good example of how that can be done was set in February of this year. On February 9, 2016, President Obama sent Congress his last annual budget proposal. A tradition going back 41 years provides that the House and Senate budget committees give the president’s budget director an invitation to testify about the proposed budget. No sooner was the budget submitted than the respective chairmen stated they would not invite the budget director to testify before their committees. That was probably done to save time and could become the standard under my proposal.

Once adopted, the proposal will require some getting used to. However, it will certainly improve the mental health of the country when the amount of time Congress can embarrass itself and those who elected it, is cut in half.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Texas and Textbooks

School days, school days,
Dear old Golden Rule Days. . . .
— 1907 Popular Song by Will Cobb and Gus Edwards

For those of us who in years gone by have enjoyed watching the Texas State Board of Education wrestle with the question of what to put in science textbooks used by its students that address, among other things, the pesky questions of climate change and evolution, I am happy to alert readers to the possibility of a new addition to that august group. To describe her at this time may seem premature, since in order for her to join that Board she will have to win a run off election in early May as well as the general election in November. Nonetheless, since many of her ideas remind us of the halcyon days of that Board when it was chaired by Don McLeroy, it seems appropriate to remind Texas voters of what they have to look forward to, should she join that body. Don McLeroy is, of course, fondly remembered by Board observers.

In 2009 Dr. McLeroy and his like minded colleagues on the Board were successful in requiring Texas science text books to address the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories such as evolution. In a January 2010 interview with Mariah Blake of the Washington Monthly discussing that issue, Dr.McLeroy said of the Board’s decision: “Wooey. We won the Grand Slam, and the Super Bowl.. .. Our science standards are light years ahead of any other state when it comes to challenging evolution.” During the interview he explained to Ms. Blake that “Evolution is hooey.” (In expressing that sentiment he was nothing more than a harbinger of Ben Carson. Dr. Carson has often opined on evolution saying Darwin’s theory of evolution was “something that was encouraged by [Satan]” and saying the big bang theory is like “fairy tales.”) Dr. McLeroy has not been a member of the Board for many years but, if elected, Mary Lou Bruner from Canton, Texas, should prove to be someone who can fill the shoes left empty when the good Doctor left the Board.

In 2013, Ms. Bruner addressed the Texas State Board of Education. In her comments to the board she said, among other things, that “Evolution scientists have ignored (and hidden) evidence proving humans and dinosaurs existed simultaneously. Foot prints of dinosaur and man have been found preserved together in solid rock. . . . Evolution is a religious philosophy with propaganda supporting the religion of atheism.” This is not simply an idea she has plucked out of thin air. In an article published April 9, 2013 that begins with the statement that: “This article is very true.” Ms. Bruner supports her theory with a careful analysis of what happened after the flood waters on which Noah’s ark floated, receded. She said that dinosaurs and humans co-existed at that time and explains that: “When the flood waters subsided and rushed to the oceans there was no vegetation on the earth because the earth had been covered with water. . . The dinosaurs on [Noah’s ark] may have been babies and not able to reproduce.” She then explains that there was not enough vegetation on earth to enable dinosaurs to survive to reproductive age, an absence of sustenance that apparently did not have a similar effect on humans.

According to a report from Texas Freedom Network (TFN) that has followed Ms. Bruner’s writing, she has expressed herself on numerous topics. As might be expected from one who has a theory to explain why evolution is a non-starter, as it were, Bruner also has an opinion on climate change that is, if nothing else, refreshing, since it has not been heard from others. “Climate change” she says, “has nothing to do with weather or climate; it is all about system change from capitalism (free enterprise) to Socialism-Communism. The Climate Change HOAX was Karl Marx’s idea. It took some time to ‘condition’ the people so they would believe such a ridiculous HOAX.”

In addition to being something of a scientist, Ms. Bruner is also an historian. In 2014 Ms. Bruner wrote of the Civil War that “Historians waited until all of the people who were alive during the Civil War and the Restoration (sic) were dead of old age. THEN HISTORIANS WROTE THE HISTORY BOOKS TO TELL THE STORY THE WAY THEY WANTED IT TOLD.” There is, of course, a bit of poetic license in that allegation since many history books were written long before the last civil war survivor died some time in the 1950s.

Ms. Bruner has also formed opinions about Islam that sound remarkably similar to another scholar who has contemplated the religion, Donald Trump. Ms. Bruner has written that: “Islam is not a religion. Islam is an inhumane totalitarian political ideology with radical religious rules and laws and barbaric punishments for breaking the religious rules.” She has also written that the reason that President Obama favors rights for gays is because of the years he spent as a male prostitute living in New York City using his earnings to support his drug habit.

Ms. Bruner is a retired teacher. As she explained when addressing the Texas State Board of Education, she taught kindergarten in the Texas public schools for 35 years. That may very well explain why Texas has produced such luminaries as Ted Cruz and Texas governor, Gregg Abbott. If she becomes a member of the Board, all eyes will be on new editions of science textbooks in Texas. For good reason.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Tips for Trump

There is no other way of guarding oneself against flattery than by letting men understand that they will not offend you by speaking the truth. . . .
— Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

Herewith a few suggestions for Donald Trump that may be of help to him when he becomes president. That he needs them is suggested, among other things, by recent comparisons of him to Adolf Hitler. The most recent comparison was made by Anne Frank’s stepsister, Eva Schloss, who, in an essay to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day, said that Mr. Trump was “acting like another Hitler by inciting racism.” In early March some commentators said that when those attending Trump rallies raise their right hands in what appears to be a salute, they seem to be performing a current version of the “Heil Hitler” salute seen at Nazi rallies. Mr. Trump has said that suggestions that it is a form of “Heil Hitler” are “ridiculous. His fans are simply pretending to be taking the oath of office he will be taking when he is sworn in. The gesture is frequently accompanied by the shout of “Do the swear in, do the swear in.”

Because of many of the things that have been said during the past few weeks, it is none too soon to suggest that Mr. Trump should begin considering steps he can take to control the sorts of disrespectful things that will certainly increase when he enters the White House. He has already said that “[O]ne of the things I am going to do if I win . . . .I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” Although that is a great idea, he should consider additional steps that have been taken by some of our close allies to make sure their elected officials receive the kind of respect to which the offices they hold entitle them.

As soon as he is elected Mr. Trump should persuade Congress to pass a law similar to one in Turkey that makes insulting the president a crime. Such a law has proved highly effective in that country where 1,845 cases have been brought against Turkish citizens for insulting their president, Recep Tayyan Erdogan. People have been charged for such things as media posts that are critical of the president or newspaper stories that are critical of him. On March 4, 2016, President Erdogan’s riot police took over the largest opposition newspaper in Turkey, throwing out its editors and journalists. Over the weekend Erdogan supporters were installed and on March 7, when the next edition of the paper appeared, instead of criticism of the administration it was filled with praise for its activities.

It is not only to Turkey that Mr. Trump can look for guidance. In Thailand, a 15-year sentence awaits anyone insulting the king, queen, heir, or regent. A former stock broker was recently sentenced to six years in prison for Facebook postings that were deemed offensive to the king and, thus, a violation of royal defamation laws.

Our long time friend and ally, South Korea, has a somewhat different, bur equally useful approach to insure the president receives the respect she deserves. Although the South Korean Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, that guarantee is weakened by defamation laws that provide that comments that are deemed not to be in the public interest, can result in a 3-year prison sentence, if they are true, and a seven-year prison sentence, if they are not true. That is a valuable tool to make sure that a president can act in the country’s best interests without fear of criticism from people who don’t have a clear understanding of what the president is doing. According to Park Kyung-sin, a professor of law at Korea University, “the government is especially sensitive about defending the personal reputation of the president.” Although bills have been proposed in Parliament that would weaken the laws making it a crime to make comments not deemed to be in the public interest even if true, they have all failed. Instead, the government has pushed through Parliament even tighter restrictions on what can be said. One anti-government law maker said of the newly enacted legislation, during a 10-hour filibuster, that he could never “support this attempt to place a dog collar on the people.” An activist who had spread a rumor that the reason the President of South Korea did not respond in a timely fashion to the sinking of the ferry that killed 304 people, was because she was in the midst of a romantic encounter with a former aide. The house of the protestor who spread that rumor was searched and the protestor arrested and interrogated. Following his release, he called the arresting officers “running dogs for the government” and he and colleagues threw dog food in front of the prosecutor’s office shouting “bow-wow.” When confronted by the police following the demonstrations the protestor said: They kept asking me what was the political meaning of ‘bow wow.” When Mr. Trump becomes president he will not ask for an explanation of “bow wow.” He knows that his bite will be much worse than his bark and an explanation of the meaning of “bow wow will not be necessary.