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Counting Debt Ceiling Votes

Terry H. Schwadron

May 31, 2023

We’re just shy of the whip counts, pressure campaigns, and last-minute, high-stakes lobbying efforts to get this no-one-quite-happy debt ceiling deal through Congress. Speaker Kevin McCarthy has promised a three-day window for reading and consideration – something he doesn’t do unless he is forced to approve.

We’re in the noise-making phase – loud but uncounted.  Despite the gravity of this unnecessary, manufactured financial crisis, the outcome in Congress remains in doubt, with groups of the most-Right Republicans and the most-Left Democrats each threatening to pull away.  The deal is, as one summary said, more narrow than Republicans hoped and Democrats feared it would be.

So far, we have not seen a formal enumeration of where the votes are between the two parties to put 218 votes in the House and 60 in the Senate together. But we all know that the political pros know and are matching their mouths with their tally sheets.

Anyone in Congress planning to vote no on the compromise package had best be prepared to defend it publicly, since most Americans clearly just want the whole issue to go away – and we were never going to get a vote on the fine details in any case.

If you’re a Freedom Caucus/MAGA Republican upset that you’re not dictating the outcome of every issue that comes up in Washington, perhaps you should update your reality medicine. If nothing else, this sorry excuse for governing that we’ve watched you cause ought to persuade you that the wheels of government turn on understanding the details as well as offering some unhinged slogans.

And if you’re busy defending the progressive barricades, you have only yourselves to blame for not securing those five critical House seats that would have retained a Democratic majority in the House.  You lost critical House seats in New York State, of all places, to Republicans who included the hapless George Santos, because you allowed Republicans to paint the elections with overhyped fears of rampant crime figures that are hard to even see in most of these districts.

Clearly, It’s About Crowing

The deal has something for each side to use in its campaign messages, which seemed closer to a reason for picking the fight in the first place – including the always mercurial Sen. Joe Manchin, who somehow got a promise to complete a pipeline into the legislative text

If Republicans cared about balancing the budget and reducing the federal debt, they’d be looking at the tax cuts and loopholes that they refuse to recognize. And if Democrats cared about their professed defense of social service spending, they’d have taken care of the debt ceiling while they still had the House majority, as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen had proposed.

Now they can both grit their teeth, swallow this compromise, and move on to the name and blame-calling that they truly want.

For American voters, businesses, citizens, none of this debate is serving economic interests or security or altering the price of eggs and milk. This entire debt ceiling set-to is a self-serving plateful of political positioning in a Congress that has become increasingly unable to do anything substantive because of its sharp divisions.

Indeed, the big less of the debt ceiling melee and proposed resolution is that our political toolsets of gerrymandering, campaign money, and healthy dollops of misinformation have built in such congressional splits well into the future. The results of the vast number of congressional elections already are structurally baked in for one party, and the outcome of only a miniscule number of districts will settle which side has a small majority for another two years. Add in the craziness of rules as in the Senate where a “majority” is 60 of 100 rather than 50 on most items, and we have a guaranteed lock on inaction.

No Time Left

There is no time for this bill to be sent back to McCarthy and Joe Biden for re-negotiation. The political winds have dictated that too.

The quicker this chapter ends, the sooner we can reopen the same questions with the annual budget on the block instead of a mechanism that threatens financial disaster through an artificial debt ceiling that looks backwards on bills already incurred.

The fact that the stickiest issue here is whether people already needy enough to deserve food stamps or health care will be required to show additional proof of disability or of efforts to find work should tell us a lot about the degree to which this is an issue of balancing financial books or about some perceived culture skirmish.

The themes of this debt ceiling debate already are in heavy circulation in the Republican presidential primary conversations. Donald Trump has pushed Republicans in Congress to risk global financial disaster to get their way, seconded by Republicans in Congress who talk openly of holding the White House “hostage.”  In their zeal to offer themselves as Trump alternatives, the various challengers are talking about doing away with income taxes altogether or revisiting why the government ever thought covid was a problem requiring substantial response.

Rewriting history – even recent history — is never a good idea.

Unless these congressmen want to explain to constituents one by one why there will be no Social Security check in the mail next week, we shouldn’t need whip counts.


DeSantis Whiffs Early, Often

Terry H. Schwadron

May 29, 2023

Despite his botched announcement, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has jumped into the Republican presidential stakes with both feet, apparently working feverishly to ensure that he is on the absolutely wrong side of almost every public issue that matters to people I know.

Of course, along the way, he also has managed to offend both Donald Trump, which is easy to do, and the entire swath of independent voters who have repeatedly said they oppose the kind of censorship, unrestrained blockage of abortion, attacks on voter rights, and racialist views towards immigration and education that DeSantis has decided to embrace.

But if nothing else about even these early days of a DeSantis candidacy disqualifies him, his commitment – along with Trump – to vow preemptively to gut the prosecutions and still-pending prosecutions of the vast majority of those arrested and convicted for Jan. 6 insurrection activities should make even government-hating fans take notice.

Echoing Trump – who very likely faces charges himself – DeSantis told friendly interviewers, the only kind he has allowed access, that he would give serious consideration to pardoning any crimes involving the former president and most Jan. 6 defendants.

“We will be aggressive [in] issuing pardons,” DeSantis said, arguing that the Department of Justice and FBI had become “weaponized” to pursue political rather than law enforcement goals.” He equated Jan. 6’s violent rioting to overthrow the federal government with street protests by Black Lives Matter in which there were scattered incidents of property damage.

Indeed, DeSantis’ remarks about pardons came on the same day that Stewart Rhodes, founder of the far-right Oath Keepers, was sentenced to 18 years in prison after being convicted of seditious conspiracy and other charges. Rhodes calls himself a “political prisoner.”

The DeSantis Choices

We all understand that DeSantis is making himself a mini-me to Trump and position himself as the alternative to Trump. The obvious idea that DeSantis doesn’t see a need to mention is that Trump could be, um, unavailable to serve as president if he is in jail on any of multiple criminal charges he faces.

And we understand that DeSantis wants to win Trump’s supporters by out-Trumping the favorite. That’s why we can recognize that DeSantis has chosen a political role that wants to break society’s rules and institutions from civil rights to support for racism to the role of universities or even businesses like Disney World that might find issue with his policies.  These are the policies of division.

DeSantis’ positions, policies and actions continue to offend people of reason daily. He is using his statehouse supermajority to enact laws based on hate and emotion rather than on science, fact, medicine, or recognition of a pluralistic society. These are the actions of an autocrat who wants to be the governor of some, not all.

Along the way, DeSantis has had legislation passed to hide his election expenses, taken a personal role in redrawing state congressional lines for partisan purposes, has overridden laws that would have required he leave the governor’s office and has established an election fraud police unit that reports to himself. These are the actions of someone who does not believe in democracy. He campaigns on defunding the FBI and wanting to eliminate income taxes for less progressive flat taxes. These are actions about sheer political noise without substance.

But deciding that the justice system simply doesn’t apply, and that crimes we all witnessed live on televisions globally never happened is yet another step too far. In fact, it should be a litmus test for all candidates. Deciding that his power of pardon will overrule trials still ongoing in which juries have yet to speak does not comport with how justice is administered. Believing that Jan. 6 was just and legal is simply wrong.

For that matter, DeSantis has pointedly refused to acknowledge that Joe Biden’s election was legitimate.

How does this character put his hand on a Bible and swear an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution if he doesn’t believe in it?

Preemptively deciding on a pardon strategy for those involved in the attempted overthrow of elections and the federal government is an assertion that politics trumps the courts and juries, it is a statement that power is the ultimate deciding principle.

At least in Trump, we see the obvious, that his pardon promise is self-serving. For DeSantis, it is an acceptance of an ultimate anti-democratic principle.

As former Rep. Liz Cheney says, It should disqualify him from consideration for the office he seeks.


Reprimanding the Messenger

Terry H. Schwadron

May 27, 2023

For whatever reasons, we don’t have laws about ostriches sticking their heads in the sand. But current times are certainly bringing about many violations of ignoring the obvious to make political points.

Just this last week, the Indiana Medical Licensing Board found an Indianapolis doctor violated privacy laws in her handling of a 10-year-old abortion patient’s information last summer – but failed to pin the tail on restrictive laws that had made this a problem in the first place.

It took 13 hours of board meeting time to clear Dr. Caitlin Bernard of charges that could have lifted her medical license altogether. Instead, the board decided to “reprimand” the doctor for violating patient rights by talking about the fact that a 10-year-old rape victim was forced to cross state lines to get an abortion – now outlawed in Indiana too.

She was clear as well of a charge – filed by an outspokenly right-wing Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita – that she had failed to report abuse of the girl quickly enough.

Let’s just state plainly that the patient and the doctor were in an impossible situation, and that prosecuting the doctor, even before a state medical licensing board, goes well beyond the discretionary powers of the attorney general to seek justice.

This is about abortion politics, plain and simple. And it is about the excessive degree of using the law for partisan political ends. And it failed.

Even the reprimand and accompanying $3,000 is subject to additional process before it takes effect and is subject to appeal to justice courts.

Apart and among the zillion questions raised by this state prosecutorial action is this: Why aren’t these same officials focused in on the rape of a 10-year-old and the responsibilities of a sane and humane society to deal with the consequences? This is a mis-aimed, vitriolic attack on the wrong problem.

A Rape and Abortion Gone Viral

The story of this girl’s plight story appeared in a July 2022 IndyStar article about reduced abortion access following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, with the doctor as its source.

Abortion rights advocates and politicians used the story to support their arguments while some conservatives questioned whether the story was true, the newspaper recounts.

On Thursday, Indiana Deputy Attorney General Cory Voight told the medical licensing board that as a result of the story, “everyone – the country – learned about her patient. Learned a 10-year-old little girl was raped and had an abortion.” Voight also said Bernard’s failure to immediately report the child abuse ended with “a child returning to live with her rapist for five days in Ohio.

Through her lawyer, the doctor testified that she had indeed reported the abuse to an Indiana University social worker, in accord to normal practice at the university hospital where she works. There was a dispute at the hearing about the degree to which release of a patient age and state would lead to identification of an individual patient.

The patient and family involved had sought out the Indiana abortion because new law in Ohio had blocked it.  Dr. Bernard responded to a patient problem but chose to speak out about it later.

Unnecessary, Unfair and Misdirected

This was an unnecessary and provocative legal action taken against an abortion doctor simply because she is an abortion doctor, working at what was then legal in her state, with an eye out for the outrage of a pre-teen rape resulting in pregnancy.

The Indiana attorney general was not even at the hearing.

Lost in all this, and in the aftermath of states with Republican majorities passing increasingly harsh abortion bans to fill the void left by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, are the consequences of removing patient rights to legal abortion and to the consequences of rape and other medical conditions that elevate the need for such decisions.

Not present in a medical hearing about ethics – even a hearing that included doctors — was concern about what to do about rape of children or the insanity of enacting abortion ban laws that do not address victims of rape, incest, or medical emergency. Instead, the medical board, which does include people who have contributed to the political campaign of the attorney general, managed to whittle the charges to a reprimandable procedural matter.

The least we can demand from our deteriorating governing systems is some honest assessment of the problems we face.


Poetry and Politics

Terry H. Schwadron

May 26, 2023

By now, the successful one-parent challenge to remove Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem-book, The Hill We Climb, from elementary schools in Miami-Dade County in Florida have been chewed and processed as wild, upsetting excess of a MAGA-led revolt against reason and access to ideas.

Even adherents of stronger limitations on the thinking through books and lessons of what is deemed appropriate for exposure to young students seem to think a single complaint, even from a non-parent, that kicks off a legally required review sounds over the edge. Even a  Fox News poll in April found that 77 percent of parents are extremely or very concerned about book banning.

On MSNBC, perhaps predictably, anchors were chortling as they re-read passages from the poem in search of anything that could even been seen as unsettling about the racial, gender-fluid or Otherism in the poem’s language. It just wasn’t there – leaving several to conclude that it was the fact that the author is a young Black woman who notes that she descended from slaves that must be to blame.

So, we are left to wonder why “parents’ rights” is a politically popular slogan when it means the opposite of helping kids to learn through lessons adjudged appropriate by age group.  This ban fueled by a single complaint is made possible a hurtling, indiscriminate and ill-defined “anti-woke” campaign by Gov. Ron DeSantis, now officially a presidential candidate who wants to remake America in this Florida image.

The document provided by the actual complainant, Miami Lakes resident Daily Salinas, who has two children at Bob Graham Education Center, alleges that the work is “not educational,” contains indirect hate speech and should not be in schools. The complaint even incorrectly asserts that the author or publisher was Oprah Winfrey — who wrote the book’s foreword.

It is unclear what her problem was with the actual poem book. Making matters worse, The Daily Beast linked her to social media posting supporting the Proud Boys and the Je\wish Telegraphic Agency found posts of anti-Semitic tropes for which Salinas posted an apology saying she thought they promoted the Soviet Union, not attacked Jews.

Maybe she has a reading comprehension problem.

As NPR noted, during the school’s review, an eight-person committee said Gorman’s place in history as the first National Youth Poet Laureate and the youngest poet to read at a presidential inauguration give it educational value, but the “vocabulary used in the poem was determined to be of value for middle school students.”

Before we just sigh and grieve the moment, we ought to consider the wider context in our society.

Books as the Tip of the Spear

The argument that books with stories of obstacle demean our common American experience is wrong in fact, tone, and direction. Yet, over the last few years, the need to find blame in books is building on anti-school closing sentiments that persist even after the worst of covid has passed.

It is being conflated into broader issues of antipathy for teacher unions, support for taxpayer-paid school choice, re-introduction of religion in public schools in an effort to insist that America is white, Christian and that patriotism has something to do with whom you choose to love or associate.

But the values really being transmitted indoctrinate as much as the fear of Other that is the subject of book bans, just with a different value set in mind – preservation of American myths.

Books have come to represent the top of this particular political pyramid.

The Washington Post requested copies of all book challenges filed in the 2021-2022 school year with the 153 school districts that free expression advocacy group PEN America, has tracked. In total, officials in more than 100 of those school systems, which are spread across 37 states, provided 1,065 complaints totaling 2,506 pages.

That’s a lot of books. Indeed, The American Library Association, which does an  annual report on book censorship, recorded the highest number of book challenges since the association began tracking the phenomenon 20 years ago.

The Post analysis confirmed that the main targets are books that mention LBGTQ or racial themes or characters. But it also showed that a large percentage of the complaints comes from a minuscule number of adults:  The Post found active campaigns by individuals who filed 10 or more complaints were responsible for two-thirds of all challenges.

In other words, the drive to ban books is not a widespread political phenomenon, but rather a very active campaign. Moms for Liberty is a key group based in Florida that now has branches in at least half the states.

Book Bans and Politics

“By now, it should be blindingly obvious that many red-state book crackdowns are designed to encourage the impulse toward censorship,” argues Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent. He sees the DeSantis leadership as a reason for “measures that invite overzealous parents to hunt for books to purge.”

DeSantis himself felt compelled to address this issue anew as part of his somewhat media-botched presidential announcement. He insisted that no book has been completely banned in the state, and that the Amanda Gordon book remains available to middle-schoolers rather than elementary school students.

He left unaddressed his similar work to undercut what is taught through high school and even by universities. He ignored his generalized attack on public schools, teachers, and having sponsored – as in Texas and other red states – the idea of holding educators and librarians to civil and criminal charges if they cross his personal red line of censorship.

Another Washington Post columnist, Catherine Rampell, has written about the yet larger issue left unaddressed by this newest arrival to Republican presidential stakes – the general decline in literacy. “Every era has its bogeyman, the cartoonishvillain who parents worry will corrupt their babies. Today’s fearsome predator, apparently, is the local librarian,” she has written. “Butamid debates about how children will process texts invoking racism or sexual identity, a much more basic question plagues our educational system: whether children can process texts, period.”

Few are asking these same parents harassing local school boards for the insistence to declare what books reside on school shelves whether they are aiding their own children in learning to explore and synthesize the written word. Instead, we are enduring endless debates over what kind of federal laws should be enacted to protect children from perceived Chinese Communist Party ownership of TikTok.

Amanda Gordon’s sunny words about overcoming adversity and division – delivered days after Jan. 6, 2021 – are more than worth hearing and considering. Let’s stop this nonsense.


Decoding Trump’s Policies

Terry H. Schwadron

May 24, 2023

Since Donald Trump doesn’t really want to campaign on what exactly he would seek to do as president, the website took a shot this week at compiling its digest of Trump positions that emerge from statements, postings, videos, and the few interviews that go beyond his usual recitation of Trump as victim.

What rises is an autocratic vision of “a plan that would give him, as president, more control of virtually every facet of life in America,” concludes the Axiom analysis.  Still, they note, most of the Trump message is self-promoting egotism and disdain for American institutions, democratic traditions and rules, legal or otherwise.

Admittedly, for a host of reasons, Trump has no chance of getting my vote, but I remain interested in whether anything he seeks surpasses his very dark and debasing world that embraces his style more than any cogent statement of community-held values. As we have witnessed, Trump is the ultimate transactional politician, advancing even mean-spirited, vindictive government policy so long as it advances his personal agenda – and not a political thinker about what government should be doing in terms of policies.  

As we see the entry of would-be Trump competitors for the Republican nomination this week, the agenda items that make up a near-platform serve as markers for which Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, former Governors Nikki Haley, Asa Hutchinson, or the few others who have put their hands up will have to respond by out-Trumping Trump. After all, almost beyond belief, a rising tide of legal challenges, including multiple pending criminal charges, seem not to dissuade Trump or his solid fans from wanting another Trump presidential campaign – and, despite legal challenges, Trump is leading by far.

Unless Trump is derailed by the political fallout of his legal difficulties, It seems necessary to ask what he intends, other than a wide swath of personal vindictiveness and political revenge.

A Wide Swath of Power

From its own coverage and that of others, Axiom says that Trump’s second-term governing plans outline a vision for a dramatic expansion of federal power — particularly the presidency. 

He sees himself overruling the Justice Department about whether justice demanded punishment for hundreds of people convicted because of Jan. 6, 2021, using pardon powers, for example, and immediately and unilaterally settling the war in Ukraine, apparently using the same magical powers by which he declassifies U.S. intelligence documents.

Those promises may not even wink at issues of justice or legality, but we have already heard them way too often as a reason for Trump’s candidacy.

But the compilation of what Trump says shows that he wants to control who and what is taught at our schools, colleges and universities, set partisan political loyalties that can be imposed to be able to work by giving the president the authority to hire and fire federal workers at will, to eliminate federal health payments to institutions that support gender identity treatment and re-impose his most drastic anti-immigration policies. Trump wants to fire “radical left” officials who accredit universities, reward schools that abolish tenure for teachers, eliminate many college administrators and remove diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, says Axios.

He wants to control what local district attorneys can do, vowing to get rid of “Marxist prosecutors”  and decide from Washington who should serve in those positions, based on their record of bringing what Trump thinks are politically sensitive cases. He wants to unleash the U.S. military on international cartels that he associates with drug and people smuggling, and on street crime in Chicago.  As he has told us, he wants to undercut the commitments of international treaties, doing so on the fly, at his personal whim, and when he feels he can strike better bilateral agreements. He wants to re-embrace Russia – and this week, Vladimir Putin made clear by sanctioning 500 anti-Trump Americans that he wants to re-embrace Trump.

Because he won’t speak substantively about any of these ideas, we have no idea how he might marry his dangerous statements about falling off the debt crisis cliff with new incentives to build vast border walls or to offer a “quantum leap to revolutionize the American standard of living” includes baby bonuses to create a new baby boom and the design of 10 new “Freedom Cities” in the U.S.

Reshaping Government in his Image

Trump does want his brand of politics “to reshape the Justice Department and U.S. intelligence,” in part to “to ensure they are not spying on our citizens.” 

He wants less prosecutorial interference in, say, voting and official malfeasance, and more aimed at determining whether Big Pharma and hospitals have “deliberately covered up the long-term side-effects of ‘sex transitions.'” He also wants to boot hospitals or providers from Medicaid and Medicare if they offer gender-affirming care.

He wants to stop interfering with local governments over restrictive housing policies, gun limitations, but more on “mental health” without specifying what he is talking about. As we know, Trump wants credit for naming three anti-abortion Supreme Court judges but does not want to talk about the effects spiraling out of control in the aftermath.

Overall, he always has wanted to stop regulation – unless it works for his personal or partisan advancement. That same Supreme Court majority he built also is fixated on trimming the already wide powers of the presidency and his agencies.

And so, as we start to hear from the mini-Trump rivals, they find themselves either trying to sound more right-leaning than Trump or unable to speak about much altogether that distinguishes them from him. Personal character is the obvious target but something they see as a hot, fatal third rail among primary voters.

Climate doesn’t exist as an issue, nor  does inflation and tax and wage inequalities, nor access to health care nor rising white supremacy and the undercutting of truth and democracy.  The focus is local and on misgivings and distrust, on allowing for a strain of anti-Americanism in the world in the name of patriotism and inflated voting numbers.

I’ll give credit to Axios for performing a service here in bringing all the threads together in what amounts to a list of non-criminal system reasons to be quite nervous about the policies that another Trump presidency – a list that even his rivals seem largely to embrace.