Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The State of Us

Tonight, President Barack Obama will give his annual State of the Union address from the nation's Capitol, just hours after Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick delivers his State of the Commonwealth address from the Massachusetts Statehouse.

Such addresses are historically designed as a check on executive power, as a way for the legislative branch to make sure it knows what the chief executive is doing and how the government is operating.

But these days, everybody knows the state of the union and the commonwealth. It doesn't take a fancy speech to a joint session of Congress for everyday Americans to know that our economic recovery is incomplete, that the world is still a dangerous place, and that we have a lot left to accomplish. It doesn't take lofty rhetoric for Bay Staters to know that the Massachusetts unemployment rate is higher than the national average for the first time in six years.

As citizens, we already know. We live it every day. What we’d like to know if what these two leaders intend to do to fix it. We need to know what their vision is for government and if we can really trust them to deliver the goods and make our lives better (even if it means making government do less, not more).

And, for both men, that task presents great challenges.

Take President Barack Obama. His speech tonight takes place in an environment where he eschews blame for a profound lack of accomplishment, even though he has served in office for longer than the entire time Abraham Lincoln served as President. He has failed to paint a vision for how he wants America to look by the end of his presidency, even though his remaining term is longer than the entire time John F. Kennedy served as President. After Benghazi and Obamacare and all of the other disasters plaguing the first year of his second term, a majority of the American people have reportedly lost confidence in Obama's ability to lead and his vision for government, and for good reason.

And, yet, Obama is stuck in a perennial political blame game. He appears poised to throw down the gauntlet to Congress and to call for a 'Year of Action' whereby Republicans either give in to his policy demands or face unilateral action by the White House to achieve the President's objectives.

Americans are tired of the blame game and the excuses and the political one-upsmanship. We deserve better from a president who promised to be post-partisan, not hyper-partisan. We think this “my way or the highway” approach by the Imperial President will backfire politically -- so long as the GOP comes up with a solid vision and plan of action of its own, starting with the rebuttal by House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA).

More locally, Deval Patrick faces challenges convincing the public that problems like those at DCF and the state drug lab aren't a sign of systemic mismanagement of the state. How couldn't they be? It's irresponsible to hold the Governor accountable for knowing where every at-risk child is every day or to make sure every drug case is being prosecuted well. But, it's entirely responsible to hold the Governor accountable for hiring people who will know where every DCF child is, every moment of every day. Failure is not acceptable, and there needs to be a strict consequence. Governor Patrick's calling for us to "rethink and reinvigorate" DCF is simply too little outrage, too little action, and too late to do any good.

Ultimately, we think both speeches will be more about legacy than vision. They will be more about papering over failures and trying to convince the public that times aren't that bad, and that government hasn't failed them that much, than about what government intends to do for we the people. Obama has a mid-term election coming up, and Patrick needs to hand off his administration to a like-minded progressive next year lest his work get undone.

Patrick also has a future ahead of him, with well-placed contacts already working in high-level political positions in Washington. Is tonight’s speech really just his last word as Governor, or is it more a first draft and a test run of other speeches yet to come? When Patrick looks out into the audience, will he view a sea of legislators, or will he be dreaming of addressing another national political convention - this time for his own benefit? It will be interesting to find out, and only time will tell.

Whatever happens, don’t watch tonight’s speeches expecting any sense of contrition or unity or bold, grand visions for government. Expect a sharpening of political elbows and a line drawn in the sand, setting the prelude for a highly-competitive election season in 2014. Sadly, such is the state of our union and our commonwealth, and the two men giving speeches tonight are part of the problem not part of the solution.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

So, we can really ask the President... anything?

Psst… Head over to Google.com for a minute... See that little "Your chance to ask the President a question" thing below the search box? Click on it.

Apparently, Google is sponsoring a "first-ever Presidential Hangout Road Trip" next week, whereby regular citizens will be able to ask President Obama any question they want after the State of the Union Address, and he'll supposedly respond to them.

Two observations.

First, as for Google – well done. Cool idea. Seriously. We give you props.

Second, as for the President – we have some questions for you. So as not to rain on Google's laudable parade, we'll ask some of them here.

Question 1. If the Obama Administration can figure this out, why is the Obamacare Web site so screwed up?

Question 2. Why do we need to ask the President questions; doesn't the NSA already know everything we're thinking?

Question 3. Could the President seek to do other things virtually? Like, could he take his next vacation to Hawaii virtually by using Google Maps to enjoy the sand and surf? Could he play his next round of golf virtually on a Wii Fit? That could save a lot of money.

We can't wait to see what other people ask the President.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

War Chests or Incumbent Insurance Policies?

According to an insightful new posting in Boston Magazine by political reporter David Bernstein, Massachusetts legislators collectively hold more than $9 million in their campaign accounts.

Pols call such campaign accounts "war chests". But, really, what possible need do legislators have for a $9 million campaign war chest? Their nine million dollar war chest is roughly equivalent to the $9,198,265 the very same legislators allocated to the Massachusetts Military Division in the FY'14 budget for real and actual warfare. And, little wonder, most of the ones who are highest up on the list are legislators who haven't faced an honest competitive challenge to their seat (er, um, the "people's seat" they temporarily occupy) for years.

"War chest?" We call it Incumbent Insurance. And, if Incumbent Insurance policies were offered on the Mass. Connector, the $9 million in legislators' war chests would be Platinum-level Coverage.

The problem goes beyond the contribution and expenditure questions that normally come up in the context of campaign finance reform. It's an issue of fairness. Why are politicians allowed to collect donations under the guise of "enhancing their political future", when in fact all they're doing is trying to cement their future in incumbent politics by scaring off potential challengers with an amassed war chest that's bigger than what any challenger reasonably could raise on their own.

Political office was never intended to be a career. "Enhancing one's political future" has turned into a fine art of empire building. The Founding Fathers would be rolling over in their graves. It's time to stop saying to politicians, "If you like your seat, you can keep it."

We propose a solution, and -- cringe -- it involves a new tax, one that even we fiscally-conservative Republicans could get behind in the name of good government.

Unlike the federal campaign finance system, which allows candidates to collect money per-election, the Massachusetts system looks at contributions and expenditures on an annual basis. We think it's time for Massachusetts to adopt the federal system, allowing candidates to collect money to run for a specific office during a specific cycle. (In other words, a state legislative candidate would be on a two-year cycle, statewide candidates would have a four-year cycle, etc.) Donation limits could be adjusted accordingly, so there would be no net change to how much a candidate could aggregate during a single cycle. But, here's the catch. At the end of the cycle, candidates would be required to settle out their accounts for the preceding election. That is, say, a set period of time after Election Day, candidates would be required to pay outstanding bills, repay liabilities, etc., and to close out their account for the cycle. If any money were to remain, the candidate could be permitted to dispose of it as currently permitted by law (if they are not in office and plan not to run again), or to roll funds into a successive campaign account (as in an account to pay political expenses while in office and for re-election next time to the same or another office). If the candidate does transfer the balance to a new account, the roll-over balance would be subject to a tax -- and a hefty tax at that. The money collected from the tax could be earmarked for a specific purpose; for example, to help communities with the costs of special elections, recounts, etc.

The rationale is simple. How would you feel if your favorite charity (pick one, any one) came to your door with a desperate appeal for money, telling you that they really, really, really needed your support? How would you feel if you later found out that your money wasn't used to in fact help end cancer, or feed starving children, or whatever, but that it actually was stashed away in a savings account just to make the charity look big and powerful? Would you feel robbed? After all, you're presumably giving money because you support the charity's cause, not just the charity. Well, in fact, charities are highly-regulated and encouraged not to amass such profits long-term for exactly that reason. We think the same principle should hold true for candidates; when you think of it, they're supposed to be kind of like charities who champion the cause of democracy for the greater good.

It's time to put an end to campaign war chests, once and for all.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

An unconventional convention date

The official invitations are out, and the date is set. The Mass GOP is having its party convention on Saturday, March 22 in Boston.

Our question is, why?

The purpose of a convention is for a party to select nominees from a pool of candidates for particular offices. Traditionally, conventions are held during the summer months, for good reason. Having a convention before signature papers are due means that convention goers will not have a full slate of candidates before them. This not only narrows the slate of available choices (since not all candidates might have announced), but also creates the possibility that the party could nominate a candidate for an office only to have that candidate fail to qualify for the ballot by failing to collect enough signatures. Not to mention the fact that there is not even a full slate of potential Republican candidates announced yet for statewide office.

What is the Mass. GOP up to?

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

An Open Letter to Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera

Dear Mayor Rivera,

Every morning on my commute to work, I drive over that place where Interstate 495 spans the Merrimack River in Lawrence and I'm struck by how beautiful the city looks.

From that vantage point, especially when the sun is shining on the mill buildings and the clock tower that line the banks of the river, all of the corruption and poverty and crime and struggle we've read about in the newspapers seems very far away.

As a former reporter for The Eagle-Tribune and a resident of the Merrimack Valley, I've always been well-aware of the troubles that plagued the city. The widely-reported exploits of your predecessor, former Mayor William Lantigua, made sure the rest of the state knew about them, too. No one questioned the fact that the city was in desperate need of a turnaround.

So while all the focus and attention was on Boston's leadership changing hands yesterday, here's hoping it's the changing of the guard in Lawrence that will become the big story.

I'll admit I don't know a lot about you. I know that at your inauguration ceremony this weekend, you pledged to make the streets safer, the economy stronger and the schools better. You've got a difficult road ahead of you, and change will be difficult.

But you should know you've got a lot of people pulling for you. People who don't even live in the city.

People like Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, both of whom attended your inauguration. They're pulling for you. So is state Senator Barry Finegold, whom I know also cares deeply about the city. And it's not just the Democrats. I noticed that Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, Karyn Polito, attended your ceremony. She wants you to succeed as well.

And there are people like me, whose family tree has roots in your city.

My great-grandparents--Russian immigrants--ran a furniture store on Essex Street in the 1940s, and they are buried in the Children of Abraham cemetery. My grandmother grew up in the city and went to Lawrence High School, and her brother's name is on a World War II memorial in Campagnone Common.

We all still care about Lawrence, and we're behind you, 100 percent.

I can't wait to drive over that place where 495 crosses the Merrimack River in Lawrence and instead of praying for a turnaround, I can just enjoy the view.


Meredith Warren