Thursday, October 06, 2011

Who Owns John Watkins?

The Virginia 10th district Senate campaign between Democrat David Bernard and Republican John Watkins is a real David vs. Goliath contest. Bernard, a small businessman, is waging his first campaign for public office. Watkins has served numerous terms in the General Assembly. This maven has noted that in any political race an incumbent, especially one who has served multiple terms, has a significant advantage and generally wins. So, even if this election were being played on a level field, Watkins would have the advantage. But this playing field is not level. Why? In five simple letters: M O N E Y.

According to the Virginia Public Access Project (, as of August 31, 2011, David Bernard had raised $23,638 to run his campaign. This figure is a bit misleading because $20,000 of that comes from Bernard’s own savings. On the other hand, since the beginning of his current term in the Virginia Senate, John Watkins has raised $346, 745 for his campaign. This is in addition to the $133,718 he had left over from his previous campaigns. Virginia election law only requires candidates to itemize campaign contributions of $100 or more. David Bernard has received 12 contributions in this category, including 3 from himself. John Watkins has received 484 contributions of $100 or more. These contributions provide him with 95% of the money he has raised. So, dear reader, in Virginia’s 10th Senate district we have a wee little David and a most gigantic Goliath.

So, where exactly does Mr. Watkins’ campaign money come from? If you want to see a list of his 484 benefactors, take a look at VPAP. But I thought we might just want to take a look at his 20 biggest benefactors:
Dominion Power*..................................$12,000
Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Assn. .11,700
Verizon ....................................................8,300
Virginia Bankers Assn. ........................... 7,500
Home Builders Assn. of Virginia ............6,900
Assn. of Electric Cooperatives ................6,600
Appalachian Power Co. ...........................6,500
Thomas F. Garner, Jr. .............................6,000
Genworth Financial ................................6,000
Zaremba Metropolitan Midlothian LLC* 5,600
Columbia Gas of Va. ................................5,250
Altria ........................................................5,000
Anthem ....................................................5,000
Va. Credit Union League .........................5,000
American Infrastructure * ......................4,900
Alpha Natural Resources* ......................4,500
Balzer & Associates Inc.* ........................4,400
Hospital Corp of America .......................4,400
Rebkee Co* ..............................................4,300
Va. Independent Insurance Agents ........4,150

Trusted reader, when I make a contribution to a political candidate I expect that I am buying influence, whether in Washington or Richmond. Of course, the $25 or $50 or $100 I contribute is not going to buy too much influence, but since I only support candidates whose values I share and are probably going to vote the way I would if I were elected to their seat, I expect that I am “buying” someone who will represent my interests.

I assume it is not any different for the 20 Watkins donors listed above and the other of his big money contributors. I do not think that these entities contribute to Mr. Watkins because he is handsome or has a great personality or just because they like him. I think they contribute because they share Mr. Watkins’ values and expect that he will represent their interests in the Senate. And, because Mr. Watkins has been in the General Assembly for many years, these contributors know that he has represented their interests in the past. Be assured, these are not charities; if Mr. Watson had voted against their interests in the past they would not be supporting him now.

So, if you live in the 10th district your choice this year is pretty clear. If you want your senator to be someone who has represented special interests in the General Assembly for years you should vote for John Watkins. If, however, you want a senator who will represent the people rather than the special interests I urge you to vote for David Bernard on Election Day, November 8, 2011. Pick David over Goliath.

*Dominion contributions are generally made through the Dominion PAC, which contains contributions from Dominion executives and employees.
Zaremba is in the retail business
American Infrastructure is a general contracting company
Alpha is a coal company
Balzer is an engineering firm
Rebkee is a real estate developer

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Abysmal Republican Congress

A new poll reported in the July 26 Washington Post, More Americans unhappy with Obama on economy, jobs, indicates that more than a third of those polled believe that President Obama’s policies are hurting the economy and that confidence in his ability to create jobs is eroding among his base. The poll also found that as many people blame Republican policies for the poor economy as they blame the president. But, on the issue of jobs, the poll shows that more people disapprove of the Republican performance (65 percent) than they do of the president’s performance (52 percent). Which sort of makes me wonder why the Post headline centers on President Obama.

Despite the perception by political pundits that conservative philosophy is now dominant in our country and that liberals are a dying breed, the results of the Post poll indicate clearly that the American people expect the government to fix our ailing economy. I see no indication in the poll that anybody blames businesses—whether large or small—for the state of our economy. Likewise, nobody faults business for failing to create more jobs.

I assume from the article that the designers of this poll phrased their questions in terms of policies (e.g. Do you believe that the policies of X are helping or hurting the economy). Yet policies can have no real effect on the economy. It is only actions that can make a difference. And, dear reader, under our Constitution it is the Congress, rather than the President, that must take action. Only the Congress can enact legislation. The President gets to vote on legislation only if and when the Congress passes it.

Congressional Republicans won a significant victory in the 2010 national elections. The Republicans, with John Boehner and Eric Cantor as their leaders, now control the House of Representatives. Further, the Republicans, with Mitch McConnell and John Kyl as their leaders, now have sufficient votes in the Senate to maintain a filibuster and thus block legislation they oppose. You would think that with as many votes as the Republicans have they would have been able to enact some significant legislation in this the first session of the 112th Congress. If that’s what you think, reader, you are thinking wrong.

In the nearly seven months that the 112th Congress has been in session it has enacted only 23 public laws. This compares with 283 public laws enacted in the 110th Congress and 205 public laws enacted in the 111th Congress during the first seven months of those congresses.

Among the 112th Congress’s laws you have such significant legislation as 1- a law naming the federal courthouse in Yuma, Arizona, after John M. Roll; 2- a law naming the federal building and courthouse in Martinsburg, West Virginia, after W. Craig Broadwater; 3- a law providing for the appointment of Stephen M. Case to the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution; 4- a law naming the United States Postal Service building in Inverness, California, after Specialist Jake Robert Velloza; 5- a law providing for the reappointment of Shirley Anne Jackson to the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution; 6- a law providing for the reappointment of Robert P. Kogod to the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution; 7- a law naming the United States Postal Service building in Rootstown, Ohio, after Marine Sgt. Jeremy E. Murray; and 8- a law naming the United States Postal Service building in Cary, Mississippi, after Spencer Byrd Powers, Jr.

After subtracting these eight pieces of landmark legislation, that leaves 15 public laws of substance that the 112th Congress has enacted. Or, has it? Three of those laws were temporary extensions of the continuing resolution providing funding for the federal government. Two laws extended two programs of the Small Business Administration first from January 31, 2011, to May 31, 2011,and then to July 31, 2011. Another law extended two programs under the Patriot Act from February 28, 2011, to May 27, 2011. Three public laws extended the taxes and authorization of the Airport and Airways Trust Fund first by two months, then by an additional month and finally by an additional 22 days. One law extended the entire Patriot Act by five years. Another law extended the operation of the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission by seven months. And, one law extended programs under the Surface Transportation Act through September 30, 2011. So, twelve of those public laws did nothing but extend the expiration dates of certain programs.

This leaves us with three significant public laws enacted by the 112th Congress between the beginning of January and the 26th day of July. These three laws are: Public Law 112-9, which makes three minor changes to the Internal Revenue Code; Public Law 112-10, which provides funding for the federal government through the end of fiscal year 2011; and Public Law 112-18, which authorizes appropriations for the intelligence activities of the Government.

That’s all folks.

The Republican dominated Congress has passed no laws addressing our troubled economy. The Republican dominated Congress has passed no laws creating jobs.

What has the 112th Congress done? The Republican controlled House of Representatives, led by John Boehner and Eric Cantor, voted to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act, voted for a budget that would eliminate Medicare and has held the country hostage for months by refusing to pass legislation enabling the Secretary of the Treasury to pay the government’s lawful obligations after next Tuesday.

What a wonderful Congress!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Deadbeat Republican Values

Don’t they know that the children are watching and listening? Don’t they appreciate what they are teaching them? It is bad enough that for years the Republican Party leadership has been preaching and acting out the values of greed and selfishness. These Republican values have produced an entire “me first” generation; people who seek to maximize their own collection of toys and refuse to share with others. Now, the Republican leadership (Boehner, Cantor, Bachman, McConnell, Kyl) are teaching a new Republican value—don’t pay your bills.

With the exception of three fiscal years under the Clinton Administration, ours has been a debtor nation since at least 1981. Republicans and Democrats undoubtedly can argue over who is to blame for our huge national debt, but placing blame serves no legitimate purpose. The fact is that we have spent about $13 trillion more than we have received in revenues. Even this fiscal year, after an election in which Republican candidates pledged fiscal responsibility, the Congress voted to increase our national debt by extending the Bush Administration tax cuts (decreasing potential revenue) and providing funding to operate the Federal Government for the remainder of fiscal year 2011 (increasing spending). Both Republicans and Democrats voted to create this additional amount of debt.

When the Congress enacts appropriations it provides to federal agencies the authority to enter into obligations legally binding on the United States. The obligations agencies incur may be paid off quickly (e.g. compensation for employees) or over years (e.g. payments under defense contracts). In either event, so long as the Government operates with annual deficits, the Secretary of the Treasury pays off these obligations with two sources of money—revenues to the Government while they last, and borrowing after the revenues are exhausted.

The Congress has granted to the Secretary of the Treasury the authority to borrow funds on behalf of the United States in sections 3101 through 3113 of Title 31, United States Code, in a subchapter that is appropriately titled “Borrowing Authority.” In this subchapter, the various debt instruments—bonds, notes, certificates and others—that the Secretary may issue to borrow funds are authorized and described.

Dating from a time when running at a deficit was occasional, not the rule, the subchapter contains a limit on the amount of securities the Secretary can issue. This limit—designated “Public Debt Limit”—is contained in section 3101(b) which provides, “The face amount of obligations issued under this chapter and the face amount of obligations whose principal and interest are guaranteed by the United States Government . . . may not be more than $12,394,000,000,000 outstanding at one time.”

Reader, it is important to remember that this “public debt limit” is not a limit on the amount that the United States owes. Rather it is a limit on the amount of securities that the Secretary can issue to raise cash. It is also important to remember that raising this borrowing limit does not increase the amount of the Government’s debt. Further, failing to raise it does not freeze the amount of debt.

The Secretary of the Treasury has already reached his borrowing limit. He has told the world that as of August 2, 2011, he will not have sufficient cash to pay the Government’s obligations. Now, you would think that the Republican leadership—those guys and gals who claim to be fiscally responsible—would give the Secretary the authority he needs to pay our bills. But, for months, the Republican position has been “no.” They have made it clear that they will allow our bills to be paid only if the President bows to their demands. One of them, Representative Bachman, has made it clear that she will not vote to pay our bills even if the President concedes to all Republican demands.

Loyal reader, the Republicans will tell you that they are being responsible and are trying to cut our debt. But these Republicans are the same people who voted to increase our national debt in this very fiscal year. And, now, when the bills that they authorized so recently come due they say they aint gonna pay. So remember, when the Secretary of the Treasury does not have enough cash to pay our fighting forces, or our hard-working federal employees, or the contractors that in good faith provided us goods and services, it’s because of Republican values.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

End The Insanity—Repeal The Public Debt Limit

Loyal reader, you know that over the years of my mavenhood I have written repeatedly about the dangers of our national addiction to deficit spending. Also, I have explained that the actual debt of the United States Government is created by the tax and appropriation legislation that the Congress enacts and the President signs. Further, the “public debt limit” contained in section 3101(b) of title 31 of the United States Code is a limit on the amount of securities that the Secretary of the Treasury can issue in borrowing funds to pay the obligations of the government. It is not a limit on the actual debt.

Unless you have been in a Rip Van Winkle nap for the past six months you know that we are going through a public debt limit crisis. The Republican majority in the House of Representatives is refusing to raise the limit on borrowing unless the President agrees to its demands for severe spending cuts. This has forced the Secretary of the Treasury to do some artful dodging to make sure that the obligations of the United States are paid when they come due. However, the Secretary has indicated that after August 2, 2011, he will run out of other options and will be unable to pay some of the government’s obligations. In other words, the United States will be forced to default on the debt it owes.

This is the third major public debt limit crisis I can remember. The first two occurred during my previous career as an attorney for the Federal Government. During the second of these, in 1995, I spent many weeks monitoring the operations of the Treasury Department to assure that the Secretary did not violate the statutory borrowing limit. Although it was fun, this second crisis convinced me that the whole thing was madness. These debt limit crises are created by the Congress and political leaders in the Congress use them to try to force their opponents to agree to changes they don’t want. Everybody assumes that eventually somebody will blink and the crisis will be resolved. No responsible person really wants to see what would happen if the United States actually defaulted.

I assume that there was a time when the “public debt limit” made sense. For most of its existence the United States Government lived within its means. Revenues resulting from customs and other excise taxes and land sales were adequate to cover the normal costs of government. It was only during exceptional periods like wars that the government needed to rely on borrowing to cover its costs. During those times, the Congress exercised its exclusive constitutional power to borrow on the credit of the United States by granting to the Secretary of the Treasury authority to borrow by issuing securities. It was reasonable to limit the amount of securities to be issued by the Secretary to an amount commensurate with the anticipated deficits.

It is only during the last forty to fifty years that operation of the government on a deficit basis has become the norm rather than an occasional practice. Because of the unwillingness of the Congress and the President to make the politically tough decisions to either reduce spending to meet our revenue or increase revenue to meet our spending there have been very few years during this time when the federal budget was balanced or had a surplus. The result of this out-of-control spending spree is that the amount owed by the United States Government has increased from about 3/10 of a trillion dollars in 1965 to over 13 trillion dollars today. During this entire period, the Congress has had to repeatedly increase the “public debt ceiling” to match the amount of debt it has already authorized by appropriating more funds than were taken in by taxes.

Trusted reader, the “public debt ceiling” makes no sense in a time of perpetual deficit government. The debt of the United States is controlled by the appropriation and tax legislation that the Congress has enacted with the President’s approval. The statutory limit changes nothing. Technically it is merely a formality because the Congress has already authorized an increase in our national debt. The borrowing limit serves no purpose other than allowing hypocrites in the Congress to play the “debt crisis game.”

The Republican leadership in the Congress is portraying itself as being fiscally responsible by resisting the required increase in the statutory “public debt ceiling.” However, these leaders know that the borrowing ceiling has no effect on the actual national debt. They know that they agreed to a national debt far in excess of the current “public debt ceiling” when they voted to extend the Bush Administration tax cuts and to fund the government for the rest of fiscal year 2011 six months ago. If they really cared about the national debt, they could have done something about it back then. Instead, they have tried to hold the government hostage for the past four months by threatening to allow the government to go belly up if they don’t get their way over spending cuts. All but the craziest of them are responsible enough to know that they would never actually allow government default. It is only the statutory “public debt ceiling” that allows them to play this game.

The statutory borrowing authority really serves no purpose. It also gets us into these crazy crises on a too frequent basis. It is time to repeal the “public debt ceiling.” Section 3101(b) of title 31, United States Code, should be amended to provide that the Secretary of the Treasury may issue public debt securities in an amount necessary to pay all the obligations of the government. We need to free ourselves from the insanity of debt crises.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Retirement Benefits For Reva Trammel?

According to Richmond’s great metropolitan daily newspaper, Councilwoman Reva M. Trammel has proposed an ordinance that would restore retirement benefits for members of the Richmond City Council. These benefits were cancelled by the 1996 edition of the City Council. As described in the Times-Dispatch article, Ms. Trammel’s proposal would reinstate benefits for members of the council who have served for ten years and who were in office on July 1, 2011. My research and the TD article indicate that the first member of the City Council who would become eligible for the restored benefits if Ms. Trammel’s ordinance is enacted is—you guessed it—Reva M Trammel.

Reader, I do not object to our elected officials in Richmond being paid a reasonable compensation for their service, including retirement benefits for extended service. Nor are we dealing with a huge amount of money. The TD article indicates that if the retirement benefits are restored the annual cost to the taxpayers would be about $60,000 per year. (Of course, with the suddenly reborn concern about poverty in our city, perhaps it would be better to spend that $60,000 to create two new jobs for unemployed residents of the city, but that’s just my opinion). But, what upsets me is that nobody, including Ms. Trammel, seems at all concerned about appearances.

A bit of history: During the debate on ratification of the Constitution, anti-Federalists expressed concern over Article I, Section 6, clause 1, which gave the members of the Congress the power to set their own compensation by statute. To deal with this concern, the First Congress included the following amendment among the twelve they submitted to the states for ratification as the Bill of Rights: “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of representatives shall have intervened.” This amendment was intended to make sure that if the Congress voted itself a pay raise the electorate had the opportunity to voice their displeasure by voting those members out at the next election. (The amendment only referred to election of representatives because until the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913 Senators were appointed by the state governments rather than elected by the people.) As it happened, only ten of the Bill of Right amendments were ratified by the states and the compensation restriction lay dormant for over 200 years. It was not ratified as our twenty seventh amendment until 1990.

Reader, I am not suggesting that Ms. Trammel made the effective date of service in her proposal July 1, 2011 to assure that she received a pension even if she were defeated for reelection next year. However, she is the only member of the council for whom this is true. No other incumbent member of City Council can attain ten years of service and qualify for the proposed benefits without facing the voters next November. The voters of eight council districts in the city can protest their councilperson giving him or herself a compensation increase by defeating him or her at the next election and making sure that member does not benefit from the increase. This is the right that the Twenty Seventh Amendment gave voters for members of the Congress. It is only the electorate of the Eighth council district that will lack this right.

It is important that the members of the City Council avoid any appearance of impropriety in enacting legislation for the city. The council should amend Ms. Trammel’s proposed ordinance so that it applies only to members of the council serving on and after January 1, 2013.

Friday, July 08, 2011

14th Amendment And The Debt—Nice Try But No Cigar

With the days dwindling down to a precious few until D[isaster]-Day—the day on which the Secretary of the Treasury predicts he will no longer be able to pay the obligations of the United States without the Congress increasing his authority to borrow—people are grasping at straws to find a way to save us from the temper tantrum currently being waged by Republicans in the House of Representatives. One of these straws is the argument that under Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution the statutory borrowing limit contained in section 3101 of title 31 of the United States Code is unconstitutional and that the President is free to ignore it. “Obama could play constitutional card,” Washington Post, July 7, 2011, print edition, page A4. Unfortunately, this argument is a very short straw.

The Fourteenth Amendment provision being relied on to get us out of our predicament reads, in its entirety:

”The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.”

This post Civil War provision was designed to assure that debts incurred by the United States in fighting the war would be honored but that debts incurred by states or the Confederacy in fighting against the United States or claims for emancipated slaves could not be paid.

The proponents of the Fourteenth Amendment salvation argument rely on just 14 words from Section 4 of the amendment: “The validity of the public debt of the United States . . . shall not be questioned. “ They argue that these 14 words somehow make it unconstitutional for the Congress to impose a statutory limit on the amount of money that the Secretary of the Treasury can borrow. Aside from the fact that they quote these 14 words out of context, the Fourteenth Amendment proponents show a marked ignorance about the financial operation of the Federal Government.

Because they had experienced first-hand the tyranny that could arise from placing too much power in a single person, the drafters of our constitution placed control over financing for the new Federal Government in the Congress. This “power of the purse” is contained in two provisions of the constitution. Article I, Section 8, clause 2 of the constitution grants to the Congress the power “To borrow Money on the credit of the United States.” Article I, Section 9, clause 7 provides “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” Under these two provisions, only the Congress can appropriate and only the Congress can borrow.

The Congress has implemented its borrowing power by enacting what is now Chapter 31 of Title 31 of the United States Code. In this chapter the Congress delegates to the Secretary of the Treasury the authority to borrow on behalf of the United States and specifies the various securities (bonds, notes, certificates) that the Secretary may issue in securing this borrowing. Section 3101(b) of title 31 provides: “The face amount of obligations issued under this chapter and the face amount of obligations whose principal and interest are guaranteed by the United States Government . . . may not be more than $[X], outstanding at one time.” Whatever amount the Congress substitutes for the “X” in this section is the borrowing limit (referred to as the “Public debt limit”). The Secretary of the Treasury may not borrow in excess of that limit and, presumably, any securities he issues in excess of that amount would not be valid obligations of the United States. During recent decades, in which the United States has been operating on a deficit basis, the Congress has had to raise the borrowing limit from time to time to allow the Secretary to borrow sufficient funds to pay off the government obligations that the Congress authorized in appropriations acts.

Reader, it seems clear to me that the statutory limit that the Congress has placed on the authority of the Executive Branch to borrow funds is a direct exercise of its borrowing power under Article I, Section 8, clause 2. What can there be in Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment that would make this exercise of the Congress’ exclusive borrowing authority unconstitutional?

Although the Fourteenth Amendment provision was specifically directed at public debt incurred during the Civil War, the Supreme Court of the United States has made it clear that it applies equally to public debt obligations issued after its ratification. Perry v. United States, 294 U.S. 330 (1935). In the Perry case, the Court was dealing with a Fourth Liberty Loan bond for $10,000 issued in 1918 that called for payment “in United States gold coin of the present standard of value.” A Joint Resolution of the Congress passed June 5, 1933, however, provided that bonds could only be paid at their face value “in legal tender currency.” This significantly reduced the amount that was payable under the bond. The Court held that the 1933 joint resolution was unconstitutional because the Congress did not have the authority to change the terms of public debt obligations after they were issued. The Court interpreted the term “validity of the public debt” in the Fourteenth Amendment as “embracing whatever concerns the integrity of the public obligations.” 294 U.S. at 354.

So, precious reader, does 31 U.S.C. section 3101(b) run afoul of the Fourteenth Amendment? No. The statute does not declare any existing debt obligation to be invalid. It does not change the terms of any existing debt obligation. In fact, it does not apply to existing debt obligations at all. It only restricts the authority of the Secretary of the Treasury to issue new debt obligations, an authority which the Secretary only has by delegation from the Congress in the first place. Section 3101(b) does not question the validity of the public debt of the United States because, in the words of the Supreme Court, it does not “concern the integrity of [any] public obligations.”

We need to stop relying on miraculous constitutional theories to get out of our debt crisis. The Congress needs to do its job and raise the statutory borrowing limit so that the Secretary of the Treasury can pay the Federal Government’s debt. Only the Congress can avoid D[isaster]-Day.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Poverty and Reapportionment

I started writing this back in April but ran out of steam. Now that Mayor Jones’ redistricting committee has completed its reports and redistricting proposals, it is time for me to fully address this issue.

Written in April

The mayor of our fair city has appointed a committee to provide input into the once-in-ten-years reapportionment process that Richmond is currently engaged in. The mayor’s committee is in addition to the committee that the City Council has appointed to aid it in redistricting. According to an article in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, Mayor Dwight Jones wants the city to consider residents living in poverty as well as the increased number of Hispanics and other minorities before it redraws voter district boundaries this year. Jones says redistricting must involve 2 groups.

The nine districts existing in the City of Richmond were created by Section 30, Article II of the Richmond City Code. They were created under the authority of section 24.2-304.1.B of the Virginia Code, which provides:

“If the members [of the governing body] are elected from districts or wards . . . the districts or wards shall be composed of contiguous and compact territory and shall be so constituted as to give, as nearly as is practicable, representation in proportion to the population of the district or ward.”

With respect to reapportionment, the state law provides:

“In 1971 and every ten years thereafter, the governing body of each such locality shall reapportion the representation among the districts or wards, including, if the governing body deems it appropriate, increasing or diminishing the number of such districts or wards, in order to give, as nearly as is practicable, representation on the basis of population.”

So, in reapportioning the city’s nine districts, the City Council needs to come up with districts that are contiguous and compact and give the residents of the city representation base on population.

It would seem to this maven that the nine members of the City Council, assisted by their existing committee, would be able to carry out the mandates of the state law. Why do we need this new committee? Mayor Jones explained it in these words,

“We have basically looked at redistricting through a black-white lens, but this [2010] census requires us to broaden our view and look at it through a multicultural, multiracial lens. Seventeen-thousand five-hundred people will be left out of the discussion if we do it that way.”

Written today

The mayor’s committee has (apparently) finished its task. It submitted a report, a separate document of recommendations and specific reapportionment plans. (The report and recommendations were printed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and you can find them at report and at recommendations ). Surprisingly to this maven, it made no reapportionment recommendations concerning the Hispanic community, which I thought was the mayor’s real concern in appointing the committee. However, the committee made significant recommendations about reapportionment and the poor, including specific redistricting proposals. I will get to those shortly, but first. . .

Even someone who is a newcomer to Richmond like this maven (under Richmond standards I would have to live into my 100s to lose the designation “newcomer”) knows that Richmond has a poverty problem. Recent census data indicates that 22.1 % of Richmond’s population lives in poverty. (According to federal standards, the poverty threshold for a family of 4 is $21,954 per year in family income. For individuals, the threshold is $11,161 in annual income). This poverty population is concentrated densely in a few areas of the city because, in part, of decisions we have made about where to locate public housing projects and where to locate interstate highways. In its report the mayor’s committee reported the poverty populations of the city’s nine City Council districts, which I rearrange to list by poverty level:

6th District…….41%
5th District….…31%
7th District….…29%
8th District…….28%
2nd District……24%
9th District…….18%
3rd District…...14.5%
1st District..…...8%
4th District…....5%

These numbers represent the percentage of the residents of these districts who have annual incomes at or below the federal poverty levels.

In its report the committee discusses the interaction between poverty and politics in the city. Based on this discussion, it sets out two basic principals in its document accompanying the report:

First, the committee recommends that council districts should be “internally diverse and politically competitive,” so as to have meaningful elections that the voters will actually participate in.

I am certainly in favor of competitive elections. I think it is very bad for the health of the city (or of the Commonwealth) for any candidate to run with no, or only token, opposition. In our 2008 city elections, 3 candidates for the City Council and 3 candidates for the School Board ran with no opposition on the ballot. It would be nice to end this kind of election. But I do not see how this problem can be fixed by reapportionment. People live where they want or, in some cases, are required to live. Neighborhoods are established by the patterns of home purchase or apartment rental. You can’t create artificial communities by drawing district lines zigzagging across the city. Moreover, creating “internally diverse and politically competitive” districts by gerrymandering may violate the state law I quoted above that requires districts to be “contiguous and compact.”

Second, the committee argues that “poverty should be sufficiently disbursed across districts such that a majority of districts have poverty rates close to or exceeding the citywide average.”

The committee gives four rationales for this principal:

“First, distributing poverty across districts expresses the idea and the reality that poverty is a shared problem for the city as a whole, not just an issue affecting a few neighborhoods or areas of the city.”

This is a symbolic rationale. I think that anybody who lives in the City of Richmond and who gets news from the Times-Dispatch or our weekly newspapers or television or radio or the Internet knows that Richmond has a poverty problem. Unfortunately, if there is no visible poverty in their neighborhood, most residents are not going to consider poverty to be an issue that affects them. Gerrymandering poor people to distribute them across districts will have no real affect on people’s perceptions.

“Second, if poverty is indeed to be addressed as a major policy priority over the next decade, it is crucial that a strong majority of Council and School Board members have a direct stake in the issue.”

This argument is counter intuitive. Generally, when we want to increase the political clout of a minority group we try to concentrate them in a small number of districts. The committee recognizes this fact in the portion of its report and recommendations that deals with the city’s Hispanic population. This strategy is the basis of majority-minority districts—we create districts in which a minority group constitutes a majority of the residents to assure they can elect a candidate of their choice. If we applied the committee’s rationale, we would conclude that African Americans in the Commonwealth would be better served if we reapportioned the state so they are a small presence in all districts rather than a majority or near-majority in one or two. I fear that dispersing poor people by reapportionment will weaken rather than strengthen their political influence.

It also does not recognize the fact that numbers of people in a district does not necessarily translate into votes. If a “strong majority” of City Council or the School Board is going to have a “direct stake” in the poverty issue, the individual members need to know that failing to deal with this issue will cost them reelection. The unfortunate fact, which the committee recognizes in its report, is that poor people seem to turn out to vote at a fairly low rate. The committee looks at rates of registration and voter turnout rates in reaching this conclusion. Instead I look at the total number of people voting in our 2008 mayoral election in the city’s two districts with the least number of poor and compare them with the number voting in the four with the highest concentrations of poverty. I chose the mayoral election because the candidates and the issues were the same across the city. I chose to look at the actual number of people voting because that number deals both with registration percentage and turnout. What did this maven find?

District………………Poverty Rate……………..Votes Cast

Although the numbers do not show an exact correlation, it is clear that fewer people voted in the districts with the highest poverty rates as compared with those with the lowest rates. The question that the committee did not answer is whether a poverty population of 20% in a district is high enough to give the incumbent in that district a “direct stake” in the poverty issue.

“Third, having a majority of members who are invested in poverty increases the potential leverage of low-income residents and supportive organizations when they engage in advocacy; they can make their case to many elected officials, not a small number.”

This rationale is merely an extension of the previous one. And the same points I made above relate here. Further, these two arguments are based on the assumption that elected officials will only be “invested” in the issue of poverty if there are election consequences for them. I am not sure that this assumption is true for all elected officials.

“Fourth, distributing poverty widely is an equal public services issue, insofar as direct attention from council members and school board members to neighborhoods or blocks experiencing severe problems is an important public service.”

This rationale is based on the assumption that it is the job of a councilperson or a board member to obtain public services for their constituents. Both the City Council and the School Board are legislative bodies. The functions of a legislative body are to set public policy through the enactment of legislation—ordinances in the case of the City Council, policies in the case of the School Board—and to oversee the operations of the city’s administrative offices. Gaining public services is not part of the job. In fact, it creates inequality in delivery of city or school services depending on the influence of one’s elected officials. During the administration of Mayor Douglas Wilder, the administration made it clear that citizens must obtain city services by contacting the proper person in the administration not through their councilperson. I have no reason to assume that the policy is different under Mayor Dwight Jones.

Because I do not think the committee’s recommendations will be beneficial, and in fact may be counterproductive, I will not spend any time on evaluating its three specific reapportionment plans.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The School Board Must Oversee Richmond Public School Operations

Each student will graduate ready for college and career as a thoughtful reader, an effective writer, a critical thinker, and a creative problem solver.
Richmond Public Schools Strategic Plan, Objective 1

In recent weeks there has been a lot of attention focused on the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts, Richmond’s first and only public charter school. There was an allegation of criminal wrong doing, followed by an audit saying there was no criminal problem but that the school was mismanaging some of its funds. Then there was this flap over between-semester enrichment sessions (Patrick Henry operates on a modified year-round schedule) and who is required to hold them.

With regard to all of these issues, our school board in Richmond has been out there holding Patrick Henry’s foot to the fire. Members of the board called hearings, wrote letters, and requested more audits. In calling Patrick Henry leaders to a closed door session, school board chair Kim Bridges indicated that the board was engaged in an evaluation of whether Patrick Henry was in compliance with its charter agreement. As quoted in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Bridges said “the recent disclosure of a state police investigation at the charter school and ensuing charges through the end of the year have brought issues forward that require our immediate attention.” Richmond board wants fast action on Patrick Henry. In an earlier TD article about the Patrick Henry audit, board Vice Chair Dawn Page indicated that the board was reviewing the audit report with a “sense of urgency.” She added that the board was “deeply concerned.” No evidence of fraud at charter school, but problems cited.

Supporters of Patrick Henry have been accusing the School Board of over-reacting, of picking on the school, of looking for excuses not to renew the schools charter and of micro-managing the school’s operations. This maven must disagree. Although I know that some members of the School Board were and are opposed to charter schools and would like to see Patrick Henry disappear, it is clear that the board is just doing its job. Since Patrick Henry is Richmond’s first public charter school (and one of the first in the Commonwealth) it is not surprising that the School Board is paying it special attention. It is also not surprising that Patrick Henry is suffering from growing pains. Anybody who really expected that the development of our first public charter school would go flawlessly is a dreamer.

What some people may find puzzling about the board’s actions with respect to Patrick Henry is how inconsistent it is with the board’s attitude toward the Richmond Public School’s administration. For the nearly three years that the incumbent board has been in office the emphasis has been on avoiding oversight of RPS operations. In fact, on those occasions when one or two board members insist on asserting their right to ask the Superintendent of Schools or her subordinates difficult questions, that member or members is accused of trying to micromanage the school system. And yet, oversight is one of the key functions of any legislative body, including the Richmond School Board. Oversight is the only way that the School Board can assure itself that RPS is operating properly. As far as this maven is concerned, when something “scandalous” about RPS is reported in the media the board is as culpable as the administration for not uncovering it sooner.

Which brings me, finally, to what I really want to talk about. Recently there has been a lot of noise about the fact that RPS included scores of students attending Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Relations in reporting the attainments of Richmond highschoolers on Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT). Maggie Walker is an honors high school that, although physically located within the City of Richmond, is a multi-jurisdictional school that is not operated by Richmond Public Schools. The inclusion of the SAT scores of Maggie Walker students greatly inflated the overall scores of Richmond students. Both former and present politicians attacked RPS for including the Maggie Walker scores, accusing it of racism and depriving Richmond highschoolers of their constitutional and statutory right to a quality education. In response to all this criticism, RPS put a bunch of asterisks on the statistics on its website and excluded the Maggie Walker scores from the “District Mean Score” chart.

And how did our school board react to this? As reported in the Times-Dispatch, school board chair Bridges said, “The board’s issue has been, with or without the Maggie Walker scores, the RPS scores are too low . . . Nobody was trying to hide anything; either way, it wasn’t where we want to be.” After criticism, city schools revise district SAT scores. Bridges indicated that the board would be monitoring SAT improvement efforts with the district that are aimed at boosting achievement on the college-admission test. Bridges went on, “We will continue to look for and connect with those who reach out the hand of partnership to give RPS children these additional opportunities.”

Based on these newspaper accounts, the attitude of the School Board seems to be: 1- The situation at Patrick Henry is a crisis that the board must deal with immediately; 2- The SAT scores of our high school students are too low and the board hopes that somebody will step forward to fix them.

So, let’s talk about Richmond Public School’s high schools. Richmond has five neighborhood high schools: Armstrong, Huguenot, John Marshall, George Wythe and Thomas Jefferson. It also has three magnet schools: Richmond Community, Open High School and Franklin Military. RPS also runs an International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program at Thomas Jefferson High School. When RPS wants to brag about the accomplishments of its high school students it always refers to these magnet schools or programs. Richmond Community and Open High School are limited-enrollment schools serving college-bound students and are often cited as being two of the best high schools in the country. Both schools educate only a small number of students. Franklin Military is also a limited enrollment school serving students who are interested in military, police or firefighting careers. The IB program is an honors program which allows a limited number of students to do college level work in the 11th and 12th grades. I acknowledge the greatness of these magnet schools and programs. However, they do not serve the average students at our five neighborhood high schools. So, I want to take a look at the five neighborhood schools.

We might as well start with SAT scores, which led to the whole brouhaha. The SAT Reasoning Test (formerly called the Scholastic Aptitude Test) is a three part test administered by the College Board that presumably measures a student’s readiness for attending college. The three tests are Critical Reading, Mathematics and Writing. The tests are graded on a scale of 200 to 800. According to the College Board, the median score for the students taking the SAT tests is about 500. This means that about half the students score above 500 and the other half below.

For all Richmond students taking the SATs in the 2009-10 school year, including those attending the magnet schools and programs, the mean (average) scores were Critical Reading – 413, Mathematics – 407, and Writing-403. If we convert these to percentiles, using a chart published by the College Board, we find that Richmond students were in the 21st percentile for Reading, the 17th percentile for Math and the 19th percentile for Writing. This means that Richmond students performed as well, or better than, only 21% of the total number of students taking the Reading test, 17% of the students taking the Math test and 19% of the students taking the Writing test. (It is not surprising that our School Board chair found these scores to be “too low” and “not where we want to be.”)

Things are worse than the district mean scores if we look only at the five neighborhood high schools. For the 2009-2010 school years, these are the scores and the percentiles for the RPS high schools:

Armstrong: Reading 373/12; Math 377/10; Writing 362/11
Huguenot: Reading 415/21; Math 413/18; Writing 392/17
T.Jefferson: Reading 427/25; Math 413/18; Writing 420/25
J.Marshall: Reading 372/11; Math 371/9; Writing 366/11
G.Wythe: Reading 383/13; Math 383/11; Writing 386/16
On this chart, the scores for Jefferson are inflated because they include the scores of the students in the IB Diploma Program.

Let me make it clear what these scores and percentiles mean. Students at Armstrong scored as well or better than only 12% of the total number of students taking the Reading test. Students at Marshall scored as well or better than only 9% of the total number of students taking the Math test. Students at Wythe scored as well or better than only 16% of the total number of students taking the Writing test.

There is one more upsetting statistic. That is the number of students in each high school who even take the SATs. This statistic is reported in raw form by RPS on its website. Former school board member Carol Wolf reports it on her blog, Save Our Schools, as a percentage of the total enrollment in each high school. It makes more sense to me to report it as a percentage of the total number of students in the 12th grade (seniors). For the five neighborhood high schools the percentage of seniors taking the SATs was Armstrong – 27%; Huguenot – 38%; Jefferson – 53%; Marshall – 25% and Wythe – 25%. In considering the figure for Jefferson it is important to remember the significant number of students in the IB program, most of whom are expecting to attend college. To make sure you understand, I stress that in 3 of our 5 neighborhood high schools less than 70% of seniors take the SATs.

Reader, there are a few caveats. First, because of charges that the SATs are culturally biased, many colleges do not require them as a condition of admittance. Second, some students may take the ACTs, which is run by a rival testing service to the College Boards. The RPS website does not report ACT scores (or I haven’t been able to find them.) Third, the scores are mean or average scores meaning that some children at these schools may be doing considerably better on SATs. Fourth, preparing students to take the SATs is not part of the Virginia Standards of Learning and is therefore not something that high schools generally do. I remember that when I was a high school senior I did no preparation for the SATs. I was told that what I had learned generally in high school would be adequate preparation for the tests. When my kids were seniors and admission to college had become more competitive, most children would at least buy SAT preparation workbooks and some took SAT preparation courses or hired tutors to prepare them. Fifth, not every student in our high schools is planning to go to college. Many of them have their eyes on careers that do not require a college education.

Having said this, I still have serious concerns about whether RPS is adequately preparing its high school students for their futures. I think that the School Board should consider this issue to be as critical as the finances of Patrick Henry School. I would expect that at least one member of the School Board would schedule a meeting and invite the Superintendent of Schools and the principals of the five neighborhood schools to explain why so few students at these schools take SATs and why most of those who take them appear to do so poorly.

About four years ago, I likened RPS to a manufacturing industry. On one end we take in the raw products—those smiling and energetic kindergarteners, so eager to learn. At the other end we produce our end products—graduates who are prepared to pursue their goals and to serve as productive citizens of the world, the nation and the Commonwealth. Looked at this way, the real measure of the success of RPS is not SOL scores or the accreditation of our schools. Rather it is how well we have educated the students who have traveled through our system. That this is true is recognized in the first of the four objectives of the RPS Strategic Plan with which I started this piece. In adopting that Strategic Plan the School Board must have endorsed that objective. I assume that it also endorsed the first of the six parameters contained in the Strategic Plan, which says, “We will base decisions on what is best for students.”

The School Board must take immediate action to determine whether Richmond Public Schools is adequately preparing our high school students for successful futures. The citizens of Richmond will be watching to make sure it does.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

CMOR Revisited

I guess my concerns that nobody ever reads this blog were unfounded. Even before the ink had fully dried on my post of this morning concerning the Children's Museum of Richmond, I received a comment from Jackie, a member of the CMOR staff. Jackie assured me that there were no plans to close the downtown CMOR location and that it would continue to operate indefinitely into the future. This is good news indeed. As I indicated in closing this morning's piece, this maven can be a bit of an alarmist. I assure you that the next time the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of CMOR states that "people out in the suburbs find it more convenient if we come to them," I will not take him seriously.

Is CMOR On The Way Out Of The City?

The Children’s Museum of Richmond (CMOR) is one of my favorite places. Over the years I have taken my grandchildren there and we have had great times. One of the really great things about CMOR is the diverse nature of its customers. It is one of the few places in the Richmond area where children of different skin color and economic status can play and learn together.

Last year, while driving from Trader Joe's to Whole Foods in the distant west end, I noticed that one of the new buildings, which had been sitting vacant for months, now held the Children’s Museum of Richmond. On another day I brought one of my grandchildren to this new facility. The west end CMOR is smaller than the one in the city but it has enough activities to keep at least the younger kids quite busy. However, one of the things that I gradually became aware of was that almost all of the children were just like my granddaughter—white.

My mind wandered, as a maven’s mind is wont to do, and I thought of how fortunate the developers of West Broad Village were to get CMOR to take one of their vacant sites. Then I started wondering how this new CMOR would affect attendance at the museum in the city. Then my mind made the final leap: would parents use of this west end CMOR so reduce usage of the downtown museum that it would eventually be relocated entirely out of the city? No, I told myself, you are just being paranoid. But . . .

This past Saturday the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran an article entitled “Children’s Museum looking at Chesterfield.” According to CMOR president and CEO, Karen Coltrane, the museum’s success with its west end location has caused it to seek to build a new “satellite” in Chesterfield. They are looking at the area near the nexus of Hull Street Road and Route 288 as a place where there are lots of children. Coltrane indicated that in its first year the West Broad Village location had drawn 120,000 visitors, and CMOR membership had increased by 1,500 families. During that same year attendance at the city location decreased by about 5%. (Coltrane attributed this decreased attendance on high gasoline prices.) In the words of Brain Pitney, chairman of CMOR’s board of trustees, “It's been our experience that people out in the suburbs find it more convenient if we come out to them.”

So what happens next? CMOR will raise the money and they will bail out some Chesterfield County developer with a now vacant property by building their next satellite. That location will draw more than 100,000 customers in its first year. During that same year attendance to the museum in the city will drop (because of the high cost of gasoline, of course). And, because “people out in the suburbs find it more convenient if we come out to them,” it will be time for CMOR to consider another satellite this time in Hanover County. Finally, some day, CMOR will notice that far more children are attending their satellites than the museum downtown. Some future CEO or board chair will question whether it makes sense to still operate the city museum when most of the customers are using the suburban locations. CMOR will be replaced by CMOC (Chesterfield), CMOHa (Hanover), CMOHe (Henrico) and perhaps other suburban locations.

But, don’t mind me. You all know the maven is an alarmist.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Is This Christianity?

Just as I was sure that my muse had permanently deserted me, a letter published in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch came to the rescue. The letter entitled “Let’s pray the Fed gets audited” comes from a writer in Hurley (some place way west of here) whose name I will omit to protect his reputation. The writer is responding to the controversial action of the Richmond Federal Reserve Bank in flying a rainbow flag as a symbol of support for its homosexual employees. Our writer refers to the bank’s action as a slap in the face of Christians as it indicates its support for the “Sodom-and-Gomorrah lifestyle.” The letter concludes with “Let’s pray that the Fed will be . . . chastised for its un-Christian behavior.”

I assume that our writer considers himself a good Christian. Yet he seems oblivious to the teachings of Jesus. When asked what was the greatest commandment in the law, Jesus specified two: 1- Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might (Deut: 6:5); 2- Love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18) [Matthew 22:37-39].

It seems clear to me that one cannot love God and at the same time have contempt (even perhaps hate) for some of God’s creation. The Bible states that all human beings are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). I have found no version or edition of the Bible that contains an asterisk for this verse excluding those who happen to be homosexuals. Our writer’s attitude and his letter are surely inconsistent with loving God.

As for the second of Jesus’ great commandments, Hillel the Elder, who lived several years before Jesus and with whose teachings Jesus would have been familiar, stated this commandment as “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” I cannot imagine that the attitude displayed by our writer in his letter would fit into any description of loving your neighbor.

I recommend that the writer change his prayer from one seeking chastisement of the Federal Reserve Bank to one seeking help in changing the hate in his heart to love of God and God’s creatures.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Who Shot Liberty Valence?

I was a bit saddened to read in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch that Liberty Valence Restaurant, on Forest Hill Avenue, had closed. This maven has fond memories of the nights that the maveness and I frequented Liberty Valence and came away with our taste buds satisfied and our arteries clogged. Liberty Valence was a place with great d├ęcor and good, reasonably-priced steaks. Liberty Valence was an institution on the south side of the James for many years. So, what happened?

Eating at Liberty Valence always had a downside. Because of the way it was set up, there were only a few tables that were truly smoke-free. The other “non-smoking” tables were always subject to cigarette smoke migrating across the large room. Several times we complained to the management about the smoke permeating the non-smoking area. When nearby O’Tooles opted to be a smoke-free restaurant, apparently without hurting its business, we suggested to the people at Liberty Valence that they might go the same way. But, I guess they felt that a western restaurant with a John Wayne theme could not survive without smoke curling through the room. When the General Assembly voted to restrict smoking at Virginia restaurants, the management at Liberty Valence refused to go along. They put a sign on the front door indicating that henceforth they would be operating as a private club and that smoking would continue. That was the day that this family eliminated Liberty Valence from our future restaurant plans.

Now Liberty Valence is dead. People can suggest many reasons for its demise. To me it is clear. Tobacco shot Liberty Valence.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Israel And Palestine: Some Facts Please!

This maven has been in an extended period of passive aggression. It took the words of the Richmond Times-Dispatch Correspondent of the Day for May 30 to get me to put word-processor to paper again. The writer was responding to Representative Eric Cantor’s rather strange suggestion that President John Adams was an early Zionist, but in his letter he reveals that he is totally clueless concerning the history of the Middle East. In concluding his letter he states that the State of Israel has been built by the “conquest of Palestinians and the occupation of their land.” The TD writer needs to be educated on the facts.

First, there has never been a political entity called “Palestine.” For several hundred years prior to World War I, the area on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea was an inconspicuous backwater in the Ottoman Empire. On some old maps this area was referred to as “Syria” on others as “Palestine.” However, these were descriptions of geographic areas, not of countries.

Second, the Ottoman Empire was defeated in World War I and after the war its territory was carved up by the League of Nations to be administered as “Mandates” by the victorious powers. These “Mandates” included the future Arab states of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The League of Nations awarded a mandate over “Palestine” to England with instructions that it be administered as a “homeland” for the Jewish People. The “Palestine” of the Mandate included all the land currently in Jordan, Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.

Third, England violated the terms of its mandate over Palestine. Initially, it split off the 2/3 of the Mandate east of the Jordan River Valley and gave it to the Hashemite Tribe. This area later became the Arab state of Jordan. Also, although it permitted unrestricted Arab emigration into the Mandate, England severely restricted the entry of Jews.

Fourth, during the period of the British Mandate, from 1918 to 1948, the only people referred to as “Palestinians” were the Jews living in the Mandate. The Arab residents were referred to simply as “Arabs.”

Fifth, at the end of World War II a three-way civil war among the Arabs, the Jews and the British erupted in the Mandate, and England referred the problem to the United Nations. In the fall of 1947, the United Nations voted to partition the Mandate into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jews accepted this partition, but it was rejected by the Arab world. On May 14, 1948, the Jewish state, Israel, declared its Independence. On the next day armies from five Arab countries—Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt—invaded Israel with the declared intent of destroying it. This war cost thousands of lives on both sides and resulted in many people losing their homes.

Sixth, at the end of this 1948-49 war, armistice lines (but not permanent boundaries) were drawn. Although, neither the Gaza Strip nor the West Bank was within the area controlled by Israel, no attempt was made at the end of the war to establish an Arab Palestinian state in these areas. Rather, Gaza was annexed by Egypt and the West Bank was annexed by Jordan. For nineteen years the “Palestinians” in Gaza and the West Bank were quite content to be citizens of Egypt and Jordan.

Seventh, in May 1967 the United Arab Republic (a union of Egypt and Syria) expelled United Nations peacekeepers that had been stationed on the armistice line with Israel, massed tens of thousands of troops along the armistice line, blockaded Israel’s southern port and publicly threatened to destroy Israel. Rather than waiting for an Arab attack, Israel launched a defensive attack against Egypt during the first week of June. Based on false Egyptian reports that it was winning, both Jordan and Syria joined the war against Israel. By the end of the war, Israel had defeated its three Arab neighbors and was occupying previously Arab-controlled territory. Israel acquired Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria and the West Bank from Jordan. It acquired no territory from the “Palestinians.”

Eighth, after the end of the 1967 war, Israel offered to return land to the Arabs in exchange for peace. At a meeting of Arab leaders in Khartoum, in September 1967, a resolution was adopted that there would be no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel. These Khartoum Resolutions meant that, before there were any settlers on the lands Israel occupied in 1967, the Arab world was still concentrating on the destruction of Israel rather than establishing any Palestinian state.

I can add Ninth and Tenth and Eleventh, but I have already shown enough facts to demonstrate that Israel never conquered the “Palestinians” or occupied their land. Prior to the establishment of the League of Nations Mandate there was no “Palestine.” In 1947, Arabs in the Mandate were given the opportunity to create an Arab state, but they rejected the United Nations partition and chose instead to try to destroy Israel. Thus, the “Palestinians” retained no rights under the UN partition plan. After the 1948-49 war, no state for Palestinian Arabs was created. Instead, the Gaza Strip was annexed by Egypt and the West Bank was annexed by Jordan. In the 1967 war, Israel occupied Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian territories but did not conquer “Palestinians.” Perhaps if we agree on history as it happened, rather than as some people wish it had happened, we can start bringing peace to the world.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

A Not-So-Brief Lecture On Federal Appropriations Law

With the current impasse in the Congress and all the talk of the shutdown of the Federal Government, this maven has noticed a great deal of confusion about what this all means. So as a public service I will provide the following information on the one area in which I am truly a maven:

1. The Constitution provides that no funds may be drawn from the Treasury except under authority of appropriations made by law. Clearly, this means that without an appropriation payments may not be made by the United States government. However, beginning early in our nation’s history, appropriations have been viewed as providing two authorities. First is the authority of agencies to enter into legal obligations binding on the government. This authority is generally referred to as budget authority. Second is the authority of government disbursing officers to pay money out of the treasury to satisfy the obligations made by agencies.

2. When the head of an agency permits his/her employees to perform work for the government, s/he necessarily incurs an obligation to pay those employees for the time they work. Thus in order for the head of an agency to allow employees to work there must be budget authority available that permits the obligation. Heads of agencies have no authority to accept voluntary services.

3. The budget authority contained in appropriations acts are of three types:

a. One-year: this authority is available for obligation only in the fiscal year for which it is enacted;
b. Multiple-year: this authority is available for obligation for a period greater than one year as specified in the appropriation act itself;
c. No-year: this authority is available indefinitely until the agency uses it.

4. Budget authority is also provided in permanent appropriations. These are provisions of law that authorize agencies to incur obligations and that remain in effect until the Congress repeals or modifies them. Permanent appropriations are generally provided for what are referred to as direct-spending or entitlement programs.

5. If the budget authority under which an agency operates expires, i.e., it is no longer available for obligation, the head of the agency must immediately begin the orderly shutdown of the agency. The head of the agency has implicit authority to incur obligations for the purpose of shutdown but for no other purposes. Only those employees who are necessary to carry out the shutdown are permitted to come to work, and they are only permitted to work on shutting down the agency.

6. Legal opinions issued by the Justice Department have held that the President of the United States has implicit authority under the Constitution to incur obligations even in the absence of budget authority. Thus, for example, even without an appropriation for the Department of Defense, the president may authorize the United States military to continue to operate. Likewise, the president may authorize guards at federal prisons to continue to work even in the absence of an appropriation for the Bureau of Prisons. These and others are considered essential executive functions. However, even though the president can authorize these government employees to come to work, they cannot be paid for this work until the Congress enacts appropriations to pay them.

7. There is likewise implicit constitutional authority in other branches of government to incur obligations in the absence of appropriations. For example, senators and representatives must be able to continue to work in the absence of appropriations to pay them. This authority is a logical necessity. If the Congress could not operate in the absence of appropriations, it could never meet to enact appropriations. The result would be a permanent shut down of the United States Government. (I will not comment on whether this would be good or bad.)

Okay, so where does this leave us in the event that the Congress is unable to agree on appropriations to continue the government beyond tomorrow night?

A. Agencies and programs that are funded by permanent, no-year or multiple-year appropriations can continue to operate. They have budget authority and have no need to shut down. Further, the obligations they incur, including those for salaries and benefits of their employees may be paid without further action of the Congress.

B. Agencies and programs funded by one-year appropriations that are covered by the expiring continuing resolution must be shut down. Heads of those agencies may only permit those employees who are involved in shutting down the agency to come to work. All other employees must be furloughed. Those employees who come to work may be paid only when the Congress enacts appropriations for that purpose. Furloughed employees may be paid if the Congress so provides by law.

C. Agencies and programs which the president determines are necessary to fulfill his constitutional authority may continue to operate. Obligations incurred by those agencies, including obligations to pay their employees, may not be paid until the Congress enacts an appropriation to pay them.

D. Representatives and senators may continue to incur obligations necessary to allow them to enact appropriations to restore the operations of government. This includes the authority to allow staffers to come to work for the purpose of enacting those appropriations. Obligations incurred by the Congress, including salaries and benefits for representatives, senators and their staffs, may not be paid until appropriations are enacted to pay for them.

So now you have it. Everything you never wanted to know about federal appropriations law. Will the government shut down tomorrow night. Don’t ask me! Go to your favorite physic.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Will Dems Take Their Eyes Off The Ball?

Yesterday, former Governor Tim Kaine announced that he would be running for the Senate seat that Jim Webb will be vacating at the end of 2012. Zillions of Virginia Democrats let out a yell of relief and pledged to get Kaine elected. The election to fill Webb’s Senate seat will be held November 6, 2012.

Earlier in the week, President Barack Obama announced that he will be running for reelection. Zillions of Virginia Democrats let out a yell of relief and pledged to get Obama reelected. The election for president will be held November 6, 2012.

It is a fact of Virginia politics that we have elections every year. In even-number years, just like the rest of the country, we elect federal officials—the president, senators and representatives. In odd-number years we elect state officials—the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and members of the General Assembly. I don’t know whether it is good or bad that we have elections every year, but it is a fact. That means that the next Election Day in Virginia will be November 8, 2011, a full year before Mr. Obama and Mr. Kaine will be on the ballot (assuming they are on the ballot).

Running for office these days requires lots of money and lots of volunteers. So the new campaigns of Mr. Obama and Mr. Kaine will, in the days and weeks to come, be seeking donations and people to work on their campaigns. I assume that there are probably enough political dollars and political volunteers in Virginia to allow both Mr. Obama and Mr. Kaine to run effective campaigns.

The election that Mr. Obama and Mr. Kaine are concerned about will take place in 2012. However, the launching of their campaigns now will inevitably divert the attention of voters from this year’s state elections. It will also draw away both money and people power from the campaigns of state senators and delegates running for (re)election this year.

Just after the 2008 election, this maven expressed concern about the ability of Democrats to maintain their momentum and win the 2009 state-wide elections. Dems Heading For A Big Fall? I expressed my concern in these words:

“So why is the maven so discouraged when everybody else is so upbeat? For one thing, I am trying to avoid complacency. It is vital that Virginia Democrats not get into the mindset that the Commonwealth will become a permanently blue state by means of some inevitable historical development. That will not happen. Nothing is inevitable. Virginia will become a blue state only if lots of people put in the kind of time and effort they did this year to get Obama and Warner elected.”
I also pointed out that the Republicans were already mobilized and determined to win the 2009 elections. Unfortunately, I was right. For Democrats the 2009 Virginia elections were a disaster.

Because of our losses in both 2009 and 2010 the question for Democrats this year will not be how to turn Virginia permanently blue. Rather the question is how to avoid Virginia becoming a solidly red state with the agendas of McDonnell, Cuccinelli and the Republican majority in the House of Delegates becoming the laws of the Commonwealth. This year it is absolutely essential that Democrats maintain control of the state senate and increase their majority there. It is also essential that we capture seats in the House of Delegates by retiring some of those ultra right wing delegates who tried to impose their Neanderthal philosophies on the rest of us.

I am concerned that it will be very difficult to push Obama and Kaine temporarily to the background and keep our eyes only on this year’s prize. It will be difficult to raise money for local races because donations will be gravitating to the Obama and Kaine campaigns. It will be difficult to get volunteers for the local races because people who want to work for good government will be jumping into the presidential and senate campaigns. It will be very easy to take our eyes off the ball and drop it.

So if you’re really enthused about the Obama and/or Kaine campaigns, you need to curb your enthusiasm for now. We have far more pressing needs. Find yourself a local Democratic senator or delegate and volunteer either your time or money for their campaigns. If you live in either a senate or house district in which the incumbent is a Republican, contact your local Democratic committee to see how you can help with the 2011 campaign. (Click here to find your local committee). If you are concerned that this will hurt the Obama or Kaine campaigns, don’t be. Any work you do for democratic state candidates this year will benefit both Obama and Kaine in 2012. On November 9 of this year switch your efforts to those campaigns.

So, trusted reader, if you are a Democratic or if your political philosophy leans in the direction of those of President Obama and Governor Kaine, get out there and make your maven proud. Electing Democrats this year will make it so much easier to elect Obama and Kaine next year. We cannot afford to drop the ball.

Friday, March 18, 2011

My Letter To Eric Cantor

Dear Eric,

I was so glad to get your letter. Your “Dear Fellow Conservative” salutation was a bit surprising but I guess you meant it as a compliment. I really appreciate you calling on me for help with the terrible troubles you face. As you point out in your letter, you need to stop the liberal lies of the left-wing media; you need to push your conservative agenda of lower taxes, eliminating wasteful spending and more freedom; you need to prepare for an epic battle against the liberal Democrats. As we say in Yiddish, Eric you have real tsuris. It’s no wonder you ask me to send you $1,000.

Eric, I feel for you. It is terrible that the liberal media is filled with such liars as Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and Glen Beck. They are constantly distorting your record. And even your home-town newspaper, that bastion of Left-wing thinking, the Richmond Times-Dispatch is always opposing everything you do or say. It’s about time we showed them the door.

And your conservative agenda of lower taxes, eliminating waste and more freedom, are things that every Right-thinking American would support. They may call it “Voodoo Economics,” Eric, but you and I know that the only way to reduce our national debt is to cut taxes more severely. We have proven in the Reagan, Bush and Bush administrations that cutting taxes actually increases revenue to the Government. (Or we would have proven it if only those leftist Democrats had let the experiment run longer.) So, we’ve got to cut taxes more or else we will never balance the budget.

You are so right! Everybody knows that most government spending is wasteful. And it’s also socialist. Just look at these programs—public broadcasting, public transportation, public this and public that. If they were good capitalist programs, would they call them public? I am so glad that this week you Right-thinking conservatives cut funding for public radio and public TV. That stuff is not only a waste of taxpayer money, but it’s downright subversive. Eric, did you ever watch that Sesame thing? They’ve got all these puppets of different colors and with different accents living happily and singing about numbers and letters. Is this the kind of thing we want our children to learn? They even have this big yellow bird! Give me a break. Eric, thank you for cutting that nonsense.

Now, I know that those lying liberals will accuse you of voting for a lot of wasteful spending during those years when W was president. They will say that you voted year after year for budgets that added trillions of dollars to our national debt. But they just don’t understand. Sometimes in Washington you have to vote for things you disagree with. I know that you strongly oppose deficit spending and would never have voted for those things if you had a choice. But, you had more important things on your mind than the welfare of your constituents. After all, would you be Majority Leader now if you had voted against your Republican president during those eight years?

Your third goal—more freedom—who could oppose it? We all know that our freedoms are constantly under attack by Washington. They are always trying to regulate us. They expect us to provide safe workplaces, even to miners; they expect us to clean up our factories and farms so we don’t pollute the air or water; they expect us to tolerate labor unions. And these are just the tip of the iceberg. We need to get rid of all those Washington regulations. How can a company make a decent profit unless we get free from these meddling bureaucrats in Washington?*

Finally, Eric, there is your epic battle against the liberal Democrats next year. This one will truly be Armageddon. You say that we need to take down Obama and Pelosi, but isn’t it liberal thinking that we must really oppose? We need to fight to the finish against such liberal concepts as feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, caring for the sick, clothing the naked, protecting the powerless in our society, helping the poor or welcoming the stranger. We need to crush out the outrageous liberal ideas that we are responsible for each other or that we are responsible for leaving this world to our children and grandchildren in as good a shape as we received it from the generations that preceded us. We need to stamp out the idea that government has any valid purpose other than protecting our right to make as much money as possible.

Now, comes the bad news, Eric. You asked that I contribute as much as $1,000 to support your campaign to save America. Unfortunately, because of the state of the economy, my wife and I have really had to cut our wasteful spending. (You should be happy that we are following your example.) So, I am sorry to say that we cannot give you any money now.

In any event, Eric, thanks for the letter.

*Eric, you have to be careful with that phrase “more freedom.” You certainly wouldn’t want people to think you supported the freedom to marry who you want or the freedom of women to control their own bodies!

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

New Sports Arena? Whoa!!!

In his column in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, Michael Paul Williams urges the Richmond area to stop stalling and begin the process of replacing the Richmond Coliseum now. Urgency needed for new facility. Mike makes this recommendation even though he acknowledges that a new sports/concert arena would cost about $147 million, that money is tight and that nobody knows how we will pay for it.

In support of his suggestion that action on a new arena is urgent, Mike Williams points out that the Coliseum is nearly 50 years old, that we face the risk of losing the annual Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) basketball tournament and that we need to compete with the University of Virginia’s John Paul Jones Arena to get back all those big music concerts. All of these are legitimate concerns (except, of course, the 50-year old thing—this maven is way past 50 years and I need no replacing.) I must admit that architecturally the Richmond Coliseum is no thing of beauty and that the inside is in bad shape. And, if the Richmond area were swimming in surplus money, I would agree that a new sports/concert arena would be nice. However, as Mike admits nobody knows where we will get the money to build the new facility. This maven thinks that before we commit to spending $150 million we ought to find out who’s gonna pay for it.

We also need to know whether this is something we really want to pay for. Mike Williams is worrying about losing the CAA tournament. He points out that the tournament generates $6 million in local economic impact (I assume per year). However, $6 million, which is spread over a multitude of recipients, does not justify nor pay for a new arena. Do we build a new facility to be used for four days per year?

Do we have prospects for a professional sports franchise? Can we lure the Carolina Cougarz of the Continental Basketball League to Richmond from Fayetteville? Would we want to? Will a new arena bring the Renegades back to life or lure any other minor league hockey team to Richmond?

Will any of the local universities move their basketball programs to a new arena? VCU has the Siegel Center, which admittedly seats less people. Would they move some or all their games to a facility they would have to pay rental for? U of R has demonstrated, with the construction of Robins Stadium that they would prefer to keep their games on campus, even with a lesser seating capacity. Does Virginia Union have any need for a bigger basketball venue? I think not.

So, who is going to use this shiny big new stadium? We do have the current tenants of the Richmond Coliseum—the Richmond Raiders, our indoor professional football team; Arena Racing; Ringling Brothers Circus; WWE Monday Night RAW (once per year); the Jehovah’s Witnesses national convention. But what about new tenants? Aren’t we really talking about luring events from the John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville or the Hampton Coliseum or the Scope Arena in Norfolk? If the venues are more-or-less similar what guarantees do we have that musical acts and shows will choose Richmond over the other areas?

Another thing to think about is whether we can afford to build two facilities at the same time. The Richmond area has already committed itself to building a new stadium for our beloved Flying Squirrels. Although an outdoor stadium will probably be cheaper than an indoor arena we are still not sure how we will pay for the new stadium. Can we possibly afford to build two new facilities? We can’t choose to build an arena rather than a stadium. If we back out of the stadium commitment, not only will the Squirrels leave but Richmond may never get another professional sports team.

So, do we go ahead and commit a significant amount of money, which we don’t have and don’t know where it will come from, to build a venue that may or may not be used more than the Coliseum is currently used? I ask you, treasured reader.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Balanced Budget Amendment: A Disaster In The Making?

With my years of preaching against our constantly escalating federal debt, you would think that this maven would be a big supporter of a balanced budget amendment to the United States Constitution. This should be especially true of a proposal that goes by the name of the Common Sense Balanced Budget Amendment. After all, how can any maven not have at least a modicum of common sense? So you might be a bit surprised to learn that I oppose the proposed balanced budget amendments pending in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The House and the Senate versions of the balanced budget amendment differ, but not significantly. H. J. Res. 1 and S. J. Res 3 (112th Cong., 1st Sess.) provide that—

1. total outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed total receipts for that fiscal year, unless 2/3 of the “duly chosen and sworn” members of each house (Senate) or unless 3/5 of the “whole number” of each house (House) shall authorize otherwise;

2. total outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed “20 percent of the gross domestic product” of the United States for the calendar year “ending before the beginning of such fiscal year” (Senate) or shall not exceed “one-fifth of economic output of the United States” (House) unless 2/3 of the “duly chosen and sworn” members (Senate) or unless 2/3 of “each House of Congress (House) shall provide otherwise;

3. the limit on the debt of the United States “held by the public” shall not be increased unless 3/5 of the “whole number” of each house shall authorize otherwise (House version only);

4. prior to each fiscal year the president shall submit to the Congress a proposed budget for that fiscal year in which total outlays do not exceed total receipts;

5. a bill to increase “federal taxes” (Senate) or “revenue” (House) shall not become law unless passed by 2/3 of the “duly chosen and sworn members” of each house (Senate) or 3/5 of the “whole number” of each house (House);

6. the Congress may waive the provisions of this article for any fiscal year in which either a declaration of war is in effect or the United States is engaged in military conflict that causes “an imminent and serious” military threat to the national security and is so declared by a joint resolution adopted by a majority of each house;

7. total receipts shall include all receipts of the government except those derived by borrowing; total outlays shall include all outlays of the government except those for repayment of debt principal;

8. the Congress shall enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation that may rely on estimates of outlays and receipts and on estimates of gross domestic product (House version only);

9. the article shall take effect beginning with the 4th fiscal year beginning after its ratification (Senate) or the later of the 2nd fiscal year beginning after its ratification or the first fiscal year beginning after December 31, 2016 (House).

Simple, isn’t it?

As I read the language of the House and Senate versions of the proposed amendment I became more and more convinced that the authors (Orrin Hatch, Republican from Utah in the Senate; Bob Goodlatte, Republican from the 6th District of Virginia in the House) don’t really understand the complexities of the federal budget process. Or, perhaps they are just depending on some future Congress straightening out the mess through legislation. Or, most likely, they just don’t care because the whole balanced budget thing is just a political ploy.

So, a little lesson for Senator Hatch, Representative Goodlatte and their Republican colleagues:

1- The number one requirement of the Amendment (if passed by the Congress and ratified by the states)—that outlays in any fiscal year not exceed revenues in that same fiscal year--is nearly impossible to achieve. The problem is that all outlays are not the same. First, the larger part of the amount of federal outlays each year comes from direct spending (or entitlement) programs. All of these programs contain a permanent appropriation (“such amounts as are necessary” to carry out the program). This means that outlays from these programs depend on the eligibility requirements of the program, the demographics of the eligible group and the economy. They do not require action by the Congress. For the Congress to control this spending would require it to amend the basic program legislation, a task not politically easy to do.

Second, although both versions of the amendment exempt amounts spent to reduce the amount of the national debt from the definition of outlays, they do not exempt interest payments on the debt. This means that an amount equal to most of the nondefense discretionary side of the budget cannot be affected by the Congress. (When interest rates go up, as they probably will in a post-recession economy, annual interest on the debt will exceed even defense spending). These two bring us to—

Third, the discretionary side of the budget, the side that requires congressional appropriations and thus is practically doable, does not contain enough spending to balance annual outlays and revenue. This is especially true because of another factor that the amendment’s proponents seem not to be aware of. A significant amount of appropriations on the discretionary side of the budget do not result in outlays in the fiscal year for which they are enacted. What do I mean? Well, for salaries and expenses type appropriations, almost all of the amount appropriated will be expended (outlayed) in 12 fairly equal parts during the fiscal year for which appropriated. However, for appropriations that require contracting (all procurement appropriations) amounts may be expended for several years after the fiscal year for which the appropriation was enacted. In fact, for much defense contracting the process of awarding the contract may take more than a year. This means that the budget effect of the appropriations for these programs extends over several years. To control the outlays in these programs, the Congress would have to cut appropriations years before they might contribute to a deficit. Is the Congress prescient?

2. The second major requirement of the proposed amendment is that total annual outlays not exceed 20% (1/5) of the gross domestic product (or economic output) of the United States. This requirement will also be exceedingly difficult to achieve for the same reasons I just mentioned for the balanced outlays and revenue requirement. The Congress just has very little control over outlays in any given year.

3. The proposed amendment requires supermajorities (2/3 in the Senate, 3/5 in the House) to increase taxes. This nearly guarantees that a balance of outlays and revenues cannot be achieved. It deprives a majority of the members of each house of the Congress of the ability to increase government revenues as a method to achieve the requirement of section 1 of the amendment. That means that the annual budget will have to be balanced solely by cutting outlays. And, as I just finished explaining, that will be well nigh impossible.

4. Both the House and Senate versions have delay provisions. In the Senate, the amendment would not become effective until the fourth year after ratification. In the House, it would not become effective until the second year after ratification (or 2016 if ratification is swift). Presumably, this delay period would give the Congress some time to plan and enact implementing legislation. But, would it provide sufficient time for the Congress and the president to make the cuts required to meet the requirement of section 1 of the amendment?

The recently elected Republican majority in the House of Representatives promised to reduce spending by $100 million in the current fiscal year. Events since they took office in January have made it clear that this was an a lot easier promise to make than to accomplish. For most of the reasons I already talked about there just isn’t that much outlay reduction that the Congress can accomplish during a fiscal year. The House Republicans may have to settle for half the cuts they promised. Now, I think that is a great accomplishment and clearly a step in the right direction. However, it is not anywhere near meeting the balanced outlay and revenue requirement of the amendment.

The real problem is that there is no way of bringing outlays and revenue into balance without increasing federal taxes. It was cutting taxes that created our deficit problems in the first place (see at least a half-dozen things I have written in the last four years). By requiring politically that all budget balancing will have to be done on the outlay reduction side, the amendment invites disastrous results. Where can you find a trillion and a half dollars to cut?

The solution to bringing the budget to balance (and then beginning the mammoth task of paying off the debt) does not lie in an amendment to the Constitution. Rather, it lies in the president and the members of the Congress having the courage to do what is necessary both in cutting expenditures and in increasing revenues. The members of the president’s bipartisan commission (and others) have come up with many proposals for attacking our budget problem. All of these proposals require members of the Congress and the president to make unpopular decisions. Will they? Or are they only interested in getting reelected?