Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Message From A Parallel Universe?

The letter from one of our friends in Henrico County was in the print edition of today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch. Reader, you will find this so incredible that I will print the whole thing so you can be sure this maven is not making it up:

Do you really think your readers are so stupid that they believe your so-called facts? It’s so, so obvious that you are biased it’s pathetic. You constantly pick on Republicans to show they have lied, but seldom do you feature Democrats. If you did it on them, you would need an insert to cover all the lies they tell.
Once in a while, you do feature a Democrat—just to try to act fair. You better not do it too much because those on the left will get mad and stop buying your paper. You should change your name to the Democratic Times-Dispatch.”

Dear reader, you and I have been reading the TD for a long time. I must ask you, have you ever suspected that our great metropolitan daily is biased toward Democrats?

Some time back, on the Science Channel, I saw some membrane-theory astrophysicists explaining the possibility that ours is just one of an infinite number of parallel universes. I found it hard to believe. After reading today’s letter, I wonder.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Will School Board Finally Follow The Law?

This maven has written about the annual school budgeting show in the City of Richmond more times than I care to count. I have repeatedly informed the Superintendent of Schools, the School Board, the Mayor and the City Council that under state law a school district's superintendent and school board are required to submit a budget based on the needs of the school system. Yet, year after year, the superintendent prepares, and the school board approves, a budget not based on need, but based on an assumption of how much money the city council will provide to Richmond Public Schools in the budget year. This year, so far, has been no different. As reported in today’s Richmond Times Dispatch, by reporter Will Jones, “The [Superintendent's] proposed operating budget . . . assumes no change in the city’s appropriation of $124.2 million.”*

What exactly is it that the law requires? Section 22.1-92 provides:

A. It shall be the duty of each division superintendent to prepare, with the approval of the school board, and submit to the governing body or bodies appropriating funds for the school division, by the date specified in § 15.2-2503 [April 1], the estimate of the amount of money deemed to be needed during the next fiscal year for the support of the public schools of the school division. The estimate shall set up the amount of money deemed to be needed for each major classification prescribed by the Board of Education and such other headings or items as may be necessary.

Clearly, the law obliges the superintendent and the school board to submit to the governing body (in our case the Richmond City Council) a budget that specifies the amount of money “deemed to be needed . . . for the support of the public schools of the school division.” To this maven, “deemed to be needed” does not mean “what we expect you to give us.” It is the amount that the superintendent consulting with the school board believes the school system needs to provide a quality education to the children of the school district.

Last year I talked to you about the actions of the school board in Fairfax County, Virginia. A School Board That Does Its Job. I explained that the school superintendent in Fairfax had prepared a budget based on the anticipated revenues that the system would receive from both the commonwealth and the county. The school board amended the budget submitted by the superintendent, restoring many of the cuts he made and requesting $82 million more from Fairfax County. As I indicated, the chair of the school board justified its actions as follows: “Our responsibility is to provide an effective school system. We know what it takes for us to be successful.”

I do not fault Dr. Yvonne Brandon for the budget she submitted. I assume she was following instructions from the school board. However, at this point I expect the school board to do its job and amend Dr. Brandon’s budget to show the amount that Richmond Public Schools needs to run a successful school system. I am sure that a needs budget will have to request more than $124.2 million. So, School Board, will you follow the law this year?

*There is something strange in that $124.2 million. Last year the Superintendent’s budget indicated a receipt of $127.1 million from the City. If that is correct, than this year’s budget actually assumes a reduction of $3 million in the amount provided by the City of Richmond.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

It’s A Darn Good Constitution; Let’s Not Screw It Up!

According to the article in this morning’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, the legislative agenda of tea party and other conservative and libertarian groups includes support of the so-called “repeal amendment.” This is an amendment to the United States Constitution that would allow a super-majority of state legislatures to cancel legislation enacted by the Congress and signed by the President. The repeal amendment is also high on the legislative agenda of the Commonwealth’s Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli, who is neither a “teaman” nor a libertarian—just a plain old-fashioned right wing Republican. Now, I am sure that neither the tea party nor Mr. Cuccinelli would propose something that is bad for our republic. However, just to be sure, let us look at this thing they have created.

The repeal amendment is contained in
H.J. Res. No. 542. This resolution, whose patrons include nearly every Republican in the House of Delegates but no Democrats, begins with its whereas clauses, which assert that the Congress of the United States has exceeded the powers granted to it by the Constitution and that the Constitution needs to be amended to restore the proper balance between the powers of the Congress and the states, and other good stuff like that. Then comes the active language:

RESOLVED by the House of Delegates, the Senate concurring, That the Commonwealth of Virginia hereby applies to the Congress of the United States to call an amendment convention pursuant to Article V of the United States Constitution for the purpose of proposing a constitutional amendment that permits the repeal of any federal law or regulation by vote of two-thirds of the state legislatures. The Virginia Delegation to such convention, when called, shall propose the following amendment:
"Any provision of law or regulation of the United States may be repealed by the several states, and such repeal shall be effective when the legislatures of two-thirds of the several states approve resolutions for this purpose that particularly describe the same provision or provisions of law or regulation to be repealed."

The resolution then, if enacted, will be an application to the Congress to call an amendment convention under Article V of the U.S. Constitution. The purpose of the convention will be to propose an amendment to the Constitution that would allow the repeal of any federal law or resolution by vote of 2/3 of the state legislatures. The resolution would also instruct the Virginia Delegation to the amendment convention to introduce the specific language of the amendment contained in the resolution.

If it ain’t broke: The United States Constitution grew out of a series of compromises reached by the convention that met in Philadelphia in 1787. The constitution as agreed upon and proposed to the states for ratification contained a whole series of provisions designed to prevent the newly created Federal Government from becoming the tyrannical governments that we had ousted during the American Revolution. First, the Constitution diluted power by creating a government with three branches, each of which had some authority to check usurpation of powers by the others. Under this system the legislative, executive and judicial functions of government are exercised by separate branches. Further, the constitution created a legislative branch—the Congress—that is composed of two bodies; one, the Senate, in which each state has equal representation, and one, the House of Representative, in which representation is based on the respective populations of the states.

The constitution is designed to make it difficult for legislation to become law. Bills must be passed in identical language by the Senate and by the House of Representatives. Then, the bill must be submitted to the President of the United States for his concurrence. If the president refuses to agree to the legislation, it can only become law if enacted by a super majority in both the Senate and the United States.

The constitution contains two additional features (one written, one implied) that further check the power of the Federal Government. First, we have regular elections: every two years for members of the House of Representatives, every four years for the president and every six years for members of the Senate (under Amendment XVII). If the people in each state feel that any elected federal official is exceeding his or her authority they are free to vote him out at the next election. Second, is the doctrine of judicial review that permits the Supreme Court or any subsidiary courts created by the Congress to declare actions by the Executive or Legislative Branches to be unconstitutional and render them void. (This doctrine is not explicitly stated in Article III of the constitution, which creates the Judicial Branch, but is implicit in the jurisdiction that is granted the federal courts under section 2 of Article III. It has been recognized since the Supreme Court decided Marbury v. Madison in 1803.)

In my opinion, there already exist ample means for restricting the actions of the Federal Government. There is no need for the amendment proposed by H.J Res. No. 542.

The repeal amendment would alter the federal arrangement set up at Philadelphia: The 1787 Philadelphia convention created a new United States government separate from the states. Under the Articles of Confederation, adopted in 1781 but in operation before the final ratification, there was little that could be called a Federal government. The confederation was rather an agreement by thirteen states to act jointly in certain areas of common interest. Under the Articles of Confederation there was no real executive and no federal judiciary. The Congress of the Confederation, although it could make decisions in the area of war and peace, diplomacy and disposition of public lands, had no power to enforce its decisions. More important, the Congress of the Confederation had no power to levy taxes; it had to rely on contributions from the states to operate. An entity that has no authority to levy taxes is not really a government.

The Federal Government proposed at Philadelphia was a government operating separately from the states in its area of authority. Once the constitution was ratified, the Federal Government needed no additional actions of the states or their legislatures to operate. It had the authority to legislate, to raise revenue, to execute its laws and to adjudicate disputes arising out of its operations.

The proposed amendment will change this separation of sovereignty by allowing the states to intervene in the federal legislative process. No longer will an act passed by the Congress and signed by the President be a full Public Law. Rather, it will always be subject to later repeal by the state legislatures. This authority to repeal, residing in 34 state legislatures, will weaken the Federal Government and provide nearly a perpetual period of uncertainty with respect to actions taken by the Federal Government. No longer will individuals or corporations be able to rely on the permanence of federal law in making decisions. All of their planning will have be two part—one while the law is in effect and another if the law is annulled by the 34 legislatures. Foreign governments could never rely on treaties or agreements reached with the United States. Thirty four state legislatures could always cancel them.
This alteration of the sovereignty of the United States Government will affect all actions taken, not only those which H.J. Res. No. 542 asserts are usurpations by the Federal Government. Even legislation or other action that is clearly assigned to the Federal Government under the constitution would be subject to repeal under the proposed amendment.

The amendment would allow the legislatures of 34 other states to repeal federal actions that the citizens of Virginia support. Should the proposed repeal amendment become part of the constitution, the Commonwealth would be subjecting itself to other states cancelling legislation that our citizens approve of. Even if the General Assembly considers and specifically refuses to repeal federal legislation, we would be subject to the actions of other states, many of them far smaller than Virginia. If the government of the Commonwealth lobbies long and hard for, and our two Senators and 11 Representatives vote for, legislation that is unquestioningly within the purview of the Federal Government and benefits Virginia, we would then be required to lobby other state legislatures not to repeal it.

The repeal procedure would add a huge burden to our already overloaded General Assembly. The Virginia Constitution deliberately limits the amount of time that the General Assembly may stay in session. Because of these limits the 40 senators and 100 delegates in the General Assembly work almost non-stop from December through the spring on legislation that the members introduce or the Governor, Attorney General, or Lieutenant Governor propose. How will the General Assembly possibly find the time to also consider repeals of federal law or regulation (especially during the short session every two years)? With the added burden of this additional work, will we be able to maintain the General Assembly as a legislature of part-time lawmakers?

The danger: The Republican-sponsored resolution calls for the use of one of the methods of constitutional amendment set forth in Article V of the constitution—the calling of a convention to propose amendments and then ratification by the states. This method of amending the constitution has never been used in the more than two hundred twenty years since the constitution was ratified. All of the amendments to the constitution have been made by the alternate method—proposal by the Congress and then ratification by the states. The convention method has not been used because it is unclear in Article V of the constitution whether the Congress can restrict the actions of the convention to any particular amendment. The language of Article V merely says: “…on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the States, [the Congress] shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments …” Article V has no language providing that the Congress can restrict the convention to only considering one amendment.

The Republican sponsors of H.J. Res. No. 542 are aware of this danger. They have the following language in the resolution:

“RESOLVED FURTHER, That this resolution is revoked and withdrawn, nullified, and superseded to the same effect as if it had never been passed, and retroactive to the date of passage, if it is used for the purpose of calling a convention or used in support of conducting a convention to amend the Constitution of the United States for any purpose other than consideration of the amendment proposed in this resolution . . .”

Attorneys (even Republican attorneys) are fallible. It is not clear what would happen if a convention called pursuant to H.J. Res. No. 542 and identically worded resolutions from sixty six other states decided to propose further amendments after already proposing the repeal amendment. Perhaps the further resolution of H.J. Res. No. 542 is adequate to prevent this happening. Perhaps not. Remember that our only previous convention was called for the sole purpose of amending the Articles of Confederation and ended up proposing an entirely new system of government. The delegates to that convention knew full well they were exceeding their instructions. That is why all of their proceedings were made secret. Can we trust a 21st Century amendment constitution to limit itself to proposing only one amendment?

In sum, it is clear to this maven that for the General Assembly to enact H.J. Res. No. 542 would be a serious mistake. I understand that during the last election cycle the Republicans made many promises to the electorate, including the repeal amendment. Despite this promise, I would hope that all members of the General Assembly, whether Republican, Democratic or Independent, would act in the best interests of the citizens of the Commonwealth and vote against H.J. Res. No. 542.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Shooting Victims

Just over a week ago, Jared Loughner used a 9mm pistol with a large capacity magazine to murder 6 people, including a 9 year-old girl and a federal judge, and wound 13 others, including a member of the House of Representatives, in Tucson, Arizona. Because of the political overtones of this shooting, it has received extensive national and international coverage. As time passes we will surely forget those of the victims who were “only” wounded, except for Representative Gabrielle Giffords. We will soon forget the dead, with 9-year old Christian Taylor Green and federal judge John Roll remaining in our minds a bit longer. It’s the way we deal with this kind of news—we start out being overwhelmed but in time it just fades away.

However, I did not take up keyboard and paper to talk of these shooting victims. There are more than enough people out there dealing with them. I want to talk of the victims that we forget about almost as soon as we hear or read about their deaths. Today, along with its story “Region’s homicide rate up 19%,” the Richmond Times-Dispatch published the names of those who were murdered in the Richmond area in 2010. There were 93 of them. The TD story indicated that 93% of the victims were killed by gunshot, that 75 of the 93 killed were male, that 75 of the 93 victims were black, that 70 of the killings have been cleared by local police. All rather sterile statistics.

For no other reason than that’s where the maven lives, I will publish the names of the victims in the City of Richmond:
January 2010:
Angela Moore, age 41
Brittney Randolph, age 20
Leonicio Deleon, age 43
Tracy Scott, age 42
Shawn Smith, age 26
March 2010
Keith Brunson, age 23
Gavin Pollard, age 21
April 2010
Tyree Jefferson, Jr., age 39
Devin Morse, age 26
Tarchelle Daniel, age 36
Charles Jackson, age 56
William Bagely, Jr., age 38
Christopher Johnson, age 22
Christopher Mackin, age 30
Jeremy Uzzle, age 20
Brandon Webb, age 24
May 2010
Reshawn Thurman, age 23
Carlos Funn, age 21
William Peet, age 29
Jarneal Smith, age 18
July 2010
William Charity, Jr., age 46
Jataynun Fleming, age 22
Keith Bates, age 47
William Ennis, Jr., age 29
Shamari Whittaker, age 22
Tameka Claiborne, age 27
August 2010
Gregory Jones, Jr., age 29
Marcel Davidson, age 20
September 2010
Eric Jackson, age 44
Napoleon Hargrove, Jr., age 42
Lawrence Sykes, age 23
William Howell, age 68
Katrice Robertson, age 25
Sophia Alexander, age 19
October 2010
Terrance Robinson, age 31
Tyler Franks, age 45
Brandon Thomas, age 25
Devon Jones, age 23
James Louis, age 36
November 2010
Christopher Lee, Jr., age 29
Richard Church, age 52
Wendell Jones, age 24
Donald Dock, age 48
December 2010
Terezo Santizo, age 40
Arki White, age 24.

So there they are, good reader. All these people were alive in Richmond on January 1, 2010, but have been taken from us by murder. Were we at all shocked when we read or heard of their deaths? Did we feel as much shock or fear or anger as we did after the Tucson shootings, or three years ago after the Virginia Tech shootings?

Why do we care less for these dead than for the others? Well, I didn’t publish the addresses of the victims, but if you look at them in the TD you will notice that most of them lived in areas we describe as the inner city. And as we all know the inner city is violent. If people live there they have to expect they may be the victims of violent crime. And, did you notice the names? So many of the victims had names that are clearly African American. And, I bet that the people who killed them were probably African Americans, too. Why should I be concerned if blacks kill blacks? It’s not in my neighborhood. It doesn’t affect me. In addition, I bet that most of those murders were drug related—one criminal murdering another. It was inevitable. If they weren’t killed today it would happen in a few weeks. Aren’t we better off after the killing?

I am sure that there are many other reasons why we didn’t pay much attention when we first learned of the deaths of these victims and probably didn’t pay a whole lot more attention when we saw their names in the paper today.

But, let’s look at the list again. What I notice is how young most of them were—in their teens, twenties or thirties. They were all somebody’s sons or daughters, or somebody’s brothers or sisters, or somebody’s cousins or uncles or aunts, or somebody’s lovers. Somebody was deeply grieved when each of them died. Can any mother ever really deal with the violent death of the one she gave life to? What a terrible tragedy each of these deaths was.

So, what are we to make of all this? Reader, we need to start caring more. We need to mourn the deaths of these unknowns in our region as much as we would mourn for a nine year old girl or a federal judge in Tucson. We have to regret the terrible waste of life in these murders as much as we regretted all of those who were cut down at Virginia Tech. We need to recognize that there is a killing epidemic in our midst and that we must find a cure for it. It doesn’t matter if the murder rate goes up a few or down a few. We must realize, in Bob Dylan’s words, “that too many people have died.” And, then, we need to do something about it.

They Would Not Listen, They Did Not Know How.

Precious leader, it has been barely two weeks since this maven attempted to reeducate our Republican brothers about the true nature of the statutory ceiling on the federal debt. Republicans Never Learn: The Debt Ceiling Now I find that even such an illustrious news institution as the Associated Press (AP) is clueless about the debt ceiling. In an article published in today’s Washington Post (which I think I also saw in our beloved Richmond Times Dispatch), “U.S. debt tops $14 trillion, nears ceiling,” I saw the following statement:
“That means that Congress soon will have to lift the legal debt ceiling to give the maxed-out government an even higher credit limit or dramatically cut spending to stay under the current cap.”(emphasis mine.)
Okay, let’s go through this one more time but slowly:

1- The federal debt is the cumulative total of the amount that federal disbursements have exceeded federal revenue.

2- The statutory debt ceiling is the maximum amount that the Secretary of the Treasury can borrow to cover obligations of the United States.

3- The Congress authorizes federal spending by providing obligational authority to the Executive Branch either in annual or permanent appropriations. (“No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law” U.S. Constitution: Article I, Section 9, clause 7)

4- Once the Congress has provided obligational authority to the Executive Branch it has little or no control over when money will be disbursed from the Treasury to pay off the obligations that have been incurred under that authority.

(Examples: Authority to incur obligations for operating expenses of federal agencies will normally result in constant level expenditures over the twelve months of the federal fiscal year.
Authority to incur obligations by entering into contracts may result in expenditures in the current fiscal year or in future fiscal years, depending on when the contractor performs.
Authority under direct spending [entitlement] legislation results in automatic expenditures when the conditions of the entitlement are met.)

5- In managing the disbursement of funds from the Treasury, the Secretary of the Treasury not only has to deal with the obligations resulting from government operations but also with the maturation of government securities issued in the past. Since government securities are issued in bulk, not individually, maturation results in the need for huge amounts of borrowing authority even if most of these securities are merely rolled over.

As a result of these factors, it is a very simple fact that the second of the options mentioned in the AP article, which I underlined above, is not available. All of the obligations that will result in the Secretary reaching his statutory borrowing authority this Spring are now beyond the control of the Congress. The Congress may drastically cut spending to occur in fiscal year 2012 and thereafter in the budget cycle that will begin with the submission of the president’s budget in February. The Congress may also cut spending resulting from fiscal year 2011 and earlier obligational authority by rescinding appropriations, but only to the extent that obligations have not yet been incurred under that authority. But the Congress cannot rescind appropriations that have already been obligated. Even if it tried to do so, the result would be the government defaulting on its contractual or statutory obligations.

Just so no Representative or Senator can later claim that s/he did not know the ramifications of their vote on legislation to raise the statutory debt ceiling, let me rewrite the AP story:
“That means that the Congress soon will have to lift the legal debt ceiling to allow the maxed-out government an even higher credit limit or ALLOW THE UNITED STATES TO DEFAULT ON ITS OBLIGATIONS, WHICH WILL RESULT IN A WORLD-WIDE ECONOMIC COLLAPSE.”

Perhaps they’ll listen now.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Blog Standards For The Maven

Yesterday’s horrible shootings in Arizona have caused me to reevaluate what I do here. This maven is quite aware that in the past I have engaged in personal attacks against public figures. There was even one time that I apologized to the public figure for going too far and once I decided to remove one of my postings because it was an attack that questioned a politician’s motives.

We who attempt to mold public opinion have a great responsibility. Even if we are small-time bloggers whose words reach only a few people, we need to keep in mind that words can be very dangerous. If we attack a person’s character, or portray a person as evil, or un-American, or dangerous or anything like that, we need to know that there are people out there who might use our words as a license to physically attack the person we are writing about. We need to use our words carefully. We need to point out that it is a person’s actions or words to which we object, not the person him or herself.

Reader, after more than six decades it is unlikely that this maven is going to change his basic political philosophy. I am basically a social liberal who is also a fiscal conservative. So, I will look at the world through those glasses. I will support those who agree with me and oppose those who disagree with me.

But, starting today I will do my best to avoid personal attacks on people no matter how much I object to their behavior or speech or ideas. I will accuse no one of being a traitor or engaging in treason. I will accuse no one of being un-American. I will not describe any person or group of people as being evil. I will not cast aspersions on a person’s intelligence although I reserve the right to point out that something they have said or done is pretty stupid.

I challenge everyone out there who tries to sway the opinions of others to join me in this pledge of civility in public discourse. Let’s be vigorous in our public debate but agree to never attack someone personally. There is, unfortunately, a tendency toward violence in our national history. We who choose to exercise our right of free speech must assume the responsibility of controlling how we use it.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Harry Potter And The Dastardly Theme Park Rip-off

Prior to this past Christmas, the entire maven family (maven, maveness, maven-daughter, maven-son-in-law, 2 maven grandbabies) went down to Orlando Florida to enjoy the various theme parks. Our stay was to be three days, so we bought two-day Disney World passes and one day 2 park passes for Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure. We planned to go to the Magic Kingdom at Disney for the grandbabies, a second Disney park to be named later, and Universal Islands of Adventure for their new “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.”

Our first day, at the Magic Kingdom, was marvelous despite day-time temperatures in the 40s and intermittent drizzle. Disney just has a wonderful way of dealing with children. The grandbabies were just entranced, especially by the wandering Disney characters, the classic Magic Kingdom rides and the daily parade. Most of the rides had long lines, but Disney has taken care of this by offering reservations at rides. You can go to a ride early in the day and reserve entry later in the day. The charge for this service? Zero.

The second day we spent at Universal. Universal has built two adjacent parks with separate admission charges (or a two park pass for a slightly reduced charge). All of the maven adults and at least one of the grandbabies wanted to see the new “Wizarding World of Harry Potter.” Universal had hyped it well and we most wanted to do “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey,” which, is described by Universal:

Explore the classrooms and corridors of Hogwarts™. Then soar above the castle grounds on a groundbreaking new ride that lets you join Harry Potter™ and his friends on an unforgettably thrilling adventure.
We arrived at the ticket windows and paid an obscenely huge amount for the six of us to attend both of the Universal parks for one day. We noticed at the ticket office that they were offering an Express Pass to reduce the waiting lines at events for the ridiculously low price of $25 extra per person (An extra $150 for the six of us in the maven family). We figured it was just a come-on so we did not get Express Passes.

The weather was better than the day before (partly cloudy, temperature about 60). But the lines at Universal were mammoth. Universal is very considerate and posts the ride wait times as you enter—they ranged from 25 minutes to 120 minutes. The 120 minute wait was for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Shortly after entering the park there was a sign saying that Harry Potter was off to the left. When we finally arrived at the end of the Potter line the wait was still posted as 120 minutes. But son-in-law maven was able to get a pass that entitled us to come back at 5:30 and get on a much shorter line. We spent much of the morning and early afternoon on 45 to 60 minute lines waiting to get onto five-minute rides. We even had to wait on line to pay inflated amounts for food at one of the parks restaurants. For those of you who have your own grandbabies, you must realize how unfriendly it is to force young children to wait on long lines to get to the event they can plainly see before them.

Well, at 5:30 we got to Potter and waited about 15 minutes to get into the area. Then came the great shock. Remaining wait time for “Harry Potter and the Forbiden Journey” was 90 minutes. Wait times at other Potter rides were from 45 to 60 minutes. Lines to get into stores were equally long. To get into the candy shop was a 30 minute wait. Line for wand shop, 45 minutes. Line to purchase butter-beer, 20 minutes. We were in this medieval-looking village adjacent to the towers of Hogwarts along with thousands of other people. The Florida sun had set and it was getting colder. The kids were upset, the adults were upset. Finally, we decided to leave Universal Islands of Adventure. We never did get inside Hogwarts.

This maven is rather upset that Universal has teamed up with Voldemort and the forces of evil. They know full well the wait-time problem in their parks, especially at their Harry Potter location. They advertise quite openly that "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter" is included with park admission. Yet they must be aware that to actually taste the glory of their new theme area requires someone to wait on lines for upwards of 5 hours, and to abandon the hope of frequenting any of the other areas in the theme park that you have paid hundreds of dollars to see. The mere fact that they sell Expresses Passes, so that one can wait on much shorter lines at each ride, indicates their knowledge of the problem. What they fail to advertise is that if you don’t buy the Express Pass for an additional $25 per person, you will spend most of your stay at Universal waiting on line.

The next day we spent at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. We had a great time with relatively short waits. I am thinking that Animal Kingdom might be the best bargain at Disney.

So what are we to make of this, precious reader? Both Disney and Universal are in business to make money. However, Disney seems much more concerned that its customers actually enjoy themselves at their Florida theme parks. Universal puts profits ahead of everything. Even the rides that you eventually get on exit into stores, where overly priced goods beckon to your buy-me, give-me, take-me kids. But the one thing that leads me to conclude that Universal is a rip-off is the impossibly long lines at the Potter rides and the marketing of Express passes to avoid those lines. If you decide to go to Central Florida, beware of the dark side of Universal!

GOP in House Breaking Promises Already

Now, don’t get me wrong. I did not vote for any Republicans this past November. Nor did I support any of our local Tea gals and guys. I took the Republican promise to reduce our runaway national debt with a grain of salt (which certainly would ruin the flavor of most teas that I drink.) And, since I spent a good portion of my pre-maven professional career on federal budget matters, I knew that promising both to reduce the debt and to cut taxes was quite a large bottle of snake oil to swallow. But, a lot of people drank the oil and voted for our friends the Republicans and now they will awaken to a nasty hangover.

As we all know, Republicans hate to pay taxes. So reducing them is their number one priority. There is not a tax yet invented that would make a Republican happy. Not that Republicans don’t want a certain level of government services at the federal, state and local levels. They just want don’t want to pay for these services.

The leading lyric in the Republican campaign song is that the Democrats (to be pronounced L-I-B-E-R-A-L-S) only want to raise your taxes so that they can spend more and more federal dollars on wasteful and perhaps even socialistic programs. They sing this song over and over again and sing it louder and louder to make sure that the American people don’t realize that despite their rhetoric Republicans have been spending money at a rate higher than the Democrats. Republicans Sure Ain’t Conservative With Federal Checkbook. And, worse than that, because they would rather die than raise taxes Republicans pay for all their spending with borrowed money.

But wait, dear reader, I am being unfair. As my neighbor Eric Cantor pointed out in his recent book “Young Guns,” (coauthored by his fellow musketeers Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy) it was the old congressional Republicans who had this terrible borrow and spend habit. The new Republicans are different. They want to cut spending. They want to be fiscally responsible. They want to lower the outrageous national debt (a national debt that became that large because of the tax cuts and the large spending bills that the Republicans voted for when their president was in the White House). Yes, the Republicans have changed. And it’s not just their rhetoric. You can see the change in their behavior. Or, can you?

But first, a word from our sponsors: Now, for the first time, at an exceptionally low price, all you never cared to learn about early attempts by the Congress to stop the burgeoning annual budget deficit during the 1980s and 1990s. Lyndon Johnson began our deficit spending habit in the 1960s by insisting that he could pay for both the Viet Nam War and his Great Society programs without raising taxes. But it wasn’t until Ronald Regan’s 1981 tax cuts and increased federal spending early in his administration that the annual deficit and the resulting growth in federal debt became the way of life of the Federal Government.

The Congress tried to bring deficits under control with the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 (popularly known as the Graham-Rudman law and subsequently as the Graham-Rudman-Hollings law (GRH)). The Congress was well-meaning, but GRH had no enforcement mechanism and federal deficits continued to increase between 1985 and 1990. In 1990, the Congress enacted the Budget Enforcement Act (BEA), which actually had teeth.

Under the BEA, federal programs fell into one of two categories—discretionary spending or direct spending. Discretionary spending programs were those that were funded by the thirteen annual appropriations acts. Direct spending programs (often referred to as entitlements) were funded by permanent appropriations contained in the legislation that created the programs. BEA set maximum annual appropriations amounts for discretionary spending and required that annual budget resolutions apportion these amounts among the thirteen appropriations bills. BEA provided that any appropriation bill that sought to exceed the annual allotment contained in the budget resolution was out of order in the House of Representatives.

For direct spending programs, BEA set up the requirement that all legislation affecting these programs and all tax legislation enacted in a budget year had to be deficit neutral. This requirement, known as pay-as-you-go (or PAYGO), meant that any legislation creating new or increased direct spending had to be offset in the same budget year with legislation eliminating or reducing spending in another direct spending program or by legislation increasing federal revenue. (Since there may be sensitive Republicans reading this, I did not use the “T” word). Further, any legislation cutting taxes (it is okay to use the “T” word when we are talking about cuts) had to be offset by legislation reducing direct spending or increasing other revenue. In short, under PAYGO, the aggregate of direct spending and tax legislation in any given budget year could not increase the federal deficit.

The enforcement mechanism in BEA was the requirement that if any of the annual thirteen appropriations acts exceeded the budget resolution allotments or if the aggregate of PAYGO legislation resulted in an increase in the deficit, the president was required to sequester (or rescind) sufficient amounts to cure the BEA violation. The threat of sequester was so potent that I can only remember one actual sequester during the period of BEA. BEA worked quite well. During its operation the annual federal deficit went from a high of about $290 billion in 1994 to a low of $22 billion in 1997, and there were actually budget surpluses in the remaining years of the Clinton Administration.

Then came the Bush Administration, accompanied by Republican control of the Congress. BEA was allowed to expire. The Congress enacted tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. On September 11, 2001, the United States was attacked beginning the War on Terror. Concern over annual budget deficits evaporated and the total debt of the Federal Government has doubled since 2001.

In 2010, the Democratic controlled Congress and the Democratic president enacted the Statutory Pay-As-You-Go Act of 2010. With a number of significant exceptions, the 2110 PAYGO Act restored the PAYGO requirements of the BEA. As described by the White House:

If Congress enacts PAYGO bills cutting taxes or increasing mandatory expenditures without fully offsetting the costs, the Act specifies a penalty, called "sequestration." If Congress adjourns at the end of a session with net costs – that is, more costs than savings - on the scorecard, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is required to calculate, and the President is required to issue a sequestration order implementing, across-the-board cuts to a select group of mandatory programs in an amount sufficient to offset the net costs on the PAYGO scorecard.

Because of the exceptions contained in the 2110 PAYGO Act it will not be as significant factor in controlling budget deficits as was the BEA. In fact, an exception in the Act allowed the enactment of tax cuts in the recent lame-duck session of Congress that will increase deficits by hundreds of billions of dollars.

I now return you to our scheduled program: Despite the fact that it has the potential to reduce budget deficits, no Republican, in either the House or Senate voted in favor of the 2110 PAYGO Act. Why? That is quite simple. The Republican addiction to tax cuts is so powerful that they cannot agree to any legislation that might block such tax cuts. So, in the Republican hierarchy of governing philosophy, tax cuts are far more important than deficit or debt reduction.

But, again, I am being unfair. It’s the old Republicans that had the addiction to tax cuts and spending supported by borrowing. Eric Cantor’s young studs-er-guns are responsible. They will reduce the annual deficit. And to prove it, the new Republican masters of the Congress have issued their proposed rules for the 112th Congress. I am sure that they have included the PAYGO provisions of the 2010 Act. Anything less would just increase the federal debt. Well, let’s look at House Resolution 5, which contains the new House rules.

Well, this is a surprise. The new rules drop the concept of PAYGO and replace it with “Cut-as-you-go,” which only applies to the spending side of direct spending programs. CUTGO requires that any increase of spending in a direct spending program be offset by a reduction of spending somewhere else. Under CUTGO, legislation cutting taxes gets a free ride despite the fact that it will add significantly to the national debt.

Another surprise: If tax reduction legislation is designated as an “emergency,” it does not count for budget purposes.

And, an additional surprise: For the purposes of estimating the budgetary effects of certain legislation, the Chair of the Budget Committee shall not count deficit increases made by:

  • Extensions of the 2001 tax cuts
  • Extensions of the 2003 tax cuts
  • Repeal or adjustment of the health care or educational affordability acts enacted in the 111th Congress
  • Adjusting alternative minimum taxes or extending the recently enacted estate tax exemptions.

Additional surprises? I will leave them to you, reader. This piece has already gone too long, and I am sure I have missed my deadline.

With all due regard for Mr. Cantor and his other musketeers, it appears to this maven that the Young Gun Republicans are just like the old Republicans. They are more than willing to add trillions of dollars to the national debt for the sake of tax cuts. Their election promise to cut the national debt lasted only until their first official act of the new Congress. But, as I have pointed out many times before, don’t ever accuse Republicans of being fiscally responsible. For you millions of Americans who were swayed by the Republican promise to reduce federal debt: Take two aspirins and call me in 2012.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Republicans Never Learn: The Debt Ceiling

Hey, Reader, did I ever tell you about the time I had breakfast with Newt Gingrich? Well, actually, I didn’t eat anything so I’m not sure it really counts as breakfast. But it was in the suite of the Speaker of the House, and there was a tray full of Egg McMuffins (House Majority Leader Dick Armey was the only one eating), so perhaps it does qualify. It was a Saturday morning and Armey kept reminding us that he would much rather be back in Texas fishing. It was in the fall of 1995 and a newly elected Republican Speaker of the House and a Democratic President in the third year of his term were locked in a battle over the national debt (sound familiar?). Mr. Gingrich was trying to make political hay by refusing to enact legislation raising the federal debt limit. Robert Rubin, Secretary of the Treasury, was doing his best to keep the United States from defaulting on its obligations without violating the statutory limit on his authority to borrow. And me? I was the lead GAO (then called the General Accounting Office) attorney monitoring Mr. Rubin’s battle to keep the ship of state afloat. We had been summoned to the Speaker’s lair on that Egg McMuffin morning to report to Mr. Gingrich whether Secretary Rubin had violated the law.

So, you may ask, why is the Maven having these daydreams of former glory? Well, it’s the article in yesterday’s Times-Dispatch entitled “GOP lawmakers balk at raising debt ceiling.” The Associated Press article begins with “Some Republican lawmakers said Sunday they oppose raising the ceiling on the nation’s debt without tackling government spending.” Later in the article is the following paragraph:
“To some conservatives, refusing to raise the limit on the federal debt could be an effective tactic to force lawmakers to cut spending and face such contentious issues as the rising costs of Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs.”
The article also indicates that Representative Michele Bachman, Republican from Minnesota, is asking people to sign an online petition urging their representatives not to increase the debt limit. And finally, Representative Mike Kelly, Republican from Pennsylvania, a car dealer elected in November, is quoted as saying “Raising the debt ceiling, to me, is absolutely irresponsible.”

Trusted reader, does all this sound familiar to you? Hasn’t it been only eleven months since this maven pointed out to the world that all this ranting about raising the debt ceiling is merely a Republican tempest in a teapot? The Debt Ceiling And The Republican Hypocrisy I see no reason to bore you with the details, again, so let me just point out:
  1. The annual budget deficit is the difference between funds that have been dispersed from the Treasury (under authority contained in appropriations) and revenues that have been deposited in the Treasury.
  2. The national debt is the accumulation of all the annual budget deficits.
  3. The national debt can be decreased only by a reduction in Federal spending and an increase in Federal revenues.
  4. The debt ceiling is the statutory limit on the amount that the Secretary of the Treasury can borrow to satisfy the obligations of the United States.
  5. Congressional refusal to raise the debt ceiling will have no effect on the national debt.
  6. Allowing the United States to default on its obligations by refusing to raise the debt ceiling would produce an international economic disaster of unprecedented proportions.
So, beloved reader, contrary to the nonsense spewed by Republican representatives like Mike and Michele, refusing to raise the debt ceiling and thus forcing the United States to default on its obligations is the most irresponsible action that a member of the Congress can propose. If the Republican controlled House of Representatives is going to tackle the problem of the national debt, as its leaders promised before the election, it needs to get down to the serious task of bringing revenue and expenditures into balance. It needs to stop its propaganda and get down to governing.