Thursday, February 28, 2013

Justice And Records

Before we get to one of the most important questions regarding Wednesday's Supreme Court hearings, we hope you'll excuse us if we take a moment to gloat - with a purpose.

As we repeatedly said, time, and time, and time again over the last two months, Chuck Hagel would be our next Secretary of Defense. Legions of pundits on both the left and right kept saying those like us were foolish, and many in the GOP kept stabbing their former colleague in the back. Yet on Wednesday morning, former U.S. Senator from Nebraska Chuck Hagel was sworn in to became the 24th Secretary of Defense of the United States. We were also proven right on another nomination we said would succeed, that many said would fail - that of Jack Lew for Treasury - who was confirmed solidly by the Senate on Wednesday.

It's not just for the sake of our egos that we begin today with this very public embarrassment of our critics. If that were the case, we might also dwell on both their opinions and ours prior to, and surrounding the Supreme Court's decision on ObamaCare in the summer of 2012.

Instead, we want to move back to our initial focus today, that of the Supreme Court's hearing on the the Voting Rights Act, which happened on Wednesday.

Based on a summary from SCOTUSBlog's Lyle Dennison, Wednesday's hearings were longer than normal. As expected, the four conservative justices quite obviously wanted to strike down Section 5 of the Act, if not the entire law. The four left-leaning justices took more nuanced approaches, looking at everything from standing to constitutionality - but it was also quite obvious they would be upholding the Voting Rights Act.

Not surprisingly, Justice Scalia made an ass of himself again. Even less surprising is that much of the media focused on Scalia's theatrics instead of focusing on what was really important about the hearing.

Justice Kennedy, the swing vote, may not only save the Voting Rights Act - he might expand it.

According to an interview by Greg Sargent of Myrna Perez, of the Brennan Center for Justice, Supreme Court Justice Kennedy's decision on the Voting Rights Act will likely boil down to two key questions regarding constitutionality and effective remedies.

On the question of constitutionality, if Congress did not do all all the investigation, research, and debate they should have before reauthorizing the Act, the law may be unconstitutional. On the question of effective remedies, Justice Kennedy seemed very interested in the idea that Congress may not be able to limit the scope of the law to just states that have a proven problem with voting - but instead may have to expand the law to the whole nation.

The first question, of constitutionality, is actually easy to answer. As Rachel Maddow pointed out last night, when Congress approved the Voting Rights Act for another twenty-five years in 2006, they spent ten months on debate and discussion, held twenty-one hearings, and compiled 15,000 pages of research all verifying that yes - the Voting Rights Act is still, sadly, necessary. That level of due diligence blows away any doubt surrounding the answer to Justice Kennedy's first question.

The second question, however - and Kennedy's queries during the hearing - may indeed give a solid view on what Kennedy's ultimate decision will be.

Kennedy seems to want to not only keep the Voting Rights Act, but also Section 5 of the Act. Justice Kennedy also has a history of not wanting to be involved in significant judicial overreach, as he might be if The Court blew past all the work Congress did to reauthorize the Act.

Unlike many in the media who are already bemoaning the death of fair voting in America, we're siding with the experience and wisdom of Mr. Dennison and Mr Sargent on this case, and we believe the Act will be upheld when the decision is released this summer.

For those who'd bet against us, we'll be willing to put our record of judgement calls up against theirs, any time.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Still A Pig

As we noted on Tuesday, there's a distinct difference between stupid and crazy. Right now, in politics across the United States, things may seem crazy - but the stupid is mighty strong.

For example, in Virginia, the statehouse recently passed a bill that would force colleges and universities to continue funding student campus groups that discriminate against others. This could create a situation where an African-American college student might have to pay university fees, just to see that money distributed to the college branch of the KKK - and we don't mean Tri-Kappa.

In both Alaska and Kentucky this week, parts of both state's legislatures passed bills attempting to ban the Federal government from enforcing Federal gun safety laws - which, constitutionally, neither state has the power to do.

In Texas, Republicans in the state legislature are attempting to punish a small school district for changing its own policies to be less discriminatory against gay and lesbian teachers and staff. This is happening during the same week the Supreme Court hears landmark cases surrounding marriage equality and voting rights.

Don't forget the national insanity of the sequester or the fact that after seven weeks of screaming about it,  former U.S. Senator from Nebraska, Chuck Hagel, was solidly confirmed to be the next U.S. Secretary of Defense on Tuesday – as we always said he would.

If you're thinking Nebraska might be immune from all the stupidity in lawmaking that seems to have infected our nation, we hate to tell you, but certain members of the Nebraska Legislature are now trying to deliver their own special brand of stupid.

In case you missed it, state Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus is rolling the legislative dice again, bringing forward a bill to the Nebraska Legislature,  LR34CA, that would expand casino gambling. Schumacher's bill wouldn't just expand the kinds of gambling allowed in Nebraska. It would attempt to change a provision of the state constitution, dating all the way back to 1867, that would pass control of gambling regulations from the people of Nebraska to members of the Legislature.

Schumacher has tried this political gamble before, as have others over the years. In 2004, there were two attempts to change Nebraska's gamblling laws. In 2006, just one. All three times, bills that would have allowed expanded gambling in the Cornhusker State were voted down by Nebraskans, by wide majorities.

That, of course, is the key - all three bills were voted down by Nebraskans, something that would no longer be possible if Schumacher's bill passed, and took the power out of the hands of Nebraskans while giving the final say to Nebraska state Senators.

Speaking for most Nebraskans, we don't think there's any way to dress this bill proposal up that will convince the average citizen that it's any better an idea than the last time this legislative pig landed on their doorstep. Social, criminal, and economic issues surrounding casinos haven't really changed much since 2006, and just because Council Bluffs, Iowa is courting a bid for a new Hard Rock hotel and casino won't likely change the minds of most Nebraskans.

The big money, in the guise of out-of-state interests, can dress that pig of an idea up any way they like. We highly doubt Nebraskans will be as stupid as legislators from Texas, Alaska, Virginia and Kentucky seem to be lately.

We might be crazy about some things in Nebraska - like football and volleyball. Thankfully, we're not that kind of stupid.


Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Games For The Insane

There's a difference between stupid and crazy, though we're not sure everyone is aware of it.

We'll agree with Washington Monthly's Ed Kilgore and Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia that what the GOP leadership in Congress is doing right now certainly merits that "stupid" label. It's clear to anyone not deluding themselves that if the massive Federal budget cuts scheduled for Friday do go through, Republicans in Congress will get the blame.

That shouldn't surprise anyone, as the Republican message about where they stand on the cuts has been as muddled and messy as it would be if all GOP leaders were staggering drunks.

We know for a fact that not everyone leading the Republicans in Congress is a drunken idiot - even if they are willing to play Russian Roulette with the economy of the country, and the financial stability of millions of Americans.

To a sane person, like Wonkblog's Ezra Klein, the Republican position on the sequester may seem somewhat insane. As Klein notes, Congressional Republicans seem to have five goals in their budget talks with Democrats and the White House. If Republicans compromise, they can accomplish four of those five goals. If they don't compromise with their Democratic counterparts and send the country into sequestration, they'll only get part of one of their goals.

The Daily Beast's Justin Green insists Klein is missing the point, that the only real GOP goal is to cut spending without raising taxes. This would inevitably raise both the debt and deficit, but whatever many Republican voters might have been led to believe, very few people in Washington, DC actually care about deficits - and certainly not Republicans currently in Congress.

The key item Green forgets, however, is the same one the nutty tea partiers currently controlling the GOP have never really understood: That elections have consequences. No matter what ideological label they attempt to slap on it, or  how they may attempt to justify their ideology, the goal EVERY member of Congress wants more than any ideological bauble is the same basic goal most American workers have for themselves - to keep their job. If they didn't? They'd stop fundraising once they got to Congress.

If Republicans in Congress continue this budgetary game, they won't be keeping their jobs in 2014 - and any supposed cuts tea partiers falsely believe they'll gain will be wiped out once the ballots are counted.

In fact, since we've seen this kind of political game play out before, we can pretty much tell you how this game is likely to end.

On Thursday, Congressional Republicans will either come back to the bargaining table where the Democrats have been the whole time and extend the sequester - again - for another month. Or Republicans will allow their tea party extremists to put hundreds of thousands of Americans out of work over the next 30 days.

After four weeks of what will likely be either barely static or growing unemployment numbers, Congress will come to the budget standoff at the end of March. At that time, after a month of job losses, caused unnecessarily by Republicans, GOP leaders will spin the cylinder on the political gun again. Then, they'll either come to a deal with Democrats, or shut down the government - and own sole responsibility for refusing to compromise, thereby driving the nation's economy further off the cliff.

Finally, in May, when the debt ceiling extension comes around again, either Republicans will pass the extension as they have so many times before, under Presidents from both parties - or they will hit a live political round, and blow away any chance they might have at winning anything in the 2014 midterm elections.

We have just one question for Republican leaders on the budget crisis, tinged with irony:

Are ya feelin' lucky, punks?

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Truth About The Sequester Stew

On a suggestion from Daily Beast contributor (and assistant to David Frum) Justin Green, a discussion one of our staff members got into over the weekend regarding sequestration was delayed for brunch, and a relaxing Sunday.

That meal was yesterday, however, and this discussion is long overdue.

The sequester that is scheduled to go into effect at the end of this week is not inevitable, contrary to the assertations of some pundits. Unlike many others, journalist & commentator Chris Hayes stated once again over the weekend, the simple truth - that Congress can stop these disastrous sequester cuts with a simple one sentence bill, if they desire.

That no one in Congress has come across that simple solution, or cooked up another solution to this sequester crisis is a very real problem - one made of denial and pure cowardice, on only one side of the great American political divide.

What's worse is that many of those unwilling to face the monster of sequestration - or their own tea party base - are also lying about what the effects of the across the board cuts will be, or how many Americans really have prioritized cutting the budget deeply right now, above all else.

The most recent Pew poll makes the truth very obvious: a majority of Americans from all political backgrounds are not in favor of cuts to any federal program or service. Even so, to reach both our short and long term economic goals,  Congressional Democrats and President Obama have made the hard choices, outlining compromise budget and spending plans that not only anger some on the liberal left, but also raise taxes and close loopholes.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the House and Senate have yet to release similar plans that dictate specifically which cuts Republicans would be willing to make, and what loopholes they'd be willing to close in a compromise deal. Therein lies the deeper problem.

This sequester fight has never been an issue of solving the problem of fiscal profligacy at the federal level. John Avlon's discovery of Speaker John Boehner's plan to use sequestration to strangle the federal budget proves that.

Instead, Congressional Republicans have lied, stalled, and - assisted by hacks like David Brooks - pointed the blame finger at Democrats, while never being honest with their base voters that both cuts and revenue increases will be required to go into the federal budget stew if we are to be fiscally responsible, as a nation.

As you can see, the truth about why the sequester is happening is very simple, actually.

One side of our polity is led by craven, spineless twits who refuse to do the hard things, lie about their dedication to fiscal responsibility, and misinform about what the outcome of their irresponsible actions will be on the economy.

One side is being led by those who are willing to make some very hard and ugly choices on the budget - as President Obama and Congressional Democrats are willing to do.

The long overdue discussion isn't over who the American people truly side with. As Ezra Klein noted this weekend, the American people made that choice in the 2012 election - an election overwhelmingly won by President Obama and the Democrats.

So why are Americans still allowing their economy - and their politics - to be grabbed by the monster of sequestration and held hostage, when even a simple one sentance bill could put this monster back in its proper container?

That's the discussion that's been long overdue.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Friday Funday: Getting Out Of Town

While the snow storm that was supposed to hit our home office in Lincoln, Nebraska turned out to be kind of a dud, it did give some of our staff and friends a chance to freak out about The Weather Channel's Jim Cantore being in town. It also gave a chance for a little snowstorm daydreaming on Thursday.

We are, after all, planning some trips this spring, around the country - and admittedly, we're a bit concerned about the latest airline merger announcement between American and U.S. Airways.

If you're like most Americans, when you hear the term "airline merger" you likely grimace as some kind of twisted image flows into your head, possibly resembling a cross between the movies 'Kramer vs. Kramer' and 'Airplane.' Given the less-than-stellar track record of airline mergers in the U.S., we understand your uneasiness.

We remember fondly the warm cookies and top-notch service of Midwest Airlines in years past. We also remember that Frontier Airlines nixed that consumer friendly touch when they took over Midwest - along with most other touches that could be considered consumer, labor, or occasionally human friendly.

Now, we're not saying modern airline service in the U.S. is like a fleet of drones, intent on screwing the passenger - even if that's an apt description of what goes on in most airline executive's suites.

There are still a few examples of high quality, high class airline service, and if you get a chance to experience them, we highly recommend it.

The best example in the U.S. is Virgin Airlines - the airline started by media mogul Sir Richard Branson. Flying on Virgin Airlines is generally the kind of experience that could almost make one remember what it was like when flying was glamorous. These days, Virgin even has some relatively affordable fares - and unlike certain other airlines, you won't worry about getting charged a fee every time the Captain cracks the mic.

Sadly, other than Virgin, no other airline company that flies inside the U.S. makes the list of the world's top airline companies - a fact that doesn't surprise us.

We realize that for Americans who fly often, the most important thing is often whether both you and your bags take off and land on-time, in one piece, and in the same place. If you had the time, you might drive or take the train - and we HIGHLY recommend taking the train, if you have the time.

Still, the most important thing about traveling isn't the ticket price, or getting warm cookies. It's not even making sure you don't end up seated between the man with B.O. and the lady with the screaming baby.

The most important thing is to get to where you're going safely, so you can spend time with the people you're traveling to see.

Of course, a warm cookie and a smile from a well-compensated flight attendant wouldn't hurt once in a while.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Round Trip, A Losing Bet

As our cartoonist Paul stays warm inside our home office in Nebraska, the rest of our staff still have tasks that require traveling in a car today - and may also include putting more gas in the tank. While that kind of pain may not be like the blinding snow hitting the Midwest, fueling most vehicles these days is like gambling with a slot machine where you have no chance of winning.

If it seems to you like the price of gasoline has unexpectedly been going through the roof lately, you're not alone.

Gas prices have risen for 35 straight days across the nation, and could potentially hit record highs well before the traditional summer driving season. Refinery shutdowns have played a small part in driving up the price of oil early this year, and they've certainly been drilling - but the real monster grabbing your paycheck at the pump is the same one that's been drilling Americans ruthlessly for years: The speculators of Wall Street.

What may anger you more is that you may have been helping them do it.

Back in 2010, a Democratically led U.S. House and Senate passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which boosted the regulatory power of agencies like the CFTC and the CFPB - the Commodities Futures Trading Commission and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The problem with Dodd-Frank was that it did not go far enough - and it has not been allowed to go even as far as it was intended to. In July of 2012, two-thirds of Dodd-Frank regulations were not in place. In the latest progress report for the legislation, fully sixty percent of Dodd-Frank rules are still in limbo.

This problem has been made even worse by Republicans like Mitch McConnell in the U.S. Senate, all of whom - like unruly children at bedtime - have insisted on nearly every delaying tactic known to humankind to prevent President Obama from installing powerful directors at agencies like the CFPB. Politically, obstruction is the only tool the GOP seems to currently have, that they know how to use.

What's worse, with the looming sequester on the way, what few lower-level regulators there are may end up like nearly a million other government employees - furloughed, if the sequester cuts go into effect.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street speculators will continue their unethical practices, effectively unchecked - practices nearly identical to the ones that drove the Great Recession of the Bush economy, just over four years ago.

The next time you pull up to the pump, to pull that lever or push that button and get some fuel, you really need to drive that blame bus round trip.

Before you start cussing out the greedy corporate oil executives, or the barely restrained gambling oil speculators on Wall Street, or even the craven and cowardly politicians in Washington, you need to go back to the person who grabbed the wrong lever or pushed the wrong button in the first place. That same person who pushed the button for his or her candidate - but then never pushed that candidate, once elected, to follow through and represent that person's needs. That person who simply yanked the lever and bet that everything would be ok if the candidate whose TV ads they liked won the election, is really the one to blame for not putting the right people, in the right places, to strongly regulate this mess.

That, most likely, would be you.

Too bad our cars and trucks don't get the same milage our American blame game gets.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Monkeying Around With America

With nine days left until the Congressional Republicans once again yank the economic self-destruct lever and send millions of Americans back into the unemployment lines, we're more than a little concerned with our colleagues in the media.

As the deadline has swung ever closer, many in the media apparently have preferred to - literally - fling stories about poo, or screech loudly about how politics just isn't the same as it used to be. There has also been a great deal of unnecessary chest beating and blame-shifting going on surrounding the sequester issue.

Watching the media fail to report this critical issue clearly is more fun than a barrel of monkeys - and we don't mean the child's game. That's actually still fun. This failure? Not so much.

It's not as though coverage of the looming sequester is actually all that complicated. Michael Tomasky of The Daily Beast made it very clear exactly who is responsible for the sequester cuts. Yes, President Obama may have come up with the idea, when the Republicans in Congress held him and the nation economic hostages in August 2011. That was the hostage situation that Republicans thought they won, when Speaker John Boenher said Republicans got 98% of everything they wanted. As Tomasky notes, 218 Republicans in the House voted for that "everything," including the sequester penalty in the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Not a single House Democrat backed the idea.

Even though members of only one party - the Democratic Party - have been willing to compromise, President Obama and many Congressional Democrats have accepted their share of responsibility in passing the 2011 bill that included the sequester. Democrats on Capitol Hill have shown a surprising amount of willingness to find compromise with Congressional Republicans on finding tax and budget solutions that would end the sequester threat.

President Obama even called a press conference Tuesday morning, explicitly detailing what kinds of harsh effects the American people will feel if Congress invokes the sequester by doing nothing. From cancer researchers to workers employed in military support functions, from first responders to teachers, hundreds of thousands of workers will lose their jobs - some as soon as nine days from now. Loan guarantees to small businesses will fall through too - and don't even think about going to the park to get away from it all.

Many parks and monuments will be closed without federal employees to take care of them.

The message that this sequester is not some abstract idea still doesn't seem to be getting through the proto-simian skulls of Congressional Republicans like Mitch McConnell  - who frankly can't afford any more political failures this year. Most of Congress is actually in a similar political situation to McConnell, with overall Congressional approval ratings still scraping the bottom of the proverbial barrel.

Unlike many media pundits, we still think Congress will hang everything on a last-minute solution, and fix things - at least temporarily - before the sequester cuts actually hit in nine days.

After all, even if the GOP continues playing war games with itself, monkeying around with open elected seats while working Americans worry about losing their jobs, there's one game all Republicans hate to lose more than they hate each other - or Democrats.

It's called the "staying employed" game - a game they'll have a nearly impossible time winning in 2014, if the sequester cuts go through.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Red In The Face

As more than one national media figure whined about the relatively slow media day on Monday, we were intently watching the excitement unfold in Nebraska politics in ways we've yet to see or hear anyone else discussing. Of course, if you haven't been watching Nebraska politics, you may have missed a few things.

Over the last few weeks we've mentioned briefly and noted in our links (in our expanded daily editions) the rise and fall of Nebraska Republican Gov. Dave Heineman's destined-to-fail tax reform bill. While Heineman tried to paint a large and rosy picture of his reforms, in less than a month, his plan to shift much of the state's tax burden onto small and medium sized ag businesses - and off of big corporations - blew up in his face.

While Heineman was making a mess of his tax plan, Nebraska's now-former Lieutenant Governor Rick Sheehy was busy making a mess of both his personal and professional life - a mess that ended with Sheehy's resignation in January.

Sheehy had been the Nebraska Republican Party's front-runner to replace Heineman, after Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood removed himself from the 2014 race due to his wife's battle with breast cancer. As we noted at the time of Sheehy's political meltdown, the revelations that led to Lt. Governor's resignation were oddly timed. That resignation cleared the field in Nebraska's political race for Governor at a very opportune time for someone, even though Sheehy's philandering ways had been known by many in media and politics for over a year before his resignation.

Enter the 2014 political races - and announcements galore.

We were not at all surprised by the Monday announcement of extremist Republican state Senator Charlie Janssen that he will be running for Governor in 2014 - especially after the timing of the events surrounding Sheehy. Janssen is an opportunist at his core, and a suddenly empty GOP field is - all too conveniently - the only way he would likely ever get a shot at the Governor's chair.

We were surprised by the announcement on Monday that the senior Senator from Nebraska, Mike Johanns, will not be seeking a second term in 2014. According to a report from Deena Winter of Nebraska Watchdog, Johanns had a cancer scare in 2009, and after consulting with his wife Stephanie, he decided not to seek re-election.

While there were many in the media who immediately began calling the 2014 U.S. Senate race for Heineman on Monday morning, we had a feeling another shoe would drop - which it did Monday afternoon, when current U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry announced that he would consider a run for the U.S. Senate to replace Johanns.

Frankly, we'd love to see someone like state Senator Ernie Chambers run for the seat from the Democratic Party. That said, we're of no illusion that most people in the Western part of Nebraska would ever bring themselves to vote for anything other than someone or SOMETHING that has an "R" attached to it - even a stupid pelican. That means, sadly, that in statewide Senate races, Democrats in Nebraska will likely remain without any politically compatible representation in Washington for the foreseeable future.

What this sets up, from our collective perspective, is a 2014 GOP race for Senate between a relatively moderate Jeff Fortenberry and another Republican - possibly even Gov. Heineman. Fortenberry's primary opponent will likely have to side with the extremists - like those who support racist immigration plans similar to state Senator Janssen's. Remember - Janssen will also be running for the Governor's office in Nebraska in 2014, waiting to paint his far-right, tea party colors all over whomever Fortenberry runs against. If that's Heineman, good luck getting Western Nebraska farm and ag interests to forget about Heineman's tax plan.

In other words, Nebraska will be ground zero for the GOP's civil war for the next two years - barring any other surprise announcements.

If you think Nebraska Republicans are red in the face now, just wait until they begin tearing each other apart in 2014.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Bovine Obstruction

There's something to be said for standing up for one's beliefs. There's also something to be said about bovine-level stupidity and ignorance of the facts.

As we noted at the end of last Friday's commentary, and as Sen. John McCain confirmed on the talking heads shows over the weekend, Chuck Hagel will likely be confirmed as America's next Secretary of Defense. That confirmation is as it should be, because Hagel is, as noted by many including McCain himself, more than qualified for the job of SecDef.

That fact is something that people like Nebraska's embarrassment of a junior U.S. Senator, Deb Fischer, still seems to be actively ignoring, even when it's about to run them over. However, that kind of bovine ignorance is also a convenient opportunity for us to once again knock down the growing chorus of fools making the same old false equivalence between those on the political left and right.

Steve Benen observed that hypocrisy on Friday, pointing out that during nearly the entire Bush/Cheney administration, "Americans were told pretty consistently for seven years that to publicly question the Commander in Chief or stand in the way of his national security agenda was offensive, if not outrageous." Then, as if by magic, the attitude of the Republican Party changed on January 20, 2009. That we are still at war quite obviously doesn't seem to matter to some Republicans now.

Our nation is also currently facing challenges like budgetary issues, a broken immigration system, and severe economic inequality, challenges that are equally as dangerous to America's success as Al-Qaeda has ever been - and just as susceptible to obstructionism. Yet many Republicans in Congress today, constantly preening for their next appearance on Fox or right-wing talk radio, seem to be too busy to move forward on any real legislative work that might defend against these new enemies.

The sad thing is, as Greg Sargent notes, is that Republicans can easily win some of the fights going on in Congress - like the budget battle over the sequester. The sequester isn't just some fiction that Congressional aides have created to scare Congresspersons and make headlines. There will likely be a real and serious economic cost to shrinking our government so suddenly - an economic penalty that Americans do not need to pay.

Yet, even while there are a few Republicans in Congress who appear to be successfully working together on issues like universal background checks for guns and immigration reform, there are those like Sen. Lindsey Graham who would rather take away health care coverage from 30 million Americans than do his job to find budgetary compromise with Democrats that can pass both houses.

The battles that are going on in Congress - like those over the minimum wage - are, as Forbes' Rick Ungar correctly points out, "the perfect stage for expressing the core philosophical differences that exist" between the left and right in America today.

Whether America chooses to move wisely past those differences towards progress as we find compromise with each other where we can, or whether our legislators continue insisting on pointless bovine obstruction - like that seen during the Hagel confirmation delay - is really the most important choice that faces us today.

Let's just say we're more optimistic about some the decisions of some of our fellow Americans than others.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Professional Advice

As our regular readers know, on Fridays, we usually have some fun and offer something a bit lighter for both our commentary and cartoon. We even made a New Year's Resolution of sorts, to try and stick to that goal - which we did, in a way, by delivering a lighter commentary yesterday.

Today's edition demands something different however, thanks to the feckless, selfish Republican fools in the U.S. Senate - though we suppose we don't need to repeat ourselves using those adjectives when saying that about Republican "leaders" today.

In case you missed the focus of our collective ire, it came Thursday afternoon, as the Senate began to wind down business, to join the House for yet another week of vacation. Surprisingly, it wasn't another unhinged rant by some nut like the NRA's Wayne LaPierre that stirred our anger.

No, the reason for frustration was something that's never been done in our Federal government. Ever.

The final vote over President Obama's Secretary of Defense nominee - the former U.S. Senator from Nebraska, Chuck Hagel, was originally scheduled in the Senate for Friday morning. After a day of posturing by Republicans for the benefit of right wing media outlets, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had enough of Republican nonsense, and moved the vote up to Thursday afternoon.

That's when when Senate Republicans, for the first time in history, filibustered the opportunity to vote on a Presidential nominee.

Let us make this clear.

Senate GOP members were so gutless they didn't even have the courage to actually vote against Chuck Hagel. Instead, due to the Senate's arcane procedures, a minority of 40 Republicans prevented the rest of the Senate from being allowed to have a final vote to either accept or reject Hagel's nomination - which is a filibuster, no matter how desperate Republicans are to try and label it otherwise.

No one knows what's going to happen next - but we're willing to bet it isn't going to be good.

Senate sources are fairly sure that after the recess, the Senate will vote again, and Hagel will be confirmed, though we're not sure how they can say that. Four of the six Republican Senators who promised their constituents and the media they wouldn't filibuster, obviously lied on Thursday and filibustered anyway. Only Republicans Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski held true to their word - proving that not all Republicans are craven, short-sighted, ignorant fools. Still - actions like those on Thursday prove that most Republicans in Congress simply can't be trusted on some of the most important issues, including national security.

Right now, GOP leaders in Congress are acting like some of their craziest constituents, people like NRA head nut Wayne LaPierre or an infant child throwing a tantrum - which is effectively the same thing.

We have some advice for how those Republican Leaders SHOULD act, backed up with some critical polling data.

Our message to Senate Republicans is simple: You don't get to pick the President's advisors, or his cabinet members. Period. Your job, with respect to the President's nominees, is simple and is stated clearly in the Constitution: "Advise and Consent."

If the nominee is unqualified for the job they're being asked to take on, have the guts to act like adults, take a stand, and vote the nominee down. If the nominee is qualified - even if you hate the person, personally, or hold a grudge against them - suck it up, and vote them through. There is NOTHING ELSE that is an acceptable reason to hold up a nomination. Period.

This nation WILL be moving forward, with or without Senate Republican obstructionism - as well as those Democrats like Harry Reid, who continue to allow Republicans to obstruct. So our advice to those members who want to continue to delay things is simple: You can either get on board, and help determine our country's destination - or you can be ground under the wheels of progress, like so many worthless, tired old bones.

Think about that on your 'vacation', members of Congress.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Grappling With Valentine's Day

Today is that greeting card holiday above all others, the day celebrated the world over by people doing things that embarrass the people they love, giving gifts likely to make their loved ones fat, dealing with desperate former lovers, or alienating anyone not currently in a loving relationship.

You could just call it Valentine's Day, like most people do.

While the commercialized holiday is a modern invention, very little is known about the historical figure of Saint Valentine. The legend is that he was a priest in Rome about 270 A.D., during a time when the Catholic church was under siege from the Roman government. Valentine supposedly helped marry couples in secret, in direct violation of the law, in order to keep alive the ancient tradition of marriage. For violating that law - among other reasons - Valentine was killed.

In general, our staff tends to be fans of marriage, and of love and tradition. Sadly, when two traditions collide, the result that often occurs is somewhat like that which Saint Valentine experienced: the more coarse and ugly tradition tends to whack the more honorable and respected one.

Something similar appears to have happened this week with the Olympics, to a tradition that goes back almost as far as marriage.

In case you missed it, on Tuesday, the International Olympic Committee - in an action filled with the kind of ugly politics normally reserved for "reality TV" -  voted to drop wrestling from the official roster of Olympic sports. It's a move that seems to defy both logic and the Games' own spirit of ancient challenges being reborn. Wrestling, after all, has been part of the Olympics since its beginnings in ancient Greece - and we don't mean the more recent restart led by Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1896. Try 708 BCE.

While the official reason for dropping wrestling from the Olympics schedule appears to be that there is no longer enough interest, and that TV revenues from wrestling aren't what the IOC wants, those claims belie the facts on the mat.

Of all the sports up for potential elimination, none of them cost as much or appeal to as few people as modern pentathlon - the sport the IOC kept, when they dumped wrestling. Modern pentathlon is an event made up of pistol shooting, show jumping (an equestrian sport), a cross-country run, a freestyle swim, and fencing.

In short, it's a sport for rich people, who appear to have had both the opportunity and the lack of ethics to grease the palms of IOC members enough to keep their sport in the Games.

For now, like a jilted lover, wrestling supporters are going back to the IOC, in an attempt to get wrestling reinstated to the Olympics. Admittedly, they're facing an uphill climb.

Frankly, we're not so sure this isn't a great opportunity for wrestling as a sport to do what proud single men and women the world over can also do today: Change and refine themselves into the most irresistible new thing on the block. Change the rules of the game. Make it sexier. Get those TV contracts. Make the IOC beg to have wrestling back.

Then, when the Committee comes back begging? Ignore them and move on.

After all - if you know what you're truly worth, who needs some idiot begging you to come back? Be proud. Stand tall. And like U.S. Olympic Champion Rulon Gardner, leave it all on the mat.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The State Of The Union: Work, In Progress

Last night's State of the Union address was the kind of incredibly ambitious speech that few Presidents give to begin their second term. President Obama spoke in the tones of a man who knew he has the upper hand on virtually every major topic, from jobs and the economy, to immigration, gun safety, and climate change. From both the current polling, and the obvious fractures between the ridiculous GOP and "tea party" responses, the President's confidence was clearly justified.

The President's speech was, as expected, quite assertive. It was also exactly one hour - neither too long or too short.

It was clear from the beginning that President Obama's address this year would focus a great deal on work, jobs, and the middle class. In addition to mentioning jobs at the outset, he spoke the word "jobs" 45 times during the speech, turning the attention to jobs in virtually every subject.

The political right has long wailed about the deficit, even over the last few years as Americans have overwhelmingly been more concerned about jobs. President Obama knocked down that false meme tonight - hopefully for the last time - when he spoke about the budget, pointedly noting that under his watch, we've already cut the federal deficit by more than $2.5 trillion, through budget cuts as well as tax increases on the wealthiest. He also nailed the biggest problems in our current tax code, noting that common sense demands closing unneeded loopholes before we harm the poorest Americans.

The President also made the logical connection that, to help create more jobs in America, we must invest in America again, on items from infrastructure and clean energy, to how we finance our housing sector, to our education system. He hammered hard the fact that, from preschool to college, America needs to fix not just what and how we teach, but how we fund that education. The President also solidly addressed comprehensive immigration reform, and addressed the Senate's passage of the Violence Against Women Act, and the need to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act.

Then he did something unexpected.

The President called for a raise in the federal minimum wage to $9 per hour. Then President Obama pointedly noted that both he and he former Republican opponent Mitt Romney agreed: America's minimum wage should also be tied to the cost of living, to make it a real, true, living minimum wage.

The President then turned to the issue of war, confirming that "over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan," and that, by the end of 2014, the war there will be done. He further noted that Al-Qaeda is now a shadow of its former self, and that America also has other challenges. From trade with Europe, to diplomacy with Iran, to protecting us from cyberwarfare, to being more transparent about how we conduct our wars, the President made it clear through all of these challenges that our defenses would remain strong, for all Americans - even gay Americans - while we cut waste.

Finally, the President addressed one of the biggest issues - gun safety - and he made it clear to gun-happy extremists, like the NRA, that this issue is not going to fade away. They may not like all the gun safety proposals that will be presented in Congress - but for all those affected by gun violence, EVERY legitimate gun safety proposal deserves a vote.

There was a stark contrast. Some Republicans embarrassed themselves by not clapping for voting rights, not standing for veterans, and not even applauding the 102-year-old Florida woman who waited 3 hours and made two trips to cast her ballot last fall. On the other hand, President Obama's address this year was proudly, unabashedly progressive.

This could be seen and heard most clearly, near the end of his address, when he said, "We were never sent here to be perfect. We were sent here to make what difference we can, to secure this nation, expand opportunity, and uphold our ideals through the hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government."

That is what it truly means to choose progress - and, to our mind, what it means to be American citizens, at our best.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Responsibility & Abdication: The State Of The Union

Tonight, for the fifth time, President Obama will be giving his annual address on the state of our nation. Admittedly, like most of us in the political media, our staff gets pretty excited about this constitutionally mandated ritual.

Several media sources have already leaked information fed to them through various unnamed White House sources, outlining the topics President Obama will likely hit hardest, including infrastructure, energy, education, and nuclear proliferation.

In short, President Obama is going to be assertive, the proper adjective to describe a leader who is sick and tired of his governing partners abdicating their responsibilities, and isn't going to wait for them any longer.

While Republicans in Congress and many Republican voters have abdicated their duties to the President and to their fellow Americans, they haven't even had the courage or decency to formally announce their abdication, as Pope Benedict did on Monday when he resigned the Papacy.

It's quite possible some Republicans don't even realize they've abandoned their proper role on managing resources like our climate, or maintaining our national infrastructure. After all, the Republican Party can't even agree on a single rebuttal to President Obama's address, as both the wounded Republican Party, and the insane "tea party" wing of the GOP will each deliver their own twisted word salad after the President speaks.

The problem for those on the political right isn't just that they can't get along with each other.

Republicans are outwardly admitting that policies they've generated, and actively voted for - like the sequester - are "going to hurt a lot of people" as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor admitted on Sunday. Yet they want to push ahead, needlessly harming their fellow Americans, instead of fixing the real problems.

Congressional Democrats, while more responsible than their Republican colleagues, have also allowed those same GOP members to destroy the reputation of the United States as a beacon of democracy, by blocking Presidential nominations, and indeed attempting to block virtually any action by this President.

It should be obvious that Republicans have failed at leadership, failed at building a cohesive group, and failed at being a responsible opposition party - but it doesn't have to be that way.

As we hope President Obama will note tonight, our nation is strong and healthy, and continuing to get better under his leadership - though we are not as strong or as healthy as we could or should be.

If every American would work together, instead of some abdicating their responsibilities, we are certain our nation can be even better. a feeling we are certain is shared by our President.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Delivering The Future Of The Middle Class

With respect to one of our all-time favorite cartoon characters, Charlie Brown, he hasn't been the only one saying "Good Grief" lately.

The story surrounding the U.S. Postal Service's decision to cut Saturday delivery has cut to the heart of what most Americans believe, and still hope for. We touched on the topic ourselves just last Thursday, pointedly noting that reason the Postal Service is in such a position is because of actions taken by Republicans in the lame-duck session of Congress in 2006.

In the week where the President of The United States presents the State of The Union address to the entire nation, we can think of no better time to directly address why so many Americans have been stunned by what's happening to the United States Postal Service.

One reason is simple: our postal service is most of us, hard-working, middle class Americans.

The U.S. Postal Service has, for much of its existence, been an economic ladder for middle and lower class, blue-collar Americans, and for African Americans and armed forces veterans, especially. For Americans willing to work hard and be trustworthy, their long hours and loyalty to their neighbors and their jobs - especially during the kinds of weather that keep everyone else home -  have been repaid with the kind of decent pay and benefits that the corporate "leaders" in America long ago gutted from their contracts with most U.S. workers.

The U.S. Postal Service has also been the backbone upon which many of those same supposedly "self-made" titans of business have made their fortunes. Without the Postal Service, the hundreds of thousands of jobs at online retailers like Amazon, and more traditional retailers like Target and Wal-Mart would never have happened. Without the Postal Service, private shippers like Fed-Ex and UPS would also be dead in the water.

Still, many of those same private companies are now calling for nearly everything about the Postal Service to be privately contracted out - to them - except, of course, for the most important part of delivery: the last mile. It should be no surprise to anyone that the "last mile" - the portion of delivery that ends up at your door - is also the most expensive and least profitable part of the entire endeavor.

That the Wall Street corporatists want to keep the best and easiest earned profits from postal delivery for themselves, while sticking the American people with the bill for the most expensive part of the business should be no surprise, given the previously unprecedented level of dishonesty and selfishness shown by Wall Street "leaders" over the past few years. It should also be no surprise that no private corporation is willing to pay hard-working Americans a salary worthy of the sacrifices and responsibility being asked of our U.S. Postal Service workers.

President Obama will squarely lay out his case this week in his State of the Union address that it is now time, once again, for job growing investment in America.

After 35 months of positive economic growth, growth that ONLY the private sector was able to enjoy, we completely agree that it is time that America take on the responsible, sensible - some might even argue conservative - actions necessary to conserve those things which are at the very core of what it means to be an American citizen. The idea that hard work, loyalty, honesty, and integrity are keys to a middle class life, through jobs like those in the USPS, is chief among them.

There should be no argument that our constitutionally mandated U.S. Postal Service - and the ladder to middle class status it provides - is one of those great things about our nation which must be protected and conserved. It is as iconically, uniquely American as apple pie and Charlie Brown.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Friday Funday: It's Not All Going To The Dogs

There are times when even we, who work in the media, look at all the stories flashing through the headlines and wonder if the world is going to the dogs.

'Superstorm Nemo' whacking the Northeast this weekend certainly isn't helping with our mood.

From the media frenzy early this week surrounding now former Nebraska Lt. Governor Rick Sheehy, to the bombastic "Made-for TV" - but not for answers - hearings with CIA nominee John Brennan on Capitol Hill on Thursday, to the U.S. Postal Service deciding to cut Saturday service, many of the stories that have filled the headlines this week weren't exactly positive motivation for the soul.

There were even stories that scared the hell out of some of our staff - like the massive asteroid set to "buzz" Earth sometime next week.

Some local and regional media stories were a bit more positive. For example, Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman's proposed reverse Robin Hood-style tax overhaul plan was greeted in the Nebraska Legislature with groans from state senators, and upturned noses from nearly all of Nebraska's business interests, large and small alike. The GOP's vote rigging attempt in Virginia also went down in flames this week - so not every story was going to the dogs.

In fact, an unusual economic indicator this week went to a cat instead.

Hasbro, the makers of the iconic 80-year old board game Monoopoly, held an online contest recently, to have fans of the game help them replace one of their legendary playing pieces. The new piece, as chosen by fans of the game was - unsurprisingly - a cat.

Fans had to pick one new playing piece from a selection including a robot, a helicopter, a guitar, a diamond ring, and of course the cat. The fans also had to choose to get rid of of one the classic pieces, and fans chose to axe the iconic iron.

Even if the iron was your favorite playing piece, there's no reason to howl about it.

International economics journalist Howard Schneider penned a piece in the Washington Post pointing to a whole pack of economic signs that show the Monopoly choice of cat over iron is actually another positive sign the economy is getting better - and not just here in America.

Voters for the Monopoly election input their digital votes from 120 different countries - and the story made news in media organizations from around the globe. If people around the world - and media organizations around the world - have the time and energy to focus on a story about playing pieces for a board game, the economy, generally, should be looking up.

Thankfully, more accurate economic indicators confirm - things are better than much of the media may have led you to believe recently, both here in the U.S. and abroad.

So enjoy the weekend - even if Superstorm Nemo has found you and snowed you in. In fact, the storm may be the perfect reason for you to pull out your own Monopoly game to play with some friends or family.

Just make sure to leave the dog token for us.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Being Unprepared Bites

Change is a simple fact of life, albeit one that many people - including some our staff, at times - aren't always prepared for. It's often not so much the change itself that's disturbing to people, as it is the pace of change.

The United States is going through some pretty rapid changes on many different levels right now. The Republican Party is finding that out the hard way on immigration. President Obama is finding that out as his replacement Cabinet appointees - like John Brennan - run headlong into the stiff political headwinds on Capitol Hill. But the GOP isn't the only organization finding its lack of preparation for the future biting them in the backside.

The Boy Scouts of America - the group whose motto is 'Be Prepared' - have not been prepared to deal with the reality of gay people existing, or wanting to be involved with their group. After a closed-door meeting by the BSA's national board on Wednesday, it was clear the Boy Scouts still aren't prepared to follow through on their proposal to ease their bigoted ban on gay Scouts and scouting leaders.

It doesn't seem to matter to BSA leaders that a solid majority of Americans think there is nothing wrong with openly gay Scouts or scouting leaders.

While the decision has only been postponed temporarily, as Iowan Zach Wahls, founder of the group Scouts for Equality, noted Wednesday, "By postponing this decision, the BSA has caved to those who argue that their anti-gay attitudes trump basic scouting values of kindness, courtesy and bravery."

Another even more iconic American organization isn't waiting to move forward any more.

On Wednesday, the United States Postal Service announced that starting August 1, 2013, they would eliminate Saturday service for all items except packages. This was a tough decision for them to make, but it's one that they've been considering for over a decade, as Esquire's Jesse Lichtenstein pointed out.

In fact, the U.S. postal service has been attempting to modernize and adjust its services and budget since the late 1990s, when it became obvious that the internet was going to change the entire postal business model.

During most of that time, Republicans in Congress, desperately hoping to privatize the Constitutionally established postal service, stood in the way of the Postal Service's modernization plans. In fact, in 2006, the GOP-led Congress made those problems worse with the Orwellian-named 'Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act' - an action that forced the postal service to pre-fund 75 years’ worth of pensions for its employees at a 100% rate, a burden no other public or private institution in America has to match.

As Felix Salmon of Reuters points out, it's unknown if the Postal Service can make the change to weekday only service because - as outlined under current federal law - doing so without Congressional authorization is completely illegal for them. However, as both outside studies and the postal service's own research have proven, if they're not allowed to put into action their plan for self-reliance - a plan that will very likely work - they face the unconstitutional option of obsolescence.

Even if Congress has held them back, at least the Postal Service has been prepared with a plan for the future.

For the Boy Scouts, that lack of preparation - and courage - may yet bite them in the backside.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Zombies & Head Cases

The old axiom about insanity - that it's doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results - has been attributed to many different people over the years, including both Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein.

While we've used the maxim many times over the years, we've long ago given up on trying to track down exactly which person said it. Unlike so-called leaders in both the NFL and the GOP, we're not insane.

Unfortunately, like some kinds of zombies, both professional football and the Republican Party seem to be returning to their abnormally insane equilibrium, even in the face of mounting evidence that it doesn't take a genius to understand.

For football, even as the "off-season" ramps up, football addicts are getting ready for the arena football season. Even as the President expressed his concern for the increasing level of dangerous injuries in football last week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell insisted there is really no problem - and certainly no coverup - of brain damage from playing football. Goodell, in fact, insisted that his entire industry has been attempting to make the game safer, as though his words would make it so.

Doctors and scientists, however, from places like Johns Hopkins University continue to cite the scientific facts that prove Goodell is either woefully uninformed, completely incompetent, or lying to himself about the dangers of continuing to do things the same old way.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor must have been taking tips from Goodell.

On Tuesday, Cantor scheduled what he and others on the right were billing as a major announcement about how the Republican Party was going to be rebranding itself as a better, happier, smarter party.

It might have helped Cantor's credibility on the rollout of this "new" GOP if he hadn't scheduled his announcement at the same time as President Obama's Tuesday media event. It also might have helped if Cantor and the Republicans were actually willing to change their zombie-like policy directions, from dead stupid to something vaguely resembling what Americans really want.

We will give Cantor credit for gently and indirectly endorsing the principles of the DREAM Act. A sign that at least he may not be completely brain dead, even if tea party House Republicans today held a meeting where they insisted no such immigration reform were needed.

Meanwhile, the clock kept ticking today - another day closer to the Sequester cuts that continue to threaten America's growing economy and shrinking deficits under President Obama.

While President Obama called for a logical short-term extension to push off the economy-harming cuts that some Republicans favor, Republican Speaker John Boehner insisted Congressional Republicans were not going to stop the cuts. Senate Republicans insisted they were going to filibuster more Obama nominees, especially to agencies that oversee parts of the economy, like the Treasury and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Maybe now you can see why we thought of zombies and insanity today.

We don't expect any of these intellectual zombies to change anytime in the near future - so just like in football, expect the hits to just keep on comin'.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Bottom Drops Out

In journalism, when an interview or a major media event first happens, there are nearly always easy if not critically important questions to be asked when the first round of information emerges.

In the case of the resignation of Nebraska's now ex-Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy, the Omaha World-Herald did a stellar job of investigative journalism, by asking the right first-round questions, and performing some serious journalism.

We now have all kinds of exacting details about the hours Sheehy spent flirting when he should have been performing work for the citizens of Nebraska, and even more details about the Bellevue doctor with whom Sheehy was having an affair. We even have a seemingly exhausting "tick-tock" that tells us when the World-Herald asked for information on Sheehy, and how they conducted their investigation.

The problem we're noticing now, however, is that both national and local media conveniently seem to think the story is over, now that the bottom has dropped out of Sheehy's political future.

Everyone from the local TV stations, to the local newspapers, to the conservative-leaning Nebraska political rumor-blog Leavenworth Street have already moved on to speculating about who might be running for Governor in Nebraska in 2014.

The questions almost no one seems to have the courage to ask are the same questions we began asking on Monday:

Who knew about Sheehy's affairs - and who would benefit politically from this information coming out now, just as the 2014 pre-election machines are beginning to rev up?

While Gov. Heineman did admit to the World-Herald he'd heard rumors of Sheehy's outside relationships, we know more than a few people in both the Nebraska and national news media and political scenes who also knew about Sheehy's dalliances.

Those people speculating that Gov. Heineman may have been looking to replace Sheehy with another better-behaved second in command more suitable for grooming for the Governor's office may have missed a key piece of news. Heineman has explicitly said he does not want his new appointee to become a candidate for governor in 2014.

We're more than willing to admit at least one member of our staff had heard, over a year ago, both rumors and confirmed accounts of questionable actions in public by Sheehy. Since neither kind of information involved Sheehy performing official state business while acting inappropriately, our staffer scoffed, but did no further digging. Being a cad may offend the ethical sensibilities of many, but it's not nearly the worst thing an elected official has done in his or her private time - and unless that official breaks the law, it's not a story.

That said, the individual who spurred the World-Herald to dig beyond the rumors may not even be someone in Nebraska politics. For the record, we've already got our eye on a few potential players, with means, motive, and opportunity, on both the local and national levels.

The public may never truly know the answer of why this information came out now, instead of earlier - or who was really behind the politics of the story.

After all, in a 24-7 image-focused media world, once the primary story drops into the proverbial drink, out of view and no longer with photogenic images to go along with the story, modern media executives quickly lose interest in paying for the work of investigative journalism.

At least in this case, we're very glad the World-Herald went swimming in the muck, and came up with the truth.