Against Issue 1

Next week City of Columbus residents will go to the polls to vote on Issue 1.  Unlike other elections that are coming up in the next few months, I’ll go to the polls on Tuesday with anticipation, not trepidation, to vote against a colossally bad idea.

Issue 1 would change the structure of Columbus’ City Council.  Currently, the Council has seven members, all of whom are elected on an at-large basis by the city as a whole.  Issue 1 would create a 13-member Council, 10 of whom would represent designated wards within the city, with the remaining three being at-large members.  As the city grows, the number of wards could increase, and ultimately the Council could include as many as 25 members.

db037dcb22d918789a9be47067b41c61The proponents and opponents of the proposed changes have been debating the merits of Issue 1, and the Columbus Dispatch has come out against the issue.  In a nutshell, supporters of Issue 1 argue that the current council format produces members who aren’t paying attention to the needs of particular neighborhoods, and a ward system — where neighborhoods would be electing a specific member — would inevitably change that.  Opponents focus on the fact that the proposed ward boundaries haven’t been drawn yet, and the Dispatch argues that, while arguments could be made for restructuring the current approach to electing City Council because of concerns about corruption and cronyism, a ward system would balkanize the city.

I’m against Issue 1 for several reasons.  First, I think a ward system is likely to increase corruption, not reduce it.  That’s been the problem in many cities, where developers co-opt ward bosses to support pet projects in their wards in exchange for hefty campaign contributions.  Second, an increase in the size of City Council inevitably would increase administrative costs and add new people to the local government payroll — all to perform the very same function that has been performed capably by a much smaller group.

Finally, I think the existing Council system has worked pretty darned well.  Columbus has grown and prospered, and that’s due in part to the fact that City Council is focused on the city as a whole.  For decades now, Columbus city government has largely operated by consensus and without the fractious discord that has affected other cities.  I’m sure there are some neighborhoods that feel neglected in comparison to others, but the overall progress is undeniable.  Run a Google search on Columbus and you’ll find lots of articles talking about what a great city it has become.  Why change what has worked so well?

A Gutless Wonder

Washington, D.C. is all agog about “Congressman X,” the Democratic member of Congress who has anonymously penned a 65-page book called “The Confessions of Congressman X” about how corrupt, cynical, and phony members of Congress are.  One chapter, for example, is entitled “Harry Reid’s a Pompous Ass.”

Well, of course he is.  In fact, so is every member of Congress.  And, for that matter, so is “Congressman X.”

5_122016_xman8201_c0-562-850-1057_s885x516Here’s what I want to know:  why doesn’t Congressman X confess for the record?  Why doesn’t he have the guts to identify himself and express those opinions for attribution?

In my view, the sad tale of “Congressman X” is the problem, writ large, with our “public servants” right now.  They’re gutless.  They’re so chickenshit, one and all, irrespective of party, that they gladly prostitute themselves for lobbyists and spend all of their time fundraising so they can be returned to the Washington merry-go-round next term.  And when “Congressman X” nears the end of his “service,” he writes an anonymous tell-all book so he can make even more money from his period of “public service.”  It’s tawdry and appalling — but it’s so Washington, D.C.

No one has the fortitude or the principles to stand up and be counted.  And that’s why we have a dysfunctional government in which the legislative branch — which the Founders designed to be the most powerful of the coordinate branches of government — has steadily yielded power to the executive branch and the judiciary, to the point where we now have a federal government that is largely governed by executive decree rather than legislation considered, drafted, and debated by the “people’s representatives.”

So I say that “Congressman X” can bite me.  A pox on his house, and a pox on all of their houses.  Won’t anyone in D.C. stand up and be counted for a change?


“That’s What They Offered”

This morning I asked a very close friend — a lifelong, dyed in the wool Democratic voter — if Hillary Clinton had said anything interesting in last night’s New Hampshire town hall event on CNN.  She grimaced and said that when Anderson Cooper had asked whether Clinton regretted being paid $675,000 to give speeches to Goldman Sachs during the time period between her service as Secretary of State and her decision to run for President, Clinton said no — and when Cooper followed up by asking whether she had to be paid that much money, Clinton said:  “Well, I don’t know . . . that’s what they offered.”


160203221242-nh-town-hall-bernie-clinton-split-large-169Look, I recognize that this is one of those issues that we’re not going to agree on.  Hillary Clinton supporters will say that this is just another effort by Hillary Haters to tar Clinton on an issue when everyone who has served in an important public office makes a lot of money giving speeches, and anyway Clinton couldn’t possibly be corrupted by making $675,000 for giving three speeches.  If you’re a Hillary supporter, you believe Clinton when she says precisely that, and can’t understand others who don’t take her word for it.  (I should note. though, that Clinton’s later statement that the financial folks aren’t giving her a lot of money since she officially declared for President has been vigorously challenged by some journalists.)

But consider, please, what a terrible message Clinton’s rationalization sends.  Basically, it’s saying that everyone who engages in “public service” cashes in and, in her case, gets paid more for making three speeches than many people make over a 20-year career and far more than most Americans have saved for their retirements.  You can say that it doesn’t change your position on the issues, or give the people who paid that $675,000 special access, or make you any more likely to agree with what they have to say if you ultimately make it to the Oval Office, but such statements are very difficult for the ordinary voter to accept.  To most of us, $675,000 is a hell of a lot of money.

And how can you possibly complain about the corrupting nature of campaign finance laws, where issues organizations that technically aren’t affiliated with your campaign can contribute toward commercials that provide support for your candidacy or attack your opponents, when you’ve taken $675,000 that is paid to you, personally, for giving three speeches?  Ask most people what is worse — a direct payment of hundreds of thousands of dollars to the ultimate candidate, or indirect support through advertisements — and I’d bet that the majority say the direct approach is far more troubling.

But more damning still is the phrasing that Hillary Clinton used in her answer:  “that’s what they offered.”  It makes you wonder whether Goldman Sachs could have paid any amount that would have given Clinton pause.  $1 million?  $2 million?  $5 million?  It sounds like Hillary Clinton is allowing Goldman Sachs to define her ethical boundaries — which, unfortunately, seems to suggest that she doesn’t have much in the way of ethical boundaries in the first place.

As I said, I’m sure that Hillary Clinton’s supporters will pooh-pooh her answer and the amount she was paid for giving the speeches as another trumped-up tempest in a teapot.  They will accuse critics of being hypocrites.  But I think the Wall Street speech issue, and Clinton’s response to it, neatly capsulizes a much more significant, disturbing issue about the crushing presence of money in politics.  It’s a big reason why Bernie Sanders is vastly outperforming inside-the-Beltway expectations.

The Afghan Ingrate

Boy, that Hamid Karzai is a real peach, isn’t he?  The United States frees his country from the grip of the repressive Taliban, restores democracy to Afghanistan, and supports Karzai during long years where he doesn’t seem to be interested in much of anything except trying to line his own pockets and dodge responsibility for everything that happened in the country he was supposed to be governing, and he can’t leave office without taking a few parting shots at the U.S. of A.

After 13 years as president, the jug-eared Karzai and his trademark cap are finally leaving office with the same class, intense gratitude, and willingness to accept full responsibility that have characterized his years in power.  In his farewell speech, he blamed the United States for the ongoing war with the Taliban and said “that the Americans did not want peace because they had their own agenda and objectives.” 

We didn’t spend the blood of our soldiers and billions of dollars to prop up a tinpot like Hamid Karzai, we took out the Taliban to try to rid the world of safe haven for Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups.  We tried to rebuild Afghanistan after the depredations of the Taliban and create a democracy in hopes of preventing terrorism from taking root again.  That’s why we ended up with Hamid, the corrupt hack — and now it’s galling to have to listen to the criticism of “leaders” like Karzai, who never would have been in a position of any influence but for the United States.

Hamid Karzai is a good example of the old adage that if you lie down with a dog, you get up with fleas.

Things Have Changed, And Not For The Better

Peggy Noonan has a nice — and thought-provoking — piece in today’s on-line Wall Street Journal about Harry Truman after his presidency ended entitled “Politics in the Modest Age.”  I urge you to read it, but the basic thrust is this:  Truman didn’t cash in.

He had been president for almost eight years, had brought World War II to a close, and had presided over the Marshall Plan; he had issued executive orders, launched into the Korean War, and guided the federal government during the first crises of the Cold War.  He was an ordinary man who had been a fine President, and after his term ended he tried to go back to an ordinary life.  He returned to Missouri and lived with his beloved wife, Bess, highly conscious of not being perceived as trading on his office or his service to the nation.

Contrast Truman’s humble approach 60 years ago to the prevailing approach today, where ex-President and ex-Senators and ex-Cabinet members make millions by giving hour-long speeches, serving on boards, and writing biographies that receive huge advances.  The culture of cash goes deep: just yesterday Politico reported that Jay Carney, President Obama’s former press secretary, received a “signing bonus” to join a speakers bureau where he could earn up to $100,000 per speech; he’s entertaining job offers and has hired a Washington, D.C. “super lawyer” to negotiate any deals.  What does it tell you when even the President’s flack can leave office and be showered with money?

We could use more Harry Trumans and less money-grubbers in Washington, D.C.

Lifestyles Of The Kids Of The Rich And Famous

Some stories are reporting on how much Chelsea Clinton has been paid for her gig with NBC News.  Politico reported that she was paid $600,000 annually when she accepted a special correspondent role in November 2011, and her contract was later changed to a month-to-month term to allow her and the network to cut ties quickly if Hillary Clinton runs for President.  Another website calculated how much she had been paid for each minute she’s been on the air, and it’s a big number.  For its part, NBC isn’t commenting.

If you were Chelsea Clinton, would you take such a deal?  Of course you would!  If the reported numbers are even close to accurate, it’s just too much money to turn down.  You’d rationalize it as a chance to make your voice heard and offer your unique perspective, and maybe you’d feel you were even owed it because you’ve had to endure the spotlight.  Why not make your family more comfortable?  And if you’re even remotely considering a political career at some point in your future, why not add to your potential campaign nest egg, and try to increase your public visibility and Q rating at the same time?

Did NBC News get the raw end of the deal?  I doubt it.  I’m guessing they weren’t hiring Chelsea Clinton because she was likely to become the most hard-charging journalist in the NBC News stable or even the most deft reporter of feel-good features.  Instead, they likely thought that hiring her would be seen by the vast network of Clinton supporters as doing a favor for a valued friend — and that perception could pay huge dividends in countless ways, whether it’s obtaining access to political or cultural figures or helping to get an important legislative initiative across the finish line on Capitol Hill.

It’s the way the game is played these days in Washington, D.C., where current and former politicians routinely become millionaires and members of their families benefit, too.  Whether they are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for speeches, or are offered sweetheart investment opportunities by admiring allies, or become expensive talking heads on the news networks, the class of former politicians often seem to be awash in cash.  Is it any wonder that so many hard-working Americans, who cannot imagine what it would be like to make $600,000 a year for an occasional TV appearance, consider Washington, D.C. to be such a despicable and fundamentally corrupt place?

Exposing The Illinois Way

The corruption trial of former Ilinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is red meat for political junkies and those who enjoy exposing the seamy side of politics.  It makes for good reading if you want to be disabused of naive thoughts about how our political processes often work.  John Kass’s column today discusses some of the details that are emerging.

It helps to remember that, for every altruistic do-gooder who goes into politics to save the world, there are many others who go into politics to line their pockets and the pockets of their friends.   Guess which category is more successful?

Attention And Accountability

Rep. Charles Rangel

Rep. Charles Rangel

The ongoing stories about Congressman Charles Rangel’s failure to disclose significant assets and transactions, and even checking and brokerage accounts, in his congressional disclosure forms is just another example of the culture of contempt for the rules and disdain for the little guy that is so sickeningly pervasive in Washington, D.C.

The whole purpose of congressional disclosure rules is to report assets, outside income, and other financial data that could suggest corruption with respect to the industries Congress is regulating.  Rangel is the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which is responsible for tax litigation in the House of Representatives.  What position could be a more likely focus of special treatment and sweetheart deals designed to obtain undue influence?  If the congressional self-reporting system were intended to be a meaningful regulatory regime, you would think it would be especially attentive to proper, full, and complete disclosure by the heads of powerful committees — yet Rangel grossly understated his income and net worth and failed to disclose lucractive transactions for years.  Once his omissions were disclosed, he promptly amended his forms and no doubt will claim “no harm, no foul.”  Care to bet whether he will be disciplined in any way by the House Ethics Committee for his chronic flouting of the disclosure rules?  Don’t hold your breath.

Frankly, it gets boring writing about the personal greed, negligence and ethical vacuity of our elected representatives, but if informed citizens don’t do so the corruption problem won’t get any better.  People like Chairman Rangel need to know that some people are paying attention, even if the voters who routinely return him to Congress apparently aren’t.

Fly Coach, Instead

I realize that $550 million is but a drop in the seemingly bottomless bucket that is the federal budget, but I am still irked at Members of Congress for spending that sum to buy new jets to ferry them around on their boondoggle “fact finding” trips. At a time of belt-tightening by average Americans, is it too much to ask Congress to engage in some self-restraint? Are our elected representatives so possessed of a sense of self-importance that they can’t even rub elbows with those of us who fly coach?

And speaking of boondoggle fact-finding missions, this Wall Street Journal article about rapidly growing congressional travel expenses is an eye-opener. One nice thing about global warming — it is such an elastic “issue” that virtually any trip to any location on Earth may be explained away as giving lawmakers first-hand information about climate change in that part of the world.

It is not surprising that both Republicans and Democrats are willing to spend tax dollars to take fine trips without apparently experiencing an ounce of embarrassment that they are taking advantage of their positions. It’s just another example of The D.C. Effect, where politicians who initially are elected as reformers or watchdogs or representatives of the common man end up being fundamentally corrupted by the money and perks thrown at Members of Congress.

Who To Believe?

It appears that the Senate Ethics Committee is investigating the “sweetheart” mortgage deals that Countrywide Financial Corp. gave to Senators Chris Dodd and Kent Conrad.  According to this article, the Committee recently received secret testimony from a former Countrywide employee who testified that the Senators knew that they were getting special treatment and went ahead with the deals anyway.  The Senators deny knowing that they were receiving special deals.  So, who to believe — the Senators who chair the Senate Banking Committee and Budget Committee and accepted the deals without raising questions, or the dubious corporate flunky who made sure the deals got done?

Nothing New Under The (Chicago) Sun

This article discusses how the campaign organization of U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. has directly paid his wife more than $200,000 in the last 8 years, including almost $100,000 in the last two years, when she also has been purportedly serving on Chicago City Council. His organization also has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to her campaign organization. What has she done to deserve such compensation? Well, she’s apparently a consultant!

I freely admit that I am a cynic about such activities, but I still am frequently amazed by the brazenness of this kind of behavior. The harsh reality is that our political classes are awash in cash — they have to raise staggering sums of money to get elected, and then when they get to Washington they have access to staggering sums of taxpayer dollars to spend. This process is necessarily corrupting, and becomes all the more so when congressional redistricting results in gerrymandered, ever more safely drawn seats that are obviously Democratic or obviously Republican. When you have incumbents who can go decades without being seriously challenged, who can easily raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from lobbyists whose legislative agenda falls within the incumbent’s committee assignments, and colleagues who are perfectly content to engage in mutual back-scratching and logrolling, you end up with this kind of system.

Anyone who thinks that there is going to be broad, meaningful change in the American body politic under these circumstances is dreaming foolish dreams, soon to be dashed.