Monthly Archives: February 2013

Common Core debate has disturbing side

A disturbing aspect of the debate over the Common Core Standards, a curriculum developed by state governments and implemented in 44 states, is that the state’s routine attacks on the federal government have spread. Alabama now seems to resent its association with the other states of the union.

The Alabama Legislature, with considerable support from the people, has been waging a legislative war against the federal government since at least 2010.Many of the laws the Legislature has passed since then, and the showcase bills this session, violate the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Federal law trumps state law, a fact some Alabamians resent. Even knowing the passage of unconstitutional laws inevitably results in futile and expensive litigation, some Alabamians support state laws that purport to reject federal authority.

There are compelling arguments that federal power has exceeded the scope envisioned by the Founding Fathers, largely because of the Commerce Cause. Interstate commerce, an anomaly when the Constitutional Convention of 1787 took place, now is pervasive.

Like the state Legislature, Congress constantly tries to maximize its power. The Constitution, of course, provides mechanisms to scale back federal involvement in the states. Unilateral state action — the method Alabama has pursued with enthusiasm — is not one of those options.

The Common Core curriculum, adopted by the state’s elected Board of Education in 2010, is not a creature of the federal government. It originated with the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. It is a voluntary and state-led effort to implement the best standards developed in 50 state “laboratories.” It provides uniformity, so a student transferring from one state to another can expect consistency.

The primary argument legislators make in seeking to overrule the state Board of Education involves claims of federal overreach. Common Core, though, is not a federal program. Common Core would have been entirely appropriate even before the Supremacy Clause made its debut in 1787, because it involves voluntary cooperation among the states.

Some legislators seek to argue the merits of the course of study, but their arguments are inherently weak. An elected Board of Education, with input from superintendents, teachers and other experts, studied Common Core carefully before adopting it. Taxpayers already have paid for most of the transition costs.

As board member Mary Scott Hunter — a frequent critic of federal overreach — told legislators at a committee meeting Wednesday, “I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, and I don’t want you to tell me how to do mine.”
Many Alabamians have a philosophical problem with expansive federal power. The hostility toward Common Core, however, suggests the frustration with the federal government has expanded into resentment of our status as one of the United States of America.

We are Alabamians, but we also are Americans. Healthy disputes over federal authority need not undermine our national pride.

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Filed under Alabama politics, education, States' rights

Sequester is educational

As damaging as automatic spending cuts will be to north Alabama, they are a reminder of how much the state relies on federal funding.
In Alabama, as the state GOP frequently reminds us, we dare defend our rights. The state’s incessant legislative rebellions against our federal government create the illusion that Alabama would be better off without it.
At least financially, sequestration gives specifics to the economic fact that poor states such as Alabama are heavily dependent on out-of-state tax dollars that flow here through the federal government. We understand our reliance when it comes to major employers such as Redstone Arsenal and NASA, but it’s easy to miss the numerous local programs that survive on federal dollars.
Even as we occasionally complain about the taxes we pay to support such programs, it turns out much of the support comes from taxpayers outside Alabama. Federal dollars help our schools, our mental health facilities, our hospitals, our environmental programs, our police departments, our universities, our small businesses and our programs for the elderly.
The people of many states pay more in federal taxes than they get back. Alabamians, however, get back more than $2 for every dollar they pay. As we focus on what we don’t like about the federal government, it is healthy for us to understand the financial benefits it provides.

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Filed under Alabama politics, Conservatism, Sequester

Legislators want to control curriculum, now

The state’s legislators, almost all of whom campaigned on promises of limited government, are intent on expanding their authority as far as possible.

The Legislature appears poised to reverse or hamper the Common Core Standards curriculum. Their fear is that it somehow represents an expansion of federal control.

The people of the state elected a Board of Education to deal with school issues, but the Legislature — despite a complete lack of expertise in educational issues — seems incapable of letting the board do its job.

The Board of Education adopted the Common Core curriculum for good reasons, the same reasons that most superintendents and local school boards support it and 44 other states have joined Alabama in adopting it. The standards benefit from the collective experiences of the states and they make it feasible for families to move from one state to another.

Common Core is not, despite legislators’ paranoia, a federal program. The National Governors Association sponsored the initiative. The U.S. Education Department recognizes the benefits of Common Core, but the agency did not develop it and is not a significant player in its implementation.

The members of the state Board of Education, elected by the people, studied the Core Curriculum extensively and adopted it. Rather than seeking ways to expand their authority into areas in which they have no expertise, the Legislature should defer to those who do.

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Filed under Alabama politics, education, States' rights

House owns sequestration

One of the most irrelevant public debates of recent years is on the question of who proposed the sequester, a set of automatic budget cuts that will cause considerable pain in north Alabama beginning Friday.
The short answer appears to be that the proposal came from the White House.
Blaming President Barack Obama for the sequester, however, is like blaming a mugging victim for handing over his wallet when a gun was pointed at his head.
As bad as the sequester is for the economy, failure to raise the debt ceiling in 2011 would have been much worse. The resulting cuts would have been deeper, the default on existing debt payments would have undermined U.S. credit and the combination would have sent the United States — and probably many other nations — back into recession.
The U.S. House — including Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville — was adamant it would not increase the debt ceiling in 2011, even though the increase only allowed the nation to honor debts Congress already had incurred. The sequester, designed to be less catastrophic than default but painful enough to force compromise, was the ransom the White House paid to keep the House from crashing the economy.
If federal spending poses as immediate a threat as Brooks and other House members claim, they should be proud. Good or bad, the House owns sequestration.

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Filed under Debt ceiling, Deficit, Sequester

Never waste a crisis

“Never let a serious crisis go to waste. What I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things you couldn’t do before.”

Many of the same people who complained about the above comment, made in late 2008 by President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, are following the strategy religiously.

The crisis in both cases was the U.S. recession and the economic lethargy that followed.

Emmanuel’s point had a basis in mainstream economic thought. Obama came into office in the worst recession since the Great Depression. Consumer demand had fallen sharply, leading to a malignant cycle. Retailers and manufacturers laid off workers because they could not sell their products. Increasing unemployment reduced demand even more, causing more layoffs.

The conventional response to this cycle, which has been used effectively by both parties when dealing with lesser recessions, is to restore demand through deficit spending. If the federal government makes up for the drop in consumer demand — either through direct spending or by transferring cash to people who will spend it — manufacturers will start hiring again, their employees will start spending again, and before long the malignant cycle will become virtuous. The deficit spending can end as the market gets back on track.

Emmanuel’s point was that as long as deficit spending was necessary, it may as well be spent in ways that advance specific policy goals.

Completely separate from the economics of the recession, some in America have long sought a minimalist government. For some it is a philosophical view that equates any growth in government with a loss of individual freedom. For others — including many with lots of money — it is more pragmatic. Government requires revenue, which comes more from those who make a lot of money than from those who don’t.

Government also plays a critical role in protecting society from harmful profiteering. Businesses prefer to operate without interference.

Advocates of a minimalist government face an obvious political problem in a democracy. The government they resent was designed by the people to protect the people. The taxes that support the government tend to benefit the majority at the expense of a wealthy minority. The self-interested inclination of the majority, therefore, would be to support a robust and responsive government.

It was a hard sell, but the minimalists had two advantages. One, they had a small but energetic movement, the tea party, which was philosophically opposed to many government functions. Two, and most important, they had money. Lots of it. The coupling of those who philosophically opposed government with those who just wanted to maximize profits created a potentially powerful movement.

The recession provided the crisis needed to expand the movement into mainstream politics.
Economic anxiety provides a fertile ground for political change, and beginning in 2008 there was plenty of anxiety. The public lost sight of the fact that deregulation was a primary cause of the recession and that safety nets were more important than ever.

The other advantage held by advocates of a downsized government was the federal debt.

Undisciplined spending by both parties had ballooned the debt since the last year of surplus, 2001. Recessions always increase the deficit and thus add to national debt. They do so because the reduction in economic activity reduces tax revenue and increases welfare costs. Deficits also increase because the most effective response to recessions — one used successfully by both parties since the Great Depression — is stimulus spending.

Former President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama pushed through some stimulus, but they underestimated the severity of the recession. The result was ideal for the political goals of the tea party and the tax-averse plutocrats who backed it. The deficit increased, both because of decreased revenue and a stimulus program that was only marginally effective. Two ongoing wars and a non-stimulative tax cut under Bush also increased the debt.

Suddenly, the anti-government crowd had a crisis it could sell to the general population. With cries of impending national bankruptcy, the two forces for minimal government combined to sweep the 2010 mid-term elections. Campaign funding was no problem, because political contributions were an investment for those whose primary goal was merely to reduce their tax bill and the costs associated with regulation.

The nation continues to suffer from the tea party response to the recession. While the specific policies Obama pushed may be subject to criticism, the important thing was that he was engaging in the deficit spending the economy needed. After January 2010, when Democrats lost a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, Obama lost the ability to push through increased stimulus. The result is high unemployment and continued economic lethargy. Ironically, that means the private sector is unable to generate the revenue to significantly reduce the deficit.

Both sides tried to capitalize on a crisis. Obama’s approach would have eased the crisis. The tea party approach compounded it.

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Filed under Conservatism, Recession, stimulus, Tea party

Fear is a risky political tool

“It’s very tempting for politicians to build up some political capital and say, ‘Yeah, you’re scared and I’m here to rescue you.’ But it really doesn’t work so well for thoughtful problem solving.”
With this comment, State Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, articulated a political truism that Alabama politicians have perfected. Indeed, they are so good at it that they sometimes pay a price.
For years, the dominant strategy of Alabama politicians has been to exacerbate the fears of those they represent. Because there is no “off” switch for public fears, they have trouble reversing course.
Immigration is a case in point. Undocumented immigrants have been vilified by state politicians. They are stereotyped as drug dealers and felons, even though a much lower percentage commit felonies than do Alabama citizens. A classic example came from U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville.
“In Madison County, we’ve had more people killed or murdered by illegal aliens than we’ve lost in Iraq and Afghanistan combined,” Brooks said in 2011. It was a frightening statement, designed to inflame. He did not mention the Madison County death toll in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars at the time: two. A single DUI in Madison County, allegedly caused by an undocumented immigrant, had surpassed that number. Nor did he mention that Madison County citizens cause far more DUI deaths.
Nationally, the GOP recognizes immigration reform is necessary. The 2012 election demonstrated bashing a sizable portion of the electorate is not a pathway to political success. After years of convincing their constituents that immigrants — especially Latinos — are a menacing threat, Alabama politicians cannot reverse course.
Politicians from Alabama also have spent years ginning up fears of the federal deficit. No question, it’s a problem. It’s also a cyclical one; deficits always go up in times of war and recession and then recede. Indeed, deficit spending is a valuable tool in a depressed economy. The deficit is a concern that demands attention, but not an imminent threat.
Alabama politicians worked up a public panic over the deficit, but forgot that deficits can be attacked in two ways: by reducing expenditures and by increasing revenue. Now they are in the awkward situation of arguing debt is the greatest peril the nation faces, except for the peril of closing tax loopholes for wealthy corporations. Their well-heeled contributors, attached to those loopholes, need them to cool it on the deficit rhetoric. It’s too late, because they invested too much time generating the fear that got them elected.
Gov. Robert Bentley used fear to build political capital by campaigning on the threat of federal programs, especially the Affordable Care Act. It is increasingly clear that Medicaid expansion under the ACA would not just save lives and benefit more than 300,000 of his constituents, but would boost the state’s economy. Many of his contributors recognize Medicaid expansion is essential to their own businesses and the state, but Bentley is stuck.
His effectiveness at portraying all aspects of the ACA as evil jammed him in a political corner.
As Ball recognized, the temptation to use fear to create political capital is great. As many Alabama politicians who succumbed to the temptation are discovering, it is easier to generate fear than to restore rationality.

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Filed under Alabama politics, immigration, Medicaid, Obamacare

Brooks, Roby share blame on sequester

Two of Alabama’s seven U.S. representatives voted against the deal that created the sequester, and they are getting plenty of political mileage out of their votes as the March 1 deadline approaches.

U.S. Reps. Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville, and Martha Roby, R-Montgomery, voted against the sequestration deal in August 2011. The other five voted for it.

Brooks and Roby are on the stump, accurately describing how devastating the cuts mandated by the sequester will be for Alabama’s economy. According to a U.S. Army study, the sequester will cost Alabama $1.9 billion and affect more than 25,000 jobs. A Wells Fargo report on the national impact noted Huntsville will be hit especially hard.

As bad as the sequester is, both for Alabama and for a struggling national economy, the crisis the nation faced in 2011 was worse. The U.S. House was threatening to block an increase in the debt ceiling. A refusal to raise the debt ceiling would have prevented Congress from paying the bills it already had incurred.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, accurately explained the consequences of blocking a debt-ceiling increase in early 2011:

“That would be a financial disaster, not only for us, but for the worldwide economy,” Boehner said. “I don’t think it’s a question that’s even on the table.”

On May 31, 2011, President Barack Obama sought an increase in the debt ceiling. All 236 Republicans in the House voted against it. The absolute deadline was Aug. 1. Brooks scoffed at the concern that refusal to raise the debt ceiling would damage U.S. credit.

“There should be no default on August 2,” Brooks said, shortly before a downgrade. “In fact, our credit rating should be improved by not raising the debt ceiling.”

Roby also made clear she was willing to block a debt-ceiling increase, something never before contemplated by a majority party. Congress raised the debt ceiling 18 times under former President Ronald Reagan and seven times under former President George W. Bush. As guardians of the full faith and credit of the United States, all previous House majorities understood the time to bicker about the deficit was during budget negotiations, not after the bills were incurred.

But the 2011 House made clear it was willing to block a debt-limit increase.

Had it done so, the results would have been far more extreme than the sequester scheduled for March 1. Spending cuts would have been much deeper. The United States would have defaulted on its debt payments. A U.S. recession was almost certain; a global one was likely.

To avert the disaster, the administration proposed sequestration. It was basically a “poison pill,” designed to make cuts so politically unattractive it would force both sides to make a good-faith effort at deficit reduction.

Those who understood the disastrous implications of blocking a debt-ceiling increase jumped for the deal. House Republicans approved it by a vote of 174 to 66 on Aug. 1, the last possible day.
Brooks and Roby are congratulating themselves for voting against the sequestration deal, but it was their 2011 rejection of a debt-ceiling increase that made the deal necessary.

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Filed under Alabama politics, Debt ceiling, Deficit, Mo Brooks