An Open Letter To Congress.

Dear Senators and Congressional Representatives:

We understand that it’s hard work to win an election. There’s the fundraising, the canvassing, the fundraising, the travel, the fundraising, the public appearances, the fundraising, the baby-kissing and the butt-kissing, the fundraising, the debates, the fundraising, the media interviews, and, of course, the fundraising.

We also believe that, by electing you, we afford you a great honor – the honor of representing us in our seat of government. Given that, we should expect you to appreciate that honor and to do what you can to live up to your campaign promises. We expect you to follow in the footsteps of our Founding Fathers – people like Franklin, Hamilton, Jay, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Washington – to do what’s best for us and our nation.

Unfortunately, that seems to be an increasingly quaint and naive notion as evidenced by an exhaustive study by Professor Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Professor Benjamin Page of Northwestern University.

Gilens and Page collected data on your policy decisions from 1981 to 2002. Their report, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens,” concluded that economic elites (the top 1%) and business groups (lobbyists) have substantial impact on your decisions while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little to no influence on your decisions.

In short, the professors found that our democratic republic has become an oligarchy, defined as a small group of people having control of a country or organization. But the Gilens-Page study only confirms what many of us already suspected.

For example, we have seen how members of Congress have prioritized the profits of defense contractors over the needs of our military and over reason itself. We’ve noticed how you repeatedly vote to increase weapons spending despite the fact that the Pentagon cannot account for its spending of more than $7.3 trillion, and despite the fact that our defense budget is greater than that of the next 7 countries combined (5 of which are close allies). And we suppressed our frustration as we watched you vote to require the US Army to purchase tanks and other weapons systems it no longer uses or needs.

We’re all too aware that you seem far more concerned with the profits of pharmaceutical companies and health insurance companies than with the economic and physical health of your constituents. We aren’t blind to the fact that 40 of the lawmakers in your midst held $23 million in shares of health insurance companies as they voted to take health care coverage away from millions of Americans.

We’ve seen how you passed laws prioritizing the desires of Wall Street over the needs of Main Street. For example, in 1999, you voted to deregulate banks, clearing the way for them to gamble with our deposits and pension funds. That decision led to the financial crash and Great Recession of 2008. And yet your GOP members are intent on repealing the regulations enacted to prevent such an event from ever happening again.

We’ve also observed that the majority in Congress is working to eliminate regulations designed to keep our air, water and food clean in order to improve the bottom lines for their large corporate sponsors.

Of course, we have noted that such decisions also improve your campaigns’ bottom lines. Those large corporations reward you with large amounts of money for your re-election campaigns. They pay for junkets to exotic places. They give you tickets to concerts and other galas…the kinds of gifts few ordinary voters can afford.

And though you readily do the oligarchs’ bidding, you hide from your constituents. You avoid town halls. You send letters to constituents that are based on lies. And you have the unmitigated gall to ask your constituents for their money and their support!

Here’s an idea: Instead of beginning fundraising for your re-election campaign the minute you get into office, why not just do the right thing? Why not vote for policies that will help the vast majority of your constituents? Why not vote for better schools, better health care, better roads, safer bridges, better mass transportation and cleaner energy? Why not balance the budget by raising taxes on the fortunate few and cutting taxes for those who are struggling? Why not crack down on those who avoid paying their fair share through the use of offshore tax havens? Why not open your doors to all of your constituents? Not just those with the most money to offer.

Why don’t you treat the office as though you’re in it to serve? Why not prioritize country over party and people over money?

If you do that, believe us, we’ll notice. We’ll ignore your opponents’ attack ads. We’ll contribute to your campaigns. And we will almost certainly vote for you again. And, if you lose to someone better, you can leave office with your head held high knowing that you’ve done everything you can to represent us. You can take solace in the fact that our Founders never intended for public office to become a permanent position. (They sure as hell didn’t expect our nation to become an oligarchy in the mold of Putin’s Russia!)

As reported in John Avlon’s book, Washington’s Farewell, when the father of our nation, George Washington bade farewell to public service, he warned of three things: Hyper-partisanship, excessive debt and foreign wars.

Unfortunately, our nation is now burdened with all three. You may not be personally responsible for creating those burdens. But you can be responsible for ridding us of them…if you just do the right thing.

Despicable GOP.

No, I’m not just referring to the Republican Party’s current slate of presidential candidates – although they, alone, should be cause for derision. I’m referring to the Party’s ongoing disregard for ethics, human kindness and the Constitution.

Witness former Nixon administration staffer John Ehrlichman’s recent admission during an interview with Dan Baum for Harper’s about the war on drugs. As reported by Jezebel.com, Ehrlichman stated, “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Disgusting as that is, the Nixon campaign’s actions regarding the Vietnam War were worse. It is now known that the campaign intentionally undermined the Paris peace talks to prevent the end of the war before the 1968 election. Of course, the Nixon campaign was also guilty of breaking into the offices of the Democratic National Committee to steal information that would help it win the campaign.

In other words, the GOP candidate was willing to sacrifice the lives of thousands of US soldiers and subvert the electoral process in order to gain office.

The Nixon campaign’s actions lend credence to those who have charged that the Reagan campaign undermined President Carter’s negotiations with Iran for the release of our embassy hostages until after the 1980 election. They also add credibility to charges that, during the Reagan administration, the CIA ran an operation to sell drugs in black neighborhoods in order to finance the Contras in Central America. And those actions neatly align with what has been proven – that the Reagan administration illegally sold weapons to Iran in order to finance the Contras.

There’s more.

In response to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was signed into law by a Democratic president, it is known that the Republican Party embraced southern racists to improve its ability to win elections. The Party created a war of “social values” (anti-abortion and anti-gay rights) in order to appeal to “Christian” evangelicals. It attacked labor unions to benefit its large corporate donors, and to deny campaign funds to Democratic candidates. It prioritized partisan ideology over respect for the law in its Supreme Court nominations ultimately resulting in a series of court decisions that led to a torrent of money to sway campaigns. And, as I’ve shown in my new book Antidote to Fact-Free Politics, the GOP used those ideological justices on the Supreme Court to quite literally steal the 2000 election from Al Gore.

Since that time, the GOP pursued an ill-advised and unnecessary war. It has resorted to unprecedented obstruction to thwart many of the objectives of the Obama administration. It has used its majorities in red states to gerrymander congressional districts in order to prevent them from ever electing Democrats. It has aligned with the Koch brothers, their billionaire allies, and large corporations to re-write state laws through the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in order to enact long-term change on behalf of corporate interests. And, despite no evidence of in-person voter fraud, it has imposed voter ID laws to disenfranchise poor and minority voters.

Yet, as the result of the propaganda originated by the RNC and broadcast by Fox News, rightwing radio and the ratings-driven mainstream media, many poor and middle class voters are convinced to vote Republican against their own self-interests.

Is it any wonder that our nation has officially become an oligarchy?

Scandals That Weren’t.

Since Teapublicans took control of the House in 2011, Rep. Darrell Issa, Rep. Paul Gosar and other extremists have conducted a barrage of hearings with the intent of exposing the misdeeds of the Obama administration. They began by examining government loans made to administration “loyalists” at Solyndra, a start-up manufacturer of solar panels. They moved on to the failed ATFE “gun-running” program in Arizona. After that it was Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi, interrupted briefly by IRS scrutiny of conservative “non-profits.” Finally, they turned to the Ebola crisis.

After dozens of hearings, numerous investigations and millions of dollars in expenses, here’s what they found:

The loans to Solyndra were initiated during the George W. Bush administration and finalized during the first year of the Obama administration. The company failed when faced with competition financed, in part, by the Chinese government. And, instead of losing millions as Teapublicans claimed, the government actually made a $5 billion profit on the sale of Solyndra’s assets.

Though Issa and his Teapublican investigations found that Fast & Furious resulted in hundreds of guns being trafficked across the border into Mexico; and though Teapublicans blamed the Department of Justice, calling for the resignation of Attorney General Eric Holder; the facts show that the blame was entirely misplaced. Yes, the ATFE allowed guns to cross the border with hopes of tracking them to the leaders of Mexican drug cartels. But, thanks to Arizona’s loose gun laws, guns have been trafficked across the border for decades. Fast & Furious was created out of frustration with the courts’ refusal to allow charges against so-called straw buyers. The hope was that, by tracking the guns, the ATFE would be able to disrupt the pipeline of illegal weapons.

With regard to Benghazi, contrary to an endless stream of Teapublican propaganda, 7 non-partisan investigations have found absolutely no wrongdoing by the administration or anyone else. There were no orders for rescuers to stand down. And absolutely no evidence of an administration cover-up. It was simply an unexpected and spontaneous attack by terrorists resulting in the deaths of 4 Americans…the kind of attack that led to many more deaths in American embassies under previous administrations. Yet, despite the findings of 7 investigations, Teapublicans are still insisting on spending millions more for yet another investigation by a “select” committee of Teapublican fools.

As for the IRS scandal, there is little evidence of wrong-doing. Yes, Lois Lerner and her IRS colleagues compiled a list of watch words indicating a political committee disguised as a charitable non-profit in order to ferret out those intent on skirting election laws to flood political campaigns with dark money. Yes, that list included numerous words used by Teapublican groups. And, yes, more Teapublican groups were subjected to extra scrutiny by the IRS. But it is also true that, thanks to the Koch brothers and other right wing billionaires, more Teapublican groups had applied for non-profit status than Democratic groups. Moreover, following a series of questionable Supreme Court decisions, Lerner’s IRS department was overwhelmed with such requests. And none of the groups affected were denied such status.

Finally, the Teapublican’s weakest attempt to scaremonger was the Ebola “scandal.” So far, only two people have died of the disease in the US. And though it appears that the Dallas hospital was ill-prepared to deal with the disease, the CDC and NIH quickly responded. There have been no further events and no “epidemic” despite the fact that Teapublicans dramatically cut the budget for the Center for Disease Control, making it unable to conduct necessary research.

And what were the Obama administration’s failures in all of these scandals? None. Yet, thanks to Teapublican control of Congress, the investigations, and the propaganda, will continue.

UPDATE: It is estimated that the direct costs of investigations by Issa’s committee have exceeded more than $26 million to date. The indirect costs of the time needed to provide thousands of documents in compliance with the committee’s demands may have exceeded $1 trillion.

20 Things President Obama Should Do After The Mid-Terms.

In no particular order of importance:

  1. Normalize relations with Cuba.
  2. Support Palestine for UN membership.
  3. End the War on Drugs and begin the process of decriminalization.
  4. Renew calls for a Public Option as part of the Affordable Care Act.
  5. Negotiate pharmaceutical prices as all other industrialized nations have done.
  6. Rally Americans to aggressively deal with Climate Change.
  7. Push for an end to mandatory sentences for non-violent criminals.
  8. Order the Justice Department to aggressively pursue criminal charges against the banksters who collapsed our economy in 2008.
  9. Order the Justice Department to aggressively pursue charges of war crimes against those involved in the CIA’s torture program.
  10. Deny permission for TransCanada to build the Keystone XL pipeline.
  11. Push for changes to the tax code to prevent the use of offshore tax havens by individuals and corporations.
  12. Push the IRS to prevent 501c3s and 501c4s from engaging in politics.
  13. Aggressively push for immigration reform.
  14. End drone assassinations except as an absolute last resort to deal with terrorist leaders and increase transparency.
  15. Order the removal of ALL American troops from Afghanistan.
  16. Offer government-backed, interest-free college loans based on need.
  17. Demand that Congress pass common-sense gun control measures, including universal background checks and a ban on large ammo clips.
  18. Order the Justice Department to create uniform voting rights across all states.
  19. Aggressively push for an end to human trafficking.
  20. Order the Department of Defense to reduce its reliance on private contractors.

Shoddy…er…Hobby Lobby.

As you may know, the Supreme Court of the United States recently heard Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Inc., a case brought against the Department of Health and Human Services by a few Christian zealots led by the founders of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood. In their lawsuit, they are challenging the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that for-profit corporations must include contraceptives as part of their employee health plans. They based their argument on their religious objection to paying for many types of contraceptives that they believe, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, are forms of abortion.

Apparently, Hobby Lobby has no such concerns about breaking one of the Ten Commandments…”You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

You see, in an astonishing example of hypocrisy, Hobby Lobby has long invested in companies that make the very contraceptives to which they claim to object. According to an article by Mother Jones, “Documents filed with the Department of Labor and dated December 2012—three months after the company’s owners filed their lawsuit—show that the Hobby Lobby 401(k) employee retirement plan held more than $73 million in mutual funds with investments in companies that produce emergency contraceptive pills, intrauterine devices, and drugs commonly used in abortions. Hobby Lobby makes large matching contributions to this company-sponsored 401(k).”

In fact, it appears that the court case was not even started by Hobby Lobby. It seems The Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, a right wing Washington, DC stink tank, dreamed up the lawsuit then went in search of a plaintiff. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood are merely willing participants.

In other words, Hobby Lobby shouldn’t be able to object to paying for contraceptives on religious or any other grounds. It’s difficult to argue a case on principle if you apparently have none.

Illusion Of Justice.

Since the founding of our nation, Americans have always taken pride in our rule of law.  In civics class we learned that this was what distinguished our country from others; that it provided protection from unreasonable search and seizures; that it guaranteed us a quick and fair hearing before a jury of our peers; that it protected individuals from power grabs by government; and that it gave our citizens a non-violent way of settling conflicts. As our nation expanded westward, communities took pride in instituting the rule of law by hiring marshalls, creating courts, ending vigilantism and restricting the carrying of guns. Such things were considered the necessities of polite society.

Now we seem determined to return to the lawless days of the Wild West.

The National Rifle Association and the gun manufacturers it represents have written and pushed laws to encourage the carrying and the use of guns. It is now legal to carry guns in virtually every state. They have pushed for and passed the so-called Stand Your Ground laws that allowed George Zimmerman to go free after shooting a black teenager who was “armed” with a bag of Skittles and an angry white guy to get away with murder because he didn’t like a teen’s music. Most recently, a retired cop has invoked the Stand Your Ground defense after shooting a fellow movie-goer following an argument in which he claimed threatened after a bag of popcorn was thrown at him.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), aided by GOP legislators have written and passed laws requiring states to privatize prisons despite their increased costs. Our state legislators have passed laws requiring lengthy sentences for non-violent crimes. At the same time, our government continues to wage a war on drugs that has sentenced drug users to lengthy prison terms. The result is to turn prisoners into profits, proving that crime pays – for corporations.

ALEC and its GOP servants have passed anti-immigrant laws like Arizona’s SB 1070 requiring local law enforcement to check papers in order to fill the private prison facilities with immigrants whose only crime was to cross an invisible border in search of work to support their families. Now the GOP-controlled House of Representatives is pushing to defund the department that defends immigrants from detention or deportation to further pack corporate-owned prisons.

Misinformed conservative voters elect people like Sheriff Joe Arpaio despite his many instances of using his position to racially profile individuals, to prioritize the arrest of hard-working immigrants while ignoring cases of violent crimes, and to use his office to harrass, intimidate, bully and incarcerate those who disagree with him. And Sheriff Joe is not alone. Each year, there are hundreds of cases from across the country in which law enforcement officers have abused their power. Unfortunately, most of these cases are never pursued because the victims are minorities and lack the video evidence and money to pursue justice.

In the US today, money is often the key predictor of sentencing. White color crimes, such as those committed by the mortgage lenders and hedge fund managers who crashed our economy in 2008, are seldom prosecuted. (Not a single person has been tried and convicted from one of the biggest thefts in world history.) When they are prosecuted, teams of high-priced lawyers are often able to get their clients acquitted. But poor people, especially minorities, can’t afford such representation. Usually, they’re appointed a public defender and offered a plea bargain. Is it any wonder, then, that minorities represent 60 percent of our prisoners, while accounting for only 30 percent of our population? And, according to a survey requested by Frontline, in the 20 states that have Stand Your Ground laws, whites are 354 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than a white person who kills another white person.

With such statistics, it has become increasingly apparent that justice is becoming more of an illusion in the US than reality.

Patriots Across The Border.

Last week, KPHO-TV in Phoenix aired a story about US military veterans who have been hired as assassins by Mexican drug cartels. It noted that at least four US veterans have been arrested in Mexico and charged with working as hit men for the cartels and others have been approached by the cartels. One of those who had been recruited served as a US Marine despite being an undocumented immigrant. Upon returning from war, he apparently suffered from PTSD leading him to be arrested for alcohol and drug abuse before being deported to Mexico.

It should come as no surprise that cartels would seek the services of US Marines and Special Forces veterans. They are, after all, among the very best soldiers in the world. They have been trained to kill with great efficiency. Many have used their military training to become “private contractors,” the modern-day euphemism for mercenary.  Many suffer from PTSD and struggle to adapt to civilian life. Many are unable to find good paying jobs.

All of this points to the problem with downsizing and privatizing our military.

In past decades, our soldiers tended to serve one combat deployment of 1-2 years before being sent home. Often they were given rest and recreation time away from combat during their deployment. Even then, many struggled to re-acclimate to civilian life at the end of their deployment. (It’s estimated that as many Vietnam veterans committed suicide as those who died in battle.)

By contast, today’s soldiers have been asked to serve multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some have been deployed as many as a dozen times. That not only lessens their chances of survival. It places them at far greater risk of PTSD. When they return home from the insanity of war, they often struggle to adapt to civilian life, which explains the atrocious backlog of cases through the Veteran’s Administration.

With each deployment, it must become increasingly difficult for soldiers to distinguish a “good” kill from a “bad” kill, especially when there are no obvious front lines making it difficult to tell the enemy from civilians. Given that, I can easily see the temptation for some soldiers to cash in on their skills, whether it’s as a “private contractor” for companies like Blackwater or as a hit man for a violent drug cartel.

How can we help them?

For one thing, instead of mindlessly repeating the words “thank you for your service,” we can avoid unnecessary wars like Iraq. If we absolutely must go to war, we can give our military clearly-defined goals. We can spend whatever money is necessary to help our soldiers deal with the trauma and after-effects of war. And we can retrain them to help them find jobs of comparable importance and responsibility that don’t involve weaponry.

Maybe then they would be less susceptible to selling their services to the highest bidder.

Congress Versus The American People.

Politicians, especially Republicans, are fond of saying that they have faith that the American people will always do the right thing. Hmmm…that raises a number of questions.

If politicians believe the American people are so smart, why don’t they do what the people want them to? Why have they refused to vote for universal background checks on all gun purchases when more than 90 percent of Americans demand them? Why has the House refused to support bills that would create the jobs Americans want? Why has the House delayed action on immigration reform supported by more than 70 percent of Americans? Why has the House refused to vote for equal pay for women? Why has it refused to raise the minimum wage? Why do Republicans refuse to vote for gay marriage? Why do they refuse to decriminalize marijuana? Why have they failed to vote for tax reform and equal enforcement?

Why do more than 80 percent of Americans despise Congress?

At least we have an answer for one of those questions.

Why Teapublicans Are Wrong About Government.

After all of the GOP talk of “freeing businesses from government regulation” and “shrinking government down to a size small enough to fit in a bathtub,” it’s time to force a dose of reality down their loudmouth throats. No matter how much they rant about the “evils” of government, we need government to do a variety of things the private sector can’t or won’t.

We need government funding and oversight to build and maintain infrastructure – roads, highways, airports, seaports, and more. We need government to protect our borders; to control our monetary system; to negotiate treaties. And, although we live in a nation built on capitalism, government has always been needed to prevent private businesses from taking advantage of our citizens. Whenever new industries are created by business, government eventually has to regulate them in order to keep them from running amok.

For example, before Ralph Nader and his book, Unsafe At Any Speed, American automakers paid little attention to safety. There were no seat belts, no air bags, no crumple zones, no crash tests…no safety standards at all.

Before the Food & Drug Administration, there was no labeling of ingredients for packaged foods ; no bans or warnings for ingredients known to cause harm. Before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), large corporations felt free to dump toxic chemicals in our streams and in our drinking water. Before the EPA, large corporations spewed tons of toxins into the air we breathe. Before the Securities Exchange Commission, financial institutions could engage in insider trading and sell any junk securities people could be bamboozled into buying. Before the Mine Safety Act, most miners died from tunnel collapses and black lung disease. Before the US Department of Agriculture and the US Forest Service, lumber companies felt free to clear cut our forests destroying critical habitat for many species and mortgaging our future. Before the Department of Labor, businesses thrived on child and slave labor.

Do you really want to go back to the days of allowing corporations to regulate themselves?

Would you buy meat for your family that had not been inspected? Would you drink water that hadn’t been tested for bacteria and other contaminents? Would you give your child pharamceuticals that were untested? Would you strap your child into a car that had not passed basic safety tests? Would you place your life savings in a bank that did not insure your deposits?

We already know what happens when you replace government functions with private companies. We have abundant evidence that contracting with corporations to operate prisons costs more than publicly-operated prisons. Private prisons have also proven to be less secure. We also know that, on the whole, students in private schools perform no better, and often worse, than those in public schools.

Contrary to President Reagan, government isn’t the problem. Often it’s the solution. Instead of trying to reduce government to some arbitrary size, we should be trying to improve it. Apparently, Teapublicans have never considered that.

Prisoners Of Greed.

Contrary to popular belief, crime does pay. But not in the way you think. It’s not necessarily the criminals who profit. It’s the corporations that imprison them. You see, more and more of our states are replacing state-run prisons with prisons run by private corporations. And since the US has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners and only 5 percent of the population, prisons have become a very big business.

Although crime is generally going down and the number of prisoners is shrinking, thanks to intensive lobbying efforts, we are still building more private prisons. To make matters worse, the prison corporations have contracts that dictate that they will not accept any prisoners with chronic illnesses. Their contracts guarantee 85 percent to 100 percent occupancy. Yet it has been shown that private prisons cost significantly more per prisoner than public prisons.

But cost is only one of the problems associated with private prisons. It has been reported that 78 percent of those entering prison have drug problems. Indeed, addiction is one of the contributing factors to most crimes. Yet only 6 percent receive treatment while in prison despite evidence that every dollar spent on drug treatment saves $18.02 in the cost of enforcement, court cases and incarceration.

50 percent of those in prison have committed non-violent crimes, many of them minor. But, because of its Three Strikes and You’re Out law, California has some people serving life sentences for such crimes as stealing a $69 jacket. This is not only inhumane. It’s ineffective. Criminologists know that the peak ages for crime are between 16 and 25. They also know that there is an optimum amount of punishment needed to prevent recidivism. That time varies according to the crime and the individual. If you keep someone in prison for too long, they are more likely to be violent when they get out. And since 93 percent of prisoners will eventually be released, you can see the potential for problems.

If you treat people like animals, they tend to act like animals.

Nevertheless, many politicians continue to push for more severe sentences and harsh conditions for prisoners. The mentality is to house criminals rather than rehabilitate them. Criminologists can prove that such policies don’t work. But their knowledge is often rejected because politicians have found that being “tough on crime” helps their chances for re-election.

Further, such “get tough” policies are good for the profits of private prison corporations. And the private prison corporations often contribute to political campaigns.

Unfortunately, our enormous prison population is damaging our country. It has not only harmed our human rights reputation around the globe. It has destroyed families and entire communities. 1 in 33 school children in the US have at least one parent in prison. 1 in 4 Americans have a felony record.  Moreover, a study by the Pew Research Center found that if you arrest 500 people in a community of 100,000, you disrupt the entire community. Yet there are many communities in which we have arrested as many as 750.

Criminologists know that the best deterrent to crime is certainty of punishment more than the length and severity of punishment. But our politicians pay no attention. We also know that education prevents crime. Yet we now pay 40 percent more for prisons than we do for education.

Our priorities could not be more upside-down.