Saturday, March 27, 2010

Deterioration of discourse, the Tea Party.

Debate on and passage of the Healthcare Reform Bill last weekend brought out the worst in some people.
The Tea Party demonstrators in D.C. being urged to "punish" Democrats in November by Republican congressmen that spoke to them.
This in itself would not have been unusual; the GOP has been pandering to the Tea Party extremists to varying extent since the election of Barack Obama. What was unusual was how this incitement deteriorated into uncivil action; Rep. Emanuel Cleaver being spat on by a protestor. Rep. John Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement, was called a 'ni--er.' And Rep. Barney Frank was called a "fa--ot," as he was walking down the halls of congress.

During the late evening debate on the House floor Republican Rep. Randy Neugebauer screamed "baby killer" or "it's a baby killer" at Rep. Bart Stupak, as the later was voicing his opposition to an anti-abortion amendment.
After the late night passage of the bill things got worse. Death threats against President Obama on twitter, death threats left on voice mail for Democratic members of congress that voted for the bill.

There is a very widely held sentiment that “special rights” are given to African-Americans, or women, or members of the LGBT community, or liberals, or ethnic groups, or whatever that “regular Americans” can’t get or don’t qualify for.
Writing off these concerns as simply racism or ignorance is the easy way out - I'm guilty of it myself in the past- The fear of being left out or left behind is so deeply ingrained in Americans that they usually don’t recognize it as racism or anything untoward and often justify their concerns by laying on economic and security arguments.
Defaulting to a racism argument is almost always counter-productive and fuels the right side’s sense of indignation and victimhood.

The shows of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are loaded with themes that tap the fears of many Americans that things are changing too fast and that they are being left out or left behind.
The RNC is well aware of this, and has made it part of their national fundraising plan. See pages 29 through 30 of the document embedded below.

We must decry overt racism, as well as denounce institutionalized racism; at the same time we must realize that there are other things driving the deterioration of political discourse.

RNC 2010 Finance Meeting Feb 18, 2010

Monday, March 15, 2010

Open Government - Why transparency matters.

Whether local, state, or federal; government transparency enables good citizenship and government accountability.
We cannot hold our public officials accountable without knowing what they are doing; knowledge will always trump ignorance.

How much of the daily news are stories and opinions by people with little knowledge, much less expertise in the area they write about? How much are outright fabrication, misdirection, or PR releases?

We all have seen headlines like this: "Senator Joe announced today that 300 new jobs will be created thanks to passage of Bill 23"
Have you ever seen this headline? "Senator Joe announced today that Bill 23 will allow XYZ Corporation to take advantage of cheap local labor and not have to comply with environmental laws"

While government transparency will not generate the second headline, it will allow anyone to see what Bill 23 actually contains. Often officials are afraid that things "may be misconstrued", great opportunity for them to meet with their constituents and explain in plain English what their action does.

Without having to jump through the hoops of requesting public documents or FOIA requests, journalists can write the whole story and citizens can hold their elected officials accountable.

Government secrecy allows waste, abuse, and fraud to flourish.
Transparency is a critical component needed for civic engagement in a Democracy.

#opengov #publicequalsonline

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Situation...

It is about 11 PM, I walk into the living room and through the drawn curtains I can see the flashing of emergency lights.

The doorbell rings, my dog barks. Holding Emmo by his collar I open the door to see a police officer standing there, "...good evening sir, we have an armed situation next door; please, stay inside and away from that side of the house. We will let you know when all is settled..."

I go back into my office. About 25 minutes later I hear a muffled "bang", Emmo growls; it was not a gun shot.

Another 15 minutes pass then the doorbell rings again. A different officer is at the door "...sir all is safe now, thank you for your cooperation..." He remarks on Emmo's coat coloring, he used to be on the K9 squad. We talk dogs and about the K9 officers we both know. I ask him what happened. "...a guy barricaded himself inside the house with a gun and threatened suicide, his family called 911..."
The police shot a flash grenade through the window, busted down the front door, and arrested the man.

The following morning I see my neighbor in his front yard, he apologizes for the disturbance the night before. I asked if everyone is alright, "...oh yes we are OK, my brother in-law has problems. We'll need to replace the window, the door, and the carpet..." I did not pry into the nature of those problems.

It took them a week to have everything replaced or repaired.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Roundhouse from the Gallery

I wrote this piece as a Guest Blog for Democracy for New Mexico - you can view the original Here

Having had the luxury of spending a lot of time at the Roundhouse this regular session, I decided to share some of my observations. This is not about policy issues; it has been quite a while since I spent so much time there. Some things have changed, but much remains the same.

Texting, tweeting, and emailing are now the norm in committees, walking around, and on the floor.

The lobbyist’s call script has not changed, in the early days of the session, “... just returning your call, things are moving along, I have a meeting scheduled with X, will give you a call later....”

As the session progresses the message changes somewhat, either to premature victory for a bill that made it out of its first committee or hopeful disappointment “... we still have a chance....”

This being a short session dedicated to fiscal matters and the governor’s call, it is amazing how many bills have been introduced with no chance of ever coming to the floor for a vote and, in fact, many never make it on the schedule for their first committee hearing.

The fate of bills is often decided in committees. While this is the only time where the general public (more often paid lobbyists or speakers brought in by lobbyists) can speak for or against a bill, it is obvious that the outcome was often decided beforehand; in those cases voting is just a formality to table or move the bill on.

Tracking a bill can be interesting. The fact that it is on a calendar does not mean that it will actually be heard that day and time. Legislative time does not conform to what one is used to; overheard in a committee room from a staffer, “... oh, we’ve never convened on time, the schedule just gives everyone something they can feel good about....”

I believe that most legislators act in accord with their individual beliefs and what they think is best for their constituency. They do work hard, spending time away from home and family. Whom they consider their constituency and what they produce would be another post.

Having a part-time citizen legislature is interesting in itself; without full-time staff the legislators tend to rely on volunteers in their offices, and on various “experts” to justify/push their bills. Many of the bills are written by lobbyists, one or multiple legislators just put their name on it, and then have expert witnesses on hand when presenting in committee or on the floor.

Some legislators have a good grasp or even expertise in certain fields due to their full time jobs or because they have made it their business to become educated on the issue(s); others truly represent the average citizen with little knowledge of existing statutes or understanding of the impact that their proposed legislation would have. This understanding or lack thereof becomes apparent in floor debates, and at times leads to some unintended levity. This may be one of the reasons why there is so much opposition to webcasting and archiving all floor and committee work.

Floor debates can be fascinating and frustrating as well. One may wonder why 20 senators stand up in opposition or support of a bill unless you know that they are playing to an audience. The audience may be obvious and acknowledged openly after the vote, as is the case with many memorials; or not as obvious as when, after the speech, the legislator looks into the gallery and receives a nod from a lobbyist or when a large contingent of people that were sitting together leaves the gallery after the vote.

Personally, what I find most frustrating are the “gotcha” questions. Some lawmakers seem to specialize in them. They do not serve a true discovery process, but rather to either make a show of their own knowledge or create plausible deniability for their vote. Poorly prepared sponsors, circular arguments, and long-winded speeches to nowhere are next on my list of peeves.

Spending some time at the Roundhouse observing its workings, except for the backroom deals, can be fascinating or bore you out of your skull depending on your level of interest in sausage making.

I’ll close with a snippet overheard in the House Judiciary Committee:

“... based on New Mexico’s history there is no legislative intent....”