Writings and observations

trahant MARK


It’s hard to see the U.S. Senate as a democratic institution in the 21st century. A voter from Wyoming has nearly seventy times the representation as a citizen from California. And that understates the case significantly because on top of that lop-sided balance, the Senate also has rules that call for super-majorities, giving those small states even more power.

Alan Durning from the Sightline Institute made this point a couple of years ago when he wrote: “The Senate doesn’t just magnify small-states’ influence a little. It magnifies their power massively. Consider the Cascadia region, which covers all of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, plus parts of Alaska, California, Montana, and Wyoming (along with the Canadian province of British Columbia). Each of these states, of course, has equal representation in the US Senate. This chart shows the number of people per US Senator in these states. There are 18 million Californians for each of the state’s two Senators. In Wyoming, the equivalent number is 272,000. If every US Senator represented the same number of people as do Wyoming’s two Senators, Oregon would have 14 Senators.That’s right, Oregon would have 14 Senators! Washington, for its part, would have 24, far outnumbering its current 9 Representatives in the House.California? California would have 136.”

Now calculate those numbers for Indian Country. The Census says there are 5.1 million American Indians and Alaska Natives in the U.S. So, using the same formula of 272,00, there would be at least 18 Native American representatives in the Senate.

Don’t like that formula? Well, the collective land mass of tribal nations, villages, and communities, tops 87,000 square miles. That’s a larger land base than most states (the average for the 50 states is only 75,881.66 square miles).

Later today we’ll find out if the Senate is going to take even baby steps to limit filibuster (now at the point where a Senator only has to threaten a filibuster to stop legislation unless there are 60 votes).

But on the issue of austerity, the irony is that the Senate represents the best hope going forward for a balanced approach to how budgets are cut.

Congressional budgets are a relatively modern enterprise. Before the 1970s, the federal budget was presented by the President and then Congress passed appropriation bills for each agency.

But that changed because President Nixon would not spend all of the money appropriated by Congress. “Congress was concerned about the unprecedented scale of the Nixon Administration’s application of this power,” says a paper from the House Budget Committee. “This action also arguably circumvented the veto process to block acts of Congress. Hence a significant component of budget reform was its restriction on the President’s impoundment authority.”

In other words: Congress started writing budgets to spend more money, not less.

These days the President’s budget is hardly even a starting point. It didn’t even a get a single “yes” vote in the House. Or in the Senate.

This has led to a process based on the crisis of the moment. One day it’s the debt ceiling. The next it’s the fiscal cliff. There is no process in place for negotiation, compromise and action. Instead the government is funded on a Continuing Resolution, a sort of ad hoc, automatic budget based on the previous year’s spending. And, on top of that mess, the only budget in law at this point is the Budget Control Act, requiring across-the-board budget cuts in March.

Yesterday Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, said it’s time to restore regular order to the process. The new chairman of the budget committee said “the Senate will once again return to regular order and move a budget resolution through the Budget Committee and to the Senate floor. I’ve been discussing this path with my colleagues in the weeks since the year-end deal before I officially became chairman of this committee, and now that Congress is back in session, we are ready to get to work.”

She said Republicans have a choice. House members are “doubling down” on their push for budget cuts in the next round. “Republicans can either say they want to have a budget debate in the Budget Committees, or they can say they would prefer to negotiate the issue lurching from crisis to crisis—but they can’t say both. It simply doesn’t make sense,’ Murray said.

That would mean the Senate and House would pass budgets and then negotiate a bill that could pass in both bodies. Of course it’s not that simple. There’s also the expiration of this year’s budget, the Continuing Resolution, and the sequester will begin in March. Even after those cuts, many House members want more. Their view of the budget and federal spending is absolute: Austerity or nothing.

Indian Country and its programs will get a fair shake in the Senate. That is clear from past budgets and the priorities that Murray again articulated yesterday. “Democrats are eager to contrast our pro-growth, pro-middle class budget priorities with the House Republicans’ Ryan budget that would end Medicare as we know it, gut investments in jobs and programs middle class families depend on, and cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations,” Murray said. “We know that when our priorities are laid out next to Republicans’, the public stands with us.”

So democratic or not – a small “d” here – the Senate is the best hope for slowing the austerity rush.

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Trahant Washington

rainey BARRETT


Politics and religion. I can think of no better definition of eternal incompatibility. Dive into our history at any point – world history, for that matter – and you’ll find the friction of one against the other. So, for your contemporary reading, let’s dive into the shallow end of the history pool – current events – to find more examples. Ah, and classic they are.

The first is a recent sampling of Americans and their feelings about religion in today’s culture – findings which resulted in a complete contradiction. Especially in the evangelical community.
The study was conducted by the Barna Group, a respected California think tank known for studies of American religion and culture.

When 1,008 people in the general population were asked if our religious liberties are threatened, 29% of said “yes.” But – faced with the same question – 71% of evangelicals said “yes.” Asked what they see as the threat, 97% of that group said others are trying to move society away from “traditional Christian values.” 97%! Groups they identified most? Gays and lesbians were named by more than 72%.for trying to remove “traditional Christian values” from the country.

“Where’s the conflict,” you ask? Well, the same responders said their Judeo-Christian beliefs should dominate our culture. They live in a multi-faith nation but want their beliefs supreme to all others. And the others are the ones they blame for attacks on their values. “The belief system is under attack.” “Our belief system should be the standard.” Harder to find a more direct conflict in a single group espousing religion than that.

For the second political-religious conundrum, we turn to our Catholic brothers and sisters. Specifically Lori and Jeremy Stodghill of Canon City, Colorado. This one’s a doozy!

Lori, pregnant with seven-month-old twins, was rushed to a Catholic hospital on New Year’s Day, 2006. Massive heart attack. Ironically, her obstetrician was on-call that night but didn’t answer his page. Hospital staff wanted him to save the fetuses by caesarian even as Lori was dying. He didn’t come. All died. In a Catholic hospital. Jeremy sued for wrongful death of all three. The born and the unborn, so to speak.

Responding, hospital lawyers literally turned Catholic church directives upside down in defense – directives for all Catholics but especially Catholic hospitals – that claim the unborn are “persons.” They argued Colorado law protects doctors from liability concerning unborn fetuses on grounds those fetuses are NOT persons with legal rights. Attorney Jason Langley argued Colorado courts define “person” under its Wrongful Death Act to include “only those born alive.” Therefore, Plaintiffs cannot maintain wrongful death claims based on two unborn fetuses. “Not alive,” the Catholic defenders claimed.

The case is now in the Colorado State Supreme Court. And Catholic Health Initiatives – running 170 health facilities in 17 states – is still pressing that argument. The Catholic Church may say a fetus is a “person.” But trying to defend a multi-million-dollar legal action, that same church is saying that “person” has no legal right to life.

Contradiction here? You bet. Politics? Big time! This little case from Canon City, Colorado, is being followed very, very closely by the Church, abortion activists, the anti-abortion folks and politicians of all stripes.

As if all this isn’t enough, the New Mexico legislature has a bill in committee today that – if it became law – would send rape victims to jail – rape victims – if they became pregnant by the rapist and had an abortion. The charge? Tampering with evidence. While we’re all entitled to think about this in our own ways, my verdict is that author State Rep. Cathrynn Brown is one sick puppy. Politics? You bet. Religion, too.

We’re a nation of rights. Your rights. My rights. We’re a nation that’s historically prided itself for being a “melting pot” of different nationalities, customs, languages. Guided by our founding principle of religious freedom, a nation where each citizen could follow whatever religious path he/she desired. Without interference.

But we’re now beset by people trying to trash those “melting pot” and “religious freedoms” concepts/rights in the name of God. Their God. And I don’t mean gays and lesbians. The trashers deem “rights” a concept so long as it’s their “rights.” Using religion as a political wedge, they’ve filled our courts with frivolous legal challenges, attacked our public education system, tried to undermine our national health laws, suppressed minorities, openly attempted voter intimidation and filled our state and national seats of government with ideological sycophants intent on reshaping our national rights to look more like their “rights.”

If you dig deeply into state and national political divides in our country, you will consistently find intolerance of the religion of others. You’ll uncover repeated attempts to replace the religion of most with the religion of some. You’ll find efforts to justify discrimination and racism in the name of someone’s – or some groups – “religious” beliefs.

All of this is not a new phenomenon. It’s been around the centuries. But our electronic interconnectedness now gives equal voice to both the wise and the unwise. Our unfettered freedoms work both for and against us. The strengths of the many are under siege by the few. It’s become increasingly difficult to tell the wheat from the chaff.

Politics and religion. We may not have yet harkened back to the Crusades. But the divisions are getting more pronounced. And more onerous.

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