Friday, February 18, 2011

TRIED OF YOU HOME ASSOCIATION? Annandale civic association elects dog as president

For more than 20 years, candidates running for office in the Hillbrook-Tall Oaks Civic Association in Annandale have stood, waved and received polite applause at the annual meeting in June. Everyone votes, eats ice cream, chats with neighbors and goes home.

This past election, to make the meeting move faster, only the names and qualifications of the candidates were announced. Running for president, Ms. Beatha Lee was described as a relatively new resident, interested in neighborhood activities and the outdoors, and who had experience in Maine overseeing an estate of 26 acres.

Though unfamiliar with Lee's name, the crowd of about 50 raised their hands, assuming that the candidate was a civic-minded newcomer. These days, it's hard to get anyone to volunteer to devote the time needed to serve as an officer. The slate that Lee headed was unanimously elected. Everyone ate ice cream, watched a karate demonstration and went home.

Only weeks later did many discover that their new president was, in fact, a dog.

Ms. Beatha Lee is a shaggy, dirty-white Wheaten terrier.

The news broke in the association's newsletter with Lee's promise to "govern with an even paw." The dog's photo appeared under the heading, "Dog Rules, Humans Apathetic (Pathetic)."

A veritable storm erupted in the bucolic 1950s neighborhood of about 250 families who live in split levels or colonials with about 90 dogs.

"She had a name," said Robin Klein Browder, who grew up in the neighborhood and moved back after she got married. "It wasn't Spot or Rover. It was a first and last name, so everyone thought she was human. I'm not thrilled, I'm embarrassed."

"At first, people would say to me, 'This is crazy!' " said Helen Winter, a director emeritus of the board who is in her 80s and is a major force behind the neighborhood watch, the welcoming committee and the annual block party. "And I'd say, 'It is crazy. Isn't that fun?' It's one of those things that breaks the monotony."

Dave Frederickson, who read the dog's name and qualifications to the crowd at the annual meeting, said, "Many people, like myself, were amused. But some were extremely upset. I've spent a lot of time on the phone explaining things."

The duly elected president is actually the pet of the former president, Mark Crawford, who inherited Beatha (pronounced Bee-Ah-tah) in 2008 from his mother and stepfather in Maine.

Crawford had served three consecutive terms as president and, according to association bylaws, could not run for the office again. For weeks leading up to the election, he begged, pleaded and cajoled neighbors to run for the often-thankless volunteer post. No one bit. Newer, younger families told him that they were too busy juggling work, long commutes and kids. And longtime residents, many burned out after losing a bruising zoning battle against a Montessori school in their neighborhood, said they'd already done their time.

Out of sheer frustration, Crawford decided to put up his dog.

"This isn't a power trip," said Crawford, who now serves as vice president under his pooch. "We wanted to send a message to the neighborhood that they needed to get involved and get engaged. That they can't count on the same people to do this year in and year out."

Crawford and the nominating committee carefully scanned Article V of their bylaws on officer qualifications. Resident of the neighborhood: Check. Attained the age of majority. Check (in dog years). "Our charter language did not mention that a human had to serve," Crawford said. "The way it was phrased was very accommodating, to be frank."

Those same bylaws also outline the fairly substantial duties of the president, everything from running meetings and appointing committee members to executing contracts and co-signing checks. Not to mention speaking for the association at public meetings. So how has the canine managed?

"Well, she delegates a lot," Crawford said. "That's what executives are supposed to do - delegate."

The dog occasionally attends the monthly board meetings, usually held the first Tuesday or Wednesday of the month in Crawford's home. "She's sometimes sitting under the table, listening to what goes on," Frederickson said. "Until she gets bored and wants to be let out. I don't know if the board members need to pet her on their way in."

Crawford and the other seven human board members have kept the annual block parties and ice cream socials running without a hitch - the president was too out of sorts to attend.

Other than a few rumblings about speed bumps and tree trimming, it has been a pretty quiet year for the association. "We're dealing with things like trying to get our phone book out," Crawford said. "Pretty mundane stuff."

Over time, the neighbors have come to accept their new leader.

"It doesn't surprise me one bit that a dog is the president - our neighborhood is so dog-friendly," said Meghan Pituch Myers, who moved in a little over a year ago. "We often find ourselves referencing people by their dogs ... 'I saw Daisy's mom today at the store.' "

So has the ploy worked? Are people getting more involved?

Crawford said it's too early to tell.

Browder, whose father ran the association when she was a girl and whose husband also served as president, said she might be willing. "If we elected a dog, I'm thinking, okay, maybe I better do my duty," she said.

But if she doesn't, "maybe we'll get a cat this time," groused longtime resident Dave Borowski.

Added Frederickson: "We're hoping for a Homo sapiens."

Serious budget cutting? The House has other fish to fry.

To say that our lawmakers are carping at trifles gives them too much credit. In fact, they are carping at carp.

"Asian carp [are] one of the world's most rampant invasive species," Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, proclaimed on the House floor, 35 hours into the debate over budget cuts. "Weighing up to 100 pounds, spanning over six feet and eating half their body weight daily, Asian carp have the ability to decimate fish populations indigenous to the Great Lakes."

That certainly stinks for Great Lakes fish and Great Lakes fishermen. But if you think the federal budget will be balanced on the backs of the Asian carp, you're all wet. And that's what makes Camp's carping emblematic of the current debate over budget cuts. The whole exercise is less about improving the nation's fiscal balance than about parochial concerns and political volleys.

Camp continued: "These giant bottom feeders" - he was talking about the fish, not his colleagues - "would destroy the region's $7.5 billion fishing industry." His solution: Have the feds close the locks that separate the Illinois River from Lake Michigan.

Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.) rose in opposition. "No one wants carps in the Great Lakes," he said, but "the closure of the locks is uncalled for." The Hoosier asserted that "Michigan had failed to demonstrate that the Asian carp presented an ecological threat to the Great Lakes that was imminent."

Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) provided a bulletin on the enemy's position: "The Asian carp are 42 miles from the city of Chicago." Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) offered a procedural solution to the invasion. Instead of beginning his speech with the customary parliamentary language, "I rise to strike the requisite number of words," he said: "I rise to strike the requisite number of fish."

Camp's amendment went belly-up.

House Speaker John Boehner deserves credit for allowing a freewheeling budget debate, in which some 600 amendments were proposed. But the rare spectacle also revealed how petty this whole budget-cutting exercise is. The nation's debt problem is enormous, but so far President Obama and the lawmakers have tiptoed around the real problems, particularly Medicare.

Instead, they're haggling over the 36 percent of the budget called "discretionary spending," and particularly the 13 percent known as "non-defense discretionary spending." Even in the unlikely event that House Republicans can force Obama and Senate Democrats to go along with their $60 billion of cuts in the current fiscal year, that would barely dent this year's $1.5 trillion deficit, even as it causes chaos and throws hundreds of thousands of people out of work.

As such, the budget debate had less to do with cutting deficits than with making points: de-funding Planned Parenthood (the lawmakers bickered about abortion for three hours Thursday night), dismantling federal education funding, abolishing foreign aid and blocking implementation of health-care reform, financial regulations and environmental rules.

With Medicare and the other drivers of the debt crisis out of consideration, the lawmakers' task amounted to sweating the small stuff.

California Rep. Darrell Issa, the man Republicans have entrusted to investigate the Obama administration, proposed to block funds studying "the impact of integral yoga on hot flashes in menopausal women," the "condom-use skills in adult males" and "whether video games improve mental health for the elderly." Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) sought to prevent "removals of free-roaming wild horses and burros." Others suggested forbidding repairs of the family residence in the White House, keeping the Treasury secretary from getting on airplanes and de-funding the president's teleprompters.

Democrats retaliated with their own frivolity. Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota proposed taking the oom-pah out of military bands by restricting spending for the Pentagon's music. She managed to force a floor debate on whether to block the Pentagon from sponsoring NASCAR drivers.

"This amendment is where the rubber meets the road for my Republican Tea Party colleagues who want to cut wasteful spending," she taunted. "We have the Army spending $7 million for a decal on a racing car."

From NASCAR country, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) rose in protest. "This amendment is about politics," he complained.

You think?

Surely politics had nothing to do with a successful (and surely unconstitutional) amendment offered by Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) to de-fund salaries for various Obama advisers labeled "czars."

"To the czars, I say, 'Nyet!' " declared Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.).

"I will leave it to the gentleman to work out his Lenin fantasy," replied Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).

Now if only they could work out their fantasy that fighting about czars, condoms and carp will fix the budget crisis.


Michelle Obama's remarks on breast-feeding draw criticism from Palin, Bachmann

It began with a modest remark during a roundtable discussion with reporters: First lady Michelle Obama said she supports making it easier for mothers to breast-feed their babies, because "kids who are breast-fed longer have a lower tendency to be obese."

Within days, the sentence - and a new Internal Revenue Service policy offering tax deductions for breast pumps - had touched off a political firestorm. Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-Minn.) blasted the Obama administration for trying to impose a "nanny state" on mothers. Another potential 2012 presidential candidate, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, mockingly said the first lady was trying to compensate for high milk prices. The East Wing withdrew, issuing a brief statement calling the subject "personal."

For Mrs. Obama, the moment is a reminder that she will inevitably become more of a target as the 2012 campaign gets underway. After cultivating a non-controversial image as the "Mom in chief" over the past two years, she remains overwhelmingly popular with the public, yet even her most carefully planned moves will not be immune to political jabs.

But the incident goes well beyond the first lady - raising questions about health policy and the role of government. Should the tax code offer an incentive aimed at working mothers who pump breast milk and not at those who stay home or give their children formula? Are breast pumps any different from other routine medical items that qualify for tax deductions? Is breast-feeding truly better for children?

The discussion has both riveted and dismayed those involved in the breast-feeding issue. "We all expect this - we all know the Republicans and Democrats have their differences," sighed Marsha Walker, a registered nurse who is executive director of the National Alliance for Breastfeeding Advocacy.

Referring to Bachmann, Walker said: "It's not that she's against breast-feeding. It's that she's using it as a vehicle of attack. And it's unfortunate, because breast-feeding isn't a political entity. It's a public-health entity that doesn't deserve to be used as political leverage."

Much of the discussion centers not only around Obama's remarks but also the new IRS rules, which were announced on Feb. 10 and will apply retroactively to devices purchased in 2010 and in the future. The tax authority found that breast pumps "are for the purpose of affecting a structure or function of the body of the lactating woman," thus putting them in the category of a medical device.

Nursing mothers now have two options: If they have a medical flexible-spending account, they can potentially use pretax dollars to buy nursing supplies and breast pumps, which can run as much as $330 or more. Which devices will qualify will depend on each FSA's rules.

If a woman does not have an FSA, she can itemize her taxes and deduct breast-feeding equipment costs, as long as her overall out-of-pocket medical costs exceed 7.5 percent of her income. Only about one-third of taxpayers itemize their taxes. In no case will breast-milk equipment receive a tax credit, the IRS said.

Nor is the federal government purchasing breast pumps for women, as Bachmann claimed. In an interview with conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, Bachmann said she gave birth to and breast-fed five children without government help and described the new policy as part of a liberal agenda.

"To think that government has to go out and buy my breast pump. . . . You want to talk about nanny state, I think we just got a new definition," Bachmann said.

After her remarks drew attention, Bachmann added in a statement: "The issue is not breast feeding, but is rather Washington's use of the tax code to tell people how to run their lives."

According to an IRS spokeswoman, the new tax rules are similar to those men are permitted for a vasectomy. Men may use pretax dollars to pay for that surgery, or claim it as a medical expense.

The first lady has been criticized for launching a breast-feeding campaign, but there has been no campaign to speak of. She has sporadically commented on the subject in the past - including telling breast-feeding stories of her own - and said during the reporters' roundtable that it will be incorporated into her larger work combating obesity.

"Kids who are breast-fed longer have a lower tendency to be obese," she said. "We want to get into child-care centers, day-care centers, and start talking about how - what kind of snacks they're getting there."

Exactly how involved Obama might be is still unclear. Her office declined to elaborate on her plans, or to convey her opinion on the new IRS rules or Bachmann's criticism.

"Breastfeeding is a very personal choice for every woman. We are trying to make it easier for those who choose to do it," Mrs. Obama's communications director, Kristina Schake, said in a statement. Her office said the "we" in the statement referred to the federal government, not specifically to the first lady.

The new IRS rules came after a group of Democratic members of Congress sent letters requesting the change. Still, at least one conservative group saw the first lady's public statements as evidence that the administration is focused on aiding working mothers, not ones who stay home with their children.

"Giving tax breaks for breast pumps helps only those moms who are working outside the home and does nothing for us stay-at-home moms. This is consistent with President Obama's pledge to increase the child-care tax credit as opposed to the child tax credit, incentivizing putting your kids in day care over any other child-rearing arrangement,"said Cathy Ruse, a senior legal fellow at the Family Research Council.

Palin, who like Bachmann also has five children, did not pursue whether the government should offer tax incentives for breast-feeding equipment. But she did take a crack at the reasons for the first lady's interest.

"No wonder Michelle Obama is telling people to breast-feed their babies," Palin said at an event on Long Island. "Yeah, you better, because the price of milk is so high right now."

Nursing children are not generally given cow's milk to replace breast milk, but instead drink baby formula.

Healing a Wounded Credit Score

Millions of consumers have fallen out of favor with the credit scoring gods.

Some lost their jobs or were just overwhelmed by mounting debt. Others got caught up in the real estate bubble or had major medical bills. Whatever the reason, the rising number of foreclosures, short sales, late credit card payments and the ultimate credit sin — bankruptcies — have left black marks on credit reports most everywhere.

So what can these people do to repair their credit?

The simple answer is to focus on the information that is used to generate the all-powerful FICO score — the measure used most frequently by traditional lenders to determine creditworthiness. Its scale runs from 300 points to 850 points; the higher the score, the better your credit standing. “FICO is still the 500-pound gorilla,” said John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at “In 2011, the best way to get credit from the mainstream lenders is to have a good FICO score.”

Consumers can hope that the banks will eventually consider alternatives to the traditional FICO score, which was developed by Fair Isaac Corporation and has been in wide use for about two decades. After all, as banks regain their appetite for lending, they will be looking for ways to differentiate between borrowers with the same scores, some of whom are temporarily struggling and others who chronically have trouble with money.

For now, though, the FICO score reigns. The best antidote to a poor score is time. Still, there are a half dozen ways to speed the process, or, at the least, avoid even more credit trouble.

What to Do

ASSESS YOUR SITUATION Before you even start to think about rehabilitating your credit, make sure that you can pay your bills on time and not do any more harm. If keeping up with your credit card bills is still an issue, then call the issuer, explain your situation and try to negotiate payments you can afford. Ask the issuer how that will be reported to the major three credit bureaus: Not paid as agreed, which can hurt your score? Or will the new terms say that you are now paying as agreed?

“You have to get in writing that this is what they agreed to do,” said Mechel Glass, director of education at CredAbility, a nonprofit consumer credit counseling agency. Ditto for other providers, like utility companies.

Then, assess all the damage by getting a free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus through Each of the major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — generate their own FICO scores based on the data they collect. Two versions of your FICO score are also available for $19.95 each, through

How far your credit score has fallen will depend on where it started, as well as the frequency and severity of your credit mistakes. If you had almost perfect credit, but because of the loss of a job your credit card bills ended up at a collection agency, you can expect to lose anywhere from 80 to 150 points from your FICO score. A short sale or foreclosure? Both, Mr. Ulzheimer said, “would turn a FICO 790 into a FICO 590 overnight.”

CLEAN UP YOUR SCORE Start with the low-hanging fruit. Let’s say you were late paying a bill from a company that no longer exists, or a bank that has since merged with a larger institution. If the credit reporting bureaus cannot verify the accuracy of that black mark, they are required to remove it. “Not only does it have to be correct, but it has to be verifiable,” Mr. Ulzheimer said.

Next, focus on paying off the loans — namely, credit cards — that will help give your score the most lift. Paying off a mortgage, a student loan or other installment debts, like car loans, feels good but that won’t necessarily do much for your credit score.

You also want to get your so-called debt utilization rate into good shape. FICO considers how the total amount of debt on each of your credit cards compares with your total available credit. The credit score “elite” — that is, people with FICO scores above 760 — typically don’t have debts that exceed 7 percent of their available credit. But if you are at 50 percent and can get the rate down to 30 percent, that will help.

LEAVE A NOTE Because prospective employers may pull a copy of your credit report, consider adding the equivalent of a doctor’s note to each of your reports explaining your hardship, like a job loss. All three major credit bureaus allow you to add a brief statement through their Web sites. FICO doesn’t consider these statements when formulating scores, however, so don’t expect it to sway lenders.

GET SECURED CARDS It will obviously be hard to get a traditional credit card when you have a poor credit history. Secured cards, if used strategically, can help nurse your credit back to health more quickly. These cards require you to put a set amount of money in a bank account, say $250 or $500, which is used as collateral. And the amount of available credit should be equivalent to the amount on deposit.

“What is the most predictive and powerful in your score are the things you’ve done most recently,” Mr. Ulzheimer said. “That cuts both ways. If you add a secured card and you pay it religiously and the balance is low, it will help your score a lot more quickly than if you do nothing.”

But read the fine print before signing up. Consumer advocates said some unscrupulous card issuers have charged the security deposit to the card. And be sure the issuer reports your payment information to the big three credit bureaus, since not all do.

Curtis Arnold, the founder of, recommended two cards, both of which report payments to the big three: the Orchard Bank Secured MasterCard, which has an attractive interest rate of 7.9 percent, waives the annual fee in the first year and charges a moderate $35 annually thereafter. He also likes the Citi Secured MasterCard, largely because it offers an interest rate on the security deposit equivalent to an 18-month certificate of deposit, which he says is an industry first.

TALK TO A CREDIT UNION These institutions may be more willing to work with members who have checkered histories. Their offerings vary, but they may be more likely to consider alternative credit scores, offer free credit counseling or have products tailored for people with poor credit histories. “Certainly, many credit unions have credit builder or rebuilder loans, often structured as a loan with a built-in savings component so that a person gradually builds up funds that can act as partial collateral,” said Clifford Rosenthal, the president of the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions, a trade association representing credit unions in low- and moderate-income areas.

ALTERNATIVE VERIFICATION There are other credit reporting agencies and services that — for a monthly fee, and sometimes a hefty one — will collect your payment history from sources that aren’t included in your traditional credit report or FICO score. At this point, however, most mainstream lenders base their decisions on the big three bureaus’ reports and FICO scores. So you’re better off saving your money. “All of those companies say they will report your accounts to a credit bureau, and they may be doing that,” Mr. Ulzheimer said. “But if it is not the big three, then who cares?”

This could change, of course, as banks become more willing to lend and potentially open to using other means to identify promising borrowers. Lenders may begin to consider rental payment histories, for instance. Or they may be willing to look at alternative credit scores that incorporate payment information that doesn’t show up on traditional credit reports.

Or perhaps one lender will permit so-called shoe box credit: Did you know that if you walk into a lender with a box stuffed with receipts proving that you paid your cable bill, for instance, that they are required to consider it? They aren’t obliged to give you a loan, but the regulation says they must consider the information.

What to Avoid

CREDIT REPAIR OFFERS You may have seen the advertisements for credit repair companies on the Web. “We really tell our clients to stay away,” said Ms. Glass, of CredAbility. One re-emerging scam, she says, involves companies that claim they can clean up your credit. Some companies manage to do this for a limited time by disputing all of your accounts, sending letters to the bureaus claiming the accounts aren’t valid. But after the credit bureaus validate the accounts and debts, they reappear on your report and your score will plummet again.

Legitimate credit repair companies exist, and they can assist in disputes. But there’s nothing they can do that you can’t do yourself at little cost. Besides, these companies often besiege the bureaus with letters, and the bureaus are allowed to ignore what they believe are frivolous disputes. Be wary of companies that do not disclose in writing that you can do these tasks free on your own, that guarantee results or that try to charge you before they perform any services.

CERTAIN CARDS Despite the tighter credit environment, Chi Chi Wu, a staff lawyer at the National Consumer Law Center, said the center was still receiving complaints about credit cards aimed at people with poor credit histories.

“These cards are pitched as a way to build credit, but with these kind of steep fees and high interest rates, there is a good chance they will hurt,” she said.


House Dem reveals abortion on the House floor (why is a political issue instead a medical?)

Strong stuff from Dem Rep. Jackie Speier of California, who delivered an emotional speech on the House floor last night, revealing she had an abortion as she dressed down a Republican colleague for trivialing the decisionmaking that goes into deciding whether to undergo the procedure:

The debate was over GOP Rep. Mike Pence's drive to defund Planned Parenthood. Speier's outburst was triggered by GOP Rep. Chris Smith, who had read aloud graphic descriptions of abortion from a book only moments before. Speier responded:

"I really planned to speak about something else. But the gentleman from New Jersey just put my stomach in knots. Because I'm one of those women he spoke about just now. I had a procedure at 17 weeks pregnant with a child who moved from the vagina into the cervix. And that procedure that you just described is a procedure that I endured.

"I lost the baby. And for you to stand on this floor and suggest that somehow this is a procedure that is either welcomed or done cavalierly or done without any thought, is preposterous."

It's a reminder that the battle lines on this issue remain as sharply drawn as ever. It's not TV on a par with Alan Grayson or Steve King, but let's hope it gets a bit of cable play, anyway.

BUDGET SAVINGS BY GOP? What alot of BS they are talking about slice bits off only 12% of USA budget! HOW 800 BILLION TAX CUT TO THE RICH LAST FALL??????

Conservative budget amendment fails House amid fissure among Republicans

A conservative budget proposal that would have cut an additional $22 billion across federal agencies on top of the $61 billion in cuts already proposed by House Republicans failed the House Friday amid sharp disagreements among Republicans over just how far Congress should go in seeking to rein in federal spending.

More than 90 Republicans voted against the amendment, sponsored by Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (Ohio).

The final 147 to 281 vote saw members of the House Republican leadership splitting their votes, with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) voting against the measure and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Republican Caucus Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas) voting in favor.

The measure would have achieved its $22 billion in additional cuts by making trims of 11 percent across the legislative branch and of 5.5 percent to all other non-security accounts, not including U.S. aid to Israel.

In 45 minutes of debate Friday afternoon that exposed sharp disagreements within the GOP, at least 10 Republicans spoke out in favor of the amendment, all of them members of the RSC. Roughly an equal number of Republicans took to the floor to oppose the amendment; half of them were members of the RSC, whose membership includes more than 170 conservative House Republicans. All of the Democrats who spoke during Friday's floor debate opposed the RSC amendment.

The Republican-vs.-Republican dynamic of the debate led to a few direct confrontations.

California Republican Rep. Dan Lungren, who warned earlier Friday that the amendment would "paralyze" the U.S. Capitol Police, was greeted with applause from opponents of the RSC amendment after arguing that "across-the-board cuts are a lazy member's way to achieve something."

He was rebutted immediately by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), an RSC member who had brought the amendment to the floor on Jordan's behalf.

"I would take issue with saying any member of this house is lazy or that this is a lazy process," Blackburn said, contending that "26 states have used across-the-board cuts to get their fiscal house in order."

Georgia Republican Rep. Jack Kingston described himself as a "proud RSC member" who opposed the amendment because he argued that an across-the-board cut would put Obama administration officials in charge of the decision-making on how to cut.

"I've got to say to my conservative friends, when you cut across the board, who do you think is going to be in charge of where these cuts come from?" Kingston asked.

Illinois Republican Rep. Joe Walsh backed the deep cuts called for by the amendment, noting that his brother sent him a text message Thursday night to say, "Keep the cuts comin', baby!" Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) also defended the measure.

"What we're doing here is a rounding error compared to what we're going to have to do with entitlement spending," Flake said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.) said he opposed the amendment because he didn't want national security funds to be subjected to an across-the-board cut. The next two speakers were both Republicans, one who supported the measure and another who opposed it.

Then Jordan spoke out in support of his own amendment. "If we don't do this, our future for our kids and our grandkids is diminished," he said.

He was followed by three Republicans -- Reps. Kay Granger (Texas), Tom Latham (Iowa) and Jo Ann Emerson (Mo.) -- who opposed the amendment.

"I realize it's a well-intentioned effort, but it goes too far," Emerson said.

Democrats took their share of shots at the amendment, too. Virginia Democratic Rep. Jim Moran called it "irresponsible" and "imbalanced."

"This amendment would commit this country to an economic death spiral," Moran said.

Washington Democratic Rep. Norm Dicks, ranking member on the Appropriations Committee, criticized the amendment as "misguided," arguing that it would cut spending indiscriminately.

"This is a meat-axe approach on top of a meat-axe approach. It's a double-meat-axe approach," Dicks said.

The opposition to the RSC amendment was striking in light of the emphasis House Republicans have given to making deep cuts to federal spending in the wake of their victory in the November midterms. A vote on the entire resolution funding the federal government may be pushed into the weekend as lawmakers debate hundreds of amendments.

Willie Sutton Wept By PAUL KRUGMAN NYTimes

There are three things you need to know about the current budget debate. First, it’s essentially fraudulent. Second, most people posing as deficit hawks are faking it. Third, while President Obama hasn’t fully avoided the fraudulence, he’s less bad than his opponents — and he deserves much more credit for fiscal responsibility than he’s getting.

About the fraudulence: Last month, Howard Gleckman of the Tax Policy Center described the president as the “anti-Willie Sutton,” after the holdup artist who reputedly said he robbed banks because that’s where the money is. Indeed, Mr. Obama has lately been going where the money isn’t, making a big deal out of a freeze on nonsecurity discretionary spending, which accounts for only 12 percent of the budget.

But that’s what everyone does. House Republicans talk big about spending cuts — but focus solely on that same small budget sliver.

And by proposing sharp spending cuts right away, Republicans aren’t just going where the money isn’t, they’re also going when the money isn’t. Slashing spending while the economy is still deeply depressed is a recipe for slower economic growth, which means lower tax receipts — so any deficit reduction from G.O.P. cuts would be at least partly offset by lower revenue.

The whole budget debate, then, is a sham. House Republicans, in particular, are literally stealing food from the mouths of babes — nutritional aid to pregnant women and very young children is one of the items on their cutting block — so they can pose, falsely, as deficit hawks.

What would a serious approach to our fiscal problems involve? I can summarize it in seven words: health care, health care, health care, revenue.

Notice that I said “health care,” not “entitlements.” People in Washington often talk as if there were a program called Socialsecuritymedicareandmedicaid, then focus on things like raising the retirement age. But that’s more anti-Willie Suttonism. Long-run projections suggest that spending on the major entitlement programs will rise sharply over the decades ahead, but the great bulk of that rise will come from the health insurance programs, not Social Security.

So anyone who is really serious about the budget should be focusing mainly on health care. And by focusing, I don’t mean writing down a number and expecting someone else to make that number happen — a dodge known in the trade as a “magic asterisk.” I mean getting behind specific actions to rein in costs.

By that standard, the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission, whose work is now being treated as if it were the gold standard of fiscal seriousness, was in fact deeply unserious. Its report “was one big magic asterisk,” Bob Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities told The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein. So is the much-hyped proposal by Paul Ryan, the G.O.P.’s supposed deep thinker du jour, to replace Medicare with vouchers whose value would systematically lag behind health care costs. What’s supposed to happen when seniors find that they can’t afford insurance?

What would real action on health look like? Well, it might include things like giving an independent commission the power to ensure that Medicare only pays for procedures with real medical value; rewarding health care providers for delivering quality care rather than simply paying a fixed sum for every procedure; limiting the tax deductibility of private insurance plans; and so on.

And what do these things have in common? They’re all in last year’s health reform bill.

That’s why I say that Mr. Obama gets too little credit. He has done more to rein in long-run deficits than any previous president. And if his opponents were serious about those deficits, they’d be backing his actions and calling for more; instead, they’ve been screaming about death panels.

Now, even if we manage to rein in health costs, we’ll still have a long-run deficit problem — a fundamental gap between the government’s spending and the amount it collects in taxes. So what should be done?

This brings me to the seventh word of my summary of the real fiscal issues: if you’re serious about the deficit, you should be willing to consider closing at least part of this gap with higher taxes. True, higher taxes aren’t popular, but neither are cuts in government programs. So we should add to the roster of fundamentally unserious people anyone who talks about the deficit — as most of our prominent deficit scolds do — as if it were purely a spending issue.

The bottom line, then, is that while the budget is all over the news, we’re not having a real debate; it’s all sound, fury, and posturing, telling us a lot about the cynicism of politicians but signifying nothing in terms of actual deficit reduction. And we shouldn’t indulge those politicians by pretending otherwise.


When the Supreme Court hears arguments next week, it will mark the fifth anniversary of Justice Clarence Thomas’s silence during oral argument — unless he chooses to re-enter the give-and-take. We hope he will.

This milestone has stirred a wide conversation about his effectiveness as a justice following another about his ethics. They are actually related. How Justice Thomas comports himself on the bench is a matter of ethics and effectiveness, simultaneously. His authority as a justice and the court’s as an institution are at issue.

Last week, 74 Democrats in Congress cited the threat to the court’s authority when they asked Justice Thomas to recuse himself from an expected review of the health care reform law. This came after an announcement by his wife, Virginia, a lobbyist, who said she will provide “advocacy and assistance” as “an ambassador to the Tea Party movement,” which, of course, is dedicated to the overturning of the health care law.

The representatives based their request on the “appearance of a conflict of interest,” because of a conflict they see between his duty to be an impartial decision-maker and the Thomas household’s financial gain from her lobbying. If Mrs. Thomas were involved as a party in the litigation about the health law, or the litigation’s outcome proved central to her professional life, those classic conflicts would require him to recuse himself. The annual requirement that the justice disclose the sources of his household income is designed to address that issue.

Still, the reputations of the justice and the court — which depend on public confidence — are at issue because of Mrs. Thomas’s lobbying. Justice Thomas’s attendance at a political event also seemed ill advised.

The court relies on each justice individually to judge whether he or she should not hear a case because of bias or the appearance of bias. It’s a bad approach, but it underscores Justice Thomas’s responsibility for his comportment and for acting in ways that contribute to the court’s authority.

Taking part in oral arguments would be good for the justice and the court. In a landmark article about judging, the scholar John Leubsdorf said a justice should abide by three principles: avoid basing a vote on personal considerations; avoid basing a vote on facts learned outside the case; and consider both sides’ arguments.

Taking part in arguments is a way for Justice Thomas to convey that he honors the third principle. By engaging with lawyers for both sides in cases and showing open-mindedness in exchanges with them, he would show his dedication to the court’s impartiality and to its integrity as an institution.

NYTimes editorial

Obama joins Wisconsin's budget battle, opposing Republican anti-union bill

MADISON, WIS. - President Obama thrust himself and his political operation this week into Wisconsin's broiling budget battle, mobilizing opposition Thursday to a Republican bill that would curb public-worker benefits and planning similar protests in other state capitals.

Obama accused Scott Walker, the state's new Republican governor, of unleashing an "assault" on unions in pushing emergency legislation that would change future collective-bargaining agreements that affect most public employees, including teachers.

The president's political machine worked in close coordination Thursday with state and national union officials to get thousands of protesters to gather in Madison and to plan similar demonstrations in other state capitals.

Their efforts began to spread, as thousands of labor supporters turned out for a hearing in Columbus, Ohio, to protest a measure from Gov. John Kasich (R) that would cut collective-bargaining rights.

By the end of the day, Democratic Party officials were organizing additional demonstrations in Ohio and Indiana, where an effort is underway to trim benefits for public workers. Some union activists predicted similar protests in Missouri, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Under Walker's plan, most public workers - excluding police, firefighters and state troopers - would have to pay half of their pension costs and at least 12 percent of their health-care costs. They would lose bargaining rights for anything other than pay. Walker, who took office last month, says the emergency measure would save $300 million over the next two years to help close a $3.6 billion budget gap.

"Some of what I've heard coming out of Wisconsin, where they're just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions," Obama told a Milwaukee television reporter on Thursday, taking the unusual step of inviting a local TV station into the White House for a sit-down interview. "I think everybody's got to make some adjustments, but I think it's also important to recognize that public employees make enormous contributions to our states and our citizens."

The state Capitol sat mostly quiet at dawn on Friday, the calm before another day of furious protests. Scores of protestors lay sleeping in the nooks and crannies of the ornate statehouse, wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags next to piles of empty pizza boxes. They included college students, middle-aged schoolteachers and even a handful of families with their small children.

Room 328, a cramped hearing space where members of the public can speak on the budget bill, was packed full of eager but bleary-eyed protestors. One after another, the speakers used their two minutes to blast Walker's measure, sometimes looking straight into a local television camera that was broadcasting the proceedings.

"We are the people and our voices must be heard!" one woman said.

The proceedings showed little sign of slowing. By 6:45 a.m., those who had signed up to speak five hours earlier were finally getting their chance.

"We are so thrilled you are here," said Rep. Janis Ringhand, a Democratic state assembly member from Evansville who was moderating the hearing. "We know we are outnumbered as far as votes, but it could be you who makes the difference."

The White House political operation, Organizing for America, got involved Monday, after Democratic National Committee Chairman Timothy M. Kaine, a former Virginia governor, spoke to union leaders in Madison, a party official said.

The group made phone calls, distributed messages via Twitter and Facebook, and sent e-mails to state and national lists to try to build crowds for rallies Wednesday and Thursday, a party official said.

National Republican leaders, who have praised efforts similar to Walker's, leapt to his defense.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) issued a stern rebuke of the White House, calling on Obama to wave off his political operation and stop criticizing the governor.

"This is not the way you begin an 'adult conversation' in America about solutions to the fiscal challenges that are destroying jobs in our country," Boehner said in a statement, alluding to the president's call for civility in budget talks. "Rather than shouting down those in office who speak honestly about the challenges we face, the president and his advisers should lead."

Unsustainable costs

The battle in the states underscores the deep philosophical and political divisions between Obama and Republicans over how to control spending and who should bear the costs.

By aligning himself closely with unions, Obama is siding with a core segment of the Democratic Party base - but one that has chafed in recent weeks as the president has sought to rebuild his image among centrist voters by reaching out to business leaders.

Republicans see a chance to show that they're willing to make the tough choices to cut spending and to challenge the power of public-sector unions, which are the largest element of the labor movement and regularly raise tens of millions of dollars for Democratic campaigns.

Governors in both parties are slashing once-untouchable programs, including education, health care for the poor and aid to local governments. Some states, such as Illinois, have passed major tax increases.

States face a collective budget deficit of $175 billion through 2013. Many experts say state tax revenue will not fully recover until the nation returns to full employment, which is not likely for several years.

Beyond their short-term fiscal problems, many states face pension and retiree health-care costs that some analysts say are unsustainable. Some states already are curtailing retirement benefits for new employees, although many analysts say it will take much more to bring their long-term obligations in line.

The huge debt burdens coupled with the impending cutoff of federal stimulus aid later this year have spurred talk of a federal bailout. The White House has dismissed such speculation, saying states have the wherewithal to raise taxes, cut programs and renegotiate employee contracts to balance their books.


In Wisconsin, state Democratic senators staged a protest of their own Thursday, refusing to show up at the Capitol for an 11 a.m. quorum call - delaying a vote that would have almost certainly seen the spending cuts pass.

It was unclear where the missing legislators had gone, and several news outlets were reporting that they had left the state.

"I don't know exactly where they are, but as I understand it, they're somewhere in Illinois," said Mike Browne, spokesman for Mark Miller, the state Senate's Democratic leader.

Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller told CNN that they were "in a secure location outside the Capitol."

Republicans hold a 19 to 14 edge in the Senate. They need 20 senators present for a quorum, which is why one of the Democrats has to show up before they can hold the vote.

Democratic legislators in Texas employed a similar tactic in 2003 to try to stop a controversial redistricting plan that gave Republicans more seats in Congress. It passed a couple of months later.

The organized protest at the state Capitol drew an estimated 25,000 people, and long after the quorum call, thousands remained on the grounds, from children in strollers to old ladies in wheelchairs.

Inside the Capitol, the scene late Thursday night was part rock concert, part World Cup match, part high school pep rally and part massive slumber party.

The smell of sweat and pizza drifted through the building's marbled halls. A drum circle formed inside the massive rotunda, and scores of university students danced jubilantly to the rhythm. There were clanging cowbells and twanging guitars, trumpets and vuvuzelas.

Outside, another throng had gathered to cheer and chant before the television cameras, and to break constantly into the crowd's favorite anthem: "Kill the bill! Kill the bill!" And everywhere were signs, each with its own dose of disdain for Walker's budget bill: "Scotty, Scotty, flush your bill down the potty." "Walker's Plantation, open for business." "You will never break our union."

Many of the protesters, including Laurie Bauer, 51, had been on hand since Tuesday, with no plans to leave until the issue is resolved.

"It's one thing about the money. We'd be willing to negotiate the money," said Bauer, a library media specialist at Parker High School in Janesville. But "he's trying to take away our human rights. . . . I don't want my kids living in a state like that."

Loren Mikkelson, 37, held the same position: Budget cuts are negotiable, but collective -bargaining rights are not.

"We can meet in the middle. We're willing to give. . . . He's acting like we've never given anything. We've given," said Mikkelson, a airfield maintenance worker who said he has endured furloughs and pay cuts in his county job. "We just want a voice."

Implications for Obama

The state-level battles and Obama's decision to step into the fray illustrate how the budget choices state leaders are facing probably will have direct implications for the president's political standing.

Wisconsin and Ohio are likely battlegrounds for Obama's re-election effort. Mobilizing Organizing for America around the budget fights could help kick-start a political machinery that has been largely stagnant since the 2008 campaign and reignite union activists who have expressed some disappointment with Obama.

But by leaping in to defend public workers, the president risks alienating swing voters in those states and nationwide who are sympathetic to GOP governors perceived as taking on special interests to cut spending.

Obama, in his comments to the Wisconsin TV reporter, tried to walk a fine line - noting that he, too, has taken on the unions.

"We had to impose a freeze on pay increases on federal workers for the next two years as part of my overall budget freeze," he said. "I think those kinds of adjustments are the right thing to do."

Walker, meanwhile, called his proposals "modest" and appeared to be trying to show distance between public employees and workers employed by private companies, who he said expressed support for his policies during visits he made to manufacturing plants this week.

"Many of the companies I went by, like so many others across the state, don't have pensions, and the 401(k)s they have over the last year or two, they've had to suspend the employer contribution," Walker told Milwaukee radio station WTMJ. "So, not a lot of sympathy from these guys in private-sector manufacturing companies who I think reflect a lot of the workers in the state who say what we're asking for is pretty modest."

Brady Dennis and Peter Wallsten
Washington Post

The GOP's Race Backslide

Haley Barbour’s refusal to denounce Confederate license plates is just the latest example of a Republican Party that is regressing on race—and damaging its electoral future.

"I don't go around denouncing people," said Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour this week. "That's not going to happen. I don't even denounce the news media." Cute line.
It implied that not only does Barbour see nothing objectionable in the effort to issue a Mississippi license plate for former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest, but he considers the real villains those journalists with the audacity to bring the issue up.

They still don’t get it. By “it,” I mean the new politics of race. And by “they,” I mean leading members of the Republican Party.

Is Barbour a racist? Probably not in the sense that he harbors a consuming hatred of African Americans. But he is a guy with a nostalgic view of pre-civil rights Mississippi, as reflected in his recent defense of the avowedly segregationist Citizens Council and his claim, about the tribulations of the civil rights movement in his state, that "I just don't remember it as being that bad."

Once upon a time, national politicians could get away with that. Ronald Reagan, after all, launched his 1980 presidential campaign with a nod to “states’ rights” at Mississippi’s Neshoba County State Fair.
But in recent years, the political climate has grown less tolerant of racist, or even anti-anti-racist attitudes. The electorate is more black and brown than it was in Reagan’s day, and even many younger white voters expect their leaders to display a comfort with multiculturalism.
At the beginning of this century, the GOP seemed to be catching on to that. One of George W. Bush’s main selling points in the 2000 Republican primary, after all, was his apparent success in winning Hispanic voters in Texas. As president, he tried to build on it by appointing African Americans to key Cabinet posts, ducking the issue of affirmative action, and treading softly on illegal immigration.
But since then, the GOP has slid backward. Its demonization of illegal immigrants has wrecked Bush and Rove’s effort at Hispanic outreach; it recently deposed its African-American party chair, and it seems likely to renominate George Allen, he of the famed “macaca” slur, for a run for a Virginia Senate seat.

The problem, I suspect, is that many Republicans have forgotten they have a problem. Barack Obama’s woes, and their triumph last fall, have seduced them into believing that they can regain the presidency without any serious effort at altering the party’s reputation among African-American and other minority voters.

The Barbour incident is a case in point. The Nathan Bedford Forrest controversy offered Barbour a perfect opportunity for a “Sister Souljah” moment—a public confrontation with his own white, right-wing Southern base aimed at winning him credibility outside of it. Such a confrontation would not have cost Barbour much. As a son of the South with a winning personality and a long right-wing record, he would still have had an excellent chance of picking up conservative votes, especially in his native region. The fact that he chose to attack the media instead suggests that he doesn’t think he has anything to prove.

Like most Republicans, he probably believes the liberal media is forever itching to prove that Republicans are racist, even while giving Democrats a pass for their own racial gaffes. But for today’s Republicans, blaming the media provides a way of ignoring what Bush and Rove knew: that in an increasingly multiracial electorate, a Republican Party that can’t win non-white and non-Anglo votes can’t win presidential elections.

For today’s Republicans, blaming the media provides a way of ignoring what Bush and Rove knew: that in an increasingly multi-racial electorate, a GOP that can’t win non-white and non-Anglo votes can’t win presidential elections.

For a long time, the GOP benefited from the politics of race. Its leaders seem to have trouble grasping that we now live in a different age.

Peter Beinart The Daily Beast

A Breast-Feeding Plan Mixes Partisan Reactions

Perhaps it was inevitable that when Michelle Obama proposed something, Michele Bachmann would be the one to criticize her.

The surprise is how many of the reactions crossed the usual political boundaries.

On blogs and in interviews, some liberal Democrats found themselves agreeing with Representative Bachmann, a Tea Party celebrity from Minnesota, when she criticized the first lady for a campaign to promote breast-feeding. Some conservatives, meanwhile, stood up for Mrs. Obama for promoting what they said was a healthier choice.

Mrs. Obama told reporters this month that she would promote breast-feeding, particularly among black women, as part of her campaign to reduce childhood obesity. The Internal Revenue Service then announced that breast pumps, which can cost several hundred dollars, would be eligible for tax breaks.

Ms. Bachmann lashed out at the campaign on Tuesday on Laura Ingraham’s radio show, saying that it reflected a “hard left” position that “government is the answer to everything.”

While noting that she had breast-fed the five children she gave birth to, Ms. Bachmann said, “To think that government has to go out and buy my breast pump — You want to talk about nanny state, I think we just got a new definition.”

While few if any of those who offered comments were against breast-feeding, many noted that some women were unable to breast-feed for medical reasons. Others said that many women without offices or flexible work hours were not offered the time or a place to use breast pumps.

“Holy mackerel, I might have to agree with Michele Bachmann on this one!” noted one person on a blog.

A new mother who called herself a progressive Brooklynite — and would not be identified for fear of scorn from her Democratic friends and other mothers — said that while she hated “just about everything to do with Bachmann’s politics, she is not completely wrong here.”

“I support what the first lady is trying to do, but I also think there’s already enough pressure on working moms,” she said. “Yes, breast is best, but there are plenty of mothers who love and care for their children, but simply can’t pump — for time, work or physical reasons.”

At the same time, people who said they did not like the Obamas applauded the first lady for her efforts. “I am a conservative,” said a writer to an Arkansas Times blog. “I am also a breast-feeding advocate. This is just stupid.”

Ms. Bachmann was wrong that Mrs. Obama wants the government to pay for breast pumps; the I.R.S. would simply allow people to deduct breast-feeding expenses if they itemize, or use the pre-tax dollars in their medical savings accounts to pay for pumps.

And the federal government is now one of the biggest buyers of baby formula, through its nutritional programs for women and infant children. So giving a tax break for breast-feeding might actually help reduce government spending, as Ms. Bachmann advocates.

But the debate about breast-feeding goes well beyond questions of federal spending. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be fed nothing but breast milk for the first six months, citing its benefits for the child, the mother and the environment.

Still, some studies have found it hard to make a strong connection between obesity and bottle feeding, or breast-feeding and a higher I.Q. or a lower incidence of allergies.

A spokesman for Mrs. Obama anticipated the debate, calling breast-feeding “a very personal choice.”

By Thursday — perhaps, again, inevitably — Sarah Palin had weighed in. “No wonder Michelle Obama is telling everybody, ‘You better breast-feed your baby,’ ” she said at a speech on Long Island. “Yeah, you’d better, because the price of milk is so high right now.”