Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Are We Witnessing the Beginning of the End of America?

Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of America? I’m concerned that the far right’s departure from a reality-based universe, brought about in part by a case of Obama Derangement Syndrome, may be leading to that eventuality. We’ve already seen calls from hundreds of thousands of people (mostly on the right, I presume) for their states to secede in the wake of President Obama’s re-election. Now we’re seeing state after Republican-dominated state debating and even passing bills that would give states the right to nullify federal laws, to declare federal laws unconstitutional, and to arrest federal officials. The President Pro Tempore of Indiana’s Senate is advocating an Article V Constitutional Convention and his Senate colleagues voted in favor of his proposal.

Across the country, state legislatures (again, Republican state legislatures) are passing laws to make it more difficult for some people (largely minorities) to vote or even restrict voting rights out of hand. Rather than talking about how to make voting more fair, more equitable, more inclusive, we’re passing that allow fewer people to vote and make it more difficult to do so. And states are talking about changing voting laws to award electoral votes to a candidate that loses the popular vote. Today, in fact, a Republican county in Alabama is at the Supreme Court arguing against the Voting Rights Act that was nearly unanimously reauthorized just six years ago. And while some Republicans are arguing against the Voting Rights Act, others are trying to grant corporations the right to vote and expand the rights of corporations and wealthy individuals to further influence and dominate the elections process. Nope. We don’t want blacks or Latinos or students to vote, but corporate votes and corporate money are A-OK.

More and more frequently, we’re hearing rhetoric directed at fellow citizens and politicians framing them as traitors or treasonous, claiming that they want to destroy the country or are working hand-in-hand with our enemies, or asserting that those fellow citizens and politicians are actually domestic enemies of the country and the Constitution. All too often that rhetoric is tinged with threats of violence or references to “Second Amendment remedies” and the like.

People are clinging to their guns to protect them from the “tyranny” of a government that wants to treat people equally, help provide affordable health care, and keep our children safe from gun violence.

I won’t even bother discussing the ongoing arguments over social issues, taxation, the budget, and so forth.

But I don’t think we can so easily dismiss what we’re seeing as just a few crackpots on the fringe. These voices have moved in to the mainstream. They’ve been elected to Congress and many state legislatures. They’re all over Fox News. And talk radio has become a cesspool of racism, conspiracy, and hate. And thanks to the Internet, these views that might once have been relegated to the tinfoil hat fringe, are now readily accessible and gaining currency and legitimacy.

Our political processes seem broken. Congress can’t act because one party either filibusters everything (in the Senate) or won’t even contemplate compromise (in the House). Presidential appointments are stymied or delayed. The health and stability of the nation’s economy (even the world’s economy) is held hostage. Institutions like the Post Office are being forced closer to extinction. The gap between the haves and have nots continues to widen, to mention the gaps between liberal and conservative ideologies.

We may all speak English, but I worry that we’re really not talking the same language anymore.

And, far too often, the oft-repeated lie becomes the truth and facts, evidence, and science are viewed as nothing more than propaganda or lies.

We’ve also seen that Republicans were willing to let the country default on its debt obligations. We’ve seen them talk about secession. We’ve seen them demand “their country back” and talk about impeachment for … um … well, who really needs a reason to impeach a black President, right? It seems to me that some in the Republican Party are willing to wage a scorched earth campaign against the country that they claim to love. If they can’t get everything that they want, they’re going to make sure that the rest of us pay the price. They’ve spent the first four years of Obama’s presidency essentially sabotaging the economy to try to get back into power. So what won’t they do to stop progress with which they disagree? Why shouldn’t we expect them to be willing to tear the country apart if that’s what they think it will take them to “win”?

So where will this lead us? Where will our country go if some states begin claiming the right to nullify federal laws? (And what if instead of just “red” states nullifying federal gun or healthcare laws, we have “blue” states nullifying federal immigration laws, for example?) Where will we be when a rural Montana sheriff tries to arrest an FBI or ATF agent for trying to enforce a federal gun law? Where will we be when a state decides that it isn’t bound by other federal laws it doesn’t like … say, for example, the Voting Rights Act? Are we really just a collection of 50 independent nation states, loosely tied together for purposes of “national” defense?

We’ve been down the road of nullification before. We’ve seen what happens when some states exert their right to be free of federal laws that they don’t like. We’ve seen the Civil War and Jim Crow. And I’m really, really afraid that what we’re seeing now, coming primarily from Republican legislators at the state level, is a return to that way of non-governance.

America wasn’t always the world’s superpower. At the time that brothers took up arms against one another to keep the Union together or to fight for the right to own humans as pets, our survival as a nation was obviously in jeopardy. Our nation became strong by acting as a solid whole, not as just a group of 40 or 48 or even 50 individual states within a loose affiliation. We don’t root for the Californian Olympic team or pledge allegiance to the flag of Kentucky.

But today, that’s all in jeopardy. As state legislators talk about nullifying federal law, about holding Article V conventions, about arresting federal agents, we appear to be well on our way down that proverbial slippery slope.

I don’t know what lies at the bottom. Were this a map made in Medieval times, it would surely say “Here be Dragons”. But I do know this: If we continue to allow the voices of hate and intolerance to hold sway, if we continue to support politicians who talk openly of nullification or secession, if we continue believe that it’s OK to win elections, not on the merit of ideas, but on the strength of voter suppression, money, or a rigged electoral process, then the America that we’ve grown up with, that Shining City on the Hill, may soon become just another chapter in the history books, replaced by … well, I don’t know. And I don’t want to find out.

We have to stand up to the voices that, whether intentionally or not, are leading our nation to the doorway to places to which we don’t want to go. If we don’t want these days to be the beginning of the end of America, then we have to stand up, make our voices heard, and bring an end to the rhetoric and policies that will tear us asunder.


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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

More of the Stoopid

I thought I’d take a brief look at some of the really stupid, idiotic, and downright unbelievable bills that have been introduced in other states. And trust me, there have been some really, really stupid, idiotic, and unbelievable bills introduced. For example, apparently Indiana is not alone in having bills seeking to outlaw cooperation with “Agenda 21 agencies” or calling for nullification of federal laws and the arrest of federal agents. I’m not sure if states other than Indiana are looking to put the right to hunt and raise poultry into their Constitutions and certainly none (that I know of) have attempted to force women seeking chemical abortions to undergo not one but two transvaginal ultrasounds. But legislators in Missouri and Montana have, somehow, managed to out-crazy even the craziest of Hoosier crazies.

My “favorite” bill of the year has to be Missouri House Bill 663. It’s short and sweet (and oh, so crazy):

Any member of the general assembly who proposes a piece of legislation that further restricts the right of an individual to bear arms, as set forth under the second amendment of the Constitution of the United States, shall be guilty of a class D felony.

You might want to read that a few times to be sure that you really understand it. Were this bill to pass, an elected Missouri legislator that, for example, offered a bill to outlaw armor piercing bullets or high capacity magazines would be guilty of a felony. Think of it this way: This law would infringe the First Amendment to prevent potential infringement of the Second Amendment. Can you imagine the outcry if a Democratic legislator were to introduce a bill to make it a felony to propose legislation that further restricts a woman’s constitutionally protected right to seek an abortion?

Or we could take this bill to its ridiculous logical endpoint. A majority could pass a law saying that it’s a felony to introduce legislation on subject X and is also a felony to introduce legislation to repeal that legislation. Thus, even were the majority tossed out, the new majority couldn’t repeal legislation that they didn’t like without committing a felony in the process.

Yep. That’s how our democratic legislative process is supposed to work.

And speaking of the democratic process, let’s take a look at Montana House Bill 486 which would grant corporations that own land the right to vote in municipal elections. Well, corporations are people, right? Seriously, though, can you imagine corporations having the right to vote? Never mind that the shareholders of the corporation already have the right to vote. Nope. Apparently, that’s not good enough. The legislator who introduced this bill apparently feels the need to give even more control in the governing process to corporations because, you know, lobbying just isn’t effective enough. Nor is spending enormous amounts of “dark money” to influence elections. Nope. Those pesky citizens just have too much influence and we need to even the playing field for those poor downtrodden corporations. People who live in the municipality illegally, but still pay also sorts of local taxes, couldn’t vote, but corporations could. I’d say that tells us a lot about where values are being placed.

And let’s tease this one out a bit, too. If this bill were to pass, I could probably make some money in Montana. First, I’d buy a tiny, tiny parcel of land in each municipality. Then I’d sell what are known as tenancy in common interests in that parcel to corporations (both from within and outside of Montana). Each parcel could, essentially, have an unlimited number of corporate owners, all of whom would then own real property within the municipality and, thus, apparently, have the right to vote. Cool beans. But what if that wasn’t enough bang for some corporation’s proverbial buck? What if it needed to really be sure that it could control the municipality? Well, if Montana is like Indiana, forming a corporation is actually inexpensive (I think in Indiana the filing fee is still just $90). So why couldn’t Really Big Company create a whole bunch of little shell subsidiaries and “sell” to each of them a tiny percentage in that plot of real estate? Then each of those corporations could cast a vote. So imagine if Really Big Business really wanted a zoning change and needed a particular candidate to get elected. Presuming the filing fee was $90, then for just $1,000,000, Really Big Business could essentially buy itself the right to cast over 11,000 votes. Boom. Done. Plus, as I read the statute, the ultimate owner of the business not only doesn’t have to be from Montana, he or she could even be a foreign national (or the parent company could be a foreign corporation). So just imagine if a Saudi Arabian oil company wanted a zoning change to allow it to start drilling in a rural Montana community…

Yep. That’s how our democratic process is supposed to work. But then corporations are people, right?

Note: Between the time that I started writing this post and the time that I finished it, the Indiana Senate debated and passed legislation calling for an Article V Constitutional Convention. I guess they wanted to recapture the craziest legislature crown.


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Monday, February 25, 2013

Do I Have the Right to Take Up Arms Against the Government

Suppose that Congress were to pass a bill that makes it illegal to possess mercury thermometers, citing environmental concerns and the danger that they pose to children when they break. And suppose that the President signs that bill into law. Next, suppose the law is challenged in the federal courts and the Supreme Court dismisses the challenges to the law and upholds its enforceability. Finally, suppose that you are a collector of mercury thermometers or are in the business of making or selling them and, therefore, you strongly object to this new law.

Do you have the right to take up arms against the government?

If a Federal Marshall appears at your door, do you have the right to shoot him in the name of revolution or to oppose the tyranny evidenced by the mercury thermometer seizure? Can you take your revolution to the members of Congress who voted for this law or the President who signed it or a judge who dismissed a legal challenge to the enforceability of the law? Can you shoot your neighbor who thinks that the law is a good idea?

I presume that everybody will answer “No!” to those queries (and if you didn’t, I think that you need to seek help right now).

It might be worth going back and reading that preceding hypothetical again, but this time substitute for “mercury thermometers” the term “incandescent light bulbs”. Do you reach a different result? I didn’t think so.

But what about some slightly less ridiculous example. Instead of mercury thermometers (or light bulbs), what if the ban was on radar detectors used to avoid police speed traps? Radio controlled model airplanes (that could be used to carry explosive payloads)? A new cancer-fighting drug that has also become a new exotic hallucinogenic of choice?

If you feel that those new laws are unfair or violate your rights or represent government “tyranny” do you have a right to take up arms against the government or your fellow citizens?

I’d again presume that the answer would remain “No”.

But what if we get a bit more close to rights protected by the Constitution?

What if the new law (and remember, this hypothetical law is passed by an elected Congress, signed by an elected President, and upheld by a majority of the Supreme Court [that was itself appointed by Presidents subject to consent to by the Senate]) imposes even more burdensome forms of proof of citizenship in order to vote? What if the new law requires ownership of land in order to vote? What if the new law required proficiency in English before a person could vote.

Would those impacted by the law have the right to take up arms in against the government of the United States? Could they fire upon those who sought to enforce the new law on election day?

Or, say that the new law was a direct challenge to the First Amendment. What if the law says that children cannot have a sip of alcohol, even as part of a religious observance? What if, instead of alcohol, the law prohibited the sacrifice of animals or use of peyote as a part of a religious observance? What if the law prohibited devil worship or even the practice of Islam? (Or, to be more realistic for a moment, what about a law, especially a local law, prohibiting the erection of a mosque in a particular place or in a particular county?)

Would those impacted by the law have the right to take up arms in revolution against the government of the United States?

While I think that we’d all (I hope!) agree that some of those hypothetical laws sound blatantly unconstitutional, I think that we’d all also probably agree that those adversely affected would not have a right to begin shooting their Congressional representatives. Right?

But what if the prohibition has nothing to do with the First Amendment and, instead, focuses on the Second Amendment? What if the prohibition is on the possession of fully automatic machine guns? What if the prohibition extends to semi-automatic assault rifles or high capacity magazines or armor piercing bullets? While I think most sane people would continue to answer in the negative in these scenarios, there appears to be a frightening increase in the number of people willing to publicly say that they do, indeed, have the right to take up arms to prevent this type of governmental “tyranny”.

What is it about guns that puts them beyond the purview of the democratic process and beyond the same sorts of limitations applicable to other constitutionally protected rights?

It seems to me that the definition of “tyranny” has become less about a dictator imposing his will upon the public over the objections legislative actions of elected officials or beyond the workings of the democratic process and has, instead, become any action by an elected Democratic President, even with the support of a democratically elected Congress, with which Republicans (or at least conservatives on the far right) disagree. Obamacare? Tyranny! The economic stimulus? Tyranny! Light bulbs? Tyranny! (Oh, wait. That was a Republican President, but it’s still viewed as tyranny…) Executive orders and “czars” are tyranny too, except, apparently, those issued or appointed by a Republican President. Even the actions of a First Lady to try to get children to eat healthier are decried as government meddling and “tyranny”.

No, as I’ve been saying for a long time now, the degree to which political opponents are being demonized, the extent to which opposing viewpoints are deemed “treasonous”, and the way in which facts, too often, seem irrelevant (if not outright “proof” of the opposite), are just further steps toward political anarchy, violence, or worse. If some segments of society continue to hear that Democrats and President Obama are traitors, that they are engaged in “tyranny”, that they’re not legitimate (whether because of birther nonsense or allegations of voter fraud or whatever), how long will it be before some of them decide to act? How many times will it take for someone to hear a right wing talking head say that the “gumint is comin’ to take yer guns” before they believe it and act upon that belief (and by “act”, I don’t mean at the ballot box…)?

Think of it this way: Prior to the election of President Obama, how often did you hear people mention “Second Amendment remedies”? How often did you see signs saying “We came unarmed … this time”? How often did you hear acts of Congress or the President described as “tyranny” (I mean, did you hear President Bush described as a tyrant for authorizing warrantless wiretaps, indefinite detention, and torture…)? Perhaps most importantly, how often did you hear the stress placed upon the portion of oaths of office to protect and defend the country or the Constitution from enemies, both “foreign and domestic”? Just think about that for a second. What some people are really saying when they recite that is that those with whom they disagree are somehow actual enemies for which an oath of office (including that of the military) requires action. If you’ve sworn to defend the country against domestic enemies and if the President, because of his political positions, is viewed as an “enemy” (no matter that a majority might agree with those views), then where are we? And yes, some of the far right really do refer to President Obama as “the enemy”.*

We have a gun problem in America. I think that even most gun proponents would recognize that (at least I hope they would). But to even suggest that people have a right to take up arms against a democratically elected government operating within the framework of the democratic process is, itself, coming close to … well, I’m not sure. I don’t think it’s treasonous. Seditious? Perhaps. But one word that I do know applies: Dangerous. When we let our political rhetoric get carried away with discussion about when you’re allowed to kill a federal official, when states begin to take it upon themselves to talk about nullification of federal law (notwithstanding the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution or that silly little squabble called the Civil War), when talking heads tell you that the government is doing things it isn’t and has plans it doesn’t, then I fear we’re yet another step closer to the sort of political violence so endemic to the rest of the world.

If you have a different opinion about guns, that’s fine. Express your opinion. And work to elect candidates that agree with you. And if politicians who agree with me enact legislation you dislike, then by all means try to vote them out of office or challenge those laws in court. But leave your gun out of the discussion. If you value democracy and those values that have made America great, then please limit your rhetoric to that which is appropriate for a democracy and don’t start implicitly (or explicitly!) threatening violence or civil war if you don’t get your way.

When the democratic process goes against you, it isn’t a sign of tyranny; rather it’s a sign that the majority holds a different viewpoint. Please stop suggesting to others that violence is an acceptable response to the democratic process. Please stop threatening to water the tree of liberty with the blood of those with whom you disagree. Please don’t force me to buy a gun to keep my family and my country safe when you become a terrorist.

*For those who might suggest that I’m being a bit hyperbolic in claiming that some on the right call President Obama their “enemy”, I offer the following from Bryan Fischer, the Director of Issues Analysis for the American Family Association:

Partial transcript:

Ladies and gentlemen,we should be under no illusions here; President Obama is not our friend, President Obama is our enemy. He is seeking to restrict religious liberty. He wants to confine the First Amendment Free Exercise of Religion clause to one hour a week. That’s what he wants to do. So he is not our friend.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Post Office Isn’t a Business

The United States Post Office will stop delivering mail on Saturdays beginning August 1. Why? Because the Post Office has been losing too much money and Congress (or at least one party in Congress…) doesn’t want to keep subsidizing those losses with government (i.e., taxpayer) money. Thus, the Post Office has to cut costs and has elected to do so by eliminating Saturday mail delivery.

Personally, I’m not that worked up about losing Saturday mail delivery. Other than my Time and Entertainment Weekly, I’m not sure that I get much mail on Saturday that couldn’t wait until Monday (and I’d rather get my Entertainment Weekly on Friday, anyway…); for that matter, I’m not sure how much mail I get that I really care about anyway. Junk, trash, junk, junk, bill, junk, bill.

Nevertheless, something feels wrong with the elimination of Saturday mail delivery.

You see, I think of the Post Office as being a part of the function of our government. I mean, think about it: Article I, Section 8, Clause 7 of the Constitution grants to Congress the power “To establish Post Offices and post Roads”. The Constitution doesn’t mention an Air Force or space agency, it doesn’t mention a national institute of health or a reserve bank, and it doesn’t mention a spy agency or national museum. But it does make specific reference to the Post Office (as well as post roads which were necessary for the movement of mail between post offices).

It seems to me that the delivery of mail from place to place is actually a core function of our government that ought not to be scaled back just because it isn’t cost effective. Think for a moment about how many people there are in our country and just how big our country really is and then contemplate the fact that you can send a letter to anyone anywhere for just 46¢. That’s really pretty remarkable. In how many other countries is that possible?

Or think about it this way: Does the Air Force turn a profit? What about NASA? Or the Veterans Administration? The Smithsonian, Holocaust Museum, or Yellowstone Park? It seems like the only governmental agency that really makes a profit is probably the Internal Revenue Service. Should we care if some of the core functions of government actually cost us something?

I can even imagine the next step, when a Republican Congress requires the Post Office to raise rates to be similar to those charged by FedEx or UPS or decides to eliminate the governmental subsidy to the Post Office entirely, thus ending the guaranty of low cost mail delivery.

I’ve also read, but have not independently researched, that one cause of the Post Office’s monetary woes is that Congress required the Post Office to pre-fund pensions for 75 years. I don’t think any other business or governmental (or even quasi-governmental) entity has been required to pre-fund pensions for 75 years. Is it really fair to require the post office to do all that it does for as low a price as it does, but also require it to make expenditures that far exceed what others are required to make, and then criticize it for not being cost efficient?

I’ve also read that the goal of forcing the Post Office to scale back is actually to weaken the postal workers union. Again, I don’t know this to be true and haven’t done any independent research. But given recent Republican attacks on unions, this wouldn’t come as a huge surprise if it were true.

Look, the Post Office isn’t a sacred cow to me. Like everyone else, I’ve certainly had my share of complaints about the Post Office. But the ability to cheaply and efficiently deliver mail from place to place seems to me to be a core function of our government, especially given that it is specifically referenced in the Constitution. It may be that Saturday delivery isn’t really a big deal. But I do question weakening the institution or the assumption that the Post Office should be treated as and compared to a for profit business.

Again, the elimination of Saturday delivery may be fine, before we force the Post Office into further reductions in the services it provides, we need to have a broader conversation about the role of the Post Office in our system and the degree to which providing those services is an essential component of our government that should be paid for, at least in part, through our tax dollars.

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Friday, February 8, 2013

Using the Advice & Consent Clause with the Filibuster to Impede the Function of Government

We’re witnessing what I believe is a dangerous new form of political gamesmanship being played out in Washington, one that could, if allowed to continue unchecked, truly undermine the way that our government is supposed to function.

First, let’s remind ourselves of what the Constitution says:

[The President] shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.

(Article II, Section 2, ¶¶ 2-3.) Fairly straightforward, no? Well, it used to be. But not anymore.

Traditionally, Presidents have been given great deference when it comes to nominating people to serve in their cabinets, in other appointed positions, and on the courts. That isn’t to say that the Senate didn’t “grill” nominees, but they were almost always approved and in a reasonably timely manner. However, in the last few decades, that has begun to change. Nominations, especially judicial nominations, have been subjected to a much higher degree of scrutiny and some have even been rejected (Robert Bork, of course, being the classic example). And the nomination process has often been subject to very lengthy delay. Similarly, when it comes to cabinet and similar appointments, Presidents seem to be given less deference by the Senate than they traditionally enjoyed. I’m not sure if that was what the Founders intended when they wrote this portion of the Constitution, but the Senate does have the right to consent to an appointment, so that’s the situation we have to deal with.

There are two problems that are making this situation much worse and, I think, taking it into dangerous territory that threatens the functioning of our government, especially if it becomes a precedential way of doing things. What am I talking about? Well first, it’s worth noting that traditionally, opposition to a presidential appointment has been on the basis of some problem with the nominee or the nominee’s positions on certain issues. And I guess that’s fair. After all, the Constitution provides for Senatorial consent, so a President facing a Senate controlled by the other party must make some accommodations in the nominees presented. On the other hand, should a President of one party be compelled to appoint only members of the opposition party if the Senate is controlled by the opposition party?

Similarly, should one party be able to completely stop presidential appointments? More critically, should the minority party be able to completely stop presidential appointments? And should the minority party be completely able to stop presidential appointments when the opposition to the nominee has nothing to do with the nominee?

Which, as you’ve probably guessed, brings us to filibusters and recess appointments.

Before even discussing the filibuster, it’s worth calling attention to a little-known provision of the Senate’s rules that permits a single senator to anonymously put a “hold” on a nomination and prevent that nomination from coming to the floor for a vote. Like the filibuster, a hold is subject to a 60-vote cloture motion. It’s like a secret filibuster. But query whether the intent of the advice and consent provision of the Constitution really contemplated a tool by which a single senator could anonymously derail a nomination unless a supermajority voted to end the hold. I don’t think so.

Ezra Klein, writing for The Washington Post'’s Wongblog in May 2012 looked at the use and constitutionality of the filibuster. He offered the following chart and analysis (quoting, in part, from The Senate Filibuster: The Politics of Obstruction by Emmet J. Bondurant):

In 1806, the Senate, on the advice of Aaron Burr, tried to clean up its rule book, which was thought to be needlessly complicated and redundant. One change it made was to delete something called “the previous question” motion. That was the motion senators used to end debate on whatever they were talking about and move to the next topic. Burr recommended axing it because it was hardly ever used. Senators were gentlemen. They knew when to stop talking.

That was the moment the Senate created the filibuster. But nobody knew it at the time. It would be three more decades before the first filibuster was mounted — which meant it was five decades after the ratification of the Constitution. “Far from being a matter of high principle, the filibuster appears to be nothing more than an unforeseen and unintended consequence of the elimination of the previous question motion from the rules of the Senate,” Bondurant writes.

And even then, filibusters were a rare annoyance. Between 1840 and 1900, there were 16 filibusters. Between 2009 and 2010, there were more than 130. But that’s changed. Today, Majority Leader Harry Reid says that “60 votes are required for just about everything.”

At the core of Bondurant’s argument is a very simple claim: This isn’t what the Founders intended. The historical record is clear on that fact. The framers debated requiring a supermajority in Congress to pass anything. But they rejected that idea.

In the end, the Constitution prescribed six instances in which Congress would require more than a majority vote: impeaching the president, expelling members, overriding a presidential veto of a bill or order, ratifying treaties and amending the Constitution. And as Bondurant writes, “The Framers were aware of the established rule of construction, expressio unius est exclusio alterius, and that by adopting these six exceptions to the principle of majority rule, they were excluding other exceptions.” By contrast, in the Bill of Rights, the Founders were careful to state that “the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

That majority vote played into another principle, as well: the “finely wrought” compromise over proper representation. At the time of the country’s founding, seven of the 13 states, representing 27 percent of the population, could command a majority in the Senate. Today, with the filibuster, 21 of the 50 states, representing 11 percent of the population, can muster the 41 votes to stop a majority in the Senate. “The supermajority vote requirement,” Bondurant argues, thus “upsets the Great Compromise’s carefully crafted balance between the large states and the small states.”

Just think about that for a minute. One senator can put a hold on a nomination anonymously or filibuster a nomination and the senators representing just 21 of the 50 states (and only 11% of the population) can block the majority from ending the hold or filibuster. Is that what the Founding Fathers contemplated when they drafted the “advise and consent” clause? Remember, they specifically rejected proposals to require supermajorities in all but a few limited instances.

But, unfortunately, the situation is even worse that that.

Remember the part of the Constitution quoted above concerning recess appointments? The very concept of that provision was to give the President a way to fill vacancies in federal offices when the Senate refused to act. The appointment is temporary, lasting only until the end of the current session of Congress. However, in recent years, senators in the minority party have recognized the “danger” of allowing the Senate to recess, for if the Senate is in recess, then a President can get around the minority’s holds and filibusters, even if only for a temporary appointment. The solution that the minority parties devised? Simple: Don’t allow the Senate to recess, thus stripping the President of his constitutional authority to make recess appointments. How do you keep the Senate from recessing, even if everyone has gone home to be with their families or be with their constituents? Simple. Just have one senator show up every three days, call the empty Senate chamber to order, and then immediately adjourn for three days without conducting any real business. That way, even though the Senate isn’t actually doing anything and even though only one senator is actually present, there is the fiction that the body isn’t really in recess. What do you think? Did the Founding Fathers intend for a power specifically given to the President to be nullified by a parliamentary trick?

And thus Presidential appointments remain in limbo. Worse still, a federal court just ruled that several of President Obama’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) were unconstitutional because the Senate wasn’t really in recess (due to these pro forma sessions). While some on the right crow about how President Obama was “caught” or acted contrary to the Constitution, they completely ignore the political games being played to create the need for the recess appointments or the machinations undertaken to try to prohibit the recess appointments. More importantly, they also ignore the fact that the ruling casts into doubt all recess appointments made over the last hundred years or so and with them the rulings, decisions, and actions by those thus appointed. That part of the ruling isn’t limited to Democratic recess appointments. By way of simple and recent example, President Bush’s controversial appointment of John Bolton to be the ambassador to the United National was a recess appointment (as was the appointment by President George H.W. Bush of Alan Greenspan to the Federal Reserve Board).

Moreover, with regard to those recess appointments thrown out by the Court, it’s worth noting that they were to the NLRB which cannot function without 5 members. With the 3 recess appointments nullified, not only are a year’s worth of NLRB decisions nullified, by the agency reverts to a status of limbo in which it cannot function at all because Republicans have now spent literally years blocking a Democratic President from making appointments to the agency.

Which brings me to the final problem.

I’ve already discussed how Presidents now seem to get less deference from the Senate with their nominations. And that may be OK. But at least the opposition to a nominee has traditionally been about that nominee. Democrats (and some Republicans) thought Robert Bork’s judicial views were too extreme. John Tower was rejected as Secretary of Defense because of allegations of alcoholism and womanizing (do people still use that phrase?).

So let’s turn our attention to the nomination of Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He was one of the people given a recess appointment by President Obama. Let me quote from my January 2012 post Republicans Claim President Obama Arrogantly Circumvents American People … After Republicans Refuse to Consider Any Action Unless They Get Their Way First in which I first touched on these issues (typos corrected):

The Senate didn’t reject Cordray because of his views. Republican Senators didn’t really object to Cordray. Instead, Republicans objected to the establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. They objected to the fact that, like other federal agencies, it had a chair (instead of a board of directors). And they objected to it having an budget that did not require the Bureau to come back to Congress for new funding each year. You see, Republicans refused to allow Cordray’s nomination to come to a vote unless President Obama agreed to change the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in ways that would weaken the nascent organization. As CNN noted:

[W]ithout a director, for example, the bureau can't regulate financial products from non-banks, including student loan providers, debt collectors, payday lenders and check cashers.

Without a chief, the bureau also can't regulate mortgage originators and servicers, which played a big role in the financial crisis by providing subprime mortgages to families who couldn't afford them.

Just in case you think that I’m being a bit too hyperbolic in my explanation of Republican objections, here’s what Speaker Boehner had to say:

This position had not been filled for one reason: The agency it heads is bad for jobs and bad for the economy. It’s clear the president would rather trample our system of separation of powers than work with Republicans to move the country forward.

Or there is this statement from Sen. McConnell following the recess appointment (emphasis added):

Earlier this year, 44 of my Senate Republican colleagues and I served notice that we will not confirm any nominee as director, regardless of party, until structural changes are made to make the bureau accountable to the American people — and more transparent.

You see? Nothing about Cordray at all. The objection is to the Bureau that Congress created in 2010. Republicans lost that debate but now they’re trying to hold up the President’s right to appoint a nominee, not because they object to the nominee, but because they object to the structure and purpose of the Bureau. Go back to Sen. McConnell’s claim that the recess appointment has “arrogantly circumvented the American people”. I’d argue that refusing to allow a vote, not because of any issue with the nominee, but because Republicans don’t like the nature of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is the real case of “arrogantly circumvent[ing] the American people”.

President Obama appointed Cordray via recess appointment, but that appointment is now in question following the recent court decision (which only dealt with the NLRB appointments). Nevertheless, we have to put all of the pieces together to see the scenario being played out and the danger it poses for our way of governing. Republicans are abusing holds and filibusters and using ludicrous pro forma sessions to prevent the President from appointing people to fill offices, not because Republicans object to the person, but because they object to the very office in question or to another policy of the administration.

We’re seeing this play out again right now, when several senators have suggested that they may filibuster the appointments of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense or John Brennan as head of the CIA, not because of direct opposition to those men, but because the senators don’t approve of how the administration responded to questions about the terrorist attack in Benghazi. For example, appearing on CBS’ Face the Nation yesterday, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said:

“I don’t think we should allow Brennan to go forward for the CIA directorship, Hagel to be confirmed to Secretary of Defense until the White House gives us an accounting,” said Graham. “Did the president ever pick up the phone and call anyone in the Libyan government to help these folks? What did the president do?”

“Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer pressed Graham on his plan, asking, “You are saying that you are going to block the nominations, you’re going to block them from coming to a vote, until you get an answer to this?”

“Yes,” Graham replied.

As an aside, and perhaps I’m mistaken, but I don’t recall Sen. Graham blocking any of President Bush’s appointments waiting to learn how the administration mishandled the intelligence predating 9/11 or regarding Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. How many lives were involved in those matters? But Graham will block the nominees for Secretary of Defense and head of the CIA because of four deaths in a terrorist attack in Benghazi? Nope. No politics on display there. Move along. But before you move along, query further whether blocking the administration from having a Secretary of Defense and CIA Director might actually endanger or weaken our defense and intelligence systems?

Seriously, though, ask yourself whether we really want a system in which a single anonymous senator or even a minority of the Senate can almost permanently block a President from appointing people to offices especially when the opposition has nothing to do with the person being nominated and when the inability to have the nomination confirmed may render a federal agency (such as the NLRB or CFPB) completely unable to function? Is our system really designed to allow a minority of senators to prevent the government from functioning? I don’t think so.

And just think of the precedent that this could set. What happens when the minority decides that they will reject nominees unless the President appoints only those people that the minority wants appointed? What happens when the minority blocks appointments so long that entire agencies cease to function (the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms hasn’t had a permanent director in over six years, largely because Senate Republicans have refused to consider appointments to that post because they don’t like that division of the Justice Department). Can you imagine the screams we’d be hearing from Fox News is Senate Democrats, for example, refused to consider a President Romney’s appointment to head the Treasury unless and until President Romney released his tax returns, or refused to consider an appointment to the Secretary for the Interior unless the Romney administration agreed to stop the Keystone XL Pipleline? We’d hear all sorts of cries about how the Senate was getting in the way of democracy and we’d hear the refrain that “elections matter”.

Well, elections do matter. And right now, the minority in the Senate (where you’ll recall, Republicans lost seats), is doing what they can to stymie the will of the American electorate. This is a dangerous precedent for our democracy.


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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Teaching the Controversy

Late last year, there was a widely reported story that an Indiana senator intended to introduce a bill to require teachers to be able to “prove” what they told students and to enable students to challenge teachers (as if students don’t already challenge teachers by, you know, asking questions). The obvious goal of the bill was to force teachers to “prove” evolution, especially when a student challenged the teacher on the basis of religious belief. Perhaps due to the ridicule the rumored bill received, it was never introduced as originally described (though its purported author, Sen. Dennis Kruse has offered plenty of other idiotic bills).

Nevertheless, a seemingly watered-down or stealth version of the bill has, in fact, been introduced as House Bill 1283:

    (a) The general assembly finds that:
        (1) an important purpose of education is to inform students about evidence and to help students develop critical thinking skills necessary to become intelligent, productive, and informed citizens;
        (2) some subjects, including, but not limited to, science, history, and health, have produced differing conclusions and theories on some topics; and
        (3) some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how the teachers should present information and evidence on these topics.
    (b) This section applies to accredited schools.
    (c) The state board, department, governing bodies, governing authorities of accredited nonpublic schools, superintendents, principals, and other administrators shall endeavor to create an environment within accredited schools that encourages students to explore questions, learn about evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to different conclusions and theories concerning subjects set forth in subsection (a)(2).
    (d) The state board, department, governing bodies, governing authorities of accredited nonpublic schools, superintendents, principals, and other administrators may endeavor to assist teachers in finding effective ways to present the curriculum as the curriculum addresses subjects set forth in subsection (a)(2). A teacher shall be allowed to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the strengths and weaknesses of conclusions and theories being presented in a course being taught by the teacher.
    (e) The state board, department, governing bodies, governing authorities of accredited nonpublic schools, superintendents, principals, and other administrators may not prohibit a teacher in an accredited school from helping students to understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the strengths and weaknesses of existing conclusions and theories being presented in a course being taught by the teacher.
    (f) This section may not be construed to promote:
        (1) any religious or nonreligious doctrine;
        (2) discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or nonbeliefs; or
        (3) discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.

If anybody can really tell me what any of that gibberish and gobbledygook really means, I’d love to hear it. But I’ll give it a go.

Let’s look at what appear to be the two core elements of the bill, Section (a)(2) and (d):

[S]ome subjects, including, but not limited to, science, history, and health, have produced differing conclusions and theories on some topics…


A teacher shall be allowed to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the strengths and weaknesses of conclusions and theories being presented in a course being taught by the teacher.

Hmm. I wonder what topics in the subjects of science, history, and health have “produced differing conclusions”? Given the repeated efforts to try to add “Creation Science” or “Intelligent Design” to our public education curriculum, does anybody have any doubt that this sentence is aimed squarely at evolution? Or, perhaps, there’s also a bit of “America was founded as a Christian nation” thrown it, too. Maybe even some “abstinence only” theory or even “abortion causes breast cancer” for good measure. Possibly even a little helping of “climate change is a hoax”…

But, of course, these are not the only elements of science, history, or health to “have produced differing conclusions”, are they?

For example, I’m sure that in history classes, teachers will “help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the strengths and weaknesses” of the suggestions that the Bush administration was responsible for 9/11, right? Many books have been written by so-called “9/11 Truthers” and I’m sure that teachers will incorporate those into their teaching materials. Right? In science, teachers will “help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the strengths and weaknesses” of the theory that the moon landings were faked. Right? In health, I’m sure that schools that have an abstinence only sex education program will be incorporating materials to help students critique those lessons to see if, just perhaps, things like condoms or other forms of birth control might be useful. Right?

Anti-evolution, pro-religion legislators want our schools to “teach the controversy” (a phrase used by proponents of Intelligent Design to try to get their faux-science into schools) … but only if the controversy being taught is one of the “approved” controversies. I don’t think those legislators would take too kindly to the teaching of controversies that might, for example, call their own religious beliefs into question. Like, for example, an examination of whether there is, in fact, a G-d. Now that would be an interesting lesson for students to work on understanding, analyzing, and critiquing the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence.

But Section (f) of the HB1283 confuses me. I’m not sure how any of this teaching — if students and teachers are really supposed to be analyzing, critiquing, and reviewing — won’t somehow be found to be discriminatory. After all, if the evidence points to evolution as being true, then couldn’t someone make the argument that in helping the student analyze, critique, or review the science, that the teacher has promoted nonreligious doctrine or discriminated against religions? Similarly, if a teacher calls evolution into question, then hasn’t the teacher promoted religious doctrine or religious belief? Wouldn’t any effort to teach or critique creation, as described in the Bible, by definition discriminate against religions that have different creation stories? You know, like Buddhism, Hinduism, or Scientology?

Perhaps our legislators should stick to trying to solve real problems like unemployment, poverty, hunger, gun violence, and things like that. Perhaps they should leave education for … hmm … let’s see … er … educators? Perhaps they should stop trying to impose their own beliefs, in particular their religious beliefs, upon the rest of us. Perhaps they should pay attention to the Constitution that they’ve sworn to uphold. Perhaps.

But if our legislators really do want our teachers to “teach the controversy” then they need to be sure to do a thorough job. We need to really be sure that our teachers help students “understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the strengths and weaknesses” of topics in the subjects of history, science, and health that “have produced differing conclusions and theories”. Topics like the following:


As I mentioned above, we should be teaching the other side that says that the moon landings were faked.


We should be teaching the other side that says that the real elements are Air, Earth, Fire, Water, and Aether.


We should be teaching the other side that says that the pyramids were built by aliens.


We should be teaching the other side that says it’s “turtles all the way down” (seriously…) or that the sun and planets orbit the earth.


Along with astronomy we should be teaching the other side that believes in astrology (hey, it worked for Nancy Reagan…).


Along with chemistry we should be teaching alchemy (though I’m sure that Glenn Beck and Goldline don’t really want people to learn how to turn lead into gold).

demonsThe Four Humors t-shirt from Teach the Controversy

Along with medicine, we should be teaching the other side that says that disease and illness is caused either by demons (why do you say, “God bless you,” after someone sneezes…?) or by an imbalance in one of the four humors.


We should be teaching the other said that says that babies are delivered via stork (especially in those schools with an abstinence only curriculum, because after all, we sure don’t want those kids to grow up knowing how their bodies or … gasp … sex actually work).


So long as we’re basing our curriculum on the Bible and other religious beliefs, then we should certainly be teaching the other side that believes in reincarnation or that humans were brought to earth on an airplane by Xenu (a fundamental teaching of Scientology).


I guess we no longer need to teach the Mayan belief that Earth would be destroyed in 2012 (phew, I guess we dodged a bullet there), but we should be sure that there aren’t any other apocalyptic scenarios that our kids should analyze.


We absolutely must teach the other side that says that Elvis is still alive.


We should be teaching the other side that says that the earth is only 6,000 years old and that dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans. (Note: The Creation Museum in Kentucky apparently has exhibits depicting humans riding dinosaurs and using them as domesticated animals.)

This stuff would just be funny if it weren’t for the enormous number of people who really believe some of this shit.

Note: The foregoing images and commentary are taken from my post Graphic Slogans That Describe My Mood from June 2011. The images themselves come from Amorphia Apparel’s line of Teach the Controversy T-shirts. Subsequent to that previous post, I found a few more controversies to teach, too:

Devil Bones tshirt from Teach the Controversy

We should teach that dinosaur bones were actually planted by the Devil to make people believe in the false concept of evolution.

Telekinesis tshirt from Teach the ControversySpoon Bending t-shirt from Teach the ControversyESP Cards tshirt from Teach the Controversy

The CIA tried to harness telekinesis, ESP, and other paranormal methods, so they must be real, right? We should definitely teach that!

Doublethink (2 + 2 = 5) t-shirt from Teach the Controversy

Doublethink suggests that this is the correct answer. In these days of political correctness, we should definitely analyze whether words mean what we think and we should really be careful about what people tell us the right answers are in math. I mean, how do you really know that Pi is 3.14 or that it never ends? Huh?

Sinking Atlantis tshirt from Teach the ControversyBermuda Triangle t-shirt from Teach the Controversy

How else to explain the disappearance of Atlantis than by teaching about the Bermuda Triangle? Or, wait a minute. Is the Bermuda Triangle the result of the sinking of Atlantis? I always get confused on that one.

Flat Earth t-shirt from Teach the Controversy

What, you thought that everyone agreed that the Earth was round? Of course not. And we should be teaching that controversy, too. I bet we could get representatives of the Flat Earth Society to help our teachers.

Cthulhu t-shirt from Teach the Controversy

While we’re at it, we should be sure to teach about the real source of some of the greatest horrors known in our world (I’m speaking, of course, of Cthulhu and the other Great Old Ones). If you don’t know about Cthulhu, you obviously lived a very sheltered childhood or attended a school that didn’t teach the controversy.

Time Cube tee shirt from Teach the Controversy

We should undoubtedly teach about the Time Cube; after all, it posits that what we know about science is mostly wrong. Of course, it also posits that Christianity is evil and that the idea of family poisons children, so yeah…

Chemtrails t-shirt from Teach the Controversy

We need to be sure to teach about chemtrails, which some have suggested (based on … gasp! … photographs) were responsible for the Sandy Hook killings.

Reptoid Royals tshirt from Teach the Controversy

You did know that the British royal family are actually the descendants of an ancient line of alien reptiles and that the Reptoid Royals actually control the planet, right? Of course, I’m not sure if this goes in history or science. Hmm. Controversies to ponder.

Hollow Earth tee shirt from Teach the Controversy

However, there is apparently some controversy (teach it!) as to whether the Reptoid Royals control the interior of the Hollow Earth (actually, I just made that controversy up; no, not the Hollow Earth controversy, the one about whether it’s controlled by the Reptoid Royals!).

Invisible Unicorn tee shirt from Teach the Controversy

We’d obviously be remiss if, in the study of comparative religions, we didn’t include the Invisible Pink Unicorn and, even more critically, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I’d hate to think that our children might grow up not knowing about either Cthulhu or these great religions.

And for those who think that is the job of those who believe in science to prove that non-scientific, religious, or conspiracy-based ideas are true (you know, people like the legislators who want to teach creationism in our public schools), then I can only suggest that they study:

Russell's Teapot tshirt from Teach the Controversy

Russell’s Teapot.

Finally, I came across this short video that really helps to capture the ridiculous nature of the whole … um … controversy:


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Friday, February 1, 2013

Just How Paranoid Are Some Indiana Legislators? Beware the Agenda 21 Boogeyman!

There have always been conspiracy theories and there have always been those who believe in them. But it seems that during Democratic presidential administrations, the penchant for belief in conspiracy theories grows exponentially. When you add in the Internet and cable television, the ease with which these conspiracy theories are transmitted means that many, many more people are exposed to them. Add to that certain high profile conspiracy mongers (most notably Glenn Beck) and the likelihood that these conspiracy theories become mainstream or accepted as “truth” becomes almost assured. When elected officials or legitimate, mainstream candidates voice these conspiracies, we’ve entered into a new, facts-free, world of danger because legislation based on conspiracy, rather than truth, evidence, and logic, is not legislation that will really be in the best interests of … well, anybody.

Which brings me to Agenda 21.

I’m sure that you’ve heard of Agenda 21 by now. Right? It’s almost impossible to listen to anything coming from the Tea Party or the far right without hearing about Agenda 21. It has become the “New World Order” or “black helicopter” conspiracy of the 21st Century (which, by the way, is what the 21 stands for…). Here are just a few examples of how conspiracy-minded people on the right talk about Agenda 21:

According to TeaParty911:

If you were to hear that in the very near future the United States will have no privately owned property, no air conditioning, no dams, no paved roads, no way to correct rivers for flood control, no golf courses, no pastureland used for grazing, would you believe it?

These are all mandates of a United Nations program called Agenda 21 which was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. All delegates watched as four men, holding poles attached to an “Ark of Hope” which contained this Agenda 21 document! Within its pages are a substantial attack on the American Declaration of Independence and our Constitution. The primary target for the changes proposed in 1992 is the United States of America. 

From Morphcity:

It is the blueprint for depopulation and total control, under the banner of saving the environment.  It is like the head of a beast that has thousands of tentacles, originating from the United Nations.

From Freedom Advocates:

It is about controlling the natural resources. If the resources are controlled, the people are controlled. The screws are already tightening on us. Does it make any sense that we must use poisonous, difficult to dispose of, fluorescent lighting in kitchens now? These things should be a personal choice. No doubt in time the use of all natural resources will be highly regulated.

Of course, as in the old Soviet Union, not everyone will be required to live the peasant lifestyle. Those who play along will be rewarded. But the reward will only be a temporary one. It comes down to “the end justifies the means”. The “useful idiots” will be in for a big surprise when they realize the noose they helped to tie will be placed around their own necks.

Maybe you’d prefer the John Birch Society (sorry, I refuse to provide a link to this organization):

Basically it’s the UN’s plan to establish control over all human activity, including man’s reputed contribution to climate change. The UN is at the hub of a global network working to submerge the independence of all nations in a world government controlled by the elites, and JBS calls for the U.S. to get out of the U.N.

And who can forget Glenn Beck? He has made the Agenda 21 conspiracy a prime focus of his shows, to the point of even writing a novel positing what will happen after the implementation of Agenda 21. Here’s how Amazon describes the book:

Just a generation ago, this place was called America. Now, after the worldwide implementation of a UN-led program called Agenda 21, it’s simply known as “the Republic.” There is no president. No Congress. No Supreme Court. No freedom.

There are only the Authorities.

Citizens have two primary goals in the new Republic: to create clean energy and to create new human life. Those who cannot do either are of no use to society. This bleak and barren existence is all that eighteen-year-old Emmeline has ever known. She dutifully walks her energy board daily and accepts all male pairings assigned to her by the Authorities. Like most citizens, she keeps her head down and her eyes closed.

Until the day they come for her mother.

“You save what you think you’re going to lose.”

Woken up to the harsh reality of her life and her family’s future inside the Republic, Emmeline begins to search for the truth. Why are all citizens confined to ubiquitous concrete living spaces? Why are Compounds guarded by Gatekeepers who track all movements? Why are food, water and energy rationed so strictly? And, most important, why are babies taken from their mothers at birth? As Emmeline begins to understand the true objectives of Agenda 21 she realizes that she is up against far more than she ever thought. With the Authorities closing in, and nowhere to run, Emmeline embarks on an audacious plan to save her family and expose the Republic — but is she already too late?

Read some of the reviews of the book by Beck’s acolytes or fans and you’ll see a frightening tendency for them to blur the understanding of fact and speculative fiction and to thank Beck for warning them about the evils and horrors of Agenda 21.

Does that give you an idea of how some people view Agenda 21. And, before I go any further, are you inclined to believe those hyperbolic, paranoid descriptions? Good. Because I think that writer Lloyd Alter got it just right when he described Agenda 21 as the “Tea Party Theory of Everything”. The description from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Spring 2012 Intelligence Report also puts the Agenda 21 conspiracy into appropriate context:

In the last several years, an obscure United Nations accord called Agenda 21 has emerged as something of a unified field theory for the antigovernment movement. On its face, Agenda 21 does nothing but provide countries and communities with a set of principles to grow smartly — a plan, in short, to fight overpopulation, pollution, poverty and resource depletion.

But for a far-flung network of antigovernment extremists who have risen up to attack it, the nonbinding document that was approved 20 years ago at the UN’s Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro is not really about preserving the planet at all. Between the lines, they argue, lies a blueprint for the “New World Order.”

For a growing cast of far-right hardliners, Agenda 21 is a sort of Trojan horse, a totalitarian scheme with a green environmental mask, lying in wait to destroy America as we know it.

How such an arcane UN document that defines the concept of “smart growth” and environmental sustainability became so controversial, even though it gives the UN no enforcement powers, has a lot to do with the work of a tight cadre of antigovernment “Patriot” activists whose fears are rooted in right-wing lore about a New World Order, a kind of authoritarian one-world government. Figures such as Tom DeWeese, head of the American Policy Center, Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the anti-feminist Eagle Forum, and John Bush, with Texans for Accountable Government, have in recent years crisscrossed the country to put on seminars and conferences that strike terror into those inclined to believe conspiracy theories about powerful global elites plotting to install a socialistic global government. The John Birch Society, an archconservative group formed during the Red Scare of the 1950s, regularly assails Agenda 21 with the fervor it once reserved for communists.

Under Agenda 21, these activists argue, the expansive American way of life, in which everyone can aspire to the dream of owning a house with a big yard and two cars in the driveway, will be replaced by one in which increasing numbers are crammed into urbanized “pack ’em and stack ’em” apartment complexes, and forced to use mass transportation and live according to a collectivist ethos. Once the UN’s radical utopia is achieved, gun ownership will be forbidden and the UN will raise an army intent on terrorizing the populace in the name of social order and equality, sustainability and smart growth — all words that anti-Agenda 21 activists believe signal the true intent of the UN’s plan.

(For those who are unfamiliar with the Southern Poverty Law Center — and I encourage you to become familiar with the group — it is a nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society. The group keeps tabs on hate groups, including white supremacists, survivalists, and other similar organizations.)

So, who do you want to believe, Glenn Beck, the John Birch Society, and Tea Party 911 — or the Southern Poverty Law Center?

If you’re interested, why not do what most of those who are so terribly afraid of Agenda 21 probably have not done: Go read it yourself. The entire Agenda 21 document is available online (and has been for a long time). As you’ll see, it has a lot of feel good language about making the world a better place, providing for sustainable development, and for helping developing nations develop without trashing the planet in the process. And please remember that Agenda 21 was signed by that known ultra-liberal treehugger George H.W. Bush. Let me just point you to one important statement from the Introduction to Agenda 21 (emphasis added):

The agreements, which were negotiated over two and half years leading up to the Summit and finalized in Rio, are presented here in final form. While they lack the force of international law, the adoption of the texts carries with it a strong moral obligation to ensure their full implementation.

Yet the paranoid fear-mongers are obsessing over the power of Agenda 21 and the United Nations to curtail American constitutional freedoms. Never mind that Agenda 21 doesn’t even have the force of international law, for even if it did, no treaty can trump our Constitution. Yes, we can enter into treaties which have the force of law (after ratification by the Senate), but those treaties can never reduce the rights protected by the Constitution. The Supreme Court has held that on several occasions, yet the far right paranoid fringe always seems to forget this salient point (just look at the refusal of Republican senators to vote to ratify a UN treaty on people with disabilities or the fear that a UN treaty to reduce international gun trafficking would allow the UN to take guns away from Americans). But at least in those cases, we were talking about treaties that would have the force of international law. Agenda 21 doesn’t even rise to that level.

And please don’t think that this fear of Agenda 21 is limited to the far right doomsday preppers living in their fallout shelters. In 2010, Dan Maes, the Republican candidate for Governor in Colorado, cited Agenda 21 as the reason for his opposition to a plan for Denver to make rental bikes available throughout the city.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes is warning voters that Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s policies, particularly his efforts to boost bike riding, are “converting Denver into a United Nations community.”

“This is all very well-disguised, but it will be exposed,” Maes told about 50 supporters who showed up at a campaign rally last week in Centennial.

Maes said in a later interview that he once thought the mayor’s efforts to promote cycling and other environmental initiatives were harmless and well-meaning. Now he realizes “that’s exactly the attitude they want you to have.”

“This is bigger than it looks like on the surface, and it could threaten our personal freedoms,” Maes said.

He added: “These aren't just warm, fuzzy ideas from the mayor. These are very specific strategies that are dictated to us by this United Nations program that mayors have signed on to.”

Believe it or not, opposition to and fear of Agenda 21 isn’t limited to candidates for state office. Nope. Here is a paragraph from “We Believe in America: Republican Platform 2012” (page 45; emphasis added):

Under our Constitution, treaties become the law of the land. So it is all the more important that the Congress — the Senate through its ratifying power and the House through its appropriating power — shall reject agreements whose long-range impact on the American family is ominous or unclear. These include the U.N. Convention on Women’s Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty as well as the various declarations from the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development. Because of our concern for American sovereignty, domestic management of our fisheries, and our country’s long-term energy needs, we have deep reservations about the regulatory, legal, and tax regimes inherent in the Law of the Sea Treaty and congratulate Senate Republicans for blocking its ratification. We strongly reject the U.N. Agenda 21 as erosive of American sovereignty, and we oppose any form of U.N. Global Tax. We oppose any diplomatic efforts that could result in giving the United Nations unprecedented control over the Internet. International regulatory control over the open and free Internet would have disastrous consequences for the United States and the world.

Which brings me to Indiana and Senate Bill 134 introduced by Sen. Dennis Kruse (yes, the same Indiana Senator who wants children to recite The Lord’s Prayer and require federal law enforcement officials to get the consent of country sheriffs before making arrests for federal crimes):

Chapter 4.5. Prohibition Against Implementation of United Nations' Agenda 21 Policies
    Sec. 1. As used in this chapter, “Agenda 21” refers to the policy recommendations originating in, or traceable to, the program adopted by the United Nations in 1992 at its Conference on Environment and Development.
    Sec. 2. As used in this chapter, “Agenda 21 organization” refers to a nongovernmental or an intergovernmental entity accredited or enlisted by the United Nations to assist in the implementation of Agenda 21.
    Sec. 3. As used in this chapter, “governmental entity” refers to any of the following:
        (1) The state of Indiana.
        (2) An agency of the executive, judicial, or legislative department of the state.
        (3) A political subdivision (as defined in IC 36-1-2-13).
        (4) Any other entity established by Indiana law.
    Sec. 4. A governmental entity may not do any of the following:
        (1) Adopt or implement any:
            (A) Agenda 21 policy recommendation that deliberately or inadvertently infringes on or restricts private property rights without due process; or
            (B) other international law or ancillary plan of action that contravenes the Constitution of the United States or the Constitution of the State of Indiana.
        (2) Enter into any agreement with, expend any sum of money received from, or pay any money to, an Agenda 21 organization.
    Sec. 5. An action described in section 4 of this chapter is void.

Obviously, Sen. Kruse must believe in the Agenda 21 conspiracy theories; why else would he introduce a bill like this one?

So let’s take a quick look at Sen. Kruse’s bill, the meat of which is contained in Section 4. He doesn’t want Indiana (or an agency or city) to implement an Agenda 21 policy recommendation that “infringes or restricts private property rights without due process.” Where to start. First, how about the fact that Agenda 21 doesn’t have policy recommendations that restrict private property rights (though there are apparently suggestions that certain private property usage aren’t healthy for a sustainable environment, such as strip mining, polluting, or … well, I think you get the idea). More importantly, no matter what Agenda 21 might recommend, neither the State of Indiana nor an agency or city would have the right to restrict private property usage without due process. Why not? Because of the Constitutions (both the United States Constitution and the Indiana Constitution). In other words, Senator Kruse is worried that Agenda 21 would require Indiana to do things that Agenda 21 does not require and which Indiana would already be prohibited from doing were they required. Just in case those precautions against doing something that can’t be done aren’t enough, Sen. Kruse also wants to be sure that Indiana doesn’t implement other international laws that contravene the Constitutions (hmm, why limit that to international law and not laws that, for example, would directly violate the First Amendment or the Supremacy Clause, like those introduced by Sen. Kruse this year?) because, you know, we always adopt laws from the UN or other countries that violate our own Constitutions, right?

And then we get to the prohibition on entering into agreements with, spending money received from, or paying money to an Agenda 21 organization. Thus, if an “Agenda 21 organization” wanted to help Indianapolis develop a bike share program for downtown, the city would prohibited from accepting that money because, you know, doing so would inevitably lead toward the new world order and the UN subjugation of America. Or something. I think.

What is it about the wide world outside their insular communities that so frightens so many Republicans?

I mean, you really have to think about the fears that Sen. Kruse must have in order to feel the need to introduce this bill. More importantly, though, is the simple fact that his belief in the paranoid Agenda 21 conspiracy theories demonstrates that he lives in an alternate reality world not governed by evidence and logic. Add to that the fact that we have a legislator worried about the United Nations forcing us to violate the Constitution at the same time that he is introducing legislation that would do just that!

How can we allow ourselves to be represented by elected officials who base their legislative activities around paranoid conspiracies … and who, at the same time, voluntarily seek ways to violate the Constitution?

For more information on Agenda 21 and the conspiracy theorists causing the paranoid hyperventilation about it, please see the article “Exposing the Influence Behind the Anti-Agenda 21 Anti-Sustainability Agenda” by Lloyd Alter.

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