Yes, Get Over It — Constructively

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Rep. Steve Womack addressing an overflowing crowd at town hall Feb 21, 2017

Yesterday I attended a town hall meeting sponsored by Rep. Steve Womack (Republican) of our 3rd Congressional District (Northwest Arkansas). The room would comfortably hold thirty people. Over 200 showed up. With the hallways and doorways and standing room thronged, half the people ended up standing outside in the parking lot for the 1.5 hour event. In light rain and a heavy temper.

Womack could have taken charge of the situation by reconvening five blocks away in the much larger community center. He chose not to do so. He could have opened the meeting by immediately taking questions, but instead he spent at least twenty minutes talking about his agenda. His primary concern was the national debt which he elaborated citing numbers and projections intended to shock and awe.

Not surprising for Col. Womack, a 30-year national guard veteran who commanded the 2nd Battalion, 153rd Infantry, 39th Separate Infantry Brigade in the Sinai, Egypt, between 2002 and 2009. He’s a member of Cross Church, earthly kingdom of Ronnie Floyd who has served in a leadership role of the world’s largest Southern Baptist denomination and the largest Protestant body in the United States, with over 15 million members as of 2016. Womack is a poster child for the right wing.

The Arkansas 3rd district rolled to the Republican side in 1967 following continuous Democratic control since Reconstruction and has remained in Republican hands ever since. Only a couple of times have strong Democratic candidates come close (1992: 47.2% to 50.2%) to regaining the seat while generally Republicans enjoy over 70% majority on Election Day. Womack is serving his fourth term.

Despite this position of strength for Womack, the crowd wasn’t having it. In a surly mood in a room whose temperature approached one hundred degrees due to severe overcrowding, people jostled signs, interrupted, and talked over Rep. Womack in what became the norm for the entire exchange. His temper flared on occasion, telling people to shut-up and reiterating his party line position on issues ranging from the EPA to National Endowment for the Arts to Medicare. Less than a quarter of those who wanted to ask questions were actually able to do so before his ‘drop dead’ quit time of 10 a.m.

Driving home, I kept wondering what people actually expected. Did anyone think for an instant that he would agree to demands that he personally ‘do something’ about the ‘man-child Trump,’ as one speaker requested? Did anyone think that he would suddenly veer off the positions in which the political right has grown increasingly entrenched for the last fifty years?

I didn’t. I know lots of people like him. They’re my relatives and my neighbors. They’re positive they’re right. Nothing is going to change them.

But after a lifetime of advocacy on various impossible causes (women’s rights, environment, and most recently drug policy reform), I remain optimistic that in some small demilitarized zone between right and left, a productive dialogue can lead to some understanding. At the least, a grudging mutual respect.

Few in the crowd seemed to understand that philosophy. They had an ax to grind in their outrage over Donald Trump and his agenda. They wanted to shout and hurl accusations. Whatever ground might have been gained in building a tenuous link of communication died under the stomping feet of those who only wanted to protest what has come to be the current reality: Republicans control the government.

Despite a few well-considered questions that earned a thoughtful response from Rep. Womack, less than a quarter of those who kept raising hands ever had a chance to speak. Womack avoided replying to demands for increasing taxes on the so-called ‘one percent’ as he explaining how government had exceeded its mandate and was spending two-thirds of its income on ‘mandatory’ programs compared to the 1960s when mandatory only consumed one third.

Womack, along with the Republican majority, condemn food stamps and other social support programs as well as protections for waterways and the air we breathe. This isn’t a new conflict. It’s been picking up steam for five decades. Aligned on the side of the protesters are the progressives who—many of them—have worked to enact those very programs. Aligned on Womack’s side are those who see those programs as a symptom of moral decay.

Railing about the national debt is a convenient cover for such moralistic thinking. Every president since Calvin Coolidge had added to the national debt, most recently George W. Bush by 101% and Obama by 68%. The elephant in the room (literally) is the wars started by Bush after 9/11. The cost of the Iraq War tops two trillion and in Afghanistan, over four trillion with no end in sight.[1]

As we all know, financing what we want when we want it ends up with the ugly reality of paying off debt without getting anything in return. With interest. This is the staggering problem keeping Womack and other legislators awake at night, Democrats among them. But while the portion of national revenues dedicated to mandatory spending has increased, military spending now gobbles up fifty percent of discretionary spending. So while Womack et al set their sights on cutting other discretionary spending such as public broadcasting,[2] none of them mention the possibility of letting the Middle East sink or swim on its own.

Republicans seem hell bent on continuing to wage war on behalf of Israel and oil, throwing in the specter of terrorism and a nuclear Iran for good measure. The truth is, none of these ‘reasons’ hold water. The U. S. could fully withdraw from the Middle East without suffering any real threat here at home.[3] But that would outrage the special interests: military contractors, oil sheikdoms, the Israel lobby, and a hypnotized electorate who equates patriotism and war.

Unless we culturally divest from war, even a massive cut in non-military discretionary spending would do little to offset the debt, much less make a dent in the mandatory side of the scales.[4] And while Social Security and Medicare are theoretically paid for through payroll tax deductions, the increasingly longer projected life expectancy of Americans means that people far outlive the amount they’ve paid in.[5] Fewer workers paying for increasing numbers of retirees leads to the brick wall ahead.

One of the main arguments raised against Womack’s insistence on cutting programs, including ‘restructuring’ mandatory spending programs, was the repeated cry to increase taxes on the rich. He never once acknowledged the question or attempted to answer. The facts are that in the 1950s and ‘60s, the time praised by Womack when mandatory spending only constituted about a third of the national revenue, the wealthiest Americans paid a top income tax rate of 91%. Today, the top rate is 43.4%. In 2014, after deductions, the richest one-percent paid an effective federal income tax rate of 24.7%.[6]

Loopholes which allow billionaires like Trump to pay zero taxes have been skillfully placed into the tax code by cooperative legislators benefiting from generous campaign contributions and other perks. These same legislators prize their own interests above their constituents, catering to corporate profits instead of forcing lower prices on essentials like prescription drugs. This outrages Americans, causes distrust in government, and propels a demagogue like Trump into power.

Meanwhile, in the guise of addressing the debt, Republicans gleefully set about righting the perceived moral decay they’ve campaigned on since Ronald Reagan. They’re eager to cut federal spending for Planned Parenthood (further restrict abortion rights), public radio and television (stifle the progressive agenda), and especially social support programs like unemployment and food stamps (force slackers to work), but such changes promise little more than a drop in the bucket of deficits.

As in yesterday’s meeting with Womack, progressives repeatedly fail to make a strong case for their agenda or provide meaningful solutions to the nation’s fiscal distress. Angry demonstrations only delay what progressives must do to take back leadership of the political spectrum. We must show why improving conditions for the poor, the jobless, and the weakest among us is the only path to solvency, why strong environmental protection must be preserved, why women must be allowed to decide who gets born.

These arguments must be made, and in order for them to gain purchase in the near term, dialogue with elected officials like Womack is essential. Public tantrums are counterproductive. In the long term, refinement of and spirited advocacy for progressive policies will form the platform by which a progressive political party can regain control. Among us, we must find those willing to sacrifice themselves to the public arena as candidates capable of inciting voters’ imaginations with such an agenda.

Then will be the time to shout.

~~~

 

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/09/cost-wars-iraq-afghanistan/499007/

[2] https://www.nationalpriorities.org/campaigns/military-spending-united-states/

[3]  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeff-faux/why-are-we-in-the-middle_b_7301370.html

[4] https://www.nationalpriorities.org/budget-basics/federal-budget-101/spending/

[5] https://www.thebalance.com/current-federal-mandatory-spending-3305772

[6] http://americansfortaxfairness.org/tax-fairness-briefing-booklet/fact-sheet-taxing-wealthy-americans/

 

A Sword Cuts Both Ways

swordFor decades, the religious right has gained access to tax dollars by filling a niche in the education system. In addressing an ‘at risk’ population among children, these religious activists have made great strides toward the use of tax dollars for religious instruction.

It’s a clever end-run around the law. In Arkansas until 2012, a quietly growing swarm of such preschools illegally utilized millions of tax dollars for programs that began each day with prayer and Bible study. (Which they have never been required to pay back.) Classroom activities included coloring images of Biblical scenes, singing hymns, and the occasional time-out at the principal’s office where the recalcitrant child might be prayed over to cast out the demons causing his/her unruly behavior.

Tipped off by thoughtful journalists, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) threatened a lawsuit against the state. Specifically cited in the complaint was the Growing God’s Kingdom preschool at West Fork. The Arkansas Times, arguably the state’s only non-rightwing media, reported that “According to the school’s handbook, parents are assured that staff members will ‘strive too [sic] ensure that your child feels the love of Jesus Christ while preparing them for Kindergarten.’ The preschoolers, it continues, will be taught ‘the word of God’ so that they can ‘spread the word of God to others.’”

Outrageous not only because the preschool blatantly advertised its religious intent in its name and literature without the state blinking an eye before handing over tax dollars, its owner/operator Justin Harris also served as an elected representative in the state’s legislature. And he wasn’t the only elected official sworn to uphold the Constitution who grabbed illegal tax dollars hand over fist. Similar preschools operated under the leadership of Johnny Key, also a legislator and – incredibly – in 2015 designated by the Republican governor Asa Hutchinson as head of the Department of Education, even though Hutchinson had to massage the state’s rules about qualifications for the department head because Key didn’t meet them.

Specifically targeted by religious preschools in order to boost their standing for ever greater grant funding, potential ‘students’ are rounded up from problematic environments.

  • The ABC Program serves educationally deprived children, ages birth through 5 years, excluding a kindergarten program. The Arkansas Better Chance for School Success Program serves children ages 3 and 4 years from families with gross income not exceeding 200% of the federal poverty level.
  • Eligible children for the ABC program shall have at least one of the following characteristics: § Family with gross income not exceeding exceeding 200% of FPL  § Has a demonstrable developmental delay as identified through screening  § Parents without a high school diploma or GED  § Eligible for services under IDEA  § Low birth weight (below 5 pounds, 9 ounces)  § Income eligible for Title I programs  § Parent is under 18 years of age at child’s birth  § Limited English Proficiency  § Immediate family member has a history of substance abuse/addiction  § Parent has history of abuse of neglect Or is a victim of abuse or neglect
  • An age-eligible child who falls into one of the following categories shall be exempt from family income requirements: § Foster child § Child with an incarcerated parent § Child in the custody of/living with a family member other than mother or father § Child with immediate family member arrested for or convicted of drug-related offenses § Child with a parent activated for overseas military duty

Further enticement for struggling parents is that ABC funded programs provide free child care and pick-up/delivery services for children. What low income parent would not rush to place their child in such a program whether or not they want their child indoctrinated in fundamentalist Christian religion?

State employees at the Department of Human Services, which oversees this particular realm of education and tax dollars and in charge of the Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) program, could not account for how the money was spent by these schools, citing chaotic bookkeeping methods. The state did not require any particular accounting method. The state then or now does not know whether tax dollars granted to preschools and other educational programs serving ‘at risk’ children actually are used for that purpose, only requiring that grants be kept in a separate bank account.

Despite the wimpy crackdown in 2012, random yet infrequent inspections by state enforcement personnel lack the ability to determine whether prayers, hymn singing, and exorcising of demons might yet continue, stopping only the moment an inspector walks through the door.

In the aftermath of unwanted scrutiny by AU, the state allowed these powerful religious entities to fabricate an imaginary line between religious instruction and the so-called ‘ABC Day,’ a block of seven hours where secular education supposedly occurs without any religious indoctrination. While delineating these requirements in a new section of is program codes (see Section 23 at the DHS website), the restrictions on how tax dollars might be used fail to include rent, insurance, utilities, and other overhead expenses of the overall operation. Children bused to the school before the ABC day begins or who remain after are immersed in religious instruction, a convenient sleight of hand since parents’ work hours rarely coincide with ABC instruction hours.

As specifically stated in Section 23.04.4 of ABC Rules:

  • No religious activity may occur during any ABC day and no ABC funds may be used to support religious services, instruction or programming at any time.

Without a viability test by which religious preschools must prove their religious instruction could continue without tax dollars, there is no method to determine if ABC funds are used to support religion. Such a viability test would have to show that without tax dollar grants, these schools generate enough income from other sources to keep the rent paid and the lights on. The state has made no effort to devise such a test.

Now let’s take a sharp turn to a similar situation on the other side of the coin. As the newly installed majority Republican Congress rubs its hands in glee over its sudden ascension to total control over the nation’s lawmaking, no issue is more eagerly addressed than the longstanding thorn in the abortion debate—Planned Parenthood. Early calls for defunding this nonprofit organization cite exactly the same argument as those opposed to tax dollars for religious education.

Recently questioned by CNN’s reporter Jake Tapper, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan explained the need to stop tax dollars from supporting Planned Parenthood.

Well, there is a long-standing principle that we’ve all believed in. And—by the way, this is for pro-choice, pro-life people—that we don’t want to commit taxpayer funding for abortion. And, Planned Parenthood is the largest abortion provider.

So, we don’t want to effectively commit taxpayer money to an organization providing abortions. But, we want to make sure that people get their coverage. That’s why there’s no conflict by making sure that these dollars go to federal community health centers, which provide these services and have a vast larger network than these Planned Parenthood clinics, which—which are surrounded by a lot of controversy.

And, we don’t want to commit people’s taxpayer dollars to effectively funding something that they believe is morally unconscionable. Not everybody believes that and I understand that. But, that’s a long-standing principle that we’ve had in this country that we want to maintain.

Tapper countered Ryan’s remarks by citing the Hyde Amendment which ensures that federal funding isn’t paying for abortion, Tapper asked “of course, taxpayers don’t fund abortions, right now, right?”

“Right,” Ryan fumbled. “But, they get a lot of money and—and you know, money is fungible and it effectively floats these organizations which then use other money. You know, money is fungible.”

Ah. Money is fungible.

Of course it’s beyond Ryan’s comprehension that anyone would consider early childhood religious indoctrination to be “morally unconscionable.”

If Ryan and his cabal of rightwing religionists pursue their effort to kill Planned Parenthood (and thereby leave millions of women without reproductive health care), their argument goes against them in the wholesale religious perversion of our nation’s youth.

Religionists cite the helpless condition of a fetus and the ruthless medical procedures which may be used to terminate its life all while they discount the agonized decision-making women engage in before choosing such a path. Yet what is more helpless than a barely verbal child relinquished to a daily dose of brainwashing?

More to the point central to any federal legislation, what has longer and more consequential ramifications for the nation? While those terminated in the womb are removed from the overall population, the clear agenda for youthful brainwashing is to “Grow God’s Kingdom.”

Let’s not kid ourselves. The Religious Right will not stop until they have forced the United States of America to fit their definition of a Christian nation.

Compare the two programs: one provides financial assistance for medical care to women old enough to bear children and therefore old enough for reasoned decision-making. The other takes children not old enough to reason or speak for themselves and forces them to undergo religious indoctrination.

Imagine, if you will, religious tax-funded preschools which teach Islam.

~~~

Note: The red herring in Ryan’s argument centers on his theory that community clinics could provide adequate replacement services for those now available through Planned Parenthood. It would take significant expansion and investment for such clinics to equal the services offered by PP to over five million people per year.