Category Archives: Congress

Mistakes are Bound to Happen

Today in the pages of my former employer, Hannah Hess does some good shoe leather reporting on the United States Capitol Police and incidents involving firearms being left in bathrooms.

It’s concerning, to say the least, that police officers are making mistakes that could yield fatal outcomes for innocents. (The U.S. Capitol is like a supermagnet for insane people, who roam the halls of the office buildings like zombies in The Walking Dead.)

What’s even more concerning about what Hess uncovered is that one of the incidents involved a child finding the weapon:

A 7- or 8-year-old child visiting the Capitol with his parents found the next loaded Glock lost by a dignitary protection officer, according to the source.

That’s really bad.

There are a few types of USCP officers that I know about: Uniformed, Dignitary Protection (DPD) — they protect Senate and House leadership — and plainclothes/undercover.

Of course, anyone who has been around the Capitol complex or has seen a beat cop in uniform knows that their belt rivals that of Batman: Radio, magazines with ammunition, handcuffs, Taser, Glock & holster, ASP baton.

Taking your pants off to take a shit is a huge ordeal. (Probably slightly less so than if you’re plainclothes, or DPD.) And, for the force’s female officers, going number one involves the cumbersome ordeal of dropping the trousers whereas male officers aren’t similarly burdened.

A corollary: As a staffer (and as a private citizen) I have been known to use the cellphone holster. It’s quite common on Capitol Hill for BlackBerry toters (though their prevalence is fading). Even the weight of a phone and holster often results in the wearer unclipping it and placing it elsewhere — whether it’s the floor or the toilet cover holder.

Suffice it to say, I never lost my BlackBerry or personal phone during my years on the Hill, but I did leave the bathroom a few times, only to run back a few minutes later to retrieve it.

Which is why I am empathetic to USCP officers who might make the same mistake. They say the pen (or BlackBerry) is mightier than the sword, yet a sword is not a Glock. So, suspending (or even firing) officers who make such a mistake, at least to me, is certainly justifiable.

In discussing the story (as it’s Friday, a slow news day) with the Federalist‘s Sean Davis, he encouraged me to think about it a bit deeper.

Sean’s contention is that three incidents is bonkers. I’m not so sure (even though nobody condones mistakes as potentially fatal as these) it is.

My concern is the transparency: We don’t know how often these incidents have occurred, since as Hess reports:

How often do officers leave their guns unattended around the Capitol complex? The answer is unknown because Capitol Police are not required to disclose such incidents.

To the best of my knowledge, there are about 1,400 sworn Capitol Police officers. Let’s hypothesize a bit.

Women generally represent 12% of police forces across the U.S. — but at the Capitol, based on my experience, it is probably closer to 20%.

shift

And, while transparency is my main concern, let’s just assume that these three incidents are the only three we know about in 2015. To be clear, we’re measuring only the potential for these incidents since January 1, 2015.

In 2015, 120 days have elapsed. If you multiply that by 1,190 daily duty day bathroom visits, you get 142,800 estimated bathroom visits by USCP officers since the beginning of the year. (Note: I did not control for private bathrooms.)

If the three incidents — and we don’t know this — are the only ones, it represents .0021 percent of bathroom visits.

I think everybody would like the police to make zero mistakes, but that’s not reasonable. If officers make mistakes like this, they should (and they have) been suspended without pay. Or, they should be demoted or even fired — depending on the circumstances.

Until I get more information, I am inclined to disagree with Sean in that it’s “bonkers.”

But, until we have more transparency, we won’t know the extent of the problem. And, until then, I think we should reserve judgement and demand greater transparency.

On ‘Free’ Community Colleges

Over on Facebook, my friends and I have had an interesting discussion on the elusive details of the President’s budget/SOTU proposal for ‘free’ community college education.

Because of a New Year’s resolution a few years ago, I rarely delve into long, drawn-out debates on Facebook. It’s usually not worth your time. But I made an exception here, in part because of the thoughtful insights from my friends (and a friend/former teacher!) and partly because I wanted to weigh in further.

Here’s my (lightly edited) rant:

Edward and Shawn, I agree with points you both make. The cost of ignorance is high and not everyone has the opportunity to attend a Jesuit school with great science teachers like Mr. Nolan. (Though the Jesuits are trying as hard as they can with the Cristo Rey model, which is phenomenal.)
 
I love community colleges. My grandfather was a professor at one, and my mother attended there before going to tOSU. I’m just opposed because I don’t think this level of involvement by the government is appropriate. It’s my libertarian side coming out.
 
Realistically, this has ~0% chance of passing Congress. The “Pay Go” rules don’t help because anyone who proposes it on the Democratic side will “pay for it” with a tax increase and not a cut, which is how the game is played in Congress these days.
 
If Obama / Congressional Democrats wanted to be clever, here’s how they’d structure it:
 
1.) You apply for this program and by doing so, you agree to forfeit your Pell Grants entirely.
 
2.) Under Pell Grants, you get up to 12 semesters (six years) worth of grants, which, under maximum level at max time before exhaustion represents a little under $35,000. Of course, not everyone qualifies for Pell Grants, or gets the full amount. But you could argue savings by doing this.
 
3.) Cynically, if you wanted to obtain a 4-year degree, then you’d likely go to the student loan market (effectively nationalized since 2010!) where the government could make the money back. (Though, they’ve already used the “profits” from that to defray the cost of Obamacare and it would be hard to count that twice.)
 
A friend of mine, an analyst type, observed that this would be among the cheaper proposals Obama has proposed, even though the costs would be in the tens of billions, according to some estimates.
 
Two states (and others I am sure) have tried “free college programs.” Their examples are instructive. (I still am weary about government involvement in this, but at the state level it is at least appropriate from a federalism perspective.)
 
Arizona, when I worked for Senator Kyl, had something called an AIMS scholarship. If you met certain requirements under their AIMS program — you got a full tuition waiver at in-state schools, provided you were accepted. Of course, the test was not terribly hard and lots of people qualified. Now, it covers 25%, and is renewable — subject to college-specific requirements — over the remaining three years.
 
It was poorly planned. And it was done by Republicans!
 
Tennessee has the “Tennessee Promise” program, a brainchild of their Republican governor, gives free community and technical college tuition (for 2 years) to high school graduates in the state. The program is funded by the lottery. The program, which I also think was poorly implemented as such measures often are, has seen 58k applicants. Double what they expected. They’re learning Freidman’s adage of “no such thing as a free lunch” despite being well-intentioned.
 
Details on Obama’s plan are still forthcoming, but right now we know you have to have a C+ average, these CC’s have to agree to certain stipulations about their programs and credit transferability, and some vague notions of “student outcomes.” The feds expect states to pick up 25% of the cost.
 
While I agree with Mr. Nolan about college/knowledge having an effect on real-world life outcomes, Shawn’s point about high school and those outcomes is also worth delving into. To paint with my partisan broad brush, Democrats only seem to be interested in spending more money, not reforming public education in meaningful ways. (Thanks, teachers’ unions!)
 
So, rather than improve the K-12 system, I think there is room to criticize this proposal as keeping the bad and just inflating the bar.
 
White House director Cecilia Muñoz told Politico that “Obama aims to make college ‘the norm in the same way high school is the norm now.'”
 
Depending on your partisan lens, this statement will be interpreted differently. I see this as what I alluded to earlier — education inflation rather than education reform.
 
Granted, we’re all wasting our time in a thought exercise because this has about the same chance of happening as anything in President Obama’s budgets. Budgets these days are a thought exercise in “how I’d like things to be, but obviously won’t be.”
 
This started the last two years of the Bush presidency, when Congress was controlled by Democrats. They became “Hope Documents” or “Wish Lists.” Even after Obama was elected, his budgets were never taken seriously by Congress because Congress was not serious about budgeting.
 
They quickly abandoned regular order and the normal appropriations process in favor of continuing resolutions and omnibus packages. A power grab by the leadership, disenfranchising moderate and oddball Democrats and castrating Republicans in the minority.
 
Presidential budgets have always been blueprints. Congress is under no obligation to consider them, but Presidents are still obligated by the law to churn them out. It used to make sense, but now it’s sort of a pointless partisan exercise.
 
Boehner tried to restore regular order when I went from the Senate to the House as a staffer. In that, he failed. McConnell has signaled he wants to try his hand at that, too.
 
I wish them luck and hope it succeeds, but I’m not optimistic.
Prospects for reforming K-12 education are equally dire, but then again, while I agree with conservatives on their reforms, I’m of the view that the federal government shouldn’t be involved in the first place on education, a position many conservatives share. Hard to argue that when you’re voting to essentially maintain some semblance of federal control over it, even if it is diminished.

 

Actual DCCC Memorial Day Weekend Fundraising Email

Somebody over at the DCCC is really aloof.

dccc

 

Cap South — What It’s Really Like to Work in Congress

There are tons of funny shows out there that touch on what it is like to work in the federal government. House of Cards is excellent, and the scene work is phenomenal. Veep — a show I just started watching — is entertaining, but not on the same level for me as House of Cards.

But, one new show might change all that. It’s a forthcoming web series starring my good friend / mortal prank enemy and former room mate, Andrew Heaton as the lead character. His girlfriend in real life, Naomi Brockwell, also stars in it.

It’s called Cap South. (You can learn more about it here eventually, but you can learn more now by following it on facebook.)

Since Andrew’s involved, and the show is run by a fellow Congressional Expat, I expected the dialogue to be highly realistic and very funny. I was correct. Below is what it is really like to answer un-screened phone calls.

Here’s the Trailer:

Answering the phone on the hill in real life (left) versus in Cap South (right). Spot on.
phone

bsig

Could Voter ID help implement Obamacare?

According to a new report by Jackson Hewitt, full implementation of the Affordable Care Act could exclude “more than one in four uninsured Americans eligible for the new premium assistance tax credits.”

Why? Because they don’t have a checking account.

The report continues: “Among the uninsured, non-elderly population with household incomes in the tax credit eligible range, 27 percent are effectively ‘unbanked.’”

Under federal banking law, it is quite difficult to open a checking account without government-issued photo identification. To open a bank account without photo identification, an individual must be on file with a credit reporting agency or have had a bank account in the past.

According to the report: “[t]he impact will be especially large among African Americans and Hispanic Americans, who are over 40 percent more likely to be unbanked relative to white residents in the same income category.”

Like a proper education, a photo ID and a checking account are near-requirements to move up the income ladder and improve economic outcomes.

Which is why it is curious that Democrats are eager to ensure people can vote without possessing a photo ID, but drafted a law that pretty much excludes a large number of those same people from being able to claim the benefits of Obamacare.

Could voter ID laws be a win-win for Democrats?

Bomblecast #20 — The Minimum Wage

ep20

In this podcast, we talk about the minimum wage and President Obama’s proposal to raise it $9 an hour.

Here’s Episode #20:

Presidents Don’t Get a Pension Equal to their Salary. Neither Does Congress.

For months now, I have seen graphics on facebook and via email saying that the President and/or Congress gets their salary for life. This is wrong.

Members of Congress (House & Senate) and the leadership do not receive their salaries for life.

According to the Congressional Research Service:

“Under both CSRS and FERS, Members of Congress are eligible for a pension at the age of 62 if they have completed at least five years of service. Members are eligible for a pension at age 50 if they have completed 20 years of service, or at any age after completing 25 years of service. The amount of the pension depends on years of service and the average of the highest three years of salary. By law, the starting amount of a Member’s retirement annuity may not exceed 80% of his or her final salary.

As of October 1, 2009, 455 retired Members of Congress were receiving federal pensions based fully or in part on their congressional service. Of this number, 275 had retired under CSRS and were receiving an average annual pension of $69,012. A total of 180 Members had retired with service under both CSRS and FERS or with service under FERS only. Their average annual pension was $40,140 in 2009.

Members who had retired under CSRS had completed, on average, 18.8 years of civilian federal service. Their average annual CSRS annuity in 2009 was $69,012. Those who had retired under FERS had completed, on average, 15.6 years of civilian federal service. Their average retirement annuity in 2009 (not including Social Security) was $40,140″

Secondly, Presidents — while they receive an obscene pension of $191,300 — do not get $450,000 a year for life. They get about $200,000 and benefits like travel funds and mailing privileges. Since 1997, Presidents receive Secret Service protection for a decade after leaving office. Beforehand, they got it for life.

Some back of the napkin math for you:

If all current living former Presidents lived to the ripe age of 93, and we took away all current appropriations (at current levels) —  that would fund the salaries of 2,315 soldiers at this graphic’s average salary or the average income of 7,333 seniors on social security, assuming their figures are correct.

Active duty service members in combat zones are eligible for the military pay exclusion on their income.

Point being?

Yes, a yearly pension of $191,300 is absurd. But, reducing it to zero and committing the money elsewhere wouldn’t make a big dent in entitlements or military funding. Not much of a dent at all.

Perspective is important.

Despite working an average of over 15 years, taking away the pensions of retired Congressman, similarly, won’t make much of a difference in ensuring military pensions or social security are funded.

That’s the simple truth.

To be sure, there are ways we can and should significantly reduce federal spending. During my five years of service in the federal government, I paid into a pension plan, a thrift savings plan (sort of a government-run 401(k)), and social security. I also saved on my own.

That’s four separate retirement mechanisms. Good enough for government work, huh? If we want to get serious about retirement spending for government employees, dinging the pensions of elected officials is probably a publicly popular way, albeit insufficient, to get started. We should, however, find a way to end federal pensions — which are outdated and costly.

Especially when there’s social security, the TSP, and private savings. However, if this last campaign taught us anything, getting rid of costly pensions and moving to less-dated retirement plans for employees is difficult and unpopular.

Ask Mitt Romney and the folks at Bain Capital.

Obligatory Sherrod Brown Jay-Z “Dance” .gif

H/T to EK for the video.

UPDATED: I Thought the Durbin Amdt. was supposed to help consumers?

Via email:

Dear Valued Member,

Beginning October 29th, transaction fees in DC will increase from $0.32 to $0.45 due to increased costs triggered by recent federal legislative reform enacted by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act’s Durbin Amendment.

To help offset this increase Parkmobile has developed the Parkmobile Wallet which will provide a more cost-effective parking experience in DC – Wallet transactions will carry a $.30 transaction fee. You can update your payment method to the Parkmobile Wallet via your Personal Pages at www.parkmobile.com or from your mobile app (if using iPhone or Android). If you have forgotten your username/password you can retrieve it using your registered mobile phone number and the last four digits of the credit card on file. The Parkmobile Wallet is FDIC insured.

For more information please visit our website at www.parkmobile.com and click on the Parkmobile Wallet link. If you have further questions click on the orange ‘Help’ tab or email helpdesk@parkmobileglobal.com.

Sincerely,

Tina Dyer
Marketing & Sales Support Manager
Parkmobile USA, Inc.

And from a Press Release:

They can continue to use existing payment methods, but due to increased cost related to the Durbin Amendment the transaction fee will be changed from $0.32 to $0.45.

I guess the Durbin Amendment isn’t as beneficial for consumers as we were told…

UPDATE: HOH reports:

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) fired back by penning Mayor Vincent Gray a sternly worded letter.

“Mayor Gray, in order to avoid any potential confusion,” Durbin began. “I request that you and DDOT make clear that the District of Columbia Government does not agree with Parkmobile’s analysis of the cause of these fee increases or endorse Parkmobile’s disingenuous assignment of blame.”

This Wednesday, “plus 13 cent Durbin tax” stickers have started popping up on parking meters.

UPDATE 2: ParkMobile has backpedalled. I wonder what Mayor Gray threatened them with.

Dear Valued Member,

Last week in a press release and email announcement introducing the Parkmobile Wallet, a simpler, lower cost way to pay for parking in the District of Columbia, the company made an overly simplistic statement about the underlying cause of increasing card transaction fees. In an attempt to explain why costs have increased the company left the potentially confusing impression that Federal legislation is to blame. The company apologizes for any confusion caused by this statement.

George McGovern

With former Senator and Presidential candidate George McGovern on life support tonight, I thought I’d share this op-ed he wrote in 1992.

A high school young Republican friend of mine told me earlier today:

“He goes to the diner by my apartment. I see him there every now and then. Was still sharp this summer.”

In all of the tweets I’ve seen from liberal fans of his, I haven’t seen many people talk about this op-ed he wrote, giving perspective to his years as a Senator and politician from an older man in the private sector.

It is a great read. McGovern’s prognosis isn’t promising. A dedicated public servant, America owes him gratitude.

A Politician’s Dream Is a Businessman’s Nightmare

(BY GEORGE MCGOVERN) JUNE 1, 1992 | Wall Street Journal

`Wisdom too often never comes, and so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late.’ — Justice Felix Frankfurter.

It’s been 11 years since I left the U.S. Senate, after serving 24 years in high public office. After leaving a career in politics, I devoted much of my time to public lectures that took me into every state in the union and much of Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.

In 1988, I invested most of the earnings from this lecture circuit acquiring the leasehold on Connecticut’s Stratford Inn. Hotels, inns and restaurants have always held a special fascination for me. The Stratford Inn promised the realization of a longtime dream to own a combination hotel, restaurant and public conference facility–complete with an experienced manager and staff.

In retrospect, I wish I had known more about the hazards and difficulties of such a business, especially during a recession of the kind that hit New England just as I was acquiring the inn’s 43-year leasehold. I also wish that during the years I was in public office, I had had this firsthand experience about the difficulties business people face every day. That knowledge would have made me a better U.S. senator and a more understanding presidential contender.

Today we are much closer to a general acknowledgment that government must encourage business to expand and grow. Bill Clinton, Paul Tsongas, Bob Kerrey and others have, I believe, changed the debate of our party. We intuitively know that to create job opportunities we need entrepreneurs who will risk their capital against an expected payoff. Too often, however, public policy does not consider whether we are choking off those opportunities.

My own business perspective has been limited to that small hotel and restaurant in Stratford, Conn., with an especially difficult lease and a severe recession. But my business associates and I also lived with federal, state and local rules that were all passed with the objective of helping employees, protecting the environment, raising tax dollars for schools, protecting our customers from fire hazards, etc. While I never doubted the worthiness of any of these goals, the concept that most often eludes legislators is: `Can we make consumers pay the higher prices for the increased operating costs that accompany public regulation and government reporting requirements with reams of red tape.’ It is a simple concern that is nonetheless often ignored by legislators.

For example, the papers today are filled with stories about businesses dropping health coverage for employees. We provided a substantial package for our staff at the Stratford Inn. However, were we operating today, those costs would exceed $150,000 a year for health care on top of salaries and other benefits. There would have been no reasonably way for us to absorb or pass on these costs.

Some of the escalation in the cost of health care is attributed to patients suing doctors. While one cannot assess the merit of all these claims, I’ve also witnessed firsthand the explosion in blame-shifting and scapegoating for every negative experience in life.

Today, despite bankruptcy, we are still dealing with litigation from individuals who fell in or near our restaurant. Despite these injuries, not every misstep is the fault of someone else. Not every such incident should be viewed as a lawsuit instead of an unfortunate accident. And while the business owner may prevail in the end, the endless exposure to frivolous claims and high legal fees is frightening.

Our Connecticut hotel, along with many others, went bankrupt for a variety of reasons, the general economy in the Northeast being a significant cause. But that reason masks the variety of other challenges we faced that drive operating costs and financing charges beyond what a small business can handle.

It is clear that some businesses have products that can be priced at almost any level. The price of raw materials (e.g., steel and glass) and life-saving drugs and medical care are not easily substituted by consumers. It is only competition or antitrust that tempers price increases. Consumers may delay purchases, but they have little choice when faced with higher prices.

In services, however, consumers do have a choice when faced with higher prices. You may have to stay in a hotel while on vacation, but you can stay fewer days. You can eat in restaurants fewer times per month, or forgo a number of services from car washes to shoeshines. Every such decision eventually results in job losses for someone. And often these are the people without the skills to help themselves–the people I’ve spent a lifetime trying to help.

In short, `one-size-fits-all’ rules for business ignore the reality of the market place. And setting thresholds for regulatory guidelines at artificial levels–e.g., 50 employees or more, $500,000 in sales–takes no account of other realities, such as profit margins, labor intensive vs. capital intensive businesses, and local market economics.

The problem we face as legislators is: Where do we set the bar so that it is not too high to clear? I don’t have the answer. I do know that we need to start raising these questions more often.

Link: http://1.usa.gov/jO4SHw

George Stanley McGovern (born July 19, 1922) is a historian, former United States Representative, Senator, and Democratic presidential nominee. McGovern lost the 1972 presidential election in a landslide to Richard Nixon. As a decorated World War II combat veteran, McGovern was known for his opposition to the Vietnam War.