Monday, March 29, 2010

Pass and patch….the U.S. Constitution

Probably most Americans are not familiar with all the intricate rules and deal-making used to pass legislation in this country. It may not be pretty but it’s certainly not new or even unusual. Still there are those who have called the process un-American and even unconstitutional.

Well, as Hendrik Hertzberg points out, the American Constitution was ratified in much the same way that health-care reform passed:
The ratification fight was a few months shorter than the health-care fight, but it was at least as contentious. In many states approval was far from a sure thing. The ideological lines weren’t the same then as they are now—the French wouldn’t invent “left” and “right” for another couple of years—but some of the issues Federalists and Anti-Federalists tussled over still echo. Some skeptics of the new charter feared a big expansion of centralized power. Some worried that their liberties would be put in peril.

What emerged during the process was an informal but unmistakable promise by proponents to make adding a bill of rights the new national government’s first order of business. At the New York ratification convention—the one that the Federalist Papers were written to influence—Hamilton struck a deal to make ratification conditional on a recommendation that a bill of rights be appended. Even so, the thing passed by just three votes out of fifty-seven. Without a lot of such slip-slidey maneuvering the whole effort would have collapsed.

In other words, pass and patch. In other words, reconciliation.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Whose Waterloo?

The Democrats finally achieved victory to reform this nation’s health care system after decades of efforts. The Senate bill that passed the House of Representatives may not have been as sweeping as many Americans had hoped for but it moves this nation ever closer to universal coverage, closer to controlling escalating costs, and away from insurance industry discriminatory practices.

Despite the expressed desire of the President and many leaders of the Democratic majority for bi-partisan legislation, Republicans refused any compromise that would have committed their votes in favor of health care reform. The all-or-nothing strategy to make the President and majority leadership look ineffective also meant giving up any leverage to shape the legislation to make it more Republican-friendly. This was to be President Obama’s Waterloo but the Democratic majority held.

A Republican policy loss may or may not turn into a political gain at the polls in November and even if it does, so what? Legislators are elected to enact legislation and Republican members of both houses of congress have proven themselves ineffective in impacting the most significant bill before them in decades. Republican David Frum, former speech writer for President George Bush, sees this as a disaster for Republicans because they have allowed themselves to be painted into a corner by extreme voices in the entertainment industry:
Conservatives and Republicans today suffered their most crushing legislative defeat since the 1960s.

It’s hard to exaggerate the magnitude of the disaster. Conservatives may cheer themselves that they’ll compensate for today’s expected vote with a big win in the November 2010 elections. But:

(1) It’s a good bet that conservatives are over-optimistic about November – by then the economy will have improved and the immediate goodies in the healthcare bill will be reaching key voting blocs.

(2) So what? Legislative majorities come and go. This healthcare bill is forever. A win in November is very poor compensation for this debacle now.

So far, I think a lot of conservatives will agree with me. Now comes the hard lesson:

A huge part of the blame for today’s disaster attaches to conservatives and Republicans ourselves.

At the beginning of this process we made a strategic decision: unlike, say, Democrats in 2001 when President Bush proposed his first tax cut, we would make no deal with the administration. No negotiations, no compromise, nothing. We were going for all the marbles. This would be Obama’s Waterloo – just as healthcare was Clinton’s in 1994.

Only, the hardliners overlooked a few key facts: Obama was elected with 53% of the vote, not Clinton’s 42%. The liberal block within the Democratic congressional caucus is bigger and stronger than it was in 1993-94. And of course the Democrats also remember their history, and also remember the consequences of their 1994 failure.

This time, when we went for all the marbles, we ended with none.

Could a deal have been reached? Who knows? But we do know that the gap between this plan and traditional Republican ideas is not very big. The Obama plan has a broad family resemblance to Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts plan. It builds on ideas developed at the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s that formed the basis for Republican counter-proposals to Clintoncare in 1993-1994.

Barack Obama badly wanted Republican votes for his plan. Could we have leveraged his desire to align the plan more closely with conservative views? To finance it without redistributive taxes on productive enterprise – without weighing so heavily on small business – without expanding Medicaid? Too late now. They are all the law.

No illusions please: This bill will not be repealed. Even if Republicans scored a 1994 style landslide in November, how many votes could we muster to re-open the “doughnut hole” and charge seniors more for prescription drugs? How many votes to re-allow insurers to rescind policies when they discover a pre-existing condition? How many votes to banish 25 year olds from their parents’ insurance coverage? And even if the votes were there – would President Obama sign such a repeal?

We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat.

There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible. How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or – more exactly – with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother?

I’ve been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters – but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination. When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say – but what is equally true – is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed – if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.

So today’s defeat for free-market economics and Republican values is a huge win for the conservative entertainment industry. Their listeners and viewers will now be even more enraged, even more frustrated, even more disappointed in everybody except the responsibility-free talkers on television and radio. For them, it’s mission accomplished. For the cause they purport to represent, it’s Waterloo all right: ours.
Matthew Yglesias argues that Republican “no compromise” strategy resulted in a stronger bill than if they had opted to use their leverage:
… It’s a historic achievement that instantly rockets him to third place on a podium alongside Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson as the key architects of the American welfare state. Nancy Pelosi, whose firm but pragmatic brand of liberal leadership was integral to the success, should perhaps go down as the greatest progressive speaker the House of Representatives has ever known.

We should also, however, spare a thought for the unsung hero of comprehensive reform, McConnell and his GOP colleagues, who pushed their “no compromise” strategy to the breaking point and beyond. The theory was that non-cooperation would stress the Democratic coalition and cause the public to begin to question the enterprise. And it largely worked. But at crucial times when wavering Democrats were eager for a lifeline, the Republicans absolutely refused to throw one. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and other key players at various points wanted to scale aspirations down to a few regulatory tweaks and some expansion of health care for children. This idea had a lot of appeal to many in the party. But it always suffered from a fatal flaw—the Republicans’ attitude made it seem that a smaller bill was no more feasible than a big bill. Consequently, even though Scott Brown’s victory blew the Democrats off track, the basic logic of the situation pushed them back on course to universal health care.

Today, conservative anger at the Democrats is running higher than ever, and for the first time in years the GOP leadership’s blanket opposition has won them the esteem of their fanatics. But in more sober moments in the weeks and months to come, my guess is that the brighter minds on the right will recognize that their determination to turn health reform into Obama’s Waterloo sowed the seeds of their own destruction. Universal health care has been attempted many times in the past and always failed. The prospects for success were never all that bright. Many of us, myself included, at one point or another wanted to try something more moderate. But the right wing, by invariably indicating that it would settle for nothing less than total victory, inspired progressive forces to march on and win their greatest legislative victory in decades.
Jonathan Chait concurs:
… Many Senate Democrats started the debate believing that a bipartisan accord was the only morally legitimate path to major legislative change, and desperately hoping for bipartisan cover as they undertook wrenching change to the status quo. If they had put a compromise bill on the table, moderate Democrats would have leaped at the offer, and it would have taken just one Democrat to make such a deal and kill comprehensive reform.

The Republicans had another chance last month when President Obama convened a bipartisan health care summit. If some Republicans had come forward with a meet-you-halfway plan, or even meet-you-quarter-way plan, Democrats would have been in a bind. They let the opportunity pass. …

The Republican strategy of total opposition instead forced the Democrats into an all-or-nothing choice of passing a comprehensive bill or collapsing into catastrophic defeat. (Republicans tried desperately to convince them that letting the bill die was their best political strategy, but Democrats wisely rejected this awful advice.) Let me be clear: I'm glad they did it. I'm willing to accept higher Democratic losses in exchange for a health care bill that really solves the pathologies of the health care market. The Republican strategy was an audacious gamble, and it could have worked, but it came up empty. Thank goodness.
Thank goodness indeed.

You can read Frum here, Yglesias here, and Chait here.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Pass the damn bill

In the next several days Congress will either reform our health care system or they will be blocked by obstructionists fighting to preserve the status quo. The obstructionists tout American health care as the best in the world as if this debate were all about civic boosterism.

The truth is not only is the American health care delivery system the most expensive in the world but the results are mediocre at best. Add in the factor of the American employer-based health care system that not only makes American businesses less competitive in global markets but also means in a sensitive economy even Americans with perfectly decent health care coverage are at high risk of losing it. And add to all that the huge numbers of Americans who cannot afford health insurance and the costs – economic and social – that inflicts on the rest of society. The status quo in our health care delivery system is pulling this country down and needs to be corrected.

The rightwing noise machine has done everything they could to confuse and turn the public against reform but when asked about the particulars of the current legislation Americans are supportive of reform. And the proposal before Congress is far from perfect but the choice now is between imperfect legislation and no legislation.

Paul Krugman offers this last pitch before the vote:
One way or another, the fate of health care reform is going to be decided in the next few days. If House Democratic leaders find 216 votes, reform will almost immediately become the law of the land. If they don’t, reform may well be put off for many years — possibly a decade or more.

So this seems like a good time to revisit the reasons we need this reform, imperfect as it is.

As it happens, Reuters published an investigative report this week that powerfully illustrates the vileness of our current system. The report concerns the insurer Fortis, now part of Assurant Health, which turns out to have had a systematic policy of revoking its clients’ policies when they got sick. In particular, according to the Reuters report, it targeted every single policyholder who contracted H.I.V., looking for any excuse, no matter how flimsy, for cancellation. In the case that brought all this to light, Assurant Health used an obviously misdated handwritten note by a nurse, who wrote “2001” instead of “2002,” to claim that the infection was a pre-existing condition that the client had failed to declare, and revoked his policy.

This was illegal, and the company must have known it: the South Carolina Supreme Court, after upholding a decision granting large damages to the wronged policyholder, concluded that the company had been systematically concealing its actions when withdrawing coverage, not just in this case, but across the board.

But this is much more than a law enforcement issue. For one thing, it’s an example those who castigate President Obama for “demonizing” insurance companies should consider. The truth, widely documented, is that behavior like Assurant Health’s is widespread for a simple reason: it pays. A House committee estimated that Assurant made $150 million in profits between 2003 and 2007 by canceling coverage of people who thought they had insurance, a sum that dwarfs the fine the court imposed in this particular case. It’s not demonizing insurers to describe what they actually do.

Beyond that, this is a story that could happen only in America. In every other advanced nation, insurance coverage is available to everyone regardless of medical history. Our system is unique in its cruelty.

And one more thing: employment-based health insurance, which is already regulated in a way that mostly prevents this kind of abuse, is unraveling. Less than half of workers at small businesses were covered last year, down from 58 percent a decade ago. This means that in the absence of reform, an ever-growing number of Americans will be at the mercy of the likes of Assurant Health.

So what’s the answer? Americans overwhelmingly favor guaranteeing coverage to those with pre-existing conditions — but you can’t do that without pursuing broad-based reform. To make insurance affordable, you have to keep currently healthy people in the risk pool, which means requiring that everyone or almost everyone buy coverage. You can’t do that without financial aid to lower-income Americans so that they can pay the premiums. So you end up with a tripartite policy: elimination of medical discrimination, mandated coverage, and premium subsidies.

Or to put it another way, you end up with something like the health care plan Mitt Romney introduced in Massachusetts in 2006, and the very similar plan the House either will or won’t pass in the next few days. Comprehensive reform is the only way forward.

Can we afford this? Yes, says the Congressional Budget Office, which on Thursday concluded that the proposed legislation would reduce the deficit by $138 billion in its first decade and half of 1 percent of G.D.P., amounting to around $1.2 trillion, in its second decade.

But shouldn’t we be focused on controlling costs rather than extending coverage? Actually, the proposed reform does more to control health care costs than any previous legislation, paying for expanded coverage by reducing the rate at which Medicare costs will grow, substantially improving Medicare’s long-run financing along the way. And this combination of broader coverage and cost control is no accident: It has long been clear to health-policy experts that these concerns go hand in hand. The United States is the only advanced nation without universal health care, and it also has by far the world’s highest health care costs.

Can you imagine a better reform? Sure. If Harry Truman had managed to add health care to Social Security back in 1947, we’d have a better, cheaper system than the one whose fate now hangs in the balance. But an ideal plan isn’t on the table. And what is on the table, ready to go, is legislation that is fiscally responsible, takes major steps toward dealing with rising health care costs, and would make us a better, fairer, more decent nation.

All it will take to make this happen is for a handful of on-the-fence House members to do the right thing. Here’s hoping.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Congressional rules -- the variables here are majority and the minority, not Democrats and Republicans

As tensions rise over the prospect of passage of the most significant health care reform legislation since the passage of Medicare in 1965 and powerful interests pull out the stops to block that legislation at any cost, legislators on both sides of the divide are reaching deep into their bags of procedural tactics. When the majority Democrats use procedural maneuvers (reconciliation, self-executing rule, etc.) to bypass the procedural maneuvers (filibuster) of the obstructionist minority Republicans the GOP cries foul. (Timothy Noah gives a little background on the filibuster above.)

Yet what the Democrats are doing is no different than what the Republicans did when they held power. Norman Ornstein says he “can’t recall a level of feigned indignation” by members of Congress when they themselves used the self-executing rule more than 35 times in the last Congress controlled by the Republicans (’05-’06). Republicans can cry that “Deem and Pass” is unconstitutional but just a few years ago when roles were reversed and the Republican majority used Deem and Pass, the Democrats took them to court. The Federal Court ruled in the Republicans favor: Deem and Pass was constitutional.

But the problem isn’t really hypocrisy; it is the escalation of complex rules to pass simple legislation by our national legislative bodies. The process becomes so complex that the average citizen is left totally confused. When the minority uses “holds” and filibusters to block or impede the will of the majority then the majority becomes creative in ways to do the jobs they were elected to do. As Ezra Klein points out in his blog:
The minority makes the filibuster a constant presence. So the majority makes reconciliation a frequent friend. The Senate bogs down and so the House stops being able to trust that the Senate will be able to pass legislation, so they begin innovating methods of defensive legislating like self-executing rules and Deem and Pass. The whole thing is nuts, and it's done by both parties. The variables here are majority and the minority, not Democrats and Republicans.
Here is Ezra Klein in Newsweek discussing the procedural issues in a little more detail:
Ask a kid who just took civics how a bill becomes a law and she'll explain that Congress takes a vote and if a majority supports the bill, the bill goes to the president. That's what we teach in textbooks. In reality, the Senate is a contest to find who's better at manipulating the rules for purposes that they were never meant to serve. For the minority, everything depends on its skill with Rule XXII. For the majority, it's all about its understanding of the budget reconciliation process. For the country, it's a mess.

Rule XXII is more colloquially known as the filibuster. In theory, the filibuster is there to protect the minority's ability to speak its mind. This was particularly important in the days before airplanes and television cameras. The majority could rush something to a vote while crucial members of the opposition were stuck back home in their states. The filibuster gave the minority time to slow the process and rally the troops.

As time went on, the filibuster became more common as a tool of pure obstruction. Originally, a single senator could bring business to a halt indefinitely. In 1917 Woodrow Wilson persuaded the Senate to limit it: now, two thirds of the Senate could vote to invoke "cloture," which would close debate. In 1975 the Congress lowered the threshold once again, to three fifths of Congress, or 60 votes.

In theory, the filibuster should have become less common as it became easier to break. Unfortunately for the theory, between 2007 and 2010 the Senate had to call 214 cloture votes to break filibusters. That's more than had to be called between 1919 and 1976. And remember, 2010 is only three months old.

That's true, in part, because the minority party has started forcing more cloture votes even when it knows it'll lose. The goal is to slow the Senate to a crawl. After you call for cloture, you need to wait two days to take the vote. After you take the vote, there's 30 hours of post-cloture debate. And you can do this on the motion to debate, on amendments, on the vote on the bill itself … on everything, really. A single, committed crank (cough, Jim Bunning) can waste weeks forcing the majority to break his filibusters.

But the filibuster can, in certain circumstances, be defused altogether. The budget reconciliation process was created in the Budget Act of 1974. Back then, Congress passed a budget at the beginning of the year and then an updated version at the end of the year. Budget reconciliation was a way to, well, reconcile them faster than would be possible under the ordinary rules. It limited debate to 20 hours, and since the filibuster is nothing but an endless lengthening of debate (or a threat to do that), it short-circuited the filibuster.

Congress doesn't pass two budgets anymore, and reconciliation, like the filibuster, has expanded beyond its original purpose: it's been used to pass the Bush tax cuts and Reagan's tax increases, welfare reform, the Balanced Budget Acts of 1995 and 1997, the Children's Health Insurance Program and COBRA, and much more. Of the 21 reconciliation bills that have passed since 1981, 16 have been signed by Republican presidents. So the GOP's feigned astonishment that the maneuver might be used to pass a few fixes to health-care-reform legislation rings hollow.

But reconciliation has its problems. It's limited to provisions with a direct impact on the federal budget, and a rule passed by the Democrats further limits it to laws that reduce the deficit (a response to Bush's using reconciliation for budget-busting tax cuts). That means that to activate reconciliation's 51-vote magic, legislators have to write specific bills that abide by the rules of reconciliation. That's fine for a tax change, but it wouldn't work for, say, regulating private insurers. Disagreements are settled by the Senate parliamentarian (the vice president can overrule, though that doesn't happen in practice).

This is the consequence of running the Senate by twisting the rules rather than following their spirit. It's not just that you have the 60-vote filibuster process competing against the 51-vote reconciliation process. It's that you have the Senate wasting days and weeks in cloture votes for doomed filibusters and rewriting legislation to conform to the odd limits of the reconciliation process. And as the minority becomes less responsible with the filibuster (and hoo boy, have minority Republicans become less responsible with the filibuster), the majority needs to use reconciliation more often.

Even a kid in civics class would recognize that this is all nuts. The Senate should eliminate the filibuster and budget reconciliation, and require either a 51- or 60-vote majority. Exploiting loopholes is no way to run a country.
We can argue the “goose and the gander rule” that if it is O.K. for the Republican majority to use certain procedures then it should be perfectly O.K. for the new Democratic majority to do so also. That’s fine as far as that argument goes but there is a deeper problem that should be resolved and that is the complexity of rules used to overcome undemocratic procedures such as the filibuster. The United States Constitution calls for super-majorities for the passage of constitutional amendments and the overturn of Presidential vetoes. There is no such requirement for a super-majority to pass simple legislation by the Senate. It’s time to wipe the slate clean.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Individual liberty and prom politics clash in Mississippi

A young woman wants to bring her girlfriend to the prom. The school responds by canceling the prom "due to the distractions to the educational process caused by recent events". Welcome to Itawamba County, Mississippi.

All Constance McMillen wants to do is to be herself and bring the date of her choice to her senior prom. The small-minded and mean-spirited officials of the Itawamba County School District seem to think differently.

This from the Associated Press:
A lesbian student who wanted to take her girlfriend to her senior prom is asking a federal judge to force her Mississippi school district to reinstate the dance it canceled.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi on Thursday filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Oxford on behalf of 18-year-old Constance McMillen, who said she faced some unhappy classmates after the Itawamba County School District said it wouldn't host the April 2 prom.

"Somebody said, 'Thanks for ruining my senior year,'" McMillen said of her reluctant return Thursday to Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton.

The lawsuit seeks a court order for the school to hold the prom. It also asks that McMillen be allowed to escort her girlfriend, who is a fellow student, and wear a tuxedo, which the school said also violated policy.

The district's decision Wednesday came after the ACLU demanded that officials change a policy banning same-sex prom dates because it said it violated students' rights. The ACLU said the district violated McMillen's free expression rights by not letting her wear a tux.

McMillen said she never expected the district to respond the way it did.
"A lot of people said that was going to happen, but I said, they had already spent too much money on the prom" to cancel it, she said.

McMillen said she didn't want to go back to the high school in Fulton the morning after the decision, but her father told her she needed to face her classmates.

"My daddy told me that I needed to show them that I'm still proud of who I am," McMillen told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "The fact that this will help people later on, that's what's helping me to go on."

The school board statement said it wouldn't host the event "due to the distractions to the educational process caused by recent events" but didn't mention McMillen. District officials didn't return calls seeking comment Thursday.


McMillen says she hopes her fight will make it easier for gay students at other schools facing discrimination.

"I want other kids to know that's it not right for schools to do that," she said on CBS's "The Early Show."

In 2002, a gay student sued his school district in Toronto to allow him to attend a prom with his boyfriend. A judge later forced the district to allow the couple to attend and stopped the district from canceling the prom.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., said a bill he's introduced in Congress would make it illegal to discriminate against gay and lesbian school students. He said at least 10 states have such laws, and his bill is modeled after those.

"This situation with the prom is a perfect example of why we need to protect students from discrimination. In this case it's a prom. It other cases, it's getting beaten up or killed," Polis said.

The school district had said it hoped a privately sponsored prom could be held.
Southside Baptist Church Pastor Bobby Crenshaw said he's seen the South portrayed as "backwards" on Web sites discussing the issue, "but a lot more people here have biblically based values."

Itawamba County is a rural area of about 23,000 people in north Mississippi near the Alabama state line. It's near Pontotoc County, Miss., where more than a decade ago school officials were sued in federal court over their practice of student-led intercom prayer and Bible classes.
A Facebook group, Let Constance Take Her Girlfriend to Prom!, has been started and already has 74,000 fans.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

The nation’s educational system is on the wrong track

Many people would agree that the American public education system is lacking in meeting the needs of this nation and its citizens in the 21st Century. Our current agrarian era educational structure divides funding and accountability in a confusing manner between local, state and national governments and enrollment depends on where a student lives rather than what school best meets the child’s particular needs. It is a structural organization that worked just fine in 1910 but makes little sense in 2010. Streamlining all the bits and pieces of our schools scattered across the country into a single national system would, for example, seem a logical first step.

Yet rather than address fundamental issues such as organizational structure the whole effort at reform became sidetracked by the cult of testing and free-market ideologues who believed schools should compete with one another like supermarkets. The result was the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Four years after praising President Bush and Congress for passage of No Child Left Behind former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch is now argues those very policies have put this nation’s educational system on the wrong track and is harmful to public education.

This from the New York Times:
Diane Ravitch, the education historian who built her intellectual reputation battling progressive educators and served in the first Bush administration’s Education Department, is in the final stages of an astonishing, slow-motion about-face on almost every stand she once took on American schooling.

Once outspoken about the power of standardized testing, charter schools and free markets to improve schools, Dr. Ravitch is now caustically critical. She underwent an intellectual crisis, she says, discovering that these strategies, which she now calls faddish trends, were undermining public education. She resigned last year from the boards of two conservative research groups.


In January 2001, Dr. Ravitch was at the White House to hear President George W. Bush outline his vision for No Child Left Behind, which Congress approved with bipartisan majorities and which became law in 2002.

“It sounded terrific,” she recalled in the interview.

There were signs soon after, however, that her views were changing. She had endorsed mayoral control of New York City schools before Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg obtained it in 2002, but by 2004 she had emerged as a fierce critic. Some said she was nursing a grudge because close friends had lost jobs in the mayor’s shake-up of the schools’ bureaucracy.

In 2005, she said, a study she undertook of Pakistan’s weak and inequitable education system, dominated by private and religious institutions, convinced her that protecting the United States’ public schools was important to democracy.

She remembers another date, Nov. 30, 2006, when at a Washington conference she heard a dozen experts conclude that the No Child law was not raising student achievement.
These and other experiences left her increasingly disaffected from the choice and accountability movements. Charter schools, she concluded, were proving to be no better on average than regular schools, but in many cities were bleeding resources from the public system. Testing had become not just a way to measure student learning, but an end in itself.

“Accountability, as written into federal law, was not raising standards but dumbing down the schools,” she writes. “The effort to upend American public education and replace it with something that was market-based began to feel too radical for me.”


…. She told school superintendents at a convention in Phoenix last month that the United States’ educational policies were ill-conceived, compared with those in nations with the best-performing schools.

“Nations like Finland and Japan seek out the best college graduates for teaching positions, prepare them well, pay them well and treat them with respect,” she said. “They make sure that all their students study the arts, history, literature, geography, civics, foreign languages, the sciences and other subjects. They do this because this is the way to ensure good education. We’re on the wrong track.”
You can read the entire New York Times’ piece here. You can also read an except from her book and hear her interview on NPR here.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Iranian opposition media face crackdown by government

If you can control what people read then you can control what people think. At least that seems to be the logic of the ruling regime in Iran. The current government is unpopular for both its policies and that fact that it retained power in a very questionable election. Protesters have taken to the streets over and over again in scene reminiscent of the last days of the Shah.

And just like the regime of the Shah, the government is cracking down on the opposition in a number of different ways. Al Jazeera has this story on the growing censorship of the press and intimidation of media figures:
Iranian authorities have banned a reformist daily newspaper and a moderate weekly magazine run by the family of Mehdi Karroubi, an opposition leader, Iran's news agency says.

Etemad, the daily, was singled out for publishing remarks by Mohammad Khatami, the former Iranian president turned opposition supporter, who said the country was facing a "crisis" since last year's disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president.

"The press watchdog banned Etemad and referred the case to the judiciary for repeated and persistent violations," Isna news agency said on Monday without giving the newspaper's alleged offences.

Mohammad Ali Ramin, Iran's deputy culture minister for media affairs and a press watchdog official, said: "After repeated warnings and the persistence of the paper in breaching the regulations, the watchdog had no choice but to ban it.

"The decision was taken with a degree of leniency ... Its licence was not revoked and its case was referred to the judiciary."

The watchdog also revoked the licence of the weekly Irandokht (Daughter of Iran) over "not meeting the conditions in the press law on practical commitment to the constitution", Isna said.

Karroubi's wife and son, Hossein, first launched Irandokht as a women's lifestyle magazine, but a new editorial team switched its coverage to political and cultural affairs two months ago.

Security forces raided Irandokht's offices in December when Mohammad Ghoochani, the new editor took over, and authorities have since jailed one of its journalists, Emadeddin Baghi, a human-rights campaigner.

Hossein Karroubi said revoking the magazine's licence was "Ahmadinejad government's revenge on Mr (Mehdi) Karroubi for seeking Iranian people's lost rights after the presidential poll."

"Mr Ramin, in talking to my mother over the phone, did not come up with any breach of press law (against the weekly) so he told her that Mr Karroubi has taken a very harsh position after the presidential elections against the Islamic republic," Hossein Karroubi was quoted as saying on the opposition website

The elder Karroubi has repeatedly accused authorities of abusing protesters detained during post-election protests, including the rape of several male and female detainees.

Iranian officials have rejected the rape allegations.

Most leading reformist daily newspapers have been banned under Ahmadinejad.

Dozens of journalists working for the publications have also been jailed since street protests broke out against the June election which the opposition say was massively rigged in Ahmadinejad's favour.

Ghanbar Naderi, a journalist for the Iran Daily, an official government newspaper, told Al Jazeera that journalists have to censor much of what they write, irrespective of their political background.

"The press law in this country is very tough and unforgiving, it doesn't make any difference if you are a reformist or a conservative media outlet," he said.

"In these sensitive times, with the country under constant political pressure, as a journalist your first mistake will be your last.

"Even I - working for the government, an official organistation - have to censor so many things because I don't want to attract any attention to my professional life. There is no job security as a media person."

In another move indicating a continuing crackdown on dissenters, Jafar Panahi, an award-winning Iranian filmmaker and a vocal supporter of the opposition movement, has reportedly been arrested along with his family and guests during a raid on his Tehran home.

Panah Panahi, Jafar Panahi's son, told the Rahesabz website on Tuesday that the filmmaker, his wife and daughter, as well as 15 guests, were arrested and taken to an unknown location.

He said the authorities had searched the house and confiscated personal belongings and computers.

Panahi was briefly detained in the summer with his family after attending a memorial at Tehran cemetery for Neda Agha Soltan, a protester who was killed during the post-election violence.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Mitch Daniels for President? Consider his leadership at OMB

It is over two years before the next Presidential election and there is no shortage of candidates being touted as to whom the Republicans should put forward to challenge incumbent President Obama. The current speculation is on Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels that one writer even goes so far as to ask, “Is this guy too good to be true?”

Whether or not you agree with the sentiment of that question depends on whether or not you are willing to consider Mr. Daniels’ tenure as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget and his incredibly inaccurate budgetary projections on the cost of the war in Iraq as well as the bureaucratic barriers the OMB placed in the way of those on the ground in Iraq when it was critical to move quickly to stabilize the nation following the invasion. The Bush administration downplayed the costs of the war – both in manpower and dollars – in order to sell the conflict to the American people as one to be quick with minimal cost and sacrifice. The failure to have the resources in place in a timely manner when there was a window of opportunity to stabilize the nation after the fall of the regime is one of the main reasons American taxpayers are still footing the bill for American troops stationed in Iraq eight years later. The costs of going to war that Mr. Daniels chose to overlook and downplay has become a contributing factor to our current national deficit.

George Packer reminds us of Mr. Daniels’ major contribution to this disaster:
Ross Douthat talks up the Presidential prospects of Mitch Daniels, governor of Indiana, in today’s Times. Daniels, in Douthat’s telling, has all the things that the Republican Party needs but is running away from: pragmatism, fiscal discipline, a head for social policy, common sense—just the man Douthat and Reihan Salam’s book “Grand New Party” called for. Other columnists have been touting Daniels as well. The fact that he’s five foot seven and automatically calls to mind the term “green eyeshade” could actually work in his favor. It’s possible to imagine a Republican challenge to Obama in 2012 organized around just this unlikely candidacy: What America needs isn’t a Nobel-prizewinning icon, it needs a plainspoken governor who knows how to balance a budget. It needs Calvin Coolidge, not Woodrow Wilson (that would make Glenn Beck happy).

Compared to the lineup of ideologues and demagogues who currently head the list of Republican hopefuls, Daniels sounds forthright and appealing. But as I was reading Douthat’s column, a small voice in the back of my head kept cautioning me: “Iraq. Mitch Daniels. Iraq.” So I went back and refreshed my memory. Daniels was Bush’s head of the Office of Management and Budget from 2001-2003 (what happened to the surplus inherited from Bill Clinton during those years is a separate story). He was responsible for forecasting the budget in the event of a war with Iraq. His number came in at fifty to sixty billion dollars. Compared to what some experts were forecasting, it was an astonishingly low figure. But even Daniels’s projection was too much for the Bush White House, which was intent on keeping unpleasant scenarios about the war out of the public eye, and Daniels’s own spokesman, Trent Duffy, was sent out to talk the number down. Lawrence Lindsey, Bush’s top economic adviser, had said the war could cost as much as two hundred billion, and Daniels had dismissed the figure as “very, very high.” As for the cost of rebuilding Iraq, by April of 2003—with the war already under way—O.M.B. had asked Congress for the paltry sum of 2.5 billion. By the end of last year, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had cost over a trillion dollars.

A lot of people underestimated the consequences of that war. What worries me is that Daniels’s projection was the budgetary equivalent of the Rumsfeld Pentagon’s failure to commit enough troops for the occupation. “Very, very high” reminds me of what Paul Wolfowitz said in response to General Eric Shinseki’s estimate that stabilizing Iraq would take several hundred thousand troops: he dismissed it as “wildly off the mark.” Wolfowitz and Daniels weren’t just mistaken. They were guaranteeing that the Administration wouldn’t be ready if things went wrong. They were contributing directly to the disaster that followed the fall of Saddam. And they were acting out of ideological conviction or bureaucratic loyalty rather than cold analytical judgment. In short, when the stakes were as high as possible, Daniels showed very little independence or common sense, the qualities that Douthat credits him with.

And Daniels persisted in his refusal to face reality even after the war began. In the spring and summer of 2003, with Baghdad looted and Iraq’s infrastructure disintegrating and Iraqis losing patience and the insurgency just beginning, around the Republican Palace, where the Americans of the Coalition Provisional Authority were trying to bring some order to Iraq, the name Mitch Daniels was often mentioned, without much love. C.P.A. officials faulted the O.M.B. man back in Washington for nickel-and-diming their every request for money. The Americans started out with just twenty-five thousand dollars to resurrect Iraq’s collapsed ministries, and even this meager sum came not as cash but in the form of grants that required several weeks for approval. American officials were desperate for money before the window of opportunity closed. One of them told me, “In post-conflict reconstruction, you need to have the ability to deliver the resources right away. People in a desperate situation need help. Boy, that’s a blindingly obvious insight. The next thing is that if you’re not giving them help, they’re going to go somewhere else.”

Many Iraqis went somewhere else. But Mitch Daniels had a budget forecast to meet. So he played an obscure but important part in the disaster of those early months in Iraq. The Republican Party won’t rebuild itself on a solid foundation in the future, as Ross Douthat wants to do, if it doesn’t take stock of its recent past.
You can read Packer's piece here.