Friday, March 28, 2014

The Budget on the Agenda at the Colorado State Capitol

The murals inside of the Colorado State Capitol which pay tribute to the workers who have built the state
The murals inside of the Colorado State Capitol which pay tribute to the workers who have built the state

Over the course of this week, I have been shadowing a lobbyist who lobbies the Colorado State Legislature for a number of clients. For a time, I have been interested in political science, and this venture was somewhat of a culmination of that interest. It was an invaluable experience: I gained a much better understanding of state level politics, connected with my representatives, and saw some very specific instances of needless inefficiencies that could make government much more effective.

I was in the midst of a number of important discussions. This week, the state was considering bills ranging from telecommunications reform, election reform, and most importantly the appropriations "long" bill. The first bill which I saw passed on third reading was making it harder for parents to opt out vaccinations for their children. There were passionate voices on both sides of the aisle, some stating that it is unacceptable to allow these diseases to come back, and others stating that the government should not interfere with the choice of an informed parent. In the end, 22 members out of the 65 member body voted against it, signifying a passage. This was only one of two bills that I witnessed that were not passed with a unanimous or near unanimous vote. There is a large misconception that everything is extremely deadlocked, but the only bills that really get publicized are the ones that are contentious. In fact, around 90% of votes made are not close to being contentious.

Another interesting discussion introduced me to an issue I was previously unaware of. Telecommunication rules have not kept up with technology in Colorado, as they have not been updated for 19 years, while technology with cellphones and broadband connections has changed tremendously since then. These bills would try to update rural communities to broadband, change subsidies based on settlement sizes to match new sizes, and put the state on track to move away from the use of basic copper landlines. This bill had many proponents, but the opponents were numerous and vocal. The senior lobby was greatly concerned about the cost for landlines increasing by up to 250% and losing reliable 911 services in case of emergency. They claimed not to be opposed to technology, but stated that cellphone technology was just not "there" yet to be able to replace the always reliable copper landline.

The old Supreme Court room, which is where the committee hearing on the telecommunication bills was held.
The old Supreme Court room, which is where the committee hearing on the telecommunication bills was held.

The so called Long Bill is the yearly appropriations bill, or to put it simply, the budget. The Joint Budget Committee is comprised of three Representatives and three Senators, and begins meeting in October to draft the bill that will then be proposed to the Assembly as a whole in March. It really earns its name as the long bill, being over 800 pages long: even the narrative of it is still 400 pages. It covers all topics that the state is involved with fiscally. Often, the most contentious part of the process is the amending. This year, there were nearly 50 amendments, and on average, the House stays in session until 12:00 midnight or 1:00 debating the amendments and deciding whether to approve or reject the amendments. For the period of time that I was observing, the House only passed 4 amendments to the budget within two hours.

The first thing that I was surprised by was how open the Capitol was. Any person could be in a position to lobby their representative or senator on a bill which affected an issue that was important to them. Anybody is also free to come to committee meetings to testify in support or opposition to a bill. I was really surprised by the immense amount of opportunities that a citizen and a constituent had to make an impact on lawmakers. I think most of this surprise came from the fact that few people take advantage of this, very likely because few people know about this opportunity. The most important thing is to get people engaged via voting, but if more people would interact with their state representatives on a more personal level, then I think that the state legislature could be a lot more effective in crafting legislation much more in line with the citizens interests.

Another thing which I really felt I took to heart by the end of the week was that a little civil disobedience is important, and often necessary. The House spent close to 30 minutes debating an amendment to the budget that would allocate $1 million from the trust fund for natural disasters (which is in total around $75 million) for the purposes of dealing with excessive tumbleweeds in Southeastern Colorado. Despite this being a seemingly simple topic, it quickly blew up due to an argument over semantics. A main argument against the allocation is that tumbleweeds, specifically those made from russian and Canadian thistle which plague rural Colorado, are not in some group out of Class A, B, or C noxious weeds, which technically means that those tumbleweeds are not eligible for cleanup funding. Some stated that this funding would "break the law," which is correct in the very literal sense, but in all reality is practically meaningless.

A view of the House debating the budget amendment that would allocate funds to tumbleweed cleanup
A view of the House debating the budget amendment that would allocate funds to tumbleweed cleanup

These rural communities could absolutely use any kind of help with the severe drought that they have been experiencing the past few years, and to evoke an argument over semantics on an amendment which is important to these communities greatly frustrated me. The state of Colorado has not yet been reprimanded for a significant breach of federal law with the legalization of recreational marijuana, so why is going outside a classification of noxious weeds an unacceptable instance of breaking a law? A similar issue was brought up recently in the state as well: a young girl who shaved her head in support of her friend who had cancer was not allowed to come back to school due to an outdated rule that attached shaved heads to gang symbols. I think that doing whatever is in the interest of the public good is always the best course of action, which likely means getting rid of outdated laws, rules, and regulations that are impeding meaningful progress.

Many Americans make a call for smaller government. I believe that the real call should be for simpler government. A government should not impede on our rights or our ability to act as individuals, but in modern times, a government must be able to provide services that help people without the cloud of complicated codes and loopholes.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Convenient Truth: 2004

On August 22, 2001, Americans woke up expecting another normal day. What they recieved was anything but.

At 9:15 AM eastern time, a commercial airliner crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers that towered over the New York City skyline. People across the city and the nation were shocked, and so many questions were asked without answers to correspond. There were questions if it was merely a tragic accident, or if it was a deliberate attack on the US. The NYPD and fire departments acted quickly to get the people working inside the WTC tower out based on fears that the building was becoming structurally unstable very quickly. President Gore, at 9:30 AM eastern time, addressed the nation by giving his condolences to the families of the hundreds of people who were confirmed dead and "continued viligance" towards any possible threats if what happened was in fact deliberate.

President Gore was about to wrap up his finishing statements before Secret Service rushed him to his motorcade and took him to an undisclosed location. A plane was spotted to be dropping extremely fast from a high altitude right over DC, and it was unlikely that it would land safely. The reporters began to panic as the police stated that they needed to take "nessecary precautions" and immidately evacuate the area. Word spread fast about the impending disaster and chaos ensued in DC as all kinds of people attempted to leave. Unfortunately, they did not know fast enough, and when the plane crashed into the Pentagon, destroying over half of the building, and slid into the Potomac, there was mass panic. Two minutes later in New York, a third plane was used to crash into the second WTC tower, but President Gore asked Mayor Giulani to have the NYPD to evacuate the second tower minutes before, which meant that no workers from the second tower died. This put Americans beyond a doubt that there was a planned attack on the US that day.

President Gore made yet another address later that day, this time beyond reasonable doubt that there was a planned attack. He made a statement that called all Americans to bond together to help eachother overcome this tragedy and continue to build an even grater nation. He also hinted that there will be "clear and decisive consequences" for whoever was responsible for the 8/22 attacks. President Gore's approval rating shot above 80%, and he was commended by even the most conservative of Republicans for his decisive action in saving the thousands of people who could have been killed in the second tower. It was quickly discovered from the black box of the downed flight in the Potomac that destroyed the Pentagon that some passengers tried to act against the hijackers and make the plane crash further south in Virginia as opposed to the original destination of the White House. This tragedy ensured that the Gore administration and America as a whole would never be the same.

Investigations into the perpetrators of the 8/22 attacks were viligant and widespread. They quickly detirmined that the act of terrorism was not from an internal source, as all of the suspected hijackers were not residents of the US, but residents of various Middle Eastern countries. After deeper investigations into potential places that had unstable regimes, ranging from Somalia to Myanmar, it was discovered that the hijackers were tied to the terrorist group Al-Qaeda, headed by Osama bin Laden, based in Afghanistan. The longstanding Taliban government, which enforced sharia law, harbored the group Al-Qaeda. President Gore stated that some sort of action would be nessecary against the Afghan government if they refused to root out Al-Qaeda and hand over bin Laden to the US. Many Americans supported much more forceful moves against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, but President Gore appeared to favor a more diplomatic approach at first. NATO stood behind President Gore's effort to put pressure on the Afghans to root out the terrorist organizations on their soil. Secretary of State Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Colin Powell were major parts in this effort. The current government in Afghanistan was interested in making possible trades to ensure for the dissolution of Al-Qaeda, which included trade deals and arms trades. Biden and Gore were both clearly not interested in providing more extremists with weapons, and when they backed off from making deals, the US and NATO decided to take more decisive action.

Throughout the spring of 2002, the US supported rebels against the Taliban regime through arms and as well as humanitarian aid as well as taking covert action against Al-Qaeda operatives, specifically Osama bin Laden. Gore's plan was largely well recieved by Americans, while some Middle Eastern countries, such as Iran and Iraq, expressed extreme disapproval at what they perceived as mere meddling in their affairs. At this time, the covert operations were intended to be as secret as possible. One by one, Al-Qaeda outposts and officials were eliminated, but the mastermind remained elusive. Two nights before the midterm elections, official government sources announced that bin Laden was dead thanks to a strike in northern Afghanistan. Thanks to the massive spike in popularity for President Gore, the Democrats made major gains in both houses of Congress in the 2002 elections.

With a reinvigorated Congress and the threat of Al-Qaeda minimized, President Gore tried to make strides in domestic policy that were abruptly cut off by 8/22. Unfortunately, there was a budget deficit of about $50 million for the year of 2002 because of the conflict in Afghanistan, but the president stated that it was a nessecary roadblock that would not stop trying to reach President Clinton's goal of a debt free America by 2010. He continued investment in renewable energies, which was a big boost to the American economy, but detrimental to many Middle Eastern countries who heavily depended on oil exports. Some political scientists claim that this was the spark that would set off the Iraqi Civil War years later, while others maintain that Sadamm Hussein's leadership would have caused it regardless. Overall, President Gore's first term had its ups and downs, but overall went over well with the American people.

Because of this, the GOP knew that they faced an uphill battle looking to 2004. Senator John McCain, runner up in the 2000 primary season, positioned himself as a proponent of how Gore handled 8/22 and Afghanistan, but as a major opponent of Gore's domestic policy. This time, McCain appeared to represent the establishment wing of the party, with the more conservative elements as insurgents. The man who was the main representative of the more conservative elements of the GOP was Senator Sam Brownback of Nebraska. He was willing to criticize the president's foreign policy by claiming true stability in the Middle East can only come when Saddam Hussein is no longer in power. In the Iowa caucus, Brownback made a somewhat surprising victory, but McCain won out in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and the next few contests before Brownback came back a few times, mostly in the Deep South and Plains regions. By Super Tuesday. Brownback's chances looked slim and he decided to drop out after a fairly poor performance during Super Tuesday. In a show of party unity, McCain chose Brownback as his running mate. Both of their acceptance speeches placed an emphasis on a return to common sense and limited government.

Gore and Shaheen were both polling fairly well against McCain/Brownback facing the upcoming election. How the administration handled the events surrounding 8/22 was widely popular, but the opposition was able to make some well placed jabs at his domestic policy. They made a point of him increasing spending, not being willing to cut taxes, and increasing regulation in the economy that restricted American enterprise and economic growth. McCain showed himself to be about matched even in debated with Gore, and many analysts were surprised by how matched and respectful the debates were. The single vice presidential debate was quite a bit more interesting, as both Shaheen and Brownback were much more ideologically charged and were less afraid to throw some harsher attacks towards the other. Both were well respected candidates, but in the end, an attack on his domestic policy when the economy was going strong could not get a victory for McCain on election night. Gore improved significantly from his margin in 2000, while barely increasing on his electoral margin. He flipped the states of Nevada, Missouri, and Ohio while McCain flipped the state of Florida. Surprisingly, the closest state in this election ended up being Colorado, which McCain won by just under a percent, and Florida, which was won by around 1.5 percent. Virginia also trended significantly Democratic, while the rest of the south trended Republican, signifying a solidification of the pattern that had been occurring since Nixon implemented his Southern Strategy in 1968 and 1972.

President Gore promised to continue his current policies into his second term, and entered with a fairly high approval rating. However, he would face a number of domestic challenges, as well as have to grapple with some major issues that appear just on the horizon.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

A Convenient Truth: 2000

This is the first of a short series I will be doing, surrounding a point of departure in the form of a Gore selecting Governor Shaheen as his running mate and therefore a Gore victory in 2000.

The election between Democratic nominee Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George Bush ended up being an extremely close nail biter. Incumbent President Clinton was fairly popular because of how well he handled the economy, giving the federal government a rare surplus of funds and putting them on a supposed path to get rid of the federal debt over the course of the first decade of the new millennium, even though he had to deal with a media frenzied over the Lewinsky scandal that brought Clinton to have the unfortunate honor of being the second president to be impeached. This was a net boost for the Democrats, as Gore was a fairly influential part of the Clinton administration. He was influential and popular enough with party members that he easily defeated a challenge from the left in the form of former Senator Bill Bradley. Gore chose New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen as his running mate. Many political scientists consider this to be a positive decision since it excited the liberal base of the party by choosing the second woman on the VP spot for a major party and it was a regional balance between the South and Northeast.

The Republican contest was not so easy. Two of the biggest frontrunners for the entire primary season were eventual nominee Governor George Bush and Senator John McCain of Georgia. Bush was well respected and had a network of donors because of respect for the Bush family. However, McCain was able to make many well placed and timed jabs into the Bush campaign. Bush won out in Iowa, but McCain won in New Hampshire and Delaware before Bush came back in South Carolina. McCain, who tried to position himself as the insurgent candidate that would revitalize the party, accused the Bush campaign of using too many underhanded moves campaigning against him. By Super Tuesday, they looked fairly evenly matched, but as the primary season began to conclude it was clear that McCain would stay an insurgent and not be able to clinch the nomination. He dropped out of the race on April 15, 2000. He chose Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney of Texas (Wyoming for the purposes of election intricacies) as his running mate.

The general election was further complicated by a popular Green Party presence in the form of Ralph Nader. He was polling around 2% or 3%, which was very high for a general third party candidate. Bush used some of his charm and "compassionate conservatism" in order to sway voters much like President Clinton did, but Gore's prowess in debating was clear over that of Bush. President Clinton was a critical piece in the puzzle for the Gore/Shaheen campaign, as he pushed that Gore would continue to put America on the path to eliminate the debt and that Bush would only put America back into a deficit spending pattern and greater debt with his tax cut plan. Polls consistently showed that the race would be close, and many Democrats were hoping that the increasingly popular Nader would not be a spoiler. Ohio was the first major swing state to fall, which was called at 9:30 PM for Bush and a concern for Gore as no Republican had won the White House without Ohio. However, Gore did not have to worry for long, as New Hampshire was called for him at 10:07 PM, making him President-Elect. Florida was still too close to call, and it would remain so until late the next morning, when after multiple recounts it was tentatively called for Gore, putting him just below the 300 EV mark.

President Gore's biggest early goals in his administration was to make sure that the budget surplus continued into the 2001 budget, a number of measures promoting alternative energy sources and research, and education reform. A few measures promoting investment in solar energy, nuclear energy, as well as a compromise measure in domestic offshore oil production were major legislative accomplishments early on, and President Gore was working with influential congressmen, like Senator Ted Kennedy, to make progress on education reform. Even though President Gore set the focus on domestic policy, the events that were about to occur would force him to take major action on another front.