Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Congressional Responsibilities and Dereliction of Duties

Some vows are made to be broken. We don’t really mean them when we say them-- although most of us would never admit we don’t. For example:

·      I swear I’ll never eat that much turkey again--ever!
·      I will never forget my phone again. I know you need to contact me when I run late.
·      I take you to be my lawfully wedded spouse. Before these witnesses, I vow to love you and care for you as long as we both shall live. I take you with all your faults and your strengths as I offer myself to you with my faults and strengths. I will help you when you need help, and I will turn to you when I need help. I choose you as the person with whom I will spend my life.
·      If You get me out of this one, I promise never to get myself into such a mess again.

Good intentions, but human nature has a voracious maw for rationalization. We know that a Thanksgiving turkey, center-stage on the table set with both leaves, will swallow all our protestations from the previous year. And those promises two people make while standing center-stage among flora, fauna, and overdressed friends--well, however well-meaning those people are in the moment, at least 30% of their words will come to nothing more than divorce decrees.

One vow very much in the news today is the one that State and federal elected candidates and incumbents have made to one Grover Norquist and the Americans for Tax Reform organization. Conceived by a twelve-year-old boy and now a core support column for the GOP ideology, that vow reads:

I pledge to the taxpayers of the _____ District of the State of _____ and to the American people that I will:

One, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and

Two, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.

Break Norquist’s vow, and his supporters will deliver a final judgment involving primary challengers, campaign funding, and votes. Many candidates and incumbents have been intimidated into signing in order to serve, but once elected, those public servants must swear allegiance with another oath. The Founders, of whom the GOP is so fond, declared in the Constitution that the legislative branch, The Senators and Representatives ... shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States. (US Constitution, Article VI, Section III)

In 1884, after the terrible Civil War, the Congressional oath grew to seventy-one words and now reads:

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.

We and those in Congress should therefore know what the duties of the office are. Are those duties merely complemented by Norquist’s pledge, or is that pledge an obstacle in executing the duties of office well and faithfully? Here is a very short synopsis of the Congressional powers enumerated in the Constitution.

It shall make law and enact law. It shall provide funding for essential government services, and it may borrow money if sufficient revenue cannot be raised for those services deemed essential. In short, Congress is in charge of the annual budget, and it may direct how monies are spent. (For a more thorough explanation of Congressional power, please read the information posted here.)

In my opinion, Norquist’s pledge is an end-run around specified Constitutional responsibilities for Congresswomen and men, and any woman or man who promises to uphold the Norquist pledge instead of the Constitution has broken faith with those who elected him and all those in the nation who count upon the good judgment of Congress to provide necessary government services.

Furthermore, any person holding office should weigh the evidence of the nation’s needs, then deliberate upon the best solution for the greatest number of people, without regard to constraints imposed by a small, third party. Norquist, Americans for Tax Reform, you and I have the right and a duty to offer our best judgment about how to resolve the injustices and problems that face our nation, but I do not have a right to deny your rights or discount your needs for service, and that is often the end result of upholding Norquist’s pledge. He believes and has often stated that his goal is to shrink government to a manageable size so small that he can drown it in a bathtub.

Such an ideology violates the social contract, one that has evolved since the Magna Carta to the great modern experiment known as a democratic republic, the United States. In that experiment, government serves the people who call it into existence, and it does so as the needs of the people swell according to the conditions in which they live.

Atticus taught his children to uphold higher laws when human suffering and injustice were at stake, not to settle for the status quo of segregation when human life and well-being are at risk. Members of Congress should heed his lesson.

Not to lead with regard to budget and government services is a dereliction of duty, one of the seven deadly sins in days of old, for people are in need, the infrastructure endangers our well-being, and quality of life depends upon decisions and choices about climate, wages, and health care. Not to raise revenue when revenues are needed to wage wars and return soldiers safely to their homes and full employment is to neglect the Constitutional responsibility with which Congress has been charged. Furthermore, upholding a promise to a third-party instead of the oath of office sworn before an entire nation should be an impeachable offense for those Congresswomen and men have abdicated. They must stop calling for presidential leadership and man up themselves! Higher law calls to them, one above Norquist.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Simple and Abundant


"The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak." (Hans Hofmann)

When first I became host to my family for holidays, I imitated what I had experienced as a child at a great-aunt’s home where her five siblings, their spouses, and their children gathered to celebrate with their elderly mother. Aunt Ruby made egg noodles from scratch; they took prizes in taste so she made huge batches of them for all to enjoy. She also had a talent for dressing, but she made two huge pans full, one with onions and one without. Lizzie, one of the few career women among her brothers and sisters, bought, boiled and peeled dozens of shrimp for all to enjoy. I still can’t imagine a major holiday without good shrimp and cocktail sauce, heavy with horseradish.

Gerald’s wife, Nina, was forward thinking. She believed in the magical healing powers of vegetables and vitamins; she preached against fats, sugars, and salts. Of course, other family members rolled their eyes when she offered suggestions about diet, but they welcomed her vegetables to the table.

Opal made bread, pies, and cakes. My mother brought the ambrosia, the ubiquitous green bean casserole, and rich, gooey desserts. Ham and turkey appeared, sliced thickly, and the feast began.

In summer, for the Fourth of July, a holiday near Great-Grandmother’s birthday, we cranked and cranked until several gallons of homemade vanilla ice cream were thick and cold enough to give us headaches. While it cured, we ate tomatoes ripe and warm from the garden on sandwiches or grilled burgers. Later, anyone who did not want ice cream and cake could enjoy thick, sweet watermelon.

With more than thirty people at the tables, we needed and enjoyed great variety. This even extended to the fruits of hunting and fishing. One uncle brought squirrel, another rabbit. A third netted crappie from his farm pond to fry fish in deep iron skillets on hot fires outside. If the meal was close to milking time, he also brought tangy milk, still warm from the cow’s udder. The oldest cousins gigged frogs and brought them to the cooks to fry. Wild onions and soft, scrambled eggs were stirred and cooked for anyone who wished to avoid wild meat.

So it was with these memories that I began to play hostess. I bought, boiled and peeled shrimp. Several days before the event, I baked two or three kinds of cookies, several different candies, and two or three pies. I made sweet potatoes with melted marshmallow and just in case a guest preferred mashed potatoes and gravy, I made some of those, too. Every holiday table from Thanksgiving through Easter featured at least two vegetable dishes, one featuring asparagus and butter, the other involving Brussels sprouts or green beans. My mother-in-law also made a wickedly good jello salad for all to enjoy. It set beside a fruit or fresh green salad on the buffet line, just behind bread dressing, made the family way. A large boat full of gravy placed nearby added the right flavors to the dressing. Cranberry relish or jelly could be found near the end of the line. In those early years, I used fresh cranberries for the relish, and I never thought of using anything but fresh pumpkin or sweet potatoes for one pie. Another pie was fresh peach, the peaches having been picked and preserved by me. Jalapeno jam was also on hand to spice up the meats: ham, turkey or both.

As you might imagine, I began the actual feast day exhausted because I had worked long days before the event to hand-wash crystal, china, and silver; clean every corner and nook of the house; decorate; bake and stir--all after putting in a full day as a school teacher. Still, I pasted a smile on my face to greet guests, then counted the hours until I could finally relax. I made small talk over appetizers, excused myself to stir a dish or change the oven temperature for the next entrée item. Then, while diners watched football or chatted, I prepared generous platters for guests to take home. By the time I finished, they were at the door to leave, and I was left to wash everything by hand once more.

I performed this dance year after year, never enjoying the moment as much as I longed to. I suppose I would still be suffering under a false sense of duty if I had not been forced to surrender to my own frailties and scale back the menu. Then, I focused upon what people truly enjoyed, what they deemed the bare essentials. I also accepted their help.

I began to use every day dishes instead of china. I bought fine cheese, boxed crackers, and ready-to-thaw platters of shrimp. Ham or turkey, never both, was the anchor meat. I served only one kind of potato, one vegetable plainly dressed, and canned cranberry relish. Rolls came from a can or the freezer aisle, and a single pie, usually fresh pumpkin or peach, was dessert. My mother-in-law still brought that delicious Jello, and even though I have the recipe for transforming gelatin into something so tasty, I lack the gift. Now that she has passed, that menu item has been consigned to fond memory. My daughter has added her own signature to the meal. She prepares an amazing squash soup.

Thus, having eliminated the unnecessary, we enjoy what is necessary for these occasions: each other. May you always do the same on Thanksgiving and for many holidays to come.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Teach Your Children Well; Teach Them to Persevere

Atticus created several challenging lessons for his children. He wanted them to restrain their rash, emotional impulses in favor of civility and reason. Above all, he wanted them to learn empathy and the courage of their convictions. Every child needs to master these lessons in order to grow and become a worthy citizen, but I offer a few more to prepare your child for what lies ahead, and I think Atticus would approve.


The merits of public education and the costs of a college education are often in the news lately, weighing heavily on the minds of parents. Some doubt the wisdom of sending their child to public school. Others wonder if the current trend toward virtual schools and home schooling may be right for them. Above all, they worry about helping their child pay the high cost of an education after high school. With this post, I offer some tips for preparing your child to take the path that is right for him or her, whatever that path may be.


First and most important is to consider what employers and college admissions officers have in common when considering candidates, and that is the ability to persevere. Can your child power through mild setbacks such as a head cold or forgetting about a deadline or even an unkind gesture from a peer? Will your child reassess and plan, or will your child fall apart? You can train a child to become a malingerer, using minor aches and pains to avoid responsibilities and consequences as easily as you can train a child to be resilient and resourceful.


Help children learn to persevere by teaching them to think creatively. For example, if they become frustrated while painting or building with blocks because they cannot accomplish what they had in mind, encourage them to re-imagine the design instead of crumpling the paper or knocking down the blocks. Doing so will help them transfer that skill to other complex processes, including a puzzling algebra concept that seems to make no sense whatsoever. Coach your child to re-imagine, rethink his options. He can search for algebra help online, call a classmate, or ask the teacher for help before school the next day.


New material can be tough to master, mistakes happen, and visions sometimes do not translate into the real world well. Successful people do not walk away. They reflect and ask, “What if?” Teach your children to succeed by giving them staying power.


Later in high school, when your children fall behind and a deadline looms as large as a storm cloud overhead, don’t rescue them and solve the problem for them. In life, there is no way out but through, and children must learn to push through even if it means they will lose a night’s sleep or must negotiate an extension all by themselves or accept the consequences of their procrastination by accepting a very low score. They will learn valuable lessons about meeting expectations and enjoying their benefits.


Help your children think through consequences, however. They do not have your experience, and they need your input as they develop into independent, responsible adults. How many young girls have forsaken their passion for analysis and research because being a girl sometimes seems the wrong gender for science, math, and engineering? How many have forsaken the field of play because, as my daughter’s off-and-on best friend once said, athletic girls are not feminine and they intimidate boys? Let your daughters know that they cannot go wrong if they pursue what challenges and interests them. They need to learn to be comfortable in their roles as a female, but more important, they need to learn to enjoy all aspects of their promise as a human being. So do boys.


When your sons grow weary of the coach who turns a blind eye to their heart in the game and instead turns a seeing eye to their imperfections, help your sons overcome. Never let them quit mid-season or mid-year. If they signed on to play for the team or school, they must see it through and delay their decision until their obligation is at an end. Then they must determine if they love the game enough to play again or find another game to enjoy. Beware, however, not to nurture a serial quitter, the one who tries something one year and something else the year after and the year after that. Employers and college admissions officers look for candidates who know how to see something through to the end.


Parents must also guide their children into the most challenging opportunities available through their schools. If Advanced Placement (AP) or the International Baccalaureate (IB) curricula are available, your children should enroll in as many as possible. These courses are rigorous, and rigor teaches perseverance. It also teaches your children to compete at the highest levels. They will be better prepared for college, and decades of data exist to prove this claim.


Lest you think AP or IB does not apply to your child because he does not plan to enroll in college immediately after high school, think again. Children who plan to join their parents in a family business and bypass college will have acquired higher order skills in reading, writing, computing, thinking, and civics. Those who intend to serve their country in a branch of the military will have the same higher order skills plus solid experience in persevering. And those who enter college may do so with several earned college credits. Data also show they will be more likely to complete the most competitive degrees, including medicine and engineering.


Employers, military recruiters, and college admissions officers look for those who have high aspirations and are unafraid of a challenge. Help your children develop both by teaching them to persevere, think creatively, accept responsibility, and welcome challenge. If they learn these lessons from you, they can acquire a fine education wherever they happen to be.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Halls of Justice

When Atticus asked an all-white male jury seated for Tom Robinson’s trial for the forcible rape of a white woman, Atticus appealed not just to the civil law, but also to higher, sacred law, urging the men to set aside prejudice and tradition in favor of justice. Atticus said, “For God’s sake, do your duty” for there, in that courtroom and under the Eyes of Heaven, all men must be and should be treated equally. Clearly, Atticus held courtrooms in high esteem, suggesting that errors in men’s judgments may well be corrected in those rooms, especially if men present their most moral and ethical selves as they deliberate upon the evidence.

George Washington seemed to have a similar sentiment when Congress considered and later confirmed the first Attorney General of the United States. In offering the post to Edmund Randolph, Washington wrote:

“Impressed with a conviction that the due administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good Government, I have considered the first arrangement of the Judicial department as essential to the happiness of our Country, and to the stability of its political system; hence the selection of the fittest characters to expound the laws, and dispense justice, has been an invariable object of my anxious concern.”

Washington’s words in bold font above, with one slight change, now remind visitors to the New York State Supreme Courthouse of the crucial role that justice plays in the execution of governance. Architect Guy Lowell substituted the word true for due during the design and construction of the building in the early years of the twentieth century. Whether he did this in error or with intent is an argument for historians; what is clear is that for almost 100 years, men have looked up to those words carved in granite and admired the sentiment that calls them to govern well, falling back upon the pillars of good government, the judiciary, when men disagree about governing choices and actions.

But this branch, the judicial branch, is under attack today. Campaign advisors and strategists as well as the Chamber of Commerce have vested interests in judicial outcomes. Consequently, SuperPac money flows more freely and generously when a declared or tacit understanding passes between a sitting elected official or candidate and a donor. In Texas, for example, campaign contributions in excess of $100,000 and $200,000 qualified the contributor for membership in the Pioneer and Ranger programs, and these, according to Texans for Public Justice, resulted in 146 of 548 donors receiving political appointments in the Bush administration ( subjects/NoComment). When the appointments are to the judicial branch, it becomes more likely that justices will be partisan and deliberate with an ideological agenda.

In Iowa, 2010, three justices were removed because they turned aside a ban on same-sex marriage; a fourth wore a target on his back in the 2012 election. I am happy to report, however, that he retained his seat after a public educational campaign about the nonpartisan role a justice must play and how justices are vetted and appointed.

Those who would alter the nature of justice by appointing cronies to the bench or by politicizing the judicial branch claim that they are in a fight for freedom, but in Iowa, the question was whose freedom shall have precedence? Iowans for Freedom (IFF), the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), and a Mississippi-based organization known as the American Family Association (AFA) argue that their freedoms have been challenged because the freedom to marry has been granted to the LBGT community. IFF, NOM, and the AFA seek to limit another man or woman’s freedom in favor of their own, and they have put money on the line to affect the outcome of legal judicial reappointments. In my home state of OK, an aggressive telephone campaign urged voters to oust four justices who had ruled against a proposed personhood amendment to be voted on by the people in November 2012, but a last-minute television ad campaign featuring a prominent Democrat and Republican, united to speak for retention, won the day.

Worrisome to me is this campaign of retaliation for unfavorable decisions. It raises questions about the correct role of government with some citizens and citizen-groups taking the position that the last and final branch of government should become as politicized as the legislative and executive branches, that it should answer directly to the people when it rules in ways that some people do not understand or endorse.

Sadly, this is a debate in which few people engage, and even fewer show up to listen. If they did, they might learn that the proponents for a judicial branch elected by and for the people, a branch that answers to the whims of the electorate, runs counter to the Framers’ intent. Consider the points made in the first Federalist paper devoted to the judicial branch, Number 78, penned by Alexander Hamilton (http://www.founding federalistpapers/fedindex.htm).

·      in a republic it [Judicial branch] is a no less excellent barrier to the encroachments and oppressions of the representative body.
·      And it is the best expedient which can be devised in any government, to secure a steady, upright, and impartial administration of the laws. . . .
·      the judiciary, from the nature of its functions, will always be the least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution; because it will be least in a capacity to annoy or injure them. The Executive not only dispenses the honors, but holds the sword of the community. The legislature not only commands the purse, but prescribes the rules by which the duties and rights of every citizen are to be regulated. The judiciary, on the contrary, has no influence over either the sword or the purse; no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society; and can take no active resolution whatever. It may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments. . . .
·      the judiciary is beyond comparison the weakest of the three departments of power; that it can never attack with success either of the other two; and that all possible care is requisite to enable it to defend itself against their attacks. It equally proves, that though individual oppression may now and then proceed from the courts of justice, the general liberty of the people can never be endangered from that quarter; I mean so long as the judiciary remains truly distinct from both the legislature and the Executive. . . .
·      ‘there is no liberty, if the power of judging be not separated from the legislative and executive powers’ (Hamilton quotes Montesquieu from Spirit of Laws to defend his point about the necessity for an independent judicial branch, and he continues in his own words). . .
·      nothing can contribute so much to its [the Judicial branch’s] firmness and independence as permanency in office, this quality may therefore be justly regarded as an indispensable ingredient in its constitution, and, in a great measure, as the citadel of the public justice and the public security. . . .
·      It is not otherwise to be supposed, that the Constitution could intend to enable the representatives of the people to substitute their WILL to that of their constituents. It is far more rational to suppose, that the courts were designed to be an intermediate body between the people and the legislature, in order, among other things, to keep the latter within the limits assigned to their authority. The interpretation of the laws is the proper and peculiar province of the courts. A constitution is, in fact, and must be regarded by the judges, as a fundamental law. It therefore belongs to them to ascertain its meaning, as well as the meaning of any particular act proceeding from the legislative body. If there should happen to be an irreconcilable variance between the two, that which has the superior obligation and validity ought, of course, to be preferred; or, in other words, the Constitution ought to be preferred to the statute, the intention of the people to the intention of their agents.

Hamilton explains the role of the judicial branch in a republic and argues for the absolute independence as well as superiority of the judiciary in order to protect the people themselves from the whims and vicissitudes of the other two branches of government, and from themselves. A man’s day in court and a law’s examination in court are essential to correct the misdirection and errors in judgment to which human beings are prone. Not to understand or appreciate the judicial role is not to understand and appreciate the Republic which protects us from tyranny and abuse.

The IFF, the NOW, and the AFA must make their arguments for or against an issue inside a courtroom, not in the marketplace of politics. More important, they must and should graciously grant the superiority of the court’s judgment until such time as new law may be written and tried in the public arena on its way to a courtroom.

So what is the duty to which Atticus calls us? To know and understand the role of the judiciary in the lives of U. S. citizens and to grant the judiciary a superior role in determining what is just.