Some shocking news for Republicans: Ronald Reagan wasn’t a racist on immigration

By Robert Mann

There was once a prominent liberal Democrat — he would one day become president — who embraced a big, broad belief in the American dream that too many of today’s political leaders reject.

This future president said in a 1952 commencement address: “I, in my own mind, have thought of America has a place in the divine scheme of things that was set aside as a promised land. … [T]he means of selection was very simple as to how this land should be populated: Any place in the world and any person from those places; any person with the courage, with the desire to tear up the roots, to strive for freedom, to attempt and dare to live in a strange and foreign place, to travel half across the world, was welcome here.

“And they have brought with them to the bloodstream that has become America that precious courage … to strive for something better for themselves and for their children and their children’s children. I believe that God in shedding his grace on this country has always in this divine scheme of things kept an eye on our land and guided it as a promised land for these people.”

The liberal was Ronald Reagan, speaking at Williams Woods College in Fulton, Mo. But, you say, that was long before Reagan, the actor, became Reagan, the conservative political leader. He wouldn’t talk like that today, would he?

Think again.

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If you can’t speak out for sick kids, quit calling yourself ‘pro-life’

By Robert Mann

It’s hard to find a government program that does more to save innocent lives than the Children’s Health Insurance Program. CHIP and its Louisiana incarnation, LaCHIP, are shining examples of effective, pro-life government initiatives.

Louisiana’s Republican senators and congressional representatives tell us they are pro-life. But the way they have responded to Congress’ recent failure to renew funding for CHIP suggests they are just pro-birth. Once the kids pop out, they’re on their own.

That’s a fair conclusion based on the conspicuous silence of our delegation after Congress allowed the program to expire Sept. 30. Efforts to renew it for another five years are going nowhere after committees in both houses offered different funding plans. It’s not clear when (or if) Congress will resolve those differences.

The program pays for life-saving health care for 8.9 million young Americans, including 121,000 in Louisiana. Since 2003, because of LaCHIP, the percentage of uninsured Louisiana children has plunged from 11.1 percent to 3.8 percent.

The CHIP program supports a range of health services for children 19 and younger, including primary, preventative and emergency care. It also covers immunizations, prescriptions drugs and hospitalization. It saves lives. This should be the easiest government program to fund. And it was until Republicans in Congress let it expire.

Some states have more resources and, therefore, more time before their money dries up. When the federal portion of CHIP vanishes in February 2018, Louisiana must find an extra $31 million — near the end of a fiscal year — to keep the program alive. That means deep cuts to other vital health care services. And in the years after that, the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals says, Louisiana will need an additional $112 million to continue coverage.

Even if Congress restores funding for CHIP, it’s an outrage that so many families with sick kids are agonizing over whether they might end up buried in medical bills or, worse, be forced to forego life-saving treatment.

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Congress: Sure it’s broken, but how can we fix it?

working congress cover

By Robert Mann

Was there ever a new Congress – at least in the last hundred-plus years – which convened amidst such low expectations and so much public disgust?

“Americans’ job approval rating for Congress averaged 15% in 2014, close to the record-low yearly average of 14% found last year,” Gallup reported in December. “The highest yearly average was measured in 2001, at 56%. Yearly averages haven’t exceeded 20% in the past five years, as well as in six of the past seven years.”

An institution deplored by 85 percent of the U.S. public might be able to pass laws (although even that is often impossible); it cannot claim to effectively represent the American public. While individual members continue to be reelected in overwhelming numbers, most Americans have dismissed Congress as irrelevant or even harmful to their well-being.

Following the government shutdown in the fall of 2013, the public’s disgust with Congress only deepened. While its paralyzing partisanship and rancor may not be the only factors in Congress’s staggering decline in public opinion, it is difficult to imagine exactly what could be a more significant factor. If Congress – especially the House – will ever function as the representative institution the founders intended, its members must regain the public’s trust. Congress’s low approval rating is not much higher than the four- or five-point margin of error of a poll that might find zero public approval.

Back when I ran the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs at LSU’s Manship School, I had the pleasure of working with my former boss, Sen. John Breaux, to convene our school’s annual “Breaux Symposium” in Washington, D.C. In May 2013 – working with the United States Association of Former Members of Congress and George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management – we convened a group of former members of Congress and respected congressional scholars who discussed the current state of our politics and debated what, if anything, could be done to change it for the better.

The product of that symposium is Working Congress, a book I edited and which is published by LSU Press.

I don’t pretend that Working Congress offers solutions that, if adopted, would instantly transform Congress into a bipartisan utopia. In fact, several of the scholars who contributed to the book doubt that there is anything Congress could do in the way of rules changes and other reforms that would significantly modify the institution. They say it will require significant changes to our political system, and to the electorate as a whole, to substantially influence the way Congress conducts its business.

In other words, some argue, it’s not Congress that has grown dysfunctional; it’s our political system itself that no longer works.

Because the new Congress convenes this week, it seems an appropriate time to offer the collective wisdom of our scholars and former members. I hope we’ll be soon sending a copy of the book to every member of Congress.

Who knows, maybe a few of them might read it. Maybe, just as important, some citizens might read it, too, and demand some of the reforms we suggest.

Here, for your consideration, are some of the book’s major points:

Former U.S. Rep. Mickey Edwards, R-OK; vice president of the Aspen Institute

Fix Congressional Redistricting

In nearly four fifths of the states, congressional district boundaries that shape the nature of the electorate are drawn not by disinterested citizens but by whichever party leaders have gained control of a state legislature. In states in which both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office are held by the same party, the common result is for districts to be drawn in such a way as to minimize the likelihood of a serious challenge to the controlling party’s candidates. This practice has been condemned by reformers who wish to see more competition for legislative seats, and it is a reasonable concern, but that’s not the only, or the most important, grounds for objecting to the procedure.

One of the least remembered, and most important, provisions in the Constitution requires that every member of Congress be an actual inhabitant of the state from which he or she is elected. The purpose is clear: voters should have a reasonable amount of familiarity with those who seek to represent them, and members of Congress should be familiar with the interests and preferences of those they represent. My own experience with party-driven redistricting illustrates how that goal of representativeness can be undermined by a system that puts party interests first.

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To help veterans, Congress should stop making so many of them

Embed from Getty Images

By Robert Mann

The news about the Veterans Administration is “reprehensible,” to quote VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. As a recent VA inspector general’s report confirmed, the Phoenix VA hospital treated wounded veterans, desperate for medical care, as if they were nuisances, not damaged heroes who deserve the support the nation promised them when we shipped off their once-healthy bodies to war.

The report suggests that Phoenix is the tip of a very corrupt iceberg throughout the country, possibly part of a nationwide practice by VA officials to conceal just how long they forced to veterans wait for treatment. In all, the report suggests a shocking indifference to their right to quality health care.

It’s not surprising, then, that some members of Congress are demanding that President Obama fire Shinseki, the retired Army general who seems powerless to repair this mess. There’s also the predictable urge to politicize the scandal, as evidenced by robo calls from the Republican National Committee to Louisiana voters, pushing Sen. Mary Landrieu to demand an independent investigation. The objective, of course, is to tie Landrieu to the scandal by suggesting she opposes fixing the problem.

At some point, let’s hope, this sorry episode will force Congress and the American people to truly respect our veterans, of whom we ask so much and repay with so little. Even if we do clean up the system so that the VA begins to properly treat veterans’ blasted bodies, it’s not likely we’ll ever seriously address the damage that war does to so many of their minds.

Many vets return in one piece but bear deep emotional scars. A poll conducted last year by The Washington Post found disturbing reports of unmet mental health issues among a significant percentage of veterans from recent wars. According to the VA, the suicide rate among veterans is up 20 percent since 2007.

The lingering physical and emotional wreckage of war in the shattered lives of too many veterans is a national disgrace. From time immemorial, our country has lied to our soldiers about their importance to our “way of life.” As comedian Jon Stewart recently observed on “The Daily Show,” at the end of a classic segment on the VA scandal, “America has had for over 200 years a great bipartisan tradition of honoring those who have fought for our freedom by (screwing) them over once they give their guns back.”

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Looking for a job with no power? Congress might be for you

U.S. Capitol (Getty Images)
U.S. Capitol (Getty Images)

By Robert Mann

When U.S. Rep. John Dingell announced his retirement from Congress last month, the Michigan Democrat was characteristically blunt about why he’s stepping down after 58 years in office.

“I find serving in the House to be obnoxious,” the 87-year-old Dingell, the longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history, told the Detroit News.

Someone should share Dingell’s secret with the horde of candidates running for Congress in Louisiana’s 6th Congressional District. Some of these office seekers might be surprised to learn that the frenzied, frustrating life of a junior House member is about as glamorous and interesting as service on a parish council, only with considerably less power.

Actually, as one House member from California has concluded, serving on her local government body might be more satisfying. In a recent story in The Washington Post, “Why it stinks to be a Member of Congress — especially one from California,” reporter Ben Pershing chronicled the succession of California members who have abandoned their seats for less-powerful positions.

That list included first-term Rep. Gloria Negrete McLeod, now running for the San Bernardino County Board of Commissioners. “Congress isn’t all that fun a place to be at the moment — with record low job approval ratings and gridlock as the watchword,” Pershing explained.

Of course, listening to our Louisiana candidates boast about their unique talents and their plans to transform Washington, you’d never know it’s a powerless office they seek.

One candidate is Baton Rouge software entrepreneur Paul Dietzel, who has said, “[A]s the youngest Congressman in the country . . . I will be the spokesman for an entire generation of young Americans being left behind by both parties.”

State Sen. Dan Claitor’s website boasts that he will “work to cut government regulation, simplify the tax code, and free small businesses to create the jobs our people need.”

Garrett Graves, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s former coastal adviser and a former congressional aide, believes he can fill a void in Washington because he will “hit the ground running.” After announcing his candidacy, Graves modestly added, “The real option that I bring to the race here is that it’s one thing to have a position . . . it’s something else to be able to fix it.” The “it,” presumably, is the nation’s problems.

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Where are the Profiles in Courage in today’s Congress?

Quick, name one current member of Congress who would qualify for inclusion in a revised edition of John F. Kennedy’s 1957 bestselling book, Profiles in Courage.

Profiles in Courage book cover
Profiles in Courage book cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Go brew a cup of tea and contemplate the question. Sleep on it overnight. I’ll wait.

Nothing?  Me, either

That’s because there seems to be very little courage in today’s Congress. Exhibit A, of course, is the way Congress behaved during the recent negotiations over the so-called “fiscal cliff.”

Truth be known, courage has never been a surplus commodity in Washington, nor in any state capital.

And, perhaps, that’s what has generally allowed our democracy to function admirably in so many ways. The potential for the voters’ wrath is a powerful motivator that has appropriately checked and influenced many congressmen and senators over the years. The ability of the voters to elect their representatives in (generally) fair and open elections is a primary distinction between our system of government and those of authoritarian regimes in places such as North Korea.

If your elected officials fears being tossed out of office, that’s a pretty good sign that you live in a functioning democracy.

But, there is profound respect for the will of the people, and then there’s slavish devotion to their every whim.

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The Veep Debate: Say It Ain’t So, Joe

Official presidential transitional portrait of...
Vice President Joe Biden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Campaigns, in general, and debates, in particular, are about conflict and clashing ideologies. That’s always been the nature of American politics.

And, while many Americans say they hate the conflict and attacks, we also know that it’s what sells newspapers and attracts viewers. For many people, politics is just another form of entertainment. For hard-core political junkies, campaigns are like football – a contact sport, not for sissies. If you don’t like people being beaten and bruised, then don’t watch, they might say. That’s what “Dancing With the Stars” is for. As a political junkie myself, I get that.

So, why did last night’s debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan leave me feeling so unsettled?

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Making government work. It’s not that difficult. And John Breaux knows how we can do it.

Partisanship Is Dead. Long Live Partisanship
(Photo credit: Truthout.org)

Why is it that just when millions of Americans start paying attention to politics, our campaigns become so nasty?

It happens every campaign season. After a year of avoiding the political chatter, even the most disinterested, apathetic voter finds herself unable to ignore the campaign news.

Could it be that the one event that most engages Americans in their political system – the drama and majesty of a presidential campaign – is the very thing that disgusts them about politics? Might all the negativity be driving us into warring camps?

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