Category Archives: commentary

What is a Joe Manchin?

Yeah. I know. An easy one, right?

A Joe Manchin is a United States Senator. Represents the great state of West Virginia. One of two senators representing about 1.8 million people. Claims to be a member of the Democratic party. Loves the spotlight. Is a royal pain in the butt.

Whose butt? Mine for one. I didn’t vote for Manchin. I did vote for Joe Biden. Remember him? He’s the one who ran for president. Got 81 million votes. Won the election. Has promised a wide range of popular reforms on taxation and spending designed to rebuild our aging infrastructure. Prepare us for the competitive world we face. Care for those who have not benefited from the great growth of the American economy in the last century. Narrow, at least a little, the gap between those who have done very, very, very well (and pay little or nothing in taxes) and those who could use a little help.

But we are unlikely to get any of these things, because Joe Manchin doesn’t want us to. In the United States Senate, 1.8 million people outvote 81 million. Or put another way, 41 votes beats 59. That’s because Joe M. believes in the filibuster come hell or high water. The high water will be arriving soon because new laws to help protect us from climate change can’t get 60 votes in the Senate. That’s what the filibuster rule requires and that makes the United States Senate about the least democratic institution in any modern democracy.

Just remember, the filibuster has nothing to do with the Constitution. The framers did not think it up. They clearly believed 51 votes out of 100 should be sufficient to pass new laws through the Senate. If anything the filibuster was a mistake written into the Senate rules controlling debate. The rule went unnoticed until segregationists hit upon it as a way to create a deadlock and prevent anti-discrimination laws from being voted on. That is the great tradition Joe Manchin is upholding.

Of course he’s not the only one. But he is one of two or three Democrats willing to torpedo the entire Democratic platform for…. Actually, I’m not sure what for.

Manchin says he has a strong belief that no legislation should pass unless it is bipartisan. I’ve written before about the days when Everett Dirksen and Lyndon Johnson could get together over a bottle and do some horse trading resulting in compromise legislation. But those days are long gone.

Mitch McConnell, the current Republican leader in the Senate, has dug in his heels on voting reform while Republicans across the country are passing law after law designed to suppress Democratic votes in future elections. McConnell also says revisiting the huge two trillion dollar 2017 Trump tax cuts for the rich and for big business is out of the question, and Democratic plans for increased infrastructure spending and social programs are not going to be paid for with tax increases as long as he has his 41 votes.

Meanwhile the turtle from Kentucky is warning that if Republicans regain control of the Senate in 2022 he’ll keep Joe Biden from appointing anyone to the Supreme Court. Probably from appointing anyone to any other court as well. McConnell is sent to Washington by a state with only about four and half million voters. Still he gets to tell Democratic presidents to go to hell any time he wants. Go figure.

Meanwhile Manchin won’t remove the filibuster to pass the voting rights law, the “For the People Act,” without Republican support. And Manchin won’t support use of the so-called “reconciliation” process to side step that blockade on Democrat’s tax and spending proposals, even though the Republicans used that process to pass the 2017 tax cuts.

There is really nothing one can do to solve the Manchin problem in the near term. The only solution for Democrats is to overcome the odds and win more Senate seats in 2022. A Democratic majority not counting Manchin, or the frequently unpredictable and always strange Krysten Sinema of Arizona, would render those two nominally Democratic senators irrelevant. That’s the title both so richly deserve.

At least good old Joe is keeping the political cartoonists busy:

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Ban the Damn Guns

America today is suffering a plague of gun violence.

It wasn’t always this way. Americans used to own guns without engaging in daily massacres. As a Chicago native, I learned as a child about the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929, when members of one Chicago gang set up and killed seven members of a rival gang. It was so shocking it led to legislation that prohibited automatic weapons in the U.S.

That ban was extended with restrictions on “semiautomatic assault weapons,” as well as magazines that met the criteria for what it defined as a “large capacity ammunition feeding device,” in 1989 after 34 children and a teacher were shot and five children killed in Stockton, California with a semi-automatic Kalashnikov rifle. A pull of the trigger is required for each shot of a semi-automatic. An automatic fires continuously.

The Federal Assault Weapons ban went into effect in 1994 after a 52-48 vote in the Senate. President Bill Clinton signed it into law the same day. But times have changed. The ban expired after ten years and attempts to renew it have repeatedly failed. In 2018, another Valentine’s Day shooting, this one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killed 17 children and wounded 17 others. This time, then-President Donald Trump called for arming teachers, and the Republican-dominated Florida legislature rejected a bill that would have limited some high-capacity guns.

Fast forward to today. Our acceptance of violence npw stands in striking contrast to Americans’ horror at the 1929 Valentine’s Day Massacre. I’ve done the legal arguments before, most notably here in a column which includes Chief Justice Warren Berger’s declaration that the conservative reading of the Second Amendment is a “fraud.”

I won’t repeat those arguments. What I do want to do is call your attention to the latest judicial idiocy, California has had its own ban in assault weapons for thirty years. Six other states plus the District of Columbia have similar bans. You would think even if the Second Amendment restricts the Federal government on gun control, language putting the right to bear arms in the context of a “well-regulated militia” would allow the states, which at the time the Bill of Rights was written controlled the militia, to pass reasonable legislation to regulate firearms.

U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez of the United States District Court for the Southern District of California now says he knows better than Berger and the state of California. He must figure the words “well-regulated” and “militia” were just thrown in because the Framers had some extra ink they wanted to use up. In a 94-page opinion Benitez declared unconstitutional the California statute. Benitez, appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush, comes out swinging with his opening paragraph:

Like the Swiss Army Knife, the popular AR-15 rifle is a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment. Good for both home and battle, the AR-15 is the kind of versatile gun that lies at the intersection of the kinds of firearms protected under District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008) and United States v Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939). Yet, the State of California makes it a crime to have an AR 15 type rifle. Therefore, this Court declares the California statutes to be unconstitutional.

Miller v Bonta, 19-cv-1537-BEN (JLB)

The Law and Crime blog has a detailed set of quotes from the decision. I’ll dwell on just a few. Judge Benitez writes, “The assault weapons ban has had no effect. California’s experiment is a failure.” This conclusion follows an analysis that claims the rate at which assault weapons were used in mass killings in California during the years the weapons ban has been in effect has not changed. Benitez also writes that mass killings are “rare events.” He also states, “A Californian is three times more likely to be murdered by an attacker’s bare hands, fists, or feet, than by his rifle.”

The New York Times ran a partial list of recent mass shootings in the United States.

Politifact earlier this year found that 10 of 11 mass shootings were done with AR-15 weapons. Newsweek says they were used in 26 of the last 80 mass shootings. As to his other conclusion, I have to wonder if he’d like to stand up for a duel. He gets the Swiss Army knife while his challenger gets the AR-15.

The hypocrisy of the conservatives is clearly on display here. If it is the place of judges only to “say what the law is,” Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803), Judge Benitez’s judgments on failure and the frequency of events is way out of the base path. If you believe in a state’s right to regulate its own militia, Benitez is also out of bounds.

Voters generally support an assault weapons ban. They support a large magazine ban. They support enhanced background checks. They support closing the gun show loophole. They might support amending the Second Amendment itself to clear up the poor punctuation that the gun lobby and their supporters in Congress and on the bench have used in the last few decades to prevent reasonable regulation. The United States has many more deaths by guns than other western developed countries. The United States has the weakest gun control laws in that group.

Do the math.

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Just a Normal Day on Capitol Hill

Yeah, sure.

On May 12 Rep. Andrew S. Clyde (R-Ga.) downplayed the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, comparing the mob’s breaching of the building to a “normal tourist visit:”

“Watching the TV footage of those who entered the Capitol and walked through Statuary Hall showed people in an orderly fashion staying between the stanchions and ropes, taking videos and pictures…. You know, if you didn’t know the TV footage was a video from January the 6th, you would actually think it was a normal tourist visit.”

Rep. Andrew S. Clyde et. al. May 12 Congressional Hearing
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Pay to Play: The American Way

Money has always been a big factor in American politics. You can’t outright pay politicians in return for their vote on an issue of interest to you. That’s bribery and it’s a crime. 18 U.S. Code § 201. But you can come very close. That’s because it costs a tremendous amount of money to run for public office and we leave it to the politicians to raise their own funds.

State-wide races for governor, state legislator, or U.S. House or Senate seats can cost hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. A major state-wide campaign requires a hefty advertising budget and paid staff to handle things like communications, strategic planning, finances, and legal compliance.

So the holders of public office, from the smallest local post to the highest in the land, spend a great amount of their time raising money to finance their elections. In fact, both the Republican and the Democratic parties have offices located within walking distance of the Capitol. That’s because it is illegal for members to raise money from offices paid for by taxpayer dollars. The party offices contain phone banks and members are expected to put in time working those phones. Dialing for dollars as it were.

What does the donor get for those dollars? As previously stated it is not as crass as, “You make the donation and I’ll vote your way.” But it’s damn close. Consider this scenario: Two constituents are on the line, both want to talk to you about a piece of pending legislation. One is an individual wage earner who is barely making ends meet and either doesn’t contribute to your campaign fund at all or gives a token $25 each election cycle. The other is a professional lobbyist who represents a Fortune 100 company. That company contributes $250,000 each year to a political action committee which runs negative advertisements about your political opponent. Which call will you take?

The Curse of the First Amendment

It is, I must painfully admit, our wonderful First Amendment which is primarily responsible for this problem. While many countries have limits on how much money can be spent on political campaigns, and restrictions on how much money can be contributed, we have to cope with the wisdom of the framers who wrote:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

U.S. Constitution, First Amendment

There is little question that the right of free speech allows one to stand on the tallest soapbox one can find and speak in favor of one’s favorite political candidate. Or that the right of a free press allows journalists to write what they will about the candidates. And that right to petition the Government? That is the right both our individual constituent and the lobbyist were exercising in the example I described above.

Make no mistake about it. Political speech is exactly the kind of speech the framers were writing about when they drafted the First Amendment. This was the kind of speech that could get your head separated from your body if you uttered it back then in many of the countries of Europe and the reigning monarch happened to take offense. So for our long history as a nation political speech has been some of the most protected.

That makes it extremely difficult to restrict the political speech of individuals and does give the rich an advantage. They can afford to buy expensive television commercials and web advertisements promoting their favorite candidates and policies. At least, that’s how Mister Justice Gurvey sees it.

Citizens Dis-United

But I am unlikely to preside from any bench other than the one in my garden. And those who sit on the federal benches of the United States have a far more expansive view of first amendment freedoms. I read the Constitution to apply to the relationship between people, as in the opening words of the preamble, “We the People,” and their government. Our federal judges have thrown corporations into the mix by ruling that corporations are people.

To me the concept is absurd. Business entities that survive the lives of their owners were well known to the framers who wrote the Constitution. In fact, most of the colonies were themselves business entities in the form of royal charters or grants. If the framers wanted these business entities to have the rights of people they would have said so. They did not. And that should be that for any originalist, textualist, or whatever the term the judges on the conservative right like to cite. Except, that they want corporations to have the rights of people. So consistent judicial logic goes out the window and they wave the rules of textualism where failure to do so might lead to a legal result inconsistent with their overriding ideology. Thus speaks the hypocrite.

All of this came to a head in Citizen’s United v. Federal Elections Commission, a 2010 Supreme Court decision that eviscerated federal election law which Congress had developed over one hundred years and which put significant restrictions on corporate attempts to influence elections. Critics charge the effect has been to greatly increase the already outsized influence of corporations, wealthy donors, and special interest groups. And the Court isn’t finished. Just last month it heard Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Rodriquez, a case that may make the situation even worse.

The Confession of Ted Cruz

So if you want to play the “let’s write the laws” game you have to pay the law-writers. But while “Pay to Play” is, thanks to the Supreme Court, perfectly legal, there is still one rule most people follow: You pay to play but you don’t talk about Pay to Play. That’s because it looks bad, because it is bad. And politicians are afraid of looking bad. At least in front of the voters.

Unless of course you are Ted Cruz, a man so out of touch with reality, or just so dumb, that he just puts it out there. Texas’s answer to all three stooges recently wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal complaining about corporations that are “woke.” By that he means, corporations like Coca-Cola, whose CEO James Quincey criticized voter suppression laws now being enacted in dozens of Republican controlled states saying he opposed “measures in the bills that would diminish or deter access to voting.” Quincey said Coke’s political action committee will not contribute to the campaigns of politicians who support these laws.

Well then, huffs and puffs Cruz, Senator guy who escaped for a vacation in Mexico while the people of his state were freezing during a power outage, if you don’t pay, don’t expect to play, Yes, Cruz supports voter suppression laws, and he tweeted:

There you have it. Pay to play. The Ted Cruz way.

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Space TidBits

Ginny and Percy

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter has a new mission. Having proven that powered, controlled flight is possible on the Red Planet, the Ingenuity experiment will soon embark on a new operations demonstration phase, exploring how aerial scouting and other functions could benefit future exploration of Mars and other worlds.

So “Ginny,” her primary proof of concept mission over, will serve as a scout for “Percy,” flying ahead of the rover to survey locations Perseverance will investigate in its search for life on Mars. It will also help mission planners plot the best routes for Percy to follow. She’ll fly ahead and land and wait for the rover to catch up. That’s Teamwork.

Crew-2
NASA TV/4-24-2021

It got crowded on the International Space Station with the arrival of “Crew-2,” SpaceX’s second regular and third actual flight taking humans to the ISS (there was a test mission known as “Demo-2”). There hadn’t been eleven people on board since the Space Shuttle era.

There were other milestones as well. This was SpaceX’s first reused crew capsule to reach the orbiting platform and the first crewed mission with a reused Falcon 9 rocket. The Crew-2 astronauts themselves made history when they started boarding. This was the first time SpaceX had carried passengers from three different agencies (NASA, ESA and JAXA).

Crew-1
NASA TV/5-2-2021

The overcrowding on the ISS came to an end just a few days later with the spectacular nighttime landing of SpaceX’s Crew-1 “Resilience” capsule with four astronauts on board. They landed in the gulf of Mexico just before 3am Eastern Time. But with cameras tuned for night the scene was clearly visible in spite of the pitch dark ocean lighting.

Crew Dragon Resilience will add to its time in space on its next mission launching the privately-funded Inspiration4 crew on a multi-day Earth orbit mission targeted for September.

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A Breath of Fresh Air

It some ways it was certainly unusual. But mostly its normalcy made it a breath of fresh air. For more than an hour President Joe Biden delivered a report to Congress, the nation, and the world on the state of the state one hundred days into his administration. He laid out the achievements already accomplished, the programs now under way, and the proposals he is sending to Congress for enactment into law.

One way the speech was unusual was that there were two women behind the president. Presiding over the joint session of Congress were Vice-President Kamala Harris, who is President of the Senate, and Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives. That was a historic first. Another way was that the chamber, which normally holds 1,600 people for these events, was limited to 200 by pandemic protocols. The audience members were socially distanced and most were masked.

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Helicoptering on Mars – Really

A team of very smart humans flew a helicopter by remote control off the surface of Mars on April 19, 2021. It is easier to type that sentence than it is to truly appreciate the accomplishment.

The Mars Helicopter, named Ingenuity, weighs just four pounds. It is a proof of concept demonstration. That means it’s mission is just to prove that it works. It did. And it was the first time humans have achieved powered and controlled flight on another planet.

Ingenuity hitched a ride on the Perseverance rover. I wrote about Perseverance after it landed. Nicknamed “Percy,” it has a detailed science mission to look for signs of life on Mars. But first it was tasked with dropping Ingenuity, “Ginny,” onto the Martian surface, backing away and watching while the Ingenuity team tried to make their little drone fly.

This short video, taken by Perseverance, shows the entire first flight:

In this video captured by NASA’s Perseverance rover, the agency’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter took the first powered, controlled flight on another planet on April 19, 2021.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

Mars is the closest planet to Earth, and has entranced humans since the beginning of recorded history. It is behind a paywall, but if you have access the Washington Post has produced a wonderful overview of the history of Mars exploration and the plans for this mission, known as Mars 2020.

The challenge for Ingenuity is that the atmosphere on Mars is only one percent the density of that of Earth. Strange at it seems, most of our airplanes effectively pull themselves through the atmosphere like a corkscrew pulls a cork out of a bottle. On Mars there is very little atmosphere to grab hold of. That produced a design for Ginny that meant a very low weight craft with relatively big rotors spinning at very high speeds. And of course the fact that radio signals take many minutes to get from Earth to Mars meant that Ginny, like Percy, has to be fed instructions but is then on its own to execute them. We humans find out if the task was achieved minutes or even hours later.

This was an amazing feat and in so many ways a tonic for the times in which we live. There are those who question the value of this kind of scientific research and exploration. Surveys show many people perceive the cost to be high. But in fact, the NASA budget is a tiny fraction of the military’s budget. The military budget just for its new Space Force and Space Command is higher. The debate is heated, but a majority of Americans favor continued funding for NASA.

Studies show that for every dollar spent on NASA, more than $8 is added to the economy. And you had only to watch the control room crew as the data came in documenting Ginny’s first flight on another planet to see how this research is exciting new generations of explorers. When I was a child watching the Mercury astronauts I saw images almost exclusively of white men wearing white shirts and narrow black ties. We now know that behind the scenes there were crucial if unsung members of the team kept hidden from the cameras. Today’s teams represent men and women across all demographics. If the United States is to remain competitive and really matter in the 21st century we need to do more to encourage all young people to pursue scientific careers.

Now that the helicopter concept has been proven, scientists and engineers planning future missions to Mars and elsewhere have access to a treasure trove of research as they explore the use of flying vehicles on their missions. There are, for example, many locations on Mars that are inaccessible by rover but are of great interest to planetary scientists. There is also an upcoming mission to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Titan has an atmosphere denser than that of Mars. There is already a helicopter named Dragonfly planned for that mission which is now scheduled to launch in 2026, arriving in 2034.

Even while waiting for Ginny to finish her testing, Percy is working. The MOXIE technology demonstration aboard Perseverance successfully extracted oxygen from the thin Martian atmosphere—a critical component for life support so humans can breath on the Red Planet and produce rocket fuel for the trip home.

The continuing plan for Mars 2020 is for Ingenuity to make several more test flights over the next few weeks, each one pushing the helicopter to fly higher and further away. A second flight was made on April 22nd, a third on April 25th. As often happens with technology demonstrations, it may well be pushed beyond its limits and crash on the surface. In any event, by the end of April it will be left behind as Perseverance leaves the scene to begin it’s own exploration of the Martian surface, which will include the collection of samples for retrieval on later flights.

You read that right. The Mars 2020 mission will be collecting samples of Mars to be picked up by later flights. Stay tuned.

Update – Ingenuity Tests Extended

After a successful fourth flight, NASA announced it would extend the test flight program for Ingenuity for another 30 days. Ginny’s mission was slated to end at the end of April. Now NASA plans to test the chopper’s ability to be a “scout” for future exploration by the Perseverance rover and future missions.

Perseverance will be farther from Ingenuity during the new flight phase, but the team thinks that the pair will still be able to communicate effectively. Additionally, Perseverance will not take the time to document the flights Ingenuity makes during its extended mission.  NASA will continue to provide updates on Ingenuity’s progress here.

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