Thursday, March 11, 2010

Campaign Finance Reform Recognition

Our campaign finance situation in this country is in a very poor state, and most Americans probably generally agree. I published a post on this subject expressing my views back in February last year. It was made worse in January this year when the Supreme Court in a case called "Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission" in a 5-4 ruling decided that corporate funding, and that of labor unions, of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections cannot be limited because of the rights of these entities to free speech.

When he heard about this ruling Senator John McCain, co-sponsor of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, expressed his unhappiness by saying "campaign finance reform is dead!" President Obama made headlines in expressing his strong disappointment in his State of the Union speech on January 27th. In a poll taken by the Washington Post and ABC News in February about 80% of Americans were opposed to the Court's ruling: 85% of Democrats, 76% of Republicans, and 81% of Independents.

The campaign finance situation is in a very poor state for a number of reasons. Money and access to a great deal of money is having far too much influence on who is prepared to run for public office and who ends up winning the majority of elections. This is not healthy for a democracy and is not fair for Americans of average or below average means. Furthermore, it is often not fair to shareholders who have invested in corporations, and members of labor unions, who are typically not consulted about political contributions made by the companies they own or unions of which they are dues-paying members. Worse, due to the high costs of running for office and the consequent need for substantial campaign contributions, our current system results in significant de facto political corruption or at least the perception of corruption. Outcomes frequently include inappropriate political favors and earmark legislation favoring large contributors at the expense of most taxpayers.

Another reason for the poor state of our campaign finance situation is that the laws and regulations covering campaign finance are numerous and extremely complex, many enacted by states and many others by the federal government. This situation unneccessarily provides a lot of business for attorneys and, again, favors those individuals, companies, and unions that want to influence elections and legislation, and those who can afford to pay for high-priced attorneys and lobbyists who can help them achieve their objectives.

At this point I want to provide well earned recognition to a relatively unknown good role model and pioneer on the issue of campaign finance reform who died at 100 just a few days ago. Her name was Doris Haddock, she lived in New Hampshire, and was known as "Granny D." When she was 89 she walked across the country from Pasadena to Washington, D. C. for 3,200 miles to promote campaign finance reform, especially public funding of campaigns, walking about ten miles a day! She even skied 100 miles along the journey when snowfall made roadside walking impossible! That's serious dedication! Most people 89, I suspect, could not walk or ski that far for one full day. Also noteworthy, when she was 94 she ran for the United States Senate against Republican Judd Gregg, losing 66% to 34%.

The telling sub-title to her autobiography, co-written by government reformer Dennis Burke, who accompanied Granny D on her walk across the country, was "You're Never Too Old to Raise a Little Hell." What a woman! She was right about that and she was right in promoting campaign finance reform. I don't agree with Senator McCain that reform is "dead," but it is certainly not at all healthy, and it will take quite a while before it is likely to be on the Administration's or Congress' front burners. There are too many other higher national priorities at present, and for real reform to take place some changes in the make-up of the Supreme Court might be required.

Still, we owe it our ourselves and to Granny D's memory to not forget the continuing need to seriously reform our current outdated and dysfunctional campaign finance system, notwithstanding the constitutional challenge posed by the First Amendment.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Norwegian Olympic Pride

While this is not really a political issue, the primary focus of my blog, as a proud Norwegian-American, I feel compelled to make an exception and publish a post on Norway's very impressive performances in Winter Olympics competition.

In the just concluded Olympics held in Vancouver, Norway earned 9 gold medals, the same as the U. S., and 23 medals in all, fourth among all 82 participating countries, behind only the U. S., Germany, and Canada, the host country. Since the Winter Olympics started in France in 1924, Norway has earned over 300 medals, more than any other country.

This is rather amazing because Norway is such a small country with a relatively little pool of athletes to choose from, having a population of just 4.7 million, among the smallest of all the countries participating in Vancouver. As a reminder, the U. S. has a population of approximately 309 million (66 times as many), Germany has 82 million (17 times as many), and Canada, with home field advantage, has 34 million (7 times as many). Russia, a traditional Olympics powerhouse, well below Norway in medals, has a population of 142 million (30 times as many). As many readers have probably heard, Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev was so very unhappy with the Russian team's performance that he publicly encouraged the leaders of their national Olympic committee to resign, or he would help them step down!

Why is a small country like Norway so successful? Some say it's because there are so many high mountains in Norway with snow and ice. It's true that Norway is a mountainous country, but the mountains are not very high. There are more mountains and higher peaks with snow and ice in many other less successful larger in population countries, including France, Austria, Switzerland, Argentina, Chile, Pakistan, India, and Nepal, as well as Russia and China. Neither is it that Norway is just dominating only one or two sports, though they have earned a great many medals through the years in cross-country skiing and biathlon, two of the country's specialties. Norway has also won quite a few medals in figure skating, speedskating, ski jumping, and, particularly in recent years, in alpine skiing.

Aside from its mountains, I think Norwegian athletes' success has much to do with culture, traditions, geography, weather, but most of all more specifically on a longstanding strong interest in exercise, fitness and sports, a stubborn determination to succeed, and tough character with a common willingness to endure difficult hardship for an important cause. Another important factor is that there's a winter sports club in nearly every city and town, and a government funded program which identifies talented athletes in their early teens and nurtures them through development. The fact that most of Norway's cities are located very close to wilderness and skiing areas no doubt helps. Perhaps traditionally high protein diets also play a role, as do skiing, hiking, walking and bicycling as popular means of transportation. The legacy of our Viking warrior ancestors may factor in as well. Of course, good coaching and an effective sports organization are also critical elements.

Well-known and highly regarded New York Times columnist David Brooks was also struck by Norway's success. In his article "The Hard and the Soft", published the 1st of March, Brooks wrote that "There are many reasons for Norway's excellence, but some are probably embedded in the story of Jan Baalsrud," which he summarized. The incredible story of Baalsrud was described in a book by David Howarth titled "We Die Alone."

Born in Oslo in 1917, Baalsrud was very active in the anti-Nazi resistance movement in German occupied Norway during World War II. In early 1943 he and three other Norwegian commandos signed on to a dangerous mission to destroy a German air control tower and recruit for the resistance movement. The mission was compromised when he and the others, seeking a trusted resistance contact, accidentally made contact with a shopkeeper of the same name who betrayed them to the Germans.

The next day their fishing boat, containing tons of explosives intended to destroy the air control tower, was attacked by a German vessel and sank. Baalsrud and the others swam ashore in ice cold waters, chased by the Nazis, but he was the only one able to evade capture. He evaded capture for about two months, hiking long distances while suffering from frostbite, snow blindness and exhaustion, as well as near starvation. In this time he even had to amputate nine of his toes with a pocket knife to stop the spread of gangrene to his feet. Thanks to the efforts of fellow Norwegian patriots he was transported on a stretcher towards the northern border with Finland where he was put in the care of some Lapps who with reindeer pulled him on a sled across Finland and into neutral Sweden where he was safe. Fortunately he survived the war and died peacefully in Norway in 1988 at 71. Talk about toughness, hardship, and perseverance!

Whatever the reasons for Norway's success, I would think the pride many of us have is quite understandable. "Heia Norge!"

Monday, March 1, 2010

Healthcare Reform Update Thoughts

In two more days President Obama is scheduled to lay out his plan on moving forward with high priority healthcare reform legislation, following the largely partisan full day summit led by him on February 25th in Washington, D. C. with leading Democrat and Republican congressional leaders. I thought the President did a good job in trying to gain an uphill bipartisan consensus, but it became quite clear that, while there was some general agreement on a number of issues, the Republicans insisted on scrapping the pending bills, as well as the President's own recent proposal based for the most part on the Senate bill, and starting over from scratch as a condition for their support of a mutually satisfactory reform bill.

The Republicans must have known that the President and Democratic leaders would not be willing to go along with starting over after a year of meetings, hearings, filibustering and negotiations. However, based on recent public opinion polls generally unfavorable to Democrats, and their optimism for Republican prospects in the November mid-term elections, they were apparently very willing to take the risk involved. So it was in large part a strategic political decision by the Republicans. To be fair, their decision was also due to real concern with the affordability and scope of the Democrats' comprehensive plan.

There's no doubt that right now President Obama has his Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Speaker Pelosi, and Majority Leader Reid pressuring members for support, and counting and recounting expected votes in the Senate and House for the President's plan, tweaked a little to incorporate some Republican summit input. There's no question that it's critical for the President to have a satisfactory bill passed within the next two to three months that he can sign into law. He would greatly prefer a bill that has a level of bipartisan support. He would also prefer to avoid, if possible, what most members of Congress and political pundits consider inevitable, achieving approval by the controversial process of reconciliation where all that's required is majority vote.

Democrats' priorities are cost controls, comprehensive reform, care affordability, healthcare insurance industry reforms, and especially wider coverage for uninsured and underinsured Americans. Republicans' priorities are cost controls, more limited lower cost reform, no increase in any taxes, and keeping our federal deficit and national debt as low as possible as a consequence of the approved legislation.

The President's and Speaker Pelosi's apparent two biggest challenges on the vote counting is to keep the House's liberal members in line, though these Representatives object to many parts of the Senate bill, and to win the votes of the 25 more moderate "Blue Dog" Democrats who voted against the House bill last year. The latter will likely prove the more difficult challenge.

Some additional thoughts:

1. It's a "no-brainer" that the final legislation should focus a great deal on eliminating fraud, abuse and obvious inefficiencies in our current system to the greatest extent possible, keeping in mind that this should have broad bipartisan support and the claim by Republican leaders that these activities account for as much as one-third of all healthcare spending.

2. In support of their push for more limited reform, and less government regulation, one of the Republican leaders stated that the U. S. already has the best healthcare system in the world, implying that very little reform is really needed. This is highly debatable, (given also the high level of fraud, abuse and inefficiencies) considering that 11-15% of our population is uninsured and a much higher percentage is either uninsured or underinsured, while in almost every other developed country everyone is insured. Moreover, the infant mortality rate in the U. S. is twice as high as in Italy, Austria,and Norway, and 50% higher than in Switzerland, France and Germany. Additionally, there is the fragility of our insurance coverage, due to the risks inherent in pre-existing conditions and losing or changing jobs, which are not a problem in most other developed countries.

3. The final bill should also allow purchases of insurance across state lines, in order to create more competition and thereby lower premium costs. I also think there should be agreement on some level of tort reform, as recommended by Republicans, to lower liability insurance costs for hospitals and doctors, thereby lowering costs to patients and premium costs billed by insurance companies.

4. As the world's wealthiest country, we should be able and willing to at least provide a limited, basic healthcare coverage to the most needy 5-10 million of our 35-40 million uninsured, especially the children in this group, without having a serious longer term negative impact on our deficit or national debt levels.

Frankly, all of the above points are relative "no-brainers" and a high majority of members of Congress, adequate to get the final legislation approved, should be able to agree and do what's right for the country, moving us in a positive direction towards one day hopefully actually having the best healthcare system in the world.