Saturday, February 28, 2009

Approved Prayer

I do not like the idea of a National Day of Prayer, I am uncomfortable with all of these presidential and congressional prayer breakfasts, I don't like that every political convention and inauguration has a prayer(even if I liked Joseph Lowery's), and I don't like the fact that President Obama starts every public event with prayer.

However, if we are going to have prayers at these public events then the prayers should not be vetted.  I understand that an intemperate prayer might make a politician uncomfortable but this probably means that political events could do without prayer.  The idea of the White House vetting prayers sounds too much like the Church being subservient to the State and nothing good happens when the Church decides to let the State have final say over what the Church says.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Henry VIII Rolls Over in His Gave...

...And Somewhere Thomas More Smiles

For the first time since the Reformation a Catholic Bishop is poised to sit in the House of Lords.  Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor will soon retire as the Archbishop of Westminster.  After his retirement Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor will be offered a peerage.

The 26 Church of England Bishops sit in the Lords and form the Lords Spiritual.  Free Church ministers and the Chief Rabbi often sit in the House of Lords as Lords Temporal.

We Must Increase This House

Since 1913 U.S. law mandated the membership of the House of Representatives to be 435.  Soon that change and the House will be composed of 437 members.  The Senate today passed S. 160 which granted the District of Columbia a voting seat and Utah an additional seat.  Utah gets the additional seat because it would be the next to receive a seat under the 2000 census.

I am glad to see D.C. on the verge of getting a vote in the House.  However, I think the time has come to increase the membership of the House.  Since the membership was set at 435 the U.S. population grew by 210 million people.

I think the House should be increased to 450 representatives.  Increased population should be reflected in some increase in representation.  With smaller populations to represent, I hope that it will be easier for congress people to be more responsive to the people.  I would also hope that increased membership would lessen the losses caused by reapportionment but I don't know if that is possible.  

The House plans on voting to increase its membership next week. 


The Backbencher wishes to pass on condolences to David Cameron, Samantha Cameron, and the entire Cameron family.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Book Review

The line that runs from the Emancipation Proclamation to the inauguration of President Barack Obama goes right through the group of extraordinary men who were the first African Americans to serve as members of Congress.  Philip Dray tells their story in his book Capitol Men.   

Dray does a marvelous job telling the story of these often overlooked men and tying their story into the larger one of Reconstruction.  Drey tells how many of these men came up from slavery and achieved so much.  He also tells how their ambitions, and those of Reconstruction, were thwarted by violence, illegality, and cowardice.  

This book is well written but it took me a while for me to read because there was so much to think about.  For me, it was enlightening to read how many of the same tactics used to undermine Reconstruction are used to prop up power structures today; especially in the South.  Tracing the line from opposition to Reconstruction and cvil rights for freed slaves to today's conservative opposition to "big government" was a sobering experience.

I would have like to see more of how the African American congressmen actually governed and I would have like to see more of how they dealt with the wider range of issues that came before the Congress.  I also would have liked to read more about how these extraordinary men interacted with each other.  However, these are minor complaints.

Before I read Capitol Men I knew that Joseph Rainey was the first African  American to serve in the House of Representatives and that Hiram Revels was the first African American Senator.  I also heard of Blanche K Bruce.  However, the extraordinary lives of these great men came alive in Drey's book.  I also learned of Robert Smalls who once stole a Confederate blockade runner and turned it over to the Union  Navy and Robert Brown Elliot who bested former Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens in a debate on the House floor.

If you want to learn more about the forerunners of President Obama and their struggles then read Capitol Men

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Backbencher of the Week

With the U.S. Congress out on their President's day recess we turn to the UK to find this week's Backbencher of the Week.  This week's winner is David Davis(Con-Haltemprice and Howden). 

Mr Davis has served in Parliament since 1987 and until the summer of 2008 he was a Tory frontbencher.  Most of the time he was the Shadow Home Secretary and he led the Conservative opposition to the Labour government's scheme to introduce a nationwide ID card.

In the summer of 2008 the Labor government pushed a counter terrorism bill through the Commons that included a provision that extended the amount of time the police could hold a terror suspect without charges to 42 days.  The bill was later defeated in the House of Lords.  In protest Mr Davis resigned from the Commons to force a by-election.  Mr Davis ran for the seat and hoped to use the campaign to launch a further debate on civil liberties in the UK.

Most recently, David Davis has been a leading voice in trying to free Binyam Mohamed from Guantanamo.  With news this week that Mr. Mohamed will soon be released from Guantanamo, we recognize one of Parliament's leading voices in support of civil liberties.  

Congratulations David Davis on being this week's Backbencher of the Week. 

Banned in the UK

UK Home Secretary Jacqui Smith decided to ban hate preacher Fred Phelps and his daughter from entering the UK.  The Phelps were planning on picketing a college's performance of The Laramie Project, which is play based on the murder of Matthew Shepherd.  The Home Secratery used her power to prevent the Phelp's entry just as she earlier banned a right wing Dutch MP fro entering the country because he made anti-Muslim statements.  The UK says that it is dedicated to fighting extremism that causes violence.

As a staunch supporter of free speech, I agree with the leader of the UK gay rights group that called Phelps "odious" but disagrees with the decision to ban him from entering the UK.

However, I can't help but feel a twinge of joy anytime someone like Phelp's gets slapped down a little bit.   

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Backbencher of the Week

This week Sen. Sherrod Brown(D-OH) is the winner of the coveted Backbencher of the Week. Both houses of Congress passed the stimulus bill this week, and President Obama plans to sign it into law on Tuesday. A point of order was raised that the stimulus violated the Budget Act and in the Senate that meant the 3/5 of the Senate needed to vote to wive the Budget Act for the bill to pass. 3/5 of the Senate is of course the magical 60 votes.

Sen. Brown was in Ohio on Friday for his mother's wake and Sen. Ted Kennedy(D-MA) could not make the vote because is still recovering from his brain tumor and with only 3 Republican votes that meant there were only 59 Yea votes present on Friday.

To make sure the bill passed, Sen Brown took an evening flight to Washington and arrived about 10:45 p.m. and cast the 60th and deciding vote.

For that kind of dedication we are gald that the first senator to win Backbencher of the Week is Sherrod Brown. Congratulations.

Iowa and the Electoral College

The Iowa Legislature is considering a proposal to make an end run around the Electoral Collage. The bill would award Iowa's 7 Electoral votes to whoever won the national popular vote. This measure would not take effect until enough states to equal the required 270 votes also agreed to award their Electoral votes based on the nationwide poplar vote. Currently, New Jersey and Maryland have passed similar laws. The bill is in a Senate committee but it appears to have overwhelming support throughout the legislature.

I find it somewhat odd that the Iowa Legislature is considering such a bill. Under our current electoral system small to mid-size states receive a disproportionate amount of attention. Large states that are comfortably in one party's column tend to not get the attention that a state with a large population should expect to receive. For example, Iowa received not just all the visits during caucus season but both campaigns made swings through the state during the general election.

I applaud the Iowa Legislature for this bill and I am in favor of anything that leads to a direct election of the President.

Modem Problems

Due to modem problems posting for the last week has been light. Until the modem problems are resolved posting will be intermintent. When the modem problems are resolved then posting will resume its normal frequency.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Backbencher of the Week

This week's Backbencher of the Week goes to Rep. Frank Pallone(D-NJ-6).  

This week the Congress has not covered itself in glory.  The action focused on the Senate where they debated the stimulus package, and it was nothing but a long line of maliciously ignorant Republicans and feckless Democrats.  All the sausage making made it appear like little good was being done in D.C.

However, this week President Obama signed the SCHIP expansion which increase health coverage to uninsured or underinsured children.  Rep. Pallone was the bill's main sponsor in the House, which is where the bill originated. 

During the first weeks of the Obama administration Lily Ledbetter became law, the government expanded SCHIP, and there will be a stimulus package passed by the congress; even if it could be a lot better.  That is actually a lot better than anything a GOP Washington would ever produce.

Thank you Rep. Frank Pallone for reminding us that a Democratic Washington is still doing some good work, and congratulations on being the Backbencher of the Week.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

U.S. Threatens UK Justice?

Binyam Mohamed is a former resident of the UK and is currently a prisoner at Guantanamo.  Mr. Mohamed was arrested in Pakistan because British and U.S. intelligence thought that he was an accomplice in the Jose Padilla "dirty bomb" plot.  In an effort to extract a confession, Mr. Mohamed was sent to Morocco and Afghanistan through extraordinary rendition where he was tortured.  In early 2003, the U.S. imprisoned Mohamed in Guantanamo.  In May of 2008 Mr. Mohamed was charged in the Padilla plot but the US withdraw the charges in October.  Read a good summation here

In the UK, Mr. Mohamed's attorneys filed a motion to gather information from the UK government about their client's treatment.  Two UK high court judges released a summation of  Mr Mohamed's treatment that was based on information the U.S. shared with UK intelligence agencies.   The judges ruled that the evidence indicated that Mohamed was tortured or treated in a cruel and inhuman fashion.

However, the judges redacted that summary at the request of UK Foreign Minister David Miliband.  He argued that disclosing the information might harm UK security.  UK Channel 4 news acquired letters that US State Department legal advisor John Bellinger wrote to the UK Foreign Office that says that disclosure of the information about Mohamed's torture could threaten " the U.S.-UK intelligence sharing relationship, and thus the national security of the UK."

The Obama administration currently supports the actions of the previous Secretary of State and her legal advisor regarding this case.  That is simply an unacceptable position.  Hiding our conduct at Guantanamo is not protecting vital state secrets; it is covering up a crime.  President Obama has so far done a good job stepping U.S. policy back from the criminal excesses of the previous 7 years.  However, he needs to go further and do as the UK judges recommend and put the information about Binyam Mohamed in the public domain.

Andrew Sullivan  and David Rose at Vanity Fair do a good job reporting on this story.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

US Airways Audio

I am a bit of an airplane dork.  I always look up when I here an airplane, and at the airport I watch what liturgygeek calls "Dog TV," which means looking out the window and watching the planes.  I can be such an airplane dork that when I fly United Airlines I like to listen to Channel 9, which allows you to listen to the control tower.

Anyway, I say that to say that the FAA posted the audio of the US Airways plane that crash landed in the Hudson River.  I, of course, found it fascinating.  Listen here.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Is Conservatism Dead?

Read this article by Sam Tanenhaus titled Conservatism is Dead.  It does a good job explaining why our body politic is enhanced by a vibrant conservative movement and why the state of the current conservative movement is such a disaster.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Book Review

In high school and college I read Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and recently I read Anne Applebaum's Gulag.  However, nothing brought home to me what it must have felt like to live in Stalinist Russia better then Tom Rob Smith's Child 44.

The book tells the story of Leo Demidov who is a MGB(otherwise known as the KGB) investigator.  Demidov stumbles upon a series of murders but this is a problem because the Soviet Union is a workers paradise and murders do no officially occur.  To suggest otherwise is to commit a crime against the state.  Demidov must find the murderer before the state captures him and sends him to the gulag.  

The real strength of this book is its use of  language to give the reader a sense of what it was like in Communist Russia.  There is sense in which the reader feels disoriented and tense because it is difficult to know who Leo can trust.  Smith does a good job building the tension and inserting plot shifts to keep the reader off balance.  It is never clear who Demidov can trust or if he will successful.

The only complaint is that the motive for the murders does not seem to be fully developed.  However this is a minor complaint and the strength of the narrative more than makes up for this small weakness. 

Child 44 is a quick read and I recommend investing the time in a story about a world in which the truth must officially be fiction.

Buy the book here.


Sunday, February 1, 2009

Super Bowl Predicition

Pittsburgh Steelers: 24
Arizona Cardinals: 13

Backbencher of the Week

This week's Backbencher of the Week goes to Rep. Jerrold Nadler(D-NY-8).  One of the initial criticisms of the stimulus bill that passed the house this week was it did not contain enough money for mass transit.  When the bill was considered in the House, Nadler submitted an amendment to add 3 billion in transit funding to the bill, and the amendment passed on a voice vote.  Funding mass transit projects will go along way  towards addressing issues of putting money into the economy and addressing environmental issues.  Congratulations to Rep. Nadler for effectively standing up for mass transit, and for being Backbencher of the Week.

Honorable Mention goes to Rep. Peter Defazio(D-OR-4), Rep. Keith Ellison(D-MN-5), Rep. Michael McMahon(D-NY-13), and Dan Lipinski(D-IL-3) for co-sponsoring the amendment.  

Special recognition also goes out to Rep. John Mica(R-FL-7), who is the ranking member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, for his work on establishing 11 high speed rail corridors in the U.S.