Why Is This Necessary?

On Tuesday President Obama reported on the State of the Union to a joint session of Congress and to the American people.  It was his fifth since being elected (traditionally the first speech given by a president, when it occurs, is an “annual message” rather than the “State of the Union” since they just took office days before the speech, so this is his sixth such speech).  Following his speech, the Republican Party offered their rebuttal to the president.   Why is this necessary?  Why does the party not holding the presidency always have to have “equal time” to present their political viewpoint when the president’s speech is fulfilling an official obligation of the office?

Article II, section 3 of the United States Constitution states that “He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”  (Of course the founding fathers could never imagine that the president might one day be a woman, since women did not get the right to vote until 1920, thus the “he” reference concerning the president.)

The Constitution does not say anything about the party or parties not in power having the obligation, or even the right, to follow what is a Constitutionally proscribed event with a requirement of their own.  This has been ongoing for years, for both Democrats and Republicans, and has been a staple of televised State of the Union addresses since 1966.  But why does it have to continue?

Indeed, the president does not even have to make a speech to a joint session of Congress to deliver his message.  As many of you may know, George Washington did so, but starting with Thomas Jefferson, most presidents sent an annual letter to meet the requirement.   Woodrow Wilson revived the custom of actually speaking before a joint session, and it was solidified under Franklin Roosevelt in its current form.

My question remains, however, as to why the “other” party must be given air time on national television to give a scripted rebuttal to a speech that they do not directly address, as the rebuttal is written prior to the original speech being delivered.

This year there was not even a unified rebuttal.  The “official” Republican response was delivered nearly immediately after President Obama finished by Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) in English.  A nearly identical “official” speech was given by Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FLA) in Spanish.   (I am sure that the choices were merely a coincidence and had nothing to do with the perception that the Republicans have lost voters among women and Hispanics in recent years.)  Additional “rebuttals” were given by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Senator Mike Lee (R-UT).  Senator Paul’s speech was “his own” (and pre-recorded) — coincidentally he will undoubtedly run for president in 2016 — and Senator Lee’s response was the “official” Tea Party position.

It all makes for great political theater and provides employment for the various analysts and strategists employed by the networks, media outlets and political campaigns.  So in that way, I guess that makes them all “job creators.”

I just wish that all that “speechifying” was useful.  Can’t they actually talk to each other?


It struck me today while reading the Washington Post print edition that our Congress may be even more under-handed than I thought.  I doubt that it was the editors’ intent to do so, but in just the “A” section of the paper there were numerous articles, editorials and opinion pieces that when put together show just how self-centered and narrow-minded some members of Congress can be.  While arguing for smaller government, reduced spending, and the elimination or reduction of various government agencies, the omnibus spending bill that just passed was full of what used to be called “pork”.   Since the current rules of the House and Senate eliminate anything that resembles good old-fashioned bring-home-the-bacon pork barrel spending, they are now called “add-ons” or “specialized programs” or prohibitions for eliminating programs that benefit specific Congressional districts.

Here is a short list of some of these dubious exploits outlined in today’s paper.  It is hardly exhaustive and does not include everything a casual look at the news will reveal.

The 605.7 billion dollar Department of Defense (DOD) budget (over half of the total 1.1 trillion dollar total budget) is riddled with unwanted and unnecessary spending mandated by Congress, as highlighted by Walter Pincus in his piece in today’s paper.  The money comes by shifting money from the “base” DOD budget to the Operational Contingency Operations (OCO) fund.  The OCO fund is outside the regular budget and is not part of the agreement.  It is intended to be used to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but through accounting sleight of hand moving funds around, billions of dollars become available for “special projects” while being able to trumpet the savings to the base budget which does not directly reflect all of these expenditures.  Much of that spending is unwanted, unrequested and only minimally related to achieving the military’s mission or desired spending levels.

In an article about the United State Postal Service (USPS) which has come under withering criticism from the Congress for its increasing debt, we find that the USPS is trying to sell off surplus post offices but is being prohibited from doing so by House members until a study by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) is completed.  Remember that the USPS tried to change delivery days to Monday through Friday — dropping Saturday delivery to save money — and was prohibited from doing so by the Congress.

As explained on the editorial page, Congress is considering a “tax extenders bill” to continue specific tax exemptions or tax breaks for special interests for everything from Puerto Rican rum to auto race tracks.  Historically, there are no increased revenue sources nor spending off-sets from other parts of the budget to pay for these special exemptions.  Yet, the proposed extension of added unemployment benefits is held up by those that insist it cannot be passed without corresponding reductions to “pay for it” in other areas.

Despite the chemical spill in West Virginia that contaminated the water supply for hundreds of thousands for over a week, many in Congress still want to eliminate or severely inhibit the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

I could go on.  This was only in a few pages of one paper today.  Puhleeze!  Spare me!  Enough!

This is the same Congress that has members that want to do away with or at least limit unemployment benefits, significantly reduce SNAP (food stamps), reduce the Cost of Living (COLA) payments to veterans, and on and on.

By focusing on the deficit and deficit reduction, some members have put their energy on the wrong issue.  While there is little criticism of trying to get spending under control, the real issue is where the money is spent and how effective it is in achieving the intended result.  Focusing only on dollar amounts and screaming about debt limits does little to enhance the effectiveness of government in achieving those things that can only be done on the scale needed to get at root problems.  And it does not help their credibility as they continue to add pork barrel spending while the demagoguery continues about too much spending.

I understand that some of the spending outlined above is about the give and take of doing business in our government following many,  many years of doing business in that way.  Sometimes these “add-ons” grease the wheels of progress towards larger issues.  I get that.

My problem is the callous deceit and phony-baloney lecturing about getting spending under control by focusing on spending on social issues while at the same time inflating spending in order to satisfy special interests that support their re-election.

While this is nothing new, I suppose, I have just grown tired of all of the posturing and self-righteousness that has no actual meaning.  Governing our country is a messy business and politics are a necessary part of it.  What I miss is a clear vision for the country and demonstrable leadership that extends beyond parochial interests or self-promotion.

One cannot be a “leader” in name only.  It must be demonstrated and focused towards a definable goal that contributes to society.

Where are the leaders?

Here We Go Again

Yesterday there was another school shooting.  This one was in a middle school in New Mexico.  This is the thirty-third shooting of one kind or another at a school since the 14 December 2012 massacre of twenty children and six adults at Newtown, Connecticut.

Even the Russians cannot believe what is happening with gun violence in the United States.

It is impossible for me to accept that nobody cares enough to do something about it.  Turning our schools into armed fortresses is not the answer.

There is an epidemic of gun violence that needs to be addressed.

What Does Our Nation Want?

For it’s Tommy this an’ Tommy that, and “Chuck ‘im out the brute!”

But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot,

An’ it’s Tommy this an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please,

Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool — you bet that Tommy sees!

— From “Tommy” by Rudyard Kipling

Before breaking for the holiday recess, the House and Senate both approved The Ryan-Murray Budget Compromise Act of 2013.  The bill creates the framework for budget issues for the next two years and is designed to eliminate the partisan in-fighting that caused our nation to lurch from “fiscal cliff to fiscal cliff” and reached its zenith (or nadir depending on one’s view) with the government shutdown last fall.

To many, the compromise is a good news/bad news piece of legislation.  The good news is that the Congress promises to do its fundamental job — authorize and appropriate funds for the functioning of government.  The bad news is that it does not take on any of the difficult fiscal challenges facing our nation.  Except one.  The Act includes a provision to decrease the Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) for military retirees that are younger than 62 every year until they reach that age.  Beginning in December 2015, every serving military person and retiree under age 62 will be impacted.  The reasoning was that personnel costs are allegedly escalating out of control and eating up too much of the Pentagon’s budget.  The “entitlements” (more on that later) that retired military personnel are receiving are “out of control,” or so the reasoning goes, and therefore the military services cannot properly finance and build modern equipment or even provide proper training for currently serving forces.  The sequester and other budget cuts, of course, have nothing to do with it.  Apparently, needing people to man the new equipment has nothing to do with it either because if those people do not feel that they are being properly treated, then they will leave.

In  the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I am a twenty-eight year veteran of the Navy and my spouse is a twenty year veteran.  Depending on what source you look at, the impact of the change to COLA is minimal or will have a major financial impact on those leaving the service following their retirement.  Plenty has been written on that, including editorials from major news organizations that it is a “minor” inconvenience and the rebuttals from veterans groups that it is a “major” breach of faith.

I do not intend to get into the dollars and cents arguments.  I intend to take a different view as to what it all does, or at least could, mean.  First however, I would like to take issue with two points often made in defense of the Congressional action.  One is that the military, especially retirees, have too many “entitlements” and that it is not fair to the rest of the citizenry since the pension model used by the military is “antiquated” and not in keeping with current business practices.

Let’s be clear, the military, active or retired, receives no, zero, nada, zilch in the way of “entitlements.”  They do have a benefit package that is designed to keep people in the military for twenty years or more.  Look at it as an attempt to keep people around in order to get a return on the investment spent in training and equipping those people to be the best fighting force in the world.  Additionally, regardless of “best business practices”, the last time I looked the military was not a business.  Trying to compare it to any corporation fundamentally shows a complete lack of understanding about what the life of a service member is like.

The second point is that many argue that in times of tough financial decisions, everyone must do their “fair share.”  I note that the Congress chose to only put the fair share burden on folks that have literally offered to lay down their lives for the rest of the country.  After twelve years of war, the only sacrifice asked of the citizens of the United States that are not in uniform or have family members in uniform is to…. is to…. is to….. On second thought I cannot think of a single sacrifice asked of the rest of the country to support the war effort, other than President Bush encouraging people to show the courage to go to the mall and carry on with their normal lives and to spend money to keep the economy going.  I think that service members have already done their “fair share.”

However, I would like to take a different approach to the questions, and get to the real point of this piece.  The United States must decide what kind of military it wants to have as we move through the twenty-first century.  Whereas I am not claiming that there are no economies to be had in the way that the leadership in the Pentagon currently spends money, I am saying that a global fighting force able to reach anywhere in the world and succeed does not come cheaply.  To train and equip a force with the capabilities that we currently possess, and to succeed in the endeavors the American people think important, is expensive.  That expense includes paying service members a wage that allows them to take care of their families and it includes providing benefits that entice combat experienced and well-trained leaders, officer and enlisted, to stay in for a career.  As my former boss RADM Wayne E. Meyer would say in terms of desired capabilities to be built into warships, “she costs what she costs.”  In other words, if you want a given capability it is going to cost a certain amount.  If you do not want to spend that money, then you will not get the capability.

Among other proposals percolating through the halls of the Pentagon is one that is oft touted in editorials and opinion pieces.  That is to do away with the current retirement system and move to a “401-K type” system where service members essentially pay for their own retirement (with some matching funds from the government), are invested after their initial commitment, can leave at any time with some retirement income, and regardless of years served, no one can draw upon it until age 62.  The details are to be worked out, but all of us are probably in similar plans so we understand the basic concept.

If such a plan is adopted, you will see the slow destruction of our military.  Let’s think about this.  Take a typical mid-grade officer or senior enlisted.  They have about 8-10 years experience and the nation has invested a lot of money in training them and equipping them to be the best in the world.  They likely have a wife (or husband) and two children, with the promise of more on the way.  Why in the world would they risk their lives by going off to Afghanistan or Iraq or some other foreign land for a year at a time, every other year, to get shot at and possibly killed or maimed for life when we offer them the same retirement plan as the neighbor who has a nine to five job, comes home every night to his family, and does not risk his life on a continuing basis?  Most people do not join the military for the money.  Some will stay on because of a sense of duty and because they enjoy the camaraderie, adventure and excitement or some other personal motivation.  Young people are young people and there is much appeal in joining the military.  As many of us know, however, when we start to get older and take on the responsibilities of a family, our priorities often change and with that would inevitably come a re-evaluation of making a career in the military.  Thus, given continued recruiting efforts,  we would probably have sufficient numbers of new recruits to fill the ranks (I for one never thought about retirement benefits when I first entered the Navy), but at some point we will begin to lose our mid-grade leaders that are vital to effectively leading troops into battle and on missions of high importance.

If we truly want to save money, go back to the draft.  It would also create the “citizen army” that many think we ought to have in the first place.  But it would not be the same fighting force we have today.  I served in the era of the draft, but thankfully most of my service was in the all volunteer force (AVF).  With no disrespect to those that served during the draft, many of whom were great soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, the AVF is across the board a far more professional force capable of the successes our nation has had since its implementation.  The citizen in me thinks a draft is a good idea, but the professional sailor that I was knows that the AVF was far and away a better idea.  However, it does not come cheaply and thus my point, the nation must decide what kind of military it wants and then be willing to pay for it.

In the post-Vietnam era, many administrations (Republican and Democrat) have taken the approach that we need to keep our technical and technological edge and thus money for the military should be spent on research, development and procurement of “things.”  Cut people because they are expensive and we can always get people when we need them, or so the theories go.  Time and again we forget that it takes people to operate that equipment and to actually go in harm’s way and that if they are not properly trained, and just as importantly, experienced, then our nation has wasted a lot of money on equipment that cannot be used to its full potential — not to mention the lives that are lost until we figure it out.

If we want a “citizen army” of conscripts augmenting a small core of neglected professionals in time of war (the model our nation used until the Korean War) then so be it.  However, we cannot be a major player in world affairs today with that type of military.

Undoubtedly there are areas of savings within the military budget that can help the nation reel in some of its expenditures and get back on a firm financial footing.  There are probably areas where retirees can contribute more, but without giving the impression that the nation is reneging on its contract with those willing to risk their lives.  Note that the budget compromise impacts no other group with a contract with America.  No changes to Medicaid, Social Security or other citizen-government agreements.  I would speculate that they chose military retirees because they “had to do something” to show they are trying to reign in expenses, but figured that since by one account only 0.45% of Americans serve in the military now (as opposed to 11.2% in World War II and 4.3% during the Korean War), they would be facing a very small group of citizens pushing back on their decision.  Most people just are not impacted, aware, or care.

My basic point remains.  Regardless of the dollar amounts or motivations of Congress, the real issue is not how much retirees should be paid.  Rather it is more fundamental.  What kind of military does the nation want?  What do we think our place in the world will be or should be?  Do financial constraints take precedence over being a world military power?  Is military power even relevant anymore?  These are the questions that should be answered first, and then we find out what “she costs.”