Opinion

The Great Debate

What public unions and gay marriage have in common

The political fireworks in Wisconsin, culminating in the recent unsuccessful recall election of the Republican governor, Scott Walker, have a lot of people saying good riddance to public-sector unions. Last year, Walker and the Wisconsin state legislature enacted Wisconsin Act 10, stripping most – though crucially not all – of the state’s public unions of their most fundamental powers, including collective bargaining and the ability to deduct dues from workers’ paychecks. Many observers – and not only Republicans – have signaled their approval, arguing that public unions – representing teachers, bus drivers, healthcare workers – shouldn’t exist in the first place.

“Public sector unions have reached their high water mark,” a Forbes columnist cheered last week. “Let the cleanup begin as the red ink recedes.”

It turns out, however, that killing off public-sector unions is a lot harder than most people imagine. And, curiously, the reason is related to recent court decisions about gay marriage. Late last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional and cannot be enforced. The principle is equal protection under the law: If you allow same-sex couples to marry – as eight states and the District of Columbia now do – you can’t economically discriminate against them (by denying the ability to file joint tax returns or withholding Social Security benefits) simply because they are not heterosexual.

A related principle holds for public-sector unions. If you allow workers to join labor unions, there are significant legal limits to how much the state can discriminate between “good” unions and “bad” unions. In other words, those that shouldn’t be quashed and those that can be. In fact, while few outside of Wisconsin appear to have noticed, in late March a U.S. court struck down as unconstitutional key provisions of Wisconsin Act 10. And while we didn’t hear much about it through the din of the recall effort, a few weeks ago many of Wisconsin’s public unions returned to automatically deducting dues from their members’ paychecks.

From a legal perspective, the Wisconsin law has something of an Achilles’ heel. It created an unprecedented distinction between “public safety” employees (basically police and firefighters) and “general” state employees (everybody else), and did not restrict the organizing or collective-bargaining abilities of unions in the former group. The stated rationale for this disparate treatment was that restricting the bargaining rights of police and firefighters might make it more likely for them to strike, which would threaten public safety. (This is a somewhat strange argument, particularly since Wisconsin already prohibits those workers from striking. It has been widely noted that police and firefighters’ unions are the only ones in the state that back Walker politically, and even his supporters acknowledge that the law was unlikely to pass without those the backing of those unions.)

Sometimes leaking classified information is perfectly fine

The brewing controversy over leaks of classified information presumes that disclosures of classified information to unauthorized persons are always impermissible and undesirable. But that presumption does not correspond precisely to the reality of government operations as they are conducted in practice.

The leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees said last week that they would work “to ensure that criminal and administrative measures are taken each time sensitive information is improperly disclosed.”

In fact, however, classified information is frequently disclosed at the interface between national security agencies and the news media. This is not necessarily a surreptitious or underhanded process. Rather, though it is not often discussed, it is how the system normally functions.

Secret emails show Romney’s approval of health mandate

If the U.S. Supreme Court decides later this month that President Obama’s healthcare plan is unconstitutional, most Republicans will be rejoicing. But none more so than Mitt Romney, who has made revoking the Affordable Care Act a principal plank of his platform. The Court will have saved him from having to explain an embarrassing batch of recently discovered confidential emails from the time he was governor of Massachusetts.

What opponents of the law that mandates every American buy private health insurance call “Obamacare” should more properly be called “Romneycare,” as the scheme Romney introduced in Massachusetts in 2006 is nearly identical to the one Obama introduced in 2010. Indeed, Romney’s plan is still in place and working well, and there is no groundswell in Massachusetts to abandon it. The president’s people, when drawing up their healthcare scheme, drew heavily on Romney’s experience. The fact that Senator Edward Kennedy approved of Romneycare and even agreed to be photographed with the governor when it passed into law gave the Obama camp an added incentive to follow in Romney’s footsteps.

To add to the ideological confusion surrounding Obama’s plan, Romney’s health scheme was inspired by Stuart M. Butler of the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank. In the 1989 Heritage document “A National Health System for America,” Butler proposed that “every resident of the U.S. must, by law, be enrolled in an adequate health care plan to cover major health care costs.”

It’s shortsighted for Congress to eliminate census data

As America’s national leaders get ready to tackle the country’s serious challenges, they will need solid information on which to base their decisions.

Unfortunately, with its recent vote to defund the American Community Survey, the U.S. House of Representatives has undercut the most dependable source of information they should be relying upon.

The House voted to cut all funding for the Census Bureau’s annual collection of data on the economic, demographic and housing characteristics of U.S. households. Backers of the plan called the annual survey of 3 million random households “unconstitutional” and “an invasion of privacy” and balked at the relatively modest price tag of $2.4 billion a decade. This action, along with a current move in the Senate to enact “compromise” legislation that would make the American Community Survey (ACS) voluntary, works against laudable efforts by Congress to eliminate ineffective programs and curtail government waste.

Mitt Romney’s inflated fearmongering

“I wish I could tell you that the world is a safe place today. It’s not.” With these words, delivered at a Memorial Day commemoration last Monday in San Diego, Mitt Romney perpetuated what is perhaps the greatest single myth in American foreign policy – that we live in a world of lurking danger and rising threats.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the world today is safer than at any point in human history. Wars of all kind, including civil wars, are on the decline; and inter-state war, in particular, is even rarer. According to the Uppsala University Conflict Database, in 1992, there were 53 armed conflicts raging in 39 countries around the world; in 2010, there were 30 armed conflicts in 25 countries.

And when wars do occur, they are for the most part low-intensity conflicts that, on average, kill about 90 percent fewer people than did violent struggles in the 1950s, according to the Human Security Report Project at the School for International Studies at Simon Fraser University. In fact, the first 10 years of this century witnessed fewer deaths from war than any decade in the last century

Is America tipping toward a British system of government?

Sixty years ago in London, Queen Elizabeth was crowned in succession to her father, the now famously stammering chain-smoker George VI. For most Brits the queen’s Diamond Jubilee is a chance to celebrate her reign with street parties, fireworks, concerts, and pageants along the Thames. They will be toasting the woman who has so far presided over 12 prime ministers, including perhaps the greatest of them all, Winston Churchill.

It is a mark of Elizabeth’s benign demeanor and quiet charm that she will be celebrated not only in the 54 member states of the Commonwealth, the independent nations that were Britain’s former colonies and dominions, but around the world, too. Few countries do pomp as well as the Brits, as the weddings of Prince William to Kate and Prince Charles to Diana attest. But not all Americans, when they watch the Jubilee, will  grasp the true role of the queen.

She is a constitutional monarch, which means she wields no political power. She personifies the state and opens sessions of Parliament by reading out the new legislative program her prime ministers have written, as if she herself had decided what the people need. She keeps her views strictly to herself and does as she is asked by elected officials, whether it is greeting fellow heads of state or dubbing new knights with a sword.

Why your cell phone is ripe for spam texts in 2012

In the late 1970s, the cutting edge of communications technologies was the autodialer, a machine capable of calling up scores of people in one shot, with little human involvement. It was innovative, and annoying. By the early ’90s, Congress had had enough. “Computerized calls,” railed South Carolina Democrat Fritz Hollings from the Senate floor, “are the scourge of modern civilization.”

And so, Congress legislated. But the focus was on commercial calls. Mindful of the free flow of speech and – let’s be honest – interested in self-preservation, lawmakers exempted political calls from its Telecommunications Consumer Protection Act. But Congress decided that some phones were too sensitive to get even autodialed political calls: those in hospitals, those designated for emergency purposes – and those in our pockets.

But here we are, some two decades later, and voters across the country are getting political text messages they never asked for.

What would Romney do about Syria?

According to recent news reports, the Romney foreign policy team is trying to figure out what the presumptive Republican candidate thinks America’s role in the world should be. He’s been clear regarding the Iranian nuclear weapons program, promising that if he’s elected, Iran won’t get the bomb. But what about Afghanistan, say, or China? With less than six months left till Election Day, is he going to articulate distinctive foreign policy positions, or will he let Obama dictate the terms of the debate?

It would be understandable, given Romney’s desire to keep focused on jobs and the economy, if he were reluctant to get too far into the weeds on foreign policy. But come November, the American people will not be electing a financial adviser. They’ll be electing the leader of a world power.

Romney should not actually have much trouble outflanking Obama on foreign policy. The White House prides itself, rightly, on killing Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, and other jihadists who threatened U.S. citizens, interests and allies. But the national security strategy of a superpower with interests across the world cannot be reduced to counterterrorism. Nor can our global responsibilities be fulfilled, in the immortal phrase, by “leading from behind.”

Is Mitt Romney the last true believer in austerity?

There is something oddly retro about Mitt Romney. He appears to have sprung from a nostalgic fifties “Hairspray” world where women sported beehives and cars had fins. Nor has his economic thinking kept up with the times. Although he backed Obama’s $787 billion-dollar Keynesian stimulus, as soon as the borrowers’ remorse that sparked the Tea Party took hold, he turned on a dime and embraced austerity and paying off the national debt.

As he declares on his website: “The only recipe for fiscal health and a thriving private economy is a government that spends within its means.” He signed the “cut, cap and balance” pledge that will tie his hands if he makes it to the White House. Not trusting himself, perhaps, to remain fiscally continent, he favors an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, obliging Congress to put balancing the budget before all other measures. He would cap federal spending at 20 percent of GDP, a feat that would entail about $500 billion in cuts. On day one of his presidency, he says he would send Congress a bill that would cut non-security discretionary spending by 5 percent.

His proposed economies include (his estimates in parentheses): repealing Obama’s healthcare plan ($95 billion); privatizing Amtrak ($1.6 billion); reducing federal payments to the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Legal Services Corporation ($600 million); eliminating family planning subsidies ($300 million); cutting foreign aid ($100 million); capping Medicaid (more than $100 billion); replacing only half those who leave the federal workforce ($4 billion); ending the Davis-Bacon Act ($11 billion) and paying federal employees lower wages ($47 billion); and that old elusive crowd-pleaser, reducing waste and fraud ($60 billion).

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