Wednesday, April 28, 2010

How Much Government is Good Government?

The Founding Fathers Supported Powerful Government

The modern age has only complicated this question, one that has been argued over since before the founding of the Republic. In the years of the dawn of America, our Founding fathers attempted a confederation, with a weak central government and strong state governments. This arrangement was constructed in reaction to the powerful influence of the British crown, which the revolutionaries saw as oppressive, and from which they ultimately declared their independence. When chaos and anarchy emerged as the dominant atmosphere during the years following independence, the political establishment saw the need for a stronger central government, one that would hold the fledgling republic together, give the central government the power to tax, and to put teeth behind the government’s ability to enforce its own laws.

Freedom From Government?

The end result was the writing of the Federal constitution, effectively ending the confederation period, starting the Federal government, and the establishment of the most effective form of governance ever constructed in the history of the planet. The Constitution has been amended only 17 times since the adoption of the Bill of Rights, a package of ten amendments that secured the individual liberties of the nation’s citizens, placing limits on the intrusiveness of the federal government. These limits insure that citizens receive due process of law. The government cannot take life, liberty, or property without going through various legal steps that place an element of fairness on the process. The Fourteenth Amendment applies these standards to the states and insures that all citizens receive “equal protection of the law.”

The shift from confederation to federal system helped concentrate power at the federal level in what would become Washington, DC. State governments have their own designated powers, and they also share important powers with the federal government. Our republic is a representative democracy, where the lawmakers are elected by the people, who count on their elected officials to carry out their will through the passage and execution of the laws that the officials create. The people have some influence over the development of statutory law, but for the most part, their most powerful weapon is the ballot box, a tool which they can use to remove lawmakers who are not responsive to the will of the electorate.

The Emergence of the Welfare State

The role of government in the economy and in our lives in general is a major issue that defines the two major political parties in the United States. In modern politics, Republicans have been warning the American people about out of control federal spending since the rise of Reagan’s “new federalism” in the early 1980s. They have sounded the hue and cry of the dangers of massive federal deficits, and they decry the loss of our constitutional rights that have been eroded by the emergence of a welfare state that has grown in power that rivals the socialist systems of Western Europe. Indeed, the federal deficit doubled during the smoke-and-mirrors accounting of the Bush years, with its two wars and tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Once the groundwork for financial collapse was laid, Barack Obama instituted federal bail-outs of the banking and auto industries that increased the federal government’s involvement in the American economy to a greater degree than had ever previously been recorded. It looked like America was moving toward a socialist economy where the central government allows free enterprise but that directs and manages the major industries. This view was reinforced when Obama argued in favor of a “public option” to reform the American health care system. Conspiracy theorists believed that Obama, while backtracking on the public option, was just inching America’s doctors and hospitals toward a “single payer system,” insisted upon by the left and vilified by the right as “socialized medicine.”

Coffee or Tea?

While most Americans agree that the health care system needs reform in order to reduce costs, end insurance company abuses, and increase the number of Americans with health insurance, the two parties distorted each other’s plans, and even though the Democratic-controlled Congress has passed reform measures into law, more than half of Americans oppose the measures the Congress passed. The Tea Party Movement, an activist, and some would say extremist, off-shoot of the Republican Party, used health care reform as the basis for their opposition to anything stemming from the Obama presidency. The more vocal elements in this movement equate Obama with Hitler and health care reform with socialism and communism. Whether such comparisons are examples of demagoguery is up to the media pundits and Americans who must make such decisions on their own.

The Power to Govern

The willingness of Congress to pass a law which apparently is rejected by the American people is being described as a destruction of American liberty and a violation of the Constitution. The individual mandate to buy health insurance, and the fee levied upon Americans who refuse or fail to do so, is being described as a violation of the Commerce Clause, which, according to health care critics, cannot be used to force Americans to engage in commerce. There are precedents for such an action, but the larger question deals with Congress’ power to enact what it sees as what is right for America, even if it diverges from what is passing for popular opinion. The Elastic Clause, found in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, is conveniently forgotten by the Tea Party’s “strict constructionists.” It states that Congress can pass “all laws necessary and proper” for it to carry out its expressed powers. As any Civics lesson will show, the Elastic Clause “stretches” the power of Congress to a high degree, and it will take one or more lawsuits to test the Constitutionality of the new law, a decision that will be ultimately be made by the Supreme Court. The Founding Fathers knew Congress would encounter unforeseen crises. So they gave it unenumerated powers, or implied powers, needed in modern times.

The Cost of Compromise

If we believe some of the media reports, it would seem that American conservatives are growing increasingly suspicious of their government, even when those who cry out the loudest are members of it. The conservative outcry seemed to coincide with the ascension of Barack Obama, who they claim is usurping American freedom and corrupting the American constitution by increasing the scope of government and by allowing out-of-control spending on the federal level. Conservatives seemed to acquiesce to a powerful federal government during the Bush regime when warrantless searches took place in the wake of the September 11 attacks and when American citizens were arrested without probable cause other than an ethnic-religious similarity to the 911 hijackers. We heard no outcry against invasive government when terror suspects overseas were kidnapped and tortured in secret CIA outposts in a process called rendition. Only when their economic ascendancy is threatened by health care reform and financial regulatory reform to we see a backlash against government in a movement dominated by educated, upper middle class whites. Democrats on the other hand, sink back to their positions of power without giving voice to the concerns of poor Americans, to those who live in the inner cities, or to the struggling middle class, made up of average citizens working hard to hold on to their homes and their jobs.

Every reasonable person agrees that endless deficit spending is counterproductive and unsustainable. Saddling future generations with higher taxes and a federal debt that will only make Washington beholden to foreign governments and foreign economies, weakening America’s economy at home and power overseas. Democrats and Republicans alike have valuable ideas to offer, but they can only be put to work when a spirit of compromise replaces the polarized atmosphere inside the Congress and around the legislative process. Moreover, Barack Obama is the duly elected president of the United States until and unless the voters say otherwise in 2012. If the electorate wants him to govern from the center, our representatives in Congress will have to find solutions to America’s problems that everyone can live with, no matter where they fall on the ideological spectrum.

George Cassutto
Cyberlearning World

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Politics of Polarization: Debating Health Care in America

I have just spent the day on Capitol Hill, surrounded by angry protesters shouting "Kill the Bill!" Called the Tea Party Movement after the Boston Tea Party, where unfair taxation (and the British monopoly on tea imports) was protested by destroying property, the modern anti-government reaction to the liberal revolution of 2008 is reaching a noisy and rambunctious crescendo. As the images reveal, the Tea Party likens the "Obamacare" bill about to be considered by the House tomorrow as "a total government takeover of health care," "the same as socialism that we see in Europe" and even the coming of Marxism and Communism.

In the United States, opposing viewpoints have an equal right to be aired in an open debate. The hallmark of our democracy is found in the First Amendment, where freedom of speech and the freedom to petition the government shall not be abridged by Congress. While I am deeply offended by many of the comparisons made by the Tea Party Movement, such as likening President Obama with Hitler, and the health care reform bill as communism, I believe these protesters differ from those who fought for civil rights, who struggled to bring about equal rights for women, or even those who called for tax cuts and smaller government during the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s. These protesters believe that only their way is the American way. If you believe that health care is a right and the government has a responsibility to preserve that right, then you are branded a communist or socialist. I saw a Tea Party protester point his finger at a man in a wheel chair with sign that said "health care for all." The protester got in his face and said "you don't deserve health care." This is not the America I believe in.

The arguments against the health care bill have merit, but the way these arguments are presented place those who disagree in an anti-American light. It's as though anyone who disagrees with the Tea Party movement should pack up and go to Canada, where socialized medicine is killing the population, according to their world view. What they forget is that last November the American people VOTED for the current Congress and the President on the promise that the health care and insurance system would receive a much needed overhaul. If the bill becomes a flawed act of Congress, then the American people can use the ballot box to remove those who supported the bill out of office. That is the real democratic process. Threats to assassinate the president and others, the use of racial and hateful epithets, and the use of intimidation only reveal the ignorance and reactionary nature of those who would use them.

One more thing. I am a Christian. If you know me, you know how deeply my faith in Christ runs. But I wonder how anyone can reconcile the hatred and lack of compassion that I saw today with their so-called Christian "faith," which they wear so proudly on their sleeve. Christians are called by their Lord to feed the hungry, help the poor and visit the captive. Jesus reached out to the sick to show how to be compassionate to those who had experienced misfortune and who were cast out by their society. How does "hands off my heath care" extend the Christian commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself?" Sure, the politics of health care can be abhorrent, but it seems to be to be an example of hypocrisy to say you're a Christian and then treat the uninsured, and also those who disagree with your view, as though they were the enemy.

I support health care reform with all its warts. Congress needs to discard its fear of losing the next election and do the right thing for the American people. Once the vote is cast, liberals who brought the current Congress and administration in power must match the Tea Party movement with the same vociferous fervor and explain why it was the right thing to do. To quote Lincoln and Obama: "I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true." Just as those who passed social security and Civil Rights had to overcome the vociferous opposition they faced, it is time to live up to this ideal.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Bipartisanship: Can It Be Achieved?

As a follow-up to the State of the Union Address, President Obama met with House Republicans at their retreat in Baltimore on January 29, 2010. He outlined the initiatives he discussed before the nation with an emphasis on job creation and turning around the American economy, an economy that seems to be bogged down in a jobless recovery from what has become the "Great Recession."

The President exhorted the House Republican caucus to be willing to support some of the legislative efforts that his administration has suggested. He also pointed out instances where his policies moved closer to those of the Republican Party. he asked the Republicans to act in a bipartisant fashion by acting to solve the problems faced by the American people rather than digging into an ideological position.

To see the President's remarks and his responses to questions posed by Republican lawmakers, C-SPAN carried the entire exchange and has posted it to its website.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Using the State of the Union in Teaching

Teachers of history, civics, and government may choose to play and discuss President Obama's State of the Union Address given this week to a joint session of Congress and to the nation. The State of the Union address can be used to illustrate the following concepts:

The checks and balances system in the Constitution. The president must report on the state of the Union annually. It also provides a forum for the president to outline his legislative agenda. It also gives him a "bully pulpit" from which he can explain to the nation his position on key issues. President Obama promised to veto bills that do not support his proposed spending freeze. We also saw the president criticize the Supreme Court's recent ruling to declare campaign finance limits as unconstitutional, saying it would open the floodagtes to the influence of foreign corporations on US elections. As a reaction right there during the speech, Justice Samuel Alito silently responded "that's not true." For those on the left, it seemed like a more restrained version of Congressman Joe Wilson's "you lie!" outburst.

The role of the Executive Branch in government. The role of the Executive is to carry out the laws passed by Congress, but the Executive Branch can also suggest the direction Congress should go in creating those laws.

The Legislative Process (how a bill becomes a law). We are seeing this topic unfold in the debate over health care reform. The president asked the Republican Party to end its legislative obstructionism even though the Senate can now bottle up any legislation by way of the filibuster. The election of Republican Scott Brown from Massachusetts can now prevent any successful cloture vote on the part of the Democrats as he holds the 41st Republican vote needed to block such a legislative action.

The two-party system and their ideological differences can be shown by airing the speech as well as the Republican response, given this year by newly elected Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. Students should be asked to apply each party's idological platform to the proposals seen in each speech to understand the basis of contemporary American political culture.

Teachers can play the speech using C-Span or on video tape if they were proactive enough to tape it. Students should be asked to take notes and respond in debate or written format to show they understand the content and importance of the State of the Union Address.

Until next time,

George Cassutto
Teacher, Author, Webmaster

Friday, January 29, 2010

Welcome to News in the Classroom

The Social Studies classroom needs to have current events to keep things fresh. History teachers can use current events to make their content relevant to their students' lives. Civics and Government teachers can use current events to illustrate what they are teaching. Current events can also be used to make Geography, Environmental Science, Law, and Psychology more interesting and more real to students in the classroom. That's the purpose of this blog -- to help teachers and students make sense of what is happening in the world and see how the social sciences are alive today.

Look for our first discussion to be published soon!

George Cassutto