Friday, December 08, 2006

PA General Assembly should follow the rules

In response to Sen. Jay Costa's commentary "Restore Trust First: It's Time to Change the Way State Legislators Do Business" (Dec. 1), I am in agreement with the proposed rule changes and reforms that have been recommended and hope our Legislature does even more to see that the people's business is done in a moral, ethical, open and honest way.
After gambling lobbyists' contributions have quadrupled, even more must be done to stop their anonymous influence, as well as those of other profit-seeking lobbyists. That influence was observed in the recent lame-duck session in Harrisburg.
The Legislature decided to offer us free drinks at gambling facilities as part of 26 pages of amendments to a bill. This decision was done without public hearings or input, without the constitutionally required waiting period and without giving small business owners who will be affected by this provision the time to contact their representatives and let them know how it may affect them. The people were left out.
This was done even after a bipartisan House group signed on to the reform agenda. Twenty-three of the 53 House members of this group voted for these recent changes.
While Sen. Costa's initiatives should be commended and would be a great service to the commonwealth, a greater service would be done if the members of the General Assembly simply followed the rules and reform proposals that are already in place.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Pittsburgh Post Gazette Perspective 11/12/06

This is the original post. Some editing was done on publication in, The Pittsburgh Post Gazette: Perspectives Op/Ed.

Knocking on doors, manning information and voter registration tables, and just discussing political issues invariably leads to responses such as, “They’re all the same.” “There’s nothing we can do about it.” “They’re all in it together.” Many voters are just tired of the current political climate, partisan bickering, and gerrymandered districts. Many do not see why their involvement really matters.

In Pennsylvania, this attitude changed after the worst political blunder this state has ever seen, the infamous Two AM legislative pay raise. An ill advised move by the Legislature that was unconstitutional and arguably illegal. In the following election a PA Supreme Court judge was sent packing and in the May primary 47 state legislators, including two leaders, were either defeated or retired--choosing not to run a campaign.

This past Tuesday seven more members (at last count) were sent home. They included one of its most powerful house members, who opted to fly to work apparently more often than he drove. In a legislative body that typically boasts a 98% retention rate, where death and retirement are more common than election defeat, this was remarkable change.

The average voter, choosing to vote about 25% of the time, is also a forgiving voter. We look to our elected officials to “learn a lesson” and change things for the better, because, after all, they work for us. Several Western PA Legislators listened and formed the bipartisan house reform group, which the Post Gazette reported on this past July: House Rebels try to break the iron grip of leadership. Its members include: Paul Costa, Peter Daley, Frank Dermondy, Brian Ellis, David Levdansky, Mark Mustio, John Pallone, Joseph Petrarca, Harry Readshaw, Jess Stairs, Tom Stevenson, and Thomas Tangretti.

This past summer the Reform Initiative met and devised four groups: Rules Revision, House and Caucus Operations, Campaign Finance Reform, and Constitutional Convention Research. The subtitle of this initiative is, “Restoring Faith in Pennsylvania Government, an Agenda for Reform.” Some measure, although not a strong measure, of lobbying reform has already passed in the House. They note that a “myriad” of campaign finance proposals exist and are the members are seeking common ground prior to moving forward. A constitutional convention has been discussed as has making legislative accounts open to the public.

While this is a positive start, several other reforms are screaming to be implemented. Many legislators sign on to bills simply for PR value. Bills should be limited in number to focus on legislative priorities, then be discussed and voted on, which does not always happen. Many bills that are written are never debated on the floor. Our public records should be the most open in the country. The size and cost of the legislature and its perks and expenses should be reduced. Term limits should be instituted and leadership positions rotated. Too often the power in Pennsylvania is held in the leadership’s hands and out of the hands of rank and file members. Discussion and exchange of good ideas may never occur. Perhaps, most importantly, legislative districts must be reflective of the citizens, and should be drawn by a neutral body so all races are competitive, voters have a choice, and legislators records are held to a high level of scrutiny.

We typically don’t have legislators on the news, on the radio, or in the newspapers to congratulate them for a move in the right direction. Listeners don’t call talk shows to heap praise on governmental agencies. We only seem to only pay attention when they stray from public service to self service. The House reform group is a step in the right direction, away from the “iron grip of leadership”, and toward reform for the people.

It should become clear that we are the driving change in this state government. Voters are the leaders and have initiated this change. Voters will also implement change in the future when they are offered an alternative, qualified candidate at the polls. We should have competitive elections, not unopposed candidates. If we want Pennsylvania to rise to its potential, if we want our population to stay here and have opportunities for success, we must stay involved. Contact your legislatures with your ideas and follow up to see where the reform process is headed. More importantly, demand results.

In 2004, 18 of 218 state legislators had primary and general election opponents. In the November 2006 election 168 of the 228 seats available were competitive. This, along with the May turnover of 47 seats, is a clear indication that an energized electorate can and has made a difference in the members of our state government. My current total shows that there will be a change in one quarter of the state legislature when they meet in 2007 in Harrisburg. This is nearly 14 times the typical legislative turnover. This change is truly amazing.

Upcoming elections will ask the voters if judges should be retained and bring the remainder of the PA State Senate to face the voters. The legislative (and judicial) pay raise issue may not have the legs it had in the May primary and my not cross party lines, but it will still be a topic of Pennsylvania’s political discourse for some time to come. It will be an historical reminder of, We the People. Edmund Burk once said, “In all forms of government the people is the true legislator.” After the election this November, the people’s work will begin.

Good Bye Rick Santorum

Good Bye Rick and … Thanks?

I am glad the majority of voters in PA have rejected Rick Santorum. Rick Santorum is a rigid ideologist whose policies are driven by his beliefs (or politically needed positions) versus objective realities.
He supported regime change in Iran, militarily if needed, even though we have a debacle in next door Iraq. He used divisive issues in a time when we are divided enough. Instead of compromising on civil unions, he tried to use the constitution to discriminate against gay people and has compared their relationships to bestiality. (Note the infamous, “What’s next, man on dog?”) He wanted us to be afraid, very afraid of an intercontinental cabal between Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Venezuela, but refused to even investigate reports of disenfranchised voters in Ohio. And worst of all he used his influence to further his political objectives and career goals. Santorum worked to establish the K Street lobbying system that has sold our federal policy to the highest bidder and routinely allowed lobbyists to write our legislation.
Former Senator Santorum’s election night concession was eloquent and polite, and he is a respectable man, but he was divisive, extreme senator, and frequently misrepresented the facts to fit his beliefs.
Santorum supporters do not have to worry, like all elected rigid ideologists who fail to force their goals on the majority; Santorum will find his way as a lobbyists or right wing think tank “contributor.” He may even run for president with full K Street backing. His platform could include preemptive attacks on sovereign nations and federal legislation preventing your dog from licking your face. Those of us who are tired of these extreme politics will be glad to see him go, but, like all who use public service for self promotion, he will not go quietly.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Recruitment Facts

Senator John Kerry made comments that were reported to be demeaning to our brave men and women in the armed forces. The quote was not taken in context, and the entire statement was clearly aimed at President Bush. This is a clear example of how a misreporting event can be re-reported throughout the 24 hour news cycle, and eventually taken as fact.
It seems that we should be concerned with issues, positions and actual facts.

Let's look at the following data:
- higher recruitment ratings are found in poorer counties nationwide
- the highest recruitment levels are in Montana and the lowest Rhode Island
- high income areas (household incomes over $60,000) are underrepresented and low and middle income areas are overrepresented
- the average number (per county) of recruits in is 1.6 per 1,000 (males aged 18-24)
- rural area have more recruits
- 86% of army recruits have graduated high school
- the government spends 4 billion dollars per year in its recruitment budget
- I can find no data correlating college degrees and military enlistment. This is not surprising when you consider most high school graduates choose a trade, college, or the military.

From this data we can conclude that military enlistments are much lower in families who have higher income levels. This is not to say that those individuals may not join the military through ROTC or other programs. However our armed forces are staffed, we should respect those who serve, honor their commitment and hold their leaders to a high degree of accountability when calling them into service.

Partially reported quotes taken out of context for partisan attacks hold no one accountable.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Stop Cluster Bombs

What follows is my reply and Senator's Specter's letter re: requesting he support stopping the sale of cluster bombs by The United States.

Honorable Senator Specter,

You say "it is your belief" that this government will work and create a peaceful region. Is "your belief", which I fully respect, worth the lives of thousands of our soldiers, injuries to over 10,000, Iraqi deaths of somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 and a lack of recorded numbers when it comes to their injuries--was all that worth "your belief."
If you are not in favor of a timeline, how much more do you want to see our troops do? 5,000 more dead? 2,500 more amputees? When will we place the future of Iraq in the hands of Iraqis? We have done enough and we should transition now. Remember the Marshall plan?
I do not understand "your belief" and why you think more of this occupation is the only answer. Strategic strikes and a UN force, such as what occurred in Kosovo, would have been more practical, and without loss of life, and without collateral or civilian damage. No one knows what the future holds, but you have the influence to begin that change NOW.
Thank You for your reply.
Steve Karas


Dear Mr. Karas:
Thank you for contacting my office regarding the ongoing situation in Iraq . I appreciate your taking the time to bring your views on this important matter to my attention.
Although I have many concerns about the situation in Iraq , it is important to note that positive steps towards establishing a lasting Iraqi democracy have been taken. In 2005, Iraqis went to the polls three times. In January, elections were held to select a Transitional National Assembly as well as local assemblies in each of Iraq 's eighteen provinces, and a regional assembly in Kurdistan . In October, the Iraqi people voted to ratify a new national constitution. In December, Iraqis of all sects and ethnic groups voted for representatives in a new National Assembly. Today, Iraq is governed by the first freely elected permanent government in the nation's history.
Iraq is currently the only constitutional democracy in the Arab world. It is my belief that a lasting democracy in Iraq will aid in stabilizing the region and show the world, especially Arab nations, that America did not wage war for its own gain, but for the purpose of eliminating the menace of Saddam Hussein.

On the issue of troop withdrawal, it is my opinion that setting a definitive timeline would be a mistake. I believe a withdrawal must be done in consultation with military commanders, and after a thorough assessment of the strength of both the new Iraqi army and the insurgency. However, I believe 2006 should be a year of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty, with Iraqi security forces taking the lead for securing the country. I do not believe U.S. forces should remain in Iraq any longer than necessary. As ever increasing numbers of Iraqi security forces are trained and able to conduct operations on their own, U.S. forces should gradually redeploy.
Thank you again for contacting me. The concerns of my constituents are of great importance to me, and I rely on you and other Pennsylvanians to inform me of your views. Should you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to contact my office or visit my website at .
Arlen Specter

Friday, January 06, 2006

Murtha's War II: Edited and Published in The Pittsburgh Tribune Review

This is the published and edited letter. The original is entitled, "Which way to an exit strategy?", on this blog. This text is provided for readers to compare the submission with the printed version.

Murtha's war II
Tuesday, December 6, 2005
All we have heard when we as citizens ask for a plan to end the Iraq war is that "we will stay the course."
That is the answer you expect from a 6-year-old when you ask when he will be ready to leave and he answers, "When I am ready to leave."
Many citizens of both political parties who opposed and supported the war should be grateful to Rep. Murtha for his reasonable, and emotional, call for an exit strategy. Instead of welcoming the debate out of respect for our soldiers, the president and his administration immediately Swift-boated the congressman.
We all can agree that even the Democratic Party has not aggressively promoted a specific strategy for leaving Iraq. The president could address the Congress, admit his mistakes, and work toward a quick and safe resolution. Instead he attacked anyone who disagrees with his lack of policy.
We have a leader who will not lead and a Congress that is too divided to force his hand. The public cannot be ignored and we cannot be Swift-boated. We should continue to push the president and the Congress for answers and a quick and reasonable end to this war. This seems appropriate for the safety our soldiers, the concerns of their families and the future of the Iraqi people.
We must be the leaders we do not have.
Steve Karas Forest Hills