This originally appeared in Newsday on April 23, 2009
The truth on torture; We need commission to sort it all out
The nation needs to resolve its ambivalence about torture. The debate intensified Tuesday when President Barack Obama opened the door to prosecuting Bush administration lawyers who crafted legal rationalizations for waterboarding and other abusive interrogation techniques. And now that their "torture memos" are public, Vice President Dick Cheney wants other memos declassified that he said document that the techniques made America safer.
Those two positions frame the dispute: Is torture a morally indefensible act to be shunned and punished, or a useful tool to be embraced, in extreme situations, to advance national security?
What's needed is a bipartisan "truth commission," to uncover what was done, who ordered it, whether reliable information was obtained, and if less abusive methods would have worked as well. All of the relevant documents should be made public, so we can see what information was obtained and its relevance. That would provide the facts for an informed national debate over whether the process can ever be justified. And it would let the world know that this nation still respects the law and human rights.
What's not needed are noisy, partisan congressional hearings that would distract attention from problems like the economy. Prosecutions wouldn't be very productive either.
Obama ruled out charging CIA operatives if they abused prisoners in good faith, based on assurances from superiors that it was legal. But in a break with his previous stance, Obama now says Attorney General Eric Holder will determine whether to charge President George W. Bush's lawyers. But the lawyers didn't authorize abusive interrogations. That order had to have come from senior officials, possibly Bush himself. Prosecuting them would tie the nation in knots when it can least afford it.
What's important is that the public learn the truth.
This originally appeared in Newsday on April 19, 2009
Time to fix our broken immigration system
The nation remains passionately divided on immigration, but most people can agree on two things: One, the current system is broken. And two, we really need one that isn't. So when President Barack Obama pushed in recent days for another round of debate on immigration reform, he didn't just make good on a campaign promise, he also responded to a real national need.
But the agenda he has laid out for the nation and Congress is ambitious. And with the economy, health care and energy clearly commanding the top spots, critics can legitimately question whether there's room for immigration. But ignoring the issue won't make it go away.
Not with 12 million people in the country illegally, and the problem of a porous border with Mexico compounded by the deadly traffic in assault weapons flowing south. And not with undocumented day-laborers in search of work jamming streets on Long Island and elsewhere, saddling communities with a problem they didn't create and can do little to solve. To be effective, reform will have to be national. But getting it done won't be easy.
Immigration reform died in 2007, despite the backing of President George W. Bush and bipartisan support in Congress, because too many people simply didn't believe Washington would, or could, secure the borders and slow the illegal flow of people into the country.
That skepticism will be heightened this time around by the nation's wretched economy. Making the illegal legal is a hard sell when people are worried about losing their jobs.
There is an economic case to be made for inviting undocumented workers to come out of the shadows. They would pay more in payroll and income taxes if allowed to work legally rather than being trapped in the underground cash economy. And working illegally off the books means they can be paid less than others, and can't complain about poor working conditions - which creates unfair competition for legal workers and drives their wages down.
But for reform efforts to succeed this time around, the public has to be convinced that it won't be a repeat of 1986, when anyone who had been in the country continuously since 1982 was given amnesty. The tighter borders and tougher enforcement promised then didn't slow illegal immigration. No one wants to look up in another 23 years and find that there's yet another new underground pool of millions here illegally.
To prevent that, reform must be comprehensive. It should include more secure borders and tougher workplace enforcement, a guest worker program attuned to the needs of the economy, and a route to legalization for undocumented immigrants already in the country.
But providing a path to legalization and making it harder to cross the border and work illegally isn't enough. Reform should also include a better system for legal immigration. The one in place now can be an interminable bureaucratic hell for people trying to do things the right way. If offered an efficient system that allows a reasonable number of people to immigrate legally, many of those desperate to get here would use it rather than risk illegal entry and exploitation once here.
Fixing all that's broken is the task that Obama will try to start when he delivers a speech on immigration promised for May, and then brings stakeholders - including members of Congress, immigration advocates, employers and others - to the White House to discuss solutions.
And as that next chapter in our immigration debate unfolds, officials should remember that it's not just about people crossing the border illegally from Mexico. Roughly one-third of the 12 million illegal immigrants here today entered the country legally on student or tourist visas. They simply stayed when those visas expired. That more diffuse route has to be better policed as well.
If reform focuses obsessively on people sneaking in via the nation's southern border, it is likely to fail. Illegal immigration is like flowing water. It will always find the path of least resistance.
This originally appeared in Newsday on April 15, 2009
Doggone it; Obama missed chance to help shelters
Sasha and Malia's puppy has finally arrived. He's a fluffy Portuguese water dog named Bo, and he looked marvelous in his multi-colored Hawaiian lei. But, as with most things in the life of the first family, a dog wearing flowers in the White House is not just a dog wearing flowers.
From the day he took the oath on Lincoln's Bible, Barack Obama has seemed more conscious of the symbolic power of his office than any other president. He had said he preferred that the family pet be rescued from a shelter. Bo is instead a gift of Sen. Ted Kennedy. The London Times headlined its story, "Kennedy clan gets a paw in the door at White House."
This could have been a chance to elevate the plight of shelter dogs, whose numbers are growing as more pets are abandoned in the reeling economy. But Bo, cute as he is, is another symbol of Washington's old-boy politics.
This originally appeared in Newsday on April 14, 2009
Ease care for vets; Electronic medical records will help
The transition from warrior to veteran is tough enough without the maze of starting care at VA hospitals. One major obstacle is that the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs don't share a medical-records system. Last week, President Barack Obama took a big step toward untangling that complexity.
Before an audience including veterans and the heads of the two departments, Obama pledged to create a seamless electronic system "that will contain their administrative and medical information - from the day they first enlist to the day that they are laid to rest."
Once the departments accomplish that mission, it will free veterans from the burden of acting as records messengers between two huge bureaucracies. It won't eliminate the backlog of disability claims, but it's a good first step.
The president said his budget proposes the largest single-year increase for veterans in decades, and he supported legislation to fund the VA a year in advance, to eliminate the dislocation of late budgets. These actions will go a long way toward honoring the nation's debt to its veterans.
This originally appeared in Newsday on May 9, 2009
Help students and families, not banks
Say you've got a few billion dollars burning a hole in your pocket and you can give it either to bankers or needy college students. Whom do you choose? This is not a trick question.
Confronted with that choice, Washington has for years given money to banks in subsidies and guarantees to encourage them to provide college student loans. But now, President Barack Obama wants to cut out the middlemen and loan the money directly to students.
Congress should make that happen. With the cost of a college education soaring and the economy sinking, students and their families could sure use the money. And it wouldn't cost taxpayers an additional dime.
The reform wouldn't just enlarge the pool of money available for loans. It would also simplify the financial aid process. Students would no longer need to apply separately for a bank loan, after applying to the colleges of their choice for financial aid. As a result, families would know much earlier in the tense process how much aid they could expect, allowing them to make more informed decisions about which school to attend.
There are currently two main types of federal student loans. One is the direct loan, where tax dollars are lent directly to students. The other is the Federal Family Education Loan, in which private banks do the lending. The latter loans account for more than two-thirds of current college borrowing.
The private lenders get a government subsidy for each loan they make, and as the loans are repaid, the lenders pocket the interest. Because the loans are guaranteed by the government, taxpayers are on the hook to repay the lender 97 percent of what's owed if the borrower defaults. That's a good deal for lenders - too good.
Continuing business as usual would cost taxpayers $94 billion over the next 10 years. That's money that would never reach students, but flow instead into the coffers of banks that risk nothing by making the loans.
Obama has a better idea. He wants to eliminate Federal Family Education Loans and do all federal college lending through direct loans. And he wants Washington to use the money that it would save to increase the amount available to needy students in Pell Grants by $500. That would push the maximum Pell Grant - which students don't have to repay - up to $5,550 a year.
So, let's recap: Washington could cut out the costly middleman on loans, simplify and speed up the financial aid process, and increase Pell Grants - all at no additional cost to taxpayers. Who could possibly be opposed to that?
Private lenders, for one. College loans provide a risk-free revenue stream they won't be eager to see dry up. There may once have been some justification for subsidizing and guaranteeing student loans, other than the belief that the private sector can do everything better than government. But not now. Still, banking interests are powerful in Washington. They often get what they want because of the second group that may oppose this reform.
That group is the members of Congress who represent districts where banks doing this business - and the jobs they provide - are located. It may be cynical to suggest that campaign contributions could play a role here. But maybe not too cynical.
Then there are the congressional appropriators. Obama's plan would strip Congress of its power to set the maximum value of Pell Grants each year. It would instead tie increases to inflation. Powerful Washington players usually don't cede turf willingly.
Reforming financial aid won't eliminate all the obstacles to a college education that families face. But squeezing out inefficiencies and unnecessary costs - and making sure that every tax dollar provided for financial aid actually goes to students - isn't too much to ask of elected officials.
This originally appeared in Newsday on May 1, 2009
Car talk; Obama's plan for Chrysler is a bold and new one, but will it work?
In the end, even little Chrysler was too big to fail.
A month ago, the Obama administration threatened bankruptcy for the smallest of the Big Three, saying Washington would cut off taxpayer dollars to Detroit unless Chrysler found a partner and renegotiated its contracts and debt.
Yesterday, in a bold but risky plan, President Barack Obama did both. He pledged another $8 billion in taxpayer money to the company, on top of the $5.5 billion the Treasury had already sent its way. And by allowing the bankruptcy, Obama stared down some hedge funds and investors who balked at taking only 33 cents on the dollar.
This extraordinary involvement in the marketplace is a bet by the hard-driving president that the public will stand behind his decision for government oversight and court reorganization.
What would emerge is an anomalous model of social engineering. Trusts controlled by the United Auto Workers will own 55 percent of Chrysler. The U.S. government will own 8 percent and, as part of its dowry for this marriage, Fiat will get 20 percent. And Canada, which is putting up $1 for every $3 the United States does, gets a 2 percent stake. The Italian automaker's holdings will rise to 35 percent if it meets certain benchmarks, such as distributing globally, developing a new fuel-saving engine and manufacturing a car that gets 40 mpg.
While Obama maintains the bankruptcy will be just a quick cleansing to settle with reluctant creditors, this process could go astray and cause customers to lose confidence in the company. The larger risk is that the appetite for cars remains weak in our distressed economy and that fickle consumers won't want the greener cars Chrysler must offer.
Are we headed in the right direction. Possibly. Are we there yet? No.