Politics: March 2007 Archives

Amazing Grace

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Today's Vent at Hot Air is about the movie Amazing Grace, the story of William Wilberforce's decades-long efforts to ban the slave trade in the British Empire.

I saw it a couple of weeks ago, and I enthusiastically encourage you to see it. One of the things I love about the movie is that it gets the politics right. Instead of the usual Hollywood treatment that sets up and neatly resolves a conflict with a quick victory for the good guys, you see Wilberforce's years of failed attempts to pass his bill. You see the power of public pressure and the limits of that power. You see the influence of financial interests, both direct and indirect. You see politicians justify a brutal and inhumane policy on the grounds that it's good for business.

The depiction of Pitt the Younger is particularly commendable. He was a friend of Wilberforce and an ally of the cause, but he had to be strategic about how openly he would support the cause, because of his responsibilities as Prime Minister. It's to the credit of the filmmakers that he wasn't depicted as a contemptible sellout.

Politicians who need a shot of political courage should see this film. Christians who feel a pull toward politics but wonder if one can truly serve God in that realm should see this film.

(I was amused by the resemblance between Benedict Cumberbatch, who played Pitt the Younger, and James Daughton, who played smarmy Omega House president Greg Marmalard in Animal House. Anyone else notice that?)

Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn will be on ABC's 20/20 tonight (9 p.m. CDT) to talk about Congress's spending addiction:

But who in Congress really wants to end [wasteful spending]? After all, you can get re-elected by spending other Americans' money on people in your state.

Well, at least one senator wants to cut back on that spending — Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

"The oath that we take has no mention of our state. The oath we take is to do what is in the best interest of the country as a whole," Coburn said....

And what's his response to other members of Congress who say that they're building useful things — necessary infrastructure in their districts?

"If you're building infrastructure and you're stealing it from your grandchildren, how's that moral?" asked Coburn. "The greatest moral issue of our time today isn't the war in Iraq, it isn't abortion, it isn't any of the other issues. It is, is it morally acceptable to steal opportunity and future from the next generation?"

They're stealing your money, he said, to spend it on things like a North Carolina Teapot Museum. Are those teapots crucial to the national interest? The museum is still not built, so the teapots are waiting in a warehouse.

"That's stealing," said Coburn. "It's also unconscionable that we would not be paying attention to that."

Also tonight on 20/20, they'll talk to State Rep. Dan Greenberg about his "Edifice Complex Prevention Act," which would prohibit naming public facilities after living people:

"This is a practice that's got to stop," Greenberg said. "For me, it just comes too close to using taxpayer money to build temples to living people."

"In the old days we had a tradition of waiting to judge a person's whole life before we named a building after them," Greenberg said. "Now we have this modern trend of … naming buildings after politicians while they're in the prime of life. And you know, that creates a problem. If we're gonna use taxpayer money to publicize ourselves, if we're gonna use taxpayer money to build temples to ourselves. … That's very dangerous."...

What made Greenberg say "enough" was when he discovered there was a park named after him and a bunch of other legislators.

"The worst thing was that another county legislator said, 'I appreciate you putting my name on this sign, but you did not put it in my campaign colors,'" Greenberg said. "And that was so distasteful. I just said to myself, 'Enough.'"

Greenberg's had to make some adjustments in his original proposal -- to allow someone who donates a building to a college to get his name on it, for example. But the main point -- keeping pols from honoring themselves antehumously -- is still intact.

The apple doesn't fall far from the tree: Dan Greenberg is the son of Paul Greenberg of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, who writes one of the best syndicated columns anywhere -- literate, witty, filled with common sense.

Here's a video interview with Greenberg after he pulled his bill earlier this year, talking about his colleagues' reaction to the bill. (A fellow Republican told him that he shouldn't be bothered by the naming of buildings because Republicans were winning the building naming war in northwest Arkansas.)

You've got to like a state rep who can quote Cato the Elder or come up with a punny bill title.

A local story indicates the danger of honoring living persons with buildings.

There's a city park on 41st Street west of Red Fork. Originally it was named to honor Finis W. Smith, the State Senator for District 37 from 1965 to 1982. He spent four years as State Senate President Pro Tempore (1969-1973). He quit two years before his term expired, just as a controversy surrounding business he and his wife did with Tulsa County tag agencies began to erupt. Then in August 1984:

Former state Sen. Finis Smith and his wife were indicted by a federal grand jury Thursday on mail fraud and tax evasion charges in connection with business dealings they had with four Tulsa County tag agents.

The 18-count indictment alleges the Smiths maintained several undisclosed foreign bank accounts and failed to report income from their business interests on their federal and state income tax forms.

According to the indictment, the Smiths held five certificate of deposit accounts, one savings account and one money market account in a bank in Tampico, Mexico.

Finis Smith arranged for three family members to be appointed as tag agents, then set up dummy corporations to "perform services" for these tag agencies. The money paid to these companies was diverted into the Smiths' personal bank accounts. Not only were Smith and his wife Doris subjected to Federal prosecution, several school districts sued them, because their actions misdirected funds that were due to the schools.

In November 1985, the two were convicted and sent to Federal prison. A month later, the Tulsa Parks and Recreation Board removed Smith's name from Finis Smith Park, renaming it Red Fork Tract. (In 1986, it was renamed Challenger 7 Park in honor of the crew of the space shuttle that exploded early that year.) His name was also taken off a teaching clinic at the Oklahoma College of Osteopathic Medicine and Surgery. To Smith's credit, he took the initiative to have his name removed; news stories indicate that the parks board and the OCOMS board complied regretfully.

(There's a whole 'nother story I could go into about the connection between the Smiths' conviction and the downfall of then-Mayor Terry Young. It's fascinating.)

Oh, and do you remember when Driller Stadium was named Sutton Stadium? And why it didn't stay named that for very long?

UPDATE: Thanks to Rep. Greenberg for stopping by! (See his comment below.) And on NRO, Deroy Murdock has photos of the edifice complex in action at the federal level:

It is tough for politicians to oppose projects named after their colleagues. It’s one thing to block questionable funds for the Johnstown Cambria County Airport. It’s quite another to turn thumb’s down on the John Murtha Airport when big, bad John himself is standing ten-feet away on the House floor, glowering at you.

An update on Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn's efforts in Washington:

On Monday, Bob Novak reported that the Bush Administration is blocking release of the pork-barrel database that has been championed by Coburn:

As part of "Sunshine Week" to promote transparent government, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) last Monday was supposed to release a comprehensive database revealing the number and cost of earmarks since 2005. It did not. The word on Capitol Hill was that the OMB was muzzled by the White House for fear of offending powerful congressional appropriators....

But just as the OMB was prepared to put out this information, it sent word to Capitol Hill that -- over its protests -- it was being kept under wraps by the White House to appease the appropriators. With Congress in the midst of the budget process, President Bush's team did not want to stir up the Hill.

All that was released last Monday was a compilation of earmarks in 2005, with few details. [OMB Director Rob] Portman publicly called it "an important first step towards providing greater transparency." In private, however, he said last week: "My hands are tied." Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, the scourge of earmarks, told me: "I think the American people should be very disappointed."

Coburn has also introduced health-care reform legislation aimed at bringing choice and free-market discipline to bear on health costs. Here, from a press release from Coburn's office, are the key features of the proposal:

  • Promoting prevention. The legislation will reform our rudderless and wasteful federal prevention programs and demand results and accountability. Five preventable chronic diseases – heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and diabetes – cause two-thirds of American deaths. Seventy five percent of total health expenditures are spent to treat these largely preventable chronic diseases. A sound prevention strategy will save countless lives and billions of dollars.
  • MediChoice tax rebates that will shift tax breaks away from businesses to individuals. Giving Americans a rebate check ($2,000 for individuals and $5,000 for families) to buy their own insurance will foster competition, improve quality and drive down prices. This provision will help put individuals back in charge of the health care, and help restore the doctor-patient relationship that has been severed by third-party government and health insurance bureaucrats.
  • Creation of a national market for health insurance. The bill would give Americans the right to shop for health insurance anywhere in America. Patients should not be forced to be pay for outrageously expensive health plans in states like New Jersey when they can save thousands by buying plans from companies in other states.
  • Creating transparency of health care costs and services. This Act requires hospitals and providers receiving reimbursements from Medicare to disclose their estimated and actual charges for all patients as well as the rates they are reimbursed through Medicare and Medicaid. This provision could allow patients to “Google” their doctor and comparison-shop for health care the way that they do for cars, computers, or other products and services.
  • Securing Medicare’s future by increasing choice and encouraging savings. The bill retains existing benefits but encourages true competition among private plans to hold down costs, a model already is working in Medicare’s prescription drug benefit. The plan would give Medicare recipients similar health care options available to Members of Congress and employees of Fortune 500 companies.
  • Keeping Medicaid on mission. The bill liberates the poor from substandard government care and offers states the option to provide their Medicaid beneficiaries the kind of health care coverage that wealthier Americans enjoy. The bill creates incentives for states to achieve private universal coverage for their population. The bill offers states the freedom to design the programs that serve their beneficiaries with the best care instead of the current, one-size-fits-all straitjacket.

Minimize red tape, increase consumer choice and transparency -- sounds like a good approach.

You can read more about the rationale for Coburn's medical reform bill here, where you'll find a link to a more detailed discussion of the proposal. An excerpt:

Have you ever wondered why is it that in America, patients can not choose their own doctor? Why, in the land of the free, do government bureaucrats, insurance companies and employers make your health care decisions instead of you? Why do health insurance costs increase faster than your income? Why are prescription drugs prices cheaper in every other country when the medical research is often funded with U.S tax dollars? And why does the U.S. spend over $2 trillion annually on health care, more than any other nation, and 45 million Americans do not have access to health insurance?

The answer is simple. Unlike every other aspect of American life, there is no free market in health care. Well intentioned, but shortsighted laws passed decades ago removed patients from their own health care decisions.

As part of the process of complying with the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (2006) by the required date of January 2008, the anti-pork-barrel-spending bill championed by Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, the federal Office of Management and Budget has set up a website called federalspending.gov. This site doesn't yet have the promised spending information available, but it does have the implementation timeline, a set of FAQs on the requirements of the law, aimed at both users of the information and the agencies who will have to report the information, and a place to collect comments on how best to make the database useful to the public. There are also links to existing websites with information on Federal spending.

The site makes mention of a pilot program for reporting subgrants and subcontracts. Hopefully, this would include things like recipients of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds -- a city or county government is the direct recipient of the grant from the Federal Government, but it would be interesting to see whether controversial organizations are receiving CDBG money as subgrants.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Politics category from March 2007.

Politics: February 2007 is the previous archive.

Politics: April 2007 is the next archive.

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