Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Semester of Senate Highlights

This past semester I worked as a law clerk for a Senate Committee. I didn't blog about it much because, due to some rather high profile incidents, most Congressional offices and committees have strict policies about blogging. Now that the semester is over and I'm a month removed from my clerkship though, I feel at liberty to recount some of the highlights of my time on the Hill.

Senator Cantwell's Knee High Black Boots: I once saw Senator Maria Cantwell strut through the Capitol sporting a leather skirt and knee high black boots. While admittedly not THAT racy... they certainly weren't your stereotypical Senatorial footwear. Stereotypical Secretary of State footwear maybe... but not Senatorial footwear.

Getting Tough Guy'ed By Senator Feingold: I once had to stop abruptly before boarding an elevator in the Capitol because someone cut in front of me. The problem was that Senator Russ Feingold was rushing past right behind me. After practically leveling me with his right shoulder, he shot me a nasty scowled and muttered something unintelligible under his breath. I began apologizing profusely, but he paid me no mind. He simply exchanged a terse glance with the aide who he was with and went on his way.

Senator Obama Outing the "Elephant in the Room": Each week the Democratic Policy Committee puts together a policy luncheon for the Democratic Caucus. It typically features a high profile guest speaker discussing a current political issue. Anywhere from a dozen to several dozen Democratic Senators attend, depending on who the guest speaker is. The most well-attended luncheon I participated in was headlined by Author and Pastor Rick Warren. He's a moderate evangelical preacher that, in addition to many of the usual conservative social causes, also champions climate control, human rights, and governmental programs to aid the poor. Warren spoke at length on these topics and then took questions from the Senators. The discussion tip-toed around the most contentious social issues until Senator Barack Obama raised his hand and, after graciously thanking Warren for his presentation, said "I think everyone is aware that there's an elephant in the room here. I'd like to hear your thoughts abortion and gay marriage." A little startled, Warren went on to recommend that those who supported either abortion or gay marriage not try and force their positions on evangelical voters (who were not likely to be persuaded), but instead focus on whatever common ground they may share with these voters. In the end it was refreshing to see Obama go out of his way to cut the crap.

"Bouncing" Senator Mikulski: At the aforementioned policy luncheons I was sometimes asked to stand as a bouncer at the entrance of the Lyndon B. Johnson room in which the luncheons were typically held. The only people allowed at the luncheons (outside of the DPC staffers putting it on) were the Senators, the speaker, and, occasionally, some high-level Senate staff. Since unauthorized people often attempted to come, I was supposed to be vigilant as the doorman. Problem is, that while I know all 44 Democratic Senators by name, I can't claim to know what they all look like. So my strategy, if I didn't recognize someone, was to simply let them pass if they seemed like they could be a Senator. If they looked like I thought a Senator might and approached confidently, I usually just said hello and let them through. This generally was pretty effective. Except for once. The first time I was asked to "bounce" I began hesitantly. But after correctly identifying about 6 or 7 Senators, I got a little over-confident. So when a very short (4'11") and somewhat stout and frumpy woman approached me, I didn't think twice about asking her what her name was. In all honesty, with a hair net and an apron she could have passed for a lunch lady. Without slowing down, she gruffly said "I'm a United States Senator. Mikulski. I'm on the list." And then she blew right past me. I wasn't really much for "bouncing" after that.

Bringing Jäger to Work: Yup. That's right. Believe it or not, dogs are allowed in the Congressional office buildings. Security hassles you more if you have nail clippers in your pocket than if you've got yourself a dog. Rumor has it that Senator Kennedy likes to bring his to the office a lot. Me... I only brought Jäg' on a couple of occasions, but memorable experiences they were. It really didn't take him long to feel at home. He quickly settled in and did a great job of continually distracting just about everyone in the office. I'm certain he had a measurable effect on our productivity while he was there... so basically he fit right in.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Congress in the Zodiac?

Several days ago, I was looking at some breakdowns of the recent Senate vote on immigration reform when I stumbled across the most startling of statistics. Right there among the generic vote tabulations you might expect to be available on this reputable votes database (e.g., breakdowns by party, state, etc.) was a breakdown by astrological sign. Are you sh*tting me?! By astrological sign?!! So now people turn to the Zodiac not only for bad dating advice and tips on picking lotto numbers, but for political direction as well?!

I just had to give it a go.

As it turns out, although the immigration measure passed in a solid 62-36 vote, Tauruses opposed the bill by a 4 to 1 margin. Libras, however, ended up supporting the it by that same margin. Makes sense I guess. You'd think a Libra would be more interested in justice, while the ole' raging bull might have a bit of a complex about outsiders. Being a fan of the legislation myself, I was buoyed by the fact that my fellow Geminis voted unanimously for the bill.

What about Justice Alito's confirmation early this year? It seems Tauruses supported it 2 to 1, while Libras opposed 5 to 3. Could this be a pattern?! A bit conflicted myself, I'd warily supported Alito's nomination and, whadda' know? Geminis were split on it 2 to 2.

Maybe there's something to this?! Maybe all we've needed to do to find rhyme and reason inside the beltway is simply to look at the day's horoscope!!! It can't be any worse than listening to Tucker Carlson, right? I mean now all I need to know in deciding whether to support a candidate is his or her birthday. Talk about efficient streamlining!

Looks like I won't be voting for any more Tauruses.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Fiscal Responsibility?

So President Bush signed a bill into law today that extends the 2003 tax cuts on capital gains and dividends. Outside of the provisions that raise the cap on the "alternative minimum tax" (which, because it is not indexed to inflation, has begun to affect middle class), I think they are a bad idea.

1. We have recently raised the ceiling on our national debt to 9 trillion dollars (it was at 5.95 trillion when Bush took office); it's not the time to be cutting taxes. The cuts lull people into a "something for nothing" mindset and are fiscally irresponsible. We are at war (the cost of Iraq is approaching $400 billion) and are dealing with record-breaking budgetary deficits. By failing to address this ballooning deficit and instead continuing to add to our mounting debt, we are mortgaging our children's futures (they will be the ones stuck paying this off). We're also taking considerable risks that include further devaluing the U.S. Dollar abroad and incurring significant and harmful levels inflation at home. (Note that as the President signs this bill, the House of Representatives is pushing to raise the debt ceiling AGAIN, this time by 653 billion to a grand total of 9.62 trillion).

2. Our economy is supposedly strong (the fact that median incomes for middle and lower class Americans have fallen when adjusted for inflation is another issue), so the "pro-growth" rationale here falls flat. If the rationale for the cuts three years ago was to spur growth in a slow economy and the rationale today is to spur growth in a strong economy, just when is the proper time to take accountability and seek a balanced budget? Contrary to what ideologues on the far right would have us think, tax cuts are not the cure all for everything.

3. The cuts overwhelmingly favor the rich at the expense of the middle and lower class Americans. Under the guise of reducing the deficit, Congress early this year cut student loan subsidies and funding for programs aiding the poor (see e.g., the so-called Deficit Reduction Act). It has also steadfastly avoided raising the minimum wage or implementing tax cuts primarily targeting the middle class. All this in the name of fiscal responsibility. It seems nonsensical to more than offset those "deficit reducing" measures with cuts that will significantly INCREASE the deficit even more.

In fairness to the Bush administration, both some tax cuts and increases in government spending were justified after 9/11 as the country struggled to prevent those attacks and the subsequent waves of chaos in they caused in financial markets from undercutting a slowing economy while we simultaneously began waging a war on terrorism. The problem lies with how that spending and those tax cuts were dispensed then and how Congress and the administration are continuing to handle them now. By implementing policies that cater almost primarily to the wealthiest of Americans, the administration has increased the disparity between the rich and poor in this country. While the administration should be commended for rightly focusing on job creation, it has failed to ensure that the quality of those jobs meets or exceeds the jobs that were lost. As a result the real median household income has fallen since 2001 and the poverty rate has increased to 12.7%. Meanwhile there has been a record increase in the number of millionaires in the country. In considering our economic policy, we shouldn't be preoccupied solely with the country's aggregate economic growth, but should be very mindful of what kind of growth we are encouraging.

Overall, I think we need a more balanced fiscal policy. One that doesn't ideologically embrace tax cuts as a cure all to everything, even when our economy is strong, our national debt is outpacing our GDP, and we're involved in an expensive war that is not likely to end soon. We also shouldn't extend tax cuts that almost exclusively benefit the richest Americans, especially at a time when we're cutting vital governmental programs (e.g., Student Loan subsidies) in the name of "fiscal responsibility."

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Peter Joseph Bis

This past semester I worked about twenty hours a week as a law clerk for a Senate Committee. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, I trudged up to Capitol Hill and, on my way, passed a friendly homeless man named Peter Joseph Bis. Each morning, Peter faithfully sits on a park bench in between Union Station and the three Senate Office Buildings just North of the Capitol and makes a point of greeting all the congressional staffers trekking to their respective offices. Far from your typical indigent soul, Peter, flanked by his shopping cart of belongings, cheerfully sits sipping his morning coffee and looks for conversation from any passerby that has time. He's not a pan-handler. In fact, he's never asked me for a dime. He seems more interested in interacting with others than anything else.

My first few days I didn't think much about him; I simply waved and said hello as I went on my way. About a week into my clerkship though, he noticed the International Arbitration book I was holding as I happened past him. "International Arbitration? I was involved in a UNCITRAL arbitration proceeding before the U.N. once."

He what?!! I stopped dead in my tracks. "Really?!" I said turning back toward him.

"Yeah" he answered matter-of-factly. "I went to law school in the 70's and used to work abroad." I'm sure my face betrayed the look of someone who'd just had his assumptions thrown right in his face. In hindsight, I figure he was probably used to this though. "Here's my card," he said handing me a crude makeshift business card. "Check out my blog."

I thanked him and went on my way, trying to process all of this new information as I walked to the Hart building. Once at my desk, I jumped on the internet and went straight to Peter's blog. It's one convoluted magic carpet ride. Written in the third person, it's basically a long running post of elaborate conspiracy theories. I began reading through it, but my mind quickly wandered as it became rather cryptic, bordering at times on incomprehensible. Peter, however, still intrigued me more than ever.

I made a point of arriving early the next day I worked so that I would have time to sit and chat with Peter instead of scuttling off to my Senate office. He seemed genuinely pleased that I wanted to talk. We first discussed his blog. I learned that he doesn't actually publish it himself. He dictates the content to a young man who posts it for him. Apparently very interested in what I thought of the blog, Peter kept asking if I'd visited it, and, if I had, what my impressions were. I told him I did visit the site, and that I thought the conspiracies it detailed were very interesting; he took issue with this description though because everything had been based on "solid fact." I also suggested he split his running post and make each update a new and seperate post, but he prefers simply "updating" the one post because it encourages new readers to read the entire narrative as a book or story (for the rest of the semester he took great pleasure in letting me know how many "pages" his blog had grown to).

We then talked about his past. As a child growing up in Michigan, he struggled with polio and a severe speech impediment. He said this helped him in his studies though because he lost himself in books. After getting a Bachelor's degree in History from Western Michigan, he attended law school at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School. He left law school a year early and continued his studies "unofficially", gaining what he called the equivalent of "five or six Doctorates." He even claims to have studied for a time in the Vatican. Meanwhile, he married and divorced once and bounced around from job to job. By the mid-nineties he found himself driving a cab in Michigan. He moved to DC in 2001 to follow up on "some work" and is now in trying to get enough money to purchase a boat on which to live. He views himself as a sort of freelance journalist who is exposing corruption at all levels of government. When I asked if he had tried to find other work so he could maybe get a place to live while he wrote, he said it wasn't worth it. He said he's been offered teaching positions, but "those don't pay more than $48,000 a year and that's simply not enough to live on in this area." It would also pull him away from "what he's doing now." While I in no way understand his logic here, he seemed pretty adamant about it so I dropped the issue.

Instead we finished up talking about me and my studies. Upon seeing the "Legal Ethics" textbook in my arms, he joked that that was an oxymoron if he'd ever seen one. He also told me to keep studying arbitration because "it's better than litigation." By this time I needed to get going, so I excused myself. He thanked me for stopping and went back to greeting all the passerbys. I left as perplexed about him as I'd been before we spoke. He had shattered all of my preconceptions about the homeless.

My question is this: How does one end up like Peter Bis? Although he's got some strange ideas, he's pretty personable and appears well-educated (Especially if you take him at his word. Only 24.4% of Americans twenty-five and older have Bachelor's degrees and only 8.86% have Graduate degrees). How did he end up on the streets? He seems to have had a lot of opportunities in life and also seems somewhat capable. I know I really don't know about much about him, but he almost plays living on the streets off as a conscious choice. Was there a single moment in which he simply accepted it as his lot? Or did a "sometime" thing just end up becoming an "all the time" thing? Furthermore, just how many homeless are like Peter?

I know there are a lot of factors that are said to contribute to homelessness, including drug addiction, mental health, and cycles of poverty, but I still struggle to understand the problem. More than that, I'm also at a loss with how to address the problem. How do you help someone like Peter?

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me

Saturdays are radio days for me and the wife. We wake up to Car Talk with the Tappet brothers, have a little Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me just before lunch, and enjoy a healthy serving of This American Life as a late afternoon snack.

So when the wife found out that Wait Wait was coming to DC (it normally tapes in Chicago - shout out to Sue Ellen), it didn't matter that tickets cost an arm and a leg, we ponied up the embarrasing asking price (at least embarrasing on a student's budget) and made our way to GW's Lisner auditorium last Thursday to see the show. Ended up worth every penny. Seeing the moderator, Peter Sagal and the panelists (Charlie Pierce, Roxanne Roberts, and Tom Bodett this time around) interact with each other, the callers, and the audience live added a whole new element to Wait Wait. It made funny funnier.

The program is a game show of sorts that questions both callers and panelists on the happenings of the past week. The only real prize is the opportunity to have long-time NPR newsman Carl Kasell record the message on your home answering machine in his deep baritone voice. The show essentially revolves around adlibbed exchanges and the improvised commentary of the panelists (all writers and/or pundits) and Peter Sagal. Being the sucker for politics that I am, I eat it up.

Attending the taping changed my conception of the show, however. It's aired as an hour long program, yet the taping runs some two hours. To whittle it down they edit out the dead air, flat jokes and worst miscues (splicing in retakes recorded at the end of each taping). The final product is a tight broadcast that you wouldn't have guessed was cut. Listening to the show as it aired two days later, though, was a wholly different experience. Good in its own right, but without some of the depth that came from seeing it live.

Favorite thing about seeing Wait Wait though was, hands down, meeting Peter Sagal and Carl Kasell afterwards. Good natured fellows who were even up for a photograph. Who knows... maybe we'll have Carl on our answering machine one day.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


*Well, at least until school starts again next fall, which, of course, is to be followed by the bar and the inevitable selling of my soul to a firm. But for now... for now, sweet freedom it is.