Saturday, February 18, 2023


 The new balance of power in the U.S. Congress brought about by the 2022 mid-term elections giving the Republican Party a small majority, changes the previous framework for the numerous challenges facing the nation in the next two years of the Biden administration .   

Inflation and related supply chain shortages, the lingering and possible resurgence of the Covid pandemic, the debate and implementation of environmental policies, the continued need worldwide for fossil fuels while alternatives continue their projected decades long development and replacement strategies, the profound economic disruptions and international security concerns over the Russia/Ukraine war, Middle East conflict related to Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, NATO expansion, the progression of a Cold War like relationship with China and it's expansionist policies in the  South China Sea and towards Taiwan are just some of the serious international challenges that impact the domestic welfare of the U.S.  

All of these issues will demand Presidential and Congressional scrutiny, and funding for some purposes.  With the nation and the Congress divided, the next two years will demand focus, hard work, cooperation, and leadership by both the President and congressional leaders of both parties.

Unfortunately, the difference between "politics" and "policy" influences the agendas and adds intensity to the existing partisan and ideological chasms that block progress on the vital issues.  While all "policies" are inherently political, not all "politics" reflect the acceptance of current political reality with respect to the creation of policy.  Thus, these issues, which are driven and exploited by media, many of which are identified as "social" or battles in the "culture war", have become distractions and conflicts on a personal level that punish political cooperation by legislators on the important policy requirements that can't be ignored.

A reality check is important on the political agenda and the more important issues currently in dispute. 

Perhaps the most divisive issue on a national level is access to abortion.  While settled law for fifty years under the protection of the 1973 Supreme Court's "Roe vs. Wade" decision.  The current Supreme Court's 6-3 majority overturned Roe and found that no Constitutional protection for the right to an abortion existed and that the issue should be decided by law on a state level. That is the new reality with respect to the issue.

 However, one non-state level remedy remains.  Since the Supreme Court found no constitutional protection, nor prohibition, of abortion, a federal protection for abortion could be passed as law by the Congress and signed by the President.  A federal prohibition of abortion could also be passed by Congress and the President.  However, once again political reality overcomes potential policy as the Republican controlled House of Representatives will never pass such protective legislation and a Democrat controlled Senate and White House will never pass prohibition. 

No amount of marches, protests, opinion pieces, or political grandstanding by politicians or activist groups on either side will change this. Thus the battle will be fought out in all fifty state legislatures and courts. Some states have already moved on this issue. The total result so far is a mix of standards, limitations and for some, all or no restrictions at all.  Ironically, what is essentially an irreconcilable conflict between religion and ideology on a personal level, has achieved a type of compromise on a national level as different state's,  when considered together, offer the whole range of abortion legislation. Until the political make up of the Congress and Presidency reflects a more unified position enabling federal law to decide the issue, the U.S. Congress and the President should move on and not let this single issue further obstruct the need for bipartisan federal policy cooperation on other major issues. 

Gun control:

Mass shootings across the country have heightened an existing sense of despair and insecurity making the issues of gun control a prominent political/policy debate.  This is not a new development as the debate rages after each deadly event, especially in the more heinous cases of school shootings, and then seems to retreat into the political background as the familiar pros and cons of possible responses are repeated.  

The reality of the situation is daunting but often ignored in the debates which have a prominent place on social media and various commentary venues.  First, gun "control" to some means significant reduction of numbers. However, most estimates of the number of guns in private hands exceed the entire three hundred and thirty-five million persons in the entire nation. Then there is the problem of not knowing who all these possessors of firearms are. Then of course there is the issue of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which Supreme Court majorities, past, and especially present, have interpreted, not without controversy, to deny most restrictions on ownership or transport i.e. "carry", of guns of most types. 

The best answer is to change the debate from what other smaller population nations with significantly different gun cultures have done with respect to confiscation, "buy backs", severe restrictions on ownership and severe restrictions on acquisition, and do what is possible through compromise no matter how imperfect in the views of either side. Criminal gun use comes in many forms and a "one size fits all" response is inappropriate. Federal law currently prohibits hand gun sales to anyone under twenty-one years of age. Since mass shootings at schools have been exclusively committed by young men who were students, former students or troubled  young individuals living in or near the school's community, and these shooters have seemed to favor the use of semi-automatic, large magazine "assault style" rifles, it would be a common sense policy to impose the same age restriction on the purchase of those types of weapons as hand guns.  There should be no expectation however, that such a restriction would have a significant impact on the number of other incidents in which these types of weapons are used. 

Banning the manufacture or sale of these types of rifles is a political challenge but not necessarily a political impossibility, as such a ban was passed before and lasted ten years before dying from a "sunset" provision.  The effects of the ban are a subject of partisan dispute.  But again, the reality facing current advocates is that there are an estimated eight hundred thousand to over a million such weapons already in private hands which would provide a legal secondary market or an illegal "black market" as the value of the weapons rose.

 Other tools such as "red flag" laws which seek to intervene in the possibility of a shooting by an unstable individual have proven to be inconsistently applied or effective.  A national standard for use by local law enforcement and judicial agencies should be both politically possible although since such procedures are preventive in nature their success is hard to verify. 

Most gun crime is carried out with handguns because they are less expensive and easier to transport unseen than rifles.  Most gun owners are not criminals making broad based gun restrictions politically difficult. Most violent crimes, but certainly not all, are carried out by individuals who have criminal records.  While possession of a gun by a former felon is illegal in most state jurisdictions, the penalties for violation are often "soft" or involve bond vs. incarceration. This apparently was the case in the recent mass shooting at Michigan State University. Sine there is a strong correlation between gun crimes and perpetrators of previous crimes with use of guns, heavy penalties involving incarceration for gun possession by former felons would have a positive impact on future gun crimes although anti-incarceration and "racial justice" activists would surely raise political opposition. There is no easy solution given the massive availability of guns throughout society. The problem will have to be addressed eventually by efforts of cultural change starting with America's youth, while finding compromise on policies on the edges of the problem. Simply making guns more expensive is not likely to deter mass shooters who in almost all cases are mentally challenged, suicidal, or expect to be apprehended and face life in prison. Making new gun sales more expensive at the gun store level will not make the criminal possession of weapons less likely since the vast numbers of guns already in private hands creates a permanent market. The principle of "Don't sacrifice the possible in pursuit of the perfect." applies.

Environmental policy:

The problem of global warming has largely become a debate between "deniers" and "end of world" extremists. Science based organizations see the problem as genuine in terms of human activity being a major contributor to global warming through fossil fuel emissions which will require technological changes over time, prominently including alternative energy sources.  The Paris climate accords of 2015 set a prescribed level for each of the signatories to make progress which combined had a goal of reducing global warming by 2 degrees Celsius "in this century".  The mechanisms for achieving progress are voluntary. Biden administration policies with regard to the process have largely involved limiting oil and gas exploration on federal lands, withdrawing approval for new pipelines and providing financial incentives for the purchase of electric vehicles and insulation remodeling for buildings.

These policies have gotten far out ahead of the level of alternative energy available to replace the needs of fossil fuels which are used in the manufacture of numerous non-energy related products but most notably have contributed to rapid inflation in the costs of gasoline and utility bills.  The Biden administration reacting to the political effects of these issues has backtracked some with regard to the leasing of fossil fuel exploration sites and even attempting to urge the government of Saudi Arabia, the largest oil producer in the OPEC oil cartel, to increase oil production.

Unfortunately, Biden in an early campaign exercise at "virtue signaling" had promised to wipe out the oil industry and had labeled Saudi Arabia an international "pariah state" while personally implicating that nation's de facto head of government Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the assassination of a dissident Saudi opinion writer.  Needless to say Biden's subsequent "hat in hand" request was summarily dismissed.  Gasoline prices have currently rebounded from earlier declines to levels above $4.00 per gallon. Natural gas prices which are necessary for large regions of the nation for domestic heating and electricity production are still high.

Reality check:

The fact that the Paris climate agreement is couched in terms of improvements in global temperature increases "in this century" should make it obvious that the effort is both long term and "global" in nature.  Just by way of example of the immensity of the problem consider just the two largest population states, China and India. The combined populations of the two nations is over 2.8 billion or @ 35% of the total world's population now near 8 billion.

By the latest available statistics, China's "energy mix" is 60% coal based, 20% oil and 8% natural gas.     India's total energy needs, despite it's commitment to accept the goals of the Paris Agreement, are 44% coal, 25% oil, and 6% natural gas. India's electricity production alone, is 70% generated by coal.

Global figures for the year 2019 for electricity production were 63% fossil fuels, nuclear 10.4% and just 26.3% based on "renewables" with Europe and the U.S. contributing the most in the latter. Clearly, such efforts as banning natural gas stoves in California over minor leaks of methane gas or handwringing by adolescent  Green activists over tens of millions of cattle "burping" methane  is a pointless waste of time and attention to the broader and much more complex world wide issue.  A specific but multi-faceted, science based, organized strategy with international participation including a common sense long term transition plan from most fossil fuel energy sources and including the newest nuclear technology is imperative.

Meanwhile the attention of the "media" and the political demagoguery infused issues of transgender "rights", "social justice" versus academic instruction in public schools, police "reform", affirmative action and permissive crime control, dominate the political agendas of the federal and states legislative bodies. In the Congress time is being taken up investigating Hunter Biden's laptop, and trying to impeach the Secretary of Homeland Security for his failure even to acknowledge the illegal immigration crisis at the southern border.  Such and effort, no matter how much deserved,  is pure politics since a finding for removal in the Senate by the Democrat majority is an impossibility.    Similarly the effort to convince Biden to negotiate reductions in federal spending for cooperation in raising the federal debt limit is fraught with political grandstanding. Both of those goals deserve serious attention. Raising the national debt limit to avoid default on the government debt for money already appropriated is basic and unavoidable to maintain the value of the U.S. dollar and its use as the world's reserve currency. Over seven trillion dollars in U.S. government debt is held by foreign nations. Reducing future federal spending in the face of an annual deficit of close to 1.5 trillion dollars and the accumulated national debt of 31.563 trillion dollars or 120.37 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is not only reasonable but critical.  The prospects for the first are good because a U.S. monetary default is unthinkable.  The prospects for the latter are low since "spending" was the basic 2022 election strategy of the Biden administration and is likely to be the similar strategy for Biden's 2024 campaign. 

Thus in a world of divided government, extreme ideological polarization, "politics over policy" would seem to be the inevitable and unfortunate future. Only the threat by the electorate of a major personnel change in the legislatures at the state and federal level will have a chance at turning attention to policy and away from political posturing and divisiveness but with the media's preference for conflict and extremism for "news", the prospects are not good.


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