By Peter Fenn, opinion contributor The Hill 3/20/2021
President Biden has signed into law a $1.9 trillion dollar relief plan that many had thought impossible just months ago.
Despite Republican Congressional opposition, Biden successfully ushered in the popular acceptance of a new role for government, overturning a more than 40-year trend in government bashing. The American Rescue Plan, widely supported across the country, certainly contrasts with President Reagan’s Inaugural line, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to the problem. Government is the problem.”
From FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s through the 1960s, there was widespread acceptance that the federal government needed to step up to the plate when the public’s health, safety and economic well-being were in peril. Now, it may be possible to create a national consensus for key priorities.
There has been a lot of talk about infrastructure for a dozen years — but no action. Same is true for Social Security and Medicare reform, overhaul of our education system, immigration reform, climate change and a host of other problems that won’t disappear with benign neglect.
Political polarization, obstructionism, failure to compromise have all been the order of the day.
There is one area, however, that may provide common ground for those of different parties and political persuasions: protecting our children. There has been widespread agreement in the need for child tax credits, and ever since the George W. Bush administration up until the Biden relief bill, we have seen Democrats and Republicans get on board. Conservatives such as Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and lately Mitt Romney (R-Utah) have worked on legislation.
There are a whole host of issues surrounding the welfare of children that are becoming top of mind, especially during the pandemic. In addition to temporarily cutting child poverty in half with the latest $1.9 trillion relief package, efforts to ensure affordable child care, expand Head Start and early childhood education, provide health care and expand nutrition programs should be addressed as soon as possible.
One idea to highlight the focus on children, suggested by my colleague Andrew Yarrow, is the reinstitution of the White House Conference on Children. First initiated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909 to promote a “high standard of child protection by the national government,” these conferences were held every ten years, often with delegations from around the world.
The last conference was held in 1971, when Richard Nixon was President, to examine health care, day care, early childhood education and attacking racism. Interesting how relevant those topics are still.
There are 74 million children in the United States today. Of those, nearly 11 million are poor, about 1 in 7.
Over the five decades since 1971, we have moved many millions of seniors out of poverty; now it is time we did the same for children and struggling families.
The American Rescue Plan is a start, but many of the parts of that bill, including tax credits, are only temporary to bridge the gap caused by the pandemic.
It is time to consider re-establishing a White House Conference on Children, with the full backing and endorsement of Republicans and Democrats alike. It could have co-chairs from both parties and an equal membership of party leaders, along with experts on the issues confronting our children. We may not be able to achieve immediate agreement on some of the other tough problems we face, but this should be something we can all agree on: the health and welfare of our kids.
Peter Fenn is a long-time Democratic political strategist who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was a top aide to Sen. Frank Church and was the first director of Democrats for the 80s, founded by Pamela Harriman. He also co-founded the Center for Responsive Politics/Open Secrets. Follow him on Twitter @peterhfenn.
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As Donald Trump was putting the final touches on his State of the Union speech last week, a group of us were at the Arizona/Mexican border in Nogales. What we saw and heard was disturbing.
Not only did we witness a large wall of steel slats but, as The Washington Post reported, (https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/02/07/trumps-troop-deployment-strung-lethal-razor-wire-border-this-city-has-had-enough/?utm_term=.ecc0f371e76f). a string of concertina wire designed to intimidate and maim those who came close. This lethal razor wire was at the top of the 18-foot fence when we visited, by the time of Trump’s speech U.S. troops had deployed up to six rows of the wire from street level all the way up.
Mayor Arturo Garino told the Post that “they can’t say they are putting something up to protect us, they’re putting up something that’s lethal all the way to the ground.” There wasn’t any discussion with the City Council, the Mayor, the police chief, the fire chief or any local officials before the troops’ action.
When we arrived at the border, as members of the Board of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, we were prepared to see the spot were a 16 year old boy, Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, was shot 10 times by a border agent for throwing rocks up a steep embankment, separated by the steel wall. When we saw the scene it was clear that the agent was not seriously threatened, large rocks could hardly make it up the hill, plus the steel slats separated the two.
Tensions are high now with the over 6,500 newly deployed troops and National Guard Forces stationed along the border, in addition to the over 70 miles of concertina wire put up, with another 160 miles slated to be erected, according to the Defense Department. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/02/07/trumps-troop-deployment-strung-lethal-razor-wire-border-this-city-has-had-enough/?utm_term=.ecc0f371e76f
When I was last in Nogales in the 1980s the border was full of activity between the U.S. and Mexico. The two cities with the same name were known for a border crossing that encouraged commerce and mutual respect. Now, all that has changed. As Mayor Garino puts it, first we have 400,000 people divided by a wall and now we have concertina wire, intimidating and deadly.
The crisis in Nogales, and along the border, is a result of President Trump’s actions and rhetoric. He fans the flames of distrust and prejudice and creates fear and loathing and division.
The result is that the border agent who killed 16 year old Antonio was acquitted of manslaughter while four young people with No More Deaths were convicted of leaving water and food in the desert for migrants. For over a decade the humanitarian organization No More Deaths has been active and only recently, since 2017 they told us, have the arrests and harassment escalated to an unbearable level. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/lonnie-swartz-border-patrol-agent-acquitted-in-death-of-mexican-teen-jose-antonio-elena-rodriguez/
According to the Washington Post, there have been over 3,000 deaths in the last 20 years in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge on the Arizona border. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/01/20/they-left-food-water-migrants-desert-now-they-might-go-prison/?utm_term=.b15bb6347f95) These are people and families looking for a better life, fleeing gangs and violence, not, as President Trump often states, drug dealers and criminals. Smuggling of drugs goes mainly through points of entry, as the arrest in Nogales last week of 254 pounds of fentanyl and 395 pounds of meth on a truck clearly shows. Instead of stringing concertina wire from the ground up threatening animals and children maybe we ought to continue to focus on the border crossings and the real smugglers.
Never mind that Donald Trump spent nearly fifteen minutes of his State of the Union speech on the border, while his intelligence chiefs spent exactly none while discussing national security threats in a Hill briefing. The real take away from the past two years is that President Trump has done nothing to attempt to solve the problem of immigration. One could argue that from the moment he got off that golden escalator to announce for President he has done everything in his power to demagogue the issue and demonize people.
It is time for Congress, Democrats and Republicans, and the Administration to once again search for solutions, not sow discord.
The basic concern now should revolve around comprehensive immigration reform: providing a path to citizenship that is earned, taking care of the dreamers who were brought here when they were young, reforming and revitalizing our asylum process so those fleeing can be vetted and their cases heard expeditiously. Border security must be dealt with, but Congress and the Administration must have the courage and the conviction to seek long term solutions to the problem.
In concert with Central American countries, the United States should be creating a Marshall-type Plan similar to what we had for Europe after World War II. By focusing on the critical need to stabilize these countries politically and economically — creating jobs, expanding education, reducing corruption — we should provide proposals and funding with a consortium of nations including especially Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Guatemala that will help solve the problem. After all, shouldn’t we be leading this cooperative effort, not forging division and distrust with our southern neighbors? Isn’t it time to focus on the notion of a multinational, cooperative approach? America needs to show these nations that they matter, they are our allies and we are all in this together.
From all we saw in our visit to Nogales it is clear that the “crisis at the border” is a humanitarian one that can only be solved with compassion and cooperation, not declaring war on others or having troops erect concertina wire and walls as the Soviets did across Eastern Europe. Sadly, Donald Trump seems intent on exploiting immigration for his own political gain.
The very impressive and moving film, “Green Book”, has won the Golden Globe Award for Best Picture, Movie or Comedy, and just won the Producers Guild of America Award for Best Picture. It is nominated for Best Picture again at the Academy Awards.
It is the story of a tough-talking Italian bouncer from the Bronx who joins a sophisticated, world-class, African-American pianist on a concert tour, far from their native New York in 1962. They head to the Deep South during the height of the civil rights struggle.
But the title, “Green Book”, refers to what began as a 15-page pamphlet in 1936 and grew to a comprehensive volume by the 1960s. It contained critical information for Blacks travelling throughout the country, but especially in the South — what restaurants they could eat in, what hotels and motels they could stay in, what gas stations were welcoming, what jazz clubs to go to and what towns to avoid, what curfews were in place, and what roads were safe to take. It was invaluable as Americans hit the road for vacations and many Blacks traveled back and forth between the South and their new homes in the Midwest and Northeast.
Last spring, even before we knew of the movie, my wife and I went to the exhibit at the New York Museum of Art and Design entitled “Unpacking the Green Book: Travel and Segregation in Jim Crow America.”
As someone who has spent decades in politics in Washington, the only Green Book I was vaguely familiar with was the book with the felt, emerald cover — The Social List of Washington, D.C. As a Senate aide I noticed it back in the 1970s as a resource for offices to contact members of the diplomatic corps, other members of congress, the administration, the wealthy and the socially prominent. In short, something way different from the “other” Green Book.
What we learned from the exhibit in New York was that the Green Book was published by a local postal worker, Victor Hugo Green. It began with a guide to the local metro area, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and expanded across the country and even abroad. In its 30 years, (1936-1967), it became indispensable and was called “The Negro Travelers’ Green Book.” It is featured in the film and used by Don Shirley, the musician, and Tony Vallelonga, the driver and bodyguard.
Ann Hornaday, the film critic for the Washington Post, wrote: “The great success of ‘Green Book’ lies in its modesty and the straightforward way it recognizes seismic change in the incremental turning of a human heart.”
The emerald, felt-covered Washington Green Book is anything but modest.
This Green Book, or social register, has been published by the same family since 1930. It is a highly secretive process to be admitted to the Green Book. Very exclusive, I guess. Who is in and who is out used to be a source of speculation. When former Washington Post great Ben Bradlee was dropped, he sarcastically replied, “what a cruel, cruel blow.” When former White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan was told he was left out he replied something to the effect he would have to pick up the pieces of his shattered life and move on.
The web site says: “The Green Book remains the preeminent list of Washington’s society and arbiter of social precedence in the Metropolitan Area. Selection to the book is by invitation only.”
By the way, according to the Washington Times (10/15/2005), it was not until 1971, forty years after it started publishing, that the first African American couple was included in the D.C. Green Book., Mr. and Mrs. Churchill Willoughby.
A tale of two Green Books — I think I prefer the Victor Hugo Green version.
Some of my great Democratic friends were disappointed in the election results and some are walking around with big smiles on their faces. For the former, my guess is that they were caught up in both “irrational exuberance” and a burning desire to see voters reject Donald Trump in all his forms – especially longing for a big Senate win and sweeping the table. For those who see the silver lining, they came in with reduced expectations of the election, especially after 2016, and they were happy with Democrats regaining control of the House of Representatives, picking up seven governorships and around 400 state legislative seats, despite the losses in the Senate.
After all, gaining what now looks like 40 House seats is an extraordinary feat not seen for the Democrats since the 1974 Watergate class. Republicans had exceeded that number in both 1994 and 2010., when they won 54 and 63 House seats, respectively. And the defeat in the Presidential election of 2016 was a wound that would not heal.
But even to call the mid-term election of 2018 a “mixed bag” for the Democrats would ignore the elephant in the room.
When have we ever seen such a shift when the economy was doing so well — unemployment under 4%, growth rates up, consumer confidence the highest since 2000? When has the party in power gotten so clobbered with the economy humming and more and more voters seeing the jobless numbers dropping and the stock market rising?
Let’s look at the history of elections when the economy was doing well or doing badly.
When unemployment was hitting close to 10% in 1982 during Reagan and also 10% under Obama, the off-year House losses were 26 under Reagan and 63 with Obama. When the economy was booming in 1998 under Clinton, his party actually gained seats in the off year, despite his personal scandals. And that unusual Republican defeat led to Speaker Newt Gingrich’s resignation.
In Presidential elections, John Kennedy won in an economy coming off the 1958 recession, Ronald Reagan won in a landslide in 1980 with a miserable economy of high inflation, negative growth and high interest rates and unemployment. Bill Clinton won in 1992 with the campaign mantra of “It’s the economy, stupid” after a recession, a tax increase that Bush promised never to implement and concern about the job market. And, of course, Obama won in 2008 mainly due to the greatest recession since the Depression of the 1930s.
All elections are not won or lost on the economy, of course. Candidates matter. A. domestic crisis like Watergate mattered. Foreign policy can matter – Vietnam, the Iran hostage crisis, even Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962 helped Democrats in that off year. But there is no question that the economy and people’s feelings about their personal situation matter a great deal.
That is why this election was such an outlier. If Trump had not been the pariah he was to so many Americans, his party would not have suffered the loses it did with such a strong economy. One can argue just how much credit Trump deserved for the job growth, the bump in the gross domestic product, and the boost in consumer confidence. Many point out that much of the good economy was a direct result of Obama’s policies, yet Trump is in office and he benefits from the positive numbers, regardless of whether he caused them.
A more traditional Republican president would have been able to ride a positive economy to a much different result. Trump made a sow’s ear out of a silk purse!
So the bottom line is that Election 2018 was far more about the revulsion and rejection of Donald Trump’s Presidency and a lot less about the state of the economy. In that sense, this was a very unusual and abnormal election — not unlike Trump himself.