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Democracy on Trial

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(NNPA) On Election Day, I found myself thinking about Venezuela. In the context of a hotly contested race for the presidency of the country, all reports indicated that the Venezuelan elections were handled smoothly with very few problems. This was true despite constant warnings in the U.S. media that the Venezuelan elections would somehow be undermined by the incumbent administration of President Hugo Chavez.

Now contrast that with the U.SA. and tell me what sorts of conclusions you arrive at. For two years we have had Republican-dominated state legislatures seeking to reduce the opportunities for people to register to vote and vote. There have been efforts to curtail early voting and voting on Sundays.Teams of right-wingers were put together to show up at polling places with the objective of challenging alleged fraudulent voters, but in effect, to intimidate voters. And, of course, we had various problems with voting machines, such as the now famous machine in Pennsylvania that kept changing Obama votes into Romney votes.

I would suggest to you–and maybe I am taking a risk in raising this–that it appears that we have a problem with democracy right here at home. How can efforts to reduce the number of those who can vote be justified? Why should organizations fear the undertaking of voter registration? Why should early voting be curtailed?

While it is the case that many of the efforts at what has come to be known as voter suppression were blocked by the intervention of the Justice Department and the courts, it is not time to rest easy. Keep in mind that the forces that were attempting to block our vote have not disappeared. They are still very much with us, just like a virus that has entered our system. In addition, the US Supreme Court will be considering aspects of the 1965 Voting Rights Act with the aim of ascertaining whether it needs to be weakened in light of the nearly 40 years of its existence. Right-wingers – and the National Black Chamber of Commerce – are suggesting that the protections offered by the Voting Rights Act are no longer necessary. After watching the 2000, 2004, 2008 and now the 2012 elections, I am uncertain how anyone could arrive at such a conclusion.

The fight for voting rights is far from over. The Republicans were stung by the results of November 6 and I think that it is a fair guess to suggest that they are not going to fold up shop. With the changing demographics of the U.S.A., they will seek to return to power and in order to succeed, they will need to knock some of us out of the batter’s box, i.e., they will need to reduce the number of voters that they see as pro-Democratic.

Voting rights is not about being pro-Democratic. It is about being pro-democracy. African Americans, Latinos, Asians and many White allies stood up in the face of electoral shenanigans and insisted that they be heard. Over the coming months we will be called upon to make our voices heard loud and clear on voting rights. Silence on this matter will certainly mean that the idea of democracy in the U.S.A. will take a further hit, this time perhaps a mortal blow.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. He can be reached at papaq54@hotmail.com.

Time for EPA to get O-U-T

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(NNPA) The votes have been cast. The ballots have been counted. And for most Americans, the day-to-day attention paid to the political process – free of the spectacle of a presidential election – fades into the background.

But what exactly is poised to happen within the government now that the spotlight has dimmed?

After one of the most polarizing and incendiary election cycles in recent memory, with billions spent on negative ads and countless accusations hurled from one side to another, we find ourselves right where we started.

Democrats retain control of the Senate by a slightly larger margin – a major disappointment for Republicans who just months ago dreamed of big pickups. The House remains in Republican hands, but not without some bumps and bruises for the majority party after having lost senior members in key committee positions, from Cliff Stearns to Mary Bono-Mack.

Most importantly, President Obama won a decisive second term in office. After having governed with one hand tied behind his back by re-election concerns for the past two years, the Obama administration is now free to pursue desired policy without the encumbrances that have kept many of the party’s favored agenda items in the barn for the past two years.

Perhaps nowhere will the impact of this mandate be more abundantly and immediately clear than on the pages of the Federal Register, where bodies such as the Environmental Protection Agency are now poised to take meaningful and immediate steps forward on big-ticket – and costly – priorities that were kept under wraps by election-minded liaisons in the White House for the last two years.

Many of the initiatives pursued by EPA and others will be headline-drivers. Others, though, are poised to slide under the radar. But this lower profile doesn’t mean the impacts will be any less significant.

Take, for instance, EPA’s push to gain greater authority over chemicals through so-called voluntary programs that don’t outwardly restrict the use of specific chemicals, but implement non-binding standards that simply serve as de facto regulations – encouraging de-selection in the marketplace.

Highlighting this effort will be a push for increased authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Observers expect that the newly-unencumbered EPA will more freely utilize its authority under Section 6a, which allows them to ban or restrict chemicals. Previously, this process has been dependent upon thorough review and political input. With a new mandate, however, rulemakings are likely to be initiated far in advance of the science inherent to the process being settled.

Where direct rulemaking fails or cannot be applied, the aforementioned “voluntary” initiatives provide EPA with a backdoor regulatory opportunity – establishing controls on out of favor substances without going through the rigors of the rulemaking process or in-depth scientific analysis. The EPA’s Design for the Environment (DFE), for instance, is a voluntary program, that does not employ established, consistent and rigorous scientific criteria, is not authorized by statute and follows no formal regulatory process or guidelines making it challenging for manufacturers to effectively engage and push for standards consistent with the US risk based regulatory approach. The result is that chemicals that have been proven safe in scientific review must also seek additional voluntary endorsement or be deemed inferior.

This unscientific, shoot-from-the-hip means of regulation is a severe stretch of EPA’s mandate – and presents a real threat to the ability of this industry – and many more – to plan and compete.

Of course, EPA’s ire focuses on much more than just the chemical industry. Economically massive initiatives – delayed for political reasons in the president’s first term – are expected to slam the economy in the early days of the second term. And the implications stand to be severe.

Perhaps most prominently, a fresh revision of EPA’s ozone standards was famously shelved in 2011 to the disdain of environmentalists everywhere. But despite environmentalists’ cries, the decision to punt on the revision was politically expedient, as stricter ozone standards threaten to carry massive economic costs not just for industry, but for countless cities, counties, municipalities and states nationwide that would suddenly find themselves out of compliance. According to EPA itself, this new standard would cost the economy around $90 billion annually by 2020.

Not exactly a strong talking point for a candidate focused on touting his plan for economic recovery.

The regulatory hurdles taking shape, in other words, are significant. But as this second term commences, there may be some hope. Officials on both sides have expressed a seemingly sincere interest in reaching across aisles to find solutions that work for both sides. Efforts to avert the coming fiscal cliff will provide a first test for this burgeoning bipartisanship.

Where we go from there, though, remains to be seen.

Harry Alford is the President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce Inc(r). Website: www.nationalbcc.org. Email: halford@nationalbcc.org.

Bipartisanship Needed More than Ever

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(NNPA) It seems like the more we watch our elected officials debate, argue and accuse, the more of the same keeps happening. For the sake of our future they need to come to terms with our dire economy and start managing our financial affairs. America is in great danger and no one seems to be very concerned. Iran will soon have nuclear weapons and China is building its military at a scary and phenomenal rate. Russia is as slick as ever and the whole Middle East is erupting. If we don’t remain strong, peace will soon go away.

President Obama has an excellent opportunity to build on his legacy. This term he needs to be a “healer” and cross the isle to negotiate the best path for America. Politics is supposed to be about compromising and negotiating. Both parties must begin an ebb and flow on the important issues that lay ahead of us. Let’s look at some of these make or break issues.

The last time we faced this upcoming financial disaster we called it “Taxmageddon.” We would not solve the matter or bring it to closure. Instead we kicked the can down the road and raised our debt limit. Now, we face it again and call it the “Fiscal Cliff.” The Fiscal Cliff becomes a reality on January 1. If Congress doesn’t come to terms with this matter soon, our economy will crash. Half of our military budget will be cancelled which would cause the loss of hundreds of thousand jobs and many business closures. Or, we can do like the last time which was to raise our debt limits and kick the can down the road again. A wise government would adjust our spending and revenues to begin chopping away at our $16 trillion debt.

The next financial trauma is the Dodd-Frank bill implementation. Senator Dodd and Congressman Frank steered this fiasco through Congress and then announced their retirements. President Obama signed it. It has done much harm in terms of capital access, business growth and job creation. By law, regulators must write 398 rules to fully implement the bill. So far they have issued 133 final rules (33 percent), proposed 133 more which are pending and another 133 are yet to be proposed. This bill is making banks too timid to lend money to businesses. Our major corporations are refusing to further invest in this nation and are considering growing their businesses abroad. It may end Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and force us to come up with a new way to provide mortgage financing to homeowners. We need to undo this law and start over using common sense.

International trade is another area that needs to pick up the pace of the new global market. The last administration closed on free trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Columbia. Maybe the second Obama administration will be more robust. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is starting to get on the negotiating table. If completed, we will have free trade agreements (duty and tariff free transactions) with Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. The National Black Chamber of Commerce is all for this. After we complete it, let’s consider some of the larger African nations. Also, wouldn’t it make sense to include the European Union, our nation’s biggest trading partner? We are talking business development and sizeable job creation.

It would be very important to the Obama legacy if we were to arrive at energy independence. Yes, we know he is all for the “all of the above” strategy in meeting our energy needs through every means available. Again, we are talking about a serious number of new jobs and business development. We must build the Keystone Pipeline. We should expand the new technique of natural gas drilling – Fracturing or “fracking.” Off shore wells should now be allowed on all of our coastlines. We cannot become independent without these forms of energy gathering. The president is going to have to face this if he is to achieve his goal. He will have to do this with an absence of cap and trade legislation. That won’t happen and this position is non-negotiable.

If the new administration can work with Congress and complete the above, it would signal a new day for America. We are at risk and I pray that the turning point can happen sooner than later. It would be so nice to have some camaraderie and respect on Capitol Hill and a happy Wall Street. If we can just get it together within the next year, the economy would start turning around and may even start to boom in the second year of this administration. President Obama, Congress, it is all up to you. Let’s do it for the future of our great nation.

Harry C. Alford is the co-founder, president/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce®. Website: www.nationalbcc.org. Email: halford@nationalbcc.org.

Republican Self-Hate

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(NNPA) Leading up to November 6, I found myself focused on the matter of voter suppression and electoral shenanigans committed by the Republicans. This concern was not for nothing. Prior to and on Election Day, there were myriad of attempts to subvert the vote, particularly the vote of people of color. On Election Day in Pennsylvania, for instance, there was a voting machine that would convert an Obama vote into a Romney vote (and this was captured on film). Frivolous voter challenges started well before Election Day itself, again targeting African American and Latino voters.

What was most striking about the 2012 election, then, was that in the face of this attack on our right to vote, there was something akin to a popular revolt by the African American and Latino electorate. Latinos voted more than 70 percent for Obama and African Americans 93 percent. But those figures do not tell enough. It was the turnout that was so significant. Despite efforts by the political right to dampen African American enthusiasm for Obama using the issue of same-sex marriage, this tactic failed dismally. And Romney’s cynical anti-Latino approach, as evidenced during this primary campaign, came back to bite him in the rear.

It was more than this, however. It was something that you had to feel if you waited in line to vote. I went three times to try to engage in early voting. The first two times the line was out the building and I decided to return at a later date. On the third time, I thought that I had arrived early enough only to discover that the line started well within the building. I was on line for two hours, and this was early voting. Around the U.S. there were stories like that one. People standing in line for seven hours in order to vote.

In effect what we saw was a counter-attack by the African American and Latino electorate against those who would attempt to disenfranchise us. The obvious intent to eliminate African American and Latino voters, rather than scaring us into submission and docility, energized us to turn out in record numbers. There are many lessons there and one is that we can actually overwhelm the other side by sheer numbers and audacity.

There were many other things about the election which I have reflected upon, but one is a question that I must pose to African American and Latino Republicans. It is simple: How can you associate with a party that quite consciously set out to disenfranchise African American and Latino voters? I must ask, what level of self-hatred must one have to actively support a party that purged voter lists to eliminate potential Democratic Party supporters, many of who were African American and Latino? I must ask, what level of self-hatred must one have to actively support a party that regularly used coded language in order to appeal to a racist impulse among many white voters?

Get back with me on that, okay?

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. He can be reached at papaq54@hotmail.com.

Postal Service Undeterred by Superstorm Sandy

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(NNPA) I have lived through several hurricanes and major storms. When you do not know whether your roof will hold together or whether you will get flooded out (and our basement was flooded in the 2011 hurricane), the anxiety is indescribable. Thus, when the government warns people to stay inside and off the streets, if you are in touch with reality, you take that seriously.

So, it was with great surprise that in the middle of Superstorm Sandy that I saw a postal van. Yes, the U.S. Postal Service, despite the federal government being closed on Monday, was somehow operating. The mail was delivered to us. Airline flights were being cancelled; subways had ceased operations; buses were not moving…and we still got our mail.

I had two immediate thoughts on seeing the postal van. The first was to applaud the courage of postal workers. I actually think about this regularly. They are really not joking when they talk about “neither ran, nor sleet…” will stop them. Here you had a letter carrier driving in the middle of a hurricane to make sure that we received our mail.

The second thought was quite different: What will happen if the postal service is dismantled and privatized? Let’s be clear: The agenda of the Republicans and of some Democrats is the privatization of the postal service. When you keep under-funding the postal service and making service cuts, it eventually creates a level of despair and frustration that will push the public to embrace privatization. This approach is called economic strangulation. This economic strangulation is what we have been witnessing, and not just recently. The act of cutting the hours of post offices, cutting employees, and reducing other services does not build popular confidence.

And, so I stood watching the postal van wondering what would happen if the postal service was privatized. Would a private contractor really care about delivering the mail under harsh conditions? Could we count on workers going beyond the call of duty? That is the real issue in privatization. It is not just that privatized facilities – of any sort – seek to reduce certain costs by cutting the wages and benefits of workers. No, it is more than that. Privatization changes the relationship of the workforce to the job that must be done, i.e., it changes their relationship to the public. The owners of these privatizing companies are not particularly interested in serving the public. They are interesting in making a profit. Their slogan would not be anything approaching “Neither rain, nor sleet…” will stop postal delivery. It will be more something like “As long as I can make an extra buck delivering the mail it will be coming at you.”

So, if you have been sitting on the sidelines while the future of the postal service has been discussed, think again, and just ask yourself whether you care whether you receive the mail that the Constitution promises. In watching the postal van drive off I hoped that this would not be the last time that I would see such dedication displayed.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. He can be reached at papaq54@hotmail.com.

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