Archive (2007)

Wednesday Press Conference

Unlike every other political conversation today, public restroom etiquette was not a subject of today's Massa press conference. Instead, the topics were Iraq, jobs and the DCCC.

Massa led off with the subject of his recent op-eds in the Corning and Elmira papers: the "Vietnamization" of the Iraq War. Massa said that President Bush's comparison between Iraq and Vietnam "really got me going". He contrasted Bush's "images of boat people, torture and prison camps" with the recently signed free trade agreement with Vietnam. Massa noted that Kuhl also voted for that agreement.

Massa acknowledged that his many references to Iraq would probably lead to him being called a "one-issue candidate" by Kuhl, but he believes that voters should expect more from their Congressman. "Any Member of Congress can make sure potholes are filled. That's baseline...job 1." Massa thinks that Kuhl owes constituents a clear explanation of his position on Iraq. "It comes down to a single statement: do you think it's wrong or not, and when are we going to get out?"

In response to a question about Kuhl locking his offices, Massa said:

Locked doors are not only an overreaction, they're also an attempt to portray concerned individuals as radicals. His strategy [seems to be] that these outside agitators are limiting his ability to meet with his constituents.

Massa noted that "last night more than 100 people stood outside his office, and most of them are from the district." He said that when you get that number of people standing outside a Congressman's office in Steuben County, "trust me, almost everyone knows someone in that crowd." Massa noted that he has nothing to do with the protests, and that he's prohibited by law from interacting with the organizers, but "all those people wanted was a phone call or meeting with Kuhl."

Massa contrasted Kuhl's attitude towards the anti-war protesters with Massa's recent meeting with Joe Klein, of Klein Steel. Klein and others in the meeting were trying to convince Massa to change his position in support of the Employee Free Choice Act. Massa characterized some of the participants in that meeting as "upset and angry", but pointed out that "as a Member of Congress, you sit and listen and learn from everyone."

In response to another question, Massa detailed his jobs plan. That plan was discussed in previous press conferences. What was new this time was a concrete example: Schweitzer Aircraft (now Sikorsky) has a contract that requires them to hire 200 people in the next [few] years. Massa's view is that there should be a public/private partnership between Sikorsky and area colleges and BOCES. In return for scholarships facilitated by tax breaks, engineers and skilled machinists would sign a contract obligating themselves to four years of service at Sikorsky.

Massa contrasted his plan with the "continual stream of small dollar pork barrel grants that will not rebuild the economy of the 29th district." He also said that:

Earmarks are unpredictable and unsustainable. Earmarks are a way for a Member of Congress to get votes. After that, the earmark has no value. There needs to be a longer-range more optimistic vision.

On the topic of economic development, I asked Massa what he and Joe Klein agreed on:

We agree that free trade is killing us, especially free trade with China: the lack of food safety with imports from China, and product safety from China. We agree that we need to fix our educational system.

Massa said that "Joe Klein's aversion to organized labor is no secret to anybody...The question is about the aggregate: how we sit at a table, agree to disagree, and move forward."

Finally, I asked Massa about what he thinks the concrete effect of being a top-tier race for the DCCC will be. He said, "last year, nobody said that about us anywhere, ever." Though he wasn't sure what the DCCC endorsement would mean in terms of tangible support, he said:

It does mean that people now know that we have a viable and competitive race, and a battle-scared and campaign-tested candidate, who knows what needs to get done.

The other participant in today's press conference was Joe Dunning from the Corning Leader.

Morning News: Locks, Op-Eds and Vigils

The lockdown story got some more press on Elmira's WETM. Their short story puts the blame on "authorities".

Eric Massa's op-ed, which first appeared in the Corning Leader, also made the Elmira Star-Gazette.

The Americans Against Escalation in Iraq meeting that was the subject of an earlier protest happened last night. The Star-Gazette announced the meeting, but I haven't seen any other media coverage.

Last but not least, an item I missed yesterday: Rochesterturning reviews the latest fundraising numbers for the Democratic and Republican Congressional Committees. The DCCC has a 10:1 edge on the RNCC.

Now Look What You Made Me Do

When the history of the first decade of this century is written, a long chapter will be devoted to real and lasting restrictions of civil liberties justified by vague and ephemeral threats. Even though Randy Kuhl's decision to lock the doors of his local service offices won't make any history books, it still fits the same, depressing, three-step pattern of liberties restricted "for our own good":

  1. Exaggerate: The real threat to Randy Kuhl's office is the embarrassment and inconvenience of having a set of anti-war protesters take over for a day. Since that threat doesn't justify a lockdown, his spokesman had to invent a new one: "future, more radical protesters". But even she admits that those threats aren't real: "I believe we have received some threats, but I'm not positive about the nature of them."
  2. Over-React: Common sense indicates that the real threat, non-radical protesters, could be dealt with in ways that fall short of locking office doors from here on out. How about locking them on days when protests are happening? How about working with police to ensure a more aggressive response? Instead we're left with constituents having to make appointments just to speak with members of Kuhl's staff.
  3. Publicize: As soon as the decision was made to lock doors, Kuhl's spokesman was all over the press talking about it. If it were smart to publicize every change in security, then we'd see headlines like "Local Bank Begins Use of Dye Pack Decoys". Since we don't, I have to assume that the real reason that Kuhl's change in security made the paper wasn't because it's smart, but instead because it fit his political agenda of appearing as a helpless victim of crazy radicals.

We began this month with a few harmless hippies spending a day in a couple of Randy Kuhl's offices. We end it with his offices on perpetual lockdown, justified by vague, unspecified threats of future radicalism. This is a classic case of "look what you made me do", and it would be comical if it weren't so common.

Morning News: Locked Doors and DCCC Support

The Elmira Star-Gazette reports that Randy Kuhl has locked his district offices, to protect them from "future, more radical protesters".

The S-G also covers the visit of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) chair Rep. Chris Van Hollen. During that visit, Van Hollen pledged that the 29th campaign will be a top priority for 2008.

Pork Part 1: Earmarks vs. Grants

Both candidates in the 29th are trying to make pork a major issue in the 2008 race. Most of Randy Kuhl's press releases tout the arrival of federal money in the district. Eric Massa has made Kuhl's habit of voting against bills that contain his earmarks a frequent topic of his press conferences and press releases. Though the term "pork" gets thrown around frequently, there's not a lot of discussion of the nitty-gritty details of federal money entering the district. Today, in the first of a multi-part series on pork, I'll examine the difference between a grant and an earmark.

Let's say you're on a town board somewhere in the 29th district. Assume that your water system is broken, or perhaps you have an intersection that needs widening. Your town doesn't have the money, so you need to look somewhere else for funding: the federal government.

There are many ways to get federal funding for an ad hoc local project. To make things simple, I'm going to look at two that occupy most of Randy Kuhl's press releases: earmarks and grants. Let's start with grants.

Federal grants are blocks of money appropriated by Congress and administered by an agency in the executive branch. For example, if your problem is an intersection, the grant might be administered by the Department of Transportation. When Congress wrote the law appropriating the money for the grant, they also put a set of requirements down for distributing the grant money. Perhaps the grant is for rural areas, or maybe it is for poor areas, or for "critical infrastructure". Whatever the requirements, the federal agency administering the grant uses the legislative guidance from Congress to create a set of requirements for receiving the grant. Your intersection must meet those requirements.

To show that you meet the requirements, you need to write a grant application. Because requirements are complicated, "grant-writing" is an art form unto itself, and consultants are often used to wordsmith grants. Once the grant application is written, it is reviewed by a career civil servant (a.k.a., a "bureaucrat"). If the grant meets all the requirements, and there's enough money to go around, your project gets funded.

That's obviously a long, drawn-out process. The alternative is an earmark, which is a targeted appropriation for your intersection. To get an earmark, you need to convince another set of folks: your Congressman and/or Senators. You call their staff, convince the staff that what you want is important to a vital constituency, and then, if you're lucky, your Congressman will insert your funding request into a bill as an earmark. Once the earmark is placed and the bill is signed into law by the President, you get your money.

This is probably a simpler process, but it has its downside, too. If you live in a part of the district full of members of the other party, your Congressman might not think that your earmark is as important as some others in the "right place". Maybe your Congressman has spent his earmarks on other priorities. Or perhaps you have a feud with him about something else. Since earmarks are person-to-person politics, your ability to get an earmark relies on your political skills.

So which is better? It obviously depends on where you're sitting. Beneficiaries of the status quo, like Randy Kuhl, think earmarks are great. In a recent article in the Corning Leader, Eric Massa's criticism of pork-barrel funding in the 29th brought this retort from Randy Kuhl's spokesman, Bob Van Wicklin:

Randy knows the district better than the bureaucrats in Washington D.C. [...] The 29th Congressional District isn’t the highest priority on their list, but it is the highest priority on Randy’s list.

Van Wicklin's argument is one commonly heard in the earmark discussion. If you're concerned with issues like corruption and fairness, you might point out that civil servants implementing federal regulations are less likely to be swayed by political considerations. Bureaucrats might not know the district, but they might know better than to fund a "bridge to nowhere", and they certainly wouldn't fund it unless there's a government grant program for bridges to empty islands.

My take on the grants vs. earmarks controversy is that New Yorkers should support neither mode of federal funding. In the next post in this series, I'll explain why.

Massa Editorial in Corning Leader

The Massa Campaign sends Eric Massa's editorial in today's Corning Leader [image]. The subject is the Bush Administration's comparison between Iraq and Vietnam.

Republicans Begin Defensive PAC Donations

Congressional Quarterly reports that House Minority Leader John Boehner's leadership PAC has begun to make maximum contributions to Republicans who are in danger of losing their seats. In contrast, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer's PAC is making contributions to Democratic challengers. Randy Kuhl recently received the $10,000 maximum from Boehner's PAC.

Exile at Rochesterturning notes that these defensive buys put the lie to the notion that low Congressional approval ratings might lead to a Republican resurgence. I agree. Those interested in the source of the low approval ratings might want to read what Glenn Greenwald has to say about them -- the bottom line is that low approval is being driven by Democrats' discontent with the Democratic Congress.

As fundraising shifts into high gear, it will be interesting to see if another factor is at play: "live by the corporate PAC, die by the corporate PAC". Randy Kuhl received big donations from corporate-financed PACs that want to pass legislation agreeable to the corporations who pay their bills. A Member of Congress who is part of the minority party, and on the edge of losing his seat, isn't an automatic investment for those PACs. It will be interesting to see whether Kuhl can attract funds from them again, or if he'll have a shortfall that can't be shored up by a few donations from House leaders.<?p>

Activists in Court

Yesterday's court appearance by anti-war activists, who entered a plea of not guilty and will represent themselves in court, was widely covered in local media. Reader Elmer sends the Corning Leader front-page coverage (here [pdf] and here [pdf]). The Elmira Star-Gazette story was reprinted in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. And Syracuse News 10 has video of the accompanying demonstration.

Pro-War Ads May Air In Rochester Market

Rochesterturning reports that a conservative group, headed by former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, may be airing ads in the Rochester market. is making a $15 million national buy, and according to Americablog, $187,235 will be spent on ads in the Rochester market. Four ads have been produced, and can be viewed on YouTube. Freedomswatch disputes the buy information.

US News on AAEI

US News and World Report has an in-depth story on Americans Against Escalation in Iraq (AAEI), the group sponsoring some of the ads and protests in the 29th. It includes some details on the internal debates of the group, which is trying to engage rather than just protest. One of the tactics considered (and apparently discarded) was to have protesters wear flak jackets and helmets after Kuhl's "packing" comment.

S-CHIP Spin: Taxes and Illegals

The State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP) saga keeps getting more complex, with the llatest news that the White House wants to keep states like New York from raising the eligibility ceiling for the program. Though the White House thinks that S-CHIP is a problem because it may replace private insurance for some, that's not Randy Kuhl's position.

The last post on the (S-CHIP) dealt with Randy Kuhl's charge that it will cut Medicare benefits. Kuhl also says that the bill will "increase taxes on private health insurance policies, and make it easier for illegal aliens to get government-funded healthcare." Like the Medicare charge, there's a grain of truth in that spin, but it's fundamentally wrong.

The tax increase that Kuhl crticizes amounts to roughly $1/year for each insured person. That dollar will be used to fund research into the effectiveness of drugs, devices and treatments. Even the private insurers agree that the research is a good idea - they just argue about how to fund it.

The concern over illegals getting Medicaid is a result of S-CHIP's repeal of the requirement for documented proof of citizenship for all Medicaid recipients. Again, there's more here than meets the eye.

Before the Deficit Reduction Act (DRA) of 2005, states weren't required to collect documented proof of citizenship for Medicaid recipients. In the run-up to the DRA, the Health and Human Services Inspector General recommended [pdf] some common-sense methods for states to better document the immigration status of Medicaid recipients. In the DRA, Congress went far beyond those recommendations. It mandated the use of hard-to-get documents, and made that requirement an up-front one.

The result was a mess. A report study in one state (Virginia) [pdf] showed that the requirement mainly caused more cost in the program and delays in getting health care. Most important: emergency room visits, the most expensive way to provide care, went up after the DRA requirements were enacted. Administration costs for Medicaid also went up, because applicants needed help getting documents like certified copies of birth certificates, which cost $25-50.

In the DRA, Congress didn't do its homework before writing legislation. New York is the only state in the nation that's had a long-term policy of verifying citizenship status for Medicaid recipients. The Kaiser Family Foundation has issued a report [pdf] showing how New York is able to do a decent job of verifying citizenship while still getting people enrolled. To pick one glaring example, New York automatically enrolls newborns without further checks, since a baby born on US soil is a US citizen.

The DRA requirements are a classic example of "sounds good" legislation that doesn't work. If the S-CHIP repeal of those requirements is signed into law, Congress needs to go back to the drawing board to find a practical, workable solution to the issue of illegals getting Medicare.

Of course, this lengthy explanation is a lot harder to understand than the one-liners in Kuhl's press release. Kuhl is facing the accusation that he doesn't want to insure children. His spin -- he's protecting seniors, keeping taxes on insurance down, and keeping illegal immigrants from getting benefits -- sounds good, but doesn't hold up under scrutiny.

Protest Update

Today's Democrat and Chronicle carries and op-ed by a member of the group that occupied Randy Kuhl's Fairport office.

In Bath, a "vigil" will be held at 110 Liberty Street at 4 p.m. Wednesday while those arrested in the Bath protest meet with the Bath district attorney.