Wednesday, February 28, 2007

DME Problems Exposed Infrastructure Needs

The FRA decision to reject DM&E’s loan request should be applauded in that they made a merit-based decision as opposed to the back door efforts to fund this project by Senator Thune.

The DM&E loan proposal highlighted a number of issues that need to be addressed. What is the future of rail in the US? And, what responsibility does the government have to provide funding for railroads?

The magnitude of this loan and the viability of the carrier concerned many fiscally responsible people. Yet, historically government has supported rail … and there is no reason that it should not in the future. But what is needed is a rational plan that does not favor one company over all others.

The railroads were built for the 19th Century; Congress needs a comprehensive plan for the 21st Century. Congressman Oberstar proposed legislation last session entitled the Railroad Track Modernization Act of 2006 and Transit Rail Accommodation Improvement and Needs Act. It would promote Transit Use & Develop a Rail Infrastructure Program that would create a stimulus package of infrastructure investment that upgrades the pipeline for biofuels – the freight rail system – in order to get an affordable and reliable supply of biofuels to market.

DM&E is in trouble as reflected in yesterday’s stock performance by LB Foster, which owns 13.4% of the DM&E diluted stock and saw its stock value drop 21 %. DM&E currently serves a market and it needs to address its safety record and operation.

Before Thune attempted to hijack the Federal Railroad Authority's program in the 2006 Transporation bill with provisions to "alleviate rail capacity problems" and removed any prohibition on the size of any single loan, it was designed to help railroads fix existing track with impetuous that small railroads would need the monies. That is still true today.

As a fiscal conservative, I opposed a loan that would create a market imbalance while rewarding one company while other railroads are investing in their businesses. However, I do support the orginal provisions of the FRA program. But any Congressional action should be done in a transparent manner that is based on merit and not lobbyists influence.

Who’s on McCain's Minnesota Team ? And Who’s Not ?

John McCain has just released his Team Minnesota.
During the Congressional campaign of 2006, I made issued a commentary noting that McCain was coming to the First District in behalf of Gil Gutknecht.
At that time, I noted a number of differences on major issues between McCain and Gutknecht.

So I am not surprised that Gutknecht is not on the Team … but Tony Cornish ? ? ?
Yep, Gun-Toting Tony is on McCain’s Leadership Team.
Wasn’t John McCain the author of the McCain-Lieberman gun-show bill, which would have given the federal government the administrative power to prohibit all gun shows, and to register everyone who attends a gun show? The Gun Owners of America gave McCain a rating of F- for his 2004 re-election campaign.

And what about McCain authoring the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Bill which affected that ability of the NRA and other groups to donate monies?

Other issues that I would like to hear Cornish’s assessment include :

Guest Workers & Amnesty for illegal immigrants
- McCain authored bill to approve

Same Sex Marriage Constitutional Amendment
- McCain opposed

2002 Farm Bill
- McCain opposed

I don't know who is moving on the issues -- McCain trying to appeal to the Republican Conservative base ... or Cornish selling out on his principles. Maybe Tony is angling for a spot in a McCain administration … as a 24-B constituent, I would be glad to see Tony go.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

MN Voters Need Joe Atkins in US Senate Race

It’s Hot Stove League time for baseball fans. That time of the season when you sit around the stove talking about the next season … optimism abounds as your team has not lost a single game and the next season always looks promising … young players are expected to emerge and veterans can only get better.

Talking baseball isn’t the only game that can be discussed among friends on a chilly winter day. In fact, although the Federal Election isn’t for another 21 months, now is the time to look at the potential candidates. It is my belief that Minnesotans will not play a role in selecting the next president. By the time, Minnesota holds its caucus and primaries; the nominees will have been long been determined. Since the Presidency is based on the Electoral College, a very few states will really matter. Minnesota may not be a fly-over state, but with only ten votes, once again Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida will get the maximum attention.

That stated, elections do matter. This past November saw a sea change in the Congress. Committees determine legislative action or inaction. Cases in point, let’s consider the issue of global warming. Under the Republican controlled Senate, James Inhofe (R-OK), was the ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee and a major foe of mandating reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The November election not only brought the Democrats the Committee control but also allowed for changes in the Republican committee structure. John Warner, who is known as a moderate on environmental issues, is now the ranking Republican. An issue that was dormant under the prior Congress will now be actively debated and addressed. So, having the best representation in Congress might be the best that Minnesotans can do to influence national policy.

Although the November 2008 may seem like a long time from now - to compete against an incumbent, that is about the time that is required. Tim Walz’s successful campaign to challenge Gil Gutknecht was first reported by Mankato’s Free Press on a cold winter day in 2005. At that time, it seemed odd that someone would be thinking that far ahead, but countless county fairs, and meet-and-greets later, the First District has a new Congressman.

To me, the most interesting race will be the US Senate race. Personally, I would not be surprised if Norm Coleman got more than token competition for the Republican nomination. The former DFLer, may be too moderate for many social and fiscal conservatives. But with his campaign war-chest and incubency may be too much for Republicans to turn their backs on Coleman … if Rhode Island Republicans wouldn’t turn on Lincoln Chaffee, Norm’s got the nomination.

On the Democratic side, there is the perrienial talk about Mike Ciresi and would Ford Bell try again? Al Franken has proven to be a good fundraiser and motivator for DFL candidates. And then there are the others that are largely unknown.

Competition is good as ideas are debated, positions formulated, electability considered and best of all, voters get to meet the candidates. Amy Klobuchar was helped by the process and the competition from Patty Wetterling and Bell. Klobuchar spent time traversing the state visiting every county. Conversely, the annoitting of Mark Kennedy was a determent – he gained nothing and the voters knew only of his bio and Congressional voting record.

Ciresi, Franken and Bell may be viable candidates, but I favor those that have previous legislative experience. I am reminded of Molly Ivins’ book Shrub in which she chided why it is that so many people only want the top job … her case in point, George Bush. If Bush wanted to be in government, why start at the Governor slot? And, I agree. This past November, the Mankato area saw the retirement of three state legislators. The voters elected three people with experience on school boards or the city council. It’s those community service functions that the art of being a good legislator is learned. As one County Commissioner told me the first thing that he learned upon his election was how to count to three …. with a five seat commission, if he wanted anything, he had to get cooperation from at least two others. That on-the-job experience teaches how to listen to other’s concerns, compromise and resolve issues.

As I look at the afore mentioned candidates, that legislative experience is missing. Based on ideology, Franken might satisfy many in his party, but I need someone who can be operate within the system to advance legislation that will improve America.

If Betty McCollum wants to move up from the House, she meets my requirements.

From the Minnesota Legislature, Representative Joe Atkins of Inner Grove Heights has indicated that he is interested. I don’t know anything about Atkins – his philosophies or motivations. His bio states that he is an attorney who graduated Magna Cum Laude … impressive. His legislative website lists his press releases. First off, I noticed that he recognizes the role of our military. Specifically, his legislation that he offered in 2006 to provide body armor for the troops being deployed overseas.

Just last week, Reuters quoted the Department of Defense's inspector-general reported "Service members were not always equipped to effectively complete their missions," and here is Atkins recognizing that we have a duty to provide body armor. Once again, I am impressed.

Politicians are great at issuing press releases, but the real test is when that time of compromise is at hand … how they voted on the issues that matter. Using MPR’s Votetracker program, I find myself in agreement with him on issues that matter to me … abortion, government spending, voter ID, definition of marriage, etc. The only area that I was disappointed in was his support for stadiums, but considering that he is a U of M alumnus and represents the Twin Cities, that may have been a motivation.

As I stated, I did not know Joe Atkins before, but he is now on my radar as someone to watch. There are others that have been mentioned, such as State Senators Mee Moua and Tarryl Clark and Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner; and all should be given consideration. Remember, this is not for homecoming queen, but for who can advance the philosophies of government that you desire.

For a meaningful election, the parties need an aggressive debate on the issues with the party membership deciding the nominees, not a backdoor anointing by State and national party officials.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Does Dick Day really want to be a Congressman ?

SPECULATION : Dick Day is not running for Congress but just fundraising for Congress.

Generally people have an overriding motivation when they seek an office …it maybe issue or philosophy driven, such as : to end a war, to end abortion, to end poverty, to end same-sex marriage, to improve schools, to change an unfair law, to change taxes, etc. Heck, didn’t Jesse Ventura run for mayor for something as mundane as a traffic light?
Some may do it as civic responsibility.
Or for power.
Or to exert influence.
Or for ego.
There are lots of reasons.

Dick Day says he’s running because Tim Walz is a liberal.
OK, so that’s a reason … maybe not a unique or compelling reason. Day is a seasoned politician having spent time in the trenches – city council up to Minority Leader in the Minnesota Senate. Those are local jobs where you represent hundreds to thousands of citizens. Those are technically part-time jobs. Technically, the legislature should be in session for five months … lately with the inability to resolve issues, it has been the norm that special sessions are required since they failed to get their jobs done in the required time. Besides, the session workload, there are also meetings with constituents, community leaders, and governmental agencies. Yes, these are part of the job, but they may be scheduled based on your convenience. As a leader in the state Senate, Day can exert influence on legislation.

Compare that to a US Congressman who is in Washington for generally nine to ten months a year … and in the 110th Congress, they are scheduled to be in session Monday through Friday. The weekends are open for in district activities. In the House, you are just one of 435 Representatives with most of the power belonging to Party Leaders and Committee Chairmen. A new Representative may take a long time to move up the chain such as Michelle Bachmann who has been appointed as the 32 ranking member (out of 33 Republicans) to the Financial Services Committee.

If Day is elected, he would be 71 years old when 111th Congress convenes in January 2009. Somehow, I cannot comprehend that the rigors of being a freshman Congressman is what I would want to do when I turn 71.

So, is there another underline story here?
How about fundraising?
The Star-Tribune reportedUnseating an incumbent could take more than $1.5 million, and beginning an aggressive campaign after a spring 2008 endorsing convention would be impractical, Day said. He noted that he had raised $780,000 for his caucus last year, evidence of his fundraising skill.”

Ah, so is Day actually campaigning for fundraising purposes ? If the Republicans want to keep pressure on Walz and attract funds, Day is an ideal candidate. So for the next year, he schmoozes contributors and then when the nominating convention happens, there are a number of other candidates for the party to select. They select a younger, highly Conservative candidate and Day concedes that that candidate would be great nominee, closes his campaign, and sends his warchest to the nominee.

Pure speculation on my part, but I will revisit this commentary in the fall of 2008 and see if I am right. If I am wrong, at 71, I think it will be easy for Day to take the term limit pledge.

Friday, February 09, 2007

A New Day in MN First District

State Senator Dick Day has announced that he will seek the Republican nomination for Minnesota’s First District.

MPR lists key votes from last session and provides a brief bio as :
“Day, a retired IBM employee, was first elected to the Senate in 1990. He resigned as Senate Minority Leader at the conclusion of the 2004 session, but was convinced by the GOP caucus to return to the post. Day, born in 1937, grew up in Rochester, the son of farmer-parents. He served on the Owatonna City Council and the Steele County Board. He is married to Janet and has four children. He is Catholic.”

The AP reports that “Day said his campaign would be focused on health care, jobs, immigration and education.”
Since the escalation of the military mission in Iraq is not mentioned as a key issue, the assumption is that Day feels confident that Bush will resolve that conflict before the 2008 elections. Also, he does not mention the overall War on Terror, nuclear proliferation, Social Security funding crisis … these are issues that a US Congressman has to deal with that a State Senator does not. But since he does list immigration as an issue, is he a Bush Guest Worker backer or a Tom Tancredo Send’em Back backer?

Issues aside, the First District will see a new day in campaigning. The Star-Tribune reports that Day has stated “Unseating an incumbent could take more than $1.5 million, and beginning an aggressive campaign after a spring 2008 endorsing convention would be impractical.”

At $1.5 million, this will not be the citizens of the First District sending in their $50 donations … this will be corporations and wealthy individuals using issue advocacy groups to provide “communications experts”, TV/radio ads, mass mailings, and robo-calls. The message will be shaped to what they want the voters to think by manipulating the issues.

This is a sad day.

When Tim Penny ran against an incumbent Congressman, he won by knocking on doors and meeting voters and discussing the issues. Today, the money race can determine the election.

The First District was a Republican fundraising money channeling machine. In 2004, Gutknecht raised monies and then distributed them to 24 Republican candidates for Congress in amounts ranging from $1,000 to $2,000 plus $66,922 to the Republican National Committee Congressional Campaign. In total, Gutknecht spent $666,410 including those distributions. Detail here.

In 2006, Gutknecht spent $1,723,707 of which $96,277 was sent to the RNC but no monies were re-directed to other campaigns.

The voters lose in this money campaign.

But Tim Walz is the victor in this. Now that he knows that Day will attempt to buy the election, he can focus on what will get him re-elected – serving the citizens of the First District. Knowing that this may be his only term, he is free to vote his conscience.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Gutknecht Promises, Democrats Take Action !

I have been writing commentaries for over a year concerning the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) reports that stated U.S. reconstruction efforts have been plagued by problems & fraud. Each time pleading with my Congressman, Gil Gutknecht, who sat on the Government Reform Committee to hold hearings.

Gutknecht finally issued a response as a Footnote in his eline of 9/29/06 :
NOTE: My Government Reform Committee held its seventh oversight hearing. At the insistence of House conservatives, money was authorized for additional auditors for money spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. Troubling reports are coming out concerning waste and mismanagement. We need to hold people accountable. We intend to hold more hearings in the months to come.
Emphais added.
{ NOTE : Gutknecht takes a little liberty with his comment of the “seventh” as this was the first full committee hearing on Iraq Reconstruction during this Congress ... and it essentially occurred during the last week before another "re-election campaign" recess.}

As a result of the November elections, the Democrats are using the Government Reform Committee for what should be used for … to investigate and provide oversight. This is a far cry from the 109th Do-Nothing Congress that felt using steriods in baseball was the critical national issue. { I still laugh at Gutknecht’s interview with Tom Hauser in Meet the Candidates profile discussing steroids and his boyhood memories of Harmon Killerbrew … obviously, he felt that issue was more important than the wasteful spending related to Iraq and Hurricane Katrina.}

The Committee has been holding hearings for the last three days – exposing major problems for the taxpayers to hear. For example lax management of the nearly $12 billion in cash shipped to Iraq between May 2003 and June 2004 which the committee calculated that the cash, most of it in the stacks of $100 bills, weighed 363 tons and had to been flown in on wooden pallets aboard giant C-130 military cargo planes.

The reaction by the Republicans was to defend their inaction. The panel’s ranking Republican, Representative Tom Davis of Virginia said “ Self-righteous finger-wagging will not make Iraq any more secure.” "We are in a war against terrorists, to have a blame meeting isn't, in my opinion, constructive," commented Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican.
{Since Davis was the lead proponent of the baseball steroid issue, it’s good to know now that he is concerned about making Iraq secure.}

The Republicans have missed the issue. First, it’s the taxpayer’s monies that are missing.
Second, considering all the graft and fraud that is commonplace in Iraq, I would think that the Congress would be concerned that our monies were used to acquire weapons that have been used to make Iraq insecure.

But it’s not just Iraq spending that concerns fiscal conservatives. Today, hearings were held which the Committee focused on two examples of multi-billion dollar contracts - $24Billion to modernize the Coast Guards aging fleet that thus far is being called a lemon; and the $30Billion Secure Border Initiative to integrate technology and personnel to defend the nation’s borders.
And on Friday, there will be a hearing entitled Allegations of Waste, Fraud, and Abuse in Pharmaceutical Pricing: Financial Impacts on Federal Health Programs and the Federal Taxpayer (read about it here}

Minnesotans will be glad to know that ineffectual Gil Gutknecht has been replaced with Betty McCollum – a Congresswoman who recognizes waste when she sees it … ala her speaking out on the DM&E loan.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Biden schools Coleman but will the student learn ?

Elections have consequences but can provide opportunities even for those that are not involved.

Case in point, last November’s elections saw the defeat of incumbent Republican Senators Lincoln Chaffee and George Allen who had served on the Foreign Relations Committee. With the new Congress, the composition of the committees, and sub-committees, has changed. Now with the realignment in the committee, Coleman has been named the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Near East and South and Central Asian Affairs. This Subcommitte is the big one as illustrated by Coleman’s comments : “I intend to use this Subcommittee to bolster the full Committee’s oversight of our Iraq policy. I also want to focus attention on the destabilizing effect of Iran and its nuclear program and support for terrorism. Additionally, I will use this position to continue to articulate my strong support for our allies as well as the need for an even-handed approach to Middle East peace and an end to terror.”

During Coleman’s first four years on the Foreign Relations Committee, the Bush Administration dominated foreign affairs as the Republican leadership allowed Bush to operate with minimal oversight.

Now, Joe Biden has started hearings that have featured an array of experienced and knowledgeable experts on international relations. The participants so far have ranged from military generals to former Secretaries of State. Although the impetuous may be Iraq, the general assessment is that is a regional problem.

For example, Lt. Gen. William E. Odom (Ret.) in his testimony stated : “Any new strategy that does realistically promise to achieve regional stability at a cost we can prudently bear, and does not regain the confidence and support of our allies, is doomed to failure. To date, I have seen no awareness that any political leader in this country has gone beyond tactical proposals to offer a different strategic approach to limiting the damage in a war that is turning out to be the greatest strategic disaster in our history.”

Zbigniew Brzezinski in his testimony encouraged the United States and the Iraqi leadership to engage Iraq's neighbors in serious discussion regarding the region's security problems, stating “It is ironic, however, that both Iran and Syria have lately called for a regional dialogue, exploiting thereby the self-defeating character of the largely passive -- and mainly sloganeering -- U.S. diplomacy.”

But most insightful were comments came from the Iraq Study Group Co-Chairmen, James A. Baker and Lee Hamilton. It was reported that Baker stated that the single biggest failing of the Bush’s current foreign policy strategy is a failure to deal with Syria and draw that country away from Iran.
“The diplomatic effort has not been full enough,” said Mr. Hamilton. And he added, “We don’t have the time to wait.” Secretary Baker said, “At the president’s approval, I spoke directly with the Foreign Minister of Syria.” Baker told a silent and stunned committee room, “I think we can get Syria back. I think Syria is ready to embrace a new direction.”

With all these experts focusing the attention on diplomacy, it’s time for the student to take a road trip to Syria. Coleman’s view of Iraq changed after his visit … and it’s time for him to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

ABC’s Good Morning program visited with President al-Assad yesterday.
The Syrian leader insisted that “we can stop the violence." Al-Assad felt that Syria could help because "we have a good relation with all the parties, including the ones participating in this government, and the one that opposed this process.” He added that the US has "to stop looking for scapegoats and whipping boys. (If) you cannot start the fire and put it out if you start it, it will burn you." "This chaos in Iraq will spill over into Syria and other countries."

The Senate’s obsessive focus on Iraq resolutions has fogged them from pursuing actions that will resolve the crisis. I’m optimistic that Biden will lead an effort to improve relations with other countries in the region. It is in Coleman’s duty to actively participate in actions and not just in press releases.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Coleman & Klobuchar Need to Correct Funding Cut

"Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." -George Santayana The Life of Reason, Volume 1, 1905

According to George Bush, September 11 had changed everything, yet I have to wonder.

Although all of us will remember 9/11, I remember 9/10.
On September 10th , John Ashcroft submitted his first budget which although he sought increases in funding for sixty-eight Department of Justice programs, none were related to counterterrorism. In fact, he rejected the FBI’s request for $58 million for 149 new counterterrorism field agents, 200 additional analysts and 54 extra translators.
On the same day, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff informed Senator Dianne Feinstein that the draft legislation on counterterrorism and homeland defense would require another six months to study.

The consequences of the terrorist’s attacks were rooted in America’s negligence to repeated warnings ( the most recent being on January 31, 2001 when former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman issued their report on the U. S. Commission on National Security/21st Century.)
[ NOTE : I am not a 9/11 theory conspiracist that believe the government purposely ignored warnings, or allowed this tragedy to happen to allow a rational to attack Iraq; rather the incompetence of the Bush Administration is to blame.]

America was unprepared before, but what about now ?

The Do-Nothing 109th Congress ended their session with nine of the 13 appropriations bills unresolved. The government has operated under Continuing Resolutions to fund operations through February. Last week, the House approved another Continuing Resolution valued at $463.5 billion to keep the government going through the rest of this year. Due to the need to fund High Priority Programs, other programs are being under funded.

What are some of the High Priority Programs?
Although the Iraq/Afghanistan War has largely been funded through Supplemental Budget Requests, which are forecasted to be $163 billion this year, the Defense Department has real needs. The House has included an additional $6.3 billion in increase funding for Veterans Health Care raising the total to $32.3 billion. Also, The existing Defense Department Health provision is increased by $1.2 billion to $21.2 billion. Weigh those costs against the FBI which includes an increase of $216.6 million to $6 Billion. A fraction of the cost of the budget goes to detection/prevention ($6 Billion for the FBI) while the Department of Defense budget is $432 Billion plus the costs of the war. And in FY2008, the Bush administration is seeking a record military budget of $622 Billion.

If some programs are classified as High Priority Programs, then logically there must be Low Priority Programs.
Last year, Congress approved $122 Million for the State Department’s Antiterrorism Training Assistance (ATA) Program and related smaller programs. These programs provide funding for airport security and bomb detection, coping with weapons of mass destruction and countering terrorism funding. The Bush Administration had requested $135.6 Million for the ATA program for FY 2007.
That’s a problem --the House doesn’t classify Antiterrorism Training as a High Priority.
That’s a mistake.
Words are nice but dollars matter. The House passed legislation on January 9th to bolster terrorism-fighting efforts by endorsing the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, but the dollars are needed now and in the future.

You know the adage, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure … and I have no problem having my taxes raised to pay for detection and prevention … it’s a better investment than sending our soldiers to battle. Somehow the idea of cutting Millions when spending Billions does not make sense.

The Senate will next consider the Continuing Resolution. Senators Coleman and Klobuchar need to get the monies added to wage a Smart War on Terror. And if they don't want to raise taxes, then I suggest they cut the funding for DM&E. After all, the Federal Transit Administration budget is being increased $470 million.