Baby steps towards marriage equality in the United States

If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know that I’m a huge supporter of marriage rights for LGBT couples. It’s a question of basic equality and justice. That’s why I’m so happy about this particular piece of news:

In a major policy reversal, the Obama administration said Wednesday it will no longer defend the constitutionality of a federal law banning recognition of same-sex marriage.

Attorney General Eric Holder said President Barack Obama has concluded that the administration cannot defend the federal law that defines marriage as only between a man and a woman. He noted that the congressional debate during passage of the Defense of Marriage Act “contains numerous expressions reflecting moral disapproval of gays and lesbians and their intimate and family relationships – precisely the kind of stereotype-based thinking and animus the (Constitution’s) Equal Protection Clause is designed to guard against.”

The Justice Department had defended the act in court until now.

The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was signed into law by Bill Clinton – and it, alongside Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), was one of the worst decisions of Clinton’s presidency. Agreeing to republican legislation banning gay marriage nationwide was based purely on the crass political calculation that more voters were homophobes than LGBT activists.

It’s clear that that’s changing. Back in the 1990s, no-one even bothered to poll opinions on same-sex unions. In 2010, for the first time, a CNN poll found that 52% of adult Americans “think gays and lesbians should have a constitutional right to get married and have their marriage recognized by law as valid.” While I remain doubtful that a majority of Americans would vote for marriage equality, attitudes do seem to have changed substantially. Homophobia is becoming less and less ‘okay’. As more and more people dare to come out of the closet, people across the country are coming to the realisation that – surprise, surprise – gay people are just people, like anyone else. That’s brilliant news.

So while today’s decision isn’t anywhere near gay marriage, and should have come two years ago, it’s certainly a positive step, and one that reflects the astonishing progress that the gay rights cause has made in American public opinion over the past couple of decades. It’s why I’m happy to have a democrat in the White House, even if I’d like to see marriage equality right away, and I don’t think President Obama has gone far enough. Just imagine where we’d be if John McCain had won in November 2008. We’d still have DADT, we’d be nowhere close to DOMA repeal, and President McCain might well have announced his support for a federal gay marriage ban.

That’s why elections matter.


The impossibility of high-speed rail in the US

For most Europeans, high-speed rail’s benefits are obvious. It’s greener in terms of emissions. It’s less annoying – no checking in and bag scans, apart from the Eurostar (and the security checks pale in comparison to those now carried out at airports), plus no waiting around for two hours at some airport that takes an hour and costs twenty euros to get to. Plus, on short-to-medium-distance trips (say, Paris-Marseille or Brussels-Frankfurt), it’s actually much quicker, when one factors in travel to and from the airport and time spent there. Oh, and trains are nice, and you can get up and walk around in them, whereas flying is unpleasant unless you happen to have the money to fly business or first class (which I don’t).

Western Europe happens to have several first-class high speed rail networks – networks that are gradually converging thanks to projects like LGV Est (linking Paris to Germany) or HSL Zuid (which reduced the travel time from Brussels to Amsterdam to under two hours). Central and Eastern Europe is not so lucky, though Russia’s Sapsan train now links Moscow and Saint Petersburg. And Britain is essentially high speed-free, apart from the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. But even most Brits have taken (or at least seen) the Eurostar, or a high-speed train in Europe, at one point in their lives. When they did, they probably thought it was pretty cool.

Contrast this with America, where only one ‘high-speed’ rail service exists – the Acela Express, which reaches up to 240km/h (150mph) at brief points, though the average speed on the Washington-Boston route is 109km/h (68mph). While that’s pretty fast for the USA, it’s peanuts compared to France’s V150 TGV train, operating on the Paris-Strasbourg route, which reached 574.8km/h (357.2 mph) in 2007, and normally operates at around 320km/h (200mph) when travelling at full speed.

That’s why the noises that the Obama administration has been making over the past couple of years have been so heartening. And yesterday, Vice-President Biden, a long-time supporter of Amtrak and passenger rail in the United States, re-affirmed his government’s commitment to the cause:

Vice President Joe Biden used Philadelphia‘s 30th Street Station, where the nation’s only rail line approaching high speed passes through, as the backdrop to announce that the White House will be asking Congress to invest $53 billion over six years in faster passenger rail.

The funding, like the $8 billion set aside in the 2008 economic stimulus for the same purpose, would support building new high-speed rail corridors and upping speeds on existing lines. Biden said it’s about “seizing the future.”

For President Barack Obama, creating a European-style rail system in the United States, with trains whisking passengers between cities at up to 240 mph, has shaped his transportation vision from Day 1. His administration has identified 11 corridors, including the Keystone Corridor that runs from Philadelphia through Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, as potential routes for high-speed rail.

In his State of the Union address at the end of January, Obama announced a goal of providing high-speed rail access to 80 percent of Americans in 25 years.

Yet, of course, this is socialist (or something):

House Transportation Committee Chair Rep. John Mica (R) of Florida said previous administration grants to high-speed rail projects were a failure, producing “snail speed trains to nowhere.” He called Amtrak a “Soviet-style train system” and said it “hijacked” nearly all the administration’s rail projects.

Sigh. Of course, Mica’s not entirely wrong – Amtrak is a bloated system that is a result of a parochial legislative process in the United States, which consists of every single senator and congressman trying to squeeze money out of the federal budget through costly, useless projects… or unnecessary stops that prevent high-speed trains from accelerating to, um, high speeds. Why else would a line linking Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston have 16 stops?

We all know that that’s not why he’s against funding for high-speed rail, though. It’s simpler than that – there’s just no political upside for republicans to support any kind of infrastructure investment or development except roads and bridges. People have no experience of HSR, except the few who have travelled to Europe, Japan or one of the other places in the world to have fast trains. But they do drive cars, and they’re not happy when they’re stuck in traffic because the highways aren’t wide enough, or someone had an accident because of a pothole.

Add to this the fact that Americans have been moving out of cities for decades – and that, for suburbanites, it’s perhaps even more annoying and time-consuming to drive into downtown New York or Los Angeles than it is to get to the airport. Add to this, also, that urban areas are severely under-represented in the Senate, meaning that North Dakota or Wyoming’s senators must be rewarded with some kind of pointless investment in exchange for partial funding to build one high-speed line that’ll take 25 years to bring into operation because of ridiculously complicated zoning and land use issues anyway. While we’re at it, let’s also mention that the herding-cats mentality of drumming up support for anything in the upper house of America’s federal legislature means that there’ll never be the political will to invest the amounts that America truly needs to spend to build a decent high-speed rail system.

Finally, let’s not forget that America’s politics makes long-term planning for anything impossible. A president is elected for four years. The first year, he’s just figuring out how to do the job, and trying to get his cabinet and sub-cabinet nominees through the Senate. The second year, he’s worried about mid-term elections, so he’s not going to do anything major that could cost his party seats in either house. The third and fourth year, everyone’s thinking about the presidential election. If he’s lucky enough to win re-election, he maybe has a year to actually do something before the mid-terms roll around again, and then he’s a lame duck for the last two years of his presidency, because everyone is focused on who will take his place.

As a result, Washington is stuck in a permanent campaign mode that means that any kind of long-term project is never truly taken seriously. And that’s why no-one will ever get serious on the deficit, on infrastructure investment, on turning America’s schools around, or on any of the other long-term challenges that America faces. There’s just no point, because the next election is always just a year or two away.

Carol Browner’s departure from the White House removes any illusion of a climate deal in the next ten years

President Barack Obama is briefed by Carol Browner, assistant to the President for energy and climate change, on the response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, during a meeting in the Oval Office, June 1, 2010. Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett is pictured at right. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

This has already been commented on elsewhere, but President Obama’s chief climate change advisor – in fact, one of the only major climate change experts in the White House – is leaving the executive branch:

Carol M. Browner, President Barack Obama’s top energy and environmental adviser, plans to leave the White House in the coming weeks, White House officials said Monday night.

Browner, who served as Environmental Protection Agency administrator for all eight years under President Bill Clinton, has emerged as one of the most experienced Washington hands in the current West Wing.

Her calm, authoritative television presence during last year’s BP oil disaster made her one of the few government officials whose stature was enhanced in the aftermath of the Gulf of Mexico catastrophe. But passage of a comprehensive climate change bill, a career-long goal and the primary mission of her office, collapsed last year and seems unlikely for some time to come with the current House Republican majority.

Browner’s departure comes as the West Wing undergoes a heavy makeover, including the arrival of chief of staff William Daley, a rare outsider in the top echelons of the administration. She was among a number of Obama officials in the recent running for a job as deputy chief of staff. But she will instead head for the exits as Obama looks to buff up his business credentials.

It’s understandable that this would occur. With a republican House and a pivot to the “centre” personified by the arrival of William Daley in the Chief of Staff position, unattainable policy goals like climate change legislation will be left by the wayside. There really is no conceivable majority for anything that would even remotely reduce CO2 emissions. The republicans are almost unanimously against any CO2 cap, tax or trading scheme, as are scores of industrial state democrats. Unless there is a paradigm shift in American political opinion (or some kind of major ecological disaster), that won’t change any time soon. Even when the democrats had overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress, they couldn’t get anything through. That’s saying something.

It’s a shame and an embarrassment, though. I know that American exceptionalism means the US setting its own rules, marching to the beat of its own drum and whichever other tired clichés one wishes to pull out to illustrate the idea. But really, apart from Australia, which has its own climate-denying far right (Tony Abbott is a sportier, more yobbish Mike Huckabee), there isn’t a single industrialised country that doesn’t understand the need to limit carbon emissions – on the right as much as on the left. Connie Hedegaard, EU Climate Change Commissioner, is a right-wing market liberal from Denmark. Nicolas Sarkozy’s government, which no-one could accuse of being left-wing, has been very strong on environmental issues compared even to many socialist governments in Europe. In the United States, on the other hand, only maybe a third of Congress sees any need to deal with carbon emissions – another third theoretically accepts the notion of man-made climate change, while not wishing to sacrifice jobs in industrial states to do anything about the problem, while the remaining 33% of congresspersons and senators deny any human role whatsoever in global warming.

It’s more than a little surreal, and no-one outside America understands it. It’s a combination of religious fundamentalism, know-nothing nativism and political cynicism which means that any global climate deal that attempts to include the United States will inevitably fail – further damaging America’s credibility on the international stage as a result. Certain states, like California, have made major efforts to curb emissions. But unless the most heavily polluting industrial states are forced to play by the same rules – which means federal legislation of some kind – no substantial progress can be made in curbing the USA’s carbon footprint. And while America does nothing, China has no reason to curb its own rapidly-growing CO2 output.

John Dingell, 84, plans to run for a 30th term in the House

From the Detroit News:

John Dingell, 84, plans to run for a 30th term and extend his reign as the dean of the U.S. House…

Dingell, who began his career on Capitol Hill at age 29 when he filled the seat of his father, faced a tougher than usual campaign in 2010 against Rob Steele, a tea party favored Republican. In the end, Dingell pulled out with a 17-point lead.

Now, I’m not for a second hopping on the term-limits bandwagon. I think that having experienced legislators is essential in passing on the experience of past generations of government to the leaders of tomorrow. But 60 years in Congress is enough – and Dingell isn’t even the oldest member of the House! That accolade would go to Ralph Hall, a Texas Republican born in 1923 (!) who currently chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. And the Senate is just as bad. Granted, Robert Byrd passed away back in 2010, and he was Congress’s longevity champion, born in 1917 and first elected to the Senate in 1959. But even now, the oldest members, Daniel Inouye, Frank Lautenberg and Daniel Akaka, were all born in 1924. The average age in the Senate is 61 (58 in the House). Most people would agree, I hope, that having the country run by a bunch of geriatrics and late-middle-agers is not necessarily good for democracy, much as I respect the three current sitting octagenarian senators.

And why are things the way they are? I don’t think that it’s a shock to most people to suggest that seniority rules and the power of incumbency play a major role. While partisanship is often decried in America, this is one domain where strengthening party leadership at the expense of individual members could help. The Republicans have more or less done away with the seniority principle, and instituted term limits on committee chairmanships, while simultaneously giving greater power to the leadership to pick chairs. Maybe that’s why the average House Republican is 54 years old, while the average House Democrat is 60. If seniority, and thus incumbency, mattered less at the ballot box, then we might get a slightly more representative legislature. That’d probably be good for everyone.

Rick Santorum thinks black people shouldn’t have a say on abortion

From Talking Points Memo:

Potential 2012 presidential candidate and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) doesn’t understand how President Obama could not answer whether a “human life” is protected by the Constitution from the moment of conception: “The question is — and this is what Barack Obama didn’t want to answer — is that human life a person under the Constitution? And Barack Obama says no. Well if that person — human life is not a person, then — I find it almost remarkable for a black man to say, ‘we’re going to decide who are people and who are not people.'”

Video footage here:


Lieberman to resign

According to Kevin Rennie, a Connecticut political pundit:

United States Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) is expected to announce Wednesday that he will not seek a 5th term in 2012, Daily Ructions has learned.  Lieberman has invited supporters to an event at the Marriott hotel in Stamford Wednesday afternoon for his announcement.

Lieberman rallied from a humiliating Democratic primary defeat in 2006 and won re-election as an independent that November in an epic contest with Greenwich millionaire Ned Lamont.  Lieberman enjoyed wide support among Republicans that year, though that’s diminished since he cast votes for President Barack Obama’s stimulus package and healthcare proposal.

I’ve sort of got mixed feelings about this one. Joe Lieberman is a pompous jerk who, after being primaried by Ned Lamont in 2006 for his support for the war, proceeded to do everything in his power to piss off his former political allies, even going so far as to support John McCain against Barack Obama in 2008. As recently as May 2010, he introduced the TEA Act, which would have automatically stripped Americans of their citizenship if they were charged with “a terrorist act.” Not convicted – charged. He nearly sunk healthcare reform by changing his mind multiple times on things like the Medicare buy-in. He spent great amounts of time and energy publicly lecturing Bill Clinton on “the moral consequences for our country” of his affair with Monica Lewinsky. I could go on.

At the same time, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell would never have been repealed without him – and that alone makes him, in the words of Andrew Sullivan, a civil rights hero.

This couldn’t have happened a few months earlier?

A new poll from ABC News and the Washington Post:

Barack Obama has matched his highest job approval rating in more than a year in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, with his ratings for empathy likewise rebounding…

Fifty-four percent now approve of Obama’s job performance, up 5 points from last month and 8 points above his career low in September. And given overwhelming approval of his response to the Tucson attack, Americans by an 18-point margin, 58-40 percent, say Obama “understands the problems of people like you.” That’s up from a mere 2-point split, 50-48 percent, in September.

In another critical shift, albeit still with much room for improvement, 35 percent say Obama’s economic program is making the economy better, while 24 percent say he’s making it worse — the positive result up by 5 points since September, the negative down by 9. Strikingly, the view that Obama’s made the economy worse has eased most broadly in an unexpected quarter: down by 17 points among Republicans.

Full PDF with charts and stats here. While I’m happy that President Obama is finally getting some recognition for his fine presidentin’, it’s astonishing that it took a complete electoral melt-down from the democrats for people to finally wake up and realise that the current inhabitant of the White House is actually a fairly decent, moderate guy – far too moderate for the liking of many people in his own party! Anyway, we democrats can at least take solace in these poll numbers, even if Nancy Pelosi no longer presides over the House.