Tuesday, November 13, 2007

What Your Congressman Won't Tell You

This article was from Smart Money, and I thought it was interesting enough to post.
Joe Sinagra

By Brigid McMenamin
October 11, 2006

1. "I can't lose."
This year 404 members of the U.S. House of Representatives are standing for reelection. For most it's a formality: On average, more than 90% of House incumbents win, according to a 2005 report by the Cato Institute.

What's behind the incumbency advantage? Campaign financing, for one thing. We taxpayers pick up the tab for incumbents' regular offices, staff, publicity, travel and mailings, so they needn't raise as much money to run. Challengers, on the other hand, must come up with a fortune — and do so in dribs and drabs since Congress caps individual contributions at $2,000.

But the biggest factor is partisan gerrymandering. Since the Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that states must ensure each congressman represents the same number of constituents, the process of redistricting after every census has been aggressively used by state party bosses to protect their incumbents. "Because of gerrymandering, almost 90% of Americans live in congressional districts where the outcome is so certain that their votes are irrelevant," concludes the Cato report. And it's bound to get worse: In June the Court ruled states can redraw congressional districts as often as they please.

2. "I'm above the law."
Some people were dismayed last spring when Capitol Police didn't give a sobriety test to Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) after he rammed a Capitol Hill security barrier late one night and emerged from his Mustang "impaired," with "unsure" balance and "slurred" speech, according to the police report. Georgetown University law professor Paul F. Rothstein wasn't surprised: "They always give [congressmen] a pass."

Why? Inside Congress author Ronald Kessler says that historically, most officers have operated under the mistaken impression that the Constitution prohibits arresting or even ticketing congressmen while Congress is in session. The belief was so prevalent that the Justice Department issued a statement in 1976 explaining the "previous policy of releasing members who had been arrested was based on a misunderstanding of the clause in the U.S. Constitution," which forbids only civil arrest, not arrest for a crime.

Nonetheless, Capitol Police still coddle and avoid arresting members of Congress. For one thing, protecting congressmen is part of their mission. For another, Congress controls their budget — including top cops' salaries.

3. "Read the bills I vote on? Who's got that kind of time?"
In a perfect world, our legislators would vote on each bill based on thorough, firsthand analysis. But that's not how it works in Washington. Most congressmen don't actually read bills, relying instead on impressions gleaned from staff and lobbyists. And in many cases, they couldn't read them if they wanted to: The 700-plus-page Deficit Reduction Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 2005, for example, surfaced after 1 a.m. and went to vote early the next morning. "That's the way it's done," Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) told the Hartford Courant in January.

Result: Congressmen seldom know exactly what they're voting on. Take the 1,600-page Appropriations Bill in 2004 that had already made it through the House before it was discovered that a staffer had slipped in a provision permitting his committee to browse any tax return filed with the IRS.

There have been some attempts to get Congress to change its ways. In February, for example, D.C. nonprofit ReadtheBill.org persuaded some reps to introduce a resolution requiring the House to post each bill online for 72 hours before even debating it. But that resolution has been languishing in the Rules Committee ever since.

4. "Congress is just a stepping stone to big money — in lobbying."
Congress is a pretty good gig, financially speaking. Our senators and representatives currently earn $165,200 a year — four times the median U.S. household income. But it's not nearly as lucrative as lobbying, a job congressmen have begun flocking to once they're out of office. "As late as the 1980s, few lawmakers became lobbyists because they considered it beneath their dignity," writes Robert V. Remini in The House: The History of the House of Representatives. But today it's the top career choice for former congressmen. According to a 2005 report by Public Citizen, since 1998 more than 43% of all eligible departing congressmen have gone into lobbying. Take William Tauzin. The Louisiana Republican, and former chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, left the House for a $1 million-plus-a-year job as president of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. According to press reports, PhRMA was wooing Tauzin the same month he pushed through the Medicare bill. Tauzin denies it fueled his zeal for the bill, but you can't help wondering how the prospect of that kind of money might influence one's judgment.

5. "My health care benefits are way better than yours..."
Congressmen love tinkering with our health care. They virtually created the managed-care industry, for instance, with the Health Maintenance Organization Act of 1973, which tilted the playing field in favor of HMOs, ultimately stripping many Americans of all other choices. Meanwhile, congressmen enjoy more than a dozen options, including the prized indemnity plans only 3% of workers with coverage receive. On top of that, for an annual fee of $480, they can get just about all the medical attention they want at the Capitol Office of the Attending Physician, which has five doctors and a dozen assistants on call for routine checkups, tests, prescriptions, emergency care and mental health services. Who's making up the difference? Taxpayers, naturally, to the tune of at least $2.5 million this year alone.

What happens once a congressman is out of office? He needn't fret: Just five years into the job, he's entitled to keep his regular health coverage until he's ready for Medicare. And he doesn't have to pay extra, as you do for Cobra, under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which he voted for in 1996.

6. "...and so is my pension."
Congress is forever changing the rules on retirement plans: limiting contributions, punishing pension underfunding and making it hard for employers to plan ahead. Just this summer Congress passed yet another complex bill that's likely to wreak more havoc, according to James A. Klein, president of the American Benefits Council. The new Pension Protection Act includes funding rules that, Klein says, "could undermine the retirement security of the very participants the bill's trying to protect." Indeed, less than a month after the PPA took effect, DuPont froze its pension plan and cut back on benefits.

Whatever the outcome, Congress won't be losing sleep — their pensions are exempt. Most qualify for a 401(k)-style plan with a nice match, up to 5% of salary. After five years on the job, they're also entitled to a regular pension, bigger than almost all other federal workers' at the same pay and twice what a midlevel executive would expect. If elected before age 30, they can collect in full at age 50; those elected later can retire after 25 years or at age 62. Their pensions rise regularly with the cost of living and can never be taken away — short of a conviction for espionage or treason-related offenses.

7. "I enjoy great perks and gifts, and it's all legal."
Working on Capitol Hill comes with a lot of fringe benefits. Congressmen enjoy taxpayer-subsidized gyms, salons and restaurants, free parking, and a nice office. They also get $1 million-plus allowances per year for staff, mail and travel home, where they can rent another office and lease a car on your dime, according to the National Taxpayers Union.

On top of that, House ethics rules allow them to accept gifts, luxury jet rides and free overnight trips of up to seven days abroad for meetings, fact-finding missions and speaking gigs, provided they're related to official duties and not sponsored by lobbyists. Between 2000 and 2005, congressmen and staff accepted 23,000 of these trips, often to vacation spots and worth nearly $50 million, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Turns out that 90 were sponsored by lobbyists — Mr. and Mrs. Tom DeLay's infamous $28,000 golfing trip to Scotland among them.

With elections looming, there has been talk of reform. In January, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) called for a ban on such trips and gifts, but come May he was happy to settle for the sham cleanup proposed by the Lobbying Accountability and Transparency Act — which would offer optional ethics classes for congressmen but allow them to go on accepting gifts.

8. "I simply can't be fired."
Once he's elected, it's almost impossible to kick a congressman out of office, even if he becomes mentally incompetent or is sent to prison. To oust a member of the House or Senate, it takes a vote of two-thirds of his colleagues — which has happened only twice since the Civil War, five times in all of U.S. history.

House rules do discourage a congressman from participating in committees if convicted of a crime for which he could get two years or more in jail, and his own party may force him from leadership positions even if he's not convicted. For example, Democrats pushed Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) off the Ways and Means Committee last June because FBI agents swear they caught him accepting a $100,000 bribe and found $90,000 cash in his freezer. (Jefferson denies any wrongdoing.) But even if convicted and sent to prison, Jefferson could seek reelection from his cell, as did former Ohio Democrat James Traficant Jr. in 2002. Traficant received only 15% of the vote and lost his seat — but he was still allowed to collect his full pension.

9. "Lobbyists love me because I deliver the goods."
The reason lobbyists court lawmakers is that they have the power to help friends and hurt foes. For instance, a congressman can create a specific tax break or other loophole for a lobbyist's clients, giving them an unfair advantage over rivals. Congressmen also hold the power to steer federal funds to friends by earmarking money for pet projects — a power they often abuse. Case in point: the notorious "Bridge to Nowhere," a Golden Gate-size span between a small town in rural Alaska and a nearly deserted island, for which Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) persuaded Congress to earmark $223 million in 2005. Similar abuses have increased dramatically in recent years, with the number of earmarks coming out of the House Appropriations Committee nearly tripling, to 15,877 earmarks worth $47.4 billion in 2005, from just 4,126 earmarks worth $23.2 billion in 1994, according to the Congressional Research Service.

10. "Rules are meant to be broken."
Congress is notorious for breaking its own rules: Only a handful of members dock their own pay when absent for reasons other than health, for example. But it's Congress's failure to follow its own legislative procedures that's truly galling. When the joint House-Senate conference committee meets to reconcile different versions of a bill, for instance, House rules forbid adding anything beyond the scope of the version the House has already approved. And once the committee comes up with a compromise bill, the House is supposed to hold at least one public meeting, giving members a written explanation of the changes and three days until the vote. But the conference committee routinely flouts these rules, often making big changes without explanation, then getting the Rules Committee to waive restrictions so they can rush bills through unread. How common is this? The Rules Committee issued so-called blanket waivers for all 18 bills that went through the conference committee from Jan. 4, 2005, through March 2006.

Last December, Speaker Hastert took it a step further by letting Sen. William Frist (R-Tenn.) add on to a bill after the conference committee was finished: 40 pages of legislation protecting makers of avian flu vaccine and similar drugs against liability even if they injured or killed patients through gross negligence. Then Hastert got the Rules Committee to make kosher what he'd done. Frist's spokesperson claims there was "bipartisan consensus" for such an incentive, but couldn't explain why it hadn't made it into the text of the bill if it was so popular. Hastert's office failed to return our calls.

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

The High Cost of Energy

by Joe Sinagra

In 2006 when I ran for Congress I had stated regarding fuel that we must find other fuel alternatives to preserve our future. Natural gas reserves are about equal or slightly less than oil reserves. Oil production peaked in the 1970's and has been declining since.

Thirty-five years ago, the United States produced 9.4 million bpd of crude; today, it produces only about 4.7 million, importing over 55% today. World reserves are declining also, as supplies diminish, prices will continue to rise.

We can no longer afford to ignore the issue, this will dramatically influence the economy in the US and abroad, we are heading for a major and financial crisis if we do not act responsibly now. Oil production will remain the same but due to population growth, demand will outpace the production. This will cause prices to skyrocket and oil-dependant economies to deteriorate.

Here it is 2007 and nothing has changed other than the price of fuel costs increasing. In my congressional debates I had said although I am for the environment, at some point we must start looking into domestic drilling if we are not to become dependent of foreign oil entities. My opponent a “rocket scientist” said that he was against drilling but offered no viable alternative, nor an immediate solution. My suggestion was that we continue to look for alternative renewable sources, but until we find that alternative, drilling would give us the time to pursue alternative research.

Oil prices have risen more than 27 percent since Labor Day, while gasoline prices are up 10 percent.

Democrats are not as indignant over the high costs of energy now as their party controls congress and it is harder to point the finger at anyone. To date the Democrats, who had blamed the policies of a GOP-led Congress for helping fuel record oil-industry profits, now control the House and Senate. The silence is deafening.

The rapid economic growth in Asia is fanning the flames of higher energy prices, and is not showing any signs of letting up anytime soon.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke stated that oil near $100 a barrel is a serious economic threat.

We must address this issue as more and more of our working class continues to suffer financially and economically. Both parties must work together to find a solution and not let this become a political football.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Corzine & Codey Illogical Logic

By Joe Sinagra | November 8, 2007

The following was in The Home News Tribune today

Stem-cell backers vow fight

Though voters rejected a proposal to borrow $450 million over 10 years for stem-cell research, New Jersey officials say they will proceed with backing the science.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine said Wednesday that he understands voters are demanding that the state’s finances be put in order before taking on the project but will not halt plans to borrow $270 million to build stem-cell research facilities throughout the state.

Both Codey and Corzine said Tuesday’s vote does not reflect New Jerseyans’ attitude toward stem-cell research but that a low turnout and an upset electorate led to the question’s demise.

Using their same logic, I lost by a small percentage of the vote, because of low turnout and an upset electorate. It doesn’t really reflect New Jerseyans’ attitude and I should plan on taking office after the 1st of the year.

Corzine’s and Codey’s logic should apply to all candidates who did not win.

This voter be damned attitude is what is bankrupting the state. It doesn’t matter what side of the issue your on, we just do not have the money to finance something of this magnitude. What part of this does Trenton not get! Lets pay off the debt we already have first! If your house is being foreclosed on, are you going to borrow money for a Carribean cruise?

It is the public be damned mentality, that got us into the financial mess we are in. We had an election process and the voters have spoken, now our Governor doesn’t like the outcome of those results and is telling the voters I don’t care what you want, your vote doesn’t count. We can get away with anything we want and no one can stop us is their attitude.

This isn’t Burger King and he should not be allowed to have it his way.

Biased News Media

The following letter was sent to The Home News Tribune twice before the election, and forwarded to me recently by the writer, who expressed to me his disappointment in not seeing his letter published prior to the election.

The paper called the person who composed it to confirm it was their letter, however the newspaper did not publish this because I was not their pick.

This letter is in its entirety as sent to me. The last name of the sender has been abbreviated.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

I recently attended the NAACP Candidate's Forum held in Edison, NJ. It was enlightening to hear 18th District Assembly Candidate Joe Sinagra speak on the issues.

His insight on what he would do if he were elected to get minorities more involved in the political process was the response we should have heard from the Democrats that are in office now.

To be brutally honest, the response from the Middlesex County freeholders who attended this forum was pathetic. They actually went on to tell us about their environmental opinions, how they have impacted taxes, and why they are qualified to be re-elected. They were talking about themselves and still not answering the question that was directed at them. They could not explain why they have not reached out to the Latino and Afro-American communities in the 18th district.

The response Assemblyman Barnes gave on Abbott Districts echoed party philosophy, which did not sit well with me and the others in the audience. It definitely was not the position that is best for the students.

Mr. Sinagra matched the concerns of our community and was more in tune with the issues than the politicians currently holding office. I was very surprised with Mr. Sinagra's insight on minority issues. Mr. Sinagra spoke honestly, intelligently, and compassionately.

There were several other good candidates in attendance who I would consider, but I was particularly impressed, as well as others in the audience with his confidence, openness, and candidness. Bill England also spoke very well and was very intelligent on educational issues.

Sinagra and England were among the few candidates who did not rush to leave after the forum, and made a point to stay and talk with everyone in the room.

I believe as a minority, if we are to have the representation we are looking for, we need someone who is ready to listen, a person who is willing to actively get minorities involved in the political process, a candidate who will reach out to our communities, Joe Sinagra is the person to vote for.

Guerino L.
Bordentown, NJ

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Media and Editors

If it weren’t for the The Home News Tribune itself, the Editors would be hard pressed to find another profession in life.

It is bad enough they do not endorse a candidate, but then they interject their comments as if they are the clairvoyant seers into the soul of a person.

Instead of just recommending their endorsements of the candidates of their choice, editors Paolino and Hartman feel they must also rip apart and shred the ones that didn’t make their list. While the editors have no solutions of their own, they feel they have the answers after a few beers on the golf course. I would dare say they probably would not be able to endure a grueling campaign while holding down a full time job or they would have done it by now. They never ran for office, volunteered, or offered their services for anything than their unneeded personal remarks, but yet they can criticize another person who is willing to sacrifice the many hours of time and energy in running for office. At least those candidates are willing to make a change, investing much of their time campaigning to make that difference. I don’t believe some of these so called editors even have a clue how the process works, nor do they care other than to show the world their writing prowess. They are quick to critcize, but yet they themselves have never made any substantial contributions of their own to try and do something, other than watching the clock during the editorial meeting and getting off their butt at the end of the interview so they can run to grab their tuna sandwich stuffed in their desk drawer.

They have the audacity to comment without having covered a debate, or candidate forum, because they have no reporters available to cover an event. They hold back any information for a candidate that will help his campaign until after the election, with the excuse there was no space available.

They can sit and judge as if their opinion means anything, to most it doesn’t. They will crown their choices with glowing reviews and elaborate to the 9th degree all of their infinite accomplishments, while ignoring the accomplishments of the one who failed to make the grade in their eyes. When they do print anything, they disseminate any information on the unfortunate victim to the point it looks as if they did nothing. They overlook the fact that most candidates run several times with the hopes of winning for name recognition due to limited funds. They would otherwise never get any media attention. Yet their heroes garner front page coverage if they even sneeze.

Candidates are said to have not held any previous office, but yet many of the ones glorified never did either before they were elected, but the editors fail to mention that. Candidates who hold dual offices, collect dual pensions, and reach into the pork barrel trough are endorsed because it fits the agenda of the editors or perhaps support their personal views. They will write opinions to the contrary, and then endorse the very ones that are part of the problems they had written about.

Perhaps if they did some research and be a little more objective, instead of throwing in their snippy remarks in a 1 hour interview, their paper would hold more credibility, instead of being looked at as a joke by many in Central Jersey.

I was asked of my thoughts on illegal immigration at the editorial board of the Courier News last year when running for Congress. One editor actually jumped up out of his seat, cut me off, pointed his finger at me and said “What, are you prejudiced!” without allowing me to finish. I told him “those are your words, not mine.” Talk about being not biased. . . at that point you know where the media stands on their views and who they are going to endorse. You don’t need a boulder to fall on your head. This year I said to the board of one and a reporter,"would you buy a house of car without seeing it first?" Thats what the voters are expected to do on election day. It would be nice if the voters knew where Trenton stood on the turnpike sale and a new school funding formula before we vote, not wait to find out in January what we voted for. I said it would be nice to know before we went to the polls. I didn't get the endorsement but almost verbatim the next day (click here) Opinion page, Wow! The editors came up with a piece of wisdom all on their own. I also said if we don't solve the problems that got us to the point of why we are selling the turnpike, what have we accomplished? What's next in five years when the money from the turnpike sale is gone... the Parkway? No mention of that.

When asked at The Home News about affordable housing for seniors, my opponents offered no solutions other than we need more housing. I had said if we made it affordable for seniors to stay in their homes, they wouldn’t be forced to sell and move. There wouldn’t be a need to create more affordable senior housing. Just by that alone, it would leave more affordable housing available for the disabled and lower wage owners without having to build more.

We have had a 50% increase in government since McGreevy held office, but the Home News will endorse a candidate who believes the state needs to raise the tolls, raise the gas tax, raise the sales tax yet again, and generate more revenue taxes to pay for a bloated government. It is amazing that in 2006, 80,000 people have left New Jersey leaving us about $10 billion light in the checkbook. Yet, they will endorse candidates who have caused the problem of higher taxes, voted against funding for education making tuition higher for students. But those endorsed candidates never mentioned how to save money for the taxpayers of New Jersey. Their answer (solution) was that we need to look for ways to generate more revenue (taxes). Wow, that will make 80,000 people motivated enough to move back into the state.

Many newspapers are on the way out. Many do not have enough reporters to cover events, heaven forbid if it is on a weekend.

The Sentinel couldn’t even get their stories in the right edition regarding the Senate candidates. When a Senate candidate who hails from East Brunswick has his story is run in the Metuchen edition, it leaves a little to be desired. The Sentinel had tons of room for stories on local candidates, even areas where there were no races being contested. They didn’t even interview the assembly candidates, or even bother to call them for that matter. Sorry I misspoke; I was called because the Sentinel needed the phone number for the Senate Candidate.

You have a paper calling candidates and basically saying "hey do me a favor call your opponent, work out a date and get back to me." You have candidates who were never called to attend the Editorial Boards, and then they are not only accused of not showing up, they are also dissected and thrown to the wolves in the columns of the "opinionators".

Perhaps Editors if they are to be valued as credible, need to be unbiased in their personal views and let the public decide who should run for office. That is if any subscribers that are left, provided they don’t all move out New Jersey before the next edition hits the press.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Like it or Not - New Jersey Fact Bites

• From 2000-2005, New Jersey LOST 117,600 high-paying advanced services and manufacturing jobs. During the same period, the New Jersey public payroll GAINED 53,000 jobs!

• Just about half of the sales tax increase revenues went into Christmas tree budget items rewarding the Governor’s loyal tax increasing soldiers.

• The state with the lowest property taxes is Louisiana; taxpayers paid $175.00 in 2005. New Jersey taxpayers paid $5,177.00 more than taxpayers in Louisiana. New Jersey taxpayers pay the highest property taxes in the nation, an average of $5,352.00 in 2005.

• The Associated Press reports that Federal investigators are looking into New Jersey's under-funded pension system after a report found the state diverted billions of dollars from it for other purposes. New Jersey's pension fund is the nation's ninth largest, with reported assets of $79 billion but an estimated deficit of about $25 billion.

• According to Rutgers' National Institute for Early Education Research, all but a dozen states now offer some sort of state-financed pre-school education. But funding levels in 2005 for such programs varied dramatically, ranging from more than $9,000 per pupil in New Jersey to $721 per pupil in Maryland. Pennsylvania spent less than $3,000 per pupil.

• According to Wall Street Analysts, it is unlikely the U.S. housing market will recover before 2009; there is a“50 to 60 percent chance of a recession”.

• In 2006, 72,547 people left New Jersey, effectively reducing revenue to the New Jersey economy by $10 billion.