Tuesday, July 22, 2014

John Kerry: I Get 'A Little Uptight When I Hear Politicians Say How Exceptional We Are'

    As John Kerry travels from country to country on various diplomatic missions as secretary of state (almost half a million miles so far), he often addresses the staff and their families at the US embassies in the countries he visits. Remarks at these informal gatherings are often more casual than the usual speeches or press appearances, and Kerry often jokes with the staff and recognizes employees of long standing with the state department. Monday, Kerry had one such opportunity in Vienna, Austria, the last stop on his most recent trip, and towards the end of his talk he recalled his two Yale commencement speeches, forty-eight years apart, where he discussed "sort of the world we’re in" and America's place in it:
...I was privileged to speak to the graduating class of Yale this year, and it was particularly a pleasure because it happened to turn out to be, literally, I hate to say it, 48 years to the day that I was privileged to speak as a graduating senior to my own class. And I talked to them about sort of the world we’re in right now, but at the end I tried to remind them all, which I remind you of, we are – I get always a little uptight when I hear politicians say how exceptional we are – not because we’re not exceptional, but because it’s kind of in-your-face and a lot of other people are exceptional, a lot of other places do exceptional things.
    Despite his profession of uptightness on the topic of America's exceptionalism, Kerry went on to close out his remarks explaining what he believes makes America uniquely exceptional:
But we are exceptional in a certain way that no other nation is. We are not defined by thousands of years (inaudible) of history. We are not defined by ethnicity. We are not defined by bloodline or by anything except an idea. And that idea was expressed in the Declaration of Independence and in our Constitution, the idea that people are created equal and that all people have a chance to aspire for greatness, for anything they want. Pretty amazing, right? So think about that. It’s the only country that is literally united and formed around and whose rule of law is based on that idea, one idea, and it’s pretty special. So thank you for representing it. Thank you. (Applause.)
     Kerry used similar language in his 2014 Yale commencement address, noting that the American idea is what makes America different: that all are "created equal and all endowed with unalienable rights" and that "America is an idea and we – all of us, you – get to fill it out over time."

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Friday, July 18, 2014

New U.N. 'Gay Rights' Music Video Uses 'Polly Wolly Doodle' Tune

    Ambassador Samantha Power tweeted a link this week to a new Bollywood-produced United Nations music video promoting gay rights.  It tells the story of a man in India bringing home his "special friend" to meet his family for the first time. The song is called "The Welcome":

    If the tune beginning around the :23 mark sounds vaguely familiar, it might be that you are recalling it from childhood.  Here's Shirley Temple singing "Polly Wolly Doodle":

    According to Wikipedia, the song appeared first in 1880 in a Harvard student songbook. The tune appears to be in the public domain, simply listed by the Public Domain Information Project as "traditional." 
    I think all would agree that this use of the tune is anything but traditional.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Obama: GOP House 'Not Doing Anything', But House Passed Five Times As Many Bills as Senate

    Twice in the past week, President Obama has needled Republicans in the House of Representatives by saying that while he's doing his job, the GOP House is "not doing anything." The first time was when he was in Minneapolis to spend a "day in the life" of Rebekah, a mother concerned about making ends meet:
And, now, some of you may have read -- so we take these actions and then now Republicans are mad at me for taking these actions.  They’re not doing anything, and then they’re mad that I’m doing something. 
    The second time the president used the phrase was Monday in Georgetown in Washington DC in a speech on a familiar topic for the president, upgrading roads and bridges:
It’s not crazy, it’s not socialism.  (Laughter.)  It’s not the imperial presidency -- no laws are broken.  We’re just building roads and bridges like we’ve been doing for the last, I don’t know, 50, 100 years.  But so far, House Republicans have refused to act on this idea.  I haven’t heard a good reason why they haven’t acted -- it’s not like they’ve been busy with other stuff.  (Laughter.)  No, seriously.  (Laughter.)  I mean, they’re not doing anything.  Why don’t they do this?
    While the president is hardly the first to label the legislature a "Do Nothing" Congress (Harry Truman famously did so in the 1950s), the president has directed his ire at the House rather than the Congress as a whole, leaving the Senate unscathed. But an analysis of the numbers shows that his shots may be misdirected.
    According to GovTrack.us, a privately run website that tracks congressional activity, so far in the 113th Congress, the House has passed 297 bills (280) or resolutions (17) that originated in the House. By contrast, the Senate during the same time has passed only 59. In spite of his words that the House has "done nothing," the president has put his signature on 90 House bills and resolutions and 35 Senate bills and resolutions for a total of 125.
    Even compared to prior Congresses, this House does not appear to be as idle as the president suggests. Bills spiked during the 110th and 111th Congresses, but otherwise the 297 passed by the House in the 113th Congress is not far from the historical norm for the past several decades, particularly given that the 113th Congress is still in session (again, from GovTrack.us):

    Again in contrast, bills passed by Senate have been down sharply since Harry Reid took over as Majority leader, with the Senate in the 113th Congress on track to pass the fewest number of bills of any Senate as far back as 1973 (as far as the records at GovTrack.us go):

    While the significance of the bills passed by the House and Senate may be debated, and while the president's frustrations with the House center around legislation (such as comprehensive immigration reform) where wide differences separate the parties, the numbers indicate that it's not so much that the GOP House isn't "doing anything"; the GOP is just not doing what the president wants.

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Michelle Obama Employs Only 2 Men; Pays Men 46% More Than Women On Staff

    At the same time the Obama administration once again renewed its Equal Pay push, the White House released salary figures for White House staff. Upon analysis, the Washington Post, among others, concluded that the gender pay gap (as defined by the White House) that has existed since President Obama was elected is as wide as it was in 2009, a thirteen percent difference:
The average male White House employee currently earns about $88,600, while the average female White House employee earns about $78,400, according to White House data released Tuesday. That is a gap of 13 percent. 
In 2009, male employees made an average of about $82,000, compared to an average of $72,700 earned by female employees — also a 13 percent wage gap. 
One of the key reasons is that more men hold the higher-paying, senior jobs in the White House, and more women hold the lower-paying, junior jobs. 
    Although the sample size is significantly smaller, a similar analysis conducted by THE WEEKLY STANDARD of the salaries of First Lady Michelle Obama's staff is substantially larger. The analysis considered a White House employee as working for the first lady if the "position title" provided by the White House included "first lady", but also "Let's Move" and "Joining Forces", the first lady's two signature initiatives.
    As it turns out, the only two men on the first lady's staff are the directors of Let's Move and Joining Forces. Their salaries average $123,307. The other fourteen staffers are women (the salary for the deputy director of Let's Move was listed as $0 and was therefore not included in the analysis.) The average pay for the remaining thirteen women is $84,133, a 46% difference from the men's average.
    There are three women whose pay is higher than the men's average, including one making $172,200. The position title for each of these women also includes "assistant to the president" in addition to responsibilities for the first lady. A fourth woman, whose salary of $103,000 is well above the women's average, is also listed as assistant to the president.
    Mrs. Obama's staff has consisted primarily of women since her tenure as first lady began, though there has been a significant amount of turnover. Although it is unclear the role Mrs. Obama plays in hiring her staff for the White House, Mrs. Obama delivered a commencement address at Eastern Kentucky University in May 2013 where she drew on personal experience to give the graduates an idea of what a potential employer might be looking for.  She said that for her, grades, test scores, and scholastic pedigree were insignificant factors during job interviews.  Character trumps academics, and gender is not mentioned:
Whether it was during my time as a lawyer, as an administrator at a university, a nonprofit manager, even now as First Lady, I’ve never once asked someone I was interviewing to explain a test score or a grade in a class -- never.  (Applause.)  I’ve never once made a hire just because someone went to an Ivy League school instead of a state school -- never.  What I have looked for is what kind of person you are.  Are you a hard worker?  Are you reliable?  Are you open to other viewpoints?  Have you stepped outside of your own self-interest to serve others?  Have you found a way to serve our country, whether in uniform or in your community?
    President Obama was the subject of criticism even from allies at the start of his second term for a shortage of women selected for replacement cabinet positions. Mrs. Obama herself has largely escaped such criticism for her own staffing choices despite the fact that her husband's staff is far more diverse than her own.

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Labor Dept. Extends 'Full Protection of the Federal Non-Discrimination Laws' to Transgendered

    Labor Department Secretary Tom Perez has taken the occasion of the final day of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month as proclaimed by President Obama to clarify that his department provides the "full protection of the federal non-discrimination laws that we enforce to transgender individuals." Perez cites a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruling in 2012 that found that the protections secured under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 apply to transgender individuals. Perez continues [emphasis added]:
The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs and Civil Rights Center, along with the Employment and Training Administration, will issue guidance to make clear that discrimination on the basis of transgender status is discrimination based on sex.  While the department has long protected employees from sex-based discrimination, its guidance to workers and employers will explicitly clarify that this includes workers who identify as transgender. The department will continue to examine its programs to identify additional opportunities to extend the law’s full protection against discrimination to transgender workers.
    Perez said that to have the strongest workforce and economy, the country must "embrace diversity to its fullest."  The Labor Department joins, among others, the State Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in the celebration of LGBT Pride month. This year's celebrations have reflected a special emphasis on "transgender rights" by the Obama administration.

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

HHS Promotes: 'Embrace, Encourage, Celebrate' Gay, Transgendered Children

    The Department of Health and Human Services recently recognized the RISE project (Recognize, Intervene, Support, and Empower) in Los Angeles County for its work to fight "anti-gay and anti-transgender bias" in the child welfare system in the county:
To address the over-representation of LGBTQ youth in the foster care system, RISE set out to develop and evaluate a multi-pronged approach to helping LGBTQ youth find permanent and supportive families. Early research revealed that many LBGTQ youth in the foster care system question whether their environments are safe spaces.  RISE engaged youth to design posters named “Brave Space” and other materials to let all youth know that caseworkers, offices, and other environments are safe places.  Equally important is the message to others that anti-gay and anti-transgender remarks won’t be tolerated.
    One of the posters features the rainbow colors now ubiquitous in LGBTQ literature along with a message to "embrace, encourage, celebrate who we are."  The poster also discourages "homophobic, transphobic, racist, or sexist put downs and remarks."

    The Q in the LGBTQ acronym employed by HHS stands for Questioning, meaning those who are not settled on the question of their own sexuality. The even longer acronym LGBTQIA (adding "intersex" and "asexual," or "ally") has not gained widespread usage yet, although it has appeared on government websites from time to time, such as a 2013 Department of Education conference on bullying.

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

Susan Rice Accuses Republicans in Senate of Harming National Security

    Writing on the White House blog, Ambassador Susan Rice, the president’s national security advisor, accuses the Senate of harming national security by not confirming more ambassadorial nominees. Rice contends that the current backlog of forty-eight is unnecessary and harmful:
As the President’s National Security Advisor, I am focused every day on keeping our country secure and our citizens – at home and abroad – safe. But these goals are hindered and our stature abroad is weakened when we are not fielding a full team. That’s why I urge the Senate to let the President’s qualified ambassadorial nominees get to work on behalf of the American people. 
Right now, 48 nominees for ambassador are pending and 26 are on the Executive Calendar and eligible for confirmation by the full Senate – 16 of whom are career Foreign Service Officers. Together, all ambassadorial nominees have been waiting an average of 161 days, while those on the Executive Calendar have been waiting an average of 262 days. This is simply too long.
    Republicans are quick to point out that Senate Majority Leader Democrat Harry Reid is responsible for scheduling confirmation votes. Asked to comment on Rice's remarks, Brian McGuire, a spokesman for Republican Senator Mitch McConnell replied via email, “Senator Reid schedules the votes, so if Ambassador Rice isn’t happy with the pace of confirmations she should probably call him directly instead of blogging about it and hoping he notices.”
    Nevertheless, the White House fingers the Republicans for the holdup. Rice does not single out the GOP in the text of her post, but the accompanying infographic is explicit in placing the blame:

    After providing some examples of unconfirmed nominees (Kuwait, Niger, Cameroon, Mauritania, African Union, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) that are "critical to our national security," Rice calls on the Senate to confirm all outstanding nominations, but implies another option was available should bipartisanship fail:
While there is a potential path to confirmation without bipartisan support, our nation's security is stronger when we act together, and so I call on all members of the Senate to agree to confirm these nominees today so we can get them in place now.
    The "potential path" to which Rice alludes was made possible by Senate rules changes pushed through by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Democrats (all but three voted for the change) last November. The change, commonly referred to as the "nuclear option," allows debate on judicial and executive nominees to be cut off with a simple majority vote rather than the sixty votes required under the old filibuster rules.
    According to Senate records, twenty-four ambassadorial nominations have been confirmed just in 2014, many by voice vote, and three others by unanimous roll call votes. However, the remaining two, Crystal Nix-Hines and Keith Harper, both heavy Obama campaign bundlers, were confirmed by slim majorities after cloture was invoked under the new rules.
    Any of the remaining nominations could be similarly pushed to a vote, but Harry Reid seems reluctant to exercise the majority's new power to cut off debate, electing rather to defer scheduling votes in the first place. Indeed, a source familiar with Senate proceedings suggested that the backlog in ambassadorial nominees has less to do with Republican obstructionism and more to do with Senator Reid's administrative handling of the Senate schedule and his unwillingness to spend Senate time debating the more controversial nominations.

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.