Polls Say that America Gives Big Thumbs Up to Pope Francis

Published in Pawtucket Times on September 29, 2015

On a whirlwind trip to Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia over five days, from Sept. 22 to Sept. 27, Pope Francis, 78, has a jam packed public schedule for his first visit to the states.  While the media has released dozens of political polls over the last few months giving statistical predictions readers as to who is the GOP presidential frontrunner, last week they published poll results about the popularity of Pope Francis as he toured this country.

America Loves Pope Francis

With the Pope Francis’ arrival to Washington, D.C., to address Congress, a CNN/ORC Poll finds the Catholic pontiff has a high approval rating across the country and most Catholics approve of his comments even those considered controversial.

The pollsters say that almost 50 percent of Americans and 78 percent of Catholics note they are looking forward to the Pope’s first trip to U.S. soil.  While the Pope’s positive views have decreased slightly since December 13, 9 months into his papacy, three-quarters of Catholics still view him in a positive light.

The telephone poll, conducted from Sept. 4-8 among a random national sample of 1,012 adults), finds that the Catholic Church itself is viewed positively by 60% of the respondents, while 63% view Pope Francis favorably. Among Catholics, the church (88% favorable) outperforms the Pope (74% favorable).  The researchers note that this percentage difference may be due to Catholics who say they’re not sure about Francis rather than from negative impressions.

Comparing a worldwide snap shot of the Pope’s popularity to this country, the CNN/ORC poll findings indicate that non-Catholics (61%) say they have a positive view of Pope, the first Jesuit priest and Latin American church leader, and just over half of these individuals are looking forward to his American visit. Even those with a negative view of the Pope (17%) say they are looking forward to this month’s visit.

A recently published New York Times/CBS News poll also supports the CNN/ORC poll findings, that American Catholics like their Pope.  Eight out of 10 of his United States followers give thumbs up to the direction the church is taking under the Pope’s leadership, including a majority who approve strongly.

The telephone poll, conducted from Sept. 8 and 14 with Catholics on both telephone and land lines, also found that more than six in 10 Catholics worldwide view him favorably compared to just 3 percent who just don’t like him.  Pollsters say that his positive job approval ratings might be tied to his position on same-sex marriage, abortion, woman issues, immigration and distribution of wealth.

Another national poll, commissioned by Fox News, before Pope Francis’ arrival to this country, also found that the religious leader’s visit is viewed positively across the country and with Catholics, too.

Sixty-eight percent of Catholics view Pope Francis favorably.  That increases to a 73 percent favorable among Catholics who attend Mass almost every week, say the findings.  Among all voters, 55 percent have a positive opinion of the pope.

The telephone poll of 1,013 registered voters found the Pope is more popular among Catholic women (74 percent) than Catholic men (62 percent). The poll findings indicate that his comments on political issues, such as climate change and income equity, did impact on how Republicans and Democrats perceived him.

According to the Fox News’ poll, 38 percent of those who identified themselves as “very” conservative had a positive view of Pope Francis while only 35 percent of those respondents affiliated with the Tea Party movement viewed him favorably. However, among Democrats respondents, nearly two-thirds had a positive opinion of the pope (65 percent), while just over 50% of these voters  feel that way about the Catholic Church (52 percent favorable).

About half of all voters polled (51 percent) and three-quarters of Catholic (75 percent) have a favorable view of the Catholic Church in general.  Those attending Mass frequently (83 percent), view the religious institution favorably.

50-Plus Americans Favor Woman Catholic Priests

Finally, AARP, the nation’s largest aging advocacy group recognized for gather opinions of 50-plus Americans on health, finances and later life issues, puts Pope Francis on its polling list because his trip to the United State is considered to be “one of the most topical issues of the day.”

In this national telephone AARP poll, older Americans were asked their thoughts about the head of the Rhode Catholic Church’s leadership.  When asked “Do you think Pope Francis is leading the Catholic Church in the right direction?” seventy six percent of the respondents agreed. Thirty five percent of these respondents indicated to the pollster that they were Catholic or had at one point been a practicing Catholic.

Additionally, the AARP poll sought the respondent views about women becoming ordained as priests in the Catholic Church, a controversial and heated issue to many practitioners.  Of those surveyed, 66 percent of the older 50-plus respondents favored the change.  For this poll question, 37% indicated they were Catholic or had at one point considered themselves.  Of these respondents, 70% said the Pope should consider women priests.

Finally, the AARP telephone poll tossed in a question about the afterlife, asking the older respondents whether they believe in heaven and hell. Of those survey, 72 percent said they did.

With Pope Francis concluding his trip and heading back to Rome, last week poll findings indicate that the Pontiff is well liked by the American public and his flock, and that he’s leading his Church in the right direction. With the voters angry about continued political gridlock inside the Washington, D.C. beltway, presidential and congressional candidates can only pray to get Pope Francis’ off the chart polling numbers.

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Poll Calls Upon Congress to do “the people’s work”

Published in the Pawtucket Times, January 10, 2014

Four months ago, public anger reached a boiling point when the Republican-led House, controlled by its minority faction of Tea Party members, and the Democratic majority in the Senate failed to agree to an appropriations continuing resolution.
As a result of this budget impasse, a 16 day federal shutdown forced the furlough of 800,000 federal employees and another 1.3 million were required to report to work without known payment dates.

Public polls at that time blamed the GOP for turning its back on the nation by putting partisan politics first rather than doing the People’s business.” The popularity of Congress sank to a new historic low with heated partisan conflict echoing throughout the hallways of Congress.

Hammering Out an 11th Hour Deal

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) with the blessings of conservative groups, including the Heritage Action, the Club for Growth, Freedom Works, and the Senate Conservatives Fund, forcefully pushed House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to offer continuing resolutions not acceptable to President Obama and Congressional Democrats to politically force a delay or to defund the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (called “Obamacare”). Strong GOP opposition, spearheaded by Tea Party lawmakers, to raising the nation’s debt ceiling almost forced the government to run out of money to pay its bills.

After weeks of intense political bickering, Congress finally hammered out a political compromise, one that would open the doors of government, but also raise the debt ceiling to keep the nation from free-falling off the fiscal cliff. A failure to raise the debt ceiling could have resulted in the nation’s credit rating being downgraded. If this occurred, average Americans might have seen higher interest rates for mortgages, car loans, student loans and even credit cards. Higher business expenses, due to expensive borrowing rates, might have forced businesses to stop hiring or even to lay off employees. Housing prices might have drop and retail sales slow. The 11th hour compromise kept the American tax payer and business community from taking a huge hit in their pocketbook.

Although Cruz and Tea Party lawmakers in both chambers viewed shutting down the federal government and not raising the debt ceiling as a way to put excess government spending on the chopping block economy, there was economic damage. According to the economists at Standard & Poors, the total cost of the political gridlock to the nation’s economy that occurred before Christmas was estimated to be $24 billion.
Americans Lack Confidence in Congress

With the new Congressional session beginning this month, a new national poll released last week by AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs reveals that few Americans have faith in the current political status with Congress receiving low marks on its performance of upholding the views of most Americans while only 9 percent say it is doing a good job.

According to the poll that comes months after the first government shutdown in 17 years, 70 percent lack confidence in the federal government’s ability “to make progress on important issues facing the nation in 2014.”

However, the poll findings indicate that the respondents have a little bit more faith in their local and state governments, with 45 percent saying that they are at least moderately confident in their state government and 54 percent having at least moderate confidence with elected officials at the local level.

The federal government receives low marks on its performance. For instance, 55 percent believe the government is doing a poor job of representing the views of most Americans while only 9 percent say it’s doing a good job.

Meanwhile, the poll’s results find Americans are more pessimistic than optimistic on matters such as the nation’s ability to produce strong leaders, America’s role as a global leader, and the opportunity to achieve the American dream.

The People’s preferred agenda for the government in 2014 includes a diverse set of policy issues that range from economic problems to social policies to foreign affairs, notes the poll. Health care reform tops their list of priorities, mentioned by 52 percent of respondents as one of the top ten problems, followed by unemployment (42 percent), the economy in general (39 percent), and the federal deficit (31 percent).

“While it is very easy to ask people to choose a single ‘most important problem’ and to build a list for the answers, the reality is that government has to address many issues at the same time,” said Trevor Tompson, director of the AP-NORC Center. “This survey, with data about the public’s priorities on a range of policy issues, provides policy makers with rigorous data as they seek to understand the public’s outlook on where the country is now and what the action agenda should be for the year ahead.”

Wendy Schiller, Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Brown University, notes that the AP-NORC poll reveals “broader concerns expressed in national opinion polls, and by the average Rhode Islander “that our country seems to be slipping on lots of levels.”

Schiller, a frequent guest on Rhode Island PBS’s “A Lively Experiment,” notes that aging baby boomers and seniors worry about issues facing the younger generations, personal debt resulting from student loans to national debt. On the other hand, “Younger folks worry about how they will take care of their parents and grandparents, as well as providing for their own retirement,” she says.

“In a state like Rhode Island, which has such a strong family centered culture, these issues weigh heavily on almost everyone’s minds,” observes Schiller.

One of the poll’s positive findings was that the respondents did not cite healthcare for seniors as a pressing issue even though they did express concern over Social Security and health care reform, adds Schiller. “Preserving Medicare is as important, if not more, to the physical and financial well-being of seniors, so I found it striking that it was not as large a concern [as other issues].”

The polls negative findings of a distrust of government, rather than just a disappointment, concerns Schiller, noting that “Democracies do not fare well when the people lose faith in their government.”

As indicated by the poll, Schiller believes that Rhode Island state elected officials are viewed more positively by voters than those serving in Congress. But, 2014 will be a challenging year for them, especially with issues like the 38 Studios debacle, pension reform issues, and Rhode Island job growth. Schiller believes that “If the General Assembly can increase the trend towards greater transparency and accountability, than they might be able to reverse the downward slide of public faith in government.”

As noted in the poll, “public opinion about Congress is at an all-time low,” says Darrell M. West, Ph.D., Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. “People are disenchanted with the hyper-partisanship in Washington, D.C., and the inability of congressional leaders to address major policy problems, he says, noting that the government shutdown was very disturbing to mainstream and people now worry about Congress getting anything done.

West, a former Brown University professor and a prominent Rhode Island political commentator, does not see a major resurgence of bipartisanship in this Congress.
“The parties have incentives to highlight their differences rather than compromise their principles. That will make it difficult for the parties to work together, he says.

But West sees an indicator that the GOP might move away from its ties to the Tea Party that put a damper on reaching across the aisle to get the people’s work done. “The only promising sign is Speaker Boehner’s declaration of independence from the right-wing. A month ago, Boehner criticized outside conservative groups and said they had lost all credibility. If he really believes that, it may embolden him to work on immigration reform and pass needed legislation”, says West.

Because of the complexity of today’s domestic and foreign policy, the People want and need their elected officials to quit this partisan bickering and join together to solve the enormous problems that face the nation, warns well-know Rhode Island activist, Susan Sweet, a keen watcher of state, national, and global politics. “Without the political will to stand together and strengthen the People of America, this great experiment in democracy could decline and fall,” she says.

The AP-NORC national poll was conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research from Dec. 12-16, 2013, with 1,141 adults. Additional information about how the survey was conducted, including the survey report and the survey’s complete topline findings can be found on the AP-NORC Center’s website at http://www.apnorc.org.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

Aging Groups Gear Up to Oppose Cuts in Social Security

Published in Pawtucket Times & Woonsocket
Call, October 18, 2013

Worried Americans woke up to good news yesterday morning. After weeks of political bickering Congress had finally hammered out a political compromise, one that would keep the nation from free-falling off the fiscal cliff.

Over the weeks, Democrats and political pundits had warned that not raising the nation’s debt ceiling by Oct. 17 could lead to the nation’s credit rating being downgraded. If this occurred, average Americans might see higher interest rates for mortgages, car loans, student loans and even credit cards. Higher business expenses, due to expensive borrowing rates, could even force businesses to stop hiring and start laying people off. Housing prices would drop and retail sales slow.

Because of Congressional gridlock, furloughed federal workers, along with the unemployed, would have less money to spend, reinforcing the negative impact on the nation’s economy.

House GOP leadership, catering to its Tea Party allies, led a political impasse between the Democratic-led Senate and President Obama, with demands that the president’s signature “Obamacare” healthcare law be defunded.

But, on the heels of an 11th hour deal, late Wednesday evening, the Senate passed, 81 to 18, a bipartisan temporary fix, supported by a large majority of Senate Republicans, ending the partial federal government shutdown and the threat of default. Hours later, the Tea Party-controlled House conceded to the political reality that any attempt to derail the Senate compromise would have a serious backlash against the GOP brand, passing the measure by 285 to 144.

On day 16 of the closing of the federal government, President Obama with the flick of his pen signed the bill ending the threat of the nation defaulting on paying its bills along with allowing hundreds of thousands of federal workers to return to their jobs.

This agreement raised the U.S. debt ceiling until Feb. 7 and gave the Treasury Department flexibility to temporarily extend its borrowing if Congress does not act before that date. Also, the measure keeps the federal government’s doors open until Jan. 15.

At the end of the Congressional vote, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and his House Tea Party allies saw their efforts fail to delay or to scrap “Obamacare.” However, the GOP Senator did get lawmakers to make a tiny political concession to require the government to verify the eligibility of people receiving federal subsidies under the health care program.

Domestic Entitlements on Chopping Block

Of concern to aging groups, the agreement calls for creating a 12 member House-Senate bipartisan panel that would identify long-term deficit cuts, either overhauling the nation’s tax code or by identifying cuts in entitlement programs like Medicaid, Medicare or Social Security. The panel, led by Budget Committee heads Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, is charged with completing its task by December 13, but they are not required to come to an agreement.

“While Washington’s latest self-imposed crisis is over, this is no time to celebrate as another set of random deadlines loom, says Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, remarking “Here we go again.”

“Yet another committee has been formed in which Social Security and Medicare are the big bargaining chips on Washington’s political poker table, noted Richtman, making it clear for him the “economic security of millions of Americans isn’t a game” .

“And while the vast majority of the American people do not support cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits, the President and some in Congress appear ready to do just that through proposals like the Chained CPI, expanding Medicare means testing to the middle class and raising the retirement age,” warns Richtman.

According to Richtman, President Obama stated “what’s good for the American people” is what should guide this next debate. “Cutting benefits to millions of middle-class Americans who took the biggest hit in the recession clearly does not fit that stated goal,” he says.

In a letter to Congress, Richtman, called for other ways to rein in the nation’s budget huge deficient rather than putting Social Security on the chopping block. Richtman suggests that “instead of cutting benefits, comprehensive reforms in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that are containing costs in the entire health care sector, including Medicare and Medicaid, ought to be given a chance to work and to be strengthened.”

“Moreover, Social Security does not face an immediate crisis and is not driving either the short-term deficit or long-term debt. We believe Social Security should be strengthened for the long-term by raising the current payroll tax cap on earnings,” adds Richtman.

AARP, the nation’s largest aging advocacy group, was quick to comment on the bipartisan-brokered legislative deal, saying that “AARP is pleased that the President and Congress temporarily averted an economic crisis that threatened our members’ access to Social Security and Medicare, but we are deeply concerned that harmful cuts to these vital programs are on the table for a new round of budget negotiations.”

The statement acknowledges that “some Congressional lawmakers want to trade cuts to Medicare and Social Security benefits to pay for other government spending. Others are calling for cuts to these vital programs to reduce the deficit.” However, according to AARP polls, “the American people, on the other hand, across all ages and party lines, are strongly opposed to cuts to Social Security and Medicare.”

“Whether it is cutting their programs to reduce the deficit or using them as a piggy bank to pay for other government spending, their message to the President and Congress is clear: “Don’t bargain away my Medicare and Social Security benefits,” says the AARP statement.

As the House/Senate Bipartisan Committee begins to organize, AARP is preparing to mobilize its massive membership to block any attempts to slash Social Security bennies or cut Medicare, specifically through a Chained CPI to determine cost of living increases and any reductions in Medicare benefits.

Susan Sweet, a well-known aging advocate clearly sees that a Congressional tinkering with Social Security could severely hit the pocketbooks of older Rhode Islanders. She asks, “Is it too much to ask that seniors, disabled people and veterans not pay the price of huge farm subsidies for agribusiness corporations, disgraceful and unnecessary tax benefits for gargantuan oil companies that are making their biggest profits ever, and wasteful pentagon spending for projects in war zones that are either never built or are soon destroyed?”

She calls on Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation to “stay strong and not compromise on keeping Medicare and Social Security fulfill its promises to seniors, disabled people and veterans by keeping benefits at current levels.”

“Dollars to cut the federal deficit might just come from extra revenues which could be generated from allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug companies and lifting the Social Security payroll tax cap so that wealthy people pay the same rate as middle class and poor people,“ she says.

AARP Gears Up for a Fight

This week AARP launched a series of radio and print ads opposing a Chained CPI Social Security benefit cut and harmful cuts to Medicare in the nonprofit organization’s latest discussion of the nation’s fiscal issues. The print and radio ads target members of the House and Senate in 18 states. The ads follow letters to Congress and the White House, as well as postcards, e-mails and calls to members of Congress opposing a budget deal that would balance the budget on the backs of older Americans.

“Americans have paid into Medicare and Social Security and they’re tired of their hard-earned benefits being used as bargaining chips in another last-minute budget deal,” said AARP Senior Vice President Joyce Rogers. “They deserve responsible solutions that will strengthen Medicare and Social Security now and for future generations, not harmful cuts that will hurt all of us.”

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. His weekly commentaries can be found on his blog, herbweiss.wordpress.com. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

Gridlock Threatens Elder Programs, Services

Published in Pawtucket Times, October 11, 2013

At press time, this week continued heated partisan bickering on Capitol Hill that threatens to unravel a fragile economy, along with putting the brakes to an economic upturn that slowly was pushing the nation out of its financial doldrums. With this stand-off, a partial shutdown of the federal government continues. The Republican-controlled House, captured by the ultra-right Tea Party, has refused to budge, opposing the passage of a continuing resolution (CR) to fund government agencies past Sept. 30. House Republican leadership has demanded that passage of the CR must be tied to either the repeal or partially dismantling of President Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act. The Democratic President along with a Senate Democratic leadership say no.

Meanwhile, the Democratic-controlled Senate passed a “clean” CR to provide funding through Nov. 15, not putting ACA on the GOP’s chopping block. Even if both legislative chambers sort out differences and hammer out a compromise agreement to open the doors of the federal government, this would not shield the nation from the disastrous impact of the impending second round of sequester cuts and a Oct. 17 deadline for the government to raise the debt ceiling. No action means a first-ever default on the nation’s debt that could send the stock market tumbling and push the nation’s and the world’s economy into a tailspin.

Treasury officials say that congressional deadlock and no action will result in the federal government running out of cash to pay its bills if Congress does not act to raise the nation’s debt ceiling this month.

Get Your House in Order

With the debt crisis looming, AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond called on Congressional lawmakers to settle the debt ceiling debate to avoiding default on the nation’s debt, specifically to protect the retirement of seniors and future generations.

In her letter, LeaMond expressed concern that any delay in raising the nation’s debt limit may unnecessarily increase borrowing costs, negatively impact retirement savings accounts and harm the nation’s fragile economy.

“Our members are worried that the benefits they have earned may be cut as part of a deal to reduce the deficit, fund government operations, or increase the debt ceiling, and they are increasingly worried that if there is no agreement very soon, they may not receive their Social Security checks and may lose access to their health care,” noted LeaMond.

Ten days ago, the nation entered a government shutdown, forcing furloughs of 800,000 workers, without pay, and suspending services. The last time this occurred was 17 years ago during the Clinton administration. The Congressional impasse has closed national parks and monuments, federally owned museums, such as the Smithsonian, offices overseas that give visas to foreigners hoping to visit the United States, and even many federal regulatory agencies.

So, how does this impact programs and services for older Americans? Simply put, impact on programs and benefits may vary throughout the federal bureaucracy.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services will furlough over 40,512 of its 78, 198 employees. The largest percentage of these employees comes from “grant-making and employee-intensive agencies,” such as the Administration for Community Living. This federal agency would not be able to fund the Senior Nutrition programs, Native American Nutrition and Supportive Services, Prevention of Elder Abuse and Neglect, the Long-Term Care Ombudsman program, and Protection and Advocacy for persons with developmental disabilities.

As reported, Social Security checks will be mailed, Medicare and Medicaid benefits will continue to be paid out, because these are considered mandatory programs, not discretionary ones. Benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food Stamps, will continue in October, despite the federal shutdown.

Food Program Takes Budgetary Hit

Jenny Bertolette of the Meals on Wheels Association of America charges that the Federal Government shutdown “adds insult to injury as Senior Nutrition Programs are already dealing with devastating cuts due to sequestration, funding that has never kept up with inflation, increased food and transportation costs and increased need as significantly more seniors are aging and struggling with hunger than ever before.”

Bertolette says that should a shutdown persist for any considerable length of time, local Meals on Wheels programs that rely on government funding could experience a delay in reimbursements for meals and services delivered. Facing such funding uncertainty, programs could be forced to suspend meal services, create or expand waiting lists for meals, cut the number of meals or days they serve and reduce delivery days.

Jenny Bertolette of the Meals on Wheels Association of America charges that the Federal Government shutdown “adds insult to injury as Senior Nutrition Programs are already dealing with devastating cuts due to sequestration, funding that has never kept up with inflation, increased food and transportation costs and increased need as significantly more seniors are aging and struggling with hunger than ever before.”

Bertolette says that should a shutdown persist for any considerable length of time, local Meals on Wheels programs that rely on government funding could experience a delay in reimbursements for meals and services delivered. Facing such funding uncertainty, programs could be forced to suspend meal services, create or expand waiting lists for meals, cut the number of meals or days they serve and reduce delivery days.

Heather Amaral, Executive Director of Meals on Wheels of Rhode Island, agrees, noting that her Providence-based nonprofit program, has already lost $70,970 in 2013 federal funds due to last year’s sequestration cuts.

Amaral says that as a result of these cuts, to maintain meal delivery at the same numbers as last year (360,299 meals), she had to reduce menu items that were once offered. “Although the government shutdown doesn’t have an immediate impact on our program, I am concerned that it could lead to additional cuts,” she says, noting that should the shutdown continue until year end, the nonprofit agency will be forced to rely on donations and reserves to maintain service levels.

“We provide a safety check along with each home delivered meal and are often the only contact our client has that day, adds Amaral, who stresses that her program may be the only thing keeping a senior at home. “If we are forced to reduce the number of meals we serve, these people may be forced to live with a family member or enter a nursing home,” she warns.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agency will be unable to fund additional payments to public housing authorities, many providing shelter to older Americans. HUD expects the 3,300 Public Housing Authorities it funds to have enough funding to get through the month of October. But, if the shutdown continues, some public housing authorities will not be able to maintain normal operation.

Also, Quarterly formula grants will not go out for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), or the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG).

Nutrition programs serving older adults face a double whammy with no FY14 appropriations and no reauthorization of the Farm Bill. The Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program expired along with the Farm Bill on Sept. 30. The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) requires appropriations to continue operating.

According to well-known Aging Advocate Susan Sweet, this is a partial shutdown that hasn’t really hit aging programs yet. There are funding reductions in programs for older people, but that is due to the sequester, which will have another round of cuts in October, she says.

Sweet predicts that the negative effects of the shutdown itself will become worse with every passing day. For example, there is doubt that veterans benefits and social security will be paid in or after October absent a funding bill. Death benefits, including burial subsidies, have not been paid to the survivors of fallen armed forces members, she notes. Because of the public outcry regarding this outrage, a private charity has stepped up to pay the benefits with the promise of reimbursement when the government re-opens.

“Reduced to its true absurdity, the United States of America has lost the ability to rationally govern,” states Sweet. “The sequester cuts, previously characterized as “cuts for dummies”, have been implemented, we are in a war yet cannot bury our dead from that war, can’t even agree on a temporary fix, and are arguing whether the US should pay its bills or default,” she adds.

“It is perplexing, and we have heard many, many concerns from Rhode Island members, “ said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “Since the U.S. government has never failed to meet its financial obligations, we don’t know what payments it could make if the President and Congress fail to reach an agreement.

“One cannot help but wonder what effects this uncertainty has on people – many of whom struggle enough with health and financial issues,” Connell added. “We’re doing whatever we can to urge Congress and the President to act responsibly.”

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. His weekly commentaries can be found on his blog, herbweiss.wordpress.com. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

Retooling America’s Manufacturing Sector

Published in Pawtucket Times, February 15, 2013

Over 50 years ago, you could hear the humming of the machines coming from Rhode Island’s factories.  The piercing sound of factory whistles would rip through the surrounding neighborhood, alerting all that a shift was ending and the next would soon begin.  

Weaving cotton into textiles came from mills scattered throughout northern Rhode Island which translated into work opportunities for all.  Traveling from the City of Providence, the CapitalCity to the City of Pawtucket, the birthplace of the nation’s Industrial Revolution, through Central Falls and up through the City of Woonsocket, you will discover that once we were the hub for the manufacturing of fabric for the nation’s second world war effort. For those factories filling three shifts, meant thousands of workers working in these mills, giving them a place to earn an honorable living. Blue collar workers fueled the nation’s economy as they bought homes, automobiles, as well as providing the  resources to send their children to colleges and universities. “Made in America” was a lifestyle and we were proud of it. 

Today, there is silence in many of these mills and for many of them, a new identity as these same factories have been transformed into artist lofts and studios or renovated for condo living.    For those factories still in operation, many of these manufacturers have decreased the number of shifts, thus reducing their workforce and ultimately impacting many of the local small businesses, leading to closures because of lack of customers.  Simply put, it’s the domino affect and the last piece might fall without Congressional action.   

Manufacturing Goes Over Seas

Over this decade, America’s manufacturing sector has crumbled giving way to China and third world countries to pick up the ball.  Drastically lower wages enable Chinese manufacturers to make cheaper goods sold to consumers for less then it would cost for the items to be made by an American-based manufacturing company. Along with lower wages, Chinese manufacturers face less environmental and safety regulations, taxes and have subsidized operational costs.  Imbalanced trade agreements are not favorable to American manufacturers who are losing the “economic race”, thus resulting in a loss of profits and employee lay offs.  Many of the nation’s manufacturers are being forced out of business, permanently closing their doors in cities and towns throughout this nation.       

A shopping trip always leaves me very unsettled about the flood of cheap imported productions into our nation.  Lower price tags on goods made outside of this country are enticing, but how often is quality been sacrificed for price?  We’ve  become a country of ‘mediocraty’ where its “good enough”.  Imported products ultimately impacts America’s children, who are now less likely to experience the prosperity that their parents once achieved because of the country’s manufacturing economy, which has now begun to falter and tilt to a service economy.     

Shelves of big box stores are packed with electronics and appliances, with most of these items stamped “Made in China.” Your local department store filled with discount bins and clothing racks are certainly not immune from this labeling.  The next time you are shopping, examine the country of origin for that product you are holding.  You guessed it, clothing, dishes, pots and pans, picture frames, all made from Chinese manufacturing companies. 

 Manufacturing Plants Sitting Idle

 As America’s manufacturing sector is decimated by the Chinese along with our communities losing higher paying manufacturing jobs, only lower paying service sector jobs will become available to low and middle income Americans. US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2011 Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages show that the average Rhode Island manufacturing job pays $50,823 annually and that there are currently 40,341 employees directly related to manufacturing. Six years ago, over 52,000 Rhode Islanders worked in the manufacturing sector.

Currently, cities and towns now see manufacturing plants sitting idle and empty or underutilized, often times reducing their tax base. This continued trend will not allow for a balanced economy.  Rhode Island can ill afford to lose its existing manufacturing base, ultimately thousands of people to the state’s unemployment statistics.

 

 Once upon a time, “Made in America” stamped on products gave the buyer an assurance of quality.  Government recalls protected our citizens from products that might harm or kill.  As we are increasingly aware, “Made in China” does not always ensure quality (such as pharmaceuticals, tooth paste and defective tires) because of poor Chinese governmental oversight.  In 2007, newspapers reported that some exported toys “Made in China” were produced with high levels of lead paint, being sent to tens of thousands of toy stores throughout the nation, putting our nation’s children at risk. At this time, even lack of product quality control even allowed poisoned pet food manufactured by Chinese companies to be shipped to America, killing thousands of cats and dogs.   

 Resuscitating the Nation’s Manufacturing Sector

With the kickoff of the 113th Congressional Session last month, it is crucial that the Democratic and Republican politicians thoroughly debate this nation’s trade policies and come up with viable bipartisan solutions to reenergizing America’s manufacturing sector.

Most importantly, what steps will President Barrack H. Obama working with a divided Congress take to ensure that American well-paying jobs do not vanish in the global economy?   On Tuesday evening, the President, addressing a joint session of Congress, gave us some clues in his State of the Union speech about retooling America’s manufacturing sector. 

Although the President touched on immigration reform and border security, early child education, clean energy technologies, the war in Afghanistan, and confronting gun violence, he called for fixing the nation’s aging infrastructure, along with launching manufacturing hubs, where businesses partner with the Department of Defense and Energy, to create high tech-jobs.  He looked to Congress to create a network of 15 of these hubs to “guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is “Made in America.”   If Congress blocks this economic initiative the defiant President plans to use executive orders to create three hubs on his own.

Meanwhile, redesigning the nation’s high schools to enable graduates to meet the demands of a high-tech economy can only help manufacturing companies, the noted President Obama.  Schools would be rewarded to develop partnerships with colleges and employers to create classes that teach science, technology, engineering and math skills needed by the nation’s manufacturing sector, he said.

In the Ocean State, as part of his ongoing work to jump start Rhode Island’s economy back, U.S. Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-RI)  at North East Knitting Company in Pawtucket, unveiled another version of his Make It In America Manufacturing Act to target federal investment in manufacturing, helping create jobs, generate public-private partnerships, and support small business growth. (This legislative proposal is similar to one that he introduced two years ago.)

“When they’re competing on a level playing field, American workers outperform competitors across the world,” said Cicilline. Noting that Rhode Island’s economy was built on the strength of its manufacturing industry, the Congressman who represents the 1st Congressional District, tapping into feedback from his Ocean State constituents and the Brookings Institution, crafted the legislative proposal to give manufacturer the resources needed to compete successfully, grow jobs, and get the state and national economy moving again.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), has introduced the companion measure in the Senate.  If signed into law, Cicilline’s Make It In America Manufacturing Act would create a competitive incentive grant program, jointly administered through the Departments of Labor and Commerce. States or regional partnerships may apply for the program, and successful applicants will receive grant funds to help implement innovative Manufacturing Enhancement Strategies. 

Meanwhile, funds can be used to create a revolving loan fund, to issue low interest loans to manufacturers, or to provide grants to non-profits, including community colleges, helping manufacturers to address the skills gap that hinders growth in the manufacturing sector.  The loan funds could also be used to increase exports and domestic supply chain opportunities, improve energy efficiency.  Also, the loans could be used to retool and expand existing manufacturing facilities to compete in the 21st century economy.

Seeking a Bipartisan Compromise

The clocks cannot be turned back.  The global economy is here to stay.  Clearly, Congressional gridlock must end by federal lawmakers seeking legislative solutions to making the nation’s manufacturing sector more competitive in a global economy.  Democratic and GOP lawmakers must hammer out bipartisan solutions to enable the nation’s manufacturing companies to fairly compete worldwide and to ensure that trade polices are balanced and fair for all.  

Many of President Obama’s repackaged proposals (reintroduced in his hour long State of the Union speech) and even Cicilline’s manufacturing proposal were derailed in the last Congress in a Republican-controlled House, where GOP Tea Party members practiced anti-compromise politics.  It becomes crucial for the President’s legislative agenda along with Cicilline’s Make It In America Manufacturing Act, to not be bottled up in the House but truly debated.

With the dust settling from November’s elections, the America public has sent both the President and Congress a strong, clear message that is: work together to fix the nation’s sagging economy. Do the people’s work and leave your political bickering outside the House and Senate Chambers.  Compromise and keep manufacturing in America.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a freelance writer covering aging, health care and medical, even business issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com

 

           

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Defining Brendan Doherty: Romney Republican or Moderate

 Published September 28, 2012, Pawtucket Times

            With the upcoming November election just six weeks away, Republican Candidate Brendan Doherty held a news conference last Tuesday at Memorial, attempting to distance himself from House GOP leadership and from Mitt Romney, the Republican Party’s anointed Presidential candidate.

Surrounded by a backdrop of the 294 bed CommunityHospital in Pawtucket’s East Riverview Neighborhood, Doherty, the GOP challenger to Democratic Rep. David Cicilline, came before seniors and supporters to do political damage control, with an agenda to set the public record straight about his positions on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Keeping Social Security, Medicare off the Chopping Block

Charging that Cicilline was misleading to voters on his positions on the nation’s most popular domestic programs, the Republican Candidate pledged his opposition to “privatization” of the nation’s Social Security Program, calling for Congress to keep the Social Security and Medicare programs off the budgetary chopping block.  The former state police superintendent, looking to become Rhode Island’s newest Congressman for the First Congressional District, also supported increased benefits for seniors already enrolled in the Social Security Program.

At the morning news conference, Doherty warned that he has no “secret plan” to cut Social Security and Medicare, as Cicilline charges.  He chastised the Freshman Congressman and his Democratic political operatives for using scare tactics and misleading political rhetoric to fuel a misinformation campaign to link him to Republican Presidential Candidate, Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan’s support for a Medicare voucher program.  Doherty stated that a voucher system would shift healthier Americans to private insurance plans and leave the sickest and frailest American’s in a weakened version of traditional Medicare.

Putting the Spot Light on Fraud and Waste

Doherty, calling himself an “independent thinker” a “centrist” who pledged to reach across the aisle to House Democrats, to pass legislation that would root out fraud and abuse in Medicare and Medicaid.  He noted that a new RAND Corporation study showed that fraud and waste in these two programs may be as high as $98 billion.

“While Congressman Cicilline often speaks of his commitment to protect Medicare from any possibility of budget cuts, he failed to take this common sense action to address the fraud, waste and abuse that accounts for at least $48 billion being diverted every year from the Medicare program and taken away from our seniors who depend on the Medicare program,” commented Doherty.

Doherty, however, looks to push for the Medicare and Medicaid Fighting Fraud and Abuse to Save Taxpayers’ Dollars Act or the Medicare Fast Act (H.R. 3399), as types of legislative proposals he could support if he were elected to Congress.

Cicilline did not mince his words after Doherty’s news conference by continuing to tie his Republican challenger to the Radical Republicans who control the House.  He charged that “My Republican opponent supports raising the retirement age for Social Security and if he got to Congress, would vote to keep the Republicans in control of the House where they would continue to push an extreme agenda that would end the guarantee of Medicare and turn it into a voucher system.”

According to the Democratic Congressman, the Preserving Our Promise to Seniors Act, whish he is a cosponsor, is the best way to extend the life of Social Security Program along with improving the Cost of Living Adjustment formula to give beneficiaries an adjustment based on the cost of goods and services that they regularly purchased.  The Democratic Congressman also opposed the raising the Social Security eligibility age or any effort to privatize the system, these changes supported by many GOP lawmakers.

Responding to the news conference, the Rhode Island Democratic Party issued a release calling Doherty’s pledge to preserve Social Security and Medicare “an empty one,” given the Republican House Leaderships efforts to slash funding for these programs for years.

Countering Doherty’s attempt to label himself a moderate, Bill Fischer, spokesperson for the RI Democratic Party called Cicilline’s Republican opponent a “Romney Republican who has clearly stated he would repeal the Affordable Care Act; raise the eligibility age on Social Security; and will vote for Republican control in Congress.”

“If Doherty were serious about protecting seniors, he wouldn’t be calling for the repeal of our historic healthcare reform,” Fischer said. “Maybe he doesn’t understand the enormous benefits Rhode Island seniors have already received since its passage. Thanks to President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, 128,390 people on Medicare in Rhode Island have access to preventative health care services, such as colonoscopies and mammograms.

In Rhode Island’s First Congressional District alone, 7,300 seniors have saved over $4 million on prescription drugs because the Affordable Care Act closed the donut hole.”

TV Spot Ties Doherty to Radical Republicans

             With Doherty’s effort to distance himself from the Washington Republican agenda, Cicilline’s campaign released a new television spot, entitled “Fantastic,” to more firmly politically tie his Republican challenger to the Romney-Ryan agenda in Washington.

“At the end of the day, Brendan Doherty wants Republicans in control of Congress and Mitt Romney setting the agenda in the White House. In fact, he thinks Romney would “be fantastic for Rhode Island,’” said Cicilline campaign manager Eric Hyers, detailing the spot..

“Rhode Islanders will have a clear choice this November between re-electing President Obama and Congressman Cicilline so we can get our state back on the right track, or voting for Mitt Romney, Brendan Doherty, and the Washington Republicans who got us into this mess to begin with.”

In the 30 second spot, Doherty emphasizes his support for Romney at a March 3, 2012 candidate forum, saying, “I think he’d be fantastic for Rhode Island.”

In January 2012, Doherty formally endorsed Romney for President, describing him as a “proven leader.”  In the same month, Doherty traveled to New Hampshire to campaign for Romney and was later introduced to the Republican presidential nominee by former Rhode Island Governor Don Carcieri.

The political spot also outlines areas where Romney and Doherty agree on policy – including their support for repealing President Obama’s historic health care reform law, as well as their mutual opposition to reproductive freedoms for women and the Buffett Rule that would require millionaires to pay at least the same tax rate as the middle class.

As the Dust Settles…

Here are questions that voters in Congressional District 1 must ask themselves before they enter the polls in the November election:

Can Doherty successfully repackage himself as a moderate Republican?  If so, with a Republican-controlled House, captured by a radical Tea Party who philosophically opposes political compromise, as a moderate Republican will he vote for  Democratic initiatives that the majority of his Democratic constituents support.  Or can he stand the “heat in the kitchen” and vote against his House Republican leadership.

Can the voters forgive the former Providence Mayor, now their Congressman, for his statements made about the fiscal health of his City as he left office?  If so, they must determine if it is more important to keep this seat Democratic, in hopes of bringing the political party back to power in that Chamber.

With the November election looming, the Cicilline-Doherty political battle, truly becomes the classic “He said, She said,” debate, with the voters ultimately finding out the truth in the New Congress.

Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.

On the Political Art of Compromise

          Published on August 3, 2012, Pawtucket Times

          The bipartisan spirit is briefly alive and well inside the Beltway.  With the Presidential and Congressional elections looming, just a little more than three months away, top Democratic and Republican Leadership this week forged an agreement to pass a “continuing resolution” to keep the federal government afloat for six months after the current budget year ends at the end of September. 

          Politically speaking, who wants to face the wrath of American voters fueled by the possibility of a government shut down before Election Day on November 6, 2012?  Not our lawmakers.

           After the upcoming November election, America’s political system may well become more polarized creating Congressional gridlock, if Tea Party candidates come to Washington, DC supporting the philosophy of  “no-compromise.”  If this occurs major policy decisions like reforming the nation’s retirement system and keeping Medicare afloat might happen only when the proverbial “Hell freezes over.”

Tea Party on the Rampage

         Tea Party backed candidate, Ted Cruz, won the Texas Republican Senate primary this week, potentially tilting the Senate toward the right if he wins in November. Over the years, we have seen moderate Republicans toppled by candidates aligned to the Tea Party who view working across the aisle as a weakness and compromise as a political sin.

        In one instance, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, a six-term GOP Senator lost his Republican primary race two months ago against State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who was backed by a coalition of Tea Party-aligned groups.  In his concession speech, the 80 year old Lugar warned Mourdock  that his goal of riding “the Republican Party of those who stray from orthodoxy as they see it” won’t be able to problem solve or govern.” The longest serving Senator in the State’s history also warned that “unless he modifies his approach, he will achieve little as a legislator.”  

       Last February, Senator Olympia Snow, of Maine, chose voluntary to walk away from the U.S. Senate after being a moderate voice in that chamber of 33 years, noting her decision was based on intense partisan bickering that now echoes throughout the Halls of Congress. 

       “Politics has been defined as the art of the possible.  That means compromise on both sides is needed to move the public business forward,” says Susan Sweet, a well-know lobbyist and consultant for nonprofit agencies and causes.  While the Democratic Party encompasses people of wide philosophies, the Republican party has become a party of “intransient idealogues,” observes Sweet. “Their sharp turn to the right has distanced and alienated moderate Republicans who previously formed a bridge for compromise and progress.  Moderates, like the late Senator Nelson Rockefeller of New York and the late Senator John Chafee were examples of the politicians who knew the art of politics, how to negotiate and when to compromise.

Reaching Across the Aisle

         But wait, Senator Orrin Hatch, concludes in an opinion piece, “Ted Kennedy: Later Senator Sought Bipartisan,” in the October 22, 2009, published in US News, you can support your political party’s philosophy and still be bipartisan, too.               

         The Republican Senator from Utah, who has served his state since 1977, considered Kennedy, who fought for the principles and philosophy of the Democratic Party, one of the nation’s greatest leaders for reaching across the aisle.

        Considered to be one of the most liberal Democrats in the last 50 years, who spearheaded almost every Democratic cause, Senator Hatch applauded his friends “ability and willingness to set party aside when there was some good to be done.”

         According to Senator Hatch in his opinion piece, the failing of American politics results from “politicians being too willing to toe the party line,”  not wanting to compromise their political agenda, “even when accepting the ideas and contributions of those outside their Party will advance their cause.”

            Sen. Hatch also viewed the late Democratic Senator’s lasting political legacy was “his unwillingness to let partisanship ruin a good opportunity to help those in need, and his ability to inspire others to follow his example.”

           Also, noted in Sen. Hatch’s USNews opinion piece, when in the minority, Senator Kennedy successfully enacted legislation because of his willingness to “move to the center or even the center-right when he recognized that Republicans shared his goals, even if they had different ideas on how to achieve those goals.”

           When the Democrats-controlled Congress, Senator Kennedy reached out to the minority GOP to get his legislation passed.  Senator Hatch noted that Massachusetts Senior Senator “had the political courage to defy interest groups and even his own party in order to reach bipartisan compromise,” to move legislation, specifically, the Children Health Insurance Program, the Ryan White AIDS Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and, the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act.

          Darrell West, Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution, views Senator Kennedy’s most famous bipartisan legislation to be No Child Left Behind.  “He worked closely with President George W. Bush to pass this bill.  He reached across the political aisle and was able to bring Republicans and Democrats together to pass this education reform, said the former Rhode Islander, noting that this was one of many such bipartisan successes on the Senator’s part.  There are few people left in the Senate who have the interest in or credibility for this type of outreach.

Campaigns Gearing Up for Votes

            By now, political candidates are mailing campaign literature to aging baby boomers and seniors, hoping to effectively deliver their political messages and ultimately to influence their votes.

            As the nation pulls out of the economic doldrums, voters must educate themselves to the real issues and read in between the lines of campaign literature to learn more about the candidate’s background and issues.

           Marking the ballot in the voting booth becomes even more difficult in heated partisan campaigns where you must separate political bickering, rhetoric and negative innuendoes from the substance of issues.

           Keeping Social Security afloat, fixing a broken Medicare program, or bringing fairness to the nation’s tax codes, will not happen if Congress cannot compromise or negotiate on legislative proposals.   No longer can our elected officials view issues either black or white, but can be shades of gray.

Rising to the Political Occasion

         Even with his human frailties, Sen. Kennedy rose to the political occasion time after time and to confront legislative challenges by reaching out to both political friends and foes.  One might say he wrote the tome on the art of political compromise and negotiations, a guide for both his Democratic and Republican Congressional Colleagues to follow.

             The rise of the Tea Party and its political philosophy of  “no-compromise” and “torch and burn” to ensure ideological purity, will have an adverse impact on every generation, from today’s seniors, their aging baby boomer children, and finally, to their young grandchildren and great-grandchildren. 

                  Where are the Republican Congressional moderates of today when the nation sorely need’s them to do the public’s business.

             Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.  This commentary was published in the August 3, 2012 issue of the Pawtucket Times. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.